Lists, lists, lists. It’s the end of the year, time to draw up the annual "Top Ten" list. Yet isn’t there something just a little. . . off about making a "Top Ten" list about art, which is really a question of subjective quality rather than objective rank?
Therefore, for the Artnet Magazine feature on the "Ten Most Important Art Stories" of 2009, we constructed our list in true avant-garde style -- completely at random. We won’t go into the details of our procedure, but let’s just say it involved a 12-sided die, and it would make John Cage proud.
Here are the results, with some accompanying reflections:
#10: The Inauguration of Barack Obama
Mr. Obama Goes to Washington, Jan. 14, 2009
Remember way back the early months of the year, when hope in "change" was running so very, very hot? After throwing itself whole-heartedly into the Obama campaign in 2008, the art world celebrated at the Obama inauguration, with the D.C. art group Art-O-Matic throwing an "artist’s ball" and the Obama people slipping $700,000 to the Smithsonian to open the "bathroom-ready" National Museum of American History early for the hordes of well-wishers.
Sadly, the arts-Obama honeymoon was not to last. The Republicans (and demented televangelist Glenn Beck) launched a series of dim efforts to relight the culture wars: Stimulus money for cultural organizations was attacked on the Senate floor; the National Endowment for the Arts was blasted for funding "pornography" in San Francisco; "tea-partiers" protested the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Tucson; and, as we write, an Obama education official has come under fire for donating artworks to an ACT-UP retrospective at Harvard.
No sooner had Obama appointed a refreshingly combative Rocco Landesman to head the NEA than the agency caved to trumped-up right-wing allegations that Obama was "politicizing art," prompting the firing of NEA communication director Yosi Sergant -- the man who organized the Shepard Fairey "HOPE" poster campaign, and the very symbol of the optimism the art community invested in the Obama election.
As for Fairey himself, his year was equally rocky: after seeing his Obama portrait celebrated during the inauguration at the National Portrait Gallery and his own career retrospective open to kudos at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, the street-art pioneer spent most of 2009 combating charges that he plagiarized the Obama poster’s image from the AP.
#9: Excrement Artist Attacks Artnet Writer
Artnet News, May 17, 2009
One of the year’s weirder stories came from London (don’t they all?), which has been plagued of late by the antics of Russian artist Alexander Brener, who expresses his objections to the commercial art world by defecating in galleries, art parties and museums. In May, Artnet Magazine correspondent Laura K. Jones condemned his "intervention" at a local gallery, where he had pooped on the floor and smeared the words "Sold Out" on the window, praying that the artist "decides to leave London and us all alone."
Brener subsequently showed up at a discussion Jones was moderating at the Trolley Gallery. When it became clear that a grunting man in the crowd was Brener, Jones called him out from the stage. After Brener pronounced that the talk was "capitalist shit," the audience united to eject the artist before he could enact his signature form of critique.
#8: L’Affaire Joannou
Artnet News, Nov. 12, 2009
It was a generally good year for the New Museum, with its "Younger than Jesus" and "Urs Fischer" shows grabbing headlines. But the art blogosphere exploded with protests after the museum agreed to turn its space over to Greek supercollector Dakis Joannou for a show organized by Jeff Koons. Blogger Tyler Green pressed his case in The Art Newspaper, insisting that all institutions "that have private-collection exhibitions on their calendars should cancel them."
It was a fine thing to see the masters-of-the-universe confronted with a little populist rage -- Charlie Finch pointed out that there was nothing new about such antics -- but soon the tone of debate became so rancorous that it backfired. Green’s history of petty finger-wagging, such as chiding critic Jerry Saltz for appearing at an Obama fundraiser, came back to haunt him, as Saltz blasted him as "scolding, scornful, condescending, and smug."
Meanwhile, artist William Powhida made a splash with a cover for the Brooklyn Rail lampooning the New Museum and the personalities involved, including an image of Jeff Koons as Howdy Doody, only to have art dealer and blogger Edward Winkleman gently rebuff him, pointing out how much Powhida’s own satirical take on art celebrity owed to Koons.
Probably the best thing to come out of the furor is the continuing ascent of Powhida, whose works offer genuine attitude. The New York Times devoted an article to following him around Art Basel Miami Beach. An ideal end game? Let Powhida, the "anti-Koons," curate his own answer to the Dakis show!
#7: The "Piffle Tower" in London
Artnet News, Nov. 5, 2009
London’s foppish Tory mayor Boris Johnson certainly didn’t help his reputation with the avant-garde this year, getting into a rancorous public debate after trying to force through a crony onto the Arts Council London, and then displacing a Yinka Shonibare project from its scheduled place on Trafalgar Square’s "Fourth Plinth," in favor of a realist fiberglass sculpture of Battle of Britain hero Keith Park [see Artnet News, Oct. 27, 2009].
He does have an artsy side, though! To promote the Olympics, Johnson proposed erecting a £15 million monument as tall as the Eiffel Tower, designed by Paul Fryer and including solar panels. The project would be funded by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, and spur an "American-style culture of philanthropy" in London. The Mayor’s plan was not well received, with the Times of London memorably christening Fryer’s design the "piffle tower," and art critic Brian Sewell saying the scheme marked a turn towards "fascist gigantism."
