[Quick rant over my morning cup(s) of coffee.]
By changing art from an image to be seen, into a thing in a gallery or museum to be contemplated in that environment, art stopped being a universal medium and became a practice for the elite only.
I live in the so-called “developing world” in Asia [and have for more than 12 years], and I can listen to any music I want, watch any movie or TV series, and read any book. But I can’t partake directly in the “contemporary art” world. I can’t go to shows to see installations in person, giant sculptures, or performances, when that is how they are supposed to be viewed. What’s worse, I now realize, is that I can’t make contemporary art either. For that, I need a gallery, and my art is only as good as the gallery it’s shown in. I need to collaborate with rich and powerful institutions in order to be an artist.
Of course I’m talking about a certain kind of art. I do make contemporary art, and because I work digitally, and it’s image-based, people can enjoy it online, anywhere in the world. But I don’t make what is generally accepted as the important kind of contemporary art that gets shown, written about, and taken seriously. That needs to exist in the official gallery space, and we also know that only the artists who show in the top tier galleries will have careers that last even a decade. Thus, art needs to be a usually large scale thing, or conglomerations of things, which exists within an established art institution and is only accessible and appreciable in that environment.
You can argue that art always needed to be seen in person, but that’s not really true at all. When I was a kid I saw all of my art through reproductions. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an H.R. Giger in person. Even when I lived in LA and NY, and would go see art in person, I still saw most art through books and magazines, and then through the internet. Sure, sure, if you go back far enough you had to go to a church or cathedral to see art, but you also had to go in person to listen to music before the phonograph. I’m not talking about before my grandparents were born. I’m talking about now.
We generally think that conceptual art – the kind we think of as having Duchamp as its genesis – freed us from strict ideas of art and opened all sorts of doors. It’s all so liberating and democratic. But his “Fountain” was incomplete without a gallery to put it in. Art became what an artists says it is, yes, but only in the gallery context. Art is not art without a gallery, or institutional art space.
Again, we can say this has always been the case, but while paintings were only taken seriously if they were shown in a gallery, the gallery was not a necessary part of the art itself. Art was shown in a gallery, but it was not inseparable from it. Much of today’s most important art is too big to show anywhere except in a gallery, and too expensive for 99% of living artists to make.
It’s supposed to be liberating to be able to hire assistants to make your art for you, freeing you up to do the real art of conceiving pieces, but how many people can afford to pay someone else to make art? How do you compete with a Jeff Koons or a Damien Hirst, or even a Paul McCarthy, when they can afford to throw millions into a project and hire teams of specialists to produce their art in their name? Some of the top artists need to be multi-millionaires, have a team of artisans to make their art, and have access to the most powerful institutions in order to show it. How are YOU going to compete with them?
Right, right, they didn’t start out that way. You have to move up through the institutions and acceptance within them. You have to play the game. Well, isn’t that a bit f’ing lame? It reminds me of some prime minister saying that he’d listen to the message of a certain punk rock band when they learned to express themselves in the Queen’s English. You need to be accepted by the powerful art elite to be a practicing artist, and you need to make the kind of art that requires a gallery to be complete. I know there are exceptions, and some painters are taken very seriously, but this is the general trend.
Art isn’t really what the artist says it is, that was always misleading. It is what the art institution says it is. An artist can point to this or that and declare it art all she or he wants, and it’s nothing unless the gallery or museum puts it on display. We were sold, “art is what an artists says it is,” but what we really got was, “art is what the powerful elite in the art world tell us it is”.
You might have been wondering about the Indonesian woman with her guitar. I think you probably got it without me having to say anything, but here it is. She’s obviously making music, er, in the “developing world”, on her own, and in her unique way. And I know this music because Rob Weisberg played it in his Transpacific Sound Paradise show on WFMU around 20 years ago, and it caught my ear (I went through a big world music phase). Have a listen if you’re interested:
I still lived in Brooklyn when I heard this, and I could go to MOMA on certain days for free. And I heard the music long before I saw the photo, which was the CD cover, and the photo appealed to me as much as the music. I don’t need someone else to tell me it’s good, it doesn’t need to have cost much of anything to be made, and it can come from a middle-aged Indonesian woman sitting on the ground in-front of a battered metal gate. That track is just under 5 minutes, and I’ve spent more time listening to that album than everything by Britney Spears and Justin Bieber put together (which is only when I can’t avoid it, and despite the fortune spent on promoting their music).
