Robin Pogrebin's Honest Filter on Art Auctions

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New York Times writer Robin Pogrebin has an interesting piece about her own experiences working the art auction beat for the last two years. Though generally skeptical about the high-end evening sale ecosystem, she does admits to some vicarious thrills while watching the jockeying for record-busting lots, such as the Constantin Brancusi sculpture that sold this week at Christie's for USD $57.4 million.

The most interesting aspect of the article, however, is the contrast between the often prosaic details and boredom and the moments of genuine excitement. With regards to the perpetual challenge of determining who is actually bidding and buying, she notes that "there is a premium on figuring it out, getting to know the backs of important people's heads."

Photograph by Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

Will Damien Hirst's New Underwater-Themed Show Sink or Swim?

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Damien Hirst's first major exhibition in over a decade, "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable," opens on Sunday in Venice. The show is housed in two palazzos owned by Christie's owner Francois Pinault. Hirst has undergirded the show's theme with an elaborate backstory involving an underwater recovery of treasures from a sunken ship that mixes classical Egyptian themes with anachronistic contemporary visual references including Kate Moss, Pharrell and Mickey Mouse. Anticipation regarding the show is augmented by intense speculation over how the market will respond to the new works. Oliver Barker of Sotheby's, who oversaw Hirst's 2008 auction house blow-out "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever" sale in 2008, likens the exhibition to Elvis Presley's historic "comeback" performances in Las Vegas.

Photograph by Christoph Gerigk

Christopher Lew Weighs In

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With all the socio-political turmoil buffeting the nation (and much of Europe) at present, it is surprising how much attention and vociferous debate has resulted from the exhibition of Dana Schutz's painting "Open Casket" (2016) at the Whitney Biennial. The painting, which is based on a photograph of the funeral of Emmett Till in which his mutilated body was displayed, has been the subject of widespread criticism and number of demands, including the suggestion that the work should be destroyed.

Today, co-curator of the Biennial Christopher Lew weighed in with his thoughts. Although the controversy has highlighted concerns that will not be easily resolved, Lew raises some good points--including the fact most people criticizing Schutz's painting have not seen the work in person or in the context of the entire Biennial. In that respect, it recalls some of the art controversies of the 1980s and 1990s, such as the row over the New Museum's exhibition of Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary."

Photo © 2016 Scott Rudd

"Do You See Stars, Fascist Superman?"

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Writing in Hyperallergic, Jason Diamond has an interesting take on the fantastic survey of Raymond Pettibon's work currently on view at the New Museum: Raymond Pettibon- A Pen of All Work. In considering Pettibon's body of work from a macroscopic perspective, Diamond focuses on disparate themes that all seem to point point towards the present dystopian moment that we are all struggling to comprehend. Although moments of profound societal upheaval inevitably tend to sharpen our gaze upon facets of visual culture that seem, in retrospect, to be prescient or perhaps even prophetic, Diamond writes convincingly about how disconcertingly accurate Pettibon's dark visions of America now feel:

"Whether he’s drawing cops, dictators, or American presidents, [Pettibon is] telling us that people will abuse their power and that abuse will lead to untold horrors and the suffering of innocent people. But in Pettibon’s work...What’s frighteningly noticeable in 2017, more than ever before, is that Pettibon’s talking about the here and now. Things are terrifying and bad, they always have been, and they don’t look like they’re changing anytime soon."

Thankfully, Pettibon's drawings and paintings are intermittently leavened by hints of the ecstatic--particularly in his depictions of the physical pleasures associated with surfing and baseball. However, the center of gravity of Pettibon's work inevitably comes to rest at a point beyond which the American dream has already lapsed into nightmare. There are manifold pleasurable elements in Pettibon's art for the viewer to savor: the exuberance of his lines, the recognizable but enigmatic cultural references, and the mordant wit of his text. But right now, the more blighted and threatening facets of Pettibon's vision strike pretty damn close to the bone.

NEA, NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Slated for Elimination

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President Trump just released his FY18 budget proposal and, as had been rumored, the package would completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The NEA, in particular, has been a bete noire for many conservatives since the 1980s when a series of controversial exhibitions, particularly those featuring work by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, angered Republican members of Congress.

Although the exhibitions reviled by conservatives constituted a vanishingly small portion of the NEA budget, the agency has struggled to stave off their anger. The elimination of the NEA likely has more to do with symbolism than fiscal prudence, as the total funding of both agencies amounts to a rounding error in the federal budget. As far as symbolism is concerned, it is worth noting that the NEA had already been physically displaced from its former home in the building which has now become a Trump hotel. Moreover, the cost of redecorating the hotel significantly exceeded the entire annual NEA budget.

Unfortunately, the largest impact of destroying the NEA will likely be felt in areas outside the nation's metropolitan centers, whose public museums and private galleries will survive. In recent years, the NEA has increasingly focussed on supporting community projects in parts of the country that have few cultural resources, providing funding for projects radio stations in rural areas, community-based theater companies and programs for returning veterans.

As President Trump relies heavily on family and personal relationships in his decision-making, some had hoped that advocates for the arts with access to the President might have provided some protections for the endowments. Karen Pence, the wife of the Vice President, is an advocate for art therapy and a longtime painter. Ivanka Trump is a serious collector of contemporary art whose collection includes works by Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, David Ostrowski and many others. During the presidential transition, Mr. Trump himself seemed to evince some interest in the NEA when he reportedly offered his friend Sylvester Stallone a chance to run the endowment. Stallone, a long-time painter whose work has been widely exhibited, was reportedly flattered but declined the offer.

As the budget proposal moves through Congress, there is still a chance that funding for the endowments could be restored. Many arts organizations are already mobilizing support. However, the endowments themselves, legally barred from lobbying, cannot advocate for their own survival.

Can Foucault's Writing Shed Light on Our Current Crises?

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Post-Structuralism may have largely cycled out of fashion, and few outside of the higher education setting are focussing on its key texts. With the socio-political upheaval that is roiling both the US and much of the rest of the world, however, Colin Koopman makes a compelling argument that now is a very appropriate time to re-engage with Foucault.

Foucault's inquiries into the various manifestations of power in culture and society speak to many of our current crises, such as the resurgence of ethno-nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the proliferation of mass incarceration.

While many contemporary artists are responding urgently to such issues in their work, Foucault's ideas continue to serve as a useful theoretical framework for considering socially-engaged art in a broader context.

Private Collections to Receive Assistance Regarding Nazi-looted Works

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The discovery of the notorious trove of 1,200 artworks hidden in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt--a collection passed down from his father who was a Nazi-era art dealer--there has been increasing interest in research into the provenance of potentially Nazi-looted works held in private collections. Whereas the international Washington Principles accord mandates restitution of Nazi-looted artworks held by public institutions, no comparable legal frameworks holds sway over private collections. In the wake of the Gurlitt affair, however, individual collectors are increasingly undertaking their own investigations into the provenance of their works, and a new fund has been established by the German government to assist in such efforts.

How Will the Met Recalibrate?

With the recent surprise announcement that Director Thomas Campbell is resigning his post, questions continue to swirl regarding the direction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is facing a huge deficit, despite its continued popularity and robust attendance. Another recurring issue has been how and to what degree the Met should keep trying to extend its purview to include more contemporary art.

The Art Newspaper has an insightful interview with former curator George Goldner, who discusses his perspective as a Met insider for over 20 years.