Earlier this week, DNA Info reported that New York’s City Council had approved a bill that would strengthen the community review hurdle in Gotham’s public art commission process. And ironically, this populist move risks replicating the same conditions that have been undermining visual innovation in blue chip galleries and elite art fair booths for the past several years.
Sponsored by Long Island City councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, the new legislation would apply only to works originating from the Percent for Art initiative–a program mandating that one percent of the budget for “eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on [site-specific] artwork for City facilities.” But I now fear for those projects like I fear for teenagers learning to drive on the lunatic freeways of Los Angeles.
For clarity’s sake, I should stress that the Percent for Art process already demands a review by the community board appropriate to the new artwork’s intended destination. Van Bramer’s contribution–assuming NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio signs it into law–simply beefs up the existing covenant.
The bill would require that A) the public be formally notified about Percent for Art’s upcoming plans, B) the community board hearings be opened to the public, and C) said hearings be announced in the community at least two weeks in advance. So, to steal a phrase I’ve used in my ad world freelancing many times, we’re talking about an evolution here, not a revolution.
Still, this strikes me as an instance where siphoning power from the few to the many seems like more of a risk than a reward. The bill was allegedly spawned in response to the furor over Brooklyn-based sculptor Ohad Meromi’s The Sunbather, which is currently slated for installation on Jackson Avenue in 2016. As Sarah Cascone of artnet news noted, commenters have already taunted Meromi’s piece by comparing it to “Gumby’s grandmother” and a heap of “pink poop.” And here the industry cries out that good art criticism is dead…
Contemporary public art pieces tend to meet this type of mockery no matter what their form or venue. As I wrote about in the Gray Market newsletter a couple of weeks ago, New Yorkers attacked Teresita Fernández’s Fata Morgana, a freshly unveiled cloud bank of golden, mirrored desks at Madison Square Park, for causing too much noise during installation and blocking out the view of too many trees once complete. A similar story is playing out in Sacramento surrounding Jeff Koons’s latest Coloring Book sculpture, destined for the city’s forthcoming public plaza despite the uproar. And let’s not forget the most infamous Big Apple backlash against a piece of public art: Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, the monumental sculpture removed from its eight-year home in Manhattan’s Foley Federal Plaza in 1989 and left to rust in a Maryland warehouse forevermore due to public outcry and subsequent litigation.
What does all this have to do with the art market? Ask a healthy cross-section of art worlders about the biggest disappointments snaking their way through the industry’s soil during our current sales surge, and you’re likely to hear about the proliferation of “zombie formalism” or, more broadly, “art-fair art.” Work that’s pleasingly decorative and instantly consumable, but ultimately hollow. All icing, no cake. The summer action movies of visual culture.
As I argued in the piece linked just above, one of the main forces driving this phenomenon is the accelerated pace of sales in today’s art market. With more high and ultra-high net worth individuals than ever competing for pieces on the ‘buy’ side, and with more galleries than ever trying to build empires on the ‘sell’ side, few of the players involved have the time to dig beneath the surface of the pieces in front of them. They need either an established brand so undeniable or an exterior layer so graphically appealing that they can be comfortable saying ‘yes’ before their nearest competitor does.
Van Bramer’s bill effectively creates the same incentives for future Percent for Art proposals. Having to win over a public that’s more likely to react on sight than reflect at length means that savvy artists will tailor their concepts to prioritize surface over substance–in other words, to become the permanent, public embodiments of “art-fair art.” After all, landing a commission of this scale is a huge boost to any artist’s career. And as we know, there’s no more lucrative time than now to raise your profile in the fine art game. The ends justify the creative concessions made to grab them.
But innovation suffers. Henry Ford once famously said that if he had polled his customers about what they wanted before he introduced them to the Model T, they would have asked for a faster horse. Similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer once declared that “talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Though it’s only a small blow, Van Bramer’s legislation strikes at the kneecaps of genius–and in the process, risks limiting New Yorkers to nothing greater than shiny, graphical, art-fair-level talent. They may have a greater voice in the process, but I wonder how much art history will be hurt by their statements.