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Musings about the MicroMuseums that are Relational Art (repost)

Since beginning exploration of relational aesthetics, my opinions have been troubled.  The difficulty has not been with how to stick it in a box and label it – I am refreshed by the many absurdities that are revealed in the attempt to do so.  However, the relational event is curiously indefinite regarding its place in the realm of art production.  As a trained curator and archivist, to me many relational events seem like curatorships, and their artifacts, like collections. There is also a scientific strain that while refreshing, often slides quite closely to sociopathic puppeteering. That is not to say that string-pulling is anathema to art, but the strings are palpable, almost visible; and they tend to make the participant rather pathetic.

To explain the sense of pathetique, the development of the happening over time needs to be addressed. The more utopian, earlier attempts such as Beuys’ Bureau for Direct Democracy and even Graciela Carnevale’s Experimental Art Cycle with its goal of violence promised a certain inclusivity and universality, yet remain firmly in control of the artist.  The audience is part of the show but voluntarily so; therefore retaining a certain level of dignity regardless of their reaction to the staged relational act.  Adrian Piper’s later Notes on Funk still retained a hope for the universal experience, but did not bet on it, as it hinged on post-modern historical revisionist strategy intended to educate on some level.  Tiravanija’s Pad Thai, however, was not led nor attended by the artist, and was entirely participant led.  Predictably, mostly art scenesters attended. This in itself is perhaps an interesting framing of that momentary state of art and society, and there is no sense that this result was intended, but the outcome was, considering its set-up and marketing, fairly likely.  Therefore, while the space between the audience and the author has up to this point been closing, this exhibition marks the distancing of the author from a work which consists of audience – and the artist relinquishes a certain amount of personal responsibility for a human situation that s/he created.

This may appear in some ways to be anti-creative, but it is on the contrary an invitation to Chaos that rather flatly gives way to Predictability.  Neither force lacks creative potential, but it does expose that Potential is what drives relational concept-building. Further, relational aesthetics is simply a different philosophy/creativity that allows the non-artist to create consciously or not within a constructed social frame, yet creative potential is limited because the vast majority of people (Western tradition anyway) have a century-old rather polite perception of what art is and should be, so the sense of play can be seen as a game of manipulation rather than an opportunity to step into an authored, limited and temporary “culture” that foregrounds the frames we unconsciously construct for ourselves.

REFERENCES

Participation. Ed. Claire Bishop. London: The MIT Press, 2006. Print.

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Conceptually Speaking, Michael Landy’s “Art Bin” scores a big “Meh”

When the promos for Landy’s Art Bin exhibition were first flying around, it seemed truly subversive, but upon learning that he is not destroying “valuable” art but castoffs, which as artistic failures are really only on the edge of what might be called “art”, the concept was quite disappointing.  So what? He is putting garbage in a garbage bin.  The only remotely interesting thing seems that the garbage of many is collected at a single onsite orgy of artistic self-absorption.

The concept is touted as “a monument to creative failure” and has no apparent connection to current events and concerns.  True, Philip Hensher claims that “Landy’s important…because just at this moment we’re slightly disenchanted with money itself, we’re slightly disenchanted with money’s power to act as an aesthetic judgment in itself.”  But this seems looking through the telescope backwards.  In a time when loss and hardship are commonly felt due to the economy, and in a world where wasting materials is a guilt-ridden experience due to ecological concerns this seems ill-timed.  Not that I think these political concerns are intended to be foregrounded here, as the act of destroying rejected art is not on a level with destroying rain forest with intentional Exxon oil spills.  If he is going for shock-value or making his bid as the Siva of the art world, it would seem more powerful to destroy things of real and enduring value to someone, as he did in Break Down, though magnified to everyone.  Then again, this would merely seem a bit of one-upmanship were he to do so.  Though this is mildly different, it seems muted and even a bit lazy.

Where are the famously resonant recontextualizations?    Am I missing something?  Yeah I get the undercurrent of the “one man’s trash…” proverb and that Landy is not acting as a “judge” and all things are created equal (blah, blah, blah).   Sure, there are many who would like to own even the lowliest of castoffs from some of the donating artists, so perhaps one can cull a certain irony in poking fun at those who would be chagrined at the destruction:  those who might be considered junkmen collectors; those who find value in artists’ mistakes; the nouveau riche for bad taste…  But really, if this is any part of his intention or of the general reaction, how post-modern (zzzzzzz)!    Perhaps the ultimate irony is that this appears to be, all-in-all, a throwaway concept by Landy himself.

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.


Art and Multiculturalism

Jackie Wullschlager raises an interesting set of questions in her article “Bringing Jewish Art into Focus“: is there such a thing as Jewish art; and does a Jewish Museum of Art have a role in a multicultural society? Of course, we could replace the word “Jewish” with any religion, ethnic group, or combination of such, but what does this kind of labeling do? When is art just art? How does such a distinction color a viewer’s interpretation? When is this valuable?

Feel free to add your own questions and opinions on the subject at our Facebook discussion page.

We are currently building a dedicated forum site, but until then, please fan us at Facebook and join the discussion or suggest new ones.

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

Keeping it Real: Fair use, Images, and Gaining Permissions.

Keeping it Real: Fair use, Images, and Gaining Permissions.

