Thursday, March 24, 2011

Communicating Art's Relevance (Or Not)

Science journalists have penned a profusion of articles about the scientific community's failure to communicate effectively with the general public. The articles bemoan how un- or misinformed Americans are about the science of vaccination, global climate change, mass extinction, and myriad other subjects. But the journalists don't blame the great unschooled for their ignorance; instead, they point the finger at scientists and, almost as often, at themselves. As a result, there are a growing number of journals, graduate programs, and institutions devoted to tackling the science literacy problem.

The aptly named Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University, is one of these. It's mission is straightforward: "to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public." It's an uphill battle, but we must all hope that their efforts (and those of similar institutions or programs) succeed. Presuming (hopefully) that the majority of the world's states remain liberal democracies, the future health of the planet and our species may be contingent on a greater popular appreciation of science.

Although it is a matter of less urgency and consequence, the contemporary American art world should consider a comparable movement. We also need programs dedicated to training "the next generation of [curators and art] professionals to communicate more effectively with the public." I'm not being facetious. There are brilliant, sensitive art writers and curators working today, but they are a small minority who, despite their talents, generally fail to reach a popular audience. Just as so much good science is shrugged off (or even angrily rejected) by the public, so, too, with art. Most Americans see science as extraneous esoterica crafted by white-coated wonks. Similarly, contemporary art is seen as the province of effete Onanists devoid of "family values."

But the respective responses of the two realms to these ugly public perceptions is critically different. The scientific community has confronted the issue head-on, spilling ink, hosting panel discussions, and building programs. Whether or not this conscientious approach will change things for the better remains to be seen, but scientists and science academics can't be criticized for inaction. Should an art writer or organization assert, however, that negative popular sentiment indicates the art world is faltering, they won't receive donations for a new graduate program or institution dedicated to improving the art world's communication skills. In fact, many (if not most) professionals in the art world rankle at the suggestion that fine art should even consider appealing to the masses. They believe that popularity debases art because, in order to achieve it, the artist must cater to the interests and intellect of the lowest common denominator. This stance is obviously elitist but, more importantly, it's also defeatist. Shouldn't those of us who care about art's role in society strive to make it accessible to the general public? After all, unlike those skeptical of science, "Joe the Plumber" isn't the only one who dismisses contemporary art! The large majority of my college-educated friends -- scientific researchers, English professors, political journalists, doctors, lawyers, actors, musicians -- make no space for contemporary art in their lives. Contrary to the avant garde aspirations and claims of so many artists, curators, collectors, and critics, most of America views the contemporary art world as a cultural backwater; it has become functionally irrelevant (excepting its role as a luxury commodity market).

But the art world is not irrelevant; there is vital, inspiring contemporary artwork being produced, work that the public can be in dialogue with (and even without initiation into our art cult)! But the onus is on us, as representatives of the art world, to make a case for why fine art matters today. If curators and artists (or dealers writing press releases) can't express why an artwork or body of work is vital, then they need to ask themselves hard questions. Is this work really and truly meaningful? Is it made with intent to improve, in whatever way, the world (i.e., not intended merely as an exercise in critique)? Clinging to the myth of the avant garde is unacceptable unless the "vanguard" work is, in the view of the curator, artist, or dealer, essential. Art professionals shouldn't be making or promoting work that they can't make an impassioned case for and, in order to do so, they have to be able to speak about art intelligently and plainly.

I'm interested in hearing reader's thoughts on this subject. Barring the introduction of requisite communication courses in American art programs, what are some ways to begin to chip away at the wall between the art world and the rest of it? Can we be as relevant and respected as pop music or Hollywood, creative industries that produce both edifying brilliance and schlock, but that are not maligned by the general public? Can the American art world play as much of a role in the lives of citizens as does the European art world, an orbit in which the educated classes regularly visit galleries and recognize the names of prominent fine artists? What do you think?

Update: Jessica Palmer, ever erudite, remarks on this post at Bioephemera. I encourage readers to jump over to BioE for her take; Jessica is an artist, writer, and science communicator...though she wears other hats, too.

Photo credit: copyright 2009, Diane Wallace, ASU Art Museum


Tony Bot said...

