This past weekend an acquaintance from a summer camp I had attended three years ago sent me an email with an attachment of his entire body of work. He’s attending Temple and majoring in photography with a minor in film studies. I’ve talked to this kid once, maybe twice, outside of our summer experience. That is, after all, how summer camps work...isn’t it?
You’re best friends with a complete stranger for a week because you bonded over some trivial and insignificant detail, and then they all but vanish from your memory, only to be heard from in one email that comes out of the blue, asking for an honest appraisal of their senior thesis in “The Elevation of Art Through Commerce: An Analysis of Charles Saatchi’s Approach to the Machinery of Art Production Using Pierre Bourdieu’s Theories of Distinction.” I felt dissatisfaction already beginning to manifest itself as I scrolled down into the text of the work, preparing myself for an isolating and pretentious plunge into the “art world.”
I love art, don’t get me wrong. I love going to museums and galleries and observing quietly. I love thick anthologies of art history where the painter, sculptor, or designer gets a small biography written off to the side and their work, in all its glory, is plastered on the following page. I like art shows where the artists walk around, mingling with their patrons and candidly discussing their work. And at times, what I like more than the art itself is the atmosphere that seems to emanate from this field.
It is an abrasive yet overwhelmingly accepting micro culture where anything flies. It’s one of the only places where creativity is still richly rewarded and weird is endearing. It is a world where offending someone for their rigidity is an objective — where red tape, pragmatisms and normal go to die. That overarching standard of art had, at one point in my life, made me want to study art and artists professionally. But I came to find this conception of art was an ideal, a romanticized depiction of Greenwich Village in its halcyon glory days. There is, to me, a vast disconnect between my preconceived notions of what art should aim to accomplish and what it’s accomplishing.
This was swimming around in the back of my mind as I began to peruse the opening thesis of my acquaintance’s paper that opened with a 67 word long sentence that seemed to further narrow the range of his audience with each clause.
It seems to me his art is an art catering to an ever-growing movement operating more like a country club than a socially- progressive attempt to bring communities together. As someone who toyed with the idea of art school, has gone to multiple museums, organized and helped plan gallery openings, and even made small purchases of some pieces of art, I finally feel that I should admit that I’ve probably never “gotten” art.
I know, especially if you’re an art major reading this, that you’re thinking, “What is this girl insinuating. No one “gets” art. You are just a passive observer of the art. If it moves you, good. If it doesn’t move you, move along.”
But I think there is something inherently unfair about asking someone to “move along.”
Simply because someone has written a dissertation on Jeff Koons doesn’t mean the general public can’t question their motive for placing a rusted metal soup can on top of a cardboard box and selling it for $7,000. The whole, “If you don’t like my art it’s because your myopic worldview is preventing you from seeing my genius,” spiel is getting old, and I think it’s long overdue that our culture begin to reassess the way our world interacts with the aloof artists of our day, the ones who are not working with the people. The ones who are being avant-garde out of a lack of narrative, a lack of having anything important to say. It’s perfectly okay for you to dislike any art you encounter, and to identify one thing as art or deny that something else is art. Art is all about opinions and perceptions. It is, at its core, simply a form of communication.
I’m beginning to feel extreme despair by the fact that art seems to be less of something that people are interested in and more of an exclusive club for the rich to indulge each other’s “sense of whimsy.” I recently went to a gallery where a group of upper-middle class white people were queuing around a photograph of a stranger sitting on a chair in the middle of a desert reading. I watched them observing the art and I couldn’t help but feel that my focal point (which consisted of middle-aged adults looking at a photo that, had it been from their mom’s holiday snapshots, would have quickly skipped over) was a much more apt social commentary than what the photograph’s artist was trying to convey. I’d call it “we’re desperately looking for something to move us, and nothing is working.” I shuffled away, ironically saddened that I did not possess the requisite attention span to absorb endless amounts of objectively pointless “art.”
The thing is, when you look at contemporary art and say you “don’t understand it” (even if you look at a ‘masterwork’ like a Degas, Rembrandt, or Rodin, etc. and say to yourself, “what’s so great about this?”) keep in mind that it’s only great to other people because it is believed to be great by other people (for all kinds of reasons), not because there is some intrinsic value that makes it great.
A $20 bill is only worth $20 because other people agree on what its worth is, and even that changes constantly. Other people believe some things are great, and if you believe in their authority (i.e., status, power and privilege) to make those claims, then you believe it’s great too. Everything of value depends on you and what value you place on it and for what purpose. If you feel the need to ally yourself with those who “can appreciate” (read: believe arbitrarily in its high value) contemporary art, you do it because there are perceived social benefits from such an allegiance.
But in addition to being a matter of value, “art” is less about what kind of thing it is and more about how it’s used. Art is a symbol used to express status, power and privilege within, and allegiance to, a community. In the professional cutthroat world, that is its sole purpose. It’s created to be displayed, to communicate what culture or community you belong to and your place within it so that you can use that context (of status, power, privilege and allegiance)
to communicate more efficiently and effectively with others, and ultimately to command more attention.
I find that art in museums is like animals in old-fashioned zoos. A gallery or a museum is a cage for art, and I think art becomes dull and listless in such places. For me, art is best when you live with it. Outdoors. Or in your home. Your living room. Your bedroom. The kitchen. Art enlivens our aesthetic and intellectual lives. It tells stories. It conveys meaning.
Nonetheless, we can’t allow art to be given exclusive access to illiberal snobs. Therefore, go to museums. Attend lectures. Attend openings. Go to galleries. Talk to artists. Talk to the gallery owners. Find out why they do, what they do.
You might experience it as intellectual b.s., but you also might experience it as a set of fascinating ideas. If you like it, you’ll get caught in the idea of it all. If you just want to interact with art on an intuitive level, then you will prefer the natural aesthetics, and you won’t care about the whys and wherefores. To me, this is fine, and the rivalry of audience distinction should stop.
I will always be for an art that collapses binaries and adds beauty, triggers instinctual fears, motivates the stepped on to do the stepping, can get you locked up and humiliated, does not need a moral to entertain, references a larger context, trivializes government, is absurdest and nonsensical, mocks and abuses, and theoretically sets the world on fire. If people want to continue to sip wine and nod their heads in confused oblivion to appease social norms, I’ll have no part in that.
Emma Giering is the Voices Editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at email@example.com