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The Emperors New Art

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Dear Art World,

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I’m writing to tell you that I’m breaking up with you. It has been a long time coming, and it feels like it is time. I know you like documentation, Art World, so here is mine, from the moment I laid eyes on you to that recent soul-crushing realization that we must part ways.

You, Art World, have been my longest standing intimate relationship. I fell in love with my first copy of Art Forum in 1999. That square, heavy, block thing with font so tiny even my father’s old magnifying loop couldn’t make out the print. It was the October issue all about the glorious East Village with ‘Artists Stay in Control of Your Work’ was written in plain sight on the cover. But I didn’t see it, because I was determined to make out the fine print inside, to see behind the scenes.

Seventeen years ago, when I came to Brooklyn to attend a pre-college program I was not yet 18, wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, hungry and curious. I learned about the allure of city life via curated bohemian living available to kids whose parents agreed to send us to art camp instead of encouraging summer jobs. Our rooms and clothes looked like the kind you can now collage on a Pinterest board or buy prepackaged at Urban Outfitters; perfectly disheveled. I watched for the first time how young affluent, girls from suburban Illinois put on their ripped, dusty cutoffs to go panhandle in the subway, ensuring extra cash for cigarettes and contraband malt liquor. I learned how slumming it could be a performative act. I learned how anything could be a performative act, from making art to feigning poor, an early seed of cynicism becoming a worm in my apple of knowledge. You gave me red flags very early on. I chose to ignore them.

Back then, Seattle was still on the spoke and your Warby Parker wearing, succulent watering, third wave coffee-drinking soldiers hadn’t migrated to join the Amazon army. So I came to NYC like everybody else seeking the myth of the bohemia. I wanted the artist’s Brooklyn but learned it was also a place where artists retire, opting instead to open yoga studios and dog spas. I saw that Brooklyn was the epicenter of your concubines, your comfort women waiting patiently for your sweet attention, your validation. Today’s Brooklyn looks like Austin looks like Seattle looks like Asheville and so on. In my mind’s eye it was still exotic and moderately gritty. I got in line and waited my turn. I dragged my suitcase full of painting supplies and old books to a garbage drenched, dilapidated dorm room.

Within two weeks, my roommate and I woke up to the wake of 9/11. We ran to the rooftop of our building and watched the second tower collapse in a sea of smog that wouldn’t clear up for four more years. We were stunned. We were scared. Then we went back to bed, slept for 36 hours straight and upon our awakening, were told classes were to be held as planned. Business as usual, folks. Besides the occasional student receiving a gas mask in the mail for field trips to ground zero, we would just be on our way with our curriculum. I think this was our special form of trauma bonding, Art World. It made me feel closer to you, to the action, to the inspiration of having been through something so catastrophic together. We were merged for life, being so plugged in and disassociated simultaneously. Like many other inappropriate events in my life, I just assumed this was normal. I stuffed the discomfort back into place like a piece of overflowing laundry.

I accepted undergrad as a kind of boot camp. The post 911 world was in a state of chaos and fear, and it felt selfish to draw attention anything that wasn’t related in international terrorism, even though we didn’t really understand this term in the first place. Because I was raised by Soviet parents, a disciplined educational model was familiar to me. I decided college was a tenacious social experiment created by design to separate the men from the boys. If you failed out, overdosed, or collapsed from exhaustion you were simply not cut out to be an artist, or in the city, or perhaps to be alive. We were being tested for who had the most grit, determination, resolve to navigate demanding critiques, dilapidated facilities, and an absent administrative structure. When I watched my financial-aid counselor sneak out a back door to avoid a meeting with me about my following year’s status, I thought it was a quirky kind of test. What a fun hazing ritual! It meant next time I would come back fifteen minutes early to ensure a confrontation. When I noticed several ambulances parked outside dorm facilities hauling away overdosing students, I admired the efficiency. Then the EPA came to shut down our photography studio as students had begun to develop serious skin conditions and the place was thirty years past health code. I thought it was punk that we were willing to endure bodily harm for our art. I didn’t realize the incongruity of the hefty price tag for this initiation was well beyond just the tuition costs. I didn’t understand that the behavior I interpreted as tough love was in fact abusive, coercive, negligent. Business as usual, folks.

By the time I graduated, my love for painting, drawing, material culture, learning, thinking or creating had slowly been sucked out of me. My first real human love, D, was my partner in crime, muse, friend, and fiancé. D decided to join the United States Army and departed for basic training a few days after we received our diplomas. He told me he wanted to find out what was really happening in Iraq, as a writer, as a soldier, as an American. He was in torrential debt from art school and confused by our on again off again relationship. How could he not be, I was cheating on him with you, Art World, chasing the coat tails of your empty promises. No human man could ever match your myth and glory. We lacked communication skills and in my anger and fear, I told him ‘Good luck, Hemingway’ and we parted ways. I wasn’t kind.

