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Dan Fox On Leaving the Art World - Or Not

frieze’s Editor-at-Large considers what it means to move on

By the time you read this, I will have vanished from the frieze magazine masthead in a puff of smoke. I am The Ghost of Editors Past. Twenty years is a long time working for one company – certainly in these unpredictable times. Which means that, along with countless good days, I had my share of bad days on which I’d fantasize about what leaving this publication might look like. I could be stood at the door, bottle of gin in hand, tears streaking my face and slurring: ‘You never loved me! Never!’ Perhaps, I’d be dressed in military uniform c.1915, waving bravely to my colleagues on the station platform as I headed to an uncertain fate on the Western Front – aka going freelance.

Magazines need to change guard every so often, just as a museum needs to rehang its collection. You have to know when to step out of the way and make room for voices, ages, strategies, perspectives other than your own. Make a change by making yourself scarce. Shush and be quiet. But dispiritingly – or is it encouragingly? I’m not sure – an increasingly frequent topic of conversation I’ve encountered over the last few years has been that of leaving the art world entirely. Friends tell me that they want to write novels instead of curate shows, create gardens instead of installations or involve themselves in organizations trying to make a political difference rather than make art. Not that this is a new phenomenon – I’ll bet artists in 19th-century Montmartre complained over a glass or three of absinthe that the art scene wasn’t what it used to be – but our uncertain times have intensified the chatter. There is a palpable sense of dissatisfaction with the promises of artistic innovation or social progress that institutional rhetoric has so often failed to deliver. A feeling that the weirdos, eccentrics and single-minded folk who felt at home in this field are now outnumbered by managers and marketers. This is reinforced by the more prosaic question of what it means to work too hard for not enough compensation whilst surrounded by the spoils of other people’s obscene wealth.

Too often, however, these conversations come freighted with the idea that leaving involves some form of renunciation. This is patently untrue. The trick is in establishing a healthy proximity to art’s professional machinery without becoming lost in its showbiz; in keeping a sense of proportion. I think often about a curator friend who left New York some years ago for a job in a smaller, quieter city. He told me how much happier he felt as he began to read fiction and go to concerts, free of the anxiety that he should be engaging in the 24/7 social rituals of the art world. A couple of years ago, I found myself in a vast, beautiful gallery on the US west coast listening to its owner claim, in all seriousness: ‘I am the most important gallerist of my generation.’ Trying to stifle giggles, my overwhelming thought was that he should get out more. (The old avant-gardists who demanded the dissolution of art into life never imagined what pressures their dream could create in the hyper-professionalized present.)

The US psychologist Rhoda Kellogg – the subject of an exhibition this year at White Columns in New York, curated by Brian Belott – devoted much of her life to researching children’s art. Beginning in the late 1940s, Kellogg amassed a collection of millions of drawings and paintings, which she studied and used to make theories about the developmental stages of childhood. I think about Kellogg when I watch fellow passengers on the subway. Every grown adult you can see has made a drawing. At least once in their life they thought about colour, form and how to turn an idea into an image or make a lump of plasticine take a pleasing shape. This is why I value art criticism and have deep pride in the work my colleagues on this magazine – and, let’s be fair, most of the competition, too – have done. It doesn’t matter whether the critic is rolling their eyes at the latest flash-in-the-pan whose name is only Manhattan-famous, enthusiastically sharing knowledge about a long-lost Neo-Geo painter from the 1980s, dutifully trudging through the checklist of a biennial in some dreary European town or producing scholarship that will benefit future generations of art historians. They are defending the impulse that all of us have had, at one time or another: to make something. That drive does not care how well-connected you are. It doesn’t mind if you haven’t got an MFA or if you’re going to Venice for the opening week of the Biennale. It will still talk to you even if you’re not on first-name terms with the Most Important Person of your generation. You can say goodbye to all that bullshit, but keep art close by.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 202 with the headline ‘Hello, Goodbye’

Main Image: Rhoda Kellogg, Untitled, c. mid-1980s. Courtesy: Kindergarten Association, San Francisco, CA

Dan Fox is a writer who lives in New York, USA. His latest book is Limbo (2018).

Issue 202

First published in Issue 202

April 2019
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