It’s Going to Be Huge

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Of all the biennials, triennials, quadrennials, internationals, and massive group shows, Documenta, established in 1955 and held once every five years in Kassel, Germany, is seen as the most serious. A statement show. It can also be seen as something else. From the sweeping ambitions of its curators to its numerous large indoor and outdoor projects to the many venues across which it takes place, everything about Documenta is huge. Which makes the event, the 2012 edition of which starts June 9, an occasion to address a troubling development in the art world: bigness. Biennials have become sprawling and ubiquitous. Ditto art fairs. Galleries are vaster than they’ve ever been. But who is all this bigness good for? Is it any good at all?

Galleries began growing in both number and size in the late seventies, when artists who worked in lofts wanted to exhibit their work in spaces similar to the ones the art was made in. Since then, with the exception of some outliers that thrived in cozy storefronts in the East Village of the mid-eighties (and others thriving on the Lower East Side today), they have only gotten larger and slicker. Now they’re gigantic! And it is clear that bigger galleries have not made art better. If anything, the bigness makes it harder for some to maintain their visions and still pay the bills. Rumors sound of galleries asking artists for upsized art and more of it. I’ve heard of photographers asked to print larger to increase the “wall power” and salability of their work. Everything winds up set to maximum in order to feed the beast.

Bigness is not all bad. There’s something pleasing about large, well-lit spaces. I love that dealers are willing to take massive chances in order to give this much room to their artists. Most of all, I love that more galleries showing more art gives more artists a shot. But the bigness has also led to a narrowing of sensibilities, by making it very hard for any but the glitziest works to get traction. (The metaphysics of the art world are such that if good art gets made and no one notices it, it has not actually happened.) Recently I asked a great longtime local dealer what he’d do differently if he were to start over now. He said he would not have opened such a large space, that simply filling it was limiting everything.

When the Whitney Biennial was running earlier this year, I went nine different times and found ways to enjoy its forays into intimacy and oddness. But big group shows, as a category, are adding to art’s size problem. And not just because so many of them follow a common formula that leans heavily on conceptual art, relational aesthetics, video installations, and photographs and paintings about Third World countries. With the scale so large and the budgets so bloated, curators are under increasing pressure from multiple sources—be they bureaucrats, sponsors, board members, or colleagues—to make the shows profitable and popular. Thus, nowadays curators claim success when attendance is high, falsely equating quantity of viewership with quality of exhibition. After the last two anemic Venice Biennials, I got countless yawpy e-mails touting “record crowds!”

I am all for art’s finding a large audience. But the way that’s happening now, with big works filling big galleries and bigger shows, is mostly stopping statements from being made. Or heard. Or talked about. Or really examined. It’s watering things down. While the space for artists and curators has increased enormously, maybe, just maybe, that’s left room for too many people calling themselves artists and curators who are simply not up to the term.

This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

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It’s Going to Be Huge