worlds within worlds
While dead bodies appearing in my neighborhood is not an ordinary occurrence, it's definitely happened before--once even in the alley behind my house--so this news didn't make a big impact on me at first.
But then, Tuesday night, after I returned from the panel discussion for my show over at Flashpoint, the TV news announced that the woman had been identified--and that she was an art dealer. In fact, they said art dealer twice, in back-to-back sentences.
Holy crap! I thought. Somebody murdered Leigh Conner! (Process of elimination: I had just talked to Andrea Pollan...and, really, who would kill Annie Gawlak and throw her in an alley? Yes, there are other women who work as art dealers/gallerists in town, but, hey, it's my brain.) And they left her in my neighborhood! Is this some bizarre, twisted message for my benefit? Because, of course, everything has to be about me somehow.
But, no, it wasn't anyone I knew: The victim, Azin Naimi, worked in restoration and art consulting. I'd never heard of her, but then again, I know next to nothing about the circles she would've traveled in. (Further, the murder didn't actually happen in Petworth, but in Montgomery County; her body was then driven to DC.)
I know, this was an awful, tragic thing, and the stuff I'm thinking about here has no bearing on that fact whatsoever. Apologies for that.
But the sudden investment and implication I felt on hearing those two words--art dealer--got me thinking: What is the art world, exactly?
Well, for starters, it's not whatever the news anchor reading the story thought it might be (nor was art dealer an apt way to describe Ms. Naimi's profession.) Many different art worlds exist, and only intersect and overlap here and there. Certainly there are exchanges between, say, folks who show in design galleries...and traditional or realist or fine craft producers...and people engaged in a practice that is considered contemporary or avante garde. But those exchanges are limited. (Imagine referring to someone as an occupant of the sports world as though a long distance runner and an NFL player were constantly having professional lunch dates).
Each of these circles of possible audiences, collectors, and dealers generates its own unwritten always changing standards for membership and participation. This is not unlike any professional discipline anywhere--just more receptive, perhaps, to posturing, hucksterism, and improvisation than most.
Re: posturing. At my panel discussion, the related question of how one determines who is or is not really an artist came up. I told the audience what I used to tell my students: If you want to be an artist, keep telling people you're an artist. The art world (whichever one you're talking about) is full of self-fulfilling prophecies.
The other question that came up (and this is where I was going all along, honest) was: What's the value of institutional critique in general at this point? Can a project about gallery culture honestly expect to change anything or anyone outside of the gallery itself?
My response during the panel was to say that the art world is an extension of the rest of the world--the creative economy is a part of the larger economy; having a job in art isn't entirely unlike having a job anywhere else and involves the same sorts of relationships with authority; avante garde gallery culture both steers and is influenced by popular culture, etc., etc.
But as I thought about the fact that even within art, there are whole groups of professionals about whose practice I know very little...well, it made me wonder how anything that happens within the confines of any definite social setting or professional discipline anywhere can affect anything anywhere else.
It seems that when an art project captures the public's imagination, there's either an incredible aligning of the planets--something in the zeitgeist has been pinpointed, and everyone responds accordingly--or something tacky, opportunistic, or awful has been perpetrated in the name of art, and the art world and general public alike have to search for the right note of disapproval to sound.
(Actually, that second scenario sounds pretty good to me.)
I'm not entirely sure how to deal with this question, but I do know that I'm not ready at this point to join the ranks of social practice types whose art consists of throwing dinner parties with locally sourced food, or planning and building some alternative public space/park, or encouraging people to use bicycles, or, well, you see where I'm going with this.
Don't get me wrong. I'm actually very interested in those types of projects, particularly from a curatorial or a critical standpoint. I'm just not entirely convinced that just because you do something outside of the gallery means that a general audience is more ready to accept what you do, or comes to any better understanding of contemporary art as a result.
Because, hey, we're all pretty isolated, and a little fuzzy on the particulars of anyone else's life and livelihood, inside the art world or out.