The Philadelphia Story: A Check-up
Posted: 11/13/11

The following letter is in response to Emily Rooney’s essay The Philadelphia Story: A Check-up which appeared in the June 11, 2011 issue.  Rooney, in turn, has used this as an opportunity to revisit the subject. A follow-up to a check-up.

Dear Editor,

This letter is perhaps unfashionably late -- the article that caught my eye, Emily Rooney's Philadelphia Diagnostic, is a couple issues old already.  But it has kind of stuck in my craw since then.

Not because of any perceived need to defend Philadelphia.  I moved here only recently, without expectations, high or low, from Chicago.  Nor do I have some antagonism to New York, ever the paragon of good taste.  I have no axe to grind with NYC, and having grown up in New Jersey, I have seen many of my most ambitious and talented peers put down their roots there.  And finally, I must give Rooney credit for not boosting for one extreme or another -- hers is not a baby-cum-bathwater argument.

I think it's the word competition, so vaunted by the author, that has me scratching at my trim beard, perhaps because competitive so frequently just means marketable, or maybe I'm just plain bored of a culture that seems to have no other ideas for realizing human potential than competition.  Not that all this needs to be placed at the feet of Ms. Rooney -- it's not her fault that the only solution we have to lifting families out of poverty is competition, or the only way to build a better light bulb is competition, the only way to get affordable healthcare is competition.  All this presumes that there's something that can be won, but how do you win Art?  And if there's no obvious answer (and there isn't) then how does competition help?  My feeling is that it only increases the stakes, which could be helpful, if the only way to make good work was to be incentivized, another word that plucks the curlies from my chin.  In other words, I think competition is just a stand in, which, by it's very abstraction, avoids the question of what exactly would be a better art scene: more political? More profitable? Less traditional? Less white?  I think you stick the word "competition" into an equation and it seems to always signify "better" without having to address the tricky question of what that is.  Competition is an empty concept, which is both why it is so useful as a universal solution and so easy to attribute any success to it.

Maybe the big problem with Philadelphia is everyone's buttering each other's toast, I wouldn't know; but it seems like capitulation rather than ambition to say we need more barriers to entry, a greater discrepancy of castes.  Like Rooney, I have no interest in compromising interesting work for anyone's benefit, and I certainly don't think twice about walking away from something that bores me, an opportunity I have frequently, nor do I have any illusions that Philadelphia's art public is anything like a rainbow coalition -- but I like to think someone can always pull up a chair, and in a city as small as Philadelphia, the art scene is whoever shows up and that's not such a bad thing.



Dear Becket,

Thank you for your letter. I think your discomfort with the word competition is totally reasonable. Especially when New York City’s blue chip galleries are used as an exemplar of success. In light of shows like Sanford Biggers’ double blockbuster, Sweet Funk and Cosmic Voodoo Circus, or Rashaad Newsome’s show at Marlborough Gallery, or Matthew Barney’s desiccated show at Gladstone the idea of success becomes something so boring and corrosive that it is irrelevant to my initial argument. Competition in, or between artists should be an internal drive, a quest for knowledge, or a rigor and may as well be substituted with the word staidness.
But considering competition as a stand in for marketable as you’ve suggested, what do you think would happen if we were to extract art from the market? Consider communities, which rely not on currency but instead on gift giving. (I.e. Burning Man or Freebay). In some ways I think enforcing a gift-economic policy on the city of Philadelphia would create an immediate and divisive form of competition in which the quality of the gift would trump all-inclusivity, as there would become exponentially less choice. (One’s ability to give is based on their access to resources; one’s ability to receive is based on what’s being given.) Quality and quantity, in a gift economy, are no less essential then they are in a market economy. The incentive becomes social capital. Even in a gift culture there is competition for eminence. In Bataille’s 1949 book, The Accursed Share, he “regards virtue, that which [one has] the capacity for, as an asset, as a power that he now [after gifting] possesses.” In other words, it is impossible to disincentivize artistic production because making art is a privilege wherein even the time to produce it is a luxury, an asset.

It is the utopic and anarchistic idea of free-ness that I have a problem with. Not because I think our current economic system is working, but because freeconomies rely largely on resources unavailable to the economically disadvantaged (internet access, land, healthcare, sustainability education) and therefor fail to rise above anything but a bourgeois fantasy.
You are right about the troubles of allowing competition to be defined, obtusely, by the traditional markers of capitalism, but to say that competition is an empty concept seems to be ignoring centuries of philosophical thought.  Competitions, even those like a Native American Potlatch, which aim only to destroy or re-distribute the most property, lay the foundation on which modern society has been built. Gift-economies exist on the Internet with file-sharing and social media that allow for an unrivaled generosity of information, and therein lie, for me, the only real potential for things to get better, without competition.

Other ideas for maximizing human potential exist, but they are consistently stomped out by a culture still so afraid of communism, and protective of individual rights that communities, like the ones I mentioned in my first essay are ostracized. I admit to a level of judgment, verging on nihilism that is as capitalistic and un-radical as it gets. I do not believe many collective ways of living and making, or much of the Occupy Wall Street Movement are effectively destroying capitalism or can exist without it. Even Mondragon relies on the market to reward the most productive members of it’s co-op. I think that co-operative thinking and action is most productive when it rallies behind specific causes to defend individuals’ rights to fair compensation rather then eradicating the need for compensation. W.A.G.E. is a perfect example of this.

