Monday, June 29, 2020

It's all Social

Here is a fun fact. Suppose you are the CEO of a privately held company, and that you and the board have decided that your plan to get rich is to sell the company to, say, IBM. It doesn't matter who your buyer is. Your next move is to find someone who's recently sold a company kind of like yours to IBM, and hire that someone. Make them VP of something, anything, it doesn't matter.

Corporate mergers and acquisitions are driven by who knows who. Deals are driven by people who have already done deals. This doesn't mean that IBM will buy garbage, but given two decent looking deals, they'll choose one. Your new VP gives you a big leg up, and the expense is essentially zero. He might even be an OK VP of whatever.

The MACK First Book Award, which was established in 2012 to support emerging artists and bodies of work that find a voice through the book form was just awarded to a guy who first exhibited 26 years ago, got an MFA 20 years ago, and lists 4 solo exhibitions, about 45 group projects/ exhibitions, 11 grants/awards, and 4 collections in his CV. I am so pleased that Damien Heinisch is finally able to emerge after nearly 30 years of work.

Just today I saw a remark to the effect that Lena Dunham (writer and showrunner, I think) sold her first show to HBO on the basis of a ridiculously scant pitch. The complaint was that she, obviously, sold the show because of her family connections and not because her pitch was any good.

None of these stories are really about insiders thinking "hurr hurr hurr, we gotta keep the outsiders out because it's our club!" although that is the effect.

No, when Lena Dunham comes in with her one page of scribbled notes, the social dynamics are different. When you know Lena, you're more relaxed, more open. You read the notes, and think a bit, and the idea opens before you. You fill in a lot of shit in your head (probably not the way Lena intended, but it's your head) and you say to yourself this is dogshit. dogshit that people will watch the hell out of! Lena gets the deal.

The (imaginary) well respected guy who came in before Lena, who had a really coherent and thorough pitch for something that was not dogshit, but that people would still have watched the hell out of, well, you don't actually know that guy. A friend of a friend said he's really well respected in South Africa and has done some amazing stuff, but you've never seen it.

You are not as open to this fellow's idea. His idea does not spontaneously flower in your mind into a vision that feels right, it remains words on a page. You have to struggle a little to visualize it at all. You do not offer him a deal.

But let's be clear, the fact that Lena is the daughter of your best friend, and the fact that the other guy is black, while causal, are not proximate causes. The ingroup, the private club, asserts itself relentlessly, but it's not the proximate cause. The proximate cause is this sort of vague social grease that makes you actually perceive one project as worthy and the other as not.

If some rando approaches you on the street and asks to borrow five bucks, you probably say no. If a friend does the same, you might well say yes.

Now, if you're pretending to operate a meritocracy, this is a bit of a problem. My $5 loan business is not a meritocracy, and I don't pretend it is. HBO's pitch process, MACK's first book award, and corporate M&A activity, all pretend to some degree to be meritocracies. They are not.

People are tribal, social, animals. I think one could argue that pretending things are meritocracies is just stupid in the first place.

I think it is fairly obvious that we do not benefit, in the long run, from a bunch of relentless closed clubs. It is, therefore, beneficial to try to continuously pry the closed clubs open, to break them down, to create new ones, and so on.

Still, rather than thinking those hypocritical fuckers! we must tear this facade down and erect in its place a true meritocracy! is both not very productive, and a fantasy. You can no more erect a meritocracy than Michael Mack can.

There are really two threads of thought that come out of this.

The first is that the tearing open of closed clubs should not, I think, be viewed as some sort of revolutionary gateway to a better world. That's mostly just not going to happen. Local improvements, sure, but also local failures. Change, and maybe some slow overall progress, sure. Revolutionary change leading to utopia, nope.

This doesn't mean revolutionary activity shouldn't happen. There is benefit to a kind of dynamic equilibrium here, even if no real progress is possible. Shifting barriers around creates temporary opportunities, cross-fertilization, social benefits of many kinds. Fixed, closed, clubs lead nowhere but to inbred stagnation. Even just moving the deck chairs around is substantively better than that.

The second thing is the super secret road to success: acknowledge the social aspects of it all.

Do you want to be an M&A person? Find the guy who sold a company and just got hired as VP of whatever, and get a job as his assistant. Do you want to win an award for emerging artists? Go schmooze, be social, work your ass off for a few decades. If you want to sell a show to HBO, um, choose your parents wisely I guess.

Art, like everything else, is a highly social game played by highly social animals. Relying on your awesome work to carry you is a fool's game, and definitely Will Not Work. Relying on your awesome work, together with your angry Tik-Tok videos in which you call out the Tate and the MOMA, hilariously according to your mom, at least once a week is also not going to go very far.

You gotta schmooze. You gotta show up and make friends and pitch in.

If you and Michael Mack's second favorite designer happen to share a love of cheese, and bond over that at a festival here, an opening there, your chance of getting a book deal at MACK goes up. I don't even mean this as an indictment of MACK, it's just they way of the world. I'm not sure why anyone would want a book deal at MACK but apparently it's a thing. Anyways, almost literally everything works this way.

So, uh, wear your cheese shirt proudly at as many openings and festivals as you can.


  1. Lewis Bush on twitter:

    "I feel more and more acutely that 'photography' isn't a field I want that to be associated with that much, and that 'photographer' dosen't really describe what I do."

    Yeah, we know. Photography is too easy, photography is too hard. Don't let the door hit you etc.

    1. I feel I have brought Lewis along nicely. He hardly ever writes in Art Cant any more. He is a little precious still about what he wants to identify as, though.

  2. "If you look through all the images he punched (I have) definite themes emerge in terms of what was removed, so it's not as simple as saying he was just getting rid of aesthetically weak images. Not sure how we can judge that anyway, with a great hole in the middle of them."

    -- OK, but Lewis, you done with photography. GTFO.

    1. (David refers here to a twitter thread on Roy Stryker's hole punch, about which I Have Opinions, and about which Lewis appears to as well)

    2. Well, like so many people, he wants to be "in" but mainly in the role of "boss"