A month later, I still remain stunned by what has happened, and I am still trying to process it, even as I work furiously on the next paintings.
I began the blog because I moved from Miami to middle NC. I left my friends, my job and a fairly vibrant art community, and I felt adrift, so I concluded my solitary studio work each day with an entry in my blog. I suspect that I was channeling some of the energies that I used to spend teaching: talking about process, and things that I have been reading or thinking about. Mostly, I was terrified of falling off the face of the earth, artistically speaking, so the blog was a way of feeling as though I had not disappeared altogether, as I went into the Carolina wilderness to make art full time, at least for while, to see what would happen. I was honest and truthful about my struggles, doubts, and prejudices in this blog, confident that the only ones reading it were already friends of mine, never dreaming that the eventual audience would be anyone in the entire world who wanted to check out “that painting” and put in their two cents about it.
Throughout my life, I have felt that, due to my particular and familial pathologies, I have always been quite behind my peers in figuring out how the world works. Even when these truths became evident to me, I have been pathetically slow to accept and integrate them, because they were so far removed from my ingrained idealism about how things SHOULD work.
I have always had a lot of confidence in what I make, and have always been very ambitious, although getting past a certain awkwardness and shyness about pushing my work has been an ongoing challenge in my adult life. It puzzled me when I would hear friends say that they had given up on ever showing in New York, or being in the Whitney Biennial. Even if you never achieved it, didn’t having a goal get you further than not having one? I have always kept the dream, even though I had no real understanding of all that it entailed.
After attending the second Basel Art Fair in Miami, and seeing lots of bad art selling for lots of money, I spent a long time thinking about my place in the art world, or rather, lack of place. I remember being baffled as to why my career was not where I thought it should be: I knew the work was good, people told me it was powerful, I had 70 amazing reviews, and no bad ones. There were a few significant people championing my work… what was I doing wrong? I posed the question to my friends, via a 2 a.m. email (with the dramatic subject heading “A Cry for Help and/or Perspective Thrown out into the Void”…. ). I suspected that many of them were feeling the same way I was, (frustrated at being mostly ignored) and their heartfelt responses (which I have kept), proved to me that I was not alone.
What I was doing was banging my head against the wall: I had deliberately avoided being in commercial galleries, because I knew my work was difficult, was sometimes a downer (as one viewer put it, face-to-face with one of my pieces in a gallery while holding a glass of wine, “This is a little too much to deal with on a Friday night”), it took so long to make that I wanted to exhibit it a bit before it got sold to anyone (this also served to build up my exhibition resume, needed to get tenure), and I hated parting with my work, at least until after I got to look at it/learn from it for a while, because it was so personal. I had sent my packets only to the top galleries showing work I respected, and had been rejected by them. One or two galleries had approached me: one I had a show with right before they went under, the other had horrific track records in how they treated their artists, and I did not go with them. So I continued to do my work, getting shows in small museums and university galleries, doing lots of my own PR, flying solo under the national radar. A few years ago, I set up a month-long open studio in Manhattan, sending out press releases and postcards everywhere. It yielded some results, but not anywhere near what I had hoped. (I soon realized that it was only a first step: if I could not live in New York, I had to go there more often than I had been, maintaining contacts, etc. ) An acquaintance, who also happens to be an important critic and curator, stopped in to see me during this month, and I remember his comment, made with a knowing smile, “trying to do it yourself, huh, Kate?”. He didn’t say, “well good luck, you’re going to need it!” or “do you have any idea how difficult/absurd/impossible that is?”, but I caught the implication, and it dawned on me, “You’re not in the game, Kate... you’re outside the system, that’s what you’re “doing wrong”.
I was educated in the old school, where it was vulgar to talk about the art market. I understand that, these days, the “career path” is explained to students in very specific steps: start out in one of these galleries, in a few years, work your way up to one of these galleries, and so on. So two years ago, when a Miami gallery approached me, and, one of the directors, a painter herself, seemed to understand and appreciate all that went into my work, I agreed to show with her. This gallery provided me with the opportunity to show my work at Art Miami, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Think about how you normally find out about artists or works of art: you go to a show (usually featuring several other works for context) hung in a gallery or museum, you read about an exhibition in a validating art magazine, a friend sees something, and tells you that you must see it. What happened with BAT (“Blessed Art Thou”) that was so different? Well, it appeared online first, in Boing Boing, celebrity blogs, and then the television news. People who never go to museums or galleries, many of whom have deeply held religious convictions, had this image foisted in their faces repeatedly (the woman giving me a haircut before the fair even started said that her husband “was sick of seeing ‘that’ painting”). Some television stations had polls about it. All of this happened while I was away from home, spending time at the fair, answering requests for images and interviews, learning what “spin control” meant… there was literally not a minute to read back through the blog to see if there was anything there I did not want the whole world to know. When the first threatening phone call came in, we activated the alarm system in our house, and tried to remove our address from any published sources. My husband devoted an entire day to this task, and was none too happy about it, as he had urged me to do this “just in case” six months ago. Then came the AP article, where critic Blake Gopnick, via a very convoluted and unprofessional route, had the final word about this painting, literally… in Turkey, in India, in South Africa, all over Europe and North America…
(Thanks to the WWW, from this day forward, whenever someone googles "critic Blessed Art Thou", they get dozens of versions of a quote by Washington Post critic Blake Gopnick. Mr Gopnick was asked by his friend, who has a celebrity blog, what he thought of the painting. Looking at a 72 d.p.i jpeg of a 7 foot painting, he made a few comments. She posted his unofficial quote, and the celebrity blog was quoted as a source in the Associated Press article that was released to the world. The positive comments by Senior Editor of Art Papers Jerry Cullum and Atlanta Creative Loafing critic Felicia Feaster are buried on page 5 and 6 of the Google search.)
