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bangers and mash
by Suzaan Boettger 

"New York has maintained its position of dominance because 1) it has so many artists; 2) they engage in a sophisticated level of dialogue, and 3) the dialogue is controlled from here [New York]." So said Michael Craig-Martin, an Irish-born artist who was raised in the U.S. and has long been resident in London, where he is a professor at Goldsmiths' College. He was speaking at the Drawing Center in New York on Sept. 10, 1996, as part of "A Conversation on Contemporary British Arts", a panel that distinguished itself by its squat level of discourse. This column has been initiated to respond to an aspect of art life in New York that Craig-Martin so correctly pinpointed: the density of vanguard intellects regularly spouting off in public forums in this art capital. Thus it's disappointing to have to inaugurate it by reporting that this first, post-Labor Day panel discussion got the art-talk season off to a dumb beginning. Hosted by the Drawing Center--its spacious, beautifully-proportioned and -lit gallery and adventuresome programming has made it SoHo's premier site for sophisticated symposia--the putative impetus for the panel was as an "educational component" of the show that had opened the previous weekend at another "alternative space " Art, in General, called "Thaw: An Exhibition of Emerging Artists from London." (Curated by Laurie DeChiara and Omar Lopez-Chahoud, the work by six artists will be on view through Oct. 26.) Joining Craig-Martin on the panel was the longtime former director of the nearby Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Richard Flood, who a couple of years ago became chief curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and who himself curated the substantial traveling exhibition of new British art called "Brilliant." The moderator was RoseLee Goldberg, a critic who at one time directed the gallery at the Royal College of Art. Lynne Cooke, the Dia Center curator who is from Australia and can be counted upon for cool analysis, was a no-show. Yet despite the panel's connection to "Thaw, " neither the artists nor the works in the show were discussed. Instead, the three speakers--none of them English--in this context became Anglophiles. Goldberg (who originally hails from South Africa) asked questions of the two men and they explained through biographical anecdote their own relation to contemporary British art. Essentially, what the audience got was an enthusiastic social history. Craig-Martin recounted how the '80s were dominated by British sculpture, almost all of it represented by the Lisson Gallery, and how Damien Hirst, when only a sophomore at Goldsmith's in 1987-88, broke that lock by conceiving of "Freeze", a professionally presented, artist- organized exhibition. "Suddenly" Craig- Martin remarked, "a scene had been created a dialogue clicked in between art and the culture of the time." Charles Saatchi's wholesale acquisitions of young artists' works made contemporary art fashionable, and the Turner Prize, commercially sponsored and with ten-minute films of the semi-finalists broadcast on television made the competition a matter of public debate. The audience for art became enormous, so that "people now go to exhibitions of new art the way they go to movies." There are still few collectors, and the critics are, as Flood put it, reactionary "Hilton Kramer's." Flood razzed the audience, "What do you have here--a bunch of collectors? There they have AUDIENCE!" Hooray for British art--but all of that ostensible good fortune for the artists across the Atlantic only seemed to make the local audience restless. As one put it from the floor (in a distinctly British accent), the panelists' discussion "didn't go beyond a recognition of the hype 'Freeze' created." The panel's advocacy lacked a critical spirit. An hour into the evening, the audience began to thin out. After a request from the floor for more "detail or content" (i.e., ideas), Flood snapped at the woman for seeking a "recipe" and Craig-Martin announced, "I'm sure we haven't satisfied you." Indeed. With those chastising remarks much, of the remaining audience fled. The only thing left to say is that the blather that night was an anomaly at the Drawing Center, where starting Oct. 11 they present a stellar lineup that will debate, read from and perform the works of Antonin Artaud. Suzaan Boettger is an art historian and critic in New York.