How One Day at a Time Breaks the Monotony of Commercially Successful Art

By Camille Wong

  Installation view of One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art at MOCA Grand Avenue, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Zak Kelley

Installation view of One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art at MOCA Grand Avenue, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Zak Kelley

The last show curated by Helen Molesworth is a potent and rebellious exhibition that protests the canon of commercially successful contemporary art. One Day at a Time features the late film critic, Manny Farber, alongside other artists whose work explores the minute day-to-day. This show is dedicated to art that he proclaimed as “termite art,” or art that “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” This art celebrates the quotidian, the mundane, and the daily. However, this exhibition finds itself representing just that— the dull, banal, ubiquity of life. '

In Farber’s article for Film Culture magazine, “White Elephant vs. Termite Art,” he describes White Elephant art as celebrity, indulgent, and precious. Instead, he shirks that high art format and asserts that if we remove these popular, commercially successful artists from the spotlight and focus on the countless artists slowly toiling away at their practice, what we find is an unchartered territory of outsider art. This exhibition has works from many great and impressive artists such as Ray Charles, Josiah McElheny, Vija Celmins, and Fischli and Weiss. However, to describe their work as quotidian flattens the intention and nuances of each piece. We remove a personal narrative and instead reduce the artwork down to color theory, technique, mark-making, and design. Highlighting the artists’ craftsmanship and expertise is, of course, critical to the art object, but when we oversimplify the art, we not only remove the qualities that make it individual to the artist, but we also underestimate the ability of our audience to understand the depth of the piece.

Farber romanticizes the idea of termite artists “eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” I agree with Farber that we should be critical of the legion of bourgeois, famous, and untouchable artists. Such are celebrity artists whose work is so highly revered that discourse becomes impenetrable. These are market darlings such Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons whose work seem to fall into the platitudes that they’ve themselves created. Farber is critiquing the pivotal point in an artist’s career after becoming mega market superstars-- when the pressure to produce from critics, collectors, and galleries causes them to compromise the integrity of their work. However, his generalization of “white elephant art” dismisses the humble beginnings that every artist endures during the start of their career. This suggests that successful artists don’t also feel vulnerable when creating and presenting their work.

During the time Farber coined “termite art” in the 1960’s, he was frustrated with flashy celebrity filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, and the modish Tony Richardson, who perhaps in the momentum of their success bastardized the medium. However, can we deny these filmmakers pioneered a new movement of film-- Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). We can’t forget that the most innovative ideas were once considered too outlandish and unconventional to succeed. Hubris is the culprit of “white elephant” art, not the ideas that push the boundaries of the unprecedented. There’s no denying that underrepresented artists need opportunities too, and we find that Farber’s words still ring true today with the monotony of successful artists in the spotlight.

Integral to the importance of this show is the timing that it was installed, aligning with the dismissal of MOCA’s curator, Helen Molesworth. Motivated by the desire to change the current discourse of museum art, she sought to open up the conversation of contemporary art by featuring women, people of color, and artists that lack the commercial success of their contemporaries. Shortly before her dismissal, MOCA announced that they would have a retrospective exhibition featuring Mark Grotjahn-- a commercially successful white male artist who would unravel the progression that the museum and Molesworth were working towards. Her opposition to this exhibition and the museum’s inability to change led to her eventual dismissal. While there is no doubt that the power dynamic of the museum practice is changing for the better, it can be hard to be radical  when money held by the museum’s trustees and board plays such a influential role. This only further exacerbates the polarity of the art realm whereby if you support white male artists, it must mean that you don’t support marginalized artists.

This exhibition comments on the notion that the art world is, unfortunately like most things, driven by money. There is a pressure from artists, galleries, and curators to meet the demands of the art market. The issue that we see time and time again is the reoccurrence of the same artists which create a monopoly over the conversation of contemporary art. The only way to combat this is through curatorial intention. Curators are at the forefront of art history, forging the discussions about art in the future by selecting works and artists that represent the current social issues-- in this case the overrepresentation of commercially successful artists. Farber and Molesworth are both pioneers disrupting the dialogue of what society considers art. Tired of the same treatment towards the same artists, this exhibition breaks down the third white wall by attempting to bring lesser known artists into the conversation. Albeit at times repetitive and unsensational, One Day at a Time is not an exhibition that celebrates the daily but instead makes us question why everyday we’re inundated by the same conversations about contemporary art.

Camille Wong