Illustration by Alisa Yang

Illustration by Alisa Yang


A Little Less Snobby

I became a Los Angeles artist about the same time Artillery became a Los Angeles art magazine. This 10-year anniversary issue naturally makes everybody wonder whether there’s anything special about art in Los Angeles as opposed to the art mainstream that’s defined by New York.

Here are the obvious differences:

That one guy with the camera is at all the openings.

The big public art is less likely to be black and rectangular and more likely to have like a wave or yellow in it.

The line between the kind of art you usually see in Artforum and the kind you usually see in Juxtapoz is thinner here—though still strictly enforced.

The line between the kind of art you usually see in Artforum and the kind you usually see in ads in the back of Art News is thinner here—though still somewhat enforced.

The line between the kind of art you usually see in Artforum and the kind you usually see painted on a train station wall is thinner here—though still enforced, I think.

There are more things that have to do with movies.

In New York, the art dealers in Chelsea and the Lower East Side would’ve stuffed Artwalk in a sack and thrown it off a bridge years ago.

Sometimes weird celebrities buy your paintings.

More drugs.

The art is often goofier, often on purpose.

To sum all this up: the LA art world is a little less snobby than the New York art world. This accounts for one of the less obvious differences: The same work of art often sells faster in New York than in Los Angeles.

This is extra strange because contemporary art is bought by people who all have internet and think of plane tickets as pocket change. Out in the real world things increasingly happen everywhere at once simultaneously—albums, political campaigns, movies, Pokemon Go—not art. Art trickles out unevenly, the way nothing else that costs five or six figures should. There is absolutely no reason, in 2016, that art should be bound by time and space the way local phenomena are—yet it is. The entire profession of art advisors is predicated on it and there would be no art fairs if things weren’t that way.

When it trickles out in New York—people snap it up. In New York, art-buying is part of the city’s identity and they take it seriously. In LA—well it’s one option for conspicuous consumption among many. You could get a Schnabel… or a Shag couch in magenta neoprene.

Snobbery enforces the line between contemporary art and the stuff that for one reason or another doesn’t count, but it also creates the market for contemporary art as we know it. If it weren’t for the perceived social and intellectual halo surrounding Kelleys, Koonses and Watteaus they would be sold like chandeliers, life-sized pewter ostriches, fountain pens and every other luxury item—by size, cost of materials and the amount of work it looks like somebody put in. Too little snobbery and the concept of Contemporary Art doesn’t exist. Too much of it and it’s too boring to care if it exists. In between is money.

LA art has always erred non-snob because in the land of movies, no artist can pretend to be important. This casts LA in an unfamiliar role—an underminer of glamor and pretension. New York artists, with their references and gray slabs, take the risk of seeming dull; LA artists so often risk seeming drunk. Wry disillusionment is the major mode of LA art: myths, projects, ideas, cultures—they fail. In Baldessari’s, Kelley’s, McCarthy’s, Kienholz’ and Ruscha’s attempts to form a straight line, comforting toys, Disney characters, Beaneries, profound words—they go awry, and it’s funny.

Hesitant re-illusionment is the secondary mode—in this kind of art, the artist drinks in glamor, but knowingly and wistfully. In Catherine Opie’s surfers, the Finish Fetishists and Pettibon’s waves, commercial or conventional symbols of freedom, majesty, beauty are presented and the artist goes “But aren’t they actually beautiful anyway? And is it a little sad that that’s as good as it gets?” The thing is presented along with an acknowledgment of not its fragility (this is not National Geographic) but its limits—the artificialness of our relationship to nature, the temporariness of youth, the inequality and envy entrained by stardom.

Few LA artists seem to run right past cultural anything and ask for raw, contextless fascination—Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins sometimes, and some of the street artists. There is already so much here, and it asks so much of us.