"The Dirty Work of Making Art History," published on Eye on Brooklyn Blog / by Fredrick Munk

By Loren Munk

For those of you who have been keeping an ”Eye On Brooklyn”, I would like to thank Larry Walczak for his initial posting that featured my “We Are Our own Art History” project. I truly appreciate the community response the project received, and it was a lot of fun to interact with you folks from the neighborhood.  Now that I’ve had a chance to look over some of the reactions, reviews, and responses, I just wanted to share some of the outcomes and observations that the project elicited.

As part of my theory The Physics of Aesthetics, I believe that art is more than just the residual matter, the painting, the drawing, the poem, the video, the performance etc. Rather it is a force that flows through individuals, communities, and relationships and it spawns the impetus for these artistic productions.  One way of representing these forces is through the diagrammatic representations of maps and charts.  Another aspect of The Physics of Aesthetics is the art historical record which creates a foundation for our perceptions regarding “visible” versus “invisible” art.  That is, which efforts have been considered important enough to be preserved and seen, and which efforts have been erased.  To this point, forces outside the actual communities such as speculators, critics, scholars and “art historians” with little or no contact to the artists themselves, have been privileged with the prerogative of making these determinations.  Though it may appear audacious, my experiment in asking the Williamsburg arts community to help create a record of its own history was a simple way to see how people actually regard themselves and their practices in relation to the big world of ART HISTORY.  The mere idea that the individual artist, we poor struggling drudges, would be able to have any relevant input into the exclusive realms of actual history was absurd.   Never being one to shy away from looking foolish, I hoped to design a project that would essentially take on a power of its own and direct itself, and that it did.

Having photographed a wide variety of personalities from the Williamsburg community over the last nine years, I began the charting with more than 120 portraits of local folks that I’d become acquainted with.  In my appeals for participation to the public which were published in the Brooklyn Rail and with help from both Larry Walczak and David Gibson, we were able to add about another 110 photos during the exhibition bringing the current total somewhere around 230.

Jerry Saltz recently commented that he didn’t understanding why so many male artists seemed “obsessed with history” (maybe that’s why they call it “his” story).  Ironically, from what I could see, women were more prone to make an effort to be “on the art map” than men.  For some, I assume it was just a goof or vanity, still others made the effort to come by the project and make sure their photos were taken and added to the map, even though they had little or no real connections to Williamsburg.  Perhaps it was the lax criteria and unjudgmental nature of the project.  Conversely there was also the other end of the spectrum wherein some fairly accomplished artists refused to have anything to do with it, as if they didn’t want to be stigmatized as part of the Williamsburg scene, perhaps they had beefs with some of the other folks (they didn’t think some individuals should be included), or maybe they thought I would exploit them, that the project might compromise their privacy. 

Unexpected responses included a very generous contribution of original prints from a lady who had lived in the neighborhood for fifty years where she raised a family, painted, drew and printed the local sites (in what I must say is a very sophisticated and sensitive style) and who had moved to Long Island recently, but returned for this opportunity to be part of Williamsburg’s community.  A young galleriest who nearly cried because he said he’d never been included in anything like this before (maybe it was just too many beers).  Still others were angered at being placed outside the central locations and were displeased with the how they were portrayed.

In one of his subsequent posts regarding a review by R.C. Baker in the Village Voice, Larry stated that Baker had omitted mentioning the main thrust of the show, represented by the large interactive diagram mapping the constituents of the Williamsburg arts community.  Other reviewers also ignored the Williamsburg connection.  These omissions might signal the art press’ boredom with the whole Williamsburg thing or their Manhattan chauvinism. Perhaps beyond being a place which had cheap rents and attracted an active tribe of bohemians, there is the realization that to this point, despite it early potential, there are few local artists or galleries who have cracked the big times, and established the ‘burg as a world class art neighborhood like Greenwich Village, East 10th Street, Soho, or the East Village.  Or like the Williamsburg eulogy delivered by William Powhida (presented elsewhere on this blog), they see the scene in a declining phase and believe it’s only a matter of time before it flickers out (remember Soho and the East Village).  Maybe (probably) the reviewers just didn’t find the piece or the community that interesting.  In any case, the process of mapping history is an ongoing and messy business.  For anyone still willing to make contributions you can drop things off at Dam Stuhltrager Gallery or contact me at www.lorenmunk.com.  We Are Our Own Art History.