David Zwirner. Photo by Tina Barney, courtesy of the New York Times
It is not shocking to hear a dealer ask “can you smell the money?” Things that obvious can only be boring. My issue with the David Zwirner profile in “The New Yorker” is that it all sounds like bad TV with one-dimensional characters, a predictable plot and embarrassingly dull dialogue. How else are we supposed to take pseudo-insights like “one of the reasons there is so much talk about money is that it is much easier to talk about than art,” other than as something bubbling from the mouth of a reality tv personality?
I honestly believe one reason art discourse is so low, so mind numbingly banal right now, is that curators, critics, and historians are not reading literature anymore. How could anyone engaged with Henry James or Dostoyevsky or Toni Morrison be contented to talk about art or people the way this profile does? It offers no complexity, just details the machinery of an industry in its “golden age”, reinforcing the caricatures everyone already has of both Zwirner and our present art-industrial-economy.
I know most “art people” are not reading literature because I ask them what they read. I’m deeply troubled by a brilliant friend, a freshly minted Ivy League PhD, who unabashedly refuses to read anything other than art history and “theory”. He represents the current crop of art writers and curators who, I guess, feel there is too much art-related text to wade through without letting fiction further muddy the waters. (I would like to point out that all the interesting artists I know are serious readers of literature and poetry. Recently I interviewed Roni Horn in her massive library; we were dwarfed by a wall of novels.) Novels do something special. They allow you to inhabit the interior life of complex characters different from yourself. The best novels expand our capacity for emotional nuance and empathy, and certainly refine our relationship to words. You cannot have a robust emotional or psychological life unless you live adventurously, and that includes widely reading literature along with everything else.
I used to get so annoyed by the proliferation of reductive and poorly written essays on contemporary art. But, in their defense, critics and historians can not be expected to rigorously engage the emotional and psychological complexity of a work of art if they themselves do not have expansive and multivalent inner lives. The sad truth of it is that the structures of both the commercial and academic art worlds are antithetical to such personal cultivation.
There must be something more interesting going on with David Zwirner and his leviathan commercial art world than this profile lets on, and if there isn’t, by all means, lets find something else to talk about.