When writer Allegra Fortunati inquired about submitting a rejoinder to Leah Modigliani’s recent feature “Marketing the Mission,” we saw it as a terrific way to further Stretcher‘s goal of generating dialog about art in the Bay Area and beyond.
We have placed an additional comment from reader Steven Barich after Fortunati’s article below. We invite all our readers to send us comments, some or all of which we will publish in this location on our site. You can find our email addresses on our contact page.
A REJOINDER TO “MARKETING THE MISSION”
By Allegra Fortunati
The sentiments expressed in Leah Modigliani’s Stretcher essay “Marketing the Mission: Commodifying San Francisco’s Art, The ‘Mission School’ and the Problem of Regionalism” are representative of the attitudes of many Bay Area emerging artists. Yet I find them so troubling that the essay inspired me to pull together my thoughts of many years in this response, hoping to generate a dialogue.
Modigliani opens her essay with a bone thrown to Marxist theories of commodification and the art-politics nexus, remarking that “Cultural artifacts like art are commodities that fulfill capitalism’s advance while also often mistakenly appearing to exist as material manifestations of social dissidence. In Marxist theory the appearance of social dissidence keeps the working class in a holding pattern that prevents them from affecting real social revolution.” Rather than articulating specific ways in which this idea might apply to our current situation, however, the essay tastes of sour grapes, and ends with a “solution” that, in my view, expresses a fundamental misperception of the function of art reviews.
Modigliani asserts that although the Bay Area is home to a diverse group of excellent artists from all over the world, the international artworld never sees the the full range of their expression. She lays the blame for this situation at the door of the San Francisco art world (defined as “an elaborate network of institutions, publications, media outlets, and individuals”), writing that it “…is not rising to the challenge of creating the economic and critical infrastructure necessary to support the diversity of arts practice here.” She believes that each of these elements has failed, even victimized, progressive San Francisco artists.
Ultimately, she says, the lack of diversity in arts programming “represents the stubborn and insular vision of a few men in positions of power.” Unfortunately, no names are mentioned. I spoke with Jack Hanley (one of the gallerists associated with the “Mission School”) and neither of us could come up with names of people she could be referring to. It is true that the executive directors of most major arts organizations in San Francisco are male, but their input into what is shown is limited. Many of the most highly esteemed curators in the Bay Area are women, and most major downtown gallerists are women.
The problem, as Modigliani see it, is that these curators “compete for market share with other forms of entertainment,” creating “more and more spectacular exhibitions” as thoughtful attention paid to individual artworks dwindles; she also states that commercial galleries are biased towards painting and photography, because these art forms are easier to sell to the small base of collectors in the area. Furthermore, “uncritical” local critics have not exposed the money-minded bias of these institutions and individuals. All of this adds up to blocking serious consideration of the artworks of local artists in national and international art publications, with one exception.
This exception is the work of the artists “marketed” as the “Mission School,” but again for crass motives and evidently undeservedly, since the art is not “avant-garde.” I found Modigliani’s description/ interpretation of Yerba Buena’s Beautiful Losers show bizarre, ignoring the curators’ attempt to put the “Mission School” in a national and historical context.
She ends with a lament that many artists are leaving town, perhaps because their work, overshadowed by the artists of the “Mission School,” has not been critically recognized, and a call for San Francisco’s critics to make writings that are “worthy of existing as exemplary work in their own right.” It would be hard to fault the ideals behind her call for more powerful criticism, but she also seems to think that if only there were better critical writing, aimed at marketing progressive work, San Francisco could become a major art market.
Modigliani’s essay is a relatively brief one, and perhaps some of the omissions in her argument are due to the constraints of word count. But the substance of her analysis overlooks many players: most particularly alternative artspaces, artists, and art historians. My own thinking on this subject has been influenced by Diana Crane’s book, The Transformation of the Avant-Garde: The New York Art World, 1940 - 1985. She argues that the term “avant-garde” refers both to artists who are iconoclastic (insistent on their superior insight into social and political culture and processes) and aesthetically innovative, and further makes the case that artists are rarely both at once. Modigliani seems to recognize the value only of the iconoclastic mode of “avant-garde.” I would argue that the “Mission School” artists are also “progressive” or “avant-garde,” but as aesthetic innovators who have clearly tapped into a national and international zeitgeist. I find their work a refreshing salve for our collective world-weariness.
