Wednesday, March 12, 2008


White-walled art galleries make me sick. It isn't the color (or rather, non-color) of the walls per se (although certain colors like red or the bright yellow favored by Gauguin make for excellent backdrops for artwork). It's just that most art galleries have white walls because there is a preconceived notion of what art galleries are supposed to be like, and having white walls is an integral part of the formula. In addition, they are pristine places--almost antiseptic--run by well-dressed people who are most likely not artists themselves, and who may or may not know very much about art. Their expertise is more along the lines of knowing rich people who tell them what kind of art they will buy, and they (the gallery owners) dutifully obey like the dog fetching the stick for its master. The white-walled gallery caters to the rich, to the point of it even looking like a place where rich people would feel at home--a place reeking of snobbery and exclusivity. The white-walled gallery is not a place for artists. Sure, there is art in these art galleries, but it is a particular kind of art. I just Googled "NYC art galleries", and of the first ten galleries I clicked on at random, not one had a place on their website for artists to contact them in order to submit work for consideration. Not one. So this must mean that these are sacred places, with rarefied wall space to be occupied by only the privileged few and the anointed. A place so exclusive that an artist out of the loop cannot even contact them. A place so special that most artists to them are invisible.

What is it about human beings that makes us seek exclusivity? An extreme example would be the Nazis trying to "Aryanize" the world. And we see it every day now as religious fanatics focus their attention on (which usually means blowing up or otherwise killing) the other--those that aren't them. The blasphemers, infidels, heretics. Back in high school there were the "in crowds" and those who wanted to be in the "in crowds". Unfortunately, high school never seems to end, as in the real world of grown-up adults there are still the "in crowds" and the rest of us. It takes no degree in Psychology to know that people feel better about themselves if they are part of an exclusive group. They have something that others do not, and this feeling can be intoxicating. But when do we grow up? When do we leave high school behind with all its petty concerns?

The white-walled Manhattan art galleries are not about art. In fact, one can make the case that they are "anti-art" galleries, since the true spirit of art is only there by accident. And what do we make of those artists who are a part of this gated community? Money and prestige have been known to change people, sometimes quite dramatically. And if an artist panders his talent for a ready sale or lives and dies by his accolades his integrity must be called into question. This is why such galleries are dangerous. The white-walled gallery is a place of predictability by definition (since rich people like what they like, and if the gallery offers things too divergent from this then the rich people take their checkbooks elsewhere). And predictability and art is not a good match. But, some might argue, don't these (so-called) high-end galleries offer the artist something to aspire to, something to work towards? This argument completely ignores the fact that these places are not really about art, or are about art "after the fact", meaning that they would salivate over a Van Gogh while being oblivious to the Van Goghs of today (who can't even contact them to submit their work). The galleries set themselves up as ultra-exclusive, which gives them a self-bestowed cachet. And therefore, the lucky artist who is accepted by them receives their "imprimatur" and this entree into a rarefied world whose singular distinction is that people here actually buy art for lots of money. And for the average artist, this is hard to resist, so they ignore the rest, like any good co-dependent relationship.

At this point I would like to offer up a viewpoint not shared by many. I don't believe that exclusivity in art does anything to advance art and culture. One, because I don't believe that the white-walled gallery owner has something as noble as the long view in mind. Two, that since most artists exist outside of this world then by definition the good and great art they produce will be separate from it as well. (Until of course, they somehow become known.) And three, that since the white-walled gallery typically values an artist's credentials above all things, this makes it a place where one is not encouraged to think for oneself. A Guggenheim or a MacArthur in one's resume renders critical thinking redundant. And few ever question how exactly these awards are bestowed. In conclusion, I'll say that if art galleries are about art, then they must be about artists as well, and this means that somehow they must make discovering new and unknown artists a vital part of their raison d'etre. This will lead to inclusion and better art, since it will no longer be inbred but chosen from a wide and varied gene pool. And who knows, it might even lead to a red, green, or yellow wall or two and an art gallery that the average person can stand to be in, and might even enjoy. After all, is art for the rich, or is it for everyone?