Who gets to be an Artist?
Labeling something art’ or ‘not art’, while a nice gimmick in an iPhone app, has always seemed pointless to me, especially now. As soon as aestheticians can formulate some rules to separate the high from the low there is bound to be an artist that will come along and make some art that thumbs its nose at the division. The most easily recognized demarcation may be by venue, but I don’t think simply being in a gallery or museum is a particularly satisfying or useful definition. I have always worked with a very simple premise: anything can be art, but the issue is whether or not it’s good art. I acknowledge that the second part opens up another debate, but it at least puts everything on the same ground and sidesteps the untenable position of having an object’s definition be determined by its quality (a piece of bad art is still art, it’s not ‘not art.’)
I always understood that the ‘art’ would be made by an ‘artist’, and allowed for a similar laissez faire approach to who could call themselves an artist. If you want to call yourself an ‘artist’, that was fine as long as you were willing to be judged on the merits of your work. My firm belief in the truth of Sturgeon’s Law probably made these premises easier to accept; any nitwit might demand to be accepted as an artist, but it was fairly easy to think of them as part of the 90 % majority. In that regard I’m for a ‘big tent’ approach, especially since today’s multi-media presentations and performance art practices make a point of crossing the same boundaries that painters and sculptors used to. It might be bad, but that’s no reason not to include it. This ‘bottom-up’ approach gives the determination to the artists and other producers of culture, but is getting some push back from the very top of the ivory tower.
According Klaus Biesenbach (as related by David Byrne), Lady Gaga is not an artist, despite thinking of herself as one. I can see why it might be uncomfortable to acknowledge a performer like Lady Gaga, but the artworld seemed to accept Fischerspooner easily enough a few years ago and Laurie Anderson has moved easily enough between ‘art’ and pop that isn’t the art kind. The comparison I keep coming back to is Matthew Barney, and his operatic spectacles. They both have fantastic costuming and props that would be at home in either the art or performance worlds if they were presented anonymously. Certainly no one is going to declare Barney’s films ‘not art’ or say that he isn’t in fact an artist, but I’m wondering what the real difference between them is, and where the dividing line sits (or waivers as the case may be) between various cultural productions. Is all Lady Gaga needs to show (or sell) her props in a respectable gallery? Would a performance at a Biennial or Documenta do it? Biesenbach didn’t offer anything to back up his assertion, but it I think it’s a bit disingenuous to reject one aspect of cultural production, even if it is more ‘Pop,’ while his employer’s current blockbuster exhibition is of Tim Burton props and films. It seems like Biesnbach would be more comfortable if he could simply make a contextual declaration like The New Museum’s Richard Flood did, but hey, that’s just my opinion.