I remained alone in what used to be our Bed Stuy brownstone. The neighborhood wasn’t yet populated with co-working spaces and vegan bakeries. It was a sad, poor, broken, quiet place that gave me free range to haunt the corner store seeking cheap cigars to roll fat, fragrant blunts to smoke. High as a kite, I would spend most afternoons gazing out the window overlooking my neighbor’s deflating kiddie pool that I had grotesquely nicknamed ‘Freshman Stew.’ I saw myself as that deflated cesspool of everything I’d learned in school, my psyche bruised by critique and useless facts that didn’t make any sense in the world. My self-worth and sense of purpose were annihilated, so I threw myself into a torrid parade of drugs and drinking while looking for work. I couldn’t face you and I couldn’t face myself. You seemed to enjoy my perpetually inebriated state, encouraging this willful anesthetization. It kept me blind to your antics, baiting me to stick around.

I was determined to prove my work in other ways to you, Art World, so I found a job on the administrative side of things. I thought I’d hang out for a couple of months while I got my life together. This turned into a seven-year-long career in logistics. I felt that the market was very important with all these hefty price tags. Markets! Growth! Results! I was told to watch the artwork that moved, these were the important ones. Not the artwork that moved me, but the artwork that moved, literally shipped from Paris to Dubai and back to the auction block. I became a logistics coordinator, a shipping agent for million dollar paintings. I believed there would be upward mobility, if I worked hard enough, I would be seen and recognized and many times, I was told that my biggest asset was my discretion, which rang so familiar to being a patient and accommodating woman.

As long as I kept my mouth shut, I would be invited into a world of secret handshakes between key players, as a visitor, of course. Between numerous non-disclosure agreements and a tacit understanding that I was lucky to have a job in the first place, I remained quiet and complacent. With this job, I could pay my bills and avoid an exclusive diet of ramen, which by New York standards, meant I was winning. One a good day, I had the privilege of being in a room alone with a precious Klimt or a miniature Koons balloon dog all by myself. The adrenaline and dopamine produced from truly subliminal art could make me forget I was hungry or hungover. And I never had to wait in line to see art, bypassing the crowds with their hordes of sweaty students.

The more I found my way into the inner sanctum of your collectors, dealers, and institutions, the more invisible I became to own inner self. I learned nobody notices the hired help like nobody notices an obedient housewife until she drops the china or forgets to do her face one morning. So I made sure to wear my party dresses and keep my mouth shut accordingly so I could stay in your special club.

You were a perfect synthesis of all of my addictions, Art World. I found myself at art fairs, openings, private dinners, a fly on the wall, a silent voyeur, titillated by the Caligula like re-enactments I was privy to. At Art Basel, Switzerland, I watched a mother contemplate buying an island for her 15-year-old son. The fair for the artworks was on the third floor and the real estate was in the fifth. The teen boy appeared petulant and grouchy, perhaps discontent with the specifics of his island. I wondered about the return policy on such things as I watched the scene from somewhere far, far away, like I was on heroin. Only I wasn’t, just high from your theoretical vapors.

When I returned from Switzerland, I began to abandon my most important relationships, disappearing slowly from everybody who cared about me. The evening a close friend was having an ovary removed due to endometriosis, I was at the Contemporary and Post War Christies evening auction. It was Fall of 2010, the year thousands of Americans would face the harsh reality of fraudulent mortgages due to bank’s criminal accounting. If those folks had known you, Art World, they would have known to have put their money into islands, the ones still available after Art Basel.

At that Christie’s evening sale, I sat next to a collector furtively glancing at me to get a sense of who I could have been to be sitting in the second row next to him. Who was I, indeed, sitting there with no money to spend when my friend was in the hospital? I was waiting patiently for the results of Lot 5 so I could arrange to have piece packed and shipped immediately to the collector’s home. I should have been in the hospital that night and I still unmitigated feel shame looking back. She would never get her ovary back but Lot 5 would continue to circulate from one auction block to the next.

I found my way to grad school. I had received a scholarship, a full two-year ride to a leading institution of my choice. Little did I know that markets and schools were two parts of your bi-polar nature, like a good cop — bad cop set up routinely set up to disarm. If the market represented cynicism, academia would step in to placate, assuage and soften with noble ideas of egalitarianism. I had already forgotten that institutions were businesses. Like the addict I was, I thought this time will be different every time you showed me a different version of yourself, a prettier version that matched the one I wanted to see.

