“ART IS NOT enough” was one of the phrases coined for AIDS where so many responses to the disease were art. The phrase meant art was too pretty even when it was about ugly things. It didn’t stop the virus or arrest it or even cut the price of AZT. Art might have raised awareness but awareness was not enough.
I’ve been thinking much about this because Marlene McCarty – one of the artists who came up with the phrase who was a member of the collective Gran Fury, ACT UP’s advertising and propaganda wing – lost two-thirds of her work in Hurricane Sandy this week. She’s hardly the only artist who has, and I can barely imagine the pain, only I can because I’ve seen the pictures and know her work and the photos she emailed of shuffling through a flooded basement clutching soggy tubes containing her mural sized drawings are nearly too much to bear.
This is a moment where art isn’t even close to enough. Lives have been lost and homes and families. Bloomberg says some 30-40,000 people in New York City, mostly poor, mostly from the projects, need housing. And, that’s just the city. The scale of the disaster is unimaginable, except we can imagine Katrina now, and so that’s the scale the storm gets compared to. People fight about gas and steal sump pumps. Hand-painted signs beg FEMA for help. Words are not enough; no effort is enough here.
After Hurricane Irene hit my community I had nothing to say. The act of writing anything just seemed ridiculous because nothing could mean enough. The images of that storm still glint violently from a year ago: the emergency dump with its huge mounds of trash full of mattresses and furniture, dry wall (that myth dry, eh?) and sheetrock, carpets and flooring. The sum total of people’s homes and lives were stacked in giant heaps of rubble. Or: driving along the highway through town more than a month later and seeing the cerulean blue siding of a motel that washed downstream and knowing a woman died there….
Two days after the flood, before there were anywhere near enough volunteers, I carried cases of water to a woman and her husband on oxygen and promised to find help to clean out her trailer. Afterward she came back to thank me, and I cried. I cried because what I’d done wasn’t enough. Finding volunteers? Not enough. Carrying water? Not enough. Nothing was enough. There aren’t words for that no matter what I type here. Not enough to describe the surreal feeling of the gleaming sun the day after the storm and standing on the sidewalk before a local café emptying bottles of expensive comestibles into the sewer, everything from imported balsamic vinegar to cans of Coke and Honest Tea. There was olive oil and imported French butter to throw out. Kids from the central school created a production line to help. Teen girls in bright rubber boots and cut-offs laughed. The sky was achingly bright. We were all throwing out these things that felt like luxuries. The yellow jackets swarmed, and no one cared about getting stung. But, now here with Sandy, art which isn’t enough is lost too.
You’ve probably read about Chelsea’s flooded galleries. The district was hard hit, and maybe it’s difficult to feel sorry for them. They’ve done so well in the recession. I mean, the very words “art world” make it seem a realm apart—like a fairytale image, set aside and cosseted in castles with crenellations and towers, a bit like an ivory tower, what with that cultivated image of white cubes and pristine walls and so many thousands of square feet and high rent and polished cement floors and plate glass. The art world is a realm that seems built on an edifice of ready money, glossed and sleek with private jets and private dinners and VIP previews… But the art world has a kind of us vs. them divide, and artists don’t work for the money. Few “make it.” They make art because they have to. There are no promises of riches, and artists often struggle to make ends meet, working two to three jobs. No one would be an artist unless she had to. And, in the city last week the artists were there helping pull their own work from galleries.
Jerry Saltz wrote about having to turn away when Belgian painter Luc Tuymans lifted his waterlogged canvases that were supposed to be hung for an opening on November 2nd at David Zwirner. Saltz’s wife Roberta Smith wrote what felt like an obituary for the art world in the New York Times. She described going to Chelsea the weekend before the hurricane and her feeling of luck at seeing the humanity offered up by different artists at different points in their lives, and how this is what art is no matter your feelings about the art world. At the same time last week images and pleas kept popping up on Facebook. There were studios destroyed in Greenpoint and Red Hook. I heard stories from Long Island City of an artist in his seventies hobbled by crutches fighting to keep the water from his life’s work. Someone else told me about a friend on the cusp of his first show in Chelsea losing all his work, and then there is Marlene.
