Stefan Simchowitz

Marta Gnyp for SFAQ September 2015

Marta Gnyp: Are you never tired of Facebook?
SS: No, it’s an amazing platform. It’s given me an audience of thousands of people for free.

MG: To which extent does the audience influence your choices? For example, if you post an image of a painting on Instagram and get 300 likes, while another one gets five likes, does it influence what you think about the artist?
SS: Absolutely not. Instagram is very random. If you take a picture of a girl in a bikini you’ll get 450—it’s really just there to message and communicate a story and a narrative for me. It’s not a popularity contest. Facebook is like a diary that I use as much to express to the outside world what I’m interested in as to record and remember what I am interested in myself so I can refer back to my page in a notebook fashion.

MG: But the difference is that Facebook is not completely private.
SS: That’s not true. Facebook has an extraordinary amount of control for managing privacy in every aspect of your photo albums, individual photographs, your articles, your postings. The privacy settings that you can use on Facebook are extraordinary. You can make certain things private—and I do this often. I often post things that I make visible only to myself or only visible to friends, or sometimes to the public.

MG: So you are permanently making choices between what you give to whom, more or less.
SS: Yeah, I consider myself very generous with the amount of information that I share, and sometimes when people connect with me on Facebook I ask them who they are, especially if they don’t have much information.

MG: Are Facebook and Instagram very helpful for your art activities?
SS: It works on many, many levels for me. It helps to market my artists and to tell the story, a narrative of my engagement with them, and their engagement with the world. There is a lot of content on my Facebook that has to do with prison reform in the United States or the refugee crisis, and a lot of people don’t pay attention to that because they like the more sensational sort of elements of it. If you go to my Facebook it’s actually a pretty well balanced smorgasbord of content, a diverse range of interests and articles. I’m interested in history, American history, and I have a lot of followers who actually send me an email every now and again and say, “You’ve got one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting, Facebook profiles,” or in some cases, “the only one I follow.” I see it as almost like a service where you’re providing content that you’ve eliminated and sorted for people, in a way like a blog works.

MG: How many hours per day are you spending on Facebook and Instagram?
SS: Instagram I don’t spend much time on. I love photography, I shoot with Leicas and other fancy cameras. I’ll usually do an upload when I’ve got something interesting to PUT UP. I don’t spend much time looking at Instagram: I’m a content pusher on Instagram as opposed to a content consumer. I like Facebook as a medium because it is three-dimensional—I like the ability to narrate the comments and to create a discourse.

MG: Do you really believe that you can have a serious conversation on Facebook?
SS: Absolutely. Without a doubt.

MG: Don’t you think that people are mostly interested in reading their own texts?
SS: We have this sort of delineation between Facebook and the real world. Well in the real world most people aren’t interested in anything except themselves. It’s the same on Facebook. But I’ve met some remarkable people on Facebook. I met a guy named Robert Keil, who’s one of the most intelligent thinkers i’ve come across in my life. He’s an amazing writer. He’s brilliant. I met Stephen Ellcock, who I think is one of the most significant and prodigious curators of content on the web today. He’s got tens of thousands more followers than me, and I’ve actually communicated with him, and he’s been an inspiration to me and to some artists I work with in the pictorial content that he SHARES. I have a friend named Gilda Oliver who is a teacher and an older artist, who I have great a communication with. I’ve actually had many relationships with people I’ve never met. I met a wonderful woman named Tlisza Jaurique, who once attacked me for posting a picture of a friend of mine wearing an Native American headdress. She explained to me that it’s very insulting to Native Americans; it’s like painting someone in black face. She works as an Education consultant at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and she’s very knowledgable of the History of the Native Americans. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from her.

MG: Speaking about Facebook and Instagram, I would like to go to something different, but related to new media. In one of your talks you called yourself Luther. This comparison makes sense as, among many other things, what Luther did could only happen because of possibilities offered by the new media of his time: the printing press. Luther posted his theses against the misbehavior of the church. What kind of thesis would you postulate, and against whom?
SS: I wouldn’t postulate anything against anyone in particular. I don’t have a mandate per se to attack anyone in the system. I believe that the system needs to open, integrate, communicate, and collaborate. I don’t call for the destruction of anyone or anything. What I do call for is an open-mindedness and an encouragement to embrace all the different aspects and skills that we all have. The way I read Luther is that the Catholic Church was very singular in saying that they were the only ones that could send you to heaven, and that singularity of idea—that there is only one path—is what I think Luther attacked. I think there are many paths to salvation, and many paths to communicate spiritual redemption. I think the art system is very similar to this singular solidarity in that you have to follow a path that is very structured. You go to art school, you get picked by curators, you get collected by museums, you get collected by the right collectors, you show with the right galleries. You can follow those guidelines, but those guidelines have become corrupted by social relationships and they have corroded the ability for artists who are outside of those systems to find a pathway to success. What I would call for is a questioning of those authorities, and questioning whether they are as valid as they were.