The claim that San Francisco’s commercial galleries do not handle social or political artists was contradicted by a recent show at Modigliani’s own gallery, Gallery Paule Anglim. The exhibiting artists Enrique Chagoya and Margaret Crane and Jon Winet are all nationally known for their work on political themes. And In this election year, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts produced the Art and Politics series as well as mounting Beautiful Losers. But the institutions that have provided the most support for socially and politically engaged artists have been the alternative artspaces. From a season rich with exhibitions with social commentary I particularly recall A Spoonful of Sugar at the Luggage Store Gallery and Paper Bullets: A War of Words at Intersection for the Arts.
I agree with Modigliani that artists based in San Francisco receive relatively little national and international exposure, but I would lay the blame at the feet of the artists. San Francisco artists have originated very few artistic innovations of interest beyond the region. Only psychedelic art and Burning Man come to mind, although I am sure there are others. Don’t get me wrong. Individual artworks have been shown and sold outside the area, but, although adding to existing styles, they have not sparked movements.
Furthermore, it is my impression that the emerging artist community here is smug, parochial, and inbred, with little solid knowledge of national and international art and artists. Their work is often concerned with private, idiosyncratic issues that do not tap into national or collective mentalities. This art doesn’t travel well, and therefore national and international publications are not interested.
I have also observed that, with a few exceptions, political artists here do not want to provoke viewers to think. They want to tell viewers what to think, which has limited appeal to potential collectors who are much more knowledgeable and sophisticated about politics and society than artists give them credit for. It is a rare artist who has researched an issue in depth or sees beyond mere topicality. Most do not add to a larger historical debate, but settle instead for superficial ideological pap or cheap, though sometimes clever, one-liners. Local artists cannot make a claim for superior insights. They can only count as one voice among many, joining the general cacophony for better or worse.
Most political artists here also miss opportunities by failing to see their work in a larger cultural context. For instance, journalists are restricted from picturing body bags and coffins, but artists are not. Journalists and scholars are restricted by the ethics of their professions, or limited in terms of space or time, from reporting things they intuit to be true, unless they are supported by empirical evidence. Artists are not. There is so much not being said and pictured which goes beyond the present moment to larger issues that hit deeper historical chords in American and world cultures.
Last is the issue of the “Mission School,” uncritical critics and marketing. In his book Seeing Out Loud, Jerry Saltz, senior critic at The Village Voice, has written a piece called “Learning on the Job.” It is an hilarious account of the consequences of his negative reviews. Unfortunately, the more publications are dependent on galleries for advertising revenue, the less tolerance there is for negative criticism. But, artists should learn to read between the lines. Critics have varied interests in terms of art and limited word counts for their reviews. In any exhibition, they are going to talk about the art they find the most interesting and leave the rest behind. It is difficult to write an inspired review or article on uninspiring art. But whatever critics are (like political pundits, members of the chattering class), they are not art Rotarians, marketers for local artists’ work (spin doctors). This form of boosterism is not their proper job.
Author and curator Dave Hickey has rightly pointed out that art criticism is the weakest form of writing. No matter how insightful or witty an art critic is, reviews often smack of conversational patter with little long-run consequence. But they are not totally without significance, if the descriptive power of a critic’s writing can lead to a definition of the art of our times, a point where a critic turns into an art historian, seeing the forest formed by the trees.
I believe this is what happened when Glen Helfand wrote a piece titled “The Mission School” for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He was defining an aesthetic (”…heartfelt, handmade, and deeply observational… [I]ts urban realism is filtered through interests in graffiti, comic books, green culture, and social activism.”) Unfortunately, the label “Mission School” has stuck for now, although Helfand had also noted “urban rustic” (suggested by Renny Pritikin) as a potential alternative. Perhaps someone will come up with a different term less tied to geography. When he wrote the article, Helfand included Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, the late Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Aaron Noble (in the article, Nobel was the only artist to link the Mission School in any way to outsider art, when he cited the influence of Creativity Explored), and Rigo as the first generation of this “school.” The work of Jo Jackson and Clare Rojas has been added to many recent versions of the list.
According to Jack Hanley [who represents Chris Johanson, Jo Jackson and Alicia McCarthy (only three of the twenty-five artists in his gallery), “…the artists still have trouble seeing their work as part of a ‘school,’ concentrating on the differences rather than similarities in their aesthetics and purposes…[Nevertheless, the “Mission School”] artists have brought greater attention to other San Francisco artists in the gallery,” particularly at international art fairs where among the “tourists” are curators, gallerists, and collectors from all over the world.
