No one else in the L.A. art scene seems to be willing to say
this, so I will. The real art "scene" in L.A. is very small and
Christopher Knight's article about "L.A. art" a
couple weeks ago in the L.A. Times should have claimed that "this is the best
moment ever to be an artist in L.A. [whose work Christopher Knight supports]."
Virtually all of the artists Knight lists in the long article are one's whose work Knight
himself has promoted during his twenty-year career as chief art critic for the Herald
Examiner and the L.A. Times.
That these artists, many of whom are now tenured studio art
professors at the University of California, Los Angeles, are beginning to get more international
recognition (actually, they have already got more than Knight admits) may gratify Knight
as an index of his own successful choices, but it hardly justifies grandiose claims about
the general health of the L.A. art scene or art market. In fact, it is quite
conceivable for the "big players" (including Knight himself) to do very well
indeed while the rest of the art world starves. And given the social and economic
arrangement by which a few wealthy collectors "glean" the art market, this
should not surprise us.
Now, generally, I think that Knight has been a strong critic
and that the artists he supports more than merit attention, but not only the
artists he supports, which would be a truly perverse state of affairs, especially since he
no longer even covers the galleries since becoming the L.A. Times chief art
Back to my first point. The real art "scene" in
L.A. is elitist, protected by its own kind of "vanguard" snobbery, and defined
by a few curators, critics (at the L.A. Times and Art Issues), and a few
dealers and wealthy collectors (fewer than in New York) who seem to have the game sewn up.
It is this "insider" museum-big gallery-critic game that I think is the
unhealthiest thing about L.A.'s art scene. But that is a problem one encounters in any art
market funded by the private wealth of a very few. The difference is that in Los Angeles
this problem is even worse, since the "art market" is even smaller than in New
Let me give some examples. The younger "promising"
artists that Knight mentions in his article happen to have been M.F.A. graduate students
of the very UCLA art professors whose work Knight has promoted. If you think that Toba
Khedoori got a solo show at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art so early in her young
career because the curator "discovered" her in the "big world," think
again. That curator, like Knight, is closely connected to the UCLA artists who were her
teachers. And Jennifer Bornstein, whom Knight mentions in his article, is also a UCLA
M.F.A. "product" (and there are more: Jason Rhoades, Martin Kersels, . . .). If
these young just-out-of-school artists had got degrees from the California State
University at Northridge (just north of L.A.), they might never have been
"discovered" by L.A.'s rather tiny curatorial and critical apparatus, since,
their art aside, they wouldn't have had the "connections" upon which the L.A.
art scene seems to depend for its decisions about whom to promote.
Last year, when UCLA art professor Lari Pittman had his
retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art, L.A. Times gallery critic David
Pagel outdid his usual toadiness (always praise established artists at prominent
galleries, never risk writing about unknowns) by following up Christopher Knight's claim
that Pittman is "arguably the best American artists of the end of the century"
with a long, hysterically gushing weekend Times Calendar review of Pittman's show.
It was hard not to suspect that Pagel's boss gave him an assignment that he "couldn't
refuse," especially since there is nowhere else in L.A. to make a living as an
art reviewer except at the L.A. Times. And, as I understand, Pagel has also made
part of his living as a lecturer at--you guessed it--UCLA, where Pittman teaches. Pagel
seems to be a quite "savvy" young critic who can smell his advantage (or
disadvantage). If you read his columns (I won't even go into his vacuous rhetoric), you
will notice his "special" connection to galleries like L.A. Louver, Blum and
Poe, and ACME and his virtual neglect of any galleries that do not show "the
best" artists (already determined by others).
If all of this seems a little "fishy" to you, it
should. How is it that one university and the artists associated with it should have so
much sway over the younger artists who get attention in L.A.? Why should one critic have
so much power in a major U.S. metropolis? (Leave aside why so many curators around the
country rely on so few artists, which they recycle to their colleagues around the
country). Why should L.A. have only one "serious" art magazine (Art Issues,
although Art and Text will be moving here from Australia; Artweek, located
in Northern California, on the other hand, recently got rid of its L.A. editor, and
Coagula is hardly a serious critical journal, devoted as it is to covering
"art world scandal")? Why are so few artists beyond the inner
circle of the
establishment art scene ever reviewed (even by the supposedly contentious Coagula)?
And why have public institutions like the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery had to suffer budget
cuts (it had to give up its satellite galleries)?
It is because the art world is elitist. It is because
the public (and even many artists) accept the paradigm that art should be privately
supported by a very few wealthy individuals (or prestigious schools), and such a system
tends to produce a constricted and impoverished environment where only the few succeed,
the rest fall entirely by the wayside (because the small inner circle of power never
deigned even to see their work), and the successful (even those supposedly
"higher" beings who make art) hoard and protect the small terrain of power and
influence they have conquered.
So, is it really the best of times for artists in L.A.? I
guess so, if you define "artist" as only those artists who manage to draw the
attention of a very small and elite group of critics and curators, who manage to sell
their work to the few wealthy collectors advised by those few curators and critics, and
who get their work shown internationally.