A new feature: I answer your letters.
I’ve been interested for a long time in the “art of everyday life,” situationism, relational aesthetics, etc.: the various movements that attempt to bridge–usually for quasi-political reasons–some of the cultural space between “art” and “normal, everyday life” (i.e., as lived by poor people). And I remember in a class in graduate school writing about how maybe making “art” as quotidian and banal as the materials of everyday life (a common approach) isn’t as interesting an aim as attempting to elevate everyday life to the level of art (the same work with a subtle shift in perspective.) But the common approach to “elevating” the quotidian to the level of art usually consists of taking an everyday object–a chair–and putting it into a gallery (the space of art!). Then we contemplate this chair, in the gallery: the chair-as-object, the gesture of placing it here (in the domain of art!). Etc. We haven’t elevated the act of sitting by making a much better chair (that would be design!) or by focusing intently and mindfully on the practice of sitting, of being-in-a-chair. Instead we’ve taken an object out of its normal environment and placed it in a new environment that was already imbued with the aura and essence of fine art: of important thoughts, sacred artifacts, and commerce. Now we are celebrating the common chair by allowing some of this residual aura of fine art to maybe rub off on it. And we stand and look at the chair like an animal in a zoo.
And in the period in which Duchamp did this with readymades, this was very interesting and useful–I would never say otherwise. Because at the very least the idea of “what is art” needed to be opened up to conversation. What I am tired of, though, is that there can be–and always is–a conservative backlash against these kinds of gestures, that comes from the need to separate and reify art objects, and to retain the power and prestige that are wrapped up in the idea of “fine art.” And that never seems to end, since the conversation of “what is art” continues with each new technology, and since we’ve reached a point now in our understanding of art that on one side you have artists who are marginally comfortable with the idea that anything can be art as long as someone is around to call it “art” (and that person is an “artist”) and on the other side you have an audience that says, “well, if everything is art, then why should I care?” (as though its importance in the first place comes from its status as “art”). This is the position within culture that fine art has relegated itself to: occasionally it provokes the larger culture with a scandalous work (see art troll) that only serves to give the conservatizing forces more ammunition, and the rest of the time it stays quietly in its ghetto, in museums and galleries, where most people are either disinterested or put off and slightly shamed that they “don’t get it.”
The part about art as “a barnacle clinging to the cruise ship of popular culture.”
And they “don’t get it” because art has fallen into an endless conversation with itself, commenting incessantly on its own history as “art,” as something-other-than-mass-culture: because when it’s not appropriating the materials of popular culture it’s appropriating the symbols of its own faded glory. And it has all become very boring. Part of what makes it so boring is that so much of the conversation tends to be about not the experience of the work but the work and its environment: what does it mean that this is in a gallery? Or what does it mean that it was made today, in 2009? The context becomes the experience rather than simply illuminating it. The gallery or museum is itself a kind of readymade experience, all of these art objects concentrated in one place where if nothing else we can rest safe in the knowledge that yes, they are art and no, we will not encounter them in our everyday life.
Meanwhile outside of galleries and museums people are doing many interesting things and creating beautiful experiences with each other, and sometimes they call them art and sometimes they do not. And when they do, a lot of baggage gets imposed on the work, baggage that logs it into a history and defines its role within the culture as not very significant but potentially VERY SIGNIFICANT, and gives you an easy out if you “don’t get it.” You may actually do a work more damage by calling it art. It’s certainly much easier to overlook.
Some of the many things that attract me to the Internet as both a medium and venue for art are the ephemerality of the work, the lack of objecthood, and the ability to reach an audience that is not necessarily in a museum or gallery mindset. Those of us who come from a fine art background still tend to refer to what we do as art, and to ghettoize ourselves as I have with this “art portfolio” you’re looking at. But some of the most interesting, ambitious, impressive and open-hearted work in recent years has come from Ze Frank, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him refer to himself as an artist, or what he does as “art.” And to do so would, in a way, discount the huge amount of audience participation that powers his work. One fantastic effect of the Internet is that it is creating a web of collaborating makers, sharing ideas and expertise, and I think the rise of this term, “maker,” in the past few years actually holds a lot of promise for the future of what we call “art.” If I call myself a “maker,” the emphasis is on the activity, on doing, on what I make, rather than on where my work will be displayed, the social relations it will become a part of. “Maker” gets a lot of power from its vagary.
But it’s not just semantics.
What I have taken so long to say is that I’m thinking that this term, “art” has been useful and that now it is something of a liability in terms of actually identifying what you choose to produce. And as a topic of conversation within our culture it has become extremely dull. The sliding scale of at exactly what point a popular record crosses over into “art.” Is a website “design” or is it “art?” Is an iPhone application “art?” Would it be art if it were sold in a gallery rather than the App Store? Would it be art if you charged $75,000 for it rather than $5? Would it be art if it didn’t do anything useful? These are all interesting questions if you would rather run in a hamster wheel than get anywhere. If you spend any amount of time worrying about whether you are writing poetry or prose, you are missing the point of making anything.
There are still ideas we can take from art, and it was these I wanted to infuse into “the everyday”: the aspiration to reach something higher, something beyond simply pleasing an audience or creating something useful. The aspiration, really, to transcend reality, create new experiences. But whatever we make, we shouldn’t allow the idea of “art” to determine its value, significance or meaning. It should stand on its own legs as whatever it is. (If a chair is to be a work of art, it should be because of the qualities of the chair, not its surroundings. And if the gesture of putting the chair in the gallery is to be a work of art, then… well, that was interesting for a moment, but now it’s over. Let’s make something else.) Whatever we make, we should aspire to make it as well as we can–better–to make it for ourselves and for the pleasure, education, comfort, joy, fear, anger, amusement or provocation of others. This is not really done, but it’s as close to manifesto-ing as I hope I ever get.
What do you say?