An Iraqi Kurdish man tries a traditional outfit during the annual celebrations of Noruz, the Persian New Year, on March 19, 2017, in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. SAFIN HAMED / AFP
Can the Whitney Biennial Ever Live Up to Its Controversial, Politically-Charged 1993 Exhibition?
By Amelia Ames
MARCH 13, 2017
Biennials, like artists, have shows that can make or break their reputations—and that set the bar for exhibitions to come. The Havana Biennial of 1989 fundamentally changed the art world by showcasing artists of the then-called “third world” on an international level outside hegemonic European and American institutions. When Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor was appointed director of Documenta 11 in 2002, he redefined what it means to have a truly global exhibition of contemporary artists. These were exhibitions that changed history. The Whitney Biennial of 1993 was arguably one of these watershed moments. With this week's opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial within a politically tumultuous moment in history (or what the 2017 curators describe as a "turbulent society"), we reflect back on the show that altered the way institutions address identity and the politics of race.
The 1993 Whitney Biennial was one of the most criticized exhibitions in history; incidentally, it was also one of the first times a prominent New York institution unapologetically addressed identity politics. The show spotlighted many under-known artists of color that covered issues like AIDS, gender, and the construction of sexuality and race during a politically charged environment not entirely unlike our current moment. Following the end of the Gulf War and the Bush administration, Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 was marred by a rough start; in February the World Trade center was bombed, and although only six lives were taken (a small number relative to 9-11), it was the first major stab at America’s ego from the inside. That July, the LGBTQ community was once again threatened following Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred openly gay people from the military. Race relations remained tense as the brutal police beating of the young African American Rodney King sparked the Los Angeles riots of 1992. And finally, the art world itself was fundamentally changing underneath the heyday of globalization, with an unprecedented rise of biennials, art fairs, and international blue chip galleries around the globe.
Daniel Martinez, Museum Tags: Second Movement (overture) or Overture con claque-Overture with Hired Audience Members (1993)
In the midst of this tension, the '93 Biennial curators (Elizabeth Sussman, Thelma Golden, Lisa Phillips, and John G. Hanhardt) placed a video of the Rodney King beating on replay right at the entrance to the exhibition. Although smartphone videos of police brutality have become almost proverbial in our current world, to set the tone back then with a controversial and upsetting video—and a non-art object—was a bold statement: race was unavoidable and institutions could no longer ignore it. Artist Daniel Martinez’s contribution also confronted the traditional viewing experience; in place of the standard museum admission sticker, all visitors were required to wear buttons that featured a segment of the following phrase: “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” Depending on the time of day, viewers received either buttons stating “I can’t,” “imagine,” “ever wanting,” “to be,” or “white”—regardless of their race, ethnicity or gender. Inside, Robert Gober reprinted articles from New York newspapers and scattered them in bundles throughout the building, altering their front pages to highlight media's distorted coverage of gay rights and AIDS. Even pedestrians outside the museum were implicated in the biennial's political curatorial decisions; the curators hung Pat Ward Williams's photograph of a group of young African American men on a window facing Madison avenue, addressing passers-by with a direct question: "What You Lookin At?" (the phrase spray-painted on the photo.) Rather than simply spotlighting "political" artwork, the curators politicized their very own strategy, troubling traditional exhibition display and curatorial procedure.
Installation view of Byron Kim's, Synecdoche (1993), at the 1993 Whitney Biennial
As a result, the show was one of the most criticized in history and for one primary reason: the artists were said to engage in a simplistic “politics of identity” rather than making identity political. Critic Eleanor Heartney described the biennial as “social work or therapy” with pieces that were “numbing didactic,” and said that too many of the “most prominent works simply target the white male power elite as the source of all evil.” One such example of “numbing didacticism” was Byron Kim’s Synecdoche (1993). Composed of small monochrome canvases painted in skin-toned hues, the work was dismissed as merely stating the obvious: that people come in different colors. What this quick-handed criticism fails to consider though, is how Kim was forcing the “pure” modernist grid and the “neutral” legacy of Minimalism to confront what it had always disavowed: race and an embodied spectator. Kim was making art history’s treatment of identity and race political rather than preaching a literal “politics” of diverse identity.
