[This article is the first in a Op-Ed series published weekly on Sunday, co-written with Yonathan Anatolii Oremiatzki Ast.]
We’ve all heard the speculation; the art world won’t survive the pandemic, at least not to function as it once had. Those of us who work in the arts, aghast, cry out instinctively in its defense. And not just because we all want to keep our jobs, but because we have collectively accepted that art is important and contributes profound value to our society. And this is true. Art should go on. Art must go on. Right?
Of course, art will go on. The making of art is as natural and necessary as breathing for artists. And the inclination to invent methods to commodify creative output is intrinsic to our capitalist society.
So the question is how: When the art-market does adapt to grow and prosper post-Covid, how will it do it? What will the art-world look like in 2 years, or 5, or 10? We’ll get into all of what that could look like in next week’s article, but first let’s tackle a question that’s been at the forefront of my mind since all this talk of shuttered museums and galleries never reopening began; why, why should art prevail? It’s a contentious question, sure, but a necessary one.
Honestly, though: what has art done for us lately?
Confession: I can’t remember the last time art made me feel anything.
When I first realized this I was, of course, concerned. Considering it’s how I’ve made a living for the better part of the past 15 years and a thing that has often, if not always, brought me joy in one way or another, it’s a difficult pill to swallow that the thing that has mattered so much to me since as far back as I can remember has somehow stopped returning the favor.
But the thing is: Art still gets me excited. It’s not that I’ve just stopped caring about it all together.
I continue to amass great pleasure in learning about movements and artists; history and theory and criticism are an endless source of fascination for me. I’m obsessed with how art creates the possibility for communication and connection across cultures, traversing time and space; that we can look at works made hundreds of years ago or in far off parts of the world and see both similarities and differences that demonstrate, so much more than words ever could, what it objectively means to be human and the ways in which our individual experiences are uniquely subjective.
The majestic indescribable thing that art intrinsically is. I mean, that’s brilliant. The uncanny thing that art is and does, what it means for society and humanity: that still does it for me. It’s just the experience of art that has somehow, over time, soured.
For a while I thought the problem was me. Maybe I was too close to it all, so it just wasn’t fun anymore. Unfortunately, though, it seems as if the problem is quite pervasive. Just ask the next stranger you speak to when the last time they went to a gallery or museum was. Chances are it’s been a minute.
To say that those of us on the inside are fatigued is a major understatement (hello, art-fair-insanity and blockbuster museum shows featuring the same handful of white-male-‘geniuses’ on display and auction-house kabuki for black-card billionaires only, ugh). For those on the other side of these white-cube fun-house walls, most have come to believe that art just isn’t for them: it’s not really their thing, and they just don’t get it anyway.
If you think about it though, this doesn’t make any sense. You don’t need a masters degree or even an elementary school education to make or appreciate art. The creation of art is uniquely human, an unalienable right exclusive to our species. Artistic-talent manifests in self-taught artists as much as it does in the hallowed studios of CalArts. All of it has a right to exist, as much as you or I do.
The only qualifications for what makes something a work of art is that it is made (or conceived of) by a human-being. And the experience of art is inherently subjective. Just because a person doesn’t like a work doesn’t mean it’s bad and just because someone likes a piece doesn’t make it good, no matter who they are or where they went to college.
In truth, adjectives like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aren’t effective or even applicable when quantifying artwork. Art simply is. You can like it or hate it, that’s your prerogative. And here’s another thing we all ought to remember while we’re at it: Art isn’t meant to be understood, it’s meant to be seen and felt; to be experienced just like listening to music or watching a movie. Certainly, all experiences can be dissected after the fact. But in the moment, it’s best to just sit back and let art happen to you before you start to try to make sense of it. Let it be, take it in as you choose.
After all, it’s for you, and for me. It’s for her and for him; it’s for all of them and everyone else too.
Art is for everyone.
This much is fact. But that isn’t how art is presented nor how just about anyone feels experiencing it. Beyond the sterile semiotics of so many exhibitions, though, there’s more at play that seems to have contributed to this rabid-culture of elitism, entitlement and unattainability. For most forms of fine art, it seems par for the course, though the biggest culprit among them being contemporary art.