I’d emailed her a forgettable question for an essay I was writing, and she said:
“I’m sorry I can’t respond. I will in a day or two. Today I found out my art storage in Chelsea where I have stored things for the last 17 years looks like this:….feeling a little devastated…M.” After that came the ever more frantic updates: live electric cables in the basement preventing anyone entering, pumping out the water, and how would she ever be able to convince anyone that her as she put it “cultural product” had any value, her life’s work? Next she said, “I’m a little paralyzed and no idea where to turn.”
Making a single one of her mural-sized drawings takes months. There’s the physical pain and cramped hands and RSI, the sore shoulders and repeated marks on paper, hatches and scratches of ballpoint pen and No. 2 pencil. And, she’s often left feeling like she’s reduced to that hand and the pain. This is where phrases like “body of work” and “life’s work” come to mind, and the words are metaphoric, yes, but “body” and “life” seem key here. Here too is a haunting image Marlene in a headlamp in the flooded basement searching for the work she hopes to get to a restorer who might hopefully, expensively, be able to help. Of course, there’s the question, how does FEMA even value art? If you don’t have a record of sales, the valuation is speculative at best. The art world may be a world apart – with storied tales of big sales and the rich and art fairs, but the artists continue because they have to, and there’s no money set aside for repairing flood-damaged work.
I keep getting stuck here, at about this place in the essay, each time I try to write it. I struggle because I feel for artists where words like “life” and “work,” “sacrifice” and “irreplaceable” get at what their loss means. There are also all my memories about Irene where nothing mattered but helping people who had too little. And, I keep getting hung up on the galleries, which everyone from Jerry Saltz on down tells me in their writing on art and Sandy is not the way to feel. But, I do. And, why shouldn’t I?
The entire system of how value is created in the art world is mysterious, distancing, arbitrary…. It happens in hushed whispers behind closed doors where it’s not enough to have money, it’s also about some perceived value in the collector: eg. what else is in your collection and will you give it to a museum…. The art world, that realm apart, functions on these whispers and hushes and promises that seem inscrutable at best. And, this is part of why artists and others have expressed ambivalence. They’ve complained on Twitter about how the galleries don’t need help; artists do. Whether or not the galleries have the money to weather this is one thing, but the current art system manufactures exclusivity and is “alienating” (to use the Marxist term) for artists whose work is just so much commodity. I can’t stop thinking both about how arbitrary value in that world seems and then about the arbitrary nature of floods. There’s this cliché that “disasters don’t discriminate.” Only they do. They exacerbate all the effects of poverty, and one reason artists have been hit so hard is that they move to places with the cheapest rent (which then ironically gentrifies those places). Those places are cheap because they are low-lying and flood prone, along tributaries that are superfund cleanup sites….
Dealers love art. That fact is not in doubt no matter how much other writers reiterate it, and much has been made about how the art world has pulled together and everyone has helped each other out. Maybe though this is a moment to question how value is created in the art world?
Trick or Treat
It’s Halloween, two days after Sandy, and I keep seeing two images, one from the “art world” and another from my upstate world. Both are haunted houses; both are art. The first is a party at art dealer Gavin Brown’s house in Harlem, and I have no context for the party other than the pictures in T, the New York Times’ style section. But the whole thing seems questionable. Artists are dressed up (Gavin Brown himself has a pair of pantyhose on his head which in the context of Harlem seems doubly questionable). Everyone stands around scale versions of black gothic houses modeled on one in Fleischmanns, a village in my town still trying to recover in Irene. Here, a half dozen years ago the artist Rob Pruitt had a big rickety black Victorian with twenty odd rooms. He’d bus artists up to visit on the weekends as a kind of art piece. The Halloween party from what I can glean was to celebrate the home’s 10th anniversary. Somehow all I can see is a kind of Rome-is-Burning moment. I know disasters are taxing, and people need moments to forget and maybe they were raising money. Who knows?
