The Best Art Writing of 2014

So long, 2014. Here's a list of things I read this year that you should too (in no particular order and biased toward the second half because who remembers what they were doing eight months ago).

There’s a quote, commonly attributed to John Steinbeck, that the reason socialism never took hold in America is that Americans see themselves not as an “exploited proletariat” but as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” This is the aspirational message of branding, the one thing that was on everyone’s mind this year. (Incidentally, “normcore” is what happens when obscurantism has been evacuated of its cultural cachet and all that’s left is to recolonize is the mainstream.) It’s also the unarticulated theme that unites the selections below: not “capitalism” or “the internet” but the psychology that both makes possible and arises from the networked condition. These readings compel us to consider a truly radical alternative: a futurism not built on the ironic or dystopian acceleration of tropes from capitalism and the West. The kids are as mad as they are anxious. Can you blame them?

1. Sam McKinniss on Jamian Juliano-Villani (Adult). Ostensibly about the scrappy, enviably talented painter from New Jersey but actually about what Susan Sontag called "the radical failure of an entire sensibility" -- in this case, the art school mode of academic discourse. 

Best insight: From my point of view, the goal of young artists was not so much to activate rectangles as to secure guest spots at curators’ summerhouses so that they might pursue carefree lives of leisure on someone else’s dime, cultivating themselves in service to style without working to afford it.

2. Christopher Glazek on Generation DIS (Artforum). So you want to write a history of something that's not only totally new but basically ahistorical. How to do it? Why, by playing both sides, of course. Sympathetic yet sufficiently critical, according to Artnet (glad we agree). Thanks to Glazek, you can now avoid the humiliation of sounding like a Marxist curator at your next soiree.

Best insight: [I]n the age of Wikipedia, the ability to manipulate specialized vocabularies and esoteric knowledge was commanding less and less authority across the board, from Marxism to indie music...This was clear to many students, but not always to their professors, who understandably continued to ply the methods and methodologies that had helped them get tenure. As a result, many art-school grads were coming of age at a time when what felt most oppressive wasn’t consumer capitalism: It was the institutional codes and guild vocabularies in which they had been trained.

3. Mostafa Heddaya on the GCC at MoMA PS1 and the New Museum (Hyperallergic). Heddaya mounts a convincing polemic against legacy aesthetics masquerading as progressive politics by making an example out of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC for short, an art collective formed, by its own admission, “in the VIP lounge of Art Dubai.” Irascible, unassailable and easily extrapolated to the art world at large, it’s the one you’ve heard me quoting like a broken record over dinner or at CBIC. On a personal note -- I can already tell this is going to be unpopular -- it reminds me that the most effective counter to ethical indulgence of a typically Middle Eastern nature is psychological intelligence of a typically Middle Eastern nature. Hold on to your moral alibis!

Best insight: Consider two futurisms: future-schlock, which ironically surfs the bewildering commercial and political discourse of change while staking no claim against it, and future-shock, which finds in the future imaginary a radical break from an unjust present.

4. Agata Pyzik on the aftermath of the Eastern Bloc (Zero Books). I'm never not impressed with this independent publishing house and its precocious roster of authors, and true to form Pyzik's new book about the way Eastern Europe perceives itself through the lens of the West is as fastidiously literate as it is casually funny. Unlike typical accounts, which inevitably slip into misplaced ostalgia or, worse, try to get with the neoliberal program, Pyzik wants to revive "the possibility of a non-Western idea of modernity and futurism." Could it be that the twenty-five or so years since privatization were inherently more traumatic to the Eastern European psyche than anything visited upon it during preceding seven decades of socialism? 

Best insight: It is the brutal capitalist transition, the sudden loss of jobs and security by people who were never before endangered by unemployment...that made people unforgiving, hateful and vulnerable.

5. Ben Davis on selfie envy (Artnet). Davis is something of a Mohican among art critics -- a confirmed Marxist and committed activist, whose 9.5 Theses on Art and Class is on my reading list for sometime-in-the-not-so-distant future. Naturally, his affinity for John Berger's 1972 BBC-documentary-turned-book Ways of Seeing sets the tone, but not at the expense of critical interpretation. Topics include: the correspondence of typical Instagram genres to the traditional genres of painting, the idea that participation in a network can paradoxically be a source of alienation, the origins of FOMO, and so on. 

Best insight: [T]echnology makes possible many good things; political and economic conditions guarantee, however, that it is constantly warped so that the same kinds of bad patterns repeat themselves, in new and improved forms.

6. Chloe Wyma on the branding of feminism (Brooklyn Rail). Adam Carolla, The Last Psychiatrist and other old men with essentially good instincts have been going on about this for half a decade now, but it's nice to actually hear it from a young woman -- lest we forget that others like ourselves exist while we out here getting our industrial-grade mani-pedis. In a year where Beyonce's concert visuals made every "feminist" list from Buzzfeed to The New Republic, Wyma shows how feminism has been commandeered as the official lifestyle brand of a blinkered cultural establishment seeking to exonerate itself from its own moral indetereminacy. It's true, girls do run the (art) world. Literally. They're the administrative support. 

Best insight: These seemingly internecine art world problems are mirrored in culture at large, where branded feminism appears in the guise of once-radical gestures: from Lynda Benglis’s phallic woman, to the indiscriminate schlong-wagging of Miley Cyrus; from the mantra "the personal is political," to countless "lady blogs" microscopping the daily minutiae of celebrities through a “feminist lens”; from the fight for equal pay to the “Lean-In” ideology espoused by Facebook executive and self-styled activist Sheryl Sandberg, which rethinks “revolution” as a greasy ladder that can be scaled through technocratic efficiency and a 24/7 work ethic.

7. Brian Droitcour on the perils of post-internet art (Culture Two). The rigor of Droitcour's verdicts calls to mind old-guard art theorists like Irwin Panofsky and Clement Greenberg. Here, he takes on the style that everyone loves hate but no one can quite define, inscribing it into the canon in the process. If you don't know now you know. (Also: love how he named his blog after that one famous Vladimir Paperny book about Stalinism. Sigh.) 

Best insight: It’s like a new form of landscape painting, a view of the world as it is, and that’s why its visual vocabulary is hard to distinguish from that of advertising and product displays. An artist’s choice to make art that way—as a plain reflection of reality and the power systems that manage it—shows a lack of imagination, when there are so many other ways of making art available. Post-internet artists know what the internet is for, and it’s for promoting their work.

8. Mike Pepi, William O'Hara and Dan Monaco on the content turdcutter (The Straddler). A meditation on the new feudalism of the digital model that looks at the way algorithmically-driven mechanisms for profit maximization and risk management erode the quality of creative content in favor of the aggregation and curation of prefabricated marginalia. It takes a village to write an essay this good.

Best insight: Consider a specious practice now in wide circulation among online writers wherein a hyperlink to another text stands in for a summary of a term used, description of an event, historical contextualization, or detailing of a current debate. When an author in a digital text links to source material instead of finding the words himself, he relegates himself to aggregator and assembler of the pre-fabricated. This passive gathering laced with commentary does violence to the very notion that the reader should have come to the author for edification in the first place. This is nakedly an advent of the logic of digital writing under the pressures of commercial culture...

9. Rob Horning on self-exploitation in the sharing economy (Marginal Utility blog, The New Inquiry). A quick reminder that selfies and status updates aren't as innocuous as they seem. Horning makes the crucial distinction between the collaborative and the merely collective, arguing that an underlying market logic offsets any perceived informational gains by siloing individual users and devaluing their labor reserves. The only social relations are business transactions; actual sharing is suspect because it's inconceivable. Quick and dirty and not to be missed.

Best insight: The rhetoric around sharing economy companies tends to celebrate their liberatory use of technology, which is held to irresistibly wring inefficiency from legacy social practices while freeing users from the dread burdens of inconvenience and transaction cost. But in fact the sharing economy epitomizes the deployment of technology to intensify inequality, in this case by creating monopolies that aggregate and co-opt the effort and resources of many users, who are pitted against one another within the platforms. 

10. Seva Granik's Twitter. Uproarious in a gently apocalyptic way. Uncomfortably Russian. 

Honorable mention: Marc Fisher's Capitalist Realism, which isn't from 2014, but which I read in 2014 and plan to read once a year every year for mental upkeep. Fisher articulates what we were all thinking: the only sane response to the capitalist condition is neurosis.

This list is also available on Medium. See you in hell...I mean, next year!