Pure Art Sells Out

6 01 2012

The specialized treatment of art education at the university level separates art from other aspects of life. As I have stated before, a qualification for something to be considered “High” or “Fine” art is that the entire purpose of the object is to be art and art alone.  This is the culmination of the modernist mandate for authority and therefore for purity.  To be an expert in something, one must study it extensively and exclusively.  To become an authority in art, an artist must be entirely focused on art and therefore what is produced is art for art’s sake—a pure art.

Jean Michel Basquiat's studio: a working temple of art

This isn’t an attitude that is limited to art.  Other disciplines follow the pattern:  music, religion, philosophy, science, etc.  It is in science, and the Enlightenment approach to science that so influenced modern thought, where we see how specialization is so important.  I could use Theoretical Physics as an example of a form of science that is almost entirely detached from any aspect of the everyday existence of an average person living on planet earth.  String Theory and inquiry into the status of light as a particle or a wave have little bearing on the day-to-day work of a plumber.  However, I think the scientific method itself is a prime example of how specialization and singular focus work in science, which we can then see echoed in larger areas of study like art.

The television show Mythbusters is a fantastic pop-culture example of the use of the scientific method.  The cast will start with a myth or bit of urban lore.  Say, for this episode, they are taking a scene from the movie Lethal Weapon 2 where Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) discovers explosives under his toilet, knowing that if he stands up, his house will be blown to bits.  The solution, in the film, is for Murtaugh and Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) to jump into the adjacent cast-iron bathtub, which will shield them from the force of the explosion.  The question the Mythbusters pose is, “Will a cast-iron bathtub shield a person from the force of a C-4 explosion like it did in the movie?”

The scientific method requires focused inquiry.  Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman aren’t looking at the plausibility of Murtaugh and Riggs’ car chase which leads to the discovery of South African Krugerrands and the subsequent attacks by “South African thugs,” or into any of the other spectacular stunts depicted in the film.  The scene is picked apart, with one specific aspect tested after another.  They test how easily one man can pull another into a bathtub from a toilet if the man on the toilet is unable to use his legs due to numbness.  For the show-finishing test, they focus on the shock protection of a cast-iron bathtub.  After determining what variables are acceptable in their experiment and which need to be removed (namely, actual people and a real house), they construct a bathroom on a bomb range with pressure-sensors and a ballistics dummy to record how much of the shock wave reaches inside the bathtub.

This photo isn't from the same episode, but it's still badass.

The Mythbusters engage in solid science, and in solid science, each experiment is designed to test one hypothesis.  If the results confirm the hypothesis or disconfirm it, the science is still solid.  In fact one of the defining factors of so-called “hard science” is that 50-50 possibility for failure.  If a hypothesis is tested in a way where a result could be produced that neither confirms or disconfirms it, the science is faulty—there are too many variables that must be eliminated from the experiment in order to make the hypothesis falsifiable.

The results of hard science carry absolute authority:  a hypothesis is either confirmed or disconfirmed, there is no way to argue for one or the other once the experiment has been carried out.  It is the singular focus of science that gives it this authority, and therefore other areas of study echo that kind of inquiry.  The study of art focuses on art itself—to be an authority is to be an expert, and to be an expert is to study something solely and exhaustively.  This is how we have modeled education.  High school specializes by class (1st period, you study Science, 2nd period, you study Latin, etc.), while trade schools specialize by, well, trade, while universities specialize by major and therefore department.

In art, an education focused entirely on art produces artist who make art that is, at its core, about art.  Though we think ourselves to be past the “art-for-art’s-sake” mantra of Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism, the work we produce is referencing other works, other periods of art history, and is a product of our focused education.  An artist like me might propose that anything can be considered art, which is true.  In a bizarre paradox, the supposed non-art activities that artists bring into the fold as art are justifiable as such because our sole area of expertise is art.  We are artists, so anything we do is art.

What this produces, as Howard Singerman and others lament, is a circular production of artist-educators.  The non-art activities produced as art—the “Alternative Media,” the “New Genre,” the weird, out-there, crazy stuff like performance and video and installation and earthworks and sound art—do not have much of a place in the art market. These artworks are difficult to quantify and commodify, and are therefore difficult to sell as objects.  Since they can’t really be sold on the primary market, there’s little to sell on the secondary market (auction houses frequented by collectors) and therefore the path to the institutions of legitimation, namely, museums, is obstructed.

With a lack of accessibility to the market, the path to legitimation instead leads through the institutions of education.  Enter the artist-educator.  Enter the visiting artist.  Enter the special lecturer.  The majority of students graduating from MFA programs are qualified to make art, certainly (really—how much qualification do you need?  More in another blog), but they are qualified for little else in a world that requires “employment” in order to have enough money to live.  Since many graduates focus on the ephemeral or the experiential rather than on saleable products, their education seems to limit their job possibilities to education.  MFA graduates become art instructors, teaching a new generation in a manner as focused and limited as the one in which they were taught. They can also become visiting artists, touring the lecture circuit of universities and art schools, earning not only stipends and lecturer fees, but also legitimation and a place in the pantheon of art history.  The most obvious example I can think of is Chris Burden, who is not an artist who produced much in the way of art objects, but is nonetheless immortalized in textbooks thanks to his performances and perhaps more, arguably, because of his personal qualification of his performances and installations as an instructor and visiting artist.

