Art Counsel

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Race in contemporary art (companion post to “Art and Multiculturalism”)

As a follow up to the previous post on multiculturalism, perhaps we should discuss Blake Gopnik’s new article, “Race issue a two-edged sword for black contemporary artists.”   He touched upon two particular issues that are worth serious consideration.  The first is the assimilation of, and a new comfort-level with Black artists.  Besides highlighting the subtle racism involved in framing such a cultural phenomenon, this observation also shows that there is no real “comfort level” for Black artists.  An outsider trying to work on his/her own terms possesses nobility, but only a small market.  An assimilated, popular Black artist is in danger of being tagged as a betrayer.  This is a narrow and perilous tightrope to walk.

The other issue that deserves some attention is the historical tension within certain examples of Black artists’ work.  Gopnik chose to spotlight Kara Walker and Spike Lee works that are criticized by the Black community for promoting and perhaps prolonging stereotypes.  But the community critique does not seem to offer any new solutions to the problem of which historical motifs Black artists can safely use to express the human experience.  Besides, what value can “safe” images hold when expressing great and prolonged historical and present danger? Another question to ask is that, in a time when marginalized communities are increasingly appropriating and redefining discriminatory words, how is the appropriation and recalibration of images any different?

Ultimately this begs the question; what does “race” in art mean?  What happens when we ignore it?  What happens when we embrace it?  How, where, and when is this important/not important?

Please discuss here or on the forum if you wish to create sub-topics on the matter.


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Restoration – Oil Painting Horror story

So I used to know this guy… Ok I still know him, but I’m kinda hoping that he won’t see this post…  Alright I AM hoping that he sees this post, and ultimately that he will lay off a bit and improve his method, but I’m hoping that he doesn’t recognize me in this anonymous post.  He’s cool.  I’d like to stay friends.

Anyway, he is a professional preservationist/restorer of paintings, but he has a bad habit of over-cleaning.  Luckily, he takes many photos while working, so we have records for posterity, but that is cold comfort for curators, archivists and the occasional researcher.  And the average viewer of his overdone restorations might see, unfortunately, is a blanched shadow of what it should be.  I fear that most of his work is going to deteriorate due to overexposure to chemicals and overstripping.

The restoration that most horrified me was a portrait of a 19th century gentleman – frock-coated, standing, by a lesser known artist.  At some point he discovered that this image was an overpainting of a previous portrait of a military man.  If I remember correctly the uniform was British, possibly from the Crimean war.  Rather than doing a bit of research to find out why it was overpainted, taking infrareds (or whatever) to gain an image of the underpainting before proceeding.  He sales-pitched a complete strip of the top layer to the owner.  Why? I can only speculate.  And if I did not know this guy, I would have to assume (from previous experience with restorers of many stripes) that he wanted more work so he could make more money.  In this case it was probably excitement and lack of experience along with a lack of guidance (one of his first jobs starting his own business – so no one to say, “whoa!  we need to think of posterity.  This is not an excavation, but a gentle cleaning”).

For all I know there may have been a good reason to strip the top painting, but this was never explored and now the top portrait is gone forever without proper documentation and possibly with material damage to the work.

Moral:  If you need something restored, don’t let anyone bully you into doing more than you asked.   Better yet, do the proper research before you hire someone so you are not caught out by something unexpected.  And when the unexpected comes a knocking, stop the restoration until you have had a second opinion, or better yet seven or eight opinions by experts with many years experience before doing anything drastic.

Related link: Understanding the Art Market: Condition, Restoration and Conservation by artforprofits

Time Management and Conferences

Yah, it’s difficult to hand in all of those papers, apply for travel grants, and get that abstract sent off in time, but not impossible. You just have to know how to manage your time.

Ideally you should start a list of promising Calls for Papers about six months ahead of the busiest months for deadlines – December and June. Start local if you are not a seasoned conference speaker as you are going to need all the time you can get on writing that proposal and preparing your speech. In this case, you should be asking peers and professors if there are any low-profile symposia coming up, as your goal is to have the least stressful preparation time. Often your university will have workshops or student-led discussions that can get you started.

One good thing about conferences is that you usually do not have to prepare much more than 10 pages of text for your presentation. Ideally you will have a thesis/chapter all ready to be edited into a concise little package for your abstract; but if it isn’t quite ready to be released upon the world, the best way to save time and keep your sanity – and maybe even enjoy your research a bit – is to recycle papers and articles you have been working on but have not published yet. The trick is to find an angle.

So dust off that paper on Mughal floral symbolism from last year that you have been dying to get back to, and look at the CFPs to see if there is any way you can fit it into someone’s conference theme. Is there a symposium with a post-colonial bent? Maybe you can connect European collections of Asian art with issues of paternalism. Is there a conference on the decorative arts? Maybe you can discuss floral symbolism in Persian rugs. You should try a few different angles, but they should not be so different and so far from your original subject that you end up sacrificing deep research for broad.

Once you have crafted a few good abstracts that you think can be pursued in tandem with your primary research, send them off and continue to take notes and craft good outlines. Don’t bother with the final writing until someone invites you to speak at a conference, but you should be prepared to write quickly once you get that invitation. Sometimes there are only a few weeks between the time you are notified and the actual date of the conference. Also, remember conferences are fun, good for your resume, and great for bouncing new ideas off your peers, but unless you are pretty far along in your grad program, conference papers are much less important than getting your thesis/PhD proposal all together. If you can’t fit it all in, there will always be another conference.

Finally, prepare for your speech. If you can, please try to work from notes rather than reading a paper. This always makes the speech more dynamic. Also, practice speaking. It is really impossible to give a really good speech without running through it more than a few times. And don’t forget about the time limit. There is nothing more annoying to your fellow speakers than speaking for a half hour or 45 minutes when you have a suggested 20 minute time limit. less time speaking also means more time for questions, and that is what you are there for, right? To find out where you can strengthen your argument or to learn more from people in related areas? The organizers will appreciate it and remember you for it as well if you can control your time. They may even like you better for it and look for you at the next networking opportunity.

Related info: Get off the stage and tweet by Steve Friedman

What to do when being an expert comes knocking on your door by Socialchangediva