Have you ever heard of a child being held back a school year because he failed at art? As long as the essentials of teaching children is math & science and extracurricular activities are visual art and music, I don’t think it’s fair to expect the same from artists as I would from the scientific community. I also think you’re giving too much credit to the scientific community’s ability to attempt functional dialogue. What I’ve learned from working with scientists, as a whole, is that they lack elemental social skills needed to converse with the everyday Joe the Plumber, while tons of artists have the emotional maturity to be able to sympathize and understand all types of demographics. Artists may not be able to communicate to non-artists exactly the importance of their actions, but I really feel like they are handicapped by an overall lack of proper educational training. Most educational art programs do not even discuss the importance of art on our culture or how to communicate that to an audience. It’s mainly just design boot camp that doesn’t even help artists create goals on how to succeed or understand what success means. I think artists rarely even know what they are doing themselves. Artists rarely know if they are making the world any better and there is so little, concrete measuring tools to have an artist understand their point on this planet. While I think it is much more tangible for a scientist to understand their purpose and the goals needed for “success” and therefore should inherently be better at getting their message out.

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Tony Bot:

Good points, all.

It seems that we're generally in agreement. The fact that so many scientists "lack elemental social skills needed to converse with the everyday Joe the Plumber" is why the scientific community is upping the ante on the campaign to prepare scientists to be better communicators. And the "handicap" you describe artists having is a similar, if distinct issue resulting from, as you state, the "lack of proper educational training." That being the case, it seems clear that education is an essential part of the puzzle.

In general, I think you're right; "tons of artists" DO "have the emotional maturity to be able to sympathize and understand all types of demographics." The principal problem for artists, as I see it, is intelligently talking about their artwork and why it is matter who they are talking to. Generally, we mumble through psychobabble, invent words, and put on a silly show. Granted, we're not supposed to be spokespeople, but we need to make a better show of it.

The rest of the art professionals, though, seem to be less able to "sympathize and understand all types of demographics." Certainly, there are many individual exceptions, but most curators -- and I'm thinking of professional curators, here -- seem suspicious of popularizing efforts, even if they're limited to getting the word out in "plain speak."

Perhaps this is unfair? It's really an open question for me. What is plain, though, is that fine art is a satellite of the culture conversation...and we desperately need to make it a valuable, core part of our dialogue again.

Perhaps, as you suggest, a fundamental restructuring of our educational system is warranted, one that makes "liberal arts" less extracurricular? Trouble is, to the best of my knowledge, Europe doesn't make these subjects any less extracurricular and they have a thriving arts culture (relative to ours, of course). Just think of all the European scientists you work with you regularly visit Chelsea! How many American scientists do you know who do the same? It's an eye-opening comparison.

Jocelyn said...

You say that the art world is relevant, but I'm not totally inclined to accept that assertion. Scientists, for all that they spend their time doing weird things in an ivory tower somewhere, are in the end working towards the furthering of human knowledge; and most of the time, the end goal is a direct improvement in quality of human life. They are ordinary people who have made a perhaps slightly odd career choice, and have spent their lives developing a specialized skill set - but still just people.

The art world, on the other hand, seems not to place a huge amount of value in the idea of bettering the world. Many of the people speaking for that world have an ill-concealed (or not concealed at all) scorn for the "general public" - hence the fear of being too popular you mention. On the day that an avant-garde sculptor watches an episode of American Chopper (full disclosure: I have not myself watched an entire episode) and sees herself as filling the same role in society as that guy, we won't have to have this conversation. But for now, many artists seem to fetishize the idea that they are Just Born That Way, separate from the rest of the poor sods who don't understand why some particular Piece of Genius is so great.

It's hard to be relevant when you (not you personally, obviously; the rhetorical, art community "you") don't actually care what conversation the rest of the culture is having.

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Jocelyn:

I appreciate your weighing in, especially because your skepticism of the art world's relevance is a symptom of what ails the art world....and is exactly what must be addressed.

You can call me a naive boob -- and I know that you didn't! -- but I do believe that art can be "a direct improvement in quality of human life." Note that I didn't write that art is "a direct improvement." Most artwork is not. It's mediocre not only because it leaves something to be desired, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because it was not created to communicate.

This is touchy territory. I'm quick to point out that I think art therapy is very valuable; we'd all be a little more open-minded, creative, and honest if everyone dabbled in art-making. The process, like meditation, is a sort of soulfood. But that doesn't mean that the art produced during our personal therapy sessions has much value for the rest of us! As the saying has it, unless I'm in your dream, I'd prefer not to hear you recount it. Artwork created to be part of the cultural conversation, though, is not merely a dream recounted; at it's best, it is a sincere effort to inform and better the world (and not only through self-improvement, the aim of traditional art therapy).

