On a flight recently I saw so many people reading books by Malcolm Gladwell—three reading Blink (myself included) and one other reading The Tipping Point—that I began to suspect it was a new Federal Aviation Administration security mandate. (At least I would have been on the right side of the law.)
Anyway, there’s a point in Blink that applies to a question raised previously here: whether there’s anything to be gained by introducing more people to art. (New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl says no.) In Blink, Gladwell discusses an album, television program, and chair design that each earned early, enthusiastic critical support, but were met with lukewarm and even negative responses during market testing phases. Gladwell writes:
Market research isn’t always wrong, of course. If All in the Family had been more traditional—and if the Aeron had been just a minor variation on the chair that came before it—the act of measuring consumer reactions would not have been nearly as difficult. But testing products or ideas that are truly revolutionary is another matter, and the most successful companies are those that understand that in those cases, the first impressions of their consumers need interpretation. (pp. 175–76)
Keeping Gladwell’s point about interpretation in mind, let’s consider the art sphere. What bothers me about the declining influence of art biennials is that they serve to introduce the public to art in context. And I think it’s clear that much, if not most, contemporary art has no organic audience outside the immediate art world without that context, that critical mediation.
Take Gladwell’s example, the Aeron. The buggy, skeletal Aeron chair defied the expectations of a plush-loving public. But those tastes changed; ugly was deemed acceptable and the bar for function was raised. Herman Miller benefited from strong support for his design, which allowed it to weather a lukewarm market reception while critics made the case for the chair.
What buffer does the same job for new art that’s difficult (or revolutionary)? Fewer and fewer newspapers employ art critics, who write fewer and fewer inches on art as newspapers shrink. Some say that alternative weeklies face life-threatening financial pressure from the loss of revenue from advertisements and classifieds to online publications and sites like Craigslist. On the curatorial side, biennials are met with declining enthusiasm; the art world overwhelmingly favors unmediated art fairs like ABMB as the way to survey new art. That’s fine for insiders, but ideally some mechanism still needs to provide an interpretive umbrella to the layperson.
Maybe the case isn’t so dire. Terry Teachout writes convincingly that art blogs make up the gap on the critical side. Christo and Jeanne Claude’s The Gates was a watercooler topic if ever there was one this year—an impressive feat even for sculpture so monumental and visibly situated. And, again, maybe Schjeldahl is right, and art doesn’t need to seek public tolerance to grow and stay relevant.
Whether that’s true or not, the viewing public is bound to feel some distance from contemporary collections if museums aren’t accommodating. Contemporary art is harder than All in the Family, and its strategies can be much more off putting than trying out an ugly chair. I see why so many say the biennial is as dead as a doornail, but I don’t think curators should give up the ghost.