Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Art World is Dead. Long Live Art.

By now, anyone who cares is well versed in the Tragedy of Becky Smith's Bellwether.

Once sales dried up by the fall of 2008, Becky called three of her largest collectors, pleading for some business — “I tried playing it cool, and then I tried playing it direct,” she said. She recounted a typical conversation: “I need to sell you something to continue to be here,” she would tell a collector.

“I’m just not buying,” was the reply.

“Did you hear me? I have this artist you collect who will have to get another job. If I can’t sell you something right now, I’ll have to close,” Becky would say, but the response was the same. “I felt forsaken,” she recalled. “All these collectors who supported me and my artists, they just disappeared. They didn’t care.”
Although I was not the kind of person who ever registered on Becky Smith's radar, I feel about as sorry for her as Chris does. She was something of an idealist; even as she careened into a business that, at its peak, cost her $75,000 a month in overhead--more than most artists earn in two or three years--she thought that it was at least partly about the art. About ideas, creation, passion, beauty, humanity, exploration, the pursuit of excellence, originality and insight. That stuff.

I guess we all do.

I can count on one hand the number of Chelsea art dealers who have ever been polite to me. Polite, as in acknowledging my existence when I say "Hi, I'm Stephanie. You are..?" instead of blankly looking through me for a second before speaking to the person next to me. Polite, as in offering me a glass of champagne and allowing me to accept it, instead of moving it past my outstretched hand to the couple ten feet behind me. Polite, as in saying, "that would be lovely!" when I offer to show them my portfolio after visiting their gallery regularly for a year and a half, instead of "It's a waste of time for me to look at your work."

(Actually, not a single one has ever said "that would be lovely," even though that's my usual response to other artists. As far as I know, there's not a single Chelsea dealer who has any idea what my art looks like, let alone an opinion about it.)

That hasn't stopped them from sending me press releases, once the 'art criticism' business imploded and the art blogosphere took off. Talk about wasted effort. Dudes, get a clue: once you have been egregiously, offensively, unnecessarily rude to me in person, you can inundate me with hype and schmoozing for fifty years and I won't come back. I won't come back to interview you, have a glass of wine, or sneeze on the art. I will ignore you. You are a waste of my time.

But what I realized, after the Fall of Bellwether, was that some part of me still believed that there was some reason to respect these people. That no matter how idiotic, banal, frivolous and inane was the majority of the 'art' I saw in their galleries, nevertheless the New York Art World stood for some sort of quality. Some kind of allegiance to the life of the mind and the exploration of the spirit.

Then I thought, "$75,000 a month in overhead?" That's not art, that's fashion. Fashion, corruption, and excess.

Because a business that generates a $75K monthly overhead for a white room filled with arcane, useless objects can only be sustained by the kinds of people who happily pay themselves multimillion dollar bonuses in taxpayer money after their personal actions torch the global economy. It can only be sustained by the kinds of people who are driven to accumulate infinitely more than everybody else, no matter how many others go sick, hungry or unemployed. It can only be sustained, in other words, by sociopaths.

It's no mystery that I and the New York Art World don't get along. My interests lie in the direction of timelessness and balance.

'Twisted lotus mandala' (study), Stephanie Lee Jackson, 2009

Thus, I have realized that if I am to maintain my integrity as an artist, I have to forget about galleries. Instead I will seek to hang my work in wellness centers, yoga studios, doctor's offices, spas, churches, and any other place that exists to heal and nurture the human spirit, not crush and deride it.

I'm pretty sure this is the right direction to take, because immediately after coming to this conclusion, I started working steadily, despite being blocked for over a year, despite being broke and stressed and taking care of an infant all day.

Does that make me a kitsch artist? Well, it could, except that I'm not going to change into someone else. If people think my art is kitschy, they're not looking very closely. And if there's one thing I've discovered about New York art dealers, it's that very few of them actually know what they're looking at.


Elizabeth said...

Galleries are high-profile but just one option for sharing your work.
Congratulations on finding the right path for you. Making it yours. For some, it's about making an attention-getting statement like "Art is War" http://hazeldooney.blogspot.com

For me, it's working with a niche publisher where our interests align, who pays me fairly for my work, and who gets my words and artwork into the homes of regular people who can pay $15 for it instead of $15,000 (though eventually I hope to sell some originals for that much and more)

Spatula said...

*high-fives Pretty Lady*

I admit, I have been looking in at the struggle you went through over the past year with concern, but I knew you would find the answer and come out of it alive. Hooray! That mandala is looking very alive, indeed!