Gary Simmons, Lineup (1993), 1993 Whitney Biennial
Some of the most well-known artists of today, like Fred Wilson, Mike Kelly, and Robert Gober, were similarly criticized for their “simplistic” work on race, adolescence, and homophobia. Ironically, the show's second-most-common criticism by conservative critics was that the biennial needed more works in traditional mediums like painting. According to them, the work was too directly political and social in its content, and too ephemeral in its composition—leaving no room for the privileged space of neutral aesthetic contemplation that the modernist white cube had always provided critics in the past. Even in the '90s, Clement Greenberg’s rampant Modernist formalism of the 1950s lived on.
Detail of Pepón Osorio's Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?), (1993), 1993 Whitney Biennial
So, if the 1993 Whitney Biennial received such harsh criticism, what positive effects could it have on exhibitions to come? The major institutions of New York could no longer ignore their own exclusions of artists of color and the political realities around them. (Of course, museums like El Barrio and The Studio Museum in Harlem, which had been around since the '60s, were already addressing these issues.) Exhibitions like Thelma Golden’s “The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” (1994-95) that followed were exemplary of an institutional change to come within the Whitney itself. And while the '93 biennial didn't inaugurate a game-changing diversity consciousness within institutions (let's face it: the majority of artists represented in museums remain white, male, Euro-American, and heterosexual), the '93 biennial changed the ways an institution itself can engage in the politics of race and identity. (Today, one would like to think that the Whitney’s upcoming retrospective on the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica is symptomatic of this change.) As the “Museum of American Art,” the Whitney has come to realize that in our age of globalization, any singular notion of “American” art might no longer exist.
Installation view of Fred Wilson's Guarded View (1991) included in Thelma Golden's "The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art" (1994-95) at the Whitney
With this in mind, the stakes couldn't be higher for this year's Whitney Biennial, which opens this upcoming Friday in the museum's newly-opened Gansevoort Street location. If the 1993 show challenged what it means to make an exhibition political—through additions like the Rodney King video, Martinez’s buttons, and its unprecedented spotlight on identity politics and race—then today this model seems more relevant than ever. If “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society” is one of the key themes reflected in the work of the artist for the 2017 Biennial, we might pose the same question to the institution itself: what is the role of art institutions in this turbulent society we live in?
Park McArthurs, installation view of Ramps (2010-2014), Essex Street Gallery, New York
The list of artists selected for the 2017 is provocative. It varies between emerging artists like Puppies Puppies to established artists such as Anicka Yi, the recipient of this year’s Hugo Boss Prize. Park McArthur, like Byron-Kim, forces the Minimalist legacy to confront disability as she transforms handicap ramps into sculptures. The confrontational spirit of the video of Rodney King’s beating is equally addressed in the work of Cameron Rowland, whose show at Artists Space last year linked incarceration, labor, and race through prisoner-made objects. The interdisciplinary collective Postcommodity (comprised of indigenous artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist), is most well known for its temporary land art installation Repellent Fence (2015) that ran across the U.S.-Mexican Border—both a harrowing critique of U.S. pesticides and a connecting force between Native Americans and indigenous tribes in Mexico. This year, Occupy Museum (comprised of Arthur Polendo, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Kenneth Pietrobono, Noah Fischer, and Tal Beery) will continue their ongoing project “Debtfair,” which invites artists to share their experience of debt and calls on them “to join us in empowering ourselves around our economic condition.” The collective most notably spearheaded the #J20 Art strike that demanded all cultural institutions to close on inauguration day. Whitney director Adam Weinberg refused the call, opting instead to make the institution free for the day and host guided tours and discussion panels, begging the question: if the Whitney refuses to close its doors in solidarity, then how can it keep them open to provoking discussion about the "turbulent society" that lies outside them?
Postcommodity, Repellent Fence (2015)
The Whitney Biennial of 1993 put identity politics—as both theme and curatorial project—at the forefront of its mission, creating arguably one of the most political exhibitions in history. Today, we might ask just how the biennial of 2017 can match this legacy. We are indeed living in a “turbulent society” now more than ever, however the question becomes now: What role do art institutions play in this society? Are they places to pacify political interests in name of aesthetic contemplation, or rather incite dissents and challenge our perspectives in a “post-truth” society?
