When Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times, addressed a sell-out crowd on Friday July 24, as this year’s speaker for the ART Santa Fe Presents series, he was a bit patronizing, but was so friendly about it that no one cared.
With a delivery that felt more like a conversation than a lecture, Kimmelman self-effacingly name-dropped through a series of his encounters with famous artists and ordinary folks—encounters which invariably took place in one of four locations: a museum, a Chinese restaurant, a war-torn or disaster ravaged locale, or the absolute middle of nowhere, Nevada.
Some of the stories involved art celebrity affirmations: Henri Cartier-Bresson is just as charming and pompous as one would imagine, Kiki Smith really can see an alternate plane of existence out of the corner of her eye, 95 percent of what Richard Tuttle says is unintelligible and Michael Heizer has become Hunter S Salinger with a backhoe.
Each of Kimmelman’s experiences with a famed artist leads him to a minor revelatory moment that affirms his suspicion that artists really do have a keen perception of things and that, frequently, that thing is art. This stands in contrast to Kimmelman’s understanding of young art school attendees who are—at least as far as artist (and former art school prof) Mike Kelley is concerned, and Kimmelman announces his agreement—only interested in making art that looks like other art that is selling.
No doubt such a dynamic is a more formidable presence than it has ever been, but it was a blandly dismissive statement and an ineptly ageist one for a skilled writer and cultural observer whose primary speaking skill appears to be making people over 60 years old chuckle knowingly. It takes a certain kind of pleozoic savoir-faire to sum up global socio-economic cultural shifts with a reference to the ancient soap opera Dallas.
Kimmelman’s accounts of his man-on-the-street exchanges led to a deeper—but still unsurprising—revelation: artists see art in surprising ways because they are chronicling life. Life, by extension, is understood through our casual and collective notions of place, history, culture and community; grand and challenging topics that are most accurately detailed through, guess what?, art.
This notion that regular people assign tangible—if not always intimate—value to art, sets up Kimmelman for his chief bombshell. It turns out there is no association between cost and value in art. You see, apparently, some things which cost very little may contain a great deal of value and other things, which have quite a high cost, end up having no real value at all. What’s more, this surprising irony is frequently witnessed within the art world, in particular since the rise of “trophy”-based collecting and nouveau-riche idiocy. Shocking, simply shocking.
That Kimmelman’s assertions are self-evident to anyone who has ever thought about art does not make the ideas less true however and, as noted above, the patronizing effect was made null by his amicable earnestness. It is certain, in fact, that there were members of the audience for whom the lack of relationship between cost and value was a shock.
The problem is that Kimmelman brought nothing to the table that would challenge—rather than delight—such perpetrators of the market as it is. Rather he was remarkably adept at entertaining the people whom he asserts so blindly fund the status quo.
He actually delivered to them, as one friend noted, the equivalent of purchasing carbon credits for art collectors: Just go buy a work by some underappreciated and esoteric weirdo (Honey, we should see if we can get something by this Heizer fellow…) and the sins of your trendy, bullshit collection will be forgiven. I should clarify that such a thing was certainly not Kimmelman’s assertion, but I heard more than one “collector” in the row behind me interpret it as such.
As for the rest of us, we were the choir to whom Kimmelman preached. Certainly it is a pleasure to be entertained by someone with such a breadth of art and cultural experience, someone who can pronounce both “Cartier-Bresson” and “Budapest” with such élan, but polite reciprocity and agreement was more the effect than inspiration or revelation.
If, as Kimmelman accurately noted, the “elimination of wonder” has crippled our greedy, contemporary, corn-syrup-saturated culture’s ability to value art, it’s hard to know whether to blame myself of Kimmelman for having been left nothing to wonder about in the wake of his lecture.