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…Is This Free?

Don Edler, Uncertain Souvenirs of Experience, 2012 (detail), photocopies, staples, stapler, dimensions variable. Courtesy of NURTUREart.

Don Edler, Uncertain Souvenirs of Experience, 2012 (detail), photocopies, staples, stapler, dimensions variable. Courtesy of NURTUREart.

NURTUREart - New York

Curated by Marco Antonini

By Stephen Truax

“Can art really be free?” asked Marco Antonini, gallery director of NURTUREart and organizer of the cleverly narrative title “…Is This Free?,” a three-part cumulative exhibition held from July 6 to August 31, 2012, that included more than 30 (both willing and unknowing) contributors who made works intended to be free. These include one of Keith Haring’s original buttons from the ’70s while they were still free; Steve Lambert and the Yes Men’s fictional copy of The New York Times that contained only good news (the headline read “IRAQ WAR ENDS”); and Patrick Tuttofuoco’s chain, which connects two disparate points in the gallery, a piece that can be installed anywhere based on his specifications and attains the status of “art.” Quoting Antonini, “Who owns a work of art, once it is freely distributed and supposedly liberated from commercial interests?”1

The market’s relationship to art and its production has always been under scrutiny since Duchamp. This relationship was further complicated by conceptual art practices, the historical moment from which “…Is This Free?” takes its cue. However, in making this space for contemporary artists to create new (free) projects in a context removed from “commercial interests” (a not-for-profit gallery) surrounded by (free) ephemera dating back as far as the 1960s, Antonini both creates a historical framework and anticipate new methods artists can use to circumvent the market. It was specifically in the context of NURTUREart, a nonprofit gallery in Bushwick, where such an exhibition registers not as a fetishization of such ephemera, but an exploration of what free distribution could mean in contemporary art.

In his essay discussing the inescapable truth that plagiarism is a part of any creative process, novelist Jonathan Lethem remarks about the economic nature of works of art: “[W]orks of art exist simultaneously in two economies, a market economy and a gift economy. Art that matters to us-which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience-is received as a gift is received.”2 It is specifically this characterization that works of art necessarily carry with them something that is by definition free that is significant. It is striking that a commodity of a volatile and criticized market-the art market-which deals exclusively in luxury commodities would contain something free: a gift. Pair this with Antonini’s project, and it seems to be a literal interpretation of such a hypothesis.

Lethem says that this “gift” is not only inherent in works of art but is what separates art and non-art. “[In] the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience…Where there is no gift there is no art.”2 The question, “…Is this free?” problematizes the boundaries of what is art and what isn’t. The ephemera distributed in conjunction with an exhibition, such as posters, fliers, ‘zines and buttons, among others, begs the question of whether they are art. Does the market assign a specific object’s status as art, or can it be free? Without didactically answering these theoretical questions, “…Is This Free?” gave viewers and artists the opportunity to interact with “free” artworks and judge for themselves in a free-form, open-ended environment.

(July 6 - August 31, 2012)


1. Antonini, Marco. Curatorial Statement: “Is This Free?” NURTUREart Non-profit Inc., Brooklyn, June 2012.

2. Lethem, Jonathan. “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism.” Harpers Magazine, February 2007.

Stephen Truax is an artist, writer and independent curator based in Brooklyn.

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