Writing about art is hard. Writing about art that you made can be even harder. We hear artists say, “If I knew how to describe my work in words, I’d be a writer, not an artist.” While this may be true, what’s “truer” is the fact that at some point, you as an artist will be asked to write an artist statement—and whether or not it is good, will matter. So, what makes an artist statement “good”? Whether you're applying for a residency or grant, or you just want to perfect your elevator pitch, here are a handful of things not to include in your artist statement, plus a few tips to make the process a little less excruciating.
1. Your Artist Statement Is Not “A Piece”
Resist the temptation to use this as an opportunity to write a poem or subvert the “institution of the artist statement.” We get it; you’re an artist. We really do just genuinely want to know what your art is about. Please tell us.
2. Oh, You Loved Art as a Child? Join the Club
The worst way to start an artist statement is with the following words: “Every since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved making art.” Unless you were literally raised by wolves or grew up in a hermetically sealed suite a la Bubble Boy, this is not interesting information. Most kids love art, and regardless, having a long love affair with your craft doesn’t mean much—it’s what you have to show for it that counts. There is really no need to explain when you became interested in art.
3. Avoid These Words:
Juxtapose Humanity Human condition Concerns Chaos Uncanny (unless it truly, truly is uncanny. Look up the definition.) Notions Speculative Explores Rupture Troubled Liminal Controversial (unless it actually sparked controversy.) Deconstructs
4. Just Use Fewer Words in General
Don’t convolute your sentences by beating around the bush. For instance: “My art practice is concerned with exploring notions of gender” really means, “My art is about gender.” Or, “I’m interested in investigating ideas and concepts surrounding notions of race” becomes “I investigate race.” Be specific and don’t use vague words that keep you from getting to the point.
5. If Your Work Is About You, Why Should We Care?
If you’re making art about your personal experience, fine. But the question you have to ask yourself is, “Why is my personal experience relevant to anyone but me?” What does your experience say about the world you live in? What can people learn from your story that might be useful to them? Use your experience to illustrate some larger issue, topic, culture, or idea that others can relate to or learn from.
6. Find Help
Not everyone is a good writer, and that’s totally okay. You shouldn’t need to be able to recite the Chicago Manual of Style verbatim to write a good artist statement. But don’t let your lackluster writing skills be an excuse for a sloppy statement. Find a wordsmith, buy them a beer, and ask them to help you edit your text. Not only will a poorly written statement make your ideas harder to understand, but grammatical errors could also come off as evidence of apathy and irreverence towards whatever opportunity you’re vying for.
7. Don’t Say Your Work Is Interesting—We'll Be the Judge of That
Remember what your middle school English teacher told you—show, don’t tell. Describing your work as meaningful, captivating, groundbreaking, beautiful, or interesting doesn’t tell your reader anything about what your work actually is. (Plus, it comes off as a little cocky.) Instead, write about your work in a way that shows how it’s interesting.
8. Don’t Reference Deleuze Unless You Absolutely Have To
In general, it’s probably best to avoid relying on the ideas of other people to prop up your work. But if you really must reference a philosopher, critic, or theorist, make sure to write a very brief (could be five words) description of who that person is. Don’t assume everyone who reads your statement had the same liberal arts education you did. In terms of referencing other artists: if your work intentionally and deliberately references other artists, and these references are integral to the meaning of your work, by all means, name the artists you reference. Otherwise, do not compare yourself to other artists, e.g., “Like Picasso, I paint…”
9. Know What “International Art English” Is, And Void Using It
In 2012, Alix Rule and David Levine brilliantly and hilariously wrote about what they called “International Art English”: the “the curious lexical, grammatical, and stylistic features” too commonly found in art-world press releases. Here is a tiny excerpt, but do yourself a favor and read the entire thing:
“IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes… experiencability.”
10. Write About the Most Interesting Aspects of Your Work (Not All Aspects Are Interesting)
Explaining your process can reveal something about your work that isn’t immediately known by just looking at it. If this is the case, explain away. But for most artists, this play-by-play account just isn’t necessary. For instance, if you’re a painter, there is really no need to mention that you begin your day by priming your canvases, or that your artwork always begins with “an idea” or “a sketch.” Figure out what makes your work unlike other people’s and focus on that. For some artists, that is their process, for others it might be their research methods, or concepts, or relationship to art history, etc.