On Halloween I am not at a party in Harlem dressed up and standing around so many diminutive models of a home in a devastated village while so much devastation is happening downstate. I’m in Prattsville, the town hardest hit in Hurricance Irene. After the floods, there were FEMA trailers and visits by Cuomo. Now houses are still being rebuilt weekend by weekend by volunteers from the Church of the Brethren. Halloween eve is soggy and cold and filled with palpable relief that the town didn’t flood again. On Main Street is a haunted house – and I don’t mean one of the many abandoned boarded-up homes or the community church still closed for renovations. It’s the Prattsville Art Center housed in a building that once was home to the Country Hutt (two ‘T’s). The original sign is still visible under the art center’s hand-painted one.
Here Nancy Barton, a part-time resident who’s also the former chair of NYU’s art school had the idea of bringing art to town. Her vision includes leaving behind the art world’s notions of success with all those white-walled galleries. In fact, here there are few walls white or otherwise. They’re stripped down to the lathes and in places the floor is nothing but mud. Rooms that are still unsafe are blocked off, but in the front room that is deemed habitable her students set up a haunted house the weekend before. There’s a birch bark teepee and upside down dolls houses and a kind of Bride of Frankenstein in pink satin all made by Barton’s sculpture class, which has the glorious title: “Experiments in Utopia; Immoderate Architecture and Communities.”
Kids bound up braying for candy, and someone walks up the path dressed as a firefighter in a skeleton mask. Given the role of first responders in both Irene and Sandy, the image is as eerie as you can get. Meanwhile, nearly ironically, tonight Barton’s students are all back at NYU with no power, no classes, and in many of the buildings: no toilets, no food, no water. Nearly even more ironically this week a show dedicated to the art center’s first residency program closed at NYU. The exhibit talked about the town’s struggle to rebuild and the possibility of art here as well as how the artist-residents divided their time between their own work and running workshops for kids and helping out.
Asked about Chelsea’s flooding, Nancy said she was just talking about these issues with her students yesterday:
“We think of galleries as family because in the art world we all take everything really personally, but comparing the galleries in the business context, makes you notice that, unlike other stores, they can’t just restock their shelves. What is gone is lost permanently, and in many cases represents a piece of human labor and thought that will not ever be replaced.”
Talking about the effect on businesses whether upstate or down, art world or not she says:
“It’s not as dramatic as losing your home in a day, but it can lead to slow-motion spirals where that level of loss will eventually mean the loss of home and careers for some people. I saw this happen in the 80s during the AIDS crisis and again in the 90s during the recession.”
Thinking about the aftermath of Sandy I keep thinking about New Orleans and an art CSA set up there in response to Katrina. Artists have moved to the city in droves because of the low rents and the sense of possibility, and one of those possibilities is the CSA where instead of agriculture people pay for art and get a piece by a local artist every month or so. It makes me think maybe what we need now is not an art world but an art community with a different economic model and a different picture of success.
The day before Sandy struck I was talking to my editor at Frieze who would soon find himself without electricity and ferrying food and supplies to the elderly of his neighborhood. But, in the relative innocence before the storm where all was just giddy worry, we talked about the difference between local and parochial in terms of art, that local seems interesting and parochial inward facing and self referential. Perhaps the art world is the latter and the former might be a more interesting possibility now.
Some have said that the art world as represented by its fortresses of power spread along those blocks near the Hudson is over. Others say it will defiantly rebuild. Some are talking about a shift in the economic power of the art world as it splinters and is less centered in New York but spreads from Berlin to London, Beijing to LA. I suspect all of the above are true.
A disaster is always the test of a community’s values. MoMA hastily pulled together a free symposium for artists and just about anyone interested in helping artists on how to handle flood damaged work. Meanwhile countless artists and critics volunteered to help, running food up tower blocks to shut-in residents and carrying blankets and food, anything. They weren’t there as artists though, but people. I also keep thinking about how the art world responded to the devastation of AIDS. Before December 1st was World AIDS Day, it was called Day Without Art and marked by a community coming together to deal with a crisis. Museums shut down – or opened but with the lights off. Their staff would go off to volunteer to help the sick. It felt like mourning. December first is only a few weeks away now….