“There is an unnecessarily complex way of discussing everything, and in a voice that makes it seem like the batteries are running low,” says Bianca Bosker.Photo: Bianca Bosker
There are few more self-congratulatory terms in the world of journalism than the “deep dive,” but Bianca Bosker has earned the right to have those two words tattooed on any body part of her choosing. She doesn’t so much sit with her materials and sift through them as she dives headlong into them, destroying secluded ecosystems that want nothing to do with her, and emerging as a leading expert. In her 2017 debut Cork Dork, Bosker was brave enough to infiltrate the realm of wine snobs and attempt to pass the notoriously difficult sommelier test (spoiler alert: she did it). The latest object of the New Yorker’s fascination – and frustration – is the realm of contemporary art, a micro-society populated by super-cool gallerists, super-rich collectors and the countless starving artists and sad wannabes firing up their Seesaw apps. and trying to cram fifteen gallery openings into one Thursday evening.
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“It took over my life,” is how she describes the process of reporting Get the Picture, her courageous and hilarious account of years working as a gallery girl, studio assistant and security guard at the Guggenheim Museum. “I don’t think I had any idea in the beginning of the extent to which it would take over my life, or how long it would take over my life.” Part of the problem was gaining access. “I felt like an FBI agent showing up for a job interview with the mafia,” she says of her efforts to win over art world sources. The message she kept hearing was: go back. There were even threats. “They didn’t come right out and threaten my safety or anything,” Bosker said. “But my reputation, well-being and livelihood as a journalist – that was a different story.” When some people got wind of her project, they commented that if she continued with it, they better like every word they read.
Their fear has some meaning. As Bosker’s book explains, the art world depends on a web of secrecy to protect the social and economic capital of a select few, and to justify astronomical price tags. “These gatekeepers become much more important when we are told that we cannot understand art without years of attending art fairs, obtaining a master’s degree, memorizing the encyclopedia of artists and wearing the right pair of jeans,” says Bosker.
While studying the Bat-Signals and Argot of the art world, she began gathering friends and learning to speak their language. Not that it was easy. Even if her questions were completely harmless, few would give direct answers. Instead, her curiosity was met with criticism, even by those who agreed to spend time with her. She asked too many questions. Her clothes were too boring. Her emails were too long and she sounded too unimportant. Her resting bitch face was completely hopeless.
In her book she dares to break through the strange codes and customs of the contemporary art world – for example why it is completely gauche to call something “beautiful” or why gallerists have to say that they have “placed” a painting instead of announcing that they have did she “sell” it? “Artspeak is a code of exclusion where every word has to be bigger than it should be,” she explains. “The more syllables, the better. There’s an unnecessarily complex way of discussing everything, and in a voice that makes it seem like the batteries are running low.” If you read an artist’s statement and wonder why it doesn’t sound like normal English, Bosker has a theory for you: She posits that Artspeak emerged in the 1970s when critics tried to imitate the clumsily translated essays of French academics .
But she didn’t mean to mock a society that some see as an espresso-addled punchline. Growing up, she was a gifted artist and even considered becoming an artist before getting swept up in getting As in college. Now 37, she wanted to learn about a fundamental joy she had lost along the way. Every time she went to look at art, her eyes were drawn to the writing on the wall. She felt she was missing a world of emotion and expression that existed right before her eyes. “I felt like I had seriously misunderstood something crucial to my humanity,” she says.
Her determination prevailed and she made her way through shadowing insiders, painting gallery walls, stretching canvases and being their plus one at parties. She spent time with a tense gallerist, a few less tense gallerists, and museum guards. She got lost in the weeklong slipstream of the Miami Art Fair (where she cosplayed as a gallery worker and racked up an impressive amount of sales). She also apprenticed with artist Julie Curtiss and Mandy allFIRE, an internet-famous performance artist whose work involves grooming her derriere and sitting on things and people (Bosker convinced her at a Gowanus event when she showed the artist her pneumatic body rest on top of hair).
The more time Bosker spent reporting, the clearer it became that when people talked about art, they were often talking about everything but the work itself. In a world where a painting can sell for $1,200 only to be flipped at auction two years later for $600,000, context matters. As Bosker explains it for her reader, this means where an artist went to high school, who they are friends with, where they have shown their work before, who has honored them with a ‘studio visit’ (whatever that means) , all come into play.
“I had a gallerist pitch me about someone’s work by saying, oh, like he’s sleeping with a much more famous artist,” Bosker recalls. “There’s the implication that you can’t possibly understand a piece unless you’ve, you know, spent years reading Clement Greenberg, you know, steeped in art fairs, like, you know, and like memorizing, like the social networks in the Lower East Kant . As one gallerist told me, if you don’t understand the context, you can’t understand what you’re looking at.”
Turned away by this message, she did her best and worked on educating herself. She wanted to understand how art is made and train her eyes to see things in new ways. “Spending time with artists in their studios and talking me through their decisions showed me something different. That everything you need to have a meaningful experience with art is right in front of you.”
Bosker’s book takes an alternately sideways and wide-eyed approach. “I left this experience feeling like the velvet ropes and the made-up language and the kind of deliberately mean slant are unnecessary,” she says. “Art can move us and stand on its own two feet, without complicated secrecy and snobbery.”
These days, she says, she finds art in unlikely places — the sight of steam escaping from a sidewalk vent or a fleet of Mr Softee ice cream trucks idling on a street corner, for example. She is also more attuned as a writer, more patient and observant. “Our brains are like trash compactors,” she says. “The way we perceive the world involves condensing information and compressing information. And I think looking at art is a training to take in the full beauty and chaos of the world around us.”