Academia advertised to dismantle the hierarchies within art, aiming for a more inclusive paradigm. More voices of color! More marginalized communities! I spent grad school in a department attended almost exclusively by women; Fibers and Materials Studies. In an effort to diversify the student pool, the department had also accepted Tim, who completed two tours in Afghanistan before returning to art school from active service. Overseas, he had learned to sew in order to make flags, making him a uniquely diverse candidate. The fibers department was excited to have him. I thought of my old boyfriend D and his tours in Iraq, Afganistan and how much he changed after he told me he took a man’s life for the first time. D and I were since estranged but his ghost haunted me almost daily. I wondered just how deeply war’s trauma could imprint.

After his arrival, Tim produced a series of works that the department found at best “deeply problematic.” He sewed a brown leather rug in the shape of rap star Rick Ross and a wooden piece that appeared like a smooth, delicate Jean Arp sculpture on first glance, but was actually a device meant to measure a person’s (presumably woman’s) ‘thigh gap’ and then encouraging her to take selfies to be hash-tagged with his name. Tim made more benign works, carving pine Christmas tree ornaments from recycled Christmas trees, but nobody really cared about these. His work ranged from boring to downright offensive, but many grad school experiments were failures, that was the beauty of the bubble we were in. Whatever he had going on under the hood, he had a strange way of communicating. It didn’t feel like anybody was really there to listen either, because he was white and male and everybody found it all too predictable. Other traumas got the focus, including my own. Tim would be a perfect catalyst to set off the wars within identity politics still in infancy. After some behind the scenes faculty deliberation, Tim was asked “not to finish or return to the program.” He was caught in the crosshairs of how complex ideas of expression, repression and free speech could get. His absence would send a clear message and show how even the act of administrating an art department could be a performative act.

My own grad school work was edgy in all the right ways so, in contrast to Tim, I was a faculty darling, encouraged to pursue academia and reach for the stars. I made work about sexuality and immigration, which were also just becoming white hot, forecasting movements just on the brink. But I also felt the power of my own visibility came at the cost of Tim’s expulsion. Since I was on the winning side, I rejoiced my momentary glory. The Fall 2015 trend forecast: Sexual empowerment in women was in, the converse had run its course. But a small part of me noticed a parallel between market and institution. An eerily familiar game of favoritism. The idea of dismantling hierarchies felt tenuous, at best. The taste of cynicism bitterly settled in my mouth toward the end. Tim’s expulsion made it very clear that academia was neither safe nor neutral and was definitely a zero-sum game.

I moved back to New York to become a working artist, now doubly accredited with two professional degrees. Everywhere I went, I would be given tips on proper marketing, best ways to capture followers and the importance of networking. Upward momentum was at my finger’s reach. My kind of work was on trend, press found me, people applauded my efforts. I was engaged and emerging. But in the midst of your sudden love bombing, I felt more empty than ever.

Like a broken relationship undergoing rounds therapy to ease the blow of its imminent demise, I felt there was a chance for us yet, Art World. I really wanted to make it work. I really wanted to be sanctioned by you, in loving discourse with you, to fight in the trenches with you. I wanted to stand in solidarity with something that felt substantive. But no matter where I went, from center to margin, from commercial to nonprofit realms, all I encountered the opaque, convoluted mechanisms that reinforced my very first reveal of you when those Midwestern girls went out to panhandle in their perfectly ripped cut-offs; that everything your King Midas hands touches turns to (fake) gold, for you everything is a performative act, that to enter into your sphere means to adopt purely theoretical values, a thing that vanished into thin air when tested outside of your framework.

The things that felt so important in the classroom on in between the pages of a respected publication don’t seem to hold much weight anywhere else. I’ve sadly noticed that outside your tightly protected, seemingly impenetrable spheres, nobody really cares about your parties and galleries, your post-modern, premillennial splendor, your secret handshakes and glorious real estate. 911 had real stakes that we are only now beginning to unpack. And I managed to ignore them all while I questioned if the motivation behind my classmate’s silver suited performance work included a body positive premise.

I recognize that more than love, adoration, or labor what you require is a constantly regenerating sense of cynicism play your game. This is the linchpin to your abusive circular logic. There will never be solace or peace playing by your rules. By leaving you, I walk away with a regenerated sense of hope for so many things beyond your rhetoric, theory and endless mind games. I’ve seen you unadorned, I know you are useless without your accouterment of silencing, your veil of mystery and its perceived threats. So I will let my inner child cry out how she has seen you naked and watch who in the crowd is willing to join.

I will mourn your loss, Art World, but I must move on, swallow the sunk cost and see what is beyond this beautiful dangerous ivory tower. Goodbye.

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