I listened to Roberta Smith last Thursday evening at the Des Moines Art Center, and there were a number of interesting stories about the world of New York, the myths of artists, and lingering ideals of Modernism. It coincided with my reading Robert Storr's somewhat honest (but perhaps more attention grabbing) interview on WYBCX about the state of art criticism, too, and a reminder that there are surprising parallels (though of course on a much smaller level) with the "real art world" and the micro-art world of small town Des Moines.
This is interesting for a number of reasons, but one that is very apparent is the perspective that there does exist a "real art world" in New York, LA, London, etc and that nothing happens in smaller cities. A New York times critic talking in Des Moines is only ever going to be a visiting lecture, it is never going to be a look, from that critic, at the art environment (can't use community here because it is loaded) of the town that she/he is visiting.
The parallel between Storr's "calling out" of critics like Smith, Saltz, Hickey, etc in Des Moines is the chatter about Bad Art Reviews in Des Moines. While its not the same thing, it is parallel in the sense that a town with very little art criticism, there are still threats, disagreements, and preoccupations with the trivial. Dissent is not appreciated, nor seen for its discursive power, in almost every environment of art.
While I was certainly taken with many of Smith's stories, I find myself days later focusing on one part of her talk--telling BFA students in the audience that they are not going to be artists, that if they have something else other than art that they are pursuing, they should do that. Artists, she said, suffer, and are artists because of their suffering.
Now this seems easy to dispute as the scrapings on the bottom of the pan of Modernist thought, but I think it is incredibly problematic in a broader sense.
One aspect of this suffering is the myth of New York, which should have been eradicated with the rise of the West Coast art scene, but apparently is not dead yet. Myopic vision of New York as the one and only art world, determining what is good and bad in art, and determining what sells is a problem for all of us outside of New York, but particularly for those of us that see New York as a giant machine that is the spearhead of the unregulated art market that drives up prices under the auspice of "cultural value" and remains both untouchable and esoteric to the general public. These same ideas are related to the notion that any artist worth their salt lives and works in New York, so why would one of the very few staff art critics write about someone outside of New York? It is easy (cheap) to live in Des Moines, therefore artists living here do not suffer enough to be "real" artists.
Suffering, too, is a bit of a complex thing; Chris Burden suffered very differently than J.W. Turner. Its a smokescreen statement to say that artists must suffer to be what they are; suffering in Late Capitalism is largely deficiency (not having what one thinks they deserve), and I guarantee that all artists think they deserve more than what they have (should have gotten in to an exhibition, should have sold that artwork, etc). Suffering is an internal emotion, and not something that can be judged by anyone. Roberta Smith will never know whether or not I have suffered, and I'm still an artist.
Were I a BFA student in the exhibition, I might have wondered about safer career paths. As an artist in a ill covered region of the United States, I'm pissed, because this is another version of elitism: I interpret the notion that artists must suffer to mean that people living in Iowa can't possibly suffer enough to be artists, so go do something else. I had a painter in New York talk to me about teaching, and she said that I should teach students to be collectors and patrons as opposed to artists. While this might not have been directed to me coming from the Midwest, it is still part of this detrimental rhetoric against artists geographically outside of the "art centers".
As a professor, I don't see myself as educating artists, though. While I'm frustrated at the elitism, I don't see that as my mission, and encourage students to pursue whatever they wish to. I teach art as a means to teaching non-conformity, original thinking, and perhaps most importantly to teach students to think critically about the single-serve, instantly fulfilling, and vapid culture and society that we live in. While I've thought that critics were cultural mavens and guideposts in the past, I now wonder how much a part of this structure they are; perhaps they do not question culture and society in the same ways that I do--that, perhaps, my problem with most art critics is that they are looking at art as a cog of the vapid culture and society as opposed to something working against it.
I will gladly work, think critically, and not suffer; always reflecting on my place in society.