Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Elitism

In yesterday's post on "Art about Art" I entered a comment but then deleted it because I realized, post-publish, that it was a topic worthy of its own forum and felt it would derail that thread, which, I don't mind telling you, has some rather specatucular thinking represented in the comments you should read if you haven't already. The comment I deleted dealt with the part of the general public's antagonism toward "Art" I'm least comfortable discussing because, well, it gets personal for me. That topic is elitism.

Coming from a working class family, I tend to focus on the rags-to-riches stories sprinkled across Art History when charges of elitism come up. "No," I'll say, "Look at de Kooning, look at Warhol, look at the Ganz's, look at the crop of Williamsburg galleries that have done very well for themselves despite their modest beginnings. Art is not always about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth...it's often about working your ass off. That's a working class value."

But it's not exactly a matter of class, is it, elitism? One can be poor and a snob. It's harder, but one still encounters it. No, elitism is perhaps better defined by how one looks down on the rest of the world, whether from a private jet or an ivory tower or merely some self-manufactured peak of self-importance. Anyway, enough stalling, here's the comment, by ml, that prompted the one I deleted:

Don't you think that part of the problem is that art sales require a certain elite status? The difference between a $800 painting and a $20,000 painting is not always based on quality - it's part of the star system that is rampant in capitalism. The easiest way to be elite is to speak a specialized language that only a small subset of the population has the leisure to know intimately.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't see art-for-art's-sake as coming just from artists. It is built into the system.

Look how the galleries which used to be in SoHo moved to Chelsea. It wasn't
just rent increases - it was partially an escape from the looky-loos who mocked the work.
I'll defend the dialog, but I do recognize that the demands it makes on viewers often strike many as unworth the effort. Then, via Artinfo.com, comes this report on the rise in popularity of "Outsider Art" across the heartland. The rationales offered for this rise hit at the heart of this issue:

The [Outsider Art] movement has been gaining steam in the Midwest for about five years, collectors say, fueled in part by its accessibility. Outsider art, they said, is straightforward, affordable and created by artists who are unpretentious.

A large part of the appeal is that you never have to distinguish a piece of art from a paint spill. What you see is what you get.

"In outsider art, there is not that tendency to intellectualize," said Yuri Arajs, owner of Outsiders and Others Gallery in Minneapolis, which opened in 2003. "It's more art that people relate to on a gut level."

There is an appealing innocence in the pieces, he said, that bring buyers closer to them.

"It's almost a cliché, but the more childlike a work is, the more appealing it is," Arajs said.

Which is not to say the form is simple. Outsider art is rich in social and symbolic overtones as diverse as the quirks and whimsies of the human psyche. Religious and sexual themes are common.

I'll confess that my knee-jerk reaction to this story is to see it as a defense of unchallenging, dumber art, and think if that's what someone wants they might consider donating their brain to science, as clearly they can get by with just a spinal cord, but then that would be pretentious, I know, and clearly pretentious is bad...innocence is good, childlike is good, quirky and whimsical and simple is good, but intellectualism...ba-a-a-a-a-a-d.

After I've calmed down a bit, I realize though that it's more a call for art that's emotionally accessible, "art that people relate to on a gut level." That may indeed represent a much higher achievement than the headiest of accomplishments, I know. However, I want Art that aspires/manages to accomplish both. No matter how heart-felt, most "Outsider Art" strikes me as little more than "cute." Not all of it. Some is truly exquisite. But I need more than "cute" in my Art, I'm afraid. I have a thirst for knowledge and I want Art that challenges me ... emotionally yes, but also intellectually. I can't get by with just a spinal cord.

YMMV.

45 Comments:

Blogger Jordan said...

Edward,

I think the problem with a lot of contemporary art is that many of us feel like we are on the outside looking in...most of the world (okay cover your eyes for this next statement) just don't get it!

I have had 7 years of post college graduate work and on many issues feel that I can be intellectual but often not with contemporary art. Granted...I do not have any formal art training and I have not spent nearly as much time as you or your readers thinking about these issues.

I believe this is all okay. Contemporary art lovers will study, observe and thrive in the current atmosphere and be happy.

I think the elitism issue comes with the rest of the population. I think the rest of us like the less intellectual, more emotional gut feeling we get from (sometimes) less challenging work. "outsider art", commercial art, "pretty pictures of flowers"..whatever you want to call it.

I believe the rest of the population (not neccesarily me) feels they are being frowned upon by the art elite for their simple and often less challenging tastes. Sometimes we just like Harry Potter better then Romeo and Juliet!

My question to you and your readers is.....are we being frowned upon?

5/24/2006 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

As a follow up to my comment
Statements like this:

I'll confess that my knee-jerk reaction to this story is to see it as a defense of unchallenging, dumber art, and think if that's what someone wants they might consider donating their brain to science, as clearly they can get by with just a spinal cord, but then that would be pretentious, I know, and clearly pretentious is bad...innocence is good, childlike is good, quirky and whimsical and simple is good, but intellectualism...ba-a-a-a-a-a-d.

While obviously written to make a point....make your average art collector who buys less intellectual art work feel quite small.

