Image courtesy of Christian Viveros-Faune
The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Christian Viveros-Faune is a respected art critic renowned for his insightful reporting and criticism. His arts career has seen him as managing director of Volta (in New York), the organizer of NEXT (in Chicago) and founder of Roebling Hall in New York. Today, Christian is the art and culture critic for Artnet.
Here is a 5-minute video of our discussion about the role of art criticism and the state of the New York art world.
You can read the full interview below. Special thanks to my colleague, Dan Mills, for the video work.
Brett Wallace: Christian, thank you for sitting down tonight.
Christian Viveros-Fauné: Thank you.
BW: How did you get started in the arts?
CVF: It’s a long story, but I went into a studio of a friend in Barcelona who was a proper professional artist. I was a literary guy—I still am basically a literary guy (my training is English Lit, writing and editing) and I was really just blown away by the fact that he could do these things with actual materials—things that I thought only existed in books and in literature. He could make meaning and deal with ideas with actualstuff...that really kind of blew me away. I understood that immediately to inhabit a parallel universe of meaning and metaphor to the one I valued and wanted to live in. So, it [writing about art] became an immediate point of interest. And somewhere along the line someone asked me to write a text and I said yes, grudgingly, because I didn't think I was up to it, and it worked out...and I really liked it.
BW: In your career you've almost had every role in the arts world, except an artist. How would you describe your roles today and your trajectory over time?
CVF: I really have basically done just about everything in the art world except make art, which I will stay away from because I don't think I would be very good at it. As a critic, I struggle to try to define my role, but I think one of the ways I might define it is akin to the way Holden Caulfield saw himself in “The Catcher in the Rye”; There was that Robert Burns’ song ["Coming thro' the Rye" ] that Caulfield misheard and misinterpreted where he fantasizes that he’s waiting for children to run out of the rye to catch them before they fall off a cliff to grab them and put them back into play….I suppose I could say that I do that kind of thing but with ideas. Sometimes I catch good ideas before they fall off a cliff, and hopefully catch bad ideas before they go off the cliff and reinterpret them somehow into larger cultural context. There are a lot of ways to do criticism. I think that's one way. There is another way—which I think [is] being proactive with ideas in a certain cultural context, and I try to do that, too. I don’t know which I do more than the other. I think that's probably up to interpretation. The fact that I get to do this for a living is pretty risible on its face. As a critic, I am basically explaining things that are in and of themselves unnecessary—artworks being not exactly necessary to the basic functioning of society. They don't have great utility, like water, or food, or whatever else. But, it's a privilege to be able to talk about these things and also to do so in a way that hopefully makes them intelligible to the public at large. One of the things that I get particularly turned on about is doing my job for folks that are not specialists. I think that they not only deserve the possibility of being able to understand things that I think are tremendously worthwhile, and that the art world in general thinks are tremendously worthwhile, but I also think the art world and art in general benefits greatly from non-specialists understanding artworks. Whether we’re talking paintings, or sculptures, or installations, or entire shows. The discourse is enriched by having more people participate rather than less.
BW: How do you make choices about what to cover in your art criticism?
CVF: I've done it several different ways throughout my career. When I wrote for The New York Press in the mid-to-late 90s, I used to cover a lot of stuff that friends of mine were doing—contemporaries. So it was mostly young art, and I was really interested in things that were coming up. Later on, when I went back to writing—because I ran a gallery and I directed art fairs for a while—I became far more interested in things that hit the top end of the discourse. This was simply because it occurred to me that it was important to my readers to have somebody telling them what the best show in New York City was that week. Which is a big job frankly. There are a lot of fantastic shows, there are a lot of fantastic galleries, and a lot of fantastic museums, so picking the best one for a week for the Village Voice, or in this case now for Artnet, can be a tall order. Thankfully, there is lots and lots of terrific work around and aside from the fact that it's a pleasure to be able to have an embarrassment of riches to pick from, I try and hit the most relevant or the most talked about cultural notes of the moment. That's how I understand my job at present. That could shift frankly. In another 10 years, I don't know what I'll be doing. But at this point it keeps me pretty engaged and pretty interested.
BW: I read that you don't go to previews, you go to shows during off days. Presumably that's to maintain a lower key profile in order to see the actual work. How do you like to work?
CVF: Actually, I do try to avoid previews because they come with baggage. Once you’re a known quantity, people naturally want to talk to you and often that's not a great environment in which to be thinking about work. So, I do try and go on the off days when I can. And when time allows. And, I try and get as much of the show in my head, and thankfully now on my iPhone, which works as a great aide memoire and replacement for notes. And then, to go into the mechanics of it, I come home, sit in front of the computer, read if I've got material to read, like a catalog (people actually went out of their way to put together a book) and start writing. On the specific work or show at issue, I try and get to an approach that I think is both revealing of the work in question but also that makes some connection to the culture at large, at least by my lights. I mean, I think in general when artists make work, part of the great interest is to make work that connects with their time, or with art history, or both frankly. And so I think it's incumbent upon me, it's part of my job to basically tease out those threads and to make sure that they actually exist on paper in terms of my article, and do so in lively and even entertaining way.