11. Keep It Short and Sweet
If you’re applying for an opportunity like an artist residency, art school, or a grant, chances are your artist statement will be one of many. Keep in mind that the person reading your statement may only have time to skim the first few lines, so if you can succinctly describe your practice in four sentences, do it. Less is more. You don’t want the success of your application to rely on whether or not your panelist can read 2,000 words in 60 seconds.
12. Your Love for Making Art Doesn’t Justify its Worth
Please, please, please don’t write about how much you love painting, or how fun it is to be in the studio, or how ceramics is a form of therapy. Don’t get it wrong—we’re very happy for you if you feel these ways, and we understand that working creatively can be a very uplifting and joyful process. But here’s the thing: your experience of making your art in no way influences our experience of looking at it. This may seem counter-intuitive, but an artist statement is not about you, the artist; its about your work, the art.
13. Talk It Out
If you’re having writers block, don’t give up. Download a voice recording app on your phone and record yourself talking about your work out loud to a friend (or your cat.) After you transcribe your speech and edit out the likes and ums, you might be surprised with how good it sounds. And if not, at least you’ll have something down on the page that you can work from. Text that is conversational and seemingly effortless is easier and more fun to read that text that seems like it was painstakingly laborious to write.
14. Obviously, Describe Your Work
If someone was standing in front of your art, what questions might they ask you? What could you tell them that would give them a richer, more informed viewing experience? Write about your work in a way that will add something to the viewing experience, not just summarize it. If you’re having trouble getting the juices flowing, here are a few questions you can answer to get you started (just remember, you don’t need to address all of these in your statement.):
Why did you make the art that you made? What does it say about the world? What does it help people understand? What does it look like? What did you make it out of and how did you make it? How does it address the history of its medium? What sort of culture, topic, or issue does it describe? What do you expect your audience to gain from it?
Musée, like all our friends, have been deeply upset and concerned since Trump’s election. Attacking many issues close to our hearts; defunding programs for the arts, humanities, and women’s rights, maligning people based on their race, religion, and ethnicity, then imposing the travel ban, his divisive nature continues to tear the country apart and makes us feel we are headed down a rabbit hole, corroding our democracy while seemingly making America great again. Musée is a voice he can’t control. We have designated a page on our website to anyone wishing to express their feelings being in art, writing, photography, illustration etc. Musée is a non-profit magazine dedicated to the resistance of this autocrat.
Let’s catalog a few important moments in the history of conceptual art: In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed and dated a porcelain urinal, installed it on a plinth, and entered it into the first exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists. In 1961, Robert Rauchenberg submitted a telegram reading “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so” as his contribution to an exhibition of portraits hosted at Clert’s eponymous Paris gallery. That same year, Piero Manzoni exhibited tin cans labeled “Artist’s Shit.” The cans purportedly contained the feces of the artist, but opening them to verify the claim would destroy the work. In 2007, Damien Hirst commissioned a diamond-encrusted, platinum cast of a human skull. It cost £14 million to produce, and Hirst attempted to sell it for £50 million—mostly so that it would become the most valuable work sold by a living artist. And in 2017, Nigel Gifford designed an edible, unmanned drone meant to deliver humanitarian aid to disaster zones.Okay, I lied. The last one is a technology start-up. But it might as well be a work of conceptual art. In fact, it makes one wonder if there’s still any difference between the two.
* * *
Conceptualism has taken many forms since the early 20th century. At its heart, the name suggests that a concept or idea behind work of art eclipses or replaces that work’s aesthetic properties. Some conceptual works deemphasize form entirely. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, for example, is a book with instructions on how to recast ordinary life as performance art. Others, like Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, lean heavily on the material object to produce effects beyond it. And others, like the pseudonymous graffiti-artist Banksy’s documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, about a street artist who becomes a commercial sensation, deliberately refuse to reveal whether they are elaborate put-ons or earnest portrayals.
In each case, the circulation of the idea becomes as important—if not more so—than the nature of the work itself. And circulation implies markets. And markets mean money, and wealth—matters with which art has had a long and troubled relationship. By holding business at a distance in order to critique it, the arts may have accidentally ceded those critiques to commerce anyway.