Cornell has a great checklist for determining if your use of a copyrighted original qualifies as “fair use.”  Unfortunately it really only applies to academic uses and once your project steps one toe outside scholarly territory, fair use law becomes murky. This is particularly true with images and the internet. While I am not an expert, I did work with Susan Bielstein who actually wrote the book on visual art permissions, so I am hoping that my experience with her can help.


It is true that we were using the images for hard copy publication and for profit, but due to the scholarly nature of the University of Chicago Press, and the fact that the Press never actually made a profit, our acquisitions practices existed in a weird hybridized permissions limbo. We couldn’t just fill out a form, pay our money and make our choice because there simply was not a lot of money and that was often dependent on grants.  So, in order to keep costs down, permissions requests often called for a certain combination of diplomacy, humility, and persistence that anyone on the edge of educational services or slightly outside the wall will need to know.  Benefit corporations and non-profits should be especially warybecause if you want to use images that you did not create or photograph yourself, you probably need to learn how to seek permissions, or at least learn some terminology if fair use might not apply.  Let’s begin with some important commandments and related gray areas.


1) If your publication (online or print) is connected to a for-profit business, fair use usually does not apply to you. So you will also need to know about public domain law and you will have to pay for permissions.

a. Gray area:  if your business is connected to education (established, accredited schools), you may be able to get permissions fees waived if you ask nicely, but you will still have to gain permissions.

2) If your online publication is related to a non-profit business – and by non-profit, this means that the business is registered as such and you state this on your taxes with your non-profit FEIN tax number you will need permissions for all copyrighted material, but you may not always have to pay for them.

a. Gray area: If your non-profit offers classes, you may use copyrighted images according to academic guidelines for those classes only (see below)

3) If you are an educational institution, as long as your images are limited to use by students for a limited period of time (usually one school term) on a private or password protected site, for educational purposes only, and you only use images that are absolutely necessary.  HOORAY!  You won’t need any permissions.

a. Gray area:  Fine art students will need to make sure that they are not infringing on fair use laws when using images for transformative use.  Instructors and students will need to keep up on recent developments in fair use law and keep current on lawsuits regarding transformative use in order to make the best decisions regarding this touchy area.[i]

4) If your website is not related to any kind of non-profit business or educational institution, fair use does not apply to you and you will need to seek permissions for image use.

5) If you want to use an image that may or may not be copyrighted, and you have made a good effort at finding the copyright holder, but could not locate him/her/it[ii]; this image is considered an “orphan” and you may publish it.  CAVEAT:   You must record and save your search efforts in case you are called upon to prove due diligence should someone claim copyright infringement.[iii]


In a nutshell, outside of pure and limited academic use, you will probably need to make sure that you have permission to use any copyrighted images for web publication.


Now, here is a basic primer on how to go about getting permissions when you do need them:


1) Find the copyright holder

a. If you are getting the image from a book or other publication this should be fairly easy as this information should accompany the image

b. If the image is of an art work of any kind you may search for copyright info by author name, image source, or through an image retrieval method.

i. Art Resource and ARTstor are good places to start, but are by no means the only place to look.

ii. Lesser known artists can be found through artist representative groups such as VAGA or the Artist’s Rights Society[iv]

iii. If you have no info, contact people who might know.  Librarians and archivists are the best start. The Council of State Archivists is a good directory for US archives or you can start with your local university. Many academic libraries have helpful chat services that will help point you in the right direction.

2) Make extremely polite contact with the copyright holder.  There are some excellent examples of form letters in “Permissions: A Survival Guide” by Susan Bielstein.[v] Remember that you need to explain any special circumstances that can help you gain a discount or fee waiver (non-profit, educational purposes etc.)

a. If the copyright holder is a business or is represented by a protective agency, contact the permissions representative to ask if there are any special instructions for non-profit agencies, educational institutions, etc.

b. Follow those instructions to the letter.

c. Send a thank you letter.  Send a really nice thank you letter if you receive any special consideration. If you do they may remember you and give you special treatment again.

3) If your image classifies as public domain (100 years after death of author is a basic guideline), the photograph may be protected by copyright, so check because permissions law is always changing.  It has recently been judged that photographs that simply represent artworks and do not display any creative license are not copyrightable; however museums and archives are disputing this.  A little diplomacy here: if you will need to obtain any images directly from a museum, representatives may decide not to do business with you should you assert this point.[vi]


In conclusion, it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to copyright law, so make sure that you get the permissions you need.  It’s a lot cheaper and easier than a lawsuit.

And FYI, if you ever want to use an image of a Picasso, you may not only need to shell out the big bucks, but you may have to gain permission from several entities.  Just a word of advice from your friendly neighborhood permissions jockey.[vii]

Related Links: Hooray: Charges dropped against professor who made Derrida works available to students by copyrightgirl

Do copyright laws stifle creativity? – Lawrence Lessig posted by copyrightgirl

Center for the Study of the Public Domain


[i] Baer, Marjorie. “Copyright and the Visual Arts.” Macworld 13, no. 10 (1996): 163-167.


[ii] Copyright holders are often estates or businesses.

[iii] Buttler, Dwayne, K. “CONFU-sed: Security, Safe Harbors, and Fair Use Guidelines.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50, no. 14 (1999): 1308-1312

[iv] Bielstein, Susan M.. Permissions: A Survival Guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006; 166

[v] Ibid 162-163

[vi] Buttler 1310

[vii] Bielstein 106-108

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