'Shoot,' by Christ Burden (1971) was entirely experiential. Even the documentation is lacking. Yet, it is a seminal work, and is known by any student studying performance art.

As I can tell you from experience, finding a place in the ivory tower of academia is no easy task.  There are few positions available for the thousands upon thousands graduating with MFAs every spring, and in an economy like this, with budgets slashed and art budgets the first on the chopping block, even those positions are dwindling.  Young graduates and emerging artists are force to cope with existence in a world where their newly-gained and accredited expertise will not get them very far.  Outside of Graphic Design courses, little mention is made in university art curriculum of self-marketing and business practices, even in courses with such promising titles as “Professional Practices.”  Outside of the miracle of gallery representation and excessive sales, how is a given artist expected to make it in a work-a-day world and still have the time, resources and opportunities to both make and exhibit their work?  While the chances of being an institutionally-legitimized “successful” artist are low, how does one still manage to be a success?

It may be that the definitions for success and legitimation for artists needs to shift for our current age of art.  I am certain that the qualification for art as something that is only made to be art has to change.  For someone to be successful at making art, one needs the support of both other artists and a community that finds the art both accessible and important.  High-minded artists and afficianados might argue that what I’m suggesting is that artists sell out and dumb-down their work—that they make kitsch in order to survive.  The pugilist in me wants to quote Lars Ulrich of Metallica:  “Yeah, we sell out—every seat in the house.”

Just because something is good business doesn’t make it bad art.  Metallica earned the scorn of purists by suddenly gaining mass-market appeal with their self-titled 1991 album, also known as The Black Album.  It wasn’t “metal” enough if it appealed to people outside the “educated” and the “specialized.”  But Metallica’s music, when looked at over the span of thirty years, is a continually evolving thing—and I argue that the band has always been unafraid to take risks in order to explore a new idea musically.  Sometimes it appealed to a large audience and thus brought more people into the world of heavy music than may have become interested in it otherwise.  Sometimes it failed—I give you St. Anger.  However, the exploration that Metallica engages in, however popular or unpopular, is an example of the kind of thing you’re taught to do in art or in music.  The problem is that it is seen as being less than pure by those more focused specifically on metal.

Remember how upset "purists" were when the members of Metallica cut their hair?

Metallica’s wide success depended upon appealing to listeners outside of the pure focus of metal music.  They eschewed the institutions of metal legitimation (whatever those may be—sweaty sets in dive bars attended by 50 people?) and adopted a new institution, in this case, mass approval (this was a tactic adopted by pop music long ago, moving away from the academic approval implied by classical and even academic jazz).  The success of artists may too depend on appealing to audiences outside of the institutions of legitimation as we know them. This may or may not include “selling out,” and will certainly require an attitude toward producing art that veers from the purity of art as taught in an academic setting.

As a suggestion for a possible route to take in this regard, allow me to relate a conversation I recently had with a friend.  While he was, one point, an artist, this friend has been involved in business for 8 years.  He was suggesting a way to earn money toward an artistic venture that, initially, seemed too tied to marketing to be acceptable in an art setting. He wanted to use a crowdsourcing site (like Kickstarter) to raise enough money to buy a CNC router.  He proposed using the router to create images on plywood.  Buyers would select from stock images that were provided or would have their own images to be created on the wood.  To me, this sounded like a very basic, kitsch-based business scheme: make images of peoples babies or dogs on plywood and charge them $300.  His business model seemed sound, but it seemed like just that:  business.

Using a computer program, the router bores different sized holes into plywood that has been painted black.

Here you can see both the texture of the holes and the image itself.

“I don’t want to just make crappy kitsch prints for people—where’s the art in that?”  I complained.

“You don’t get the router just for that!”  He explained.  “You need to offer people who are investing on Kickstarter something in return—they aren’t getting dividends for this investment.  You make them the 4’ by 4’ half-tone image of their grandmother and you then have this awesome router that you can make anything you want with and you didn’t have to pay for out of your pocket!  Now that you’ve got it, you can make, like, a topographical map and fill all the lakes with fiberglass resin, or crazy computer-designed three-dimensional sculpture or whatever this tool is capable of.  The kitsch stuff is just what you do to pay for the tool.”

In this model, the artist is engaging in creative production albeit half of it in the realm of the “low,” the “kitsch.”  He or she isn’t becoming lost to art in the world of the work-week, nor is he or she becoming lost to the wider world in the insulated baffles of academia. Is it “selling out?”  From the viewpoint of pure art, yes.  It may also be an option for success as an artist outside of academia and outside of the art market as we know it.

I don’t have a prescription for how to be successful as an artist in an age after art.  It may be a matter of each individual working out a way to continue creative production while at the same time making some sort of a living.  The art market is not treated in the “traditional” manner of speculative production and sale through the use of a dealer and eventually historical recognition in the hands of a museum.  Likewise, the closed system of academia loses its power of legitimation as artists in so-called “alternative” areas find venues and audiences outside of the ivory tower.  The idea of legitimation is all but ignored, so a question remains as to how history will immortalize what is produced in this age after art.  Although, if we accept that we are in an age after art—where art is no longer something to be isolated and produced in and of itself—it may be that history is in the same boat.  In an age after history, the question of legitimation may be moot.

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One response

6 01 2012
Jane Willson

Well thought out and a great viewpoint. Mass media has definitely changed the way forward for artists and you’re right, it will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

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