Besides conducting conversations about local social and political artists, a fruitful line of discussion might be a continuation of what was began by Helfand. For instance, other artists who should be included in this first generation of “Mission School” are Simon Evans (Jack’s nominee) and Sacha Eckes (my nomination who recently showed at the Mimi Barr Gallery). Evans and Eckes share the same basic “Mission School” aesthetic, but each makes their own unique contribution. Examining their and others’ work more closely might lead to richer definitions and a better label.
Ultimately, whether the “Mission School” will have a lasting place in the long run will not be determined by the “art world.” From an art historical point of view, time is the ultimate arbiter of artistic quality. And as long as value is found in the artwork over time and through generations, it will endure. No amount of marketing will make it otherwise.
With regards to Ms. Fortunati’s rejoinder to my article “Marketing the Mission…” I recommend that readers do as she suggests: read between the lines. She does more to confirm my views than indict my opinions. The bulk of her article consists of attempts to re-contextualize my clearly stated ideas into statements that reveal her own biases. Amongst insults levied towards critics and “political artists,” she describes the “emerging” artists of San Francisco as “smug, parochial, and inbred, with little solid knowledge of national and international art and artists.” Simply stated, my article sought to acknowledge the role that the art market and economics play in the promotion and appraisal of artworks, and this was laid out logically. I used the obvious example of the Mission School to call attention to the ways that marketing and lack of criticality affect the way we think of and see art. Ms. Fortunati provides telling evidence that there is still much work to be done in the Bay Area to foster criticism that rises above emotional knee-jerk reactions to difficult issues. Her comments about emerging artists are particularly troubling, considering that she is the Vice President of the Board of Directors at the Lab.
A comment from Steven Barich
Date: 16 Dec 2004
Thank you for writing this article. I agree with your point that the term “outsider” is problematic when used to characterize artists who are not only working from inside the art world, they are showing at one of the few local art museums: Yerba Buena. It seems like a contradiction in terms.
Also, I would like to add that, in my opinion, San Francisco doesn’t have a problem looking internationally for artists and inspiration (look at how many museums/galleries make great effort to show works from artists who reside outside of the Bay Area and even the USA), but has a difficult time connecting local, national and international artists together, ideologically and in dialogue. Somehow, SF/Bay Area remains closed
One can see the effect though: many artists leave SF as soon as they graduate or find out soon enough that the local market cannot support the rising number of new artists. Not to mention the older ones…
Thank you again for writing this article. Please continue to remain critical.
Response to Leah Modigliani’s comments:
I find it ironic that someone who is advocating more criticism can’t take criticism herself. Unfortunately, all critics aren’t going to tell her what she wants to hear in the way she wants to hear it. I was very surprised to have my rejoinder dismissed as emotional and knee-jerk after I had obviously put in a lot of thought and effort into it. I outlined what I thought were some of her major points I wanted to take issue with and offered suggestions for a more complete view of what is going on here in San Francisco, including defending critics by outlining some of the obstacles faced by local critics. I meant no insult. I just call it the way I see it and would love to be disproved or told specifically where I have gone wrong. Or, work on discussing critical standards for political art. I am reminded of the argument between Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukacs. Modigliani did not focus substantially on political art.
Nevertheless, I am not sure which of her views are confirmed, since she didn’t bother to take the time to spell them out. Nor does she indicate how I re-contextualized her ideas wrongly. The art market is not the source for critical standards in the long run, as I indicated. I do indeed have biases (don’t we all?). I am interested in San Francisco artists who want to play in a larger arena than the Bay Area. I am not interested in regional artists particularly. But, artists who address national and international aesthetic and political issues and whose work is striving to be competitive with New York and LA artists one way or another. I like talent, ambition and drive, and spirit and boldness.
I also do not understand why artists here enjoy downgrading the work of the Mission School artists or denigrate their success or are concerned that it defines Bay Area art for the rest of the country in magazines. “This too shall pass.”
Indeed, I am not only the Vice President of The LAB Board, but I am also on their curatorial committee and have been one of the strongest advocates on that committee for political art.
While Modigliani’s ambivalence toward the art economy makes for a more interesting read than a pure Marxist or Greenbergian critique, it makes for a highly problematic argument. The concept of the “avant-garde” which serves as the backbone of her article is itself problematic, which she alludes to, but only acknowledges as a recent concern. The position of the “avant-garde” artist in regards to radicalism dates back much further, and can be found among the mid-century works of Adorno and Benjamin.
