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NOW! That’s What I Call Cream

by Sean O'Toole / 26.05.2011

Every book reviewer has one of these: a guilty pile. It grows, like Duchamp’s dust, which the artist saw as breeding. For every one book seriously engaged, another five arrive in the post asking for attention. Try as you might, the ridiculousness of the situation grows, exponentially, until, well… the dust overwhelms you. Here are four propositions relating to the basic journalistic task of book reviewing. 1) Reading a book takes time. 2) So does reviewing it. 3) Not all books deserve a review. 4) A notice is not a review.

Sometime last year, shortly after receiving a review copy of Creamier, the fifth instalment in publisher Phaidon’s ongoing Cream series, I wrote a 100-word newspaper notice. It went unused. As things go at Chez O’Fool, the book was returned to the guilty pile, where it has sunbathed all summer long. I should review that thing properly, I repeatedly told myself, to be done with it. I should. I will. The reviewer’s soliloquy is a dull series of Post-it note declarations without climax. I suspect that my anxiety had something to do with the book’s size. To put it rather plainly, Creamier is fuck-off huge (“giant,” offer the publisher). In an art world where semiotic significance is established through area size and weight, a one-hundred-word response just wouldn’t do.

I don’t even have to paraphrase my unused 91-word newspaper write-up. Here it is in full: “Creamier (Phaidon, R440) is the new title in the popular and ever-expanding Cream series, launched in 1998, which asks ten curators to select ten artists whom, they believe, will change the future of contemporary art. Only one South African made the final list: the graffiti-inspired performance artist, Robin Rhode. Best known for his BMW art car project from last year [2009], Rhode might now live and work in Berlin, but as Creamier notes, “the land and history of South Africa remain the platform for his creativity and his chief source of inspiration”.” A notice is not a review.

Like the Rocky franchise, the Cream idea has proven remarkably durable as a concept, partly, I suspect, because it offers attention-deprived readers a Wikipedia-like encounter with 100 artists they’ll never see or meet. It’s very National Geographic in this sense, offering a neatly mediated tour through contemporary cultural production. It also mimics the prevailing logic of biennales, large-scale spectacles that showcase artists from everywhere under a cleverly dominating rubric. Taming the mess of democratic representation is an onerous task, both for a curator and book designer.

The Russian graphic designer Sonya Dyakova, who joined Phaidon in 2005, handled the design of Creamier. Dyakova has a canny sense for book design; she is also accomplished in the art of design subterfuge. In 2009, she designed a catalogue to resemble a telephone directory, which, in a manner of speaking, it is. (My friend Ricky Burnett prefers to speak of art catalogues as “stamp albums”.) Titled Younger Than Jesus, Dyakova’s book design received numerous awards, notably from the Tokyo Art Director’s Club and Type Directors Club in New York.

Creamier is equally ingenuous, arriving bound in a grey-brown folder meant to evoke a dossier of some sort. Opened, it reveals a newspaper-like publication printed in the Berliner format on a sallow yellow paper stock. Financial Times, the colour regime makes you to think, because these are indeed financial times – even for artists. “Undeniably, the art world is experiencing the onset of change due to the economic climate and many conversations concerning value and content have begun to circulate,” reads a sentence appearing on the first page of Creamier, under the headline “10 international curators visualise the future of contemporary art”. Yes, responds a New York curator.

“Historically,” says this informed insider, “moments of economic recession have been extremely interesting times for meaningful art-making, at least in New York.” Pause a second. Re-read that sentence. What does it say? Not just explicitly but implicitly? If I understand the statement correctly, it implies that, historically, moments of excess, like the period we exited a year or two ago, are interesting too, if only because of the meaningless art-making. Ines Katzenstein, a Buenos Aires curator, offers some relief when, shortly after, she offers, “Our context is always one of austerity and therefore one in which a sense of permanent construction pervades everything, beyond our financial circumstances.” This too sounds a bit like South Africa, where the ruthless commoditisation of art co-exists with a situation beyond our financial circumstances.

The minutia of the well-meaning economic debate that kicks off Creamier is interesting, but only to a point. Creamier is bound up in the commodity logic of the market. It does not offer abstracted comment on it so much as perpetuate a system of hyped talk. As Tirdad Zolghadr, a Berlin-based writer and curator, notes, “Creamier is a lubricant for artists’ careers but also suggests the hyper-visible, unapologetic way in which we curators are asked to play Top Ten jury, like experts, judges, kingmakers, pimps or what have you”. To put it less comically, the Cream series turns young and fluorescent thinkers into bland notice writers.

A couple of weeks ago I visited my favourite bookshop in Johannesburg, Collector’s Treasury on Commissioner Street. It is where books go to die. While rummaging through the art books stacked in the basement, I came across a copy of Art and Revolution, novelist and art critic John Berger’s 1969 study of the Soviet dissident sculptor Ernst Neizvestnys. “Criticism,” writes Berger, “is always a form of intervention: intervention between the work of art and its public. In most cases very little depends on this intervention.”

Creamier is a case in point. Very little depends on the critical intervention of Zolghadr, Katzenstein and the other eight selector-participants. Gerard Byrne, the wonderful Irish born artist featured in the book, appeared on large-scale exhibitions in Lyon, Gwangju, Sydney and Turin before he was listed in this book. In other words, he was already made by the time Creamier came along. So too was Rhode. Rather than establishing any sense of authority, Creamier merely reiterates a known position. Am I wrong in wanting writing about art to offer more?

In her seminal 1964 essay ‘Against Interpretation’, Susan Sontag bemoaned the rise of a surplus culture; criticism, offered Sontag, was a necessary tool for recovering “our sense” in the modern wilderness of more. Unfortunately, much art criticism, like a lot of book reviewing and writing about films, has begun to mimic the operating logic of the environment it comments on. Maximal, uninterrupted broadcast is now the defining imperative. Who cares if it really means anything? When I mentioned this thought to a novelist friend, he told me to stop being depressed. The situation was way worse, he said.

“There is not just too much commentary on art, there is too much art,” he offered. “And too much fiction. The question facing every novelist is how to hold the attention or engage the mind when The Earthquake in Japan is showing everywhere.” No doubt the next instalment of Cream, due out in two years and three months, if the three-year lifecycle of the series is upheld, will subsume the catastrophe. It will tame the condition; make a theme of it. The art world is clever like that.

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