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February 23, 2024 By Alex Vlasov
I Like the Artworld and the Artworld Likes Me

Joseph Beuys_I Like America and America Likes Me_1974.png
Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974 © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, Germany

I do not remember my dreams as soon as I wake up. It is just the way I am. But I have the nightmare version of my life that I crawl back to from time to time. In that existence, I go to my office cubicle and stare at a computer screen every day. The routine of spreadsheets, emails, and files takes over my pathetic reality. Now, I find this daunting. My spiral down the tunnel of monotony began when I got my tenure in the artworld. At some point, the process turned out to be a mimicry of my nightmare. 


My goal here is to point out the problem. The fetishized character of bureaucracy in today’s artworld is something that needs to be addressed. Otherwise, all those little schmoozes at the openings will cover up the facts, and art will remain nothing more than decorative fodder. Or visual Muzak, if you might, in Joseph Kosuth’s words. But I do not need to quote anyone or use a few scholarly footnotes in Chicago Style that make me look smart in the eyes of a magazine editor who publishes standardized articles in slick ink. I write for my friends and colleagues in the field to have a discourse.

Let’s be clear that on the cultural level, no one cares what the works of art mean anymore. Extrinsically, the artworld is a market of luxury goods. Intrinsically, it is a bureaucratic structure that became standardized. The extrinsic way deals with the culture we are living in. The intrinsic one is a mystery cult, members of which are a few hundred individuals around the country who you hope one day will grant you tenure. The dilemma for a young artist is this - the marketplace or academia. Once you graduate, you stand on the street and think, “I need to get a studio, paint, canvas, wood, and pay off all my student loans. Who is going to help me?”

Nobody. But let me begin my screed by admitting that I follow the protocols of academic culture. I know that, in order to make more paintings, I have to teach that class at 8 am. Of course, I can say, “The hell with all that stuff! Leave me alone!” Then, to make more paintings, I will have to do something else at 8 am. That would be without summers off and perhaps without health insurance. The importance of this understanding is vital since it affects the production of art. It is of central significance because the artist's activity in the studio becomes standardized. This standardization controls an artist. 


All artists themselves are the essential components of this sameness. The spine of the artworld depends solely on the artists, whether it is one way or another. They are the ones who play by the rules. Imagine if all the artists would disappear tomorrow. Then, there wouldn't be any galleries, art fairs, magazines, art schools, etc. Because in order to make money out of art, you need to have art. And to have art, you need to have artists around. The extrinsic artworld disappears once everybody’s out. And who wants to be in? If you are in the field of art for the money, good fucking luck.

Then comes the intrinsic way. I propose if you stand by the doors and see the altar from a distance, turn around when it is not too late. Get to the airport, buy a one-way ticket, and fly out of town. Because it doesn’t matter how many scholars I can cite here, what academic achievements are on my CV, and what kind of grants I got in the past. It is the discourse that matters. The talkie talks that I do with the artist friends I love. That’s how we can still find meaning in what we do. We need to get out of those two realms and shut the doors. It wouldn’t give us a house, a giant studio in our backyards, or two pickup trucks in rural Georgia. And it wouldn’t give us an enormous studio in Manhattan either. But we need to move in next door if we want an alternative. Otherwise, we are trapped in the same standardized artworld, whether extrinsic or intrinsic. It is like in the lyrics of The Suicide Machines song, “Once you’re in, you can never get out.” 


The culture at a standstill is not because we cannot come up with something new. It is at a standstill because the field of visual arts, like everything else, has become a race for money, positions, shows, and CV achievements. When you can’t tell the difference between Zurbarán and Velázquez in five hundred words, but you can write professional applications for grants, then I don’t know what the hell we are talking about here. 


Of course, my way to shut the doors is romanticized. Of course, it is gambling. Yes, I am a gambler. If I wouldn’t be one, I wouldn’t be an artist. So deal the fucking cards. And if I lose, I will have some stories for my friends to tell. 

Alex Vlasov

February 2024

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