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How to Behave and Misbehave in the Art World

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Aired 8/28/09

Have you ever gone to an opening at a gallery and felt like a fish out of water, as if there were customs and ways of behaving no one told you about? The art world, like any other culture, has its own standards of etiquette. We'll explore the good and the bad manners of the art world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Sometimes events that theoretically are enjoyable are, in fact, excruciating. Take, for instance, an opening at an art gallery. Theoretically, you attend an opening to see some interesting new work and perhaps meet the artist responsible and engage in some lively discussion. In fact, a gallery opening is often rife with disappointment, bad behavior, and awkward moments. And if you don't know how to act or what to say, it can put you off galleries completely. But now some new advice may help you snatch victory from the jaws of a deadly art world experience. The Web site papermonument.com has released its first pamphlet called "I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette." My guests are two contributors to "I Like Your Work." Jessica Slaven is an artist based in Yonkers, New York, and a member of Paper Monument's editorial board. Jessica, welcome to These Days.

JESSICA SLAVEN (Artist): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Dushko Petrovich is a painter and the founding editor of Paper Monument. Dushko, welcome.

DUSHKO PETROVICH (Artist): Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to ask you both why the title "I Like Your Work?" Is that the proper thing to say to an artist when you go to an opening even if you don't like their work, Jessica?

SLAVEN: Well, I mean, it's kind of a funny thing to say because I think that even when it's stated dishonestly there's a kind of encouragement in it that, you know, recognizes that maybe you've seen that person's work before you've met them and, you know, they're – they have a degree of acclaim and…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, but…

SLAVEN: …especially that they're important.

CAVANAUGH: Because you're not actually saying I like 'this' work.

SLAVEN: Right, you're – and you're not saying, you know, I like your shoes. You're kind of appreciating some specific kind of intimate output that they've put into the public sphere.

CAVANAUGH: Dushko, how often have you heard that phrase yourself, I like your work?

DUSHKO: I – Maybe people don't appreciate me generally enough. I don't know. I usually get the specific compliments. Maybe I've heard, I like what you do. I don't know. Yeah, I mean, we chose it because it was generic and a little bit tongue in cheek because it could really refer to anything, you know. It could be – you know, many artists do a lot of different things, too, so, you know, just such a generic phrase that that's how we chose it.

CAVANAUGH: There's a concurrent generic phrase for broadcasting. It's, I love your show. So…

DUSHKO: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …I know exactly what you're talking about here. Is there room for constructive criticism, though, at a gallery opening or an art fair? Is there a place for people to actually say what they think, Dushko?

DUSHKO: Well, that's the difficulty. I mean, I think that's why we wrote the book is because, you know, the art world really just exists in social gatherings. We don't have board meetings or these other, you know, secret offices or anything. It's all just in the gallery and at parties and that kind of thing, so the difficulty arises that you want to, on the one hand, respect the formality of the situation and the fact that it's, you know, in one sense, simply a party and should be a good time for everyone. But on the other hand, you don't want to fall into meaningless positive idiochatter, so, you know, that's the whole transition that everybody in the art world is constantly making, is back and forth between a formalized, you know, mutually affirming gathering and a chance to really say what you think and exchange ideas and, you know, conduct business, all those kinds of things. So, you know, it's tricky. I think the thing is you want to – usually following suit is a good idea, so if somebody starts off formal and friendly, then you just follow through formal and friendly. But if someone wants to get down to brass tacks then you can be really honest.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, Jessica, since this is about etiquette, are there some things you shouldn't say at an opening, a gallery opening or an art fair?

SLAVEN: Well, I mean, I think, you know, it depends on the artist with whom you're speaking or the dealer or, you know, I think it's kind of contextual. If the artist is clearly anxious or clearly has other people they want to speak to, then you probably don't want to try to engage them in some deep conversation on their work. And, you know, I think it would also be, you know, a bad idea to ever try to pull a collector away who's trying to talk to a dealer or something like that. I mean, you have to kind of be respectful of other people's boundaries and of their kind of feelings in the moment.

CAVANAUGH: And I guess that would just hold true in any social setting. I'm wondering, is there any good way to approach an artist for someone who's new to the art scene, who really doesn't go to a lot of galleries and stuff? I mean, is there any way that's – that one might safely do that without fear of reproach, Dushko?

