Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dear Peter Schjeldahl,

This is a three-part question with a wind-up. I'm an independent (read: self-marginalizing) Canadian critic-curator-gallery owner-bookseller-photographer and lately this stuff has been preying on my mind.

In the early 1960s, Dan Graham ran an independent exhibition space, the John Daniels Gallery, where he showed his friends: Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Robert Smithson & etc. Reflecting on the experience later, long after the gallery had closed, Graham said that the process of running the space had shown him what art was: something that was reproduced and/or written up in an art magazine. Maybe this was a tongue-in-cheek answer but Graham had a point: only a limited number of people would ever see an art object installed in an obscure New York gallery. Reproduction, on the other hand, facilitated a work's exposure to a much broader audience, and also reassured potential patrons that the work was good enough to have made it out of the gallery and into the "virtual space" of the art magazine distribution system. Graham claimed that this insight led to his creation of his first "magazine pieces," works that disposed with the gallery all together, existing only as texts and/or photo-text hybrids published in art magazines.

Artists nowadays can access any number of distribution tools that weren't available to Graham. (Personal websites; Flickr; Facebook; blogs; "curated" blogs and webpages;; various other online services permitting them to self-publish and distribute texts, books, prints, photographs & etc). In Graham's time, reproduction and publication in an art magazine signified that some kind of aesthetic judgment had taken place. Someone, even if only a lowly art magazine writer or editor, had judged the reproduced work to be "art." My admittedly shaky grasp of aesthetics (Baudelaire; Greenberg; Thierry de Duve) suggests that art only gets to be art via aesthetic judgment. Art isn't art until it submits itself to judgment. Whose judgment? Everyone's. (Art doesn't know who its audience is going to be in advance). So: question #1: what does it mean for art to "submit itself to judgment" today? I understand what that means in the context of exhibiting an art object in a public museum, commercial gallery, or even as part of an MFA studio crit. But what constitutes judgment of, for example, a digital photograph presented on the Web?

Question 2: Are objects "art" even if they show no inclination to enter the standard art distribution channels? I have friends who make digital photographs, which they present on blogs. The photos only exist as digital images; there are no prints. I think that my friends' photographs are art, because they are self-reflexively involved with their medium (eg., are modern) and because they are presented in a public context. But some of my artist friends think that these images are not art, because they have not appeared in an "art context," eg., curated presentation in a gallery. My readings of Duchamp and Greenberg make me think that you can't discriminate against art on morphological grounds: "anything and everything" is potentially art. Even images that deliberately -- some would say willfully -- circumvent art's established distribution systems. Do you agree?

Question 3: What criteria would you use to differentiate between digital images that want to be judged as "art" and digital images presented in non-art contexts? Aesthetic judgments are only as good as the criteria supporting them. Intent doesn't work -- you can't judge intent, only the physical fact of the work. So what criteria do you use?

Thierry de Duve once said -- I'm paraphrasing -- that good artists should feel the presence of dead artists they admire in their studios, gazing over their shoulders as they work and asking questions. I'm writing to you because I feel Kant and Greenberg gazing over mine, and I don't know how to answer.

Best regards,

Christopher Brayshaw
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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