MG: Do you think you can break the system open without breaking the fundaments of the system? Luther never wanted to break the Church, but on the other hand he did it partially by fragmenting the power structures.
SS: I don’t think you ever break infrastructure. The Catholic Church never broke but adapted. The Catholic Church today, centuries later, you know, is a very different Catholic Church from what it was hundreds of years ago. I’ve been reading a lot of American history lately, amongst which Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) offers some good insight into the adaptability of American spiritual life. He talks about how the strict Puritanism of the early settlers was challenged as urbanization gained momentum giving rise to the more unstructured, tin tabernacles and the Pentecostals which ran hot and heavy in America’s cities offering a different kind of experience for religious observers that today is observed in the mega churches of America and their charismatic TV ready preachers and practical every day advise – a far cry from the rigid authority and intellectual strictness of early puritan theology. Theology went from St Augustine to Joel Osteen and the Pastor Creflo Dollar. So too will art go from the October School to Instagram. It is i neither good nor bad, it is just is. Understand it, accept the evolution and adapt accordingly.

MG: How do you compare these developments with those in the art world?
SS: The new world is Instagram and Facebook, the social media platforms that promote the dissemination and distribution of cultural content through validated social networks where no one is in charge. I think that, as with all systems, if there is a strong theology behind the cultural content and a strong intellectual structure behind the emergence of these new ideas then the quality and emergence of those cultural perspectives will be validated and supported very healthily within these new distributed networks and will scale accordingly in reaching larger audiences via non-hierarchical social distribution. It is a much more efficient and scaleable mode of disseminating culture, autonomous from the singularity of entrenched institutional thinking and often in direct contravention to the education establishment and their stodgy, outdated modes of thinking about and teaching art production.

MG: What would the new media change in the art world?
SS: It’s very simple. In the postwar period we see an idea of a neoclassical economic model where a singular hierarchy of smart people deal with simple situations. We come from a system that is singular to an evolutionary adaptive economic system where no one is in charge, where there are many, many hierarchies moving toward equilibrium. So eventually, I think the evolution of the art business is really given real force by social media—a guy like me who engages an audience and gets to intimately utilize the consumer mass market social media tools he has at hand. And many more people like myself are able to come along and do the same thing. That creates a situation where the singular hierarchies are challenged and there are now many hierarchies: an evolutionary, adaptive system in which no one is in charge!

MG: But you are not using this media as the only source of your communication. You are working with artists who are also spread through galleries and institutions, so you are also part of the old system. You are doing both.
SS: What would Luther be without the Catholic Church? What would Luther be without the theological history of the Catholic Church? Nothing.

MG: So you are adding something new, not replacing. What do you think are the consequences of new media?
SS: Amplification. I still need galleries, museums and collectors—the traditional—but contributions from new media weakens the absolute strength and absolute significance of the monoliths that make those structures so potent. It provides alternative sources of awareness. It doesn’t mean in absolute terms they’re weakened, it just means in relative terms they are. I think that’s an important distinction. You still have to have an understanding of how the system works because you still need the system. Just like Luther still needs God and the devil, heaven and hell—he still needs these elements to base a Christian theology. Just like the Pentecostals and the Tabernacles and the Protestants and the Catholics are all similar in that there is God, there is Jesus, there is creation, the infrastructure doesn’t change, it’s just—the path to salvation changes, the path to knowledge changes.

MG: Do you think that the current art world infrastructure still has a lot to offer?
SS: The art world infrastructure is very, very valid, and it always has been. There needs to be platforms for exhibitions; there certainly are and always will be experts. There will be people who spend their lives thinking and writing about art; there will be people who are aesthetically framed to look at art. They will always control the lion’s share of the discourse. It’s just that there are people who come from outside, like myself, who don’t have a degree in critical studies, who never worked in a gallery, or didn’t work at an auction house or a museum. I have been able to come along and become someone who has a real voice. Jerry Saltz was very similar. He was a truck driver who basically became one of the most well-read and well-respected critics in the world today. He was a great beneficiary of media, of the platform that social media provided to him. I think that’s great. Jerry is one of those voices with a great power.

