Thursday, January 24, 2008

CVF "gate"

For the readers here that are not "Art world" aware, there has been quite a mini-scandal this past week over the hiring and firing of a NY art scene elite - Christian Viveros-Faune.

It begins innocently enough with an interview at the excellent Modern Art Notes.

Part1 - Part2 - Part 3.

The result of the this candid interview left Tyler Green with the following conclusion/question.

In the final part of this week's Q&A with Village Voice art critic Christian Viveros-Faune, I asked Viveros-Faune how it was that he worked as an organizer and co-director of two commercial art fairs (Volta in NYC, Next in Chicago) at the same time he was the Village Voice's art critic. One of the fairs, Next, is owned by Merchandise Mart, a major player in American art fairs and the owner of NYC's The Armory Show. The arrangement puts a Village Voice art critic in bed with a major art market player. "Why isn't that the most basic kind of conflict-of-interest?" I asked.

Viveros-Faune's answers are in the post below this one, or here.

This is a textbook case of an unethical conflict-of-interest. Would Roger Ebert work for a film distributor? What if the LA Times' theater critic decided what plays are shown at Geffen Playhouse and was financially reliant upon the success of those plays? What if NYT art critic Grace Glueck sat on the board of an art museum? (Oh, wait...)

By virtue of being a Village Voice's art critic -- a job previously held by major figures such as Peter Schjeldahl and Jerry Saltz -- every other week Viveros-Faune holds either the third- or fourth-most-prominent position in the NYC art-critical landscape. Just like Saltz before him, Viveros-Faune is in a position to impact critical thought, to move the market, to decide what artists and what galleries make it -- and which don't. Viveros-Faune also has the opportunity to use his Voice presence as a way to review -- even promote -- artists and galleries he has selected for inclusion in the art fairs in which he is involved. (Conversely, if a gallery isn't interested in participating in a Viveros-Faune fair, he could punish them by refusing to review their shows.) Both fairs have big-dollar sponsors, and Viveros-Faune is listed as Next's contact for sponsorship. Would a critic negatively review artists owned by one of his sponsors? Or would he be extra-likely to consider artists owned by a sponsoring private management group? The possibility of impropriety, the exact sort of thing ethics are supposed to prevent, is acute. That is flat wrong.

Because conflicts-of-interest strike at the very heart of the integrity of journalism, newspapers and other news organizations are typically extra-careful about avoiding them. Nothing is more devastating to a newspaper than the revelation that it employs someone who may be using the newspaper as a front for that individual's private interests.

This sentiment then lead to the actual termination of Viveros-Faune by the Village Voice. This of course has sent some shock waves for sure and certainly positions Green as a now established ethics watchdog in the art journalism field.

Reactions vary as the artworld is not unlike the revolving doors of the Washington Beltway crowd. It's insider clique often assuming multiple roles, consolidating influence and reaping the benefits.

This story did resonate outside of Chelsea central.

The other side of the CVF debate takes shape something like this from Art World Salon:

The recent chain of events that led the Village Voice (one of New York’s most important sources of arts criticism) to end their relationship with critic Christian Viveros-Fauné raises some questions about the practicality of applying The New York Times style code of journalistic ethics to the arts publications that can’t offer NYT-sized salaries.

Indeed, given the widely perceived diminishing influence of art criticism (due to the overwhelming power of certain collectors and the market in general in determining what art is seen as important by museums and other collectors), a question I heard repeatedly in the wake of the Voice’s decision was, is it even realistic to expect quality criticism from writers without deep interest/influence in the commercial side of the art world?

In light of the practicality of living on what arts writing pays and being insightful without inserting oneself deep within the commercial structure in this particular age, and given that whether there’s a more pressing conflict of interest to address is no longer relelvant, perhaps attention can now be turned to the issues Christian raises. In particular, is it time for the code of ethics to specifically address critics lecturing for money at universities whose artists or exhibitions they later write about, accepting paid travel and hotel expenses in return for press (and the rules for acknowledging that), confluences of power like that represented by the Frieze art fair, writing catalog essays for pay, and the rest of it?
In closing, the major points that all of this brings up for arts writing seems to go like this.

1. Arts writers’ ethics are all over the map - and in the current $billion dollar industry, boundaries are ever more eroded as criticism is marginalized by the market.

2. Many critics are working artists and/or arts professionals (ala CVF) and many exhibit/publish their work, usually in their local markets.

3. Do objective, conflict free guidelines make for quality criticism? Criticism is by its nature subjective. Intimate knowledge and involvement may be the best course for refined understanding.

4. Where is the discourse of the art world being shaped? Anywhere? What forces are shaping this?

5. What about blogs? Is there a code of ethics to be applied?

6. What would be the acceptable new terms of engagement for "writers who do not wish to merely watch from the sidelines, and who are functioning on a substantially transformed art-world field of operations" ?

7. Many seem to concede that without conflict is there interest for the critic and/or public? They argue that the intimacy of the insider status is what drives them to write and "care" in the first place. The personal relationship side of artist/critic/gallery is the motivator.

I'm inclined to sneer at this sort of social climbing angle although I get it, we're all people. However it should be driven by the work and the ideas that are being engaged. Maybe the quality of ideas is what is lacking so the social angle begins to overshadow the larger cultural/historical relevance of contemporary art??

I'm not advocating some sappy idealism, but there is serious work to be done on understanding the big picture of what's going on. It has ramifications even if we can't clearly them right now. There's no room for a guest list mentality or a pathetic social climbing angle when it comes to discourse.

I think for many artists, this situation strikes at the heart of their fears. That the game is rigged in ways that go beyond the norm. The norm being, we signed up for this art thing and we knew it was a path with many hurdles. At minimum we hope that their are ethics in play and that some form of progressive intelligence has a roll in dictating what gets written about, exhibited and recognized. I think many hope that the market- criticism- acceptance is not just a shell game orchestrated by a few who are wearing the proverbial multiple hats for the benefit of the hats. I realize this is a generalization but I think the fear is real whether it is justified by the facts or not. People get these impressions from real life experiences.

I'm curious though about other fields of academia/publishing/criticism. Are ethics in play any more?
What is the code if so? Who/what provides the oversight ?

Or do these disciplines feel so marginalized that these broader ethics don't apply because so few within the general populace are even interested in the first place? No one is watching so who cares? etc....."we're trying to good here by recognizing the humanities at all so back off".

Via Modern Art Notes, Art World Salon, Ed Winkleman

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