Saturday, March 11, 2006

Art Will Eat Itself

This post refers indirectly to the following two links. One is the site for the artwork in an exhibit called “School Days,” which in their own words, “includes works in widely diverse styles representing the best of the graduate programs at Columbia, Hunter and Yale.” The exhibit is currently up in NYC, the self-proclaimed heart of the Art World, for my readers who don’t follow these things. The other is our current MFA student exhibit, “The Best of Western,” up at a gallery in Lenoir, NC, a passionate-but-tiny arts community in the mountains. I haven’t seen most of these works in person, and the New York JPEGs in particular are possibly the lowest quality I’ve seen.

The following review of “School Days” is what got me started: “The work all looked very accomplished. No amateurish pratfalls here, nor any big risks taken.” (Calvin Tomkins, The New Yorker, February 27, 2006, pg. 31) when one of our profs posted it and the link in an email.

This quote meshes with my general opinion about the state of fine art in this country. Many (not all) of these works, and too much of what I see elsewhere, are beautifully executed and substantially empty. Especially coming from students, I expected a bit more envelope-pushing, outside-of-box-thinking, punk-rock-“in-your-face-fine-art-world!” attitude. I guess that word sums up what I feel is missing from a lot of art right now- attitude.

Now, I don’t expect that every artist needs to feel, as I do, that a primary responsibility of our profession is exposing humanity to its own buried truths and stimulating societal progress. It is certainly valid to be primarily concerned with light, or color, or form; art is object, it’s only an image whose power and meaning can be lost with the passing of generations. But if it doesn’t speak to at least the artist’s own generation, it is mere decoration. And too much of what I see in fine art today has at best, a tiny voice, crying out not even in the wilderness where someone might hear it and amplify it, but cooing to its closest friends from within the confines of its closet. No one cares about self-discovery, unless it relates to the human condition as a whole. And why should we? Finding your inner whatever is between you and your therapist.

Harsh! I know. I admit I am very biased by my Dadaist tendencies and firm belief in the equality of commercial art with fine. I have high expectations for art, and don’t usually achieve them in my own either. But, what really bothers me is this: you know how pundits keep talking about how Hollywood is “out of touch with middle America” and they’re a “liberal elite” who entertain only themselves? Well, I think you see where I’m going with this. The fine art world often seems to me like a world removed from anything but itself.

Ask people in this country to name a contemporary artist, and I’d bet my student loans that half of them would say Thomas Kinkade and the other half wouldn’t be able to name anyone. Is this because Americans are stupid and uncultured? Partially. But it’s also because fine art tends to be elitist. By the art world’s definition, it’s the opposite of commercial art, which to serve its purpose has to be accessible. Museums and galleries and schools do all they can to reel in the general public, so where does this elitism come from? It comes from artists who create while comparing theirs to other art, while trying to one-up other artists, while planning their own little artistic coup. No one cares about that shit except other artists!! People outside of the fine arts who see your work don’t care if it pushes the boundaries of space and medium and challenges the history of art.

I’m not saying don’t do those things, but why does so much art STOP at that? Why can’t art be all that AND have something to say? As long as fine artists purposely try to avoid joining the non-art conversation, fine art will continue to lose its relevance.



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