A brief summary of the avant-garde problem:
1. the avant-garde artist’s work attempts to “represent” the oppressed, but the artist him/herself is generally of the bourguoisie or petit-bourguoisie (upper or middle classes) ... I’m sure the author is aware of the cost of a degree at the SF Art Institute.
2. The early to mid 20th Century avant-garde was associated with formal, and structural experimentation as well as abstraction, which did more to expand the commodity market for art than to critique it and/or capitalism. Hardly the stuff of revolution.
3. The avant-garde is often seen as the purview of the white male and often engages in the same omission of women and minorities as Modigliani critiques the SF art establishment of doing. Historically colonial nastiness also came into play, with the incorporation of traditional practices of non-Western peoples.
Besides the economic ambivalence, the other problem in the essay, I’d like to comment on is what I’ll term, “the roving we.” It is unclear who is the we, who is the they, and who exactly we are. Modigiliani begins one paragraph talking about the San Francisco art world’s lack of support for diversity, then several paragraphs later, she talks about the disservice we do to our art communities by marketing a stereotype. Is the latter “we” the San Francisco art world that was previously an old boy’s club, “they”? The assertion that Liz Cohen and the others who are leaving the area (presumably, as Modigliani states elsewhere, artists are smarter than we give them credit for, are following the money to the more profitable climes of L.A. and NY) are “our best young artists” does a disservice to those artists that continue to reside and work here.
In general it is dangerous to make generalizations tied to negative assertions, though excessive specification of what’s included and excluded often makes for awkward writing. However, in her excoriation of the SF artworld’s exclusion of diversity and lack of support for “our best young artists,” she is implicating quite a number of organizations, curators, and venues that are a significant part of the San Francisco Bay Area art world, and consider themselves as such.
One of the unique aspects of the SF artworld is the prominence of artist-run and non-profit spaces, such as The Lab, which began as an artist-run space and has become one of the longest-lived arts non-profits in the area (along with Intersection, New Langton, Southern Exposure, Artists’ Television Access). The major institutions (Yerba Buena, SF MoMA) and for-profit galleries often draw from these space’s exhibitions and artist rosters, while these long-lived non-profits draw from the offerings of smaller and newer spaces as well as non-traditional exhibition venues, to make for an unusual art economy. Depending on how you define it, the SF artworld is quite diverse.
Is anyone making as much money or garnering as much attention as they “deserve”? Yet, are artists given the freedom and latitude to create and present what they wish?
I am happy to see Sarah Lockhart’s comments about Leah Modigliani’s article and am still hoping that more people will contribute to the discussion of the important questions that were raised in the original essay.
Though I agree with much of what Lockhart says about the San Francisco art economy, I want to take issue with the main point of her piece, the definition of the avant garde. It is much too narrow. Avant garde should indicate art that goes beyond convention, on any level. The presumption of bourgeois artists “representing” the oppressed, I hope, is obvious to everyone. The “oppressed” have their own artists who are representing themselves quite well, but need more venues in which to exhibit and more recognition of their work. The bourgeoisie (of any racial and ethnic background) should stick to their own oppression and their own response to the rampant social injustice which exists in American society and around the world. It is “oppressive” to have to witness it and feel helpless to stop it, except in small ways. Bourgeois “oppression” is largely the result of American consumerism (with its environmental destruction, decline in community, and rise of a debt economy) and large-scale global and national bureaucracies. Both “oppress” through the vicious cycle of earn and spend in which the bourgeoisie finds itself.
To dismiss early to mid-20th century art as non-revolutionary and noted largely for its success in expanding the commodity market for art is blatant ignorance, taking this work out of historical context. *No* great art is merely interested exclusively in formal or structural concerns. Form, feeling, and meaning are the three main elements of art, and as Clement Greenberg has indicated, abstract art has content, though not subject matter. He also said, to quote him: “I think it one of the tragedies of our time that great painting has to do without recognizable subject matter.”
That was then, and this is now. But, even abstraction “re- organizes” peoples’ senses and experience of the world. It can be more profoundly revolutionary than political art. The rejection of the sensuous among some artists I can only attribute to vestiges of American Puritanism.
Nevertheless, political artists, in my mind, need to remain “neutral” for the most part, during most of the process of creating any work. Such “neutrality” (never attainable and thus any work will betray the true values of an artist)) can lead to far more complex, sophisticated, subtle, and interesting work.