What Is Art News?

New quick method: how gossip makes you and the art world more class conscious. American art critic rages: the market’s shocking prices and the latest curatorial coup.

Jerry Saltz, senior art critic at the New York Magazine, discusses a newly found Banksy piece with people gathering in front of it at 79th Street and Broadway in New York earlier this fall. Still from video ...Vulture.com: http://www.vulture.com/2013/10/jerry-saltz-banksy-seminar.html.
Jerry Saltz, senior art critic at the New York Magazine, discusses a newly found Banksy piece with people gathering in front of it at 79th Street and Broadway in New York earlier this fall. Still from video at Vulture.com.

Those who follow American art news are unlikely to have missed Banksy’s rampage through New York this fall. The news media and art blogs alike, and of course the Twitterverse, have been monitoring the British street art jester’s every move, in a mania that was crowned by art critic Jerry Saltz’s regular paroxysms in social media and New York Magazine (where the three-time Pulitzer-nominated critic reduced Banksy’s already banal urban and media spectacle into mere images and motifs). To this one can add GalleristNY’s announcement of Lady Gaga’s PR-soaked pop-up exhibition in Brooklyn (that already before opening gave rise to the website’s new news genre, «Shit Shows»), or the art blogger Hyperallergic’s vicious take-down of Vanity Fair’s list of the six greatest living artists as decided by a poll of (fifty-four) art professors, curators and artists. Then we have the petition on change.org calling for Kanye West to curate the next Venice Biennale, in order to lead contemporary art out of «a confused mannerist phase» and, of course, Christie’s auction record for Jeff Koons’ balloon dog and Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud from 1969 ($58.4 million for the most expensive work by a living artist and $142.4 million for the most expensive artwork of all time respectively).

While it may be quite entertaining to read about art on the other side of the Atlantic, European art news can seem a bit shattered, or – like a form of negative theology, where God can only be defined in terms of what it isn’t – focused on practically everything except for art: gossip and the desire for the most base, crass and lowbrow, the obsession with the famous and the fixation on the damned, not to mention the focus on theft or recovery of precious artwork and record sums at auction sales. These may be interesting and noteworthy phenomena in themselves, at least for every lover of odd telegrams and newspaper notices, but their relation to contemporary art is strangely elusive.

Illustration from the petition La Biennale di Venezia: Appoint Kanye West to curate the 2015 Venice Art Biennale.
Illustration from the petition La Biennale di Venezia: Appoint Kanye West to curate the 2015 Venice Art Biennale.

How are things in Sweden? Like a gentle drizzle over the plains of Skåne, barely audible rumors buzz about who may become the new head of Malmö Konsthall. Sydsvenskan reports that Cecilia Widenheim has applied for the job even though it hasn’t even been a year since she took over as head of the neighboring institution Malmö Art Museum. Meanwhile, more affluent and resolute speculations can be heard  – like the sizzle that accompanies a frying Beef Rydberg in Gamla Stan – about who will be elected to the Swedish Academy following the passing of Ulf Linde, and whether the member-elect, like his or her predecessor, will have some connection to the visual arts (which must not be the case, as Linde himself succeeded the proletarian writer Eyvind Johnsson to seat number 11). Also notable is that the Lady Gaga hysteria has crossed the Atlantic by way of an unjustifiably long and shallow text in Dagens Nyheter, and the weighty silence surrounding the impending transformation of Iaspis: current Iaspis director Lisa Rosendahl’s appointment expires at the end of the year, but no successor has been sought and there are year-old fears that the curator-director will be replaced by a bureaucrat-director.

Perhaps on a general level one can see how (in the Big Apple as well as in Sweden) three sorts of partially intertwined types of art news may emerge:

1. The titillating, anecdotal and spectacular. See the New York example above. One can imagine that everything but the actual content of the news is essential here, in this determination of what is comic, tragic and potentially interesting – i.e. what it is possible to talk about, who is fit to do it and how it should be done.

Boris Groys and Maria Lind recently renounced their participation in the 2014 Kiev biennale.
Boris Groys recently renounced his participation in the 2014 Kiev biennale.

2. New appointments and exhibitions. This cannot always be reduced to a mere listing of names, positions, and exhibitions. For example (which happens to be unreported news in the Swedish context): while Moderna Museet’s former head David Elliot has been named as the curator of the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art after having curated the Kiev biennale in 2012, interestingly enough, those who were invited to design the 2014 Kiev biennale, Maria Lind and Boris Groys, have recently renounced their participation. After much debate and local demands of boycott following a case of censorship at the biennale’s host institution, Boris Groys (who was supposed to create a seminar program with international theorists) wrote a letter and pulled out, which Artforum later confirmed Maria Lind had done as well. In this case, a piece ofnews item reveals the friction between an evermore internationalized and biennalized art scene and the local contexts where it appears every two years.

3. Cultural-political news. For example: Kunstkritikk’s article about the shrinking room for maneuver at the international studio program Iaspis. If this last category can seem to be the most political in the traditional sense, it is also without a doubt the most difficult, time consuming and work intensive. It is at times more acuratelyaccurately covered by the mainstream media, and it involves a significant amount of journalistic craft.

Whatever the elusive function of these texts, one thing is clear: they are distant from another contemporary genre, critical art writing, with its special ability to engage with individual artworks. And even if, in some sense, Kunstkritikk’s news reporting has critical ambitions (either in the reporting of art with critical potential or in its critical approach to the field of art), it is probably not an unreasonable reaction by the person who is reading or writing a news piece to sometimes fantasize about a long, detailed review. For no matter how intellectually inspiring it can be to troll through the news within an expanded art field, overconsumption can without a doubt give rise to the feeling of having been transformed into the strange character who shows up in OEI’s latest 400-page issue On Paper, namely «The Thrower-Away» by Heinrich Böll:

I open the mailbags which the commissionaire has already picked up earlier from the main post office, and I empty them into the two wooden bins which, constructed according to my design, hang to the right and left of the wall over my worktable. This way I only need to stretch out my hands, somewhat like a swimmer, and begin swiftly to sort the mail.

For the cover and release of her recent album ARTPOP, Lady Gaga commissions artist Jeff Koons, who makes big sculpture of Gaga.
For the cover and release of her recent album ARTPOP, Lady Gaga commissions artist Jeff Koons, who makes big sculpture of Gaga.

We too stretch out our hands like swimmers and glide across the river of madness. And I actually believe there is something to gain from all this. It is easy to turn your nose up at gossip, spectacular events, disaster reporting and comic banalities in print or editorial form. It is especially easy if you already have heard the news in an informal context, and are not dependent on the media to stay up to date. But for all (us) other art workers and enthusiasts, news reporting – even of banalities – could probably fill a double function of democratization: both as the sharing of information and the sharing of a common conversation with its inherent rules and very specific boundaries. It is about formalizing informal discussions so that more people can take part in them, and thereby widen the miniscule gateway into contemporary art. At worst, it does not succeed beyond expanding one area at the expense of another (art criticism). At best, it creates a conversation about art that can move between different registers, and that, due to its online format, is accessible to everyone. One does not have to know somebody personally to be invited to participate; in the end it is about expanding the social base of contemporary art.

Karl Lydén became the Swedish news editor for Kunstkritikk during the fall. Please use the comment box to share your views, desires or objections to Kunstkritikk or other media’s news coverage of art.