Meanwhile, the actual painting was on display for 3 days in an art fair, not in a month-long exhibition so that people could see it for themselves, or more critics might write about it. All the hubbub, criticism, and debate was based on a virtual 72 d.p.i. image. Some newspapers actually reported that the image they printed was a painting (or a mural) of Angelina as the Virgin Mary HANGING in a Wal-M*rt, and I got dozens of emails from irate people telling me that “they will never shop at Wal-M*rt again”. I gave lots of interviews: in one, my interview about the painting was being used to tie into a promotion for the new television show about tabloids starring Courtney Cox. Towards the end of the “buzz” period, a major network news program contacted me for an interview, said they were “setting things up” with New York to get someone to come interview me, then emailed me the next morning with some questions, among them: Has Angelina contacted you? (No) Are you making any more celebrity paintings? (Maybe) After I emailed my responses, I never heard from them again… the story was starting to get old, anyway. Around this time, a number of other undesirable things happened that I still cannot talk about, and I was asked to shut down the blog by various people for various reasons. It had “served its purpose in getting me known, and now what you need is privacy and protection”, “You are putting yourself out there too much”, and “you need to maintain the mystery” or “you need to project complete confidence now”, i.e., I had “let people in behind the curtain”, denying the power that a certain mystery holds in the art marketplace. I had tried to be democratic in leaving all but the irrelevant or cruel (to others, not me) comments in the blog, but I was told “the blog is a selling tool, and you don’t owe any venomous *$#% space to comment on your painting”.
I digress. My point is that this is not the way that the public usually gets exposed to a work of art. And, while artists occasionally find a bad sentiment in their exhibition comment book, they are seldom strapped to a wall and pelted for 10 days with criticism, originating from parts of the population and a range of agendas that you could never even imagine. Eventually one or two other critics responded, and for that I am eternally grateful. I don’t really expect to hear anything more from the art establishment, as I honestly feel they are almost obligated to ignore this work, not in spite of, but because of, its unprecedented widespread presence in the mass media.
Yesterday, out of the blue, I suddenly realized that everything has changed: I feel profoundly different than I did five weeks ago, but not in the way that you would expect.
I feel indescribably vulnerable. It is not just the blog comments, the emails and the phone calls to my cell phone threatening my life, damning me to burn in hell “with wailing and gnashing of teeth”. It is the accusations (after 18 years of staying out of the art world) that I am selling out. It is that an art critic, looking at a jpeg of an 8 foot painting, made a negative comment to a friend, who put it in her celebrity blog, that was picked up as an official commentary by an AP reporter, and published around the world: “here is the work of artist Kate Kretz, and here is what a real art critic has to say about the work”. What artist has had the pleasure of a world-wide published AP press release ending with completely negative criticism? (Sincere thanks to all the papers who left that part out.)
It is that a satirical site (with a tiny disclaimer, “The fine print: the editorial content on this page is fictional. It is presented for entertainment purposes only. We cannot be held responsible for the actions of anyone who takes this sort of thing seriously" at the bottom of the web page) published more (this time, completely fabricated) negative criticism that was taken as a true news source by bloggers and media, then reprinted in several languages around the world, resulting in some truly disasterous consequences for me. This same site posted again when they received my email suggesting that their initial blog entry, while all in good fun, might be misunderstood, with intense ramifications for my career. The joke was on me, and Kate began to understand how this system works.
Perhaps this artwork will finally be remembered primarily as a performance piece: in this media-based "telephone" game, and in perfect poetic symmetry, I made myself a victim of the very system that I was criticizing in my work.
Friends are giving me the quotes “…as long as they spelled your name right”, and “you know what they say about bad publicity…”. Time will tell if this leaves me in better or worse standing in the art world (as opposed to the popular press). Most of the success seems virtual, rather than real: the news coverage is an archived list and a folder of image captures. (I DID frame the tiny New York Times article, and that is the sole reminder in my space.) The only thing I can do now is go into the studio, and make the best work I am capable of making.
So, dear friends, I have been making art that I feel very good about, but, with regard to the blog, the past few weeks, I have been like a deer in the headlights, frozen and not knowing which way to go. I have a case of World-Wide-Web-Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder. I have been holding back as I decide which way to proceed. This morning, I woke up thinking about something that one of my professors said at UGA. I had great respect for him as a teacher, because, as I was learning more about departmental politics in grad school, his priorities always seemed to be in the right place. He once said, “Lie to the administration if you have to (to get something accomplished for the students), but NEVER lie to the students”.
I have figured out what I will be doing with the blog from now on, but it is never going to be quite the same, as I am never going to be quite the same. But remembering what he said made me think that I needed to sit down and write a bit this morning, in order to stay true. There, I did it again. I hope you have a happy Sunday.