#6: Sarah Jessica Parker’s "Untitled Art Project"
Artnet News, July 6, 2009
The dice don’t lie! Could 2009 be the year that reality TV broke through to the fine art world? In the UK, Charles Saatchi announced that he was unleashing an Operation Runway-style show, The School of Saatchi. Meanwhile, stateside, the task fell to actress Sarah Jessica Parker, whose new, yet-to-be-titled Bravo art reality show is inspired, in part, by husband Matthew Broderick’s mother, artist Patricia Broderick (who had a show at Tibor de Nagy, Apr. 23-May 22, 2009).
After nationwide auditions in July (the New York Times reported that the first person in the NYC line was Jeffry Lipski, profiled long ago by Artnet Magazine for his work in the internet world of Second Life [see Artnet News, Jan. 23, 2007]), the project dropped off the media radar. As for SJP, she was subsequently appointed to the National Council for the Arts by President Obama.
#5: Budget Crisis at the Met
Artnet News, Feb. 24, 2009
The stock market has moved considerably higher since the scary lows of March 2009, but the damage has been done -- the year was marked by one long crunch at the country’s nonprofit museums, heavily reliant on investment income (for some analysis of the phenomenon, see "The Museum Bubble," Aug. 7, 2009). The pain extended to the giant endowment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which lost a staggering $800 million.
The Met shuttered many of its gift shops (which had been losing money anyway, apparently), convinced many veteran staffers to take early retirement, and announced a slate of upcoming exhibitions that, while undoubtedly top notch, did nevertheless seem a bit threadbare. And the struggles continue. In October, the Met admitted that it had a whopping $8.4 million deficit for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2009.
#4: Bankrupt Polaroid Corp. Sells Art
Artnet News, Aug. 13, 2009
Nor was it a particularly great year for auction houses, which saw revenue decline some 75 percent, according to Bloomberg. However, various recession-prompted fire sales did offer some opportunities. Freeman’s had a nice tally from its auction of work from the Lehman Brothers Collection. And in August, the long-bankrupt Polaroid Corp. received permission from a judge to sell off its vast photography holdings. Thanks to the firm’s longtime policy of providing free film for artists in return for artworks, it has deep holdings by everyone from Ansel Adams to William Wegman. The sale is set for spring 2010 at Sotheby’s.
Photo-lovers were not happy with the decision, including some of the artists in the collection, who believed that they still owned the images and had merely lent them to Polaroid. The saga is ongoing: Photo critic A.D. Coleman has a recent post on it from his blog, alleging that some 6,000-8,000 photos from the collection have gone "missing," many spirited away by execs.
#3: Art Hate Week
Artnet News, July 16, 2009
Who could forget "Art Hate Week," July 13-20, surely the most decisive non-art non-event of the year? Organized by Billy Childish, Steve Lowe and Jimmy Cauty, the nihilistic proceedings attempted to mobilize the citizenry of the UK for "morning hate" rituals in front of museums, and involved some posters incorporating swastika imagery. The whole thing had both a serious side -- a corrosive, punk-rock disgust at the air-kissing commercialism of the art world -- and a more cynical one: It was "funded" by the sale of multiples from Lowe’s L-13 Light Industrial Workshop gallery, including a vinyl record single called God Save Marcel Duchamp, consisting only of silence, with a cover by Sex Pistols artist Jamie Reid.
If you missed it, never fear, art haters -- the "Art Hate" website proclaims that the team is currently planning "World Art Hate Day 2010."
#2: Ai Weiwei vs. The People’s Republic of China
Artnet News, May 12, 2009
For chutzpah alone, Ai Weiwei deserves a high spot on any end-of-year list. Ai has long been both a commercial success story in China, and a thorn in the side of the government -- last year, during the Beijing Olympics, he very publicly denounced the whole event after helping design the signature "Bird’s Nest Stadium." In 2009, he used his blog to organize a nationwide protest against official malfeasance in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake catastrophe -- and had his blog shut down by authorities as a result.
Lest the reader think that all this was a purely symbolic provocation, on Aug. 12, Chinese police burst into Ai Weiwei’s hotel room, beating him severely. One month later, Ai suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as a delayed result of the beating, had to have holes drilled in his skull, and now claims to suffer from memory loss. And still he pressed on: Ai posted images of himself, post-op, on Twitter, as if to make the point to the censors that he was not going away.
#1: M.F. Husain Banned from India Art Summit
Artnet News, July 28, 2009
And the top selected-by-chance art news story of 2009 is. . . the exclusion of venerable Indian painter M.F. Husain from August’s India Art Summit, the country’s biggest art fair. Husain, who was born in 1915, is part of India’s cadre of modernist masters, known for swirling, brightly colored imagery, often with a mythological flavor. To Hindu extremists, however, the Muslim artist has become a target, based on a few canvases representing Hindu goddesses in the altogether, as well as a painting depicting the nation as a nude woman. Faced with continuing threats, art fair organizers said that they could not allow Husain’s paintings to be shown for fear of violence, much to the disappointment of his dealers.
So, why should this be the top story of 2009? The answer: Keep your eye on India! If the Chinese art stars have been one of the undoubted success stories of the ‘00s, the artists of India, that other great "emerging market," may be poised to rule the next decade. During the pre-Lehman Brothers bubble in art, informed people were clearly betting on an Indian art explosion. True, there was a severe retrenchment: Bodhi Art, the hydra-headed chain of galleries that sprang up at locations from Chelsea to Berlin to tout Indian contemporary, shut all its locations except Mumbai [see Artnet News, Aug. 11, 2009].
But with artists like Husain already fetching millions at auction, expect the interest in Indian art to continue to percolate. That is, if the country can find some way to deal with the kind of "communalist" hooliganism that has led one of its most successful artists to be excluded from his own home.