MG: Are you both friends now?
SS: I’m not friends with him, I don’t know him. But one could say he’s got more power than Roberta Smith in many respects. He’s certainly better known. I think that no one is right, no one is wrong; it’s an evolutionarily adaptive system that is not hierarchical. As human beings we have a very tough time accepting a condition in which there is no order. It’s very difficult for us to come to terms with that because we’re always looking for systems to move toward equilibrium, or a finite and fixed point where they’re defined. There are artists at the museum, therefore you’re safe, but this is not true anymore. The sooner we accept that as a condition of life we’re able to deal with the circumstances at hand in a much more logical and productive way.

MG: But we cannot do without hierarchies. I think that’s how most people function.
S: They do, but you can have a dictatorship run by one person, or you can have a country like the United States run by Congress and a senate. The hierarchy is gets more evenly distributed.

MG: I would like to speak with you now about the position of the artist. We have this 19th-century idea that the artist is someone special, which was created according to the then new capitalistic structures that allowed artists to become autonomous. We created all kind of autonomous artist models—revolutionary, avant-garde, romantic, someone who has a sixth sense—and up until today these models of the artist remain in place. The ideology of the artist treats him as someone between a priest, a rebel, and a visionary. Do you think this ideology can survive in the current art system?
SS: I think the elevation of the artist today is a problem for both the creative act and for the long-term sustainability of the artist. I think it’s problematic in that it creates a completely false mythology where the artist is essentially in complete control. I don’t think the artist is in complete control. Artists, like anyone, start young and they need guidance and collaboration. All other people are special based on their achievements and the way they live their life and the decisions they make. A good artist is special, and a bad artist is not.

MG: Do you think artists have a function in our society?
SS: Yes: to communicate ideas.

MG: So they are mediums.
SS: Yes, they’re mediums of mankind’s experience, to communicate it through an aesthetic lens that can be carried through time and space. They communicate all different aspects of mankind: political, aesthetic, decorative, sexual, psychological, ambition, hatred, anxiety, love, lust, everything.

MG: In your opinion, should they be treated as everybody else?
SS: We have this mass “I’m an Artist” club—I suffer therefore I’m special. There’s always this excuse of being overlooked for not being talented. I think it creates a problem. Insofar as the physicist is special, the thinker is special, the writer is special, they should be treated as such if they actually are: by denominating his activity as an artist does not implicitly make him special. A physicist who has no grasp of real physics is not special because he’s a physicist. But it’s very easy for someone to say, “I’m an artist! Therefore I’m special!” You experience it in everyday life, each and every one of us will meet some deluded character who is drawing nudes or doing paintings of flowers and thinks he is a genius, and can’t tell the difference between himself and Jackson Pollock. We see this delusion because they’ve constructed a conceptual framework for them to be educated with it. They’ve been able to learn the commodity of ideas through art schools, a conceptual framework that validates them, which is false as well. Just like the guy who paints the Sunday painting is false, the guy who spent $50,000 on education arming himself with conceptual ideas can be equally false, just much more refined.

MG: From my conversation with many artists I noticed that almost nobody is interested in previous avant-garde ideas of changing society and being a revolutionary—I think this idea has completely died. Is the artist becoming a profession instead of a calling?
SS: It absolutely is becoming a profession. No question. I know people who are physicists who had a calling to be a physicist. I mean, some doctors have a calling to be a doctor.

MG: Okay, so being an artist is a profession as any other profession. Is art a commodity as any other commodity?
SS: No, it’s not, no commodity is the same. It’s a different kind of commodity. Oil is a different kind of commodity from wheat. Wheat is a different kind of commodity from the services of a hotelier. All commodities are different.

MG: Would you agree that the moral system in the art market is more present than in markets of other commodities?
SS: Absolutely, but all systems are regulated by moral rules.

