New Year's Resolution

By Griffin, Tim | Artforum International, January 2009 | Go to article overview

New Year's Resolution


Griffin, Tim, Artforum International


DELVING INTO ART HISTORIAN Christopher S. Wood's consideration of legendary Renaissance scholar Michael Baxandall in the current issue, readers may have the sneaking suspicion that they are being directly and personally addressed by the text's first line: "'Money is very important in the history of art.'"

For while those droll words are, in fact, merely cited by Wood--he is, of course, quoting from Baxandall's 1972 book Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy--and speak to things at a historical distance, their fundamental point, and intended implications, are entirely pertinent to our contemporary context. True enough, Baxandall was concerned with extrapolating ideas from masterfully imagined aspects of living culture from long ago: the typical Quattrocento businessperson's quick knack for calculating the volume of a barrel or bale, for instance, or for recognizing different configurations in dance. But such talents, in the scholar's estimation, shaped and sustained, as Wood notes, a "common repertoire of skills, mental and affective habits, and bodily disciplines" among artists, patrons, and audiences, such that the language of art was "woven tightly into the tissue of daily experience." And so there is, Baxandall argued, much to be gained by immersing aesthetic theory in the physical universe, and by surmising how art and our perception of it might be shaped by the breathing world--grasping, in effect, the intimate, and then social, links between ordinary circumstance and extraordinary artmaking. "Baxandall's achievement," Wood writes, "was to reintroduce art to life by restoring life to the people who paid for art and used art." Inevitably, we must ask, the precarious economy never far from our thoughts, What would it mean to apply his model to our situation today?

The story of art during the past decade or so in this regard, if still waiting to be written, is familiar enough. It begins not with barrels and bales but rather with so many crates packed for international destinations. The unprecedented expansion of a global market for contemporary art gave rise to ever greater numbers of exhibitions and fairs, such that more artists generated more work for an ever-widening audience. Indeed, art moved into entirely different registers of scale and production--big, to make a splash at the biennial and in the mass media, and small, for portability to the fair booth; fast, to meet demand, and editioned, to facilitate simultaneous exhibition at multiple venues around the world--and art witnessed a shift as well among collectors and audiences, from a highly knowledgeable, if also insular, group steeped in connoisseurship and the academy, to another crowd, more in step with an ascendant culture of speculation.

When it comes to the matter of art "woven into daily experience," however, there is one development of particular note to have emerged from the explosion of interest in contemporary art, one which arose specifically among the increasing numbers of large-scale exhibitions seeking to display work situated in life. Indeed, some five years ago in these pages, as part of a roundtable devoted to the effects of globalism on artmaking, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist mentioned in passing the idea of a " 'living' biennial," an exhibition that would spill out from the white cube and into the streets, becoming dynamically enmeshed in the local environs. …

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