I have just read a fascinating article in the New Yorker on artist Theaster Gates that is so wrong that borders the unbelievable. To tell a long story short, he is the factotum of the University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator which is placed on a two story building on the South Side of that city and which he converted into a two million dollars complex of galleries and studio spaces.
Gates, who has two degrees in urban planning and began his art career as a potter, is, according to the New Yorker, reshaping the South Side ‘in his image’. ‘The Arts Incubator is one of a long list of projects aimed at reviving a part of the city -plagued by unemployment and gang violence, its streets pocked with abandoned buildings- that he says has been left to rot since the sixties. Nearby, on Dorchester Avenue, he has been buying dilapidated houses and turning them into small cultural centres and meeting spaces: ‘places where moments of beauty can happen’. That work known as Dorchester Project, established Gates as one of the fastest-rising artists in the world’, says John Colapinto for the New Yorker.
His installations and performance pieces have been featured in a dozen international exhibitions, and his individual art works -fragments of the buildings he restores, or fire hoses coiled in glass-fronted cabinets and labelled ‘In the Event of a Race Riot’- sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, and he puts a significan portion of the proceeds into his projects on the South Side. Last fall, when ArtReview ran a list of the hundred most powerful people in the art world, Gates ranked 40th! Jeffrey Deitch, the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art/Los Angeles, said: ‘His special fusion of art and community activism has made him the kind of artist that people are looking for today. It’s not just addressing issues of art about art, and art about self-identity; it’s a new vocabulary, a new approach. The success of his work is measured by its actual impact on the community’.
Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel, has made Gates a kind of unofficial commission of renewal of the South Side and according to Gates’ assistant ‘the Mayor and Gates need each other’. At this point one must ask oneself, what the hell is going on here. I have heard this story many times recently. I, actually, wrote an article on how Lisson Gallery manipulates their collectors by highlighting as part of their sales pitch, these sort of moral issues. I think the best example of this is Ai Wei Wei. The excuse that the gallery gave me for his shocking lack of commercial ethics was that he was raising money for his ‘fight in favour of human rights’, whatever that means.
Something that I find interesting is the appeal that someone like Gates has for wealthy collectors is how their guilt is manipulated. Of course, we shouldn’t blame the artist for the collectors’ projections of their own traumas. However, it seems that part of Gates’ project is to act upon those insecurities convincing himself that they are ‘taking advantage of him’. It is obvious that the appeal that he has for the rich New Yorkers lies in that conflation of artistic and community philanthropy. But it is truly shocking to read that someone like Jeffrey Deitch is justifying this kind of ‘populistic’ project as ‘projects of good will’.
What I suggest here is that this is not very different from what I have considered, in this blog, as ‘con art’. This, of course, brings Gates very close to the like of Damien Hirts. Having said this, his ‘philantropic’ credentials make him even more dangerous. Let me be more clear about this. In a recent talk at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst he said: ‘I couldn’t have imagined that a piece of wood or the roof of a building would have gotten people so wet that they would want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on those objects’, he said. Gates told them that he was unperturbed when collectors bought those works purely as an investment: ‘I realised that the people who were calling me up and asking me if they could have a deal right out of my studio -that they were, in fact, thinking about the market, and that I would leverage the fuck of them as they leveraging me’. For Gates, this mutually exploitative transaction is a way ‘to fund this struggle’ (I guess, his ‘community projects’) but, at the same time, he is investing in Chicago South Side and making money with all this. Who is this guy? And, most importantly, for our discussion, is he transforming what that drive ‘to fuck the collector’ into the theme of his art? I don’t think this is too far from that fetichisation of the market that Damien Hirst has led for the last twenty years and that we all agree is ‘con art’. Just a thought.