Venezia is like no other city I have ever experienced. Its history remains remarkably alive and vibrant, especially for painters. Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini, Tiepolo and many others – the great artists of their times can have visual meaning in ours with a bit of imagination. When you walk into a small dark church you can be sure that your preconceptions about what paintings can do will change completely. The Venetian painters lived to see and painted to live. But today Venezia is also a conceptual entertainment carved out of time, a kind of cultural vacation destination featuring upscale media events. These gatherings bring out the Stars, the rich and the famous. Film Festivals, Fashion Extravaganzas, Carnavale Celebrations, an International Architecture Biennale, and for our own little world, the circus that is the Venezia Biennale. Every two years the monied elite descend into Venezia to begin their Summer Art World Tour attending all the expensive parties, upscale happenings, louche gatherings and equestrian-class charity events. Art World political positioning, well-placed monetary investments and high stakes career junketing are the keys that open the gates to this Kingdom of Aesthetes. Art simply provides the lubricant that greases all of this social machinery. But for those of us that go to the shows and actually look at the art – well, it so often feels like a traveling gypsy carnival made up of the same institutional players showing the same kinds of corporatized art. I have been lucky enough to see a few of these Bienniales now, and I hope that I can see this one as well. But my sorry truth is that I am no longer able to distinguish one from the other.
This year Bruce Nauman is repping the US. It is, after all, a belated public lauding of the old lion. But what you won’t read in the media releases and press packages is that Bruce Nauman has been regularly featured, prominently I might add, in most every Bienniale over the last 15 years or so. I saw his work front and center in the first Biennale I attended in the mid 90s, not in the US Pavilion, but in the International Group Show that is held in the Italian Pavilion. In fact there has been an obligatory Bruce Nauman piece on view every time I have made it to the show. I fully understand the importance of Nauman to the institutional art world. His admirably successful career has been the model and the inspiration for hundreds of tenured academics and gallery stable artists around the world. Without Nauman the last 40 years in Art would look very different. Maybe this goes to show that even at the end of the first decade of the new Millenium 19 Sixty continues its unrelenting hegemony over aesthetic theoretics and art market values. We keep on keeping on without questioning where we are going, what we are doing or why we are doing it. At these International Gatherings contemprorary Art is content to present itself as an upscale entertainment, or worse, professionally made, expensive looking stuff. Michael Kimmelman’s review of the Biennale touches on just these issues and offers a quick explanation:
“But the Biennale is meant to be a survey of new art, and while conscientious young artists now dutifully seem to raise all the right questions about urbanism, polyglot society and political activism, their answers look domesticated and already familiar. They look like other art-school-trained art, you might say, which is exactly what Pape and Matta-Clark and the Gutai group didn’t want their work to look like, never mind that the art market ultimately found a way to make a buck off what they did, as it does nearly everything, eventually.”
There have been a lot of others writing, blogging and twittering the Biennale and a quick Google will take you to those articles. Some are raves, some are blahs but all of this “reporting” seems rather pointless, as the show was a “done deal” for the cogniscenti even before the first packing crate was ever shipped. We are not talking about aesthetic issues here but economic ones. Will this show be remembered as groundbreaking, introducing new ideas or visual explorations? Sadly, that isn’t the point. Corporate Entertainment Art is about other things, and this bi-seasonal extravaganza will pass onto balance sheets and financial statements long before any ideas or aesthetic issues become a topic of interest. No, this show is about “the show” and that is only ever as good as the money it makes. Two years ago the curator of the Biennale, Robert Storr, found himself in an institutional throwdown with some other critics. This played out, rather vociferously, over the internet and in print publications. In the end this argument between critics was all that we remember. Nevermind that the press had gushed over Sigmar Polke’s paintings made especially for the exhibition. Those late career masterpieces are hardly mentioned today, not even in passing. The art, unless it’s media friendly, usually fades into the mists like those moody picture postcards of gondolas in the half light.
The Emptiness of Change
Art Life is far different for those of us not part of this wonky merry-go-round. We are experiencing a huge cultural shift due to the shrinking value of the world’s economies. And if you care to look you’ll see that for those who direct and manipulate our little world, nothing much has changed. The yachts still arrive, the 5 stars are still packed and the money still flows. The oligarchs’ game plan should alert all of us that something really STINKS in our Art World. And there is no one to blame but ourselves. We lack the courage to stand up to the Postmodern aesthetic world, because it will mean we have to risk something even deeper than our “career.” We must risk ourselves. We must find a way to encompass more than the values of 19 Sixty in our work. We must open ourselves up to be different, not for the sake of being different, but because we ARE different. That being said, difference does not necessarily make good art, but all good art MUST be different. Maybe then the Biennale, the art fair or the gallery experience would get a bit more exciting.
Michael Kimmelman points out that some private collectors are actually ramping up their “participation” in this media circus. Pre-Crash, a self directed museum was a proven way to uphold the value of a collector’s holdings. Post-Crash, well, it’s still just business as usual. It’s funny how most all of these collectors seem to have the same 20 artists collected in depth in their collections. It’s almost like there’s a checklist of “must-haves” issued when yearly earnings reach the one billion dollar mark. Mr. Kimmelman comments on Pinault’s expanded collection that is featured alongside the Biennale:
“The building’s renovation is a sober and airy arrangement of thick wood beams and concrete, with half-moon windows gazing onto bobbing yachts of Russian oligarchs in the sparkling lagoon. The view is apt. Mr. Pinault’s relentless assortment of trendy blue-chip works from the last decade or so, lighted like so many cadavers in a medical school operating theater, reeks of pre-crash money and Bush-era cynicism. Their installation creates the weird, antiseptic aura of Dr. No’s lair.”
So here we are Post-Crash, Post-Industrial and Postmodern with a Biennale that’s once again Post-Human. Maybe it’s time to consider ourselves Post-Nauman as well.