The routinization of the World Wide Web and its associates (more and more key sites every year aren’t prefaced with “www.“) has allowed the whole world to watch whether one wants or expects it, as we know all too well: it is possible to pop in on the art scenes of Moldova and Mauritius and Jacksonville, Florida, and to feel embarrassed that the website of Jacksonville artists was better than any in Atlanta, though that has changed, in both directions. (www.JaxCAL.org — the layout and content of which I still admire for ready legibility and for willingness to debate, on revisiting the site after Lisa Alembik's query below.)
It’s obvious that the global art scene has become a global competition in ways that were never true before the major redistributions of capital that preceded the current planetary economic collapse. A couple of videos that have gotten press in more than one international art magazine come from southeastern Europe and West Asia: one shows an artist fretting over what kind of art could possibly attract the attention of an international audience from the base of his recently emerged country, and the other has our two artists trekking over the hills and valleys, asking passing shepherds how to get to Tate Modern. (One answer: make a video asking that question, since the video has been in biennials, if not at Tate Modern.)
But of course the world’s art worlds are as multiple as the world’s worlds in general. And for every artist aspiring to global biennials, there were ten sweating over creating new and different landscapes and abstractions that would hang in hotel corridors. (This was no bad thing, for before the current downturn there were ever more hotels interested in installing art of a higher quality than “hotel art.” That was an intrinsic part of gaining international credibility as a destination lodging, and it is fascinating when accidents of history such as the burning of the not yet opened Mandarin Oriental Beijing lead one to look up online the design scheme and incipient art collection of such an entity.)
And I suspect that each system is and was essentially autonomous, even if the systems service the same sets of people in different aspects of their lives. It is for those who actually function in the worlds in question to explain how they work; the rest of us just kibitz from outside, and it is possible to function as an outsider for one’s whole career in the world’s second-tier cities.
In some ways, the second tier is a more uncomfortable place to occupy, because the scene is always full of people who think they ought to be in the first tier and resentful because they aren’t. But most of the people from such places who are thought of by their peers as being privileged denizens of the first tier are in fact only slightly higher up in the second tier.
Third- and fourth-tier places don’t have that problem, except when someone really does make it unexpectedly. One artist from such a place gained a moment of national recognition (more noted in the region than in the nation) very late in life, and when the place in question brought in some regional critics to tell them how to go and do likewise, I couldn’t find a nice way to say, “She got famous because her work is uniquely compelling, so it grabbed the attention of the decision-makers.” Instead, I talked about how a regional scene might present its unique context to a national audience so as to make its local concerns comprehensible to others.
It’s why I like large-scale juried regional exhibitions; the winners and the whiners are completely different every year, depending on the preferred aesthetics of the juror. Every year the local heroes get slapped down and the nobodies are raised to their level of due recognition, even though every year the worthy nobodies and the justly recognized local heroes are also omitted because, as the sociology of knowledge teaches us, all knowledge is partial knowledge. We know in part, and we understand in part.
Most critics don’t seem to understand the multiplicity of knowledges. That particular knowledge certainly won’t get you very far in terms of the global art world, which functions in terms of the self-validated sets of argument that determine, not what is hot this year, but which of several possible ways of knowing will be deemed respectable. This is not the same as elevating one aesthetic arbitrarily; even that which will be deemed to be crap two decades hence has a certain plausibility structure within which it responds to the questions that interest the global art world this season. It’s just that there are intellectual contagions that sweep the planet with regularity. It doesn’t mean that the truly talentless are snatched from obscurity for no good reason, as every grumbling artist in, say, Lower Gnat’s Fork remarks when some artist who grew up in Upper Gnat’s Fork makes the Whitney Biennial. (There may be a causal relation between the imaginary artist in question being a consummate jerk and the degree of success; or there may not, as in my oft-cited case of the truly wonderful painter who got in because his canvases had been moved against the gallery wall to make room to show the curator the work of the edgy, ambitious photographer who also got in. And that particular edgy, ambitious photographer is not a jerk, but rather generous overall…especially as compared with his competition. )
My personal opinion, firmly contradicted by everyone else, is that local critics ought to match artists with audiences…leaving it to others to validate and elevate, the liaison between the audience and the venue ought to present a reasonably nuanced “If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing that you will like.” That is the function of newspapers, whereas art magazines serve a completely different function, and art websites can afford to do all of the above: to educate an already interested audience and to publicize the existence of work that would excite a certain audience, even if that audience does not share the personal preferences of the critic. One needn’t and shouldn’t reward ineptitude and stupidity, but one ought to recognize the virtues of work well on the way (it’s a risk worth taking even when the work never gets there…there are too many pleasant surprises).
Sites such as artrelish.com and burnaway.org have the advantage of forcible deadlines. If the critics writing therefrom suffer the mistakes of writing too fast to get the stuff posted, they also suffer the agreeable discipline of writing about work that they would rather not have to write about at all, as well as the work about which they have interesting things to say. Lacking that discipline, it is possible to fiddle with refining one’s observations until the show is over, or never to say anything at all even about the work one truly loves. It is occasionally the work that one finds most deeply involving that leaves one unable to say anything meaningful about it.