Shop Talk at SFMoMA, Part II: Would the “Real Artist” Please Stand Up?
These reflections were published on SFMoMA’s OpenSpace. The original can be found here, along with thoughtful comments by Hadi Tabatabai and Glen Helfand, or this posting can be cited as: Buckner, Clark. “Shop Talk at SFMoMA, part II: Would the ‘Real Artist’ Please Stand Up?”, www.clarkbuckner.com. Web. Day, Month, Year the post was accessed.
As her contribution to SFMoMA’s exhibition, The More Things Change, conceptual artist Stephanie Syjuco organized an impromptu boutique of small works and multiples by emerging and mid-career Bay Area artists, which she called Shadow Shop. As a complement to the project, the museum organized a series of discussions about art and commerce, invited writers to comment on the proceedings, and published the resulting articles on the museum’s website. These are my reflections on the second round of these discussions.
The second round of “Shop Talk” at SFMoMA was framed by the central question posed by organizers Suzanne Stein and Patricia Maloney: “What is the perceived value of the artist’s production, or practice, and how does it change as art or artist traffic in different environments? The question developed out of the issues raised during the first gathering of Shop Talk, concerning whether Stephanie Syjuco’s project for the museum, Shadowshop, was beneficial for or ultimately at the expense of the artists who participated in it. Originally these issues were posed primarily in terms of finances and professional development; and, during the second round of Shop Talk, they were first taken up again in a similar vein, as a matter of cultural capital and institutional validation.
Artist Charlene Tan asked: was it fair for contributors to Shadowshop to claim to have shown at SFMOMA? Some clearly thought so. Tim Roseborough explained that he had forced his way into the museum’s 2009 exhibition, The Art of Participation by taking advantage of an opportunity to bid on gallery space offered by artists Joachim Blank, Gerrit Gohlke and Karl Heinz Jeron, in their work 1rst Public White Cube. While once he had thought that his presence in the show was illegitimate, Tim said that now indeed he included it on his resume, and thought that participants in Shadowshop ought to do the same. But others drew a distinction: Stephanie, not the museum’s curators, solicited the artists in Shadowshop. As one person cleverly put it, their work was “in the museum, but not of the museum.”
However, a remark by Suzanne suggested that these apparently opposing positions might be dialectically re-framed as altogether consistent with the intended role of the project within SFMOMA. Shadowshop, she reminded us, was part of the larger exhibition, The More Things Change, which surveys art of the last decade collected by the museum. In this regard, the work in Shadowshop was clearly set apart from the art the museum had sanctioned by adding to its collection. At the same time, however, Stephanie’s project served as a supplement to this very narrow set, by providing space for other artists who have indeed contributed to the development of art over the last decade, even if they have not achieved the same notoriety, or simply work beyond the reach of the museum’s radar. In this way, while distinguishing it from the art collected by the museum, SFMOMA simultaneously extended its sanction to the work in Shadowshop – albeit indirectly, by way of Stephanie’s curatorial discretion.
In a contrary vein, curator Brandon Holmes took issue with artists who felt slighted by the fact that their work was only included in the museum under the auspices of Stephanie’s project, or who distinguished Shadowshop from a proper show since it was actually a shop. In the first case, he argued, their protest was presumptuous: did they really believe, at this point in their careers, that their work had otherwise earned a place in the museum? And what, he asked, was the problem with Shadowshop’s being a shop? A gallery is a shop! Or, still more pointedly, he insisted: “A glorified storage unit that sells things.” Patricia later challenged this claim by arguing that galleries not only sell art, but serve a critical function by contextualizing artworks both in the trajectory of an artist’s career and in relationship to other artists’ practices. Here the distinction again was drawn between art “in the museum” and art “of the museum.” If SFMOMA indeed extended its sanction to the works in Shadowshop when admitting them into the museum, nevertheless the project’s mode of presentation lacked any such critical framing – since it was Shadow Shop itself that ultimately was “the work.” As project coordinator Megan Brian had previously explained, the pieces within it had been trans-valued from “artworks” to “wares.” The effect of this was registered explicitly by a young woman, who identified herself as “only a consumer” and complained of being unable to appreciate the works in the shop as artworks, because she had no understanding of who made them or why.
Ultimately, however, these considerations of cultural capital and institutional validation gave way to more personal and idealistic reflections on why artists do what they do, and how they value their work independently from the affirmations of the gallery-museum system. Another artist, for instance, cited a friend who worked for a decade with an art-collective: she never put her name on her work and the collective frequently didn’t document their projects. The example served as a provocative contrast to the ubiquitous experiments in “art as life,” which perform the collapse of the distinction between the two as art – which is to say, while in fact presupposing and maintaining the distinction. Another woman, Katy Meacham, explained that, while she is an “artist and art-maker,” she refrains from pursuing art as a career – as if she wants to spare her work the burden of professionalizing it in order to retain the value it has for her. And Tim, the artist who bid his way in to the museum galleries, evoked the romantic figures of artistic motivation as a vocation and a compulsion, whose impetus stems from the value inherent in the process.
Finally, in his forceful and highly principled comments, Hadi Tabatabai brought the conversation full-circle. His stance was adamantly professional; and he insisted that artists deserve both critical and commercial recognition for their work. But he, also, was militantly opposed to the tendency he saw in Shadowshop for artists to compromise their practices in the pursuit of such validation. One of my co-respondents, Jasper Bernes, heard this as a contradictory: as if Hadi were arguing that the way to be autonomous as an artist is to sell one’s work for a lot of money, while to sell it cheaply is to compromise one’s self-determination. Against this, Jasper argued that Shadowshop was democratizing; and he implied that insofar as, in our world, “cheap is sometimes as close as one gets to free,” in fact selling one’s work for less (or perhaps, more precisely, without concern for financial gain) is more true to artistic autonomy. However, as I understood it, Hadi’s point was different: artists must maintain and defend the validity of their own practices. To do so, it is also necessary to defend their commercial value. Only by doing so can one in fact sustain one’s practice – covering the cost of materials, renting a studio, and preserving one’s time to make art rather than working a “day-job.” Furthermore, recognition is only valuable if one is recognized on one’s own terms: anything less is mere pandering for popularity, and fails to do justice to art’s power to shape culture. In this way, while the militancy of Hadi’s position seemed to alienate many, he traversed the divide between professionalism and idealism that otherwise framed much of the conversation: to idealistically defend art’s integrity requires professionalism, while to be truly professional (and not merely careerist) requires an idealistic commitment to the value of one’s art. And, as Hadi made abundantly clear, this mutual implication of idealism and professionalism again raises the issues that provoked Suzanne’s and Patricia’s opening question, i.e., whether artists were benefited or compromised by their participation in Shadowshop.