Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘mainstream

Site Specificity: Art & the Mainstream Part 2

Recently the overseers of Versailles announced that it would no longer be showing contemporary art within the French monument to extreme opulence. My first thought was of the Jewish Museum, and how it was eventually forced to return to its institutional roots rather than continually mounting exhibitions of avante-garde art. Of course the difference is that the “offending” artists at Versailles were not young upstarts turning prevailing aesthetic trends on their ear, but established art-stars. My second thought was that it was too bad, because certain artists, like Koons and Murakami, looked really damn good installed in gilded extravagance. Or at least the photos of the installations looked great (I confess to not having made it out to the suburbs of Paris to check them out in person), but the pictures I’ve seen are much more striking than the images of the same artists works in conventional gallery settings, or even seeing their work live and in person in the white cubes of Manhattan.

It leads me to believe that however much the superficial surface of fashion and aesthetics may change from day to day, the deeply underlying cues and codes imparted by extreme wealth probably have not changed that much in the last couple centuries (and possibly for a milenia). It helps that both Koons and Murakami are directly engaged with the codes and representation of the luxury commodity as a subject; where Versailles is the ultimate luxury background, shows by these artists would seem to unify the setting with the object. This unity is ultimately deeper than their busy shining, glittering surfaces. The art in question foregrounds the same expressions of power through capital that Versailles was built to express and house.

The backlash against the Versailles exhibitions connects quite directly to a thread brought up in Hyperallergic’s Mainstreaming Art panel. When addressing the mainstream in relation to Art one needs to be very particular of noting the ground (however metaphorical) one is standing on. It is all too easy to consider the Art world as a series of overcrowded fiefdoms isolated in broad swaths of open geography, but that is only the case if you only follow the money attached to the top one percent. The concept of Art will mean very different things to people in locales away from New York, or other urban centers where artists tend to congregate. Addressing Art for the mainstream means defining which mainstream, which site artists and viewers expect Art to operate in, and by extension how they choose to define what Art is.

I get the feeling that the French traditionalists who so object to Murakami probably have a great deal in common with American cultural conservatives; neither group seems particularly  tolerant of trends in contemporary art that are dominating the art scene or attendant consideration of ideas about equality by gender, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation that accompanies the discourse (I’m also left to wonder if the larger outrage over Murakami as opposed to Koons has more to do with ethnicity than has been previously admitted). While either group probably has little overlap with the larger centralized art world of their respective nations, it may be fair to say that by sheer numbers they represent a block of the population that may rival those who would count themselves as ‘in’ the art world. In my opinion such an example makes it a dicey proposition for the Art to try and claim a relation to the mainstream of the broader public based on straight populism.

As with policy and politics, the number of people interested in art is not limited to insiders only. If people inside the art world were the only ones interested in art, the rising attendance figures reported by galleries and museums wouldn’t be possible. However where the consequences of ceding mainstream discourse in politics can be immediate and severe, the stakes within culture are subtler. While the broader culture’s omnivorous lack of direction can easily consume any small attempt at revolution and spit it back out as a processed and easily consumed commodity (witness Work of Art), the question becomes how to expand the site of the art world so that it can be more inclusive while avoiding the inevitable confusion and cacophony that adding more voices to the discussion causes.

If there are solutions to this problem, they will be specific to the individual and will lie in recognizing that the art world is not a single site, but multiple sites occupying the same geography. Just as the modern city overlays and intermingles political, economic, utilitarian, and various cultural infrastructures, those engaging with Art will have to navigate between sites and situations as diverse as the ivory tower and the bazaar, the palace and the thieves den. How one enters and negotiates the various sites, and at what cost, will be determined by what they hope to accomplish. A young artist will necessarily need to navigate a different terrain than an established curator, who will be not be on the same footing as the moneyed collector. They will intersect at various points and share common ground, but there are significant gaps between their experiences.

These gaps represent the fragmentation of the art world that mirrors the increased fragmentation of the everyday populace. In this regard Work of Art establishes the same link from the art world to the mainstream that TV does to the broader population. It is not that there isn’t interesting and challenging work being made either as art or for television, it’s that amid such fragmentation of audience the only way to profitably address the mainstream is to present a product that is broadly bland and simplemindedly inoffensive so as to fill in the gaps between members of the audience. As the art world represents so many different interests and points of view, the more appropriate question is to the worth of spackling over the idiosyncrasies of its different sites to produce a simple map that can be easily read by the mainstream; how much does Art want to be like TV?

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Written by Brian Dupont

October 21, 2010 at 8:27 am

The Luxury of Art: Art & the Mainstream Part 1

On September 10th Hyperallergic hosted a small panel discussion on the mainstreaming of art, the podcast of which will be available on iTunes. The discussion was interesting, but felt a bit unfocused. This shouldn’t be a surprise (and should be considered a good thing) given the diverse interests and curiosity of the panelists, as well as the lack of a dogmatic agenda. The format allowed the panel comment on a wide range of topics related to Art and the Art world’s uncomfortable relation to mainstream culture, including MoMA’s Tim Burton exhibition and how the comment section of blogs has opened up the discourse about art, but here I want to concentrate on what was to me the elephant in the room: Art’s status as a luxury commodity.

That Art is a luxury commodity not a new idea; panel moderator William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton’s Hashtagclass project devoted considerable time and intellectual energy to turning this idea over. In fact I think the critique of art as luxury commodity is a central concern of their project (just look at the site’s banner graphic). While I think it’s fair that the Hyperallergic panel didn’t use its limited time to address a previously examined idea, especially in relation to the recent TV exposure associated with Bravo’s Work of Art, it still seems like the central problem when thinking about Art’s relationship to mainstream culture.

Sometimes it seems as though artists, critics, and dealers will often treat that relationship just as they would the eponymous invisible pachyderm. It seems no one wants art to be thought of as little more than a collection of designer goods. Art has always been about communication, be it directly with the gods, the church or state instructing the populace, or the individual artist communicating matters of personal feeling or vision; I don’t think anyone gets that from a handbag (even one by Murakami), and the association feels like an accusation of vacuousness; it highlights the mercantile exchange at the expense of aesthetic or cultural meaning. This slight is at the very core of why art has a problematic relation to any formulation of ‘mainstream culture.’ In trying to set itself apart from other luxury commodities it is arguing for a more exclusive place within the cultural landscape, not a more general or mainstream one.

It is a question of access, and just as in any other area of human behavior where there is money to be made, it is the cost of access that is problematic. This is especially true when (say, as with politics) the ideal system is democratic and open and the existing system is revealed to be less than that. As our current global culture allows for increased mobility between economic classes, the boundaries between what is traditionally thought of as high and low culture has become similarly smeared. This smearing leaves us in a consumer culture where many luxury brands are more accessible to more people. This increases the competition for those objects, but also levels the field somewhat (the best, if fictional, example I can think of being Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones yelling at someone because she saw the designer handbag she coveted on the arm of a Midwestern housewife while she was made to wait – shades of Craig Robbins). However, by virtue of its ultimate focus on the unique, Art reinforces its link to the history of the luxury commodity.

From a basic production standpoint, the economics behind the production of a work of art grow out of the centuries old tradition of guilds and skilled craftsmen. Artists today are (generally, for the most part) making work by hand, with high overhead costs in space and materials. The base economic factors of the cost of labor and the time and experience required to meet a sufficient level of technical skill remain as factors that push the price of the handmade object  ever upwards. Similarly issues of scale apply to artists and collectors alike. Bigger is seen as more important, more desirable; having the resources to own a non-utilitarian object that takes up a large amount of square (or cubic) footage represents a considerable expenditure of capital. (This is all the more so if the work is in storage, there Art is even removed from even a pretense of having even a decorative function.) Previous attempts by artists to make work that is ‘uncollectible’ have only resulted in changing the taste of collectors, who will still find a way to own the art, sometimes at even greater expense and sometimes without anything material to show for it.

That Art is ultimately subject to the same economic forces as any other luxury commodity is an a priori condition; furthermore it is not possible to divorce Art and its production from rules of economics. Attempts at popularizing access, such as Jen Beckman’s 20 x 200 project, ultimately reinforce this condition, but it strikes me as a similar situation to almost anything else people care about these days; the situation is not ideal, but it isn’t necessarily clear what the ideal would even be (other than that one person’s ideal is probably very different than the next person’s). This is not to say that problems and grievances shouldn’t be addressed, or that options and alternatives should not be explored, only that those who care about art should not lose sight of the cultural and aesthetic values that brought us to it in the first place.

Written by Brian Dupont

September 29, 2010 at 9:28 pm