Trying to pin down the “highlight” or “centerpiece” at the Armory Show is about like trying to name your favorite song. You are convinced the song will always and forever be “your” song, then something comes along and your whole convenient hierarchy is dismantled in one simple stroke. So it was as I wandered the piers at the Armory Show. Moving from booth to booth, I frequently thought I had found the “show stopper,” but then I turned a corner and another image came into view, and I would find myself glued in front of it trying to remember why the former piece had seemed so compelling.
I mention this for two reasons. The first is, admittedly, to cover my ass. There is simply too much to discuss, and I don’t want to appear to ignore all sorts of important work simply because I never saw it—who knows how many nooks and crannies I didn’t explore, despite my best effort to get to them all. The second is that the sheer volume of the exhibition suggests to me some of the serious problems and possibilities of the art world today. It is hard to conceive of how much art is produced at all, let alone how much art is being sold for six digit sums at shows like this or Art Basel. As I drifted down the aisles, I was struck by the pricepoint (if I dare use the word) of many of the pieces. Certainly, I expect it when I see Max Weber or Irving Penn. But the prices of what might, on a generous day, be considered “emerging artists” was startling, and I got the sense that what I was witnessing was more a series of financial exchanges and less an opportunity to prompt discussion about the place of art in a culture. Admittedly, commerce is a central part of any art fair, but here it seems to have reached a special kind of apogee, where genuine, consummated excesses are riding alongside a palpable yearning for climax (by artists, collectors, fair makers, and galleries). It’s hard not to get the sense when you wander into some of the booths that the dealers are looking for the big score, and the complete lack of interest in (and in some cases knowledge of) actual artistic processes, histories, or context embodies an ego-driven provincialism of the worst kind.
I want to be clear. I loved the show. I wish I had had more time to continue to wander and absorb. I loved the vibe and I loved the energy and I loved the many spectacular works of art that were hung. I have a long list of artists new to me to investigate and watch. I don’t know, however, how anyone could walk the show and not be somehow uneasy, as though they were witnessing the simultaneous exploitation of the artist and the collector. By whom is entirely unclear to me, but I think it worth not just reflection, but discussion. I know it’s a well-worn criticism to point to a particular piece and declare, “ who the hell would pay $X00,000 for a pile of pinecones?” That’s not my point. My point is that the excess of the scene should make us continue to ask questions about the function of art, the capacity of art to create change, and the ways in which change is hemmed in by forces that are essentially invisible to the average person seeking to purchase art, let alone a person trying to make entrée into the show as an artist. The (Un)Fair—which was well worth the visit—two blocks away is the most visible sign of this anxiety, and probably anger. The good news is that many gallerists at the Armory Show are precisely the people who are interested in those issues and would be among the most thoughtful voices if they were unleashed. I get the sense we just need find the keys to release the shackles.
Maybe that’s why I have drifted to the world of emerging artists, outsider artists, and this magazine. Don't Take Pictures takes pride in trying to make artists visible and understandable. We won’t ignore the fact that we, in our hidden hearts, hope to join that invisible grammar that provides, like a passcode, access to a kingdom, but we see ourselves as, at least in part, on a mission to make that grammar intelligible, accessible, and, with any luck, reasonable to more people than just us. Why do we go to the Armory Show if we are worried about questions of participation, exclusion, and culture? Well, besides a certain degree of self-gratification and self-indulgence, it is also, genuinely, to try to make sense of the larger scene, to see where its boundaries are, and to trace the internal terrain. And the truth is, the landscape of that terrain is beautiful, and at times stunning. For every fluorescent bunny installation whose language remains impenetrable to most mere mortals, there is also work of such challenging beauty that you simply cannot move when you see it.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don't Take Pictures, an art critic, and a Professor at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY.