Why should anybody in the art world(s) care about etiquette? Artists should be busy pursuing their visions and mystic truths. Dealers should have their hands full scoring their artists money and premier placement. Should we expect any serious participant to patiently learn a constructed code of behaviors designed and imposed by people in power who just want another way to alienate the uninitiated? A creative genius should be immune to etiquette, free to carry his or her generative capacity out of the studio and into the real world, free to transform and transcend interpersonal relations as he or she will do Painting.
Etiquette might be for squares, but social codes are inevitable when people come together, just like language and babies. If you want to join in, then you have to surrender and learn these codes. Otherwise, just try to approach Larry Gagosian to tell him about your work, show up at Gladstone with slides, or add Robert Storr to your newsletter mailing list without asking first. Try handing out postcards for your group show while at someone else’s opening. You’d fare better with bad breath or an NRA hunter’s cap. Self-preservation compels you to study and trace the invisible mechanics between people; this improves your chances of survival. (It’s a lot like the awesome spy who can spot enemy, incognito spies mingled in the crowds: the man at the payphone, the woman with a stroller, the bike messenger riding around the block over and over.)
For your survival alone, it’s worth spending your last $8 on I like your work: art and etiquette, edited by Paper Monument. This month brought the third reprinting of the pamphlet, which originally debuted in August 2009. Paper Monument includes Naomi Fry, I-Huei Go, Prem Krishnamurthy, Dushko Petrovich, Jessica Slaven, and Roger White. For this pamphlet, Paper Monument sought from art professionals of varied stature their thoughts on art world etiquette. The contributors include artists, critics, curators, bloggers, dealers, and publishers. Most of them respond to a scripted list of questions, others write essays or produce do-and-don’t lists for art world navigation.
The book offers valuable tips. On chatting, Anonymous adivses, “When conversation flags, introduce new topics in alphabetical order.” On studio visits, Jay Batlle: “Try to be on time/ Don’t cancel at the last minute.” On restraint, Ethan Greenbaum: “You can’t act like you want anything too bad” and Anonymous: “Don’t let on that you want something from someone- this makes the person who is wanted from uncomfortable – better to let them suggest it.”
Some recurring concerns arise. For example, three writers prescribe ways to handle your own negative opinions. Andrew Berardini; “If the dealer or artist(s) ask how you like the show during the opening, try to find something polite to say. If they insist on a real opinion, they’ve got whatever you have to say coming.” For Anonymous: “Wait until you are at least six blocks away from a show before expressing a negative opinion about the show – this is known as the ‘six block rule.'” Ryan Steadman: “Negative comments about the artist’s work at their opening is the equivalent of taking a shit on someone’s birthday cake at their fortieth birthday party.”
Ripping a show at the opening is proof that you shouldn’t be there in the first place. (Bob Nickas: “Only go to openings if you’re invited.”) If you really belonged, you would have had a studio visit with the artist well before the show opened, and there voiced your concerns about his or her work. If you actually did that, then you’d probably care enough about the person to hush up, or at least find a satisfying compromise, such as, “Not the choice I would have made, but I know so-and-so thought lots about it/ had a good reason/ made a difficult choice.”
On the other hand, phony compliments and endorsements can be just as bad. (Again, Nickas: “The only reason to tell someone you liked his or her show is if you did.”) Insincerity can be surprisingly apparent , and anyway, devaluing genuine compliments is like counterfeiting money. For me, I try to share something – anything – I like: “One really cool thing was the glistening patina on that bronze/ the pasty texture on that big painting/ the spongy tongue on the Gene Simmons sculpture.”
One touchy issue is surprisingly absent: comparing an artist’s work to another artist. Artists generally dislike hearing that their work is similar to another artist, especially when that other artist is a living artist. What the artist hears is: “Your work isn’t original.” You should never say, “Your work looks like so-and-so artist,” even if you mean it as a compliment. On this topic, Artist and SVA alum Delia Gable Facebook’d me the following candid, yet moderate view: “It’s one thing when a person says, ‘Oh, have you ever seen (so-and-so)’s work? I think you would really like it,’ because I love learning about new works to look at. But I get SO pissed when someone says that my stuff ‘looks just like’ some random dude who, say, also does line drawings, or uses ink, or drew a woman once. It IS lazy, to say the very least!!!”
It doesn’t matter if that “other artist” is indisputably great. “Your work looks like Tintoretto” would never occur, because nobody actually makes work like that, and if they did, you probably wouldn’t get to talk to them, anyway. One thing that is permissible is to cross media. Tell a painter that his sense of light reminds you of Antonioni, or a photographer that there’s something Borges about the way she handles time. (On the other hand, this could make you sound pretentious.)
Ultimately, the book is more of a time capsule or survey than authoritative guide. The dynamic art worlds are small and unregulated, and can be hideously nepotistic, fickle, and inscrutable. The paradigm always shifts, so no rule can be absolute. Amanda Trager nails it, observing that etiquette is “Impossible to sum up because the art world is a place “where worlds collide” kind of place – people from different social strata, of different generations and countries, etcetera, make etiquette a constantly shifting and constantly negotiated thing. Which is good.”
And no infraction has to be your last. The art world is filled with so many insecure and troubled adults that it ends up being merciful on the etiquette deficient. Even well established artists can be uncouth or tactless. It isn’t necessarily malicious or even unschooled; it’s just that everybody is nervous. Or as David Levine writes, “Everyone is totally freaked out all the time.”