L.A. Art

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 "incestuous."

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 critic.

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 York.

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.

P.S. If you are an artist in New York who is actually thinking of coming to Los Angeles after reading Knight's article, you had better first enroll as an M.F.A. student at UCLA if you want to get any attention from L.A.'s art establishment.

Peter Kosenko, unpublished (This is a Coagula-kind-of article, but I am not a contributor there, and they may have bigger scandals to cover.)


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