Rant: Part I (In Which I Think Deep Thoughts About Art, Art Ownership, and the Institution, Then Get Sidetracked)
I’ve been reading a book called Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art by Ossian Ward. It is a bit of a beginner’s guide to looking at contemporary art, which I picked up with the idea that it might be useful for teaching younger kids or non-art folk about contemporary art. Yes. I am that nerd that thinks about pedagogy and teaching ALL the time. It’s a pretty basic read, but interesting. Anyway, it dredged up a few thoughts that have been kicking around in my head for awhile and got me thinking about them again.
The premise of this book, is that it breaks down contemporary art into “Art as” sections to be decoded using the author’s TABULA Rasa formula (Time, Association, Background, Understand, Look again, Assessment). These “Art as” sections include: Art as Entertainment, Art as Joke, Art as Message, etc. The last two chapters are Art as Spectacle and Art as Meditation, which I was reading on the train on my way into work this morning. Toward the end of the Art as Spectacle chapter the author discusses Urs Fischer’s You, and writes:
“Resembling a battlefield or a construction pit rather than an exhibition, Fischer’s destructive, anti-artistic statement was not only an assault on the senses—involving as it did a precipitous 8-foot drop and the risk of serious injury—but it was also an attack on the very structures that support and validate art itself (it was nevertheless sold to a foundation for excavation at a later date at some other location).”
At which point I literally wanted to stand up on the train and flip a table. It just seems so ridiculous to me that this piece was bought by a foundation to be moved from it’s context, making it even less accessible. It actually made me angry. Because let’s face it, there is a certain amount of privilege involved in being able to visit (access) a museum, gallery, foundation, or other arts institution. But also, I really HATE the idea of ownership when it comes to art (especially when it comes to something so ephemeral and site-specific). I want everyone to have access to art all the time. I don’t think you should have to pay to see something that is culturally relevant, or interesting, or thought provoking, or just plain fucking beautiful (although I could personally not care less about that particular criterion). And I think art objects are stupid. It upsets me that these are things which artists have poured themselves into, and they are hoarded away by private collectors or museums, only to see the light of day occasionally. Art isn’t about just looking/seeing. But I’ll get to that rant in a second.
The author continues his bit about You, referencing the writings of Robert Smithson (of Spiral Jetty fame). Smithson was a leading figure in moving art outside of the gallery, and helped to develop the Land Art movement of the 70’s. At one point he wrote that museums are just graveyards above ground. And, regardless of the context in which Smithson said/wrote that, or the context in which Ward is theoretically linking it to You, I really am starting to believe it’s true in a very literal sense. Museums are places that art goes to die. Art no longer exists as it was originally envisioned once it’s consigned to a collection, where it is restored, or stored, or academicized. It becomes part of a hushed atmosphere, in which you are supposed to take everything very seriously, study the beauty of the “masters” (which, fuck that noise), and learn something. These randomly selected objects are placed onto white walls and white pedestals to be admired and revered (from a distance), because someone employed by the museum said that they should be. Aside from the usual rhetoric over who gets to decide what is art, what isn’t, and what should be displayed/preserved, it’s a stupid, stupid system. And sure, there are museums, or exhibitions out there that challenge this status quo, but not enough. The majority of them do not. The majority of them are the white cube-didactic-no-touching model.
This makes me think of the Futurist Manifesto (because really, it’s never far from my mind), and the Futurist’s desire to destroy all museums/libraries/academies etc, because they viewed them as antiquated and therefore an impediment to the progress of the future. Sometimes, I think they weren’t far from wrong (aside from their somewhat blatant misogyny and general delight at war). We have created these repositories of things that we are told to revere. I can easily question and challenge it because I have the theoretical knowledge and art back ground, but the average person does not. They take it to heart. We cling onto these things, as if they truly are the end all and be all of beauty, or whatever the hell it is that we are looking for in art. We uphold the past, and scorn the contemporary (Thats why books like Ways of Looking are written…). It’s almost like we want to hold ourselves back.
My ponderings on art ownership, objects, and destroying museums also started me thinking about the other forms of art that we accumulate and store. For instance, why am I OK with collecting outrageous numbers of books, of which many are works of fiction, and therefore art? I LOVE books. I learn things from them, I escape every day life with them, they are magical objects to me, and are tied into happy childhood memories. But still, they are art. So why can I support ownership of those and not works of visual art? Is there any difference? Perhaps it bothers me less because there are often thousands, if not millions of the same copy of my book floating around? Because anyone can go to the library, find that book, and read it for free (Unrestricted access)? And libraries are depositories of ALL books, not just some. I realize not every library will have every book, but they don’t actively seek to curate their patron’s visit by limiting their selection, to say the 200s (Religion) in the Dewy Decimal System. Or perhaps they do, and I am just unawares.
And what about music? I’ve never been one to obsessively collect albums. I’m perfectly content to turn on Spotify/Pandora/insert-other-internet-radio-here and listen. I don’t need to own it. But there are some who make it a priority in their lives. And in some weird, conceptual way I find it more acceptable to collect that form of art. Again, perhaps it’s because theoretically anyone has access to this art form, and there are millions of copies laying around. Perhaps because someone else could then learn that piece of music and play it for themselves (or others), whether it be in a replication of the original, or in a new interpretation. Its tough. And I’m not sure I can justify my ability to accept owning those art forms but not others… Maybe I just need to give up my book collection. *insert wide eyed emoji here*
Rant: Part 2 (In Which I Get Back on Track, and Rage at the Consumption of Art)
The other side of the issue of owning art and locking it away, is that we also treat it like a commodity to be consumed. We pack large rooms and entire buildings with vast collections of “precious” art objects for people to pay to see. Often times these collections are so enormous, it could take you days if not weeks to view just what was on display. For instance, according to CNN, it would take you SIXTY-FOUR DAYS to see everything in the Louvre if you only looked at everything for SIXTY SECONDS. Let that sink in for a minute. Sixty-four entire days, looking at roughly 35,000 works of art for exactly sixty seconds each. Forget actually studying, appreciating, or processing a work. And that is only what they have on display at any given time. Their entire permanent collection is around 460,000 objects (You do the math on that one). So it’s no wonder that with museums like MOMA in New York charging upwards of $25 or more for an individual admission to just the permanent collection, people are going to want to get their money’s worth. They are going to rush through, trying to take in as much as possible (which is the worst possible way to view art), making it into a sort of scavenger hunt to find the most famous, or popular works of art. All so that they don’t feel gypped, so that they can say they saw the Mona Lisa, and of course, so that they can snap a selfie. What. The. Fuck. World? It’s so angering.
Art is not meant to be consumed like that. It’s meant to be experienced. It’s meant to leave us thinking, in awe, or some how impacted. The final chapter of Ward’s book is Art as Meditation, which address works of art that require time for reflection and processing. He writes that some artworks need contemplation and a sort of extended digestion. I would argue that this is every work of art, because art can change in meaning over time for you, depending on any number of variables… Circumstances, experiences, knowledge, relationships. All of which are dynamic, and subject to change in and of themselves. Ward continues this line of thought, saying:
These shifts in perception or changes of heart require time. They need time to reveal themselves, to create an atmosphere, to warp the here and now, and –maybe– to formulate a new universe… This kind of contemplative situation, or ‘Art as Meditation,’ as I’ve called it, is not about conceptual art, or anything necessarily related to the 1960’s Conceptual art movement (with a capital C). Nor is it about seeing something that isn’t there or posing more thoughts that can only live in your head. It relates to the ability to better appreciate or more deeply engage with a work of art without succumbing to the bite-sized nibbles of culture offered elsewhere or having our heads turned this way or that by any number of other tempting distractions.”
These are things I’ve been trying to get at in my own work for a few years now. I want my audience/participants/viewers to have an experience rather than simply look/see/consume what I have to share. I want their lives to be impacted, for them to think about what they saw for years to come, and for that experience of the work to evolve as they themselves change and grow. Otherwise, what was the point of making the work in the first place? Sure, it fulfilled a selfish need of my own to create and express myself, but it doesn’t mean anything until someone else enters into the picture. Otherwise, why look at art at all? If you’re only going to spend sixty seconds staring at it, only to move on to the next piece immediately, and instantly forget what you saw just moments before. Everything then becomes a blur, and nothing sticks. Nothing makes an impression. And I’ll have done all this hard work for nothing…