Never Trust a Grinning Cat
Majestic wooden doors held the biting cold out from the gallery. We were standing outside in what typically should be the time of the year for the first signs of early spring.
Yes, it was a strange start of the month of March in this Norwegian west coast town. The stable cold weather was coming horizontally in from the east while vertically the glaciers on the poles were melting.
The curator who stood beside me came from Berlin although it was not his city of birth. He belonged to the many curators from the former art capital, a curator who had made his living from curating artists from his home country into international exposure. He stood there with a hand-rolled cigarette between his index and middle finger, neither pointing or showing, all smoking.
I kept him company while holding my vaping gear with my whole hand in this dark, freezing evening.
Before the cigarette glow burned his fingers, he got rid of the fag-end. We opened the majestic doors again, this time to enter the likeable warmth in the gallery and started to walk the prestigious stairway.
In good company, each step of a stairway can be a time zone, and he told me enthusiastically how Berlin was different today compared to when it was the hotbed of the international art scene. How art had become complicated, how professors explained and dissected artistry.
Then on the third step before the end of the stairs, he leaned towards me with a broad grin and said:
You know, when I curate young artists I tell them to forget all the complexity of fine art. I mean, just treat art as a business!
On top of the stairs I once again had it confirmed;
Never trust a grinning Curatorshire Cat.
Painting by Shaghayegh Ahmadian
This short story above is, unfortunately, a true story.
Eight days before this exhibition opened, the artist Shaghayegh Ahmadian wrote to me on Instagram: "I love your works they are so similar to my works". Always nice when artists like your work, and when I looked closer at her images, among her great drawings and paintings, there was a photo that got extra attention. It was two boxes ready for sending, and on top of the largest carton there sat a dog.
No, it was not the dog that got my focus, it was the text underneath: "Going to Norway".
So I found out she would be part of an exhibition in Norway, and she discovered that I lived in the same country. Not only the same country, but the exhibit should be in the town I lived. Great I said, then we will meet! But she answered, "Oh I can't travel for this exhibition". We found out that I could be her eyes at the opening. Shaghayegh Ahmadian also asked me if I believed someone would buy her work in Norway? Knowing the situation for visual art here now, with hardly any media covering art exhibitions any longer, I tried not to push her hopes too high.
The start of this article was from the opening. Four days after the opening I went back. No red dots on the side of any artwork, no list with prices, so I walked over to the lady from the art gallery who was sitting behind a desk. I asked her; can you buy any of the artworks here?
She looked at me, smiled and said "I think so, but I'm not sure. If you like I can try to find out".
I forgot to answer the kind lady behind the counter; my head was too full with conflicting thoughts on how I could break this news to the artist who lived in a far away country, hoping for a sale or two.
Remembered the curator with his mantra "just treat art as a business", and wondered how his business plan had been put together.
Those who today know my artwork will be acquainted with the fact that I have boycotted curators and standard galleries since 1990, after finalising an art project on a rather monumental scale with massive sponsorship, along with patronage from UNESCO in Paris.
Let me stress that I don't blame all curators for my decision; some are doing a fantastic job. Furthermore, I will still claim that we need curators - but there are those, like this one I walked the stairs with above, who we should be afraid of if we want a better future for visual art.
To put this small story above into a broader picture, I need to focus on two books.
The first book is from 2015: "Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else", by David Balzer. He is a writer and art critic based in Toronto, currently Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Canadian Art.
I link here to the excellent blog piece on Balzer's book by Olivia Spyth at the book review section at London School of Economics and Political Science. Here she writes:
"In 'Work', the second part of Balzer's discussion, the labour of curatorial activity is examined, which is less visible than the value produced by it. With the rising popularity of curation as a profession, study programmes have emerged to equip students with the required skills that new curators traditionally learnt on the job. These programmes can lack opportunities for practical experience, requiring students to take on often unpaid internships outside of or after their studies. Moreover, these programmes emphasise the curatorial practices of star curators, which include meeting artists, giving talks and acting like a 'CEO of a company' (99). The reality of a curator is more that of project management, calculating costs, negotiating loans, budgeting and reaching out to the media to advertise exhibition concepts. This side of the profession is necessary but is being overshadowed by the hyped image of the star curator, creating the image of a celebrity who barely works, but only represents".
The other book is by the living legend, Tom Wolfe (born 1931), journalist and writer, also known for his influence on the New Journalism literary movement. His book "The Painted Word" came in 1975 and was a bomb in the contemporary art scene (and still is). The link given here is to his website where you also can read an extract of the opening of the book. A good introduction to "The Painted Word" is found on the same page:
"Soon after Modern Art developed, it became fashionable. Society (le beau monde, Cultureburg) and art critics attached themselves to it like pilot fish; but then they grew, and grew, and grew, until-as Abstract Expressionism gave way to Pop, as Pop spawned Op, as Op fell before Minimal opposition, as what was Minimal became no more than Conceptual-Art began to serve fashion and theory. The shark vanished and left the pond to le beau monde and to the critics, custodians of the painted Word. Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Leo Steinberg-these are the big fish, Wolfe argues, not Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, or Jasper Johns. The argument is utterly convincing . . .
. . . and wildly entertaining"
I didn't know Wolfe's The Painted Word when I left the art industry in 1990, and Balzer's book came 25 years after I left. Both these books confirm my decision then, and the last book from 2015 tells me that it's not any better today.
"'Cheshire Puss,' [Alice] began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. 'Come, it's pleased so far,' thought Alice, and she went on. 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat."
From Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
(The Grinning Curatorshire Cat is, of course, a paraphrase on the Cheshire Cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (C. L. Dodgson), - and, Garfield's Never Trust a Smiling Cat.)