5/24/2006 09:47:00 AM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

I like that you mention your "thirst" for knowledge at the end. I think all of us have a "thirst" for something. It seems (I have limited knowledge here) that outsider art has moved from "isn't that darling" to lower tier, less expensive, accessible art noted for its lack of sophistication. I believe a large part of that market has already been co-opted by the "art market" so that it generally (some exceptions) has to have a certain "look", i.e. some rules, etc.
It ,too, has fallen into Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" prophecy. But it has been one of the "freshest" forms of art, along with the graffiti of a few years back. What stumbles me on the "intellectual " side of things , is that there has been little "new" insights from that direction. For me , it is as if a level of art speak took hold validly, and then lost ground to 20 years of practicing how to talk it and apply it and much of that converstaion has been as meaningless and empty and by rote as the available art. (all the really good stuff seems to be in closets). There is nothing wrong with that, I think. It is part of a process , whether I like it or not. But all that drowns out the good things that people have to say.
ANd the voices that can speak powerfully and guide us are not yet strong enough or clear enough to be heard. I guess it refelcts what is on the walls.
I wait for this cycle to be broken, and in the meantime, madly produce work. Since that is my self-appointed thirst.

5/24/2006 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It's a bit of a catch 22, though, Jordan. I am willing to spend untold hours sharing what it is about an artwork, perhaps intially seemingly inacceible, that I love with a potential collector. I love doing that, in fact. What I sense from some collectors though, especially at art fairs, is an unwillingness to accept that they don't already know everything they need to in order to totally "get it" right away. The idea that art can be an exploration and perhaps even a journey seems unpopular with some folks. Instant gratification/access seems to the order of the day.

The thing is I too buy lots of less intellectual artwork and I never feel small when doing so. I buy it because I love it. It need not be one or the other exclusively, I don't think.

As to your previous question: "are we being frowned upon?" I think there's a frustration, on both sides, that is translated as disapproval. Unfortunately, the general public can voice it's disapproval in ways that significantly undermine the artist (cutting off public funding, destroying an artwork, etc.), whereas the artist is left with only his/her work to respond, and that may not be a topic that interests them, so they simply get on with it, but with resentment, often.

A wider dialog is the solution. More focus on arts in schools. More acknowledgement from public officials about the importance of art to a nation's well-being, etc. Then the two side may discover they have more in common than they thought. Or maybe not....

5/24/2006 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger James Wolanin said...

Since you mentioned Outsider Art, what's your thoughts on an Artist like Daniel Johnston (http://www.hihowareyou.com/) being included in this years Whitney Biannual. It is well documented that this artist is suffering from mental illness. In a NY Times article a few months back, the Interviewer asked Johnson, "Will you be attending the Whitney opening?", Johnson's response, "I'm in no shape to be traveling over seas." Johnson has been in and out of Mental Health facilities all his life and clearly had know idea where is work was even being exhibited. When propelling an artist like Johnson to Star Status, is that a slap in the face to all the hard working educated artist or am I being an elitist?

5/24/2006 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous jec said...

This is probably slightly off-topic, but I've always wondered why contemporary art and music are so different in terms of access. Putting outsider art aside for a moment, contemporary art seems to begin and end at an elite level. It is understood by the art world that one needs to have a certain level of sophistication to enter into this world.

Music seems to provide more of a continuum from extremely banal (but catchy) to sophisicated to academic/elite. There are entry points for everyone, from pre-teens to the most arcane jazz or contemporary classical. It is possible to enter into the world of music and either stay at the same point, or move along the continuum.

Is music inherently more accessible than visual art?

5/24/2006 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Edward,

I hear you...and totally agree with you point about art in he school system. I concentrated on science in schooling and missed all the art classes.....It was totally my loss...

I also agree...we are a quick fix society. We want it fast and and we want it simple...doesn't work well with art that challenges

5/24/2006 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Nancy Baker, aka Rebel Belle said...

Ed, the art world is a different place today than it was in de Kooning's time, or even Warhol. But maybe actually Warhol changed it all, with artist as an entrepreneurial superstar. Post war era still saw the artist as someone who lived in a cold water flat, eschewed the bourgeois life style and somewhat arrogantly claimed the moral high ground. Today the biggest, most visible artists are more like Madonna; they have woven their careers into fashion spreads with publicists at the helm. We pay fabricators huge sums of money to make large scale projects, which requires a lot of capital. The work frequently requires one's intellect to unravel it's code, patience and unwavering attention to make entry. And add to that, it usually requires a trust fund, or a patron. Matthew Barney is a long way from Jackson Pollock. But maybe the artists of the 20th century were an anomaly. Before that artists had guilds, apprentices and large staffs to create art for the nobility and the church. We've come full circle.

Is it no wonder that outsider art is gaining in momentum? This art is so much more accessible, and perhaps is appealing in a Calvinist kind of way. It is without ego, without pretension, but unfortunately as you say, without "brain". Personally, I would prefer to be Madonna than Lee Krasner..or Howard Finster.

5/24/2006 10:25:00 AM  
Anonymous onesock said...

I remember viewing the Dieter Roth retrospective a couple of years ago and thinking that these works remind me of outsider art, but there was something more that I couldnt put my finger on. But it was the intensity of thought and contrariness . I think most outsider art lacks intensity. For example, I have seen plenty of outsider art that involved holes drilled in wood, but compare that to an Ashly Bickerton or a Jt Kirkland. How much outsider collage art could compare with the intensity of a Thomas Hirschhorn? But maybe its just apples and oranges. I just know that as I walked thru that Roth show I felt it in my gut and my head.

AS far as elitism goes. I grew up very poor, raised by a single mom and all that. Well, I remember my experience living in HUD housing projects as a kid going to different kid's apartments, meeting their families. Most were like mine, very common folk, spare walls, drab furniture, not a lot of conversation. Until one day I met a friend with TWO parents, they lived in the projects because they were artists, their apartment was filled with art and books and they listened to jazz and had funky home-made furniture. They were poor like me but not poor in some way. Well they changed my life. I became more interested in school and learning and instilled my interest in art and music. So yes I am still poor but not really. Art saved me from thinking small.

I have lived among and have friendships with peeps from all walks of life and I know everyone has value and we all have something to offer each other. You can be intellectual and down to earth and sincere at the same time, but sometimes this can be hard.

If I am at an art event that I may think is "snooty" or pretentious I think back to that artist couple I met as a kid in the projects and know that they could have out witted any of these professors.

5/24/2006 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

Honestly this is great conituation of yesterday's truly valid insights.
I happen to feel a lot like Ed on the subject. I too get a knee jerk grimace when someone complains of intellectual rigor. Mainly because I think there is a lack of it already within the elite, not to mention our society as a whole. The intellectualism for me is also a lot about personal discipline to push questions and embrace a process of discovery. Good work, valid work, requires intellect AND the visceral gut reaction. As Susan Langer puts it, "Feeling and Form". That's hard to do and that is precisely the difference between Art and simply artwork. Its why so much time feels wasted when you go see shows in Chelsea - so much work seems empty or somehow impoverished. Often its good enough technique but a poorly realized concept or the opposite.
What I see regarding the 'outsider' thing is honestly a reprical elitism. The Mid-west consumption of 'outsider art' is an exclusionary act in its own right. Its a thumbing of the nose which assumes "you don't like us" so we'll do our own dialogue and go in the opposite direction by embracing the naive, 'untrained' talent. The naive genius is as much a myth as the assumptions of the Avant-garde. Today I guess that is represented by the term "art world". My problem with the mid-west 'response' is that at its core it appears to have the feeling that art is something easy and simple, it should just be a decorative, 'nice' thing. "Children Should Be Seen Not Heard". Its not serious enough to be taken seriously. Perhaps I'm knee- jerking again. Like Ed I'm from the working class -in my case, a place that doesn't even acknowledge art really, except in negative terms. So I think I have experienced both sides of the pendulum. At the same time 'elite' artists/gallery system continue to position themselves in contrast to the general society so what we have is a dog chasing its own tail syndrome. I'll echo many others - education and the emphasis on the importance of the Arts in society. We need art and to recognize living artists, not as therapy or decoration or investment, but for the sake of our national conversation about who we are and who we want to be.

5/24/2006 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

oh and nice commnet Onesock!

5/24/2006 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

jec sez: I've always wondered why contemporary art and music are so different in terms of access.

It's simple, it has to do with how their existences are financially supported by society. Goods that rely on mass-production (CD's, comic books, posters) have to appeal to a wider audience in order to generate enough profit. One-of-a-kind items (art) increase in value based on exclusivity. In order to exist, a band has to be more accessible in order to appeal to a wide audience, those that don't, suffer (unless they're independently wealthy; with a few notable exceptions, thankfully). In short, music is easier to reproduce on a large scale, art isn't.

E_: I'd like to make a distinction between "insider work" (which sucks) and "intellectually rigorous work" (which I love). I don't think they're necessarily the same. While both can be off-putting for the non-initiated, I don't blame anyone for not understanding "insider work" -- I can't stand the stuff myself.

I think the problem is that much inaccessible artwork masks itself as "intellectual" when it's really either an insider joke, or just aping the look of intellectual art. Conceptual art is rather easy to fake, and can be difficult to distinguish from the real thing, even for so-called insiders.

So, I guess I'm saying: don't always assume that art is too intellectual just because it's inaccessible -- much of the time it's seen as crap by insiders too. That said, I don't have any tolerance for anti-intellectualism either.

5/24/2006 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
---Albert Einstein


That pretty much sums up my feelings about intellectualism and art. Over-complicating something is dumb, but not examining one's subject in-depth enough to know what's "as simple as possible" is dumber.

As for your distinction, Art Soldier, I think it's a good one, but I'd ask you to define "insider work"...there are concentric circles of "insiders"...where do you draw the line?

5/24/2006 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

Art Soldire said "Conceptual art is rather easy to fake, and can be difficult to distinguish from the real thing, even for so-called insiders."

This is a fascinating conundrum, the artist who isn't making "real" conceptual art, but is making "fake" conceptual art. I think I might prefer the fake because the idea's so weird. But seriously, what this kind of comment indicates is that even sophisticated art viewers are suspicious of intellecutalism in art. It's easy to forget that even pleasant and pretty art, if it's good, is not purely visual, it's an assimilation and reaction to art history, not just an appeal to the senses. "Intellectual" doesn't necessarily mean that the "idea" in an artwork can be expressed in a few sentences.

5/24/2006 11:51:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

I didn't mean to suggest there was anything dire in Art Soldier by spelling it wrong!

5/24/2006 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

As onesock said, "Art saved me from thinking small." That's what we all say we want but the lure of money is strong. Money is approval; money is the easiest measure of success.

What outsider art ostensibly is about is not money, it's a search for balance or truth or god. Mostly these folks are not operating on all cylinders, but if you read about Isaac Newton, he sounds more like them - isolated, obsessive, irritating - than most art students.

There's a great line in the Incredibles, a pixar movie, in which one of the young superheroes says, If everyone is special, then no one is special. My suspicion is that art schools are so full because so many children of the middle/upper middle class have been told their entire lives how special they are. Art is where you demonstrate how special you are.

Edward, elitism is not in and of itself a bad thing. Most of my favorite poets led very priviledged lives. It's the sense of entitlement and superiority which kills dialog.

Sorry if my response yesterday upset you. I'm wrestling with my own issues out loud.

5/24/2006 11:56:00 AM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

E: define "insider work"...there are concentric circles of "insiders"...where do you draw the line?

Well ... that's a whole 'nother can of worms, isn't it? Not sure I have enough time on my hands to tackle that one.

But I would like to say that there is an aesthetic of intellectualism and even an aesthetic of irony that mask work that is neither intellectual nor ironic (except that it's ironic when sincerity masks itself as irony in order to seem cool -- yuk!).

These are the dominant aesthetics of the current gallery scene: the conceptual "look" and the ironic "look" -- very insider-y, no?

As an example, let's consider the prevalence of what might be termed "bad painting." Much of it is done by literally horrible, unknowing painters, and yet the work carries an edge of ironic coolness (and stylishness) because it looks like work that was done in the 80's (by Oehlen, Kippy, etc.). Yet, when Oehlen was doing it in the early 80's, the meaning was different -- it was transgressive, purposeful, self-aware, and conceptual. The work now done in its name (or, rather, look) shares none of these characteristics (i.e., there's nothing ironic about skill-less painting today, because it's completely acceptable), but still benefits from an aesthetic association with good art. The recognition of this "look" is probably only appreciated by insiders (and understandably confusing to outsiders), even though many of these insiders may not even know why they like it (or why it looks hip to them).

PC: I wouldn't say "fake" conceptual art, so much as "bad" conceptual art.

5/24/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I think the class issue is bigger than anyone realizes.

Most of us on this blog complain that the government should do more to support art in schools and fund grants, etc. But try telling a single mom who's just pulled a double-shift at Walmart that she should pay more taxes so that some guy with a graduate degree can express his feelings. Add to that the common perception that contemporary art is "easy to make" and stir in all the hoopla about 20-something artists selling for six and seven figures. Garnish with the very real contempt many artists express for their patrons and for the general public, and you have a recipe for culture war. Which is exactly where we find ourselves.

5/24/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I'll have to agree w/ Art Soldier that there's a difference between anti-intellectualism and the reaction of many people to the perceived insider nature of much contemporary art. I think there's the perception among much of the public that alot of the dialog taking place within art circles is basically an ongoing inside joke. Not that it's too intellectual (that's a whole other issue), but that it's totally self-referential.

When I read a novel by, say, someone like Joyce or Pynchon, I don't need to be a novelist or have a Phd. in literature to get something out of it. Granted there may be things I miss, but if I take the time to read carefully (and look up some words), I can get a rich experience out of it. And if I re-read the book I get even more out of it. Learning more about their sources and references may deepen the experience, but it's not a prerequisite to entering the building. And I think that's the difference between other art forms and the current state of much visual art. Even the most "intellectual" fiction writers, while they certainly want to be read and respected by their peers, are not writing only for that small group. Whereas in much of the artworld, there seems to be this self-congratulatory feeling that we get it and they don't.

5/24/2006 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

lisa, something in your post rang a bell in my head. I may get into trouble on this.
Making art is not an entitlement program. I do not think artists deserve any special treatment from the world. Making art is a choice.
Artists who complain deserve a kick in the teeth. Freedom is tricky. We want to be free to do art.....and then start throwing in the strings attached .....making a living, respected, recognized, adored, etc. I am not sure about this but I think there is a cultural tendency we have to have conclusiveness...both in the art work and in the intellectual discussion...thatvery quickly and very often short-circuits the exploration that we start with.
When I do work, I explore, then I mimic myself and have to work my way back, painfully, to the explore side of the equation. The hardest part is when I do something I like, how do I continue without mimicking myself?
OH...I'll do ten of these so that I have a body of work.

5/24/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Sorry if my response yesterday upset you.

Not at all, ml. I realize it's all part of this mix. Thanks for bringing it up.

e_

5/24/2006 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous anne said...

I think a discussion on elitism is really about taste and education. Edward, there is no doubt as to the authenticity of your passion for art -- in your response to Jordan (4th post?)you indicate you want to lift up, to elevate an audience, to educate them, and what you're feeling with the 'spinal cord' comment is the very same dejection any teacher feels when confronted with a classroom full of students and finding that precious few are engaged. For you, a collector at an art fair isn't interested in augmenting what they already know. It's frustrating that not everyone *wants* to elevate themselves, be it intellectually, financially, socially - you name it. Recognizing that many people simply don't care about a richer intellectual world or a deeper understanding of art is different from accepting it though- it's difficult, especially for one who has 'worked their ass off' and holds a heartfelt passion for their subject, and honestly wishes to share it with the world. But when you accept that many people aren't interested in being elevated, I think elitism falls away - The 'I get it and I know you don't' definition of elitism changes instead to 'I get it, and I'll teach you if and when you'd ever care to learn.' When the 'I get it's' prevent the 'you don'ts' from gaining access to meaning/education that's one thing -I'd say that's elitism - but the 'you don'ts' have their own stinging counter-elitism, if I can call it that, that also fuels the fire of this discussion (and that highlowbetween refers to), which is that finding meaning in this way is simply not important to everyone. What makes it worse is that it's ignored, and that's devastating to an educator. As Jordan indicated, Harry Potter fulfills a need for mythology and meaning for a large number of people, tv and movies for others (and on and on-different strokes you know -it's a matter of taste) and that's good enough. 'Spinal cords' will continue to lead happy, fulfilled lives during which they are engaged in behaviors that are meaningful to them, but empty for others, and that's the world, and it won't be changed.

5/24/2006 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

What makes art "elitist"? Is it because you can't afford it, or that you can't uderstand it?

5/24/2006 12:46:00 PM  
Anonymous emilyhall said...

My thinking about this topic tends to be muzzy at best. But part of the contradition seems to be that people feel shut out versus, in many cases, actually being shut out. Art galleries are free to enter (in fact, one of the few free cultural resources around), and if you care to ask a question, you'll often get a good answer. The fact is that people feel intimidated, inadequate, afraid to ask. Hell, I write for a major magazine, and sometimes I'm afraid to talk to icy receptionists--but still, I wonder how why this insecurity has become art's problem while, on the other hand, insecurity about sports or music is regarded as the fan's/listener's problem rather than the field's.

Also, I find that much admiration for outsider art tends to be rather condescending, bypassing the conditions of creation to admire the "whimsical" or "simple." Peter Schjeldhal wrote something spot-on about (I think) Howard Finster--about how if we take him seriously, we should be very, very afraid.

Hi Edward: we met in Miami; I was writing a piece about Aqua for The Stranger. We were both pretty dazed at the time--I certainly wouldn't blame you if you didn't remember.

5/24/2006 12:55:00 PM  
Anonymous oncesocked said...

Anne, I agree with everything you say and , as a teacher of fundamental art courses, I can atest to that feeling of dejection when encountering unengaged students. That glazed look in their eyes when I mention "art" is a rejection of sorts. And it can hurt. But then I see the random student who is curious about life and wnats to learn and experience new things, and is not afraid of failure and all that. Ah, an "elitist" in the making!

5/24/2006 01:39:00 PM  
Blogger carla said...

It's easy to love a puppy....or an outsider artist. While many of these artists explore with great intensity, focus and sincerity, their adoring collectors negate their work. These collectors nod with approval, shell out 40 bucks, and feel warm-fuzzy about themselves. They are altruistic narcissists, which is a very common breed here in the Midwest. It's a sick dynamic based on insecurity and a twisted 'generosity of spirit'.

Whew! Sorry.

I know many outsider artists (not myself-though I've been accused). A few are interesting, many are boring. I find the classification to be so insulting to the artists. It is about identification (of the collector/or the artist) rather than actual experience.

5/24/2006 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I wonder if it is simply a result of the fact that there is literally less space in the art world than in other areas of culture. While a movie or a cd can have an audience of millions a painting can only accomodate a few people at a time.

Where else in the culture do we celebrate individual hand made objects one at a time?

The so called culture war is an invention of politicians. It represents a very very tiny minority position that happens to be held by excitable but reliable voters in certain swing states (Hi, onesock).

Or is something going on in New York that we don't know about out here on 'the coast'?

5/24/2006 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous eva said...

One thing that I especialy liked in your post was the working class aspect. Some of us are from it and nothing came easy.

Even as an artist (and not a gallerist), when I hear that I am 'talented' I always want to redefine that. Because it was hard work (fun, too, I admit) and talent didn't have as much to do with it as they think.

5/24/2006 07:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Jen Bekman said...

This is a truly fascinating thread to read and it's something I think a lot about.

Sometimes I see the relationship between artists, dealers and clients as various permutations of dogs circling each other warily. There's so much mistrust from all parties, and a lot of it is borne of issues around elitism, insider-yness and perceived value.

Personally, I try to show work that has intellectual underpinnings AND emotional resonance. I want anyone to be able to walk into my space and feel comfortable responding to the work on view, and that idea is at the heart of everything I do.

But, but, but: it's such a tightrope. First off, preconceptions about galleries (and dealers and artists) are often well-fixed in a viewer's mind before they set foot in my space. By virtue of being a woman who owns a gallery which shows art a lot of people have already determined that I'm elitist and out to put one over on them. I do everything I can to make it clear that I'm not that person and that my art is not that kind of art, but there's only so far I can go with it. And then of course, there are people on the other side who might criticize me for not being elitist enough. And is a certain degree of elitism intrinsic in creating value in the work that's shown?

I feel like I have a successful show when people come in and start talking to me about how they feel about the work - if a painting sparks something in them emotionally, if they start creating a narrative based on a photo, or if a memory long-forgotten has been accessed it means that they've found their way inside the work, and I find that immensely gratifying.

Re: the whole outsider art thing. My immediate reaction is similar to a lot of what's been mentioned above. There is a lot of the same jockeying for class and status, and in this case a lot of people get to look down at the artists rather than looking over their shoulders and being scared that they're being judged for not "getting it". Of course, not all people are drawn to outsider art for those reasons, but there's a strong enough presence of that element to make me distinctly uncomfortable.

My humble opinion and all that.

5/24/2006 07:44:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

I've been following the comments to Edward's posts of the last two days with fascination. A lot of good comments have been made by people who have obbviously been thinking about these issues for a long time.

I think that sometimes when a patron says "I don't get it" what they are really saying is "Is this it? There has to be something I'm missing." I find a lot of contemporary art a little on the patronizing side. Too often, the work is preaching about an issue that I am already familiar with. Maybe that is where the visual arts are losing their audience, because, I gotta tell you, some of the people that I've heard say "I don't get it" aren't intellectually slothful.

The education system has also done a great diservice to the arts in that they no longer teach art practices. Even basic skills are forsaken in the face of "nurturing" the creative spirit. Too often, our primary and secondary educational institutes use art as a way of bolstering a student's self-esteem. The thinking seems to be that since there are no rules in art, everybody can succeed at it. Through this success even a marginal student can increase their level of self-esteem.

Shoot. Went on too long again.

5/24/2006 07:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Just one last thought for the evening....

Amazing comments...

When we talk about elitism we use the terms "us" and "them" alot.

Remember because the nature of this forum most of the opinions being given (whether we like it our not)are coming from the "us" category.

It would be nice to hear what some of "them" have to say.

5/24/2006 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Susan, You're absolutely right. The "anyone can be an artist" attitude in school probably contributes to the disdain many non-artists have for contemporary art. They just don't get how hard it is to make good work.

But here I am using words like "they." Oops.

5/24/2006 08:17:00 PM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

Glad you brought up the us/they thread. That is so important to me. I also think about "I and Thou" from Martin Buber. I like where it has taken me. I have done art many times for the "wrong" reasons and then I finally realized that I would have done the same thing for the right reasons. I just had to adjust my thinking, not my art. Which brought me to I and Thou (a man and his god) and then us/they.
My work is between me and my god (metaphorically at least and has nothing to do with anyone else. Then comes the I/they in my case.
For me to be complete, I have to have the "they" to complete the cycle. I am currently working on outdoor pieces that are all done anonymously.
It is interesting because I have to live with almost no "feed back" and also face the issue of feeling that it is worthwhile having my work accessible to the general public. I would prefer accolades, but I am actually very satisfied to have to live with myself,....or rather I should say learn to live with myself. It is important for me to do my work.....and it is important for me to show my work.
This project, which got triggered accidentally (???) gives me both those issues. I let myself lose interest in the financial remuneration arena for now. That was just the price to pay. For now, I guess.

5/24/2006 08:42:00 PM  
Anonymous jen d said...

we're all philistines in some arena. I'm a snob about my art but I like my movies to be relatively accessible, I'm not sure how I feel about avant-garde literature, and my musical taste is not so out-there either. What needs to happen is for people to feel *okay* not knowing that much about art and to enjoy/engage with it anyway.

And the culture warriors on the right are an even bigger obstacle to this than the elite (mostly) left art world is. They're the ones out there telling people that artists are making fun of them when we actually mostly aren't (almost ever)! We have to find a way to be more welcoming to counteract this.

I work in rockefeller center and the Art Rock NYC gallery event in the plaza there last week seemed like such a success in this way. Sometimes art just has to come to meet regular people, literally. All the tourist families were totally engaged with the art and it was really heartwarming.

Also along these lines, my husband, a math/science guy to the bone, had never really looked at art before he met me, had never even heard of cindy sherman for instance which served as a good wakeup call to me about how insular our world is. And he grew up in and around NYC too, very involved in other types of culture (okay, geek culture). But anyway, at first he was really intimidated by art in galleries, always feeling like he didn't get it. But he always had really interesting, sometimes brilliant responses to artwork he'd see with me and over time he came to realize that he assumed all art he saw in galleries was uniformly considered "good" and if it didn't speak to him than he was stupid. He had to learn that art could be flawed and that he actually was pretty good at recognizing bad art.

I think people need to be freed up somehow to feel that their responses to art, however "uneducated", are legitimate, and then they could enjoy many more types of art.

the Art Rock show is one model, but how else can we do this? It's not just about the art itself, but about the culture of art.

5/24/2006 09:16:00 PM  
Blogger brent hallard said...

At its best painting, and I’ll have to confine my comments to visual arts, because it's what I know, is, primarily about seeing--finding out, probing, or wondering why. Sometimes content of the recognizable kind is very important to this: like the guy standing over there talking to the women wearing a bright flowery dress. That the guy is dressed to the hilt, and the woman, well, flowery, bowery, throws a contrast. It's interesting enough, and it's part of seeing. In the bottom right corner and the top left are hints of each a different catastrophe in process or impending. In the top left notable is that the weather is on the turn; just below, the trees are dark, but still, and stark, and rigid. The bottom right (of what particular world are you looking at?) of flowers pink and violet lay--wilting their color, some already past this plane of life. The ground--or what you can make out as ground--is scumbled and gives hint, both real and paint managed, signs of cracking. The to-the-hilt-dressed-up man is a blessing or...

Can you say/see this another way? Of course, YOU can!

Visual things!! Nothing elitist about them.
Some are just more tricky than others.

5/24/2006 10:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Steve Ruiz said...

Lets not forget that there's a difference between Fine art and Folk art. Another silly, big comment:

Though I can barely play guitar, I occassionally pick one up and write a song. Its an entirely different thing when my father (a very experienced, educated, and studied classical guitarist) plays on stage with an orchestra. Due to my extremely limited and primative knowledge of guitar/music, I consider my own work folk art; its still fun and not wrong in any sense, but is hardly constructive or excellent. My fathers work is the product of years of training, talent, and hard work; its still music and clearly more fun to listen to, but its also constructive and excellent, and hopefully advancing to the field of classical guitar. See the difference?

The "Fine" in Fine Art is supposed to imply that it is the highest quality, most refined, and advanced form of art (to be redundant, turning art into Art, or music into Music). The music world has its Carnegies and its bars, the art world has its MCAs and its coffee houses.

I've always considered the type of art now being called "Outsider" as just plain folk art. And there's nothing wrong with it as long as you recognize that it has nothing to do with Fine Art. I felt stupid in the above paragraphs for comparing my music to orchestral performances, and people should feel just as silly comparing an piece of "outsider" art to a modern masterpiece.

Like childrens art or tribal art, folk art rejects the notion of criticism (i.e. "Your use of texture clashes terribly with the all-too-obvious underlying theme of dissociation, Jimmy. Give me that crayon.") and by doing rejects too any constructive quality. The galleries are supposed to advance art, and that requires art critics and experienced people who will (hopefully) prevent art from degrading in that continual process of exploration and experimentation, as well as artists constantly willing to push themselves to discover better ways of making and understanding art for today. Not saying that art should be a laboratory with cocktails, but the quality of excellence on the part of the critics, collectors, artists, etc is imperitive to maintaining what we can consider the highest sphere of artistic achievement.

In any case, there's always been different spheres of art (and music, etc). This is not elitist, and would only be called such by embittered, bad artists/musicians/etc. The current problem is that when, to an "outsider" viewer, Fine Art and folk art both look the same. That's a confusing and offensive situation - like if I walked onto the stage at Carnegie with an acoustic.

5/25/2006 01:52:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Edward,
These are important ideas. Thank you.

I think there is a difference between not dumbing oneself down and acting purposefully obtuse in order to get people to think you are smarter than you are. Both forms of elitism, but one is ultimately in service of the rest of the community (if the community so chooses), and one actively shoos the community away ((you're too dumb to get this--get out of here!)).

I crave art that challenges, but don't find it as often as I find art that attempts to bamboozle me.

Related topic, I wrote a little bit about Art Powerlines' thinking about art makers v. art thinkers... some internal elitism to throw into the mix.

5/25/2006 07:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Class and education keep coming up but I think that there may be an underlying issue that separates the in-group from the out-group. For a very long time, the subject of art was the lives of the culture making it. You can look at a Chinese handscroll and get an idea of what life was like for aristocratic Qing Dynasty ladies. Dutch painting from around the time of the baroque, in aggregate, gives you a lot of information about Dutch life - what their houses looked like, what they ate, what they wore. The long run of Christian imagery in Italian art hits every major theme of the New Testament in a manner that shows what people valued in their spiritual lives.

Try to do that with contemporary art. Try to do it with EW's artists of the week from previous posts. You might be able to extract similar information through semiotic wrangling, but not in the manner that lets you look a work and say, Oh, look, it's life. That, I think, is what causes the disconnect, and why a guy I was talking to just yesterday told me that his appreciation for art ends at 1900. The split may not have happened at Pop, but at abstraction. Art has shed its responsibility to tell the human story. Some of the results have been exquisite, much of it has been a disaster, and legions of people with no interest in art on any level is an understandable by-product.

5/25/2006 08:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is another formulation in regard to the question of elitism.

So, could we say that there are three types of work? The first one is easy to understand, you get it pretty quickly after looking at. The second is difficult to understand, you have to wrestle with it a bit to understand it -- but it is possible to reach this point solely by engaging the work. And, third, is the type of work that is nearly impossible to understand without recourse to supplemental material; it is highly unlikely that you will understand it without at least reading the statement that goes with it.

These are general categories. And they breakdown pretty quickly if you examine the question of where a work of art ends and the world begins. But, I think it is a useful formulation in regard to the issue of elitism. Because I think elitism depends a great deal on my third category. Of course, in real life, almost all work is a mix, in varying proportions, of all three of these categories. But I mention it because I am wondering if behind the complaints of elitism is the notion of priestly secrets, special hand shakes and such. When you have been inducted into the inner circle, the high priests will reveal the secrets! In other words, the supplemental information of the third category. Of course it is not really like this BUT it seems that a very natural reaction to work that tends towards this third category is to think as much. And, very importantly, the insiders have a vested interest in perpetuating this myth of priestly secrets. The art world is not unique in this way.

5/25/2006 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I have been doing a lot of thinking about art and elitism and this is what I came up with. Its long winded but bear with me. I posted under my own blog with title:

Why I left art long ago

As a young medical student, the bane of your existence is the opthalmascope. The opthalmascope is a small, expensive tool, that uses light and lenses to help physicians visualize the inner eye. In the experienced hand, this tool allows us to identify the optic nerve, the blood vessels in the eye, and other countless structures.I was introduced to the opthalmascope as a first year medical student.The first thing a new user realizes is that while using this tool, you get undeniably close to your subject. By the time you have honed in on the patient’s eye you are almost kissing them. After you get over this realization, the next thing you learn is that it is an incredibley hard skill to learn.

Throughout the first few years of medical school I spent and inordinate amount of time trying to learn the opthalmascope. I would force my wife, family memebers, and other medical students to sit patiently for what must have seemed like hours while I nearly blinded them.

As time went on my frustration grew. Although I knew what I was supposed to see for each disease state I just couldn’t get it. Either I couldn’t locate the optic nerve, or I couldn’t see the vessels, or I just wouldn’t see anything for that matter! In the beginning, my fellow students seemed to have the same problem…they werent seeing anything either. But as time went on something started to change. All of the sudden my peers were getting it too. They and my instructors would examine the patient and agree on everything. “there were the vessels….and there is the AV nicking that goes with high blood pressure” and on and on.

I could feel my level of panic rising. Wasn’t I just as good as my fellow students? Wasn’t I just as smart? After all I considered myself an intellectual….why couldn’t I grasp this? I started to doubt my ability to become a doctor. If I couldn’t grasp this skill what else wouldn’t I be able to do! This cut to the core of who I was. Although it sounds silly…I really started to question all that I held as certain. if I was not good enough to be a doctor (which I assumed since I was a child) then who was I?

After years of not getting it I finally built up the courage to really ask my peers about their experiences. I, ofcourse, softened them up with a little alcahol first. What they said shocked me! They never really got it either! In fact, they had taken the habit of pretending they understood to avoid embarrassment. All those conversations at the bedside with instructors were made up. You see…they often new what they were supposed to see. They said a few keywords, embellished a little, and for all intents and purposes became experts! And there it was…

I was embarrased, and hurt, and most of all confused. Were all medical students bluffing their way through understanding this? But then I realized. I had shadowed a number of practicing physicians over the years and not a single one of them had ever used their opthalmascope. My God…….none of them got it!

So one day, the battery ran out on my opthalmascope and I packed it away for good. I learned to practice without out it. I learned to improvise with other pieces of information to get the job done well.

The truth of the matter is, over time, I have realized that there are people who use the opthalmascope for its given purpose. They are called opthalmologists and spend years in the sole pursuit of studying the eye. They do this most of the day, every day, throughout their career. They even occasionally dilate they eye to get a better look.

While I will never be as good as an opthalmologist I can definitely learn something from them. If I keep at it…..put in my time (years)….and not give up when the going gets tough, I can be a better person and a better doctor.

I have begun using the opthalmascope again and I am starting to see a little more clearly

And so it is with art……..

5/25/2006 11:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the perception of elitism stems from the simple fact that you have an art universe of students who go to schools costing six fiugres to get a degree, then expect to make the same once they get on the art world gravy train. Then they feel they are owed a similar income in a very short time or at least an audience to validate thier existence. At the same time 70% of the population lives from paycheck to paycheck and doesn't give a shit about the art world because they are to worried about paying taxes, or losing their job or how to pay for medical care. Most people between the coasts probably view the art world as now part of the upper class establsihment that was being railed against in the 60s.

5/25/2006 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Jordan,
The opthalmascope story is beautiful and perfect in this context.

5/25/2006 04:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane said...

I try to make work that functions simultaneously on both the intellectual level and on a gut, visceral, or non-intellectual level. In fact, keeping a proper balance between those two is one of the most important goals for me. I like the work to be accessible to both insiders and outsiders, which is sometimes quite a challenge within the same piece. I do this sometimes through the use of materials, things that everyone can relate to, but also through what I do with the materials. I'm a bit late to the discussion, but just wanted to throw this in, that some work attempts to be in both camps.

5/25/2006 06:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Susan H said...

Late to the topic, but, I find it fascinating that the buyers who are in the thrall of child-like creations made by adults would use the "my child could have made that" excuse to shun contemporary work that they don't understand.

5/25/2006 08:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Wow, this blog is not just a blog.

It's an art forum.


But to take on the topic: do people really really have a hard time understanding contemporary art? Or is it that they have a hard time understanding the people who are explaining it.



Rarely have I encountered a work of art that, sometimes with the need of a little research on the referents, I couldn't understand (that includes understanding why an artist opt for abstraction).
The worst cases are the use of symbols but with that you can sort of make your own interpretation.


My big concern with elitism is that I read so many press releases and articles, written by people really skilled with vocabulary and language and whom are expert at proving that they have phds in philosophy and literature (as though they ended up writting about art by coincidence), and these texts often complexify the art to a excessive degrees where it seems like attempting to "mystify it", create that special aura around it that will make everyone consider it "important" (sell it, basically), instead of simply,
bluntly, straight-forwadly, and truly, explaining it.

Artists themselves are often guilty of using pleonasms. Long redundant sentences that can be reduced to a few words.


So basically when I read those texts I feel like I need to make my own translations: I do not speak like this with my friends or members of my family. And I'm not interested by all the theatre of that. I don't find it perticularly clever.

And so this theatre of the art language that passes for elitism is actually embedded with a challenge: the one of deciphering the differences between language skills, knowledge, sensitivity, and intelligence.



Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

5/26/2006 10:12:00 PM  

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