Flash Points

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Artists who garner the most attention in any given time period are those whose work, explicitly or implicitly, reflects the deeper political sensibilities of the era. Right now, contemporary artists to watch are those who have turned away from the traditional egocentric focus and embraced the communitarianism associated with Barack Obama’s campaign and now with his administration. Artists who project a me-me-me attitude and are consumed with obsessive careerism look shabby and regressive. While the art world rallied around commerce in the Bush years, it may zone in on community in the Obama epoch. Despite the demoralizing art market downturn, the art world has been infected with President Obama’s inclusive “Yes We Can” spirit, finally catching up with the small cadre of artists and art bloggers who were the first to adopt decentralized, community-minded art practices that fully embraced American pragmatism and ingenuity. If this shift is any indication, generosity may be the defining value of the new era. Here are a few of the artists who exemplify the shift from an inward to an outward focus.


In January, Chan, second from left, participated in an informal gallery talk with members of New Orleans art collective The Front. (Photo: Hrag Vartanian)

Paul Chan
With funding from Creative Time, Paul Chan went to New Orleans and staged Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. The project evolved into a larger social production involving free art seminars, educational programs, theater workshops, and conversations with the community. As a result of Chan’s seminars and workshops, several artists organized ongoing collective projects. In January, one of the collectives, The Front, was invited to participate in Things Fall Apart, an exhibition at Edward Winkleman Gallery, curated by artist/blogger Joy Garnett. “It is fashionable today (still?) to claim that there is nothing new beyond our horizon of art, that everything worth doing has been done, “ Chan said in his project statement for Godot. “But this seems to me an altogether specious claim, for it ignores the vast undiscovered country of things that ought to be undone. In these great times, the terror of action and inaction shapes the burden of history. Perhaps the task of art today is to remake this burden anew by suspending the seemingly inexorable order of things (which gives the burden its weight) for the potential of a clearing to take place, so that we can see and feel what is in fact worthless, and what is in truth worth renewing.”


“Habitat For Artists Goes Indoors” is on view through Feb. 28. Draper built a replica of one of the sheds so visitors could sit in it and appreciate the small spaces.

Simon Draper: Habitat for Artists
Using reclaimed materials, Simon Draper created a makeshift community of studio sheds in Beacon, NY, and invited artists to use them for the summer. He and co-organizer Amy Lipton, curator for ecoartspace, a New York- and California-based non-profit organization dedicated to raising environmental awareness through the arts, encouraged each artist to adapt their shack, initially outfitted with simple openings, doors, windows, or skylights to suit their own needs. This month, Draper, Lipton, and their band of collaborators brought the project inside to Van Brunt Gallery in Beacon, NY, where artists are using the gallery as studio space, offering workshops, organizing panel discussions, and sharing their art making practices with the general public.




Kalm Report on Blip.tv

Loren Munk: James Kalm Report
Loren Munk is the mastermind behind the James Kalm Report, a video chronicle of the contemporary New York art scene. Munk, a painter himself, bikes to art shows, tiny videocam in hand, interviewing both famous artists and friends at openings around the city. Each video, featuring Munk’s stage-whispered narration, is edited and posted on BlipTV free of charge. Munk’s commitment to the local art community also includes “Brooklyn Dispatches,” a monthly column in the artist-run art journal, The Brooklyn Rail. When Munk was honored by WagMag (Williamsburg and Greenpoint Monthly Art Guide) for his contributions to the local art community, he turned the event into a conceptual performance project called “The James Kalm Artist’s Economic Stimulus Grant,” giving everyone in the audience a dollar.


“Prototypes,” a wall installation of Simon’s acetate stencils at Pocket Utopia. The solo show is on view March 7-April 12, 2009.

Adam Simon: Fine Art Adoption Network
Adam Simon keeps a deliberately open focus between his painting and public projects, one of which is the Fine Art Adoption Network. Recognizing that many of the projects artists create end up in storage, Simon started FAAN as a way to place artworks by committed artists into appreciative homes and institutions. Since its inception in 2005, FAAN has enabled both emerging and established artists to connect with new art audiences. In March Pocket Utopia (see below) will feature an exhibition of Simon’s paintings, as a well as hosting discussions about FAAN and his other projects, all of which were conceived as a way to link people with one another.




Austin Thomas, “Open and Shut Case,” 2004. Suitcases, chairs, and BBQ chart, Wood, plexiglas, cloth, chalk board. Currently on view in “Out of The Blue,” curated by Amy Lipton, Joy Episalla, and Joy Garnett. Gallery Bergen, Bergen Community College, Paramus, NJ. On view through April 17.