MG: Take for example the myth of the good collector who never sells. This is a moral rule that is actually only needed to regulate the art market. It is a mythology, but it’s a mythology with a function.
SS: But it doesn’t function, because they’re selling anyway. I believe in limiting the supply and managing demand of art, and I believe that like any commodity it has to be to some degree protected. Farmers need to be protected from oversupply of bad product from overseas for example. But when you’ve got a bunch of people pretending so that they can have status and stature—pretending that they’re doing one thing when they’re doing another—then they have a problem. We now have a situation where there’re a bunch of people pretending to be doing something they’re not.

MG: I think they are pretending because there’s a kind of moral pressure surrounding what you should and what you shouldn’t do. What about the second myth, which is also very present in the art world; that a good collector buys with his eyes and not with ears?
SS: I think that’s a terrible myth, because most people’s eyes are shit. Most people’s ears are better than their eyes. That basically says that if you like it then it’s good. Well that’s also false, because most people, honestly, have terrible taste and they’re not trained to see properly. I think that’s bullshit: “Oh I only buy what I like.” I mean, you’re a hedge fund manager who basically grew up in the mountains of Russia and made money buying and selling aluminum, or you’re a hedge fund guy who spends your time behind a computer screen basically trading currency, and you wake up and you’re 50 and rich and suddenly you like it with your eyes. The only thing that they’re good at is making money. That’s why so many of these collections look like shit warmed up.

MG: And they are all similar.
SS: And they’re all similar. I commented on Facebook on some rich guy’s house with the two little armchairs next to a fireplace with the typical Anish Kapoor above the fireplace right by Damien Hirst and Rudolf Stingel and Dan Colen with a Takashi Murakami sculpture on the floor next to it, you know? Individually there might be some quality to the work, but it looks like shit. It just looks like Crate and Barrel for rich people. Breaking that is very difficult.

MG: What do you do in such a case? Do you try to tell someone like him that he has a shitty collection?
SS: I told him on Facebook his collection looks like shit. Absolutely. I posted that this is a typical rich guy’s collection that is like a Crate and Barrel for rich people. I don’t know how he reacted. Some people get offended and just never work with me again, but what can I do.

MG: You don’t believe in this very idea of collecting as a personal discovery?
SS: Yeah, the idea of collecting is an action of discovery, and oftentimes these artists who are collected make some very good work in their time. I mean, Stingel is an amazing artist, Colen has made some very good work, as have Kapoor and Murakami, and as had Hirst. But these collectors just end up buying the sort of commoditized, churned-out, second-rate stuff that these artists manufacture in the more advanced years of their career, so the work has lost its spiritual soul. I can’t attack the artists individually, but there is some corruption in the system as these guys expand through the network.

MG: Tell me about your “Trust Me Special,” which is something opposite from the personal discovery: with your good eye you are buying works for your collectors without them seeing what you are buying.
SS: I did the Trust Me Special at a time when I was trying to protect myself from a gentleman who would try to copycat me. But the Trust Me Special is good. I think that’s fine. I have great faith in my ability and my taste over, frankly, most people. And I think that people would be smart to listen to and to follow me. I’ve spent my life living, breathing, and eating aesthetics, and thinking about culture and loving and looking at art.

MG: How do you recognize quality?
SS: It’s instinctive. I don’t know, I wouldn’t say it’s knowing—we know nothing.

MG: Very often you see something for the first or the only time on the Internet. Did you train your eye so well that you can recognize the quality from the Internet?
SS: I’m a photographer, I’ve taken photographs my whole life. I’ve always, pretty much consistently for 30 years, looked through the lens of the camera and documented things. I think that’s been very helpful to me in interpreting how something physical is translated into an image. Actually, for the first time I thought of it in those terms a few days ago, because I see a lot of stuff online. I’ve been very successful in identifying work that I see in an online-only environment, and I think it’s because I understand the translation of object into image quite intimately, and I can—just like when you hold a camera up to someone, you can snap a picture, and you kind of know how the picture is going to look after you’ve taken it. You can reverse that and see from the picture what the object is like in the flesh. I think that’s a skill, very few people have But I think photography has a sort of inversion, of being able to document something and to look at an image and un-document something and see what it looks like in its original form.

MG: Interesting. This skill makes you certain about your discoveries and your choices.
SS: I think that’s a skill that I developed over decades of taking pictures. There was not a moment in my life since I was 15 years old that I stopped taking photographs: various photography, large format, medium format—I mean, I have tens of thousands of images. Today I consider myself a very, very good photographer, but that is sort of something that I trained my eye to do and see that other people don’t really have access to. I have a friend and a client, Alberto Chehebar who happens to be a very good photographer, and also a very adept and skilled collector, who uses social media. I can see from the quality of his photographs that he’s able to see things in a way that’s probably better than most people.