DUSHKO: Well, I think just general curi – you know, honest, sincere curiosity gets you really far. And I think most artists are willing to meet their viewers at that point so, you know, there's no sense in pretending that you're some kind of insider or you have deep knowledge if you don't. So if, you know, it's just your first time then you can just start with a lot of questions. And I think friendly questioning works pretty well, and if it doesn't work then you might just have run into a moody or a impolite artist or dealer and then you can deal with them how you would deal with any moody or impolite person.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. What if you go to a – And this happens somewhat, I can't say, frequently, but it does happen, if you go to an art show and you are genuinely shocked by what you're seeing. I mean, you know, it's – it's work that seems to be transgressive and perhaps it's upsetting you. Is it within the realm of etiquette to express a feeling like that?

DUSHKO: I…

CAVANAUGH: Dushko?

DUSHKO: Oh, go ahead.

CAVANAUGH: No, Dushko, I'm speaking…

DUSHKO: Oh, sorry. Yeah, I think – Yeah, that sort of for me goes under following suit. You know, so if an artist has made an aggressive, you know, avant garde or troubling piece, then, you know, I think it's fair to expect that there would be some aggressive or troubling or, you know, strange responses. I don't think there's anything wrong with any of that. If the work is impolite then that kind of opens up the responses.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jessica, have you ever heard something at a gallery coming from a person looking at art that was surprising to you?

SLAVEN: Surprising? There's a person I know who frequently makes negative comments very loudly…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my.

SLAVEN: …and regularly right near the person about whom she's speaking – or, about whose work she's speaking. But, I don't know, I think because there is the kind of avant garde history in – among artists, surprising is hard to find.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, I'll take you on that one. Now, if – if one is interested in going to a gallery and buying a piece of art but you're new to the process, okay, when do you ask about how much a work of art costs? When do you talk money? Is there any advice in the – in your new book, "I Like Your Work" about talking money? Jessica.

SLAVEN: There's not a ton of advice about talking money in the book. I can think of a couple of essays that mention it. But, again, I think that depends on the gallery. There are a lot of more relaxed kind of informal galleries that have started to crop up especially since the kind of demise of the boom. And I think those are places where it's much more approachable, you know, and there are also particular blue chip galleries who represent people who have waiting lists and, you know, if you're not a museum, you're not going to get a painting.

CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly.

SLAVEN: So, you know, it depends on what exactly you want to buy, and how they're willing to let that work out into the world.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, Dushko, relating to what Jessica just said, is the fact that the – a boom has busted and the art world has slowed down a little bit economically, has that changed the etiquette of talking about money at gallery openings and so forth? Is the reception to that sort of talk a little less icy?

DUSHKO: Yeah, I don’t – I think so. I mean, I think anybody's happy to talk about exchanging money at this point, really. And then the other – you know the other side of it is some people seem to have responded by being – just being nicer and more friendly and not so obsessed with money in a way that they might've been during the boom. And then other people seem to be using the bad financial times to excuse their impolite and greedy behavior so I think, you know, there's a whole range of responses. I think people are being more honest maybe about money and just kind of coming clean and saying, hey, you know, we're not – we're not doing so well right now or I'm really happy I got this job because, you know, I wasn't selling very much at my gallery. That's mainly among artists. I think some galleries are making more deals, you know, than they would've before so there's some flexibility in terms of what the first price they state is and then what you finally pay. So, yeah, I mean, I think probably like other sectors, people are still trying to figure out how to keep making money and if that involves being nice and flexible then I think they're doing it.

CAVANAUGH: In the pamphlet called "I Like Your Work" by papermonument.com, you actually not only have advice for people who are visiting galleries but for artists themselves. And some of, I think, one of the best tongue-in-cheek advice–in fact, I don't even know if it is—is about what to wear if you're an artist at a show. And there's one person who advises artists should never wear khaki pants. Does that hold true, do you think, Dushko?