Commercial galleries, hipster galleries are such poison. I do feel bad for this person, but it sounds like she wasn't in it for the art, since she was so happy to walk away from it as soon as it turned out she wasn't going to be Una Gran Caca in Manhattan.

Pretty Lady said...

Hi Elizabeth, hi Spatula! It's good to be back!

I have a lot of respect for the way Hazel Dooney has managed her career, although her work is not something I particularly resonate with. I was reading her blog, back when I had the time to read blogs. :-)

I think that Becky Smith thought she was in it for the art, but she added in a big dose of social ambition, thinking that it was essential, or at least that it couldn't hurt. Turns out that social ambition can be fatal.

I visited her when she was still in Williamsburg, and the person who introduced us said, "I think she wants to be in Chelsea." If I'd been in the same position she was in, in 2003, I would have stayed in Brooklyn, kept my overhead low, and been a little nicer to my peer group of artists, writers and fledgling art dealers.

Who knows, she could have had some friends to crash with when she lost her apartment.

Unknown said...

I have a water color of Franklin's hanging in my room at the spa. If it's good, it doesn't matter where it's hanging and people will notice.

Pretty Lady said...

Actually, Dawn, I don't entirely agree with you that it doesn't matter. Context plays a huge role in how even the best artwork is perceived; most people don't have the ability to edit the visual chaos of their surroundings, and hone in on the qualities of a work of art well enough to have an original opinion about it.

But I think that the context of a healing environment is precisely where I want my work to go. Moreover, I can take installation shots and use them to market the work online. Just as most people can't edit their visual surroundings, they can't usually visualize what a work of art would look like in their home or office. You have to show it to them there.

Chris Rywalt said...

Elizabeth, are you the one who's been drumming up Hazel at EAG's blog and I think also on mine? Because Hazel's name keeps popping up and I think it's always you doing the popping.

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Just noticing.

I'm not overwhelmed by Hazel's alternate avenue; her work is kitsch, and of course there's always going to be a market for kitsch, especially if you happen to fall into the "hot chick painting hot chicks" niche. See also Audrey Kawasaki.

Now, I happen to admire Audrey's work. More than Hazel's. But it's still kitsch.

Pretty Lady, I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you've gotten back to art. And the mandalas are probably the most successful thing you've done -- artistically speaking, in my opinion. So I'm happy to see the return. Are they kitsch? I can't tell. I don't think so but I'm probably too close to them (and you) to form a real opinion on it.

I saw on LinkedIn that your status said something about displaying your work in yoga studios and so forth. Not a bad plan. Almost every time I find myself in a doctor's office or friend's house, and I see they have crappy art up, I have this urge to paint something for them. I don't think artists realize just how much crappy art is out there, from hideous Pottery Barn floral accents to faded prints. I went to a diabetes expert the other day and he had a poster of "Starry Night" so faded it was entirely blue.

People need good art. They want it. They just don't always know what it looks like. Thomas Kinkade has shown that regular people want real paintings; unfortunately, he's like the Burger King of oil paint.

I'd like to imagine a future where we can get the good art to the people. I have no idea how to do that, though.

mariner said...

Steph, this is great. I have no time for blog-reading, but I manage to come across yours now and then, and I'm always glad to. I went often to the Williamsburg Bellwether when it was there, and when she moved to Chelsea I was surprised. But I've always had my finger on my own pulse, not the big art world's. Tonight there's a talk at the Museum of the City of NY on "Creating an Alternative Art World", but the speakers are all over a hundred, I think, and I think they're talking about the alternative art world that they birthed 40 yrs ago. Yes, having a sense of history informs the future, but what about now? (Your idea sounds great for your work). I do like like Irving Sandler, merely because he was a teacher of mine and a kindly person. And I like Lois Dodd's ptngs. Anyway, I'd go if it was at Pratt nearby! -Chris K

José Carrilho (Go Detail) said...

Hi Steph,

I could write something more elaborate, but I would only be writing what you and others already know.
The problem is that what you describe is one of the worst things that is happenning in this world: the indifference that people are showing towards others' problems.
As an emerging artist, I won't forget those who are helping me getting my name out there.
I'm sure that if she has a good relation with artists, she'll be back again.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...


When you say "she" are you talking about Becky Smith? I'm not sure what your comment is about.


Anonymous said...

Steph, I enjoyed both your take and Chris' on this.

I love the mandala study. It dances as you watch.


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