BW: What were some of the highlights over this past year. And, were there any shows that you felt missed their mark?
CVF: Well, that's a loaded question. The Whitney Museum's reopening was fantastic. I thought they did two things particularly well. One, they actually provided an amazing building, where I think there was a lot of skepticism about what they could pull off. If for no other reason simply because the way museum construction has been going these days, it's all about bigger is better, and that wasn't necessarily what they did. Also, their show was really a terrific reassessment of the collection. And I think, a pretty good reassessment of American art and the way an institution like the Whitney, which has been collecting over a hundred years, manages to see making art in America. And I thought it was, frankly, really refreshing. I didn't expect anything as good as that. And I think it provides proof of what an institution like the Whitney can do when it actually really takes the time to make a major cultural reassessment, which I think is what happened in that show. Shows that I didn't like, well, there are plenty. The Forever Now show at MOMA last February I thought was an absolute disaster and it really was the kind of market-centric show that I think institutions like MOMA have no business doing. And, I wasn't particularly keen on the New Museum Triennial, also, mostly because it didn’t manage to say anything important about timely issues like digital art and for lack of any better terminology people have been calling post-Internet art. It didn't do so in any kind of revealing way. There wasn't enough criticism there. It was basically like the facts of the age hitting the screen, or hitting the wall, and not much interpretation. And I think that was problematic.
BW: What should a great show seek to accomplish?
CVF: I think the thing about Museum curation in a place like New York City should be about making shows that illustrate where art is today, or where the culture is today. And it should do so critically, not simply repeating the platitudes of the culture, but by presenting critical views of the culture through art. And, unfortunately, I don't see a lot of that happening in a place like New York City. In fact, I see that happening more in secondary and tertiary cities around the world. New York is undergoing a significant financialization and unfortunately that is not the kind of cultural development that pushes radicality or criticality in any significant way, or at least it hasn't yet.
BW: Did the Greater New York show at MOMA PS1 strike you as radical of a show as it could have been?
CVF: I thought the greater New York show did a much better job than previous greater New York shows, and a much better job than the New Museum triennial. Starting out with the fact that as a premise they got rid of that 35-and-under business. Honestly there's nothing more culturally conservative than youth culture, and that's been a fact for a long time. So the idea of reducing the idea of a contemporary art production to work by artists between the ages of 21 or 22 to age of 35 is a losing proposition when it comes to trying to develop radical alternatives to current art production. So, they got rid of that at PS1 this time around. No ageism, that's a great thing. Unfortunately, it seems to me that they also became tremendously reliant on work done in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. So there was an enormous amount of nostalgia there. And that seems to me to be partly interesting, but also really problematic. I know for a fact that there are other artists out there today in New York that are not on the radar of the New Museum Triennial but who could properly illustrate the kinds of ideas that PS1 curator Peter Eely curator wanted to explore without having to rely on folks who are dead.
BW: What's one thing that you think needs to change about the New York art world now?
CVF: Stop being so conformist. It's a big ask frankly because this is a very expensive city. And it's getting tougher and tougher to exist here and make art, make this thing that really has no intrinsic value, no matter what they tell you at the auction houses. It's hard to make art in a city like this, or an environment like this. I think this goes for London as well. Where your pole stars are either auction results themselves or blue chip artists, folks selling for a hundred thousand and up. A cultural change seems absolutely unavoidable to me at this point. I can't imagine another decade of art in New York where things are frankly so goddamned dull. New York has had great epic moments of art-making and I am sorry to say that I don't think this is one of them. I wish it was.
BW: Is there a way to get the radicality back?
