Provincialist penumbra

Early in my tenure at a large high tech company, I was told I should move to move from Oregon because all real business happened via impromptu hallway conversations in Santa Clara. After years of flying to headquarters every week or two, I found this advice both sound and frustrating. In the end I embraced my provincialist fate by not moving and eventually leaving the company.

I was put in mind of this episode after reading Terry Smith’s excellent The Provincialism Problem. This thirty-year old provocation (first published in Artforum in September 1974) discusses the unbreakable “provincialist bind” in the visual arts.

Smith’s argument, which I will proceed to butcher, is that New York–itself a deeply provincial place–reinforces provincialism elsewhere by “writing the rules of the game in avant-gardist terms.” The avant garde is by definition in constant flux, and membership can only be secured by eschewing the appearance of desire for membership and generating, not just following, rules. Anyone physically separated from rule-generating members of the art world will suffer from accusations and realities of provincialism.

Is this still true? To me, the article remains fresh in tone and meaning, minus a few unavoidably dated examples of artists. Several notable shifts have occurred, however.

First, New York hasn’t retained utter dominance–though three decades on it is perhaps more surprising that most of Smith’s statements about New York remain absolutely true. If, however, we simply substitute “global institution/festival/fair/curator validation system” in place of “New York,” the arguments remain completely accurate (if not pithy).

Second, Smith drew no distinction between the art world and the art market; he didn’t need to in 1974. Today it would be impossible to explore visual art provincialism without accounting for ways in which market forces anoint and homogenize artists, and how those differ from non-commercial forces. Unlike the art world, the market typically acts as a force of conservatism rather than avant gardism, and the market coaxes the art world to share many conservative values. The sheer pace of market expansion can act as force of change and disruption, but speed and avant gardism are not the same.

Third, it strikes me that if we replaced “critics” with “independent curators,” the article would be refreshed and still fundamentally accurate. I don’t mean that curators fill the function than critics used to fill–curators' preference is usually to propose rather than to critique. But both are filters for what we see and who is validated, and independent curatorial fortunes have bloomed in proportion to the withering of meaningful criticism.

Without ending on a tech-utopian note, I wonder how the rise of digital art will affect the provincialism bind. Web-based stuff (including art) respects only boundaries of access, not physical/geographic boundaries. And Silicon Valley and Bangalore are remarkable success stories of provincialism that upset the apple cart. All very encouraging. But I doubt that, should I be lucky enough to reread the article in 2044, I will disagree with Smith’s parting salvo: “There are no ideologically neutral cultural acts.”

Thank you to Victoria Camblin of Art Papers for bringing this article to my attention.

– Theo Downes-Le Guin