Is Art Wrong?

James Payne

Shits and Giggles

Keith Allyn Spencer & Cody Tumblin

Skylab Gallery, 28.10.16 – 11.11.16

Photos courtesy of the artists and Skylab Gallery.


Of all my poems, and all their inadvisable lines, “Is Art Wrong?” is the one my friends choose to mock me with. The question it raises, even with its faux-naiveté, is not quickly put down. When someone first hears the poem, the opening line tends to get stuck in their head, to become an idée fixe, and to come back to me as mimicry. In part, this mocking is just a joke; a nod to a shared understanding; but it mostly feels like unprocessed gratitude. Gratitude, for someone has finally said it out loud:

Is Art Wrong?

It doesn’t feel right.

That pesky feeling – not right – is why essays about art, like this one, are often little more than decorated graves for dead theories about our not right lives under capitalism. Failing in the struggle to pin the tail on the donkey, to say why art is wrong, writers instead decide to indict the whole game. It makes sense. It’s easier to generalize about an artwork’s social context than it is to meaningfully evaluate an artwork’s formal and conceptual premises on its own terms. Or perhaps the writer never intended to engage the artwork and cloaked their real agenda in it for expediency’s sake. It, too, is far easier to make a cogent argument about the real world – its economies, its polities, its peoples – if one sets the argument in the symbolic version of the capitalist world found in art and arts writing.

The reader’s problem is that the connection between the real (reality, world, base) and the symbolic (art, art world, superstructure) is unclear. If the superstructure is an outgrowth of the base, why not tackle the base head on? Why speak about the politician’s painting instead of the politician’s policies? At best, the superstructure, the symbolic, is like the wind – its agency only evident through its observed effect on the real: blown trees, fallen leaves; new cultural politics, shifting political economies. But does the leaf fall because the wind blew it, or because it was already dead? Arguing about the wind is perhaps why arts writing finds itself on the margins, even in an ever more art-fluent mass-culture.

But now, thankfully, that paradigm has ended. The perennial goal of the avant-garde, to collapse art into life, the symbolic into the real, in order to unleash the radical potentialities of creativity, for all, has been achieved. It’s just that it’s been achieved through the transmutation of both art and life into work. Still, if A (art) is B (work), and B (work) is C (life), then art has been collapsed into life after all, hasn’t it?

This new dynamic, aside from streamlining writing for the Marxist art critic, has catalyzed some artists to engage in a para-politics centered on “the artist as worker” (W.A.G.E, Arts & Labor); and led yet others to recuperate and fetishize the concept of “art as play” as a refuge from, evasion of, and resistance to overprofessionalization and the loss of art for art’s sake.

In Skylab Gallery‘s Shits and Giggles, Keith Allyn Spencer, or KAS, (b. 1979; El Paso, TX) and Cody Tumblin (b. 1991; Franklin, TN) offer an example of the latter tendency: art as play. The show comes packaged with a playful title, Shits and Giggles, but the real “play” takes place in the works’ forms and presentation. Shits and Giggles is a painting show without paintings; with wall works on the ground; with work displayed on faux pedestals made of paper towels, mini-fridges, and broken fountains; with fabricated sculptures of commercial kitsch objects; and with unstretched canvases and unfinished works. KAS and Tumblin give us anything to signal a non-compliance with the work of art and the rules of life, any thing to signal play.

kas kas2 KAS3.jpg

Keith Allyn Spencer: (L) Thanks NRA, clay hardened by heat, fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion. (C) I Know What You Re Thinking, clay hardened by heat, fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion. (R) Good Hands, clay hardened by heat, fast-drying paint made of pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion.

The issue with “art as play” is that its conceptualization seems to follow Palo Alto’s model: “play” is a structured “free” space where innovations are drawn from, to be capitalized upon later. If this is true, play is not the ecstatic experience of creative thought in art, nor programming, but another site of pain. This conceptual disconnect – how to have play simultaneously be, and not be, work, is a source of anxiety for the artist. The artist must produce, and yet, to be an Artist, one must be seen as something more than a mere producer.

KAS papers over this issue by keeping “play” reverberating throughout his oeuvre via his mockubiography, misused titles and fictional dates for works, and alternate spellings of his name, which all key the viewer into an ambient mischief, if his unorthodox hangings, materials, and exhibition sites failed to get it through. While KAS’s poetic antics attempt to evade anything staid, his compulsion to joke, already endemic in the art world, creates a rhetorical non-space in his work where irony is de facto sincerity, and a joke just isn’t.

This is why KAS’s routine appropriation of meme language is so fitting: titling a work Get You a Man Who Can Do Both is, behind its humor, a tacit admission that the physical artwork on IRL display – the ceramic form with orange acrylic paint – can only hint at its real conditions, which is its URL existence, where it does its real work as a post. The artist is the one we need to “Get,” the “(Wo)Man” who can, and must, “Do Both” – IRL and URL, play and work, symbolic and real, superstructure and base, art world and world.


“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at
last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his
relations with his kind.”

Friedrich Engels & Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

If the industrial revolution turned the real world and its relations into an air called modernity, and if post-modernity sold that air at an All That Is Solid Melts Into Air™ Oxygen bar, and if, in the recession, that bar closed – and if we’ve since been squatting in its basement – then we should all be honest and agree that we’re just vaping on a Marx-brand AIR E-Juice while we still can.

To put it another way: the role of the artist was world-simulator, then world-creator; it melted further into idea producer. Now, the artist produces the Idea of Production. The artist vapes the idea of smoking.

The Idea of Production is doing something to put it on your CV so you can do something else later. It’s degrees that didn’t exist fifty, or five, years ago, for careers that stopped existing fifty, or five, years ago. It’s jobs that literally are not jobs. It’s finally showing at a gallery, but only after creating the gallery to show in. It’s What are you working on right now? and it’s always working right now, or it’s feeling embarrassed if you aren’t, or can’t, and it’s lying by saying that you are working, or want to. It’s the anxiety you feel when you aren’t feeling anxious enough, when you care too much about how you don’t care at all.

Flow makes artists produce the Idea of Production. Flow is the dominant paradigm of our lives as 2016 comes to a close. If our lives prior to 9/11 were ice cubes, Flow is the slushie machine that crushes them but adds in a syrup of artificial sweetener (the Internet) to make it tasty and salable. Flow is in every aspect of today, it’s where we see the “real conditions of life” in which, Marx wrote, “all that is holy is profaned.”

Though the Idea of Production is a response to Flow, it in turn energizes and normalizes its demands. In Flow, all facets of life become more and more commoditized, especially as there are less and less buyers on the market: the industrial space (57 E. Gay St. 5th FL) melts into the idea theater (Skylab Gallery), where events are attended by people whose careers have melted into 1099s, whose country is a collection of warring interest groups, whose wars are targeted drone strikes, whose family units are childless communes, whose relationships are mediated app hook-ups, whose houses are sub-sub-sublets, and whose Ubers are automated. All in Flow is flux, all is a saccharine melt; even these examples seem outdated, as we anticipate even more disintegrations to come.

Flow triggers the need for artists to produce the Idea of Production just to tread water. Both Flow and the Idea of Production find their natural homes on Instagram, whose endless scroll of atomized lives formally reflects the real world capitalist economy, which highlights individual achievement and redacts mass failure. At the same time, the real world debases its own relations to fit the logic and display regimen of the scroll. This ever-morphing presentation and representation leaves one in vertigo, where all that is solid has melted into the social. Tourists become tourists of their own tourism just as an artist’s real art becomes who sees their art objects and how.

But no matter how productive, the artist can never fill Flow’s maw: post as many production shots, coterie shout-outs, inspo insights, residency humblebrags, on-brand political reposts, and studio visit pix on Flow’s abyss and it will only demand more the next day. Accordingly, the work of the artist is now mainly spent on maintaining their Flow. Flow has turned the artist’s objects into posts, posts into followers, followers into social capital, and social capital into real capital via gallery representation, academic jobs, and art sales. The art object, destabilized and commandeered by Flow, now exists to arbitrate, as an online avatar, connections, exhibitions, careers, friendships, partners, marriages, and future Flows for the artist. For instance, I first saw KAS’s work on Instagram, even though we were in the same Indiana University building each day; the same with Tumblin’s, though we were in SAIC’s orbit at the same time.

Keith Allyn Spencer, Everyday s a Friday, 2015, “remote controls, plywood, enamel paint not in spray can, professional acrylic paint,” dimensions variable.

KAS and Tumblin are bright lights in this wave of denatured and accelerated production, whose Flow maintenance is integrated into and positively impacts the art objects they make. KAS’s work, for instance, is predicated on endless iteration in an attempt to meet and mirror the demands and opportunities of Flow within one piece. Works like KAS’s Everyday s a Friday (2015), a painting on both sides of multiple pieces of jigsawed wood, which recalls the jubilant Stellas of the 1980s, are documented repeatedly with multiple IG posts that share various permutations of the painting. During a studio visit, the work is further manipulated in real-time, and, depending on the install, the work may take on a new shape in the gallery. Its final form is given when the piece is released into the wild by KAS at a Target or other cultually-coded non-art site frequented by his family. Throughout its life-span, KAS’s work fills many roles, like the Millennial worker morphing from one career to another, and it exists in the minds of its audience, as the social media subject does, in posts, not in space.

KAS’s GIFs extend this idea further. KAS takes one of his manipulable painting/sculptures, which exist in the formal space of Jean Arp’s early-20th century bio-morphic reliefs, and loops the set of viable forms in each piece. This looping of equally valid options undermines the authority, or possibility, of an ultimate decision, and the idea of the author in general, separating “author” from its “authoritarian” overtone. The GIFs instead point toward the endless potentialities of the future and the variability involved in display and spectatorship, that ensures a work is never settled. Similarly, the GIFs are always accessible, always shifting, always now, while the art object in the past was understood as one of the only ways to simultaneously mark time and escape it, Ars longa, vita brevis: it’s always 1937 in Guernica, even in 2016. The GIFs, and Flow, neither mark nor escape time; it’s like looking for a clock in a casino.

Cody Tumblin: (L) Untitled, 2016, dyed fabric, button holes, nails, iPhone photographs of spiders, dots. (C) Untitled, 2016, spider earring on string. (R) Wilted, 2016, dye, acrylic, bleach, and collage on cotton, 15 x 19.

Painting can no longer be George Tooker producing an egg tempera once a year that stands like a landmark Supreme Court decision through time, and not just because George Tooker is dead. Painting now is hundreds of permutational ideas, each a move in a Rubik’s Cube, a pause in a stream of virtuoso problem-making and problem-solving, where each new solution reveals a new problem, across an endless X-axis. Tumblin’s work exemplifies this turn and the demands of a production-centered cultural economy because his paintings live in a extended process beyond each individual painting. Motifs of spider webs and flames and decontextualized words sprint through series of Tumblin’s works. Image systems that might occupy another painter’s career are feinted at and transcended. Tumblin’s one constant is a mercuriality – of style, material, representation, and display – that refuses to sit still and coagulate into a coherent – and therefore dead – world.

KAS and Tumblin’s art objects can be talked about as art, on one level, sure, but their foremost role is as posts, as holders of sociality within Flow’s regime. Art, work, and even life, delaminated from material conditions is not for us, or for Skylab Gallery, or an IRL gallery-going public, but for an audience who surveilles us all through classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, educationism; through geographical proximity to capital; through who follows us back; and through who comments. Yet, we still post in the hopes that, after all this, there is more.

The IRL art object within Flow appears to be the reason for everything, but it is almost nothing.


Keith Allyn Spencer, Peekaboo, clay hardened by heat and acrylic paint, Ikea box.

When I ask Is Art Wrong? I am really asking if society is. While I’m not 100% sure about art qua art, if art can be art qua art, I know the correct answer to my real question is: Yup.

But I also wrote this poem:


It’s just a thing poets do
Like drawing attention
To the construction of the text.

I composed this poem
In a text
To a painter
As a sext.

As a poet, I can describe my interior experience of the world. What I can’t do is make a thing appear in it that is not already there. Not that painters still strive to paint trompe l’oeil grapes so real-seeming that birds peck at them. No, painters instead make sculptures that look like mass-produced fake poop that in turn looks like real shit. Regardless, and even within the strictures of Flow and the need to produce the Idea of Production, painters make things appear that were not there previously. And if one can see a change in the symbolic form of the world – a shit, perhaps, or a giggle – it’s now the same, because there’s no longer a difference between the symbolic and real, as seeing a change in the real one.

Even if one sees it on Instagram.

James Payne
Berlin, October 2016

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