Let’s be clear (albeit unoriginal): The contemporary commercial art world has become bloated and self-important, and at times a parody of itself. It’s the damn duct-taped banana, it’s the reports coming out of Christie’s and Sotheby’s for sales that top tens of (if not a hundred +) million dollars, it’s entering gallery spaces that feel unwelcoming and uncomfortable at every turn. It makes no sense yet there’s no cohesive attempt to reconcile this bizarre culture-cum-luxury market for the common folk.
Last year, Monet’s Meules (1890) sold for $110.7 millions dollars. Now probably Monet, more than some artists at auction, has mass appeal. Lots of people these days enjoy his work. But with a price tag like that you’ll be hard pressed to find a person for whom that sale makes sense.
Then there’s the issue of a market full-to-the-brim with so much art that most people just don’t like. It’s not that it shouldn’t exist, some people love it and that’s great. But should it be dominating the market in a way that leaves little room for anything else to be talked about? I’d argue that’s a mistake that carries with it a ripple effect that rubs a lot of people the wrong way and propagates an increasingly isolating art-world that serves only the needs of a very privileged few.
Imagine if obtuse art-house movies were the only genre the general public associated with film, or John Cage was all we knew of music? Why are we so comfortable telling outsiders that if they don’t like a work of art that is fundamentally difficult to access, like Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn that they’re wrong rather than inviting them in to be a part of the conversation, making space for and respecting everyone’s impressions? Why is ‘Fine Art’ the only form of art that doesn’t create opportunity for understanding and acceptance en mass?
Here’s one answer: Money.
If a work of art is amassing blue-chip level returns, the economy of art must justify it somehow. Don’t like it? You wouldn’t, you couldn’t: your tastes just aren’t as refined as theirs. Exclusivity has served those at the top very well.
But the reality is this: no one should feel like art, any art, is not for them. From Basquiat, to Kaws, Maurizio Cattelan, Jeff Koons, or Christopher Wool. There is no password to access, nor background requirements or credit check. Art is there, it’s just there. You don’t have to like it, but it’s still here for you. It exists for your pleasure or distaste. Either is fine.
Art will go on. Art always was, and Art always will be.
We just can’t help it. Creating is baked into the very fiber of what it means to be human. I asked a bunch of artists specifically why they make art. Here’s some of what they said:
‘Because all the light and energy needs to get out,’
‘My work teaches me things I didn’t know I knew,’
‘When it works it’s better than drugs,’
‘To capture what I see and share it will other people,’
‘Because I have experienced art that stirs me and I want to do that for other people,’
Of all the artists I spoke to, no one said they did it for the money. That’s because most artists don’t make good money and a very select few make a lot of money. Yet, all artists need to create despite whether or not their work sells. And whether we’re fully aware of it or not, we all need to experience the human connection artistic expression provides. Art is Important. For Everyone.
If the function of art is to be appreciated, for its beauty, (which is subjective) or for its ability to make the viewer feel something (again, subjective), we must recognize that the subjective nature of art is exactly what makes it impossible to say what is universally good, or bad. I want to live in an art world that recognizes that, don’t you? And in turn takes seriously the responsibility we all have to be ambassadors for the importance of art, cultivating access and embracing its relevance for all people.
What if I told you that music was doomed and wouldn’t ever be made again, and the ability to listen to it was to be vastly restricted. You’d never believe me. And you wouldn’t stand for it either. Art should be no different, and yet we find ourselves having to argue it’s importance. This means we have been doing a terrible job and for far too long. But it also means we, like so many other industries, can make great progress in this profound moment. We can rebuild the world the way we want for it to be.
Let’s call a spade a spade: we’ve failed in protecting, preserving and presenting the visual-arts for everyone.
This is not a new idea, many of us on the inside have been aware of the damage being done as it was happening. The blatant peddling of elitism has badly eroded art’s reputation. One way or another, we are all complicit, either as active participants or by way of apathetic negligence.
The break-neck pace of art-world activities became an unstoppable hamster wheel, with the rubber-neck inducing spectacle of blood-sport aesthetics playing out indiscriminately on the world’s stage, one duck-taped banana at a time. Look, it was fun, and at times it was funny. But it was also stupid and without foresight. Many of us have known this, it’s just that, until Covid-19, we haven’t had the time to go back to our respective art-world corners and think about what we’ve done.
There is so much more to art than a six-figure PR stunt in the form of fruit or the exorbitant returns Jeff Koons pulls in at auction, shouldn’t we strive for an art-world that makes that clear to everyone? We have the power to do so, and now in this extraordinary moment, we have the chance. Let’s not let the silver lining go to waste.