Mapping the Art World Then and Now

Alfred H. Barr, Development of Abstract Art (1935)
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Maps are political objects. To look at one is to look at an ideology and a visual representation of ideas organized in space, highlighting real and symbolic associations. Within the art world, mapping has served an important function in helping determine not only the contours of its history, but also the topography (or the configuration of many features) of its producers and institutions. This past week in a class discussing interwar North American modern art, I introduced Alfred H. Barr’s map of the development of abstract art, a highly influential document that attempted to visually represent and chart the various “isms” of art which contributed to its constructed linear chronology. As the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, Barr created the map in 1935 to help visually ground the trajectory of modern art developments as they moved from the cubism of Europe to the abstract expressionism emerging in New York. And even while the map did not point directly to any of the social or political history that framed the context of its “scientific” visual vocabulary, its creation was rooted in an attempt to relocate the center of the art world from the confines of European cities like Paris and Berlin to the emerging modern art center of New York. In this sense, the map served as powerful visual evidence of the inevitability of this progression. As art blogger Lauren Palmor usefully sums up in a close reading of the Barr map, “The chart itself is intellectually complicated and simultaneously over simplified. It appeals to an elite, formalist aesthetic while also functioning as an introduction to cubism and abstract art.” Earlier in Palmor’s assessment, another key aspect of this dynamic is explained related to the context audience’s bring to the map, “The imagery of the chart and the chart’s viewers engage in a process of reciprocal definition. The viewers assign imagery to the un-illustrated terms of the chart, while the chart offers equally abstract connections and definitions.”

George Maciunas, Expanded Arts Diagram (1966)
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Fast forward three decades later to the moment of modern art’s critical reassessment and critique by a new generation of artists. Barr’s vertically organized and scientific map is transformed by Fluxus co-founder George Maciunas into a more fluid and deconstructed flow chart, redistributed along a horizontal plane. The dates still exist as markers on the far left of both maps, but the possibilities for art’s development are extended beyond the restraints and institutionally defined parameters of abstract expressionism. We are also presented with a map that begins to incorporate the relationships between cultural history and art with acknowledgement of the church, world’s fair, and spectacles associated with royal courts as key examples. As Tatianna Bazzichelli suggests in her fascinating discussion of Maciunas’s links to the networked culture we live in today, the Fluxus diagrams emerge as “hyper-textual maps” that manifest in an attitude of open thought, freedom, and democratic values. It is a represented field that flows easily between art and life, presenting a myriad of possibilities for how and what art is.

William Powhida, A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System (2010)
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Today, the utopic notion of Maciunas’s expanded arts diagram has undergone yet another kind of mapping in the work of New York artist and critic William Powhida. Last month, I blogged about his controversial diagram The Game, a drawing that traces the dynamics of power based upon the career choices artists make moving from an MFA program towards celebrated art career. In his latest work, A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System, Powhida maps the contemporary networks of power in the art world through an updated and, many would agree, painfully accurate representation of today’s topography. With this and his other diagrams, Powhida has sought to unmask the hidden political dynamics of the art world so carefully effaced in the Barr map while also debunking the myth of democratic access (a discourse that is also applied to the mechanisms of the World Wide Web) and the expanded field of art and possibilities for artists presented in the Maciunas diagram. Unlike the Barr and Maciunas maps, it is presented as a snapshot in present time without a clear temporal progression from past to future. Instead, the inclusion of the mechanisms of market economics together with the impact of social networking are added features which both invigorate and deepen the contours of the real spaces of the art world as one that operates more like a pyramid scheme of its own insular making. In a complete inversion of the Barr map, Powhida’s diagram does not include mention of actual art objects or “isms” at all, punctuating the development of contemporary art as exclusively discourse and power driven, but still emanating from the institutions of art that a person like Barr (with the help of his map) helped foster. Note that in Powhida’s diagram, the art museum sits just beneath the “art stars” they select and validate. Looking at all three maps therefore tells us a great deal about the times they were conceived and created in--picturing the world of art in all of its complexity.

Further Reading:

Pence, Elizabeth. "William Powhida" ArtUS 27 (2009): 104.

Robinson, Julia. "Maciunas as Producer: Performative Design in the Art of the 1960s." Grey Room 33 (2008): 56-83.