Sunday, June 14, 2009

Understanding What It Is We Don’t Understand: Notes towards an anthropology of the Atlanta art scene (or part of it, anyway)

The challenge of art reviewing that has no deadline or word count and is uncompensated financially (I was going to call it an artwriting gig, but thought better of it) is that the review may blossom into a full-blown essay that is completed long after the show that inspired it has closed.

Paul Rabinow, in his brilliant 2008 Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary, calls for a new anthropology in which the research can be done and the book published within the course of a year. Art critics don’t get nearly that long to do the fieldwork.

So my essay in the making based on Rabinow's book combined with a few of my deliberately inflammatory observations from a preceding essay will have to wait. This won’t be even a review, but more like a “listen up, y’all” for a pair of exhibitions that will be down before we know it.

Then I can focus on a couple more exhibitions that will also be down before we know it, given the short length of alternative-space exhibitions at places like MINT Gallery and Beep Beep Gallery. But first-ending things first.

The conceptually focused and ambitious visual explorations of George Long’s solo show and of the Sunday Southern Art Revival collaborative (who describe their practice as "making stuff" that challenges each other's notion of art while they collectively insist that they are having fun rather than being academic) are at Marcia Wood Gallery through June 20. There is something about the blend of personalities, backgrounds, and ethnicities that makes SSAR hard to ignore, even though much of the Atlanta art world has been very successfully doing so with this show: it may have been the temporal proximity of two other alternative art events, but their June 6 real-life conceptual-art cookout proved that you can’t even guarantee a crowd if you offer free beer and free chicken and free artwork.

Rabinow's book discusses the unsatisfactory quality of journalistic reports, which follow a prescribed format rather than getting into the real dimensions of the phenomenon; art journalism is no exception, but in its defense I would point out again that Rabinow calls for an anthropology of the contemporary in which the fieldwork would lead with stunning rapidity to a book in no less than a year’s time from the initial encounter. His own book has the minimally invasive copy editing (mostly regarding the correct use of the comma) and proofreading that may be required for such a fast-paced venture (relatively speaking).

The Internet, unlike print, gives us the instantaneous capacity to get things wrong, It also gives us the capacity to correct ourselves, but increasingly I am reluctant to hastily put portions of my anatomy out for public pillorying, as distinct from recommending that people take advantage of the presence of the art on the walls, and images of it online for preliminary perusal.

So I’ll say no more about the antiquely evocative yet distinctly contemporary (and not at all sentimental) imagery of our multiethnic downhome art revival. Except to remind you that you have about a week left in which to make haste to Castleberry and look, or to examine the work online in a more leisurely fashion if you live in the 99.44% of the world for which Castleberry is not an accessible commute. (The statistic is a reference to a vintage advertisement that passed into the language and presumably passed out of it again.)

I hope to have something more coherent to say about the newly opened show at MINT Gallery, which apparently is up for only one week longer than the show at Marcia Wood, and SSAR member Michi Meko’s newly opened show at Beep Beep Gallery, two exhibitions that take diametrically opposed approaches to the problems of historical and personal memory (we are all part of world history, even if the abridged version manages to leave us out of it—as a friend says of himself, he is famous, it’s just that not very many people are aware of that fact).

The Java Monkey coffeehouse where I frequently take advantage of the free wireless has a satellite-radio bluegrass show on the sound system that is closing with a song that somehow summarizes the double edge of irony and total sincerity on which SSAR and company dance so effectively: "What a Beautiful Day for the Lord to Come Again."

An anthropologist of the contemporary would love it.


Grady said...

While making small talk before Dean Balfour presented (a term with which I am uncomfortable, probably because I knew it from primatology before I heard used for the centerpiece of some arts akce) last week, Howard Wershil & I came up with a new academic discipline, & its appropriate sub-disciplines: Pure Ignorance & Applied Ignorance.

Howard is more interested in the latter, I, in the former, so I've broken that one down into the sister disciplines of Pure Ignorance & Theoretical Ignorance.

I swan, I tremble at the threshold of this study & work, in awe of the possibilities.

Grady said...


Our small talk is a lot bigger than most folks' life work.

littlejoke said...

See my celebration of the Grady Harris term "besider / B-sider" on the joculum blog. And you allude, I believe, to the companion axiom to "I don't even understand what it is I don't understand," which is "He's so ignorant he don't even know he's ignorant."

There must be a way of retrieving the "Peanuts" cartoon from the Charles Schulz online archive in which the formulation of the "understanding" axiom appears as the final panel. I have never tried to do it.

Jeremy Abernathy said...

Thank you for this. I find that as I get more paid work, my ability to take "the long view" declines rapidly. I don't think it's a sacrifice per se, since the increased exposure is wonderful right now. I just hope that "the gig," whatever and for whom that may be, will continue to evolve.

littlejoke said...

As for the gig evolving, it will, it will. In our difficult economic times you are perhaps rubbing up against the realizations of how many indignities have to be suffered en route...I was fortunate to have the opportunity for major conceptual reflections early on, before it turned into a weekly-deadline version of that saying for which I hope some folklorist has uncovered a first cite, about how when you are up to your ass in alligators it is hard to keep in mind that you came to drain the swamp.