Before art was culture it was ritual, and the ritual practice of art was tied to institutions—the church, in particular. Later, the Renaissance masters were bound to wealthy patrons. By the time the 20th-century avant-garde rose to prominence, the art world—all of the institutions and infrastructure for creating, exhibiting, selling, and consuming art—had established a predictable pattern of embrace and rejection of wealth. On the one hand, artists sought formal and political ends that questioned the supposed progress associated with industrial capitalism. But on the other hand, exhibition and collection of those works were reliant on the personal and philanthropic wealth of the very industrialists artists often questioned.
One solution some artists adopted: to use art to question the art world itself. Such is what Duchamp and Rauchenberg and Manzoni and Hirst all did, albeit obliquely. Others were more direct. Hans Haacke, for example, used artwork to expose the connections between the art and corporate worlds; his exhibitions looked more like investigative reports than installations.
Despite attempts to hold capital at arms length, money always wins. Artists low and high, from Thomas Kinkade to Picasso, have made the commercialization of their person and their works a deliberate part of their craft.
By the 1990s, when Hirst rose to prominence, high-art creators began embracing entrepreneurship rather than lamenting it. Early in his career, Hirst collaborated with the former advertising executive and art collector Charles Saatchi, who funded The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a sculpture of a severed tiger shark in three vats of formaldehyde. That work eventually sold for $12 million. Hirst’s relationship with Saatchi was less like that of a Renaissance master to a patron, and more like that of a founder to a venture capitalist. The money and the art became deliberately inextricable, rather than accidentally so.
Banksy, for his part, has often mocked the wealthy buyers who shelled out six-figure sums for his stenciled art, and even for his screenprints. It’s a move that can’t fail, for the artist can always claim the moral high ground of supposed resistance while cashing the checks of complicity.
Hirst and Banksy have a point: Cashing in on art might have become a necessary feature of art. The problem with scoffing at money is that money drives so much of the world that art occupies and comment on. After the avant-garde, art largely became a practice of pushing the formal extremes of specific media. Abstract artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock pressed the formal space of canvas, pigment, and medium to its breaking point, well beyond representation. Duchamp and Manzoni did the same with sculpture. And yet, artists have resisted manipulating capitalism directly, in the way that Hirst does. In retrospect, that might have been a tactical error.
* * *
If markets themselves have become the predominant form of everyday life, then it stands to reason that artists should make use of those materials as the formal basis of their works. The implications from this are disturbing. Taken to an extreme, the most formally interesting contemporary conceptual art sits behind Bloomberg terminals instead of plexiglass vitrines. Just think of the collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps that helped catalyze the foundation of the 2008 global financial crisis. These are the Artist’s Shit of capitalism, daring someone to open them and look. The result, catastrophic though it was, was formally remarkable as a work made of securities speculation, especially for those who ultimately profited from collapsing the world economy. What true artist wouldn’t dream of such a result?
Even so, finance is too abstract, too extreme, and too poorly aestheticized to operate as human culture. But Silicon Valley start-ups offer just the right blend of boundary-pushing, human intrigue, ordinary life, and perverse financialization to become the heirs to the avant-garde.
Take Nigel Gifford’s drone start-up, Windhorse Aerospace, which makes the edible humanitarian relief drone. In the event of disasters and conflict, the start-up reasons, getting food and shelter to victims is difficult due to lost infrastructure. The drone, known as Pouncer, would be loaded with food and autonomously flown into affected areas. Whether in hope or naivety, Windhorse claims that Pouncer will “avoid all infrastructure problems, corruption or hostile groups,” although one might wonder why bright green airplanes might avert the notice of the corrupt and the hostile.
The product epitomizes the conceit of contemporary Silicon Valley. It adopts and commercializes a familiar technology for social and political benefit, but in such a simplistic way that it’s impossible to tell if the solution is proposed in earnest or in parody. Pouncer can be seen either as a legitimate, if unexpected, way to solve a difficult problem, or as the perfect example of the technology industry’s inability to take seriously the problems it claims to solve. How to feed the hungry after civil unrest or natural disaster? Fly in edible drones from the comfort of you co-working space. Problem solved!
It’s not Gifford’s first trip up where the air gets light, either. His last company, Ascenta, was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $20 million. Once under Facebook’s wing, Gifford and his team built Aquila, the drone meant to deliver internet connectivity to all people around the globe. Here too, an idea—global connectivity as a human right and a human good—mates to both formal boundary-pushing and commercial profit-seeking. By comparison to Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to extract data (and thereby latent market value) from every human being on earth, it’s hard to be impressed at a wealthy British artist trying to flip a diamond-encrusted skull at 300 percent profit.
