A review of “Forgetting the Art World” by P.M Lee (MIT Press, 2012)

There is something a little un-nerving in reviewing only the introduction of a book; a small internal voice whispers that you have missed the central platform of the argument and thus are making an ass of yourself; if you had only read the entire book you would have understood all.

This anxious feeling is lessened somewhat by the exhaustive nature of P.M. Lee’s dense introduction to her book: “Forgetting the Art World”. And exhaustive it is. My powers of literary cognisance are admittedly a little rusty, and so it took me quite a while to come to grips with the historical and philosophical frameworks that Lee puts in place in the first 22 pages of her introduction. Here she delineates her themes of the “art world” and the “world of the work of art”. She painstakingly sets up a progression of ideas surrounding these concepts, from Danto’s rarefied, heavenly art world floating above the 60’s, through Lawrence Alloway’s writing on art as a system propagated via networks, and on to George Yudice, who describes the fall from Paradise as the “culturalisation of the economy”, a process whereby culture becomes a crucial part of capital. Once she has arrived at this point in art history and in a reversal of Danto’s image Lee appeals for a closer look at the underbelly of the “work of art’s world” from our position below it.

My uptake of Lee’s ideas really takes off from this point on, as she begins to mediate her theories of globalization and art via specific artists and their work.

Lee laces her evocative critical descriptions of Steve McQueen’s films Gravesend and Unexploded with coherent and compelling arguments for their indissolubility from the phenomenon that they themselves interrogate. This, she says, is the crux of the process of art in a globalized “world of the work of art”.

Lee goes on to outline a series of chapters, each utilizing an artist or collective of artists as the prism through which to view these Mobius-like ideas of art as both product and instigator of globalization. At the heart of these themes there is a challenge for any artist engaged with the process of making art, to consider their own place in this endless circularity and co-dependency. Lee asks me to complicate and worry about the relationship between these worlds, and in this introduction extends an invitation to play an active role both as viewer and maker.

In this heightened state of complication and worry I came across a short piece in the February Vanity Fair magazine. (Surely the perfect example of the conflation of culture and capital, and a guilty monthly pleasure.) In this piece, entitled The Diplomacy of Art, and written by Hillary Clinton, we learn about “art as a tool of diplomacy”. The article describes the creation of the Art in Embassies program, initiated by MoMA in 1953 and formalized by J.F.K in 1963. Since then the work of more than 4,000 primarily American artists has been showcased in U.S Embassies and Consulates around the world. Mrs. Clinton’s final remarks are illuminating in the context of cultural capital and the slippery political nature of globalization.  She says:

“Just think about what an exhibition of American and local artists means to someone across the world yearning to express himself or herself.”

This fervent expression of a desire, one that most non-Americans would describe as nostalgic at best, to march metaphorically and artistically into the hearts and minds of the global community, sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the double-page spread group portrait that accompanies it. From the balcony of the U.S State Department in Washington, with a backdrop of a dusky twilight and the Great Seal of the U.S.A, stare out a group of superstar artists; all adorned with gold medals hanging from blue ribbons around their necks, and expressions that range from the severe and the smug to the ecstatic. These artists look like nothing less than war heroes, wearing their spoils from the battle.

An additional layer of frisson is added by the knowledge that this group portrait has been made by Todd Eberle, he who regularly photographs the homes of the uber-wealthy for the same magazine.

In conclusion, I do think it is a bridge too far to stop reading Vanity Fair over breakfast. However P.M Lee has prevented me from doing so in future in quite such a state of blissful mindlessness. Now I think I shall have to read the rest of the book.

Vanity Fair. Feb 2013
Vanity Fair. Feb 2013

1 thought on “A review of “Forgetting the Art World” by P.M Lee (MIT Press, 2012)”

  1. Hi Becky,

    Great blog. The “Art in Embassies” thing is really interesting. One of the historical aspects of this is that Abstract Expressionism was utilized by the US Government as a Cold War tool. Filling embassies with Pollocks and Rothkos was a way of suggesting that the US was a democratic, progressive state that valued innovation, in stark contrast to the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union. In my recent interview with Billy Apple, Billy recalled going to see Pollocks and Rothkos in the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square in London, and the way that this led to a group of young students reacting against it to start British Pop Art. I suspect Clinton didn’t mention any of this in Vanity Fair?

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