I disagree that competition is the only option provided by our culture to pull families out of poverty. What pulls families out of poverty is education. People of color will be marginalized and excluded from the (art) world until there is greater economic equality and until the achievement gap is closed, not when artist stop being competitive.

I could think of a lot of ways one “wins” in art but only at the cost of evading what I think you’re really getting at which is: why do we want to win, and doesn’t that do us more harm than good? My answer to the first question is simple: because most artists strive for audience and acclaim (even collective efforts) and have to haggle for funding and fight for resources. And to the second: I think, if more artists focused less on making a sale and more on using their art as a way to solve problems the world would be a better place. Perhaps this scenario is more often true in Philadelphia, then in New York, but I continue to believe that there is a big, grey area between solving problems, and striving to make money. This area, while it can challenge the aforementioned binary, is too often justified as experimental when it is more often then not noncommittal.  Teaching artists that striving to make money is shameful is just as unproductive as condoning endless ambiguity in an artistic practice. 

What makes art “good,” or what kind of work “solves problems,” is, of course, subjective. But without a critical infrastructure the subjective will reign, and objectivity will become a lost cause. And while the upper echelon of New York’s art market makes Philadelphia look like the land of the free, with it comes comprehensive arts coverage, setting a high bar not only for art but also for journalism. If Philadelphia made more of a commitment to excavation rather then display the art scene could be transformed from “whoever shows up” to “whoever dug the deepest.” Those who make it to the earth’s core will be rewarded with the prestige of their own generosity.

Sincerely yours,


We received this response shortly after the release of this issue.  Muehlbauer addresses the above responses and offers some of her own points for consideration.  If you have an opinion of this subject and would like for it to be posted here, send your response to
with “Philadelphia Story” in the subject line.

Dear Philly Art Scene,

I was very pleased to read the letters on The Philadelphia Story: A Check-up.  The last few sentences of Rooney’s second response are poignant, and I think that if we consider our goal as artists and writers an archeological mission rather than one done for appraisal we will all be making better work. Unfortunately this requires insight, commitment, self-reflection, and resolve, and I’m not sure these are universal attributes.  Hence the need for “competition” as it was discussed.

I agree, however, that the word is problematic, particularly in its capitalist/Darwinian ties, but appreciate Rooney’s re-classification of the term as an internal, knowledge-driven quest.  This does require deep digging on the part of the artist and curator, and I am often surprised at how superficial the general field can be.  As it regards collective practice, this is an issue close at heart, one that was revealed quite tellingly in this year’s FluxSpace exercise response to Chris Kraus’s “Where Art Belongs” (  In case you missed it—published by MIT press, the book is summarized as follows:

Chronicling the sometimes doomed but persistently heroic efforts of small groups of artists to reclaim public space and time, “Where Art Belongs” describes the trend towards collectivity manifested in the visual art world during the past decade, and the small forms of resistance to digital disembodiment and the hegemony of the entertainment/media/culture industry. For all its faults, Kraus argues, the art world remains the last frontier for the desire to live differently.

Flux asked for participants to read and respond, the results of which were published and distributed throughout the city, and followed by a public reading by many of the participants.  I had strong feelings that while the book was full of holes, I could appreciate the specifically non-utopian approach to both the writing and appraisal of works. Even though parts were difficult to read, it was approached uniquely and it made me work to make connections on my own.  Once I began to analyze the text, it became much clearer what its goals were.

From my response: Quoting Fletcher, collective process is termed  “ongoing crisis” (53) and perhaps there lies the nobility of effort on the part of featured practitioners—strong, humble, and willing to navigate the crisis of community. What I am left with is a sort of anthem of desire, for carrying art beyond the individual with inchoate hopes to serve a greater purpose.  With statements like, “Utopia—static and therefore unreal—is never the point”, and “if the collective is an experiment in shared time, how can time fail?” (167)

Kraus advocates for work difficult to realize and always transient, but nonetheless worthwhile for its headstrong insistence on being.
The issue of collective practice is close to me—as a practitioner myself I am always at odds with the constraints of the local art scene, and often choose to self-produce and use alternative venues, lacking support from galleries (a slightly different type of scenario from collective shows referenced in Rooney’s article and response). But what I was surprised to find from a majority of the WAB reactions was an overall frustration with not being TOLD the answer to the proposed question “where does art belong?”—an idea which I found completely disheartening.  I thought it was clear that as artists we must invent this space ourselves, and consider that it will continually metamorphize, and that if we don’t make the effort to carve out a space, no one is going to do it for us.  That was the whole point of the book, to show how this has been done, and to offer something different, as both a text and a piece of work in itself, and in the examples that it put forth.  So where is the initiative, Philly?  Certainly not in these responses (**and yes, there were a few exceptions). As R. Buckminster Fuller said,  “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete".

What I do find overwhelmingly to be true is that when I see collective efforts that are well done, they are all-the-more amazing, affective and appreciated by their audience because of the commitment and ingenuity required to pull them off. But by and large, I don’t believe these efforts come to fruition without good leadership, and this is what we need, Philadelphia.  Not a practice or a gallery scene that is all-inclusive or is conversely individualistic (the good 'ol American way), but leadership that knows how to both steer and respond.  And if you’re not willing to lead, then find someone or something you trust and work with them—don’t just abandon yourselves to a scene that you don’t agree with, but refuse to take responsibility for.  Start to invent.  Like now.

Thanks, Philly, and with love.

Sarah Muehlbauer



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