DUSHKO: Well, I think that might be a New York thing.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

DUSHKO: I'm not sure. I mean, I think on the west coast you might be able to get away with some khaki or some linen. I live up in Boston and khaki's pretty much the team uniform. A lot of it has to do – how artists has to – have to dress has to do with distinguishing themselves from other members of society and then, more specifically, distinguishing themselves from other elements within the art world. So, this is our – my co-editor, Roger White's essay. It was spot on. He just sort of pointed that out. And then another one of our contributors said that if you were a skinny artist, you had better dress neat, and then if you were a fat artist, you had better look disheveled and messy. And he said he didn't know why that worked. And then it was funny, I was talking to Roger and Roger said, oh, I know why that works. That's because if you're skinny and you dress messy, you look like an art handler. And if you're fat and you dress really neat, then you look like a collector, and you don't want that. And actually one time I got mistaken for a collector just because I was wearing a kind of a nice, I guess, fur hat in the winter and I didn't know that I was being mistaken for a collector but I wanted to see some work and I was shown a ton of work and I was just, you know, so much attention was lavished upon me, I found it really strange, you know. And I happened to know – A former student was working as an intern at this gallery and I talked to her later and she said, oh, you know why they treated you so nicely is because they thought you were a collector. And I – So…

CAVANAUGH: That's funny.

DUSHKO: …that's if you want to look like an artist but I don't know that we advise, even for artists – Wanting to look like an artist might be a bad idea.

CAVANAUGH: And as far as the etiquette goes for the west coast and east coast, Jessica, there's different ways that artists are required to look. I think on the west coast you say it's rather healthy and rested?

SLAVEN: Yeah, and interestingly enough, this isn't the west coast but in Berlin the kind of highest level of dress for artists seems to be, right now, pleated khakis and some kind of a button down shirt and a sweater vest over it because that's the kind of reactionary position against the, you know, tight pants kind of punked hair kind of hipster thing. So I think in different places, you know, people are kind of trying to push themselves into an original response to their environment.

CAVANAUGH: That's really interesting. Sounds like you're going to a lodge meeting with that outfit on. But I – Dushko, in the book you say—and I think that this is something that people are intimidated by when they go to gallery openings—there's this whole history of artists as rule breakers and there's a stereotype that artists might be a little bit more rude, perhaps won't follow the cultural standards in behavior, and you say that with everyone practicing rudeness, it's hard to tell who the real artists are. I wonder if this whole stereotype of artists just not really behaving well at their gallery openings and so forth, is that just overblown?

DUSHKO: Well, I mean, yeah, because you only hear about it when they behave badly. I mean, there's never going to be a story about a guy who, you know, shook everybody's hand and politely answered all the questions and went home and had a scotch and fell asleep. You know, there's – that doesn't really make for a good anecdote. And I think, yeah, I mean, part of my point was that manners have broken down partly because of artists' behavior but partly just because of modern life. I mean, I think manners have kind of fallen away and we live in a casual or chaotic society, depending on how you want to look at it. And I think one of the subtexts of the book was really that we were suggesting that maybe artists could come back to the forefront as the real innovators in manners in terms of reestablishing some manners and reestablishing some formalities that might help people get along better. I mean, that's obviously a pipe dream but it was one of the kind of underlying themes of the book.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I don't want to leave this conversation without mentioning something that was actually mentioned in the book "I Like Your Work" a couple of times, and it's part of the etiquette of the art world. I didn't realize it but it's the kiss, it's the double-cheeked kiss. When do you do it? Is it two kisses or one kiss, as in an air kiss? We need some help here, Jessica. What is it?

SLAVEN: Well, it's problematic because no one seems to have the same, you know, code of behavior down on that one. And I think, in part, it comes from the fact that artists spend a lot of time alone in their studios. And so when they see one another, you know, it's time for some physical contact and, you know, maybe some need more or some need less and, you know, I think maybe we need to write another pamphlet that really codifies that behavior.

CAVANAUGH: Maybe so. I want to thank you so – both so much for talking with us today.

DUSHKO: Thanks so much.

SLAVEN: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Jessica Slaven and she's an artist based in Yonkers, New York, a member of Paper Monument's editorial board. Dushko Petrovich is a painter and founding editor of Paper Monument. We've been talking about their new book "I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette." It's on the website papermonument.com. Coming up, two San Diego art collectors share their secrets. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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