That woman could make music, and I listened to it, but what she couldn’t do is make large-scale, multi-million dollar installations to be shown at Gagosian. That’s impossible for all but a tiny, tiny fraction of living people. Whole countries of artists are virtually eliminated.
Even my most dedicated detractors who read my articles with clenched fists and the thesaurus open for more creative ways of saying stupid, arrogant, and ignorant can’t deny that virtually nobody, no matter how good they are, can afford to make art like the below:
I’d take the music on my FOLKWAYS Music of Indonesia, Vol. 20: Indonesian Guitars CD over that shit any day. And as one of my friends commented to me an hour or so ago, this will be the art world’s Milli Vanilli in the future. Almost everyone has been priced out of being an artist, and people will attack me for pointing that out.
No matter what kind of art you make, it’s very difficult to get it seen without going through the proper channels, and you most likely need institutional approval and promotion to succeed and get any kind of recognition. The difference here though is that you can at least make paintings, or digital art, or lots of kinds of music, whether or not anyone else ever sees it. The gallery space is not integral to its existence, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be seen or heard in person. What is required isn’t connections, approval, a history of having played the game, and shitloads of money. What is required is creativity, ingenuity, a sense of aesthetics, a message, and a way to convey it.
Anyone who has a laptop (mine’s 6 years old) and an internet connection can compete with me. You might want the cheapest Wacom tablet, like I have, as well. You can get all this at the mall where I live in SE Asia (get a used laptop and cracked programs dirt cheap if you are on a tighter budget). Millions of people all over the world have access to all the art materials I use. You can make art on your kitchen table and upload it to the internet. It’s all about what you do with it.
But if you want to be taken seriously, you are in the wrong country, you are too poor, you are too far from the galleries and museums, you have no connections, and you don’t have the means or the space to make the work at all. You can’t be a serious contemporary artist.
Something’s wrong with that picture. You can make the kind of art that is not a physical thing in a high-end gallery no matter who or where you are. You can upload it, get some views, and this can all take place completely independent of the moneyed, official art institution. If people need a painting to be ten feet wide, or a sculpture to be made out of high-polished chrome (or encrusted with diamonds) before they can take it seriously, well, they miss the point of art.
Art isn’t what the institution peddles, nor what the elite artist says it is in cahoots with institutional support (including retroactively). That’s all extraneous bullshit. Art is what the artist creates, and its quality is inherent to it. A middle-aged woman in Indonesia, or India, or Cambodia, or anywhere can make it right now with limited means.
5 replies on “Runaway Rant: Did Duchamp Make Art an Exclusive, Elitist Practice?”
Hey, Eric! I stopped at ‘something’s wrong with this picture’ and said [2mysdlf], “What HE needs is to realize that it’s the URBMFs [for those new to the moniker, that means “ultra-rich bastard MFs”] who have put themselves in charge of most ways to rake it in and are rapidly monitizing the rest. Y’r ol’ Bud, Fike
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Yeah, I’m sure that’s a really big part of it, and then there’s everyone else who believes in it even if it’s not in their best interests (like poor folk who used to believe in “trickle down” economics).
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I agree with all of this. A lot of artists get crushed by this system. It’s sad. There are some brilliant works out there that the art community will never see because some pompous gallery didnt like it and that gallery was the only space in town.
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I gather pretty much anyone who was a visual artist was alienated if they went to a contemporary art focused school. A lot of artists in my schools were re-routed into political conceptual art. I remember a Japanese girl doing large paintings influence by comics one year, and then the following year she had a TV set on a pedestal play a video about her identity as a Japanese female. So, if artists weren’t crushed, they were converted.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Glad to read it. Finally someone saying what I have been thinking. I never had the pleasure of going to art school, I just enjoy painting and seeing all the crap that people actually pay for while I was working in a frame shop inspired me to start selling my work. Have not painted in years now but I remember dealing with all that crap.
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