I suppose the easy comparison is literature, music, and film. I dare say that most Americans don't think of the novelists, musicians, and filmmakers as disregarding the "conversation the rest of the culture is having." Sure, there are plenty of a$$es in all creative realms, but the stereotype about the fine arts has become particularly poisonous.

How to repair the bridge between visual artists, the other creative realms, and the viewing public? That's the question.

Tony Bot said...

I would have agreed with Jocelyn had I never worked for 50 scientists in a bio-medical laboratory. But now I know that scientists generally are only concerned with the very thin slice of focus that they are currently studying and really don't care about bigger things that you would think a scientist would care about, like: climate change, healthy eating, recycling, community involvement, sustainability, current events, just about anything outside of their current scope of research, which I find incredibly similar to the perception that non-artists have for artists. I would go as far to say that most scientists, even if they are somehow doing good things for humanity aren't consciously trying to do so, not as much as they are trying to get their scientific papers printed and themselves promoted in their workplace.

Jocelyn said...

Tony, you say that most scientists aren't consciously trying to do something useful for society, and it might be true; I haven't the foggiest idea how one might begin to assess that. What I do know is that the nature of the Science Machine is such that one can generally only get work funded if someone somewhere thinks it's worthwhile. As a friend of mine once memorably said to me, "Investigation for the love of knowledge alone is the voyeurism of God", and I think it's true. But Pfizer and the NSF can't fund a lab just for divine voyeurism.

Where the "art world" falls away from that is that people with more money than is good for them can and do fund art projects regardless of whether they have any meaning or value for anyone other than the producer. Maybe it's a problem of living in nation with a spirit of nouveau riche; people will buy anything if someone tells them it's Art and the price tag is large enough.

Anyways, Christopher, it's not that I'm anti-art. As you might or might not recall, I love some good art, yours included; I think it has a lot to offer and is an important part of human endeavor. It might be that looking at things just because they're beautiful or interesting is also the voyeurism of God. But the art world is, in a word, lame.

I recently visited the Corning Museum of Glass and noted that it doesn't seem to suffer from a problem appealing to the masses. People love to go and look at the art, and I understand exactly why: even if a piece itself doesn't interest me, the craftmanship has to. Looking at a piece of art glass, it's impossible not to be enthralled by and respectful of the skill and effort that goes into making something like that. One feels the same way about historic architecture, particle accelerators, interesting paintings, figure skating, Mozart's Requiem, and a great game of basketball: Aren't humans amazingly capable and various!
I love an opportunity to appreciate the skill and hard work of my fellow humans, done for my benefit (either because I like watching it, or because it's meant to solve a problem, or any other kind of benefit).

It's hard for me to feel the same way about some of the things the Art World produces. I look at that stuff and feel somewhere between bored, sad, and insulted that someone expects praise and attention for stacking up some garbage or painting a circle.

(And I'm not just asserting prejudice against nontraditional media. One of the most moving artworks I ever saw involved hollowed eggs filled with water, frozen around strings, suspended from a high ceiling in a pattern and allowed to drop and smash as they thawed. That also was a worthy expression of human ingenuity and emotion.)

Hungry Hyaena said...

#$@&^%! Blogger is eating people's comments! Before you hit "Publish Your Comment," please copy it in case Blogger acts up!

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Tony Bot:

I respectfully (and tenderly) call bullsh*t! ;)

It's not true that "scientists generally are only concerned with the very thin slice of focus that they are currently studying and really don't care about bigger things that you would think a scientist would care about." They do care about the things I'd expect them to....or at least most of them do.

Certainly, some scientists are blinder wearing Poindexters, just as some individuals in all professions are uninterested in any subject not immediately related to what they know and do. Unfortunately, it's also true that more scientists are donning blinders today than, say, two decades ago. This is less the result of any mind-narrowing trend among the people who choose science, though, than it is the result of the academic basic research model becoming a cruel mill, the science community's version of "publish or perish." The march through a doctorate program, postdoc, and eventual (hopefully) professorship requires more single-mindedness and competition today than it once did. This worries many celebrated scientists, who believe the atmosphere of increased competition will stifle creative thinking and the free exchange of ideas. Instead, scientists will gird their experiments from potential "scoops" and set their sights on multiple papers (easier, less interesting projects instead of fewer, "big" ones).

