Help Desk

Help Desk: Solo No No

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I’m updating my CV and visited a friend’s website to clarify the details of a collaborative piece we worked on a few years ago. While looking for that project, I came across a different listing that we also shared, a two-person exhibition that he has billed as a solo exhibition. A gallery approached us wanting to do a two-person show. He and I both showed independent and collaborative pieces (I think we each had two pieces that were not collaborative, but which provided context for the collaborative pieces); but the project that the show was named for was completely collaborative (we devised the concept together, titled it, checked in with one another as the pieces developed, etc.). I have this billed on my CV as a two-person exhibition, he has it listed as a solo exhibition. He is someone I call a friend, someone whose work I respect very much. How do I deal with this?

Louise Lawler. Who Says, Who Shows, Who Counts, 1990; set of three Chablis glasses with glass shelf and brackets; 8.50 x 14.00 x 4.25 in.

Louise Lawler. Who Says, Who Shows, Who Counts, 1990; set of three Chablis glasses with glass shelf and brackets; 8.50 x 14.00 x 4.25 in.

I once read that “the world takes you at your own estimation,” and I think this is invariably true—otherwise, how else to account for all the charlatans and double-dealers in high office? This phenomenon is especially evident within the confines of the contemporary art world, where egos are fragile, artistic value is often reduced to perceptions of visibility, and there’s a free-floating notion that you’re only as interesting as the last show you did. By fudging the facts on his CV, your friend has committed a minor fraud in an attempt to raise his own value in the eyes of the art world. I imagine that there are two parts to your distress: The first is the sense of hurt involved in having your name and work erased by a friend; the second is the frustration we all feel when we see someone else breaking the rules in order to get ahead. Let’s address these in turn.

On the whole, artists are ambitious people; it’s a long slog in the studio, and all of us like to feel as though we are being recognized for our efforts. It’s fundamentally human to want to be seen as an important, accomplished member of a community, one whose work is appreciated. What’s more, in the art world, recognition tends to translate into more and better opportunities—residencies, awards, and exhibitions. Of course, there’s a very clear hierarchy to this system—a two-person show is perceived as a rung further down the ladder than a solo, and therefore less valuable in proving that your work is respected. So in order to shore up his own insecurities about his value in this system, your former collaborator told a little lie. To address the situation, you might simply email him and say, “I’m updating my CV and noticed that you have our two-person show at Gallery X listed as a solo. Is there a particular rationale for that?” The mere act of calling him on it might be enough to make him correct the record; but if not, you might follow up by saying that you find his decision troublesome, because it wipes out both your own efforts and the collaborative goodwill between you. Whatever way you decide to approach the situation, it’s important (for your own sake) to find a smidge of compassion for this person. He is so anxious about his standing that he was willing to jeopardize his integrity and your friendship just to add another solo show to his CV. To be clear: Your friend has behaved poorly, and the situation is a bit tragic, but no matter how he responds or what he does with his CV, his behavior doesn’t reflect on you.

Now let’s get to the second part: dealing with the apprehension of watching someone cheat to get ahead. This is a tougher situation with much deeper implications, and such an issue raises all sorts of moral questions: Do other people think that sort of thing is okay? Is everyone else cheating? Maybe I should just put “solo show” on my CV? I’m sure it is not news to you that some people are perfectly happy to make adjustments to their ethics in order to get ahead. Some of these people will be successful, because they conceal their behavior or the other people involved don’t care—which is unfortunately quite common. (Conversely, you probably also know people who are steadfast in their commitment to principles, but are not particularly successful in their field; there are a million reasons why these people may not achieve their goals, but it is not due to their ethical stance.) Either way, don’t make the mistake of thinking that misrepresentations will hasten your professional rise. The reason you wrote to Help Desk to express your unease, instead of just adjusting your own CV to suit, is because you know that deception is wrong. Hold onto this feeling! The way to deal with your discomfort is to focus on the kind of person you want to be. You can’t control the behavior of others, but you can decide to work with integrity. Being “successful,” (whether in the arts or any other field of endeavor) will not do you much good if you have eroded your self-respect. Good luck!