MG: Is the quality not something that depends on the point of view? The same garden can be seen either as neglected or enchanting.
SS: Most people cannot see quality. They interpret quality based on perception. We’re talking about Plato’s cave. We’re talking about what the shadow is and what is real, and most people see the shadow. But some people go outside and they have a look, you know? I’m sure I would find most houses I go to that are expensive awful and disgusting. Most people come to my house and find it not that impressive. I love my house. Most people are tuned in very basic ways: they register scale, shininess, very basic things.

MG: So the quality, according to you, is something that is there, unchangeable.
SS: Yes.

MG: Who are the artists that you think are the best quality of our time at this moment?
SS: I think there’s a lot of good work being produced today. We’re in a very competitive environment, in a very well financed environment for culture, in an environment where there is a lot of training for artists. I think we’re actually in a golden age of cultural production with an immense amount of high-quality work. Obviously the artists I work with closely: Petra Cortright, Kour Pour, Zachary Armstrong, Serge Attukwei Clottey, Oscar Murillo and artists I don’t work directly with such as Sterling Ruby, Jon Rafman, Jimmy Merris, Michael Pybus, Nikolas Gambaroff . . . I can go on and on. I could probably give you a hundred good artists. Easily.

MG: Most artists you just mentioned are younger than you are. What do you think about the idea that you understand best your own generation?
SS: It depends on who you are. I think there’s a lot of knowledge that’s required to understand anything properly. It’s not actually your generation, but it’s where your specialty lies, and your open-mindedness. I think it’s where you put your time and your resources to understand something. For me, I’ve spent a lot of resources in understanding the generations around me, up and above, around an age group. I’m 44 and I’m collecting people who are 25, 26, 27; they’re not my generation, but they are over the landscape of the world that I see and can understand and can have access to.

MG: Why are you so critical about Paddle8?
SS: Because I think venture funding in these auction systems essentially promises people the opportunity of making money, thereby encouraging those collectors who aren’t really collectors, but very silly sort of short-sighted opportunists, to go and buy material from galleries and artists where there’s very little demand for it. I think they’re very destructive and they create a sense of false liquidity. I don’t think it means the market is bad, it just means that you can’t buy something and three months later sell it. What’s happening is that these guys are buying it, thinking they can sell it, and the artist is thinking he’s a genius who found a huge supply of collectors, and the gallery thinks they’re brilliant for doing the same thing. These young people who have no real idea how the world works or its complexity essentially overproduce and get overly exuberant and confident because they’re naïve. I think that venture funding of these auction houses has been excessive. I think Phillips has been excessive in the amount of material they take. It takes years for material to cook. Art is a lamb stew—you want it in the oven for as long as possible before it’s ready to eat.

MG: Will it not regulate itself after a couple of months, a couple of years?
SS: Yeah, it regulates itself, but in between those periods a lot of damage gets done, and if you can reduce the damage it’s in everyone’s best interest. Did we need the housing crisis to get to the recovery? We didn’t really. There was a lot of pain and suffering that was caused, you know?

MG: I found it interesting to see you make a difference between collectors and real collectors.
SS: I absolutely make a distinction, but I don’t get bluffed by this fake mythology people create through presentation. I’m just less gullible and more sophisticated in my thinking to tell the difference. The galleries have art consultants arriving at the VIP preview along with 9,000 other people, and they’re happy to accept the art consultants as representing a collector who then empowers them with the rights to distribution. I’m not impressed by big “name collectors”, per se most of the time they get the classification because they are rich and rich people tend to buy a lot of different things. I’m impressed by people for real reasons. I’m impressed by the Rubells, not because they’ve got the best taste in the world, but because their commitment for decades has been consistent. I don’t think whether or not they sell is relevant. I think their commitment is impressive, and therefore valid. They have contributed over an extraordinarily long period of time.

MG: So where is the art world in 20 years?
SS: It’s bigger, it’s faster, it’s more diverse. You have a much bigger collecting class collecting emerging contemporary. You have more institutions, more museums. You have more players like myself in the market and you have faster internet and hopeful SFAQ in every major city!

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