But the science communication programs and courses that I wrote about in this post recognize this issue; indeed, the pitfalls of the working model have generated a lot of conversation (even cover stories)! If scientists, journal editors, and science corporations can figure out how to rejigger the system, that, too, may well ameliorate the (mis)communication fears.

In any case, that reality not withstanding, I often talk with scientists about art, politics, bird-watching, environmental efforts, beer, and wine....did I metion beer and wine? (So many scientists like libation!) ;)

In short, there are many generalists in science. The same is true of artists, of course. But the range of interests that artists and scientists have isn't at issue. Capitalism and our ever-increasing knowledge bank force us all to become more specialized, niche operators, no matter our chosen profession. But, our eroding generalism and your sense that scientists are one-dimensional wonks aside, the question remains, how do we "begin to chip away at the wall between the art world and the rest of it?" The scientific community is taking action. Not only is the art world sitting on its hands; it usually says those who believe action needs to be taken are deserving of scorn. Something's gotta give.

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Jocelyn:

You write that scientists "generally only get work funded if someone somewhere thinks it's worthwhile" and suggest that "people with more money than is good for them can and do fund art projects regardless of whether they have any meaning or value." Boy, is that NOT something often heard in art world circles!!

As I'm sure you know, we American artists regularly complain that there isn't nearly enough art funding by the state. We wring our hands about the declining NEA and the point to European public funding for the arts as evidence of how culturally "backward" the USA is. That subject leads to another complicated conversation/debate, however. Suffice to say, I'm with the artists (and the numbers) when I point out that the artworks blessed by the billfolds of a small coterie of well-heeled collectors are but a small fraction of the artwork being produced and, yes, much of it is "the emperor's new clothes." In other words, the collector's luxury market, like wine connoisseurship, is a mix of sensible valuation and sham/snake-oil, but the fact that art fair Bacchanalias and hi-end collecting comprise one of the faces (if not the face) of the contemporary art world is a function of the poor communication I feel the art world needs to address. After all, for most of us, it's not all Sotheby's auctions, Southbeach, and Gagosian openings! ;)

Two more things.

While a day of gallery hopping will almost certainly include your seeing at least some stacked garbage, I don't believe that most of the work on display in contemporary galleries is devoid of the craft you celebrate. In fact, one of the more notable fine art trends of the last decade has been bemoaned by some critics precisely because it is "too crafty." I think you need to give contemporary art another chance if you think it's all feces, phalluses, and other jejune, titillating nonsense that some artists (and WAY too many critics and curators) still mistake for social contribution or worthwhile critique. (As I alluded to in one of the earlier comments -- or maybe in the article itself -- critique, as a general rule, is NOT art. If you want to critique something, the best form for doing so is writing or, better yet, "rolling up your sleeves" for direct action.)

Who was the egg artist?

Jocelyn said...

Good gracious, did I ever just take a trip through the way-back machine. The internet is AMAZING - the art to which I referred was in a senior show when I was an undergraduate, I couldn't remember the name of the artist and the school apparently doesn't keep a list of graduates in every department.
However, I am 90% sure that this was the man:

In regards to craft - it's true that there is a trend towards the production of "crafty" objects as art, and to the extent that involves artists actually developing craftsmanship, I laud it. I have seen one or two too many poorly-executed attempts at referencing folk art to be totally comfortable with that entire movement. It ends up being insulting to the actual skilled practitioners of said craft.

That being said - of course you're right that the fancy people with their stupid art are the minority. I see beautiful, interesting things almost every day. But what with the lack of public funding for the arts, the only big money is that of collectors.

I considered inserting a little rant about Damien Hirst and his ilk here, but will refrain - except for mentioning that I have access to better-presented and better-preserved animals and models every day of the week in my anatomy lab, and though our conservator is an amazing woman I think she would be baffled to be called an artist.

Jocelyn said...

I meant to add that the challenge then is for you to take back your Art World from the people who have made it ridiculous and irrelevant in the minds of the public. Time for a coup!

Kevin R said...

Science has a direct relevance to everyday life. Every cell phone, every TV, