Jennifer Rabin

 

Diversity and inclusion can’t accomplish what we need

Art institutions have embraced the call for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Why does this model fall short of what it promises?

In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder—when people all over the country were taking to the streets in force, in anger, and in desperation for change; when an acrid cloud of tear gas was hanging over downtown Portland every night—my beloved art institutions were quiet. At first, I hoped it might be a productive silence, during which they were starting to take a hard look at themselves to determine what part they had played in upholding white supremacy, the force that put its knee on George Floyd’s neck, that shot Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson in their own homes, that lynched Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a jog.

I waited for the statements to come, the ones announcing each organization’s plans to meet this moment. After weeks, the silence became deafening, embarrassing.

Then, all at once, my inbox was choked with anemic statements in support of Black Lives Matter. The majority of these messages were shoehorned into press releases announcing other things: You can now visit our virtual galleries from the comfort of your home! Now is a great time to become a member! Pre-register for our Zoom lecture series! Really?!?! I thought. This didn’t even merit a separate email? This wasn’t important enough to stand alone?

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The value of art: Cats, cryptoart, and morons

A group of collectors just burned a Banksy screenprint in order to increase the value of the digital version of the same image. Why? And what does this mean for art?

Imagine taking a digital portrait of someone famous—let’s say George Clooney. You embed a code into the meta data of the photo, which proves that you’re the photographer and that the photo is one of a kind, and then you sell the digital file to an art collector for $100,000. At the same time, you release a high-resolution version of the image on the internet so that anyone with a computer can see, use, download, and even print out the exact same “one-of-a-kind” image that you just sold for 100K.

That’s the best analogy I can think of for the newest trend in speculative art collecting called cryptoart, which is what happens when you combine mostly rich white art collectors who care more about money than art with rich white tech bros who care more about money than art. It can get a little complicated—because it’s tied to cryptocurrency and blockchain—but here are the basics: technologists have figured out a way to make a digital image, which can be replicated ad infinitum, unique compared to any of its identical copies. They have invented something called a non-fungible token (NFT) that they can embed into that digital file to prove it’s the original from which all copies are made.

Still image from Nyan Cat, GIF (2011). NFT sold for $560,000

For example, anyone can download and use the gif of this cat for free, as much as they want and in any form that they want, but someone recently purchased the NFT of it for $560,000 so that they can resell it on the speculative art market. (It should be noted that, for our purposes here, we’re talking about the cryptoart that is created with the intention of opportunistic profit. Not all cryptoart is. There are artists who work strictly in the digital medium for whom cryptoart has provided the first legitimate way to authenticate and sell their work. There is also a movement of Black artists and activists who use cryptoart to create and disseminate works about social justice, racism, and Afrofuturism—to envision a better society and often raise money for causes like Black Lives Matter. These artists are not the subject of this essay.)

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‘One drop of water in the deep blue sea’

An interview with Sophia Wright Emigh and Jaleesa Johnston's about their pandemic-inspired dance video project "Bodies Apart, Moving Together"

Scrolling through Instagram one evening, I came upon a link to a short film co-created by Jaleesa Johnston, a multi-disciplinary artist whom I follow. I watched the film—a meditation on our isolation and connection during the pandemic, explored through movement—and burst into tears. It evoked every emotion I’d been feeling over the past many months. I immediately emailed Jaleesa to ask for an interview. She told me that the film was the second in a series of three—a virtual triptych titled Bodies Apart, Moving Together (the third has yet to be made)—the brainchild of her collaborator Sophia Wright Emigh. I invited them both for remote chat and what follows is an edited, condensed version of that interview (you can watch the full interview here).

still from a dance video by Sophia Wright Emigh and Jaleesa Johnston. Three figures at sunset on an empty road.
Sophia Wright Emigh and Jaleesa Johnston. Still from Bodies Apart, Moving Together II. (2020)

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In an attention economy, the critic’s most powerful tool is silence

Attention isn't just a human need anymore—it is a valuable commodity. Art critics need to be a lot more careful with it.

Humans are wired to crave attention. We want validation and recognition that our lives matter to other people. But our desire for attention has become bottomless, stretched, and grotesque. I keep reading reports of social media darlings meeting their ends—falling off cliffs to their deaths, drowning in picturesque waterfalls, and dying of hypothermia on treacherous climbs—in their quests to obtain the most over-the-top, swoon-worthy images to deliver to their followers. This is not a drill, folks: we are literally dying for attention.

We’re in this situation as a result of the fact that attention, which was an amorphous concept before the digital age, is now a quantifiable commodity. People are putting themselves in harm’s way because likes, subscribers, and followers can be valuated and monetized such that attention is now currency. It translates to money, fame, clout, and influence, so it makes sense that some people will do anything for it.

As such, it’s time for arts writers, critics, journalists, gatekeepers, and arbiters of culture—anyone whose job it is to bestow attention onto others—to reconsider how to allocate that currency. More specifically, the most responsible thing we can do, as people who professionally dole out attention, is to withhold it more often than not.

But hear me out—there’s more to it than that.

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The misdirected tizzy over shredded Banksy

Jennifer Rabin considers the target of Banksy's auction prank

Last week, during the ache and anticipation of the Kavanaugh debacle, the art world had its own to-do. Sotheby’s auctioned off a painting, Girl With Balloon, by the street artist Banksy. A split second after it sold for $1.4 million, its unassuming gold frame shredded it into what some reporters would have us believe are now worthless strips of a formerly precious work of art.

Girl With Balloon at Sotheby’s in London on Image posted on Banksy’s Instagram account

Arts writers were aflutter. What would happen next? Would this void the sale? What would it do to the resale value? “Sotheby’s has not named the client whose $1.4 million purchase was destroyed,” one article informed us, perfectly illustrating the art world’s inability, or willful refusal, to see past an object to the intention behind it.

They missed the point.

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