CVF: A lot of the stuff that happens in the world of art mirrors the macro world. Particularly when comes to economies, though there is something of a lag of eight months to two years between things that happen in the macro-economy and things that happen in the micro-economy of art. The macro economy in a place like New York would lead you to believe that no matter what Bill de Blasio does, this is going to become a far more expensive place to live, and we're going to have absentee landlords the way you do in Mayfair, London. These people who basically buy homes for zillions of dollars and don't live in them and they’re like ghost estates. And that artists are going to get pushed out and we of course know the rest of this tumbling domino cultural effect on the art ecology. But part of me really holds out hope that at some point, artists will gain some agency and begin to do things that upset the apple cart. Maybe not even develop new ideas so much as push the ideas they've already developed and push them to the center, to the fore of the discussion rather than have these ideas be at the margins of discussion. One of the things that I am really interested in these days is this notion of social engagement, because I think that does break a lot of new ground. If I think about new movements, it's the only one I find out there. I think social practice is genuinely something 100 percent new. It's not new today, it was new about five years ago, but that's the kind of artistic activity, the kind of new cultural production that could actually possibly shift the center of gravity. It did somewhat during the Hirshhorn installation in the Bronx. I don't see why it couldn't happen again in a more massive way. It might take an institution paying attention and getting on board, which unfortunately New York institutions have not done like other institutions in other cities around the world. But it's feasible. And if that's feasible, and the introduction of new ideas into a stale cultural discussion is feasible, then we can get other results from that. And I am hopeful about it. I really am. I love New York, I love being here; this is the greatest capital of cultural consumption in the world bar none. We need to get back to doing a little bit more of cultural production. But I'm hopeful that that is going to happen.
BW: What is your advice to emerging artists? And I use that word ‘emerging’, as you just said- not defined by age.
CVF: Right, on the earlier side of their trajectory. Listen, I think it's important to make work that bucks trends, and to continue to believe in a project even if it doesn't immediately find financial reward. Or if the idea of financial reward seems far off . It's not exactly a one-to-one analogy, but to be honest with you being an art critic is a little like being an artist. The idea of financial reward for what I do is risible, and it should be. And I don't know that artists should expect any more than that. Even in a booming economy, maybe particularly in a booming economy. I think it's important for everybody to think about ideas first and careers later, and that's really the way I understand art making.
BW: It also speaks to one of the things I've heard which is really important for emerging artists, to keep your overhead costs as low as absolutely possible so that you can preserve the ideas and not have to rely on them for financial means.
CVF: Oh, absolutely. The art I'm really interested in is the stuff that makes a lot of nothing, or makes art out of somebody else’s idea of garbage. It seems to me the most democratic, the most impactful work. It's also the work that provides the greatest surprises. When you see something that you’ve seen before but utterly reinterpreted, you understand that there is a revelatory moment in that experience. And, it's also one of those moments where you get this basic thing about art. Art is often about thrilling ideas and can be a great communicator of thrilling ideas and thrilling concepts, but I find the point at which it’s most thrilling when it's a thrill in itself, and that is a difficult place to get to. But when you get there, there is an organicism to it, there's a naturalness to it that is just magic, and again revelatory. You are onto something when you see something like that.
BW: Perhaps this is a good segue to talk about this piece behind you.
CVF: Yeah, it's a replica of the bathroom door at CBGB's by the British artist Graham Dolphin. Of course, CBGB's doesn't exist anymore, and neither does the door. But, Graham is a friend of mine and we have worked together on shows before. He has been in a couple shows that I've curated. It's pretty much a perfect replica of the thing that once existed, down to the Joey Ramone's scrawl and the Dee Dee Ramone scrawl there. And, again, it’s something super simple that has this explosive power.
BW: What’s the best advice that you have ever received?
CVF: That's a really good question. Inspiration is for amateurs. Artists and cultural workers just get to work.
BW: From our friend, Chuck Close.
CVF: Yeah, Chuck is great. And he's right. It's about getting up in the morning and doing it.
BW: Do you write every day?
CVF: Yeah, it's pretty much something I do every day.
BW: Preferred working time? Are you a morning writer?
CVF: I am an until-I get-the-deadline-done-writer. And at this point, deadlines never seem to drop off my to do list.
BW: What are you most looking forward to in 2016?
CVF: I'm really looking forward to the Met opening over at the Marcel Breuer building. I'm interested to see the way the Met reinterprets contemporary art in terms of their encyclopedic collection. And I think that presents an opportunity for a rereading of things that we think we know, and I think that can be very important. I think we have this habit, or we have grown into this habit really over the last twenty or thirty years of thinking, that art began, if not with Andy Warhol, then with the abstract expressionists, or Duchamp, and we don't go much further than that in history. That's a big mistake. And I'm hoping that the Met will essentially correct that mistake significantly. And by the same token, also improve curatorial practice and museum practice at other institutions in the city. That's a lot to ask, but one can hope.
BW: What question do you wish you were asked more often?
CVF: I suppose, ‘How in the world did you think you could actually do this for a living?’ I don't really know what the answer to that is. It wasn't a natural move. It was probably something I did ass-backwards, but it's never ceased to be interesting. The idea that I get to work in culture and to write about things that I care deeply about, whether I like them or whether I don't, is something that actually makes me genuinely very happy. The idea is that you are doing something that makes you happy, that you think is valuable, and that other folks also think is valuable is tremendously comforting.