Conceptualism has one gimmick—that the idea behind the work has more value than the work itself. As it happens, that’s not a bad definition of securitization, the process of transforming illiquid assets into financial instruments. Whether Windhorse’s edible drones really work, or whether they could effectively triage humanitarian crises is far less important in the short term than the apparent value of the concept or the technology. If humanitarian aid doesn’t work out, the company can always “pivot” into another use, to use that favorite term of start-ups. What a company does is ultimately unimportant; what matters is the materials with which it does things, and the intensity with which it pitches those uses as revolutionary.
This routine has become so common that it’s become hard to get through the day without being subjected to technological conceptualism. On Facebook, an advertisement for a Kickstarter-funded “smart parka” that hopes to “re-invent winter coats” and thereby to “hack winter.” A service called Happify makes the foreboding promise, “Happiness. It’s winnable.” Daphne Koller, the co-founder of the online-learning start-up that promised to reinvent education in the developing world like Windhorse hopes to do with the airdrop, quits to join Google’s anti-aging group Calico. Perhaps she concluded that invincibility would be a more viable business prospect than education.
Me-too tech gizmos and start-ups have less of an edge than conceptual art ever did. Hirst’s work, including the diamond skull and the taxidermied shark, are memento mori—symbols of human frailty and mortality. Even Rauchenberg’s telegram says something about the arbitrariness of form and the accidents of convention. By contrast, when technology pushes boundaries, it does so largely rhetorically—by laying claim to innovation and disruption rather than embodying it. But in so doing, it has transformed technological innovation into the ultimate idea worthy of pursuit. And if the point of conceptual art is to advance concepts, then the tech sector is winning at the art game.
* * *
Today, the arts in America are at risk. President Donald Trump’s new federal budget proposes eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (along with the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). The NEA is especially cheap, making its proposed elimination symbolic more than fiscal. It’s a dream some Republicans have had for decades, thanks in part to the perception that NEA-funded programs are extravagances that serve liberalism.
The potential gutting of the NEA is worthy of concern and lamentation. But equally important, and no less disturbing, is the fact that the role of art, in part, had already shifted from the art world to the business world anyway. In particular, the formal boundary-pushing central to experimental and conceptual artists might have been superseded by the conceptual efforts of entrepreneurship. The much better-funded efforts, at that. As ever, money is the problem for art, rather than a problem within it.
Elsewhere in the art world, successful works have become more imbricated with their financial conditions. Earlier this year, Banksy opened the Walled Off Hotel, an “art hotel” installation in Bethlehem. It’s an idea that demands reassurance; the first entry on the project’s FAQ asks, “Is this a joke?” (“Nope—it's a genuine art hotel,” the page answers.) Despite the possible moral odiousness of Palestinian-occupation tourism, local critics have billed it as a powerful anti-colonialist lampoon. A high-art theme park.
It’s an imperfect solution. But what is the alternative? In the tech industry, the wealthy don’t tend to become arts collectors or philanthropists. Unlike Charles Saatchi, they don’t take on young artists as patrons, even if just to fuel their own egos. Instead they start more companies, or fund venture firms, or launch quasi non-profits. Meanwhile, traditional arts education and funding has become increasingly coupled to technology anyway, partly out of desperation. STEAM adds “art” to STEM’s science, technology, engineering, and math, reframing art as a synonym for creativity and innovation—the conceptual fuel that technology already advances as its own end anyway.
Looking at Duchamp’s urinal and Rauchenberg’s telegram, the contemporary viewer would be forgiven for seeing them as banal. Today, everyone transforms toilets into artworks on Instagram. Everyone makes quips on Twitter that seem less clever as time passes. What remains are already-wealthy artists funding projects just barely more interesting than the products funded by other, already-wealthy entrepreneurs.
From that vantage point, the conceptual art avant-garde becomes a mere dead branch on the evolutionary tree that leads to technological entrepreneurship. Everyone knows that ideas are cheap. But ideas that get executed—those are expensive. Even if that implementation adds precious little to the idea beyond making it material. The concept, it turns out, was never enough. It always needed implementation—and the money to do so.
IAN BOGOST is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and aprofessor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His latest book is Play Anything.