Austin Thomas: Pocket Utopia
For several years artist Austin Thomas, interested in how we fill space and interact with other people, adapted her artmaking to facilitate a studio-free practice. Paring down her art supplies for portability, Thomas worked in public libraries, vacant office cubicles, and other patches of underused real estate throughout the city. Two years ago, she opened Pocket Utopia in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, which she describes as a relational exhibition, salon, and social space. Pocket Utopia is an integral part of her art practice and she has extended invitations to like-minded artists to use the space as a studio when the gallery is closed.


Jennifer Wroblewski’s solo show, “New Monuments to the AntiConcept,” is on view at A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, through March 1. Detail: "Slave to Love," charcoal on paper, 72 x 190 inches.

Jen Wroblewski: Mother/ Mother
Jennifer Wroblewski was originally discouraged when older female artists she knew intimated that her pregnancy would adversely affect her career. Rather than accept the projected consequences of professional indifference and potential dismissal, Wroblewski decided to curate an exhibition tentatively titled Mother/Mother that would explore ideas garnered from the process of parenting. With a couple of solo shows in the works and an A.I.R. Gallery Fellowship for support, Wroblewski hopes to turn what used to be seen as the “harbinger of the end of a woman’s career” into a auspicious beginning. The show, which will feature work by Julie Heffernan, Monica Bock, Sharon Thomas, and Dana Lee, is scheduled for Fall 2009.

Sharon Butler maintains an art blog, Two Coats of Paint. Her paintings can be seen in Blogpix, an exhibition curated by art bloggers Joanne Mattera, Libby Rosof, Roberta Fallon, and Hrag Vartanian at Platform Project Space, New York, NY, March 5-March 28. The show’s organizer is Olympia Lampert.

  1. Ben Street says:


    I’m a little unclear about the connection between Obama’s administration and this spirit of communitarianism you mention. Granted, his success can – in part – be put down to an engagement with (online) grassroots support, but his administration doesn’t seem (so far) particularly community-based in practice, if it is in rhetoric.

    I’m fairly sure this supposed ‘community spirit’ (surely largely expedient in the case of art blogging, given the woefully spineless state of much mainstream art writing) is something that has happened regardless of the prevailing political winds – after all, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for instance, both famously worked without a studio and made most of his participative, generous works of art under the not-particularly-community-minded George Bush the First.

    At the risk of sounding bloody-minded (and believe me, I’m just trying to get a conversation going here), many of the greatest artists (by which I mean the ones who have maintained a foothold in the historical imagination) worked in an entirely ‘egocentric’ and apolitical way: after all, without obsessive inwardness and a willingness to step outside the times, there would have been no Matisse, no Bonnard, no Michelangelo, no Borromini, no Barney, no Rodney Graham, no Poussin, no Dieter Roth, no Fragonard, no Piero della Francesca, no Duchamp, no Cahun, no Acconci, no Picabia, no Chardin…I have to admit, most of the artists I love (and that remain well-known) are much more of a “Yes, I Can” than a “Yes, We Can”.

    Maybe better to say:
    ‘…poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    In the valley of its making where executives
    Would never want to tamper…”


  2. Ben,

    How artists and exhibitions might capture the spirit of their time, and Obama’s “we can do this if we all work together” approach are particularly interesting to me right now. Artists who simply expect to be rewarded for their genius are a bore. I’ve learned from writing about art that there are no absolutes; for every interpretation there’s an opposite. For every egocentric artist you mention, there are others who worked in a more communitarian vein. Few artists are lucky enough to be in tune with the zeitgeist during their lifetime, the rest have to wait until they’re long dead before their art speaks to anyone—if it speaks at all. The Bush years were characterized by cynicism and commercialization, and many exhibitions presented during those years reflected it. What direction do you think art might take in the next four years?


  3. Ben Street says:

    Hi Sharon

    This sounds like a WPA project waiting to happen – which might not be such a bad idea! The problem, of course, with participative art is that, for all its vaunted democratization and apparent radicalism (Sierra, Tiravanija (sp?), etc) it’s still signature works ‘by’ artists, in which the medium is the participant, often unwittingly and sometimes unwillingly. It’s still ‘egomania’, just in another guise. So if the aim IS to take Obama’s slogan at face value, existing ideas about what artists ARE have to be dismantled and discredited. Are we prepared to do that? Are artists prepared to completely relinquish their authority? I suspect not…

    This communitarian idea really is a very recent one: I don’t think there are equivalents in art history, with very few 20th C exceptions (and most of those pretty flawed), and this is of course another key problem: how will such works retain their historical currency? Will art of today be simply documentation, a series of framed contracts in a dead white space? Let’s be honest: don’t we want some things to last?

    If it does go the way of the WPA, I’m all for it. Government meddling in the arts inevitably ends up with a backlash, and that’s when all the good stuff happens. Look at Philip Guston, who started out with Siqieros-lite, all-American Schwarzeneggerian murals and ended up with nasty, brilliant, emotionally-wrought, hilarious and explosive paintings about him, him, him.

    “Every artist is a human being” (MK)


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  5. Ben, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think there is room for everyone, but I for one do want some things to last. I believe individual artists would do well to keep their focus no matter which way the political or any other wind is blowing. Chasing after the flavor of the month or year only waters down and homogenizes what should be a varied and vibrant community. Some artists will naturally fit into the idea of communitarianism because of already established interests, beliefs and ways of being. I think it is a stretch to declare the egocentric focus (or I would rather say introspective and singular vision) as shabby and regressive.

  6. Hi Pamela,

    You’ve misunderstood my point. Artists excessively focused on careerism (those who only want to talk about gallery business, network for exhibitions, arrange studio visits with art world bigs, chat up curators, etc.) seem shabby and regressive, which is completely different from maintaining an egocentric, introspective art practice. My point is that working within a community is much more interesting than merely trying to “work the community” to further your own career. I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone’s art practice should change to suit the political times, simply that the approach to the business side of art seems to be changing for the good. And perhaps these approaches may lead to new, as yet unnamed forms of art.


  7. Ben Street says:

    Sharon: I agree. I think there will be new, unnamed forms of art. There will, though, if this emphasis on openness and communitarianism continues, be a breaking point at which artists will have to relinquish authorial control. (This is the perceived and endlessly regurgitated, but not actual, result of the participative trend in contemporary art). Surely the endpoint is the end of artists as we know them?

    What I’d like to see is a complete rebuttal of the institutionally-endorsed relational aesthetics/institutional critique trend, an end to all this institutional faux-self-deprecation and David Brentian “chilled-out entertainer” museum rhetoric in favour of a rampantly egomaniacal and defiantly non-politically correct form of art making that runs against, not with, mainstream political discourse. Something’s got to give, right?

  8. I think that when art, and artists, consciously try to affect politics, or make political change – that it tends to water down the art. I agree with Ben and Pamela in this regard. I think that the nature of painting, for instance, is that it is not a good medium to help make political change,..to serve political change. Film, writing, and theatre – yes,..can be much more effective. If one really wants to be involved with changing politics, then be a political activist, or a lobbyist. Art should serve only itself, if it wants to give itself the best environment to be good. Otherwise, it serves other causes and is diluted. Great art needs great ambition to drive it. Sometimes that ambition is loud and sometimes very quiet. Quiet as in Bonnard. Louder, as with Duchamp,..but then I can’t help my taste reaction to Duchamps art – that it is second rate and cynical, ..coming out of a pathology that seems based in a sense of inferiority. So, our tastes agree with Bonnard, but Duchamp leaves me cold. Of course he is the annointed one for so many artists these days, especially in academia.

    I am very curious about how the present economic situation will change things, and my personal view is that it is probably a good thing for art in general, for reasons others have put forth – that perhaps a purging of the whole political/economic/art writer-artist-curator-museum bureaucracy that has become so ingrown and self-serving, will take place. I think it will be a good thing for art.

  9. Just adding to my comment:

    I am all for community in the arts. I am all for the pure and simple act of looking at art without the politics and posturing and careerism. Yes. I have this here in Syracuse, …in the provinces. Part of the reason I am here in central NY is for the quiet and the ability to feel removed from what has always seemed to me to be a confusing mess of politics and art. ( I grew up in NJ, close to the city ).

    As with any field or area of endeavor, there will always be camps,…and pushing to get to the front. I am not sure how the quiet gets heard above the clamor. It seems that the cream eventually does rise to the top, to use a well worn cliche. But in periods of cultural lows, that could take a century. And perhaps there will be a new paradigm that will suppress what I see as the best. It’s a numbers game. Obama was very successful in rallying people to his causes – and I feel very thankful that he is our president. I don’t know if the same thing can happen in the arts. Artistic values are less known, and less valued by people in general. Regardless of the numbers of people who go to museums, seem to value art, and talk the talk.

    If wanting to sell paintings and to find more ways to sell more paintings, is careerism, then I am a careerist. I need to sell paintings,..so that I can make more paintings.

    I am curious to hear what others think: At it’s best, what is art for? What does it give us? Are we asking too much of it?

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  11. mario emes says:

    Hello Ben,
    I just read some of your output on the web.You chose my work for your 10 Best on Saatchi and I was wondering why,considering your other choices.
    Thank you anyway,its my first and only reply from that website.

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