It is Wednesday morning, overcast and broodily hinting at a mid-April shower. Around me, in my classroom, 30 juniors and seniors are thoroughly engaged in heated debates about the nature and trajectory of their work. It’s times like these that I feel successful as an educator. I am both nurturer and coach, and I have trained these young artists to be inquisitive, to question everything and everyone, especially themselves, and now, the class runs itself, and I am able to step back and observe, chiming in only occasionally to emphasize or elaborate on a point. The work produced, the discussions held, the issues and ideas expressed are of a profoundly original and mature nature, and I am reminded of an oft-used quote from Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” A number of these kids are headed to the top art programs in the nation, and it is my earnest wish that this rebellious and independent spirit remains intact, and I sometimes fearful that it won’t.
A decade ago, I attended the myriad of fairs that make up art fair week in Miami… the behemoth that is Art Basel Miami, and the dozens of other satellite fairs scattered around the city. Three of my dealers were showing at various fairs, and it was the seemingly perfect, and in retrospect, incredibly naïve opportunity to get a reading on the state of contemporary art. All the “zombie” movements were in their malevolent infancy, and “collectors” were corralled from fair to fair, booth to booth, by a battery of consultants. Collections were being “assembled” based on a market-driven checklist, remotely, and devoid of any aesthetic investment by the collectors. New collections were sprouting up all over the United States, Europe and Asia that had a cookie-cutter quality, like a Best Buy, Ikea or Chico’s. You can walk into any of these chains in any part of the country and pretty much be guaranteed to find the exact same items, and now, collections were mirroring this bland materialistic sameness.
“OUR Matthew Barney has potatoes… What does YOUR Matthew Barney have?!”
My epiphany, standing behind a consultant as she stared as if in full paranoid meltdown at her fellow consultants and whispering like an ISIS operative into her phone, was that this whole scene was absolute and unequivocal bullshit, that it had nothing at all to do with how I approached or made art, and was in fact, a malicious virus to the soul of any artist who took it at all seriously. What I didn’t realize was that other artists I knew, and a few who I genuinely respected, were furtively lining up and drinking a giant cup of the Kool-Aid. They returned from that week, with a Children-of-the-Corn glow to their eyes, armed with a list of who sold what at what pre-pre-preview, paint chips from Lowes of all the hot colors, and a desire to have their work mirror what they saw, and hopefully be swept along with all this glitter and Studio-54-never-closed glory into the collection of a Russian oligarch or Kanye West. To put it country simple, it was nuts.
That week was a watershed moment in my career as an artist. I graduated in 1991 with a Master of Fine Arts and zero idea about how to either live, produce or succeed as a working visual artist. I was professionally anemic. The next fifteen years I spent learning, developing, and working my ass off to make up that profound higher-educational deficiency. At the end of that first decade and a half, I had managed to build my career and reputation up to a position farther than I had ever thought possible back in my graduate studio in Lexington. Each step towards that goal involved trusting my instinct and experience more and more, and looking less and less at what other artists around me were producing. Ironically, the more seemingly personal, inward-gazing and idiosyncratic my work became, the more it resonated with an art-viewing and art-buying public.
Last week I was invited to speak with the students of a graduate photography program about my experience and advice for them. After an engaging conversation and a question-and-answer session, I found myself pulling out something I had written a number of years ago titled “Words of Advice to the Young Artist.” In the list, number 10 stated, “Stay away from art fairs, kid. It’s like walking in on your parents having sex. You know it happens, but it’s ugly and you don’t need to see it.” In a community of lemmings, I reinforced the absolute importance of being an innovator, not a follower in the art world, of knowing when to look forward, and more importantly, when to look back, to history, for inspiration, reason and enlightenment.
I tell the same things to my senior high students… daily, and I have watched them develop autonomous and original thought. I have nurtured in them an innovative aesthetic soul and a respect for what can still be gleaned from the wisdom of artists who came before them. I feel like a good parent, that I have raised self-sufficient artists, and yet, I have the same fear of a parent as I watch my seniors leave for college; how long will they retain this self-sufficiency? How long before they are tempted by this vapid, shiny neo-Mannerist art fair cult(ure)?