3.2 / Occupy the Art World

Questions I Haven’t Found Answers for as an Artist

By Guillermo Gómez-Peña October 4, 2011
Patricia Sabbat. Art Destroyer as part of a La Pocha Nostra event at Arte Moderno, Tucuman, Argentina, 2005. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: Ramon Teves.
Dear colleagues,

After twenty-five years of being (by choice) a temporary “insider” in the “art world,” I still haven't found satisfactory answers to many questions. If we were to place secret microphones to record the backstage chatter of the art world, the stuff people talk about in low voices over drinks, or in the bathroom during an opening, I bet many of my questions would be paraphrased in the lips of other artists. Here's a sampling of these questions. Think of this text as a hybrid of vernacular anthropology and performance literature. Enjoy!


Brian Biggs and Guillermo Gómez-Peña. British curator and Mexican artist specimen; Liverpool Biennial, 2002. Photo: Manuel Vason.
  • How come people speak with much lower volume when they are inside a museum? Are we intimidated or merely respectful? Is it as not to wake the ghosts of art’s past? Are we embarrassed about not saying something “smart”?
  • Do people have sex in the back galleries of the Tate Modern when no one is around? Wouldn’t you like to see the surveillance tapes?
  • Is there a codified mental disease or an eccentric sexual taboo that compels certain people to secretly caress or lick the artwork in museums?
  • Why are most museum guards and cleaning personnel still black or Latino—even in a Fred Wilson world?
  • Some of my best conversations about art in museums have been with the museum guards. Why?
  • Why is it that whenever I visit a chic museum with a bunch of Chicanos, within minutes, a security guard begins to follow us? Who told him to do it? The old lady at the information desk? What exactly do they assume we will do? Tag a painting with spray paint? Steal an artwork? Piss on a sculpture? Hang our own artwork? Splatter the artwork with salsa picante?
  • Are there still guerrilla artists who secretly hang their paintings in museums and wait in the shadows for the security guards or the museum staff to discover them?
  • Why is it that, with a few exceptions, in the big museums, the education departments tend to be more progressive and adventurous than the curatorial staff?
  • Why do biennale visitors (and I include myself in this category) look like safari travelers at air fairs, out of shape and with maps in hand?
  • Why do people talk about the “art world” as a single entity when in fact there are hundreds of art worlds, some of which overlap and many of which ignore the existence of the others? Which art world are they really talking about? Will the “real” art world please stand up?
  • Isn’t the “international art world” a very exclusive club that only includes a handful of operators from Western countries and a few seasonal “Third World guests”? What’s international about this? One of my colleagues adds to this question: “‘International’ makes it sound so pinche exotic, like a restaurant ready to serve up the artist du jour,” and another continued: or the elite airline lounge only allowing entrance to the gold card members.”
  • Whatever happened to hard-core bohemia? Have artists been forced to give up bohemia in order to survive the Darwinian race of the art world? Has bohemia been reduced to an existential condition afflicting twenty-year-olds?
  • Why, after all these years, am I still bored with minimalism and abstraction in art, social and psychological realism in film, repertory theater, and contemporary dance? Is there something wrong with my taste? Do I have serious cultural hang-ups? Any art therapists out there willing to help me?
  • How come curators and producers adore you one year or two and then, when you least expect it, they disappear for good, never to answer your phone calls again? And you are left shivering like an abandoned bride under the rain, wondering what’s wrong with your artwork and waiting for the next curator to “discover” you?
  • How come, with a few exceptions, when your artwork and name begins to increase in value, your voice mysteriously decreases in political sharpness and ethical gravitas?
  • Who are these “artists” responsible for the thousands of monstrous public sculptures that uglify our cities? And who are the government and corporate vatos who sponsor them? I would love to meet these people. Any clues of how to find them—or their grant writer?
  • Why are so many performance artists (including myself) so obsessed with reenactments? Are we truly interested in making our classic performances available to a new generation of artists, or have we simply run out of ideas?
  • Why are dancers and actors, specially the best-looking ones, so intellectually insecure? Do they think performance artists just want to fuck with them? Or fuck them?
  • How come performance artists are not supposed to charge as much for salary as choreographers or theater directors? Is it that by being allegedly more “mythical” or “hard-core,” we are perceived as less materialistic?
  • Why, with a few exceptions, are museums still afraid of performance art? And why, when they try to present it, do they place all sorts of conditions and regulations on the content? Are we witnessing the gentrification of live art?
Guillermo Gómez-Peña and La Pocha Nostra. Barbie Asante on exhibit in Tate Modern art cage as part of The Museum of Fetishized Identities at Tate Modern, London, 2003. Courtesy of the Artists.
  • How come every time I get invited to present my work in the high temples of art, I feel the urge to show up with my whole tribe? Is this a true political strategy—a kind of “border Trojan horse”—or a mere Mexican “tribal” trait?
  • How come there is more advertising space than content in most art magazines? Why is it often so hard to tell the difference?
  • What is more important in an art review: the content, the size and quality of the photo, or the title of the article?
  • How come thousands of very expensive glossy catalogues get published every year without means of distribution? Where do all these books sit? Is there enough space for them in the back rooms of galleries and museums?
  • Why is it that “artists of color” are always expected to make community-friendly art, and if we don’t do it, we get scolded by the institution that sponsored our project? Do they still think we lack the conceptual prowess to create other forms of art?
  • Shouldn’t art theorists “of color” anthropologize white Euro-American art?
  • How come Latin American artists feel that U.S. Latinos are straight- jacketed by identity politics when in fact we are just race-literate? Why do U.S. Latinos believe that often Latin American artists are trying to escape their cultural specificities in order to be accepted by the “international art world”?

    Who created these mutual misconceptions? Are they really misconceptions or am I being sarcastic?
  • Would I be more respected if I had a pretentious alias? Something like “Vladimiro II,” “Roco-co Martinez,” or “Adam Lunático”?
Guillermo Gómez-Peña. I Am Just A Post-Colonial Intellectual, 2001; performance, Performance Space, Sydney.

Some of my colleagues have posed these following questions:

  • What comes after Postmodernism? Post-humanism? Neo-retro-formalism? A new self-centered spiritual existentialism? “Art school” art?
  • Why are so many artists afraid of hard-core critique? Because our egos are frail?
  • Since art predates alphabets, agriculture, and cities by more than thirty thousand years, why then do modern cultures view art as a luxury or a whim rather than integral to our nature?

Do any of you have questions of your own? Please send them to: editor@artpractical.com

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