Power Surge: The Art Review 100

Scrolling through the 2010 Power 100 of Art Review, I almost immediately had two reactions.  First, I’m not on it!  (Bloggers get little to no respect.)  Second, so many of the artists (and only 18 of the 100 are artists) are either unfamiliar to me or, maybe worse, too familiar.  Any list is suspect purely by nature.  The makers of this list claim that it’s “[f]irst and foremost,… a guide to the general trends, networks and forces that shape the artworld.”  What such lists really provide is something for people like me to talk about.  What I find myself talking about is the way the list reflects the true source of power—in the hands of gallerists, curators, and art fair directors and, disturbingly so, not in the hands of artists or critics.  What does that power surge to those who aren’t creating or critiquing mean for art today?

Larry Gagosian (shown above with Jeff Koons) sits comfortably at the top of the list, rising from the fifth slot he occupied last year.  The listmakers admit Gagosian’s rampant arrogance is “not appealing, but it’s the behaviour of power in excelsis, when all competition has vanished from the rearview.” If Gagosian’s truly lapped the field, then maybe the field needs to begin following his lead. Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Swiss gallerist Iwan Wirth, German gallerist David Zwirner, and MoMA Director Glenn D. Lowry round out the rest of the top five.  Like the art world it aims to reflect, the list circles the globe in terms of occupants.  Europe and modern art still dominate the art world, usually in some intimate combination.  Seeing the name of Charles Saatchi languishing at number 81 reminded me of how far the once mighty have fallen. Although bloggers find no love, the e-flux Website did garner the 16th position, mainly on the strength of acting as the hub of electronic communication in the art world.

I found it slightly dismaying that The New York Times senior art critic Roberta Smith slipped in at number 80 when more gifted critics such as Christopher Knight or Peter Schjeldahl can’t crack the century mark.  It would also have been nice to see some academics, such as Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, or James Elkins, find a place.  Such voices help the art world of today measure up to the accomplishments of the past by shining a new light on them.

Even more dismaying might be the appearance of the first artist at number 13—Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.  As the listmakers hint at, Ai’s political activity as a resister against the repressive Chinese government may have won him the position more than his actual art.  More familiar names follow in the persons of Bruce Nauman (17), Cindy Sherman (27), Marina Abramovic (35), Takashi Murakami (39), Gerhard Richter (55), Anish Kapoor (62), and Neo Rauch (69).  Glory hounds Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst came in 47 and 53 on the list, with Koons plummeting all the way from 13 last year.  I smiled at the inclusion of Maurizio Cattelan at 68.  Cattelan’s attention grabbing middle-finger sculpture almost single-handedly (single-fingerly?) won him that spot.  A slew of other artists I know barely or not at all round out the field: Mike Kelley (26), Franz West (29), Peter Fischli and David Weiss (31), Tino Sehgal (44), Rirkrit Tiravanija (88), Wolfgang Tillmans (89), and the artists’ consortium known as the Bruce High Quality Foundation (89).  I’m sure they’re all talented artists, and I freely confess a less than encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary art, but none of those names resounds with the familiarity of Koons, Hirst, or even Murakami in the modern art market.  I wonder how many casual art fans could name any of those artists.

It would be nice if these artists represent the new wave of art that makes a dent in the cultural zeitgeist.  But I sincerely doubt it, not based on their failures or lackings but on the undentability of culture today by an individual artist who fails to play the insider game and prostitute themselves in the process.  Sure, people like Abramovic enjoy a greater profile today thanks to retrospectives, but the dues she paid in the years leading up to the international renown more than compensate for any game-playing today, especially as her insider activities help promote performance art itself as much as her personally.  I’d like to see more artists—and more artists of aesthetic rather than economic significance—on the top 100, and, dare I say it, more critics than gallerists and museum directors.  Trends should come from the creators and those who help push them to create.  Of course, museums critique as well, but the economic choices they face force biases—just try to think of big museums as critical voices the next time they line up a big, fat, crowd-pleasing Impressionist show for the thousandth time.  A power surge in that direction may be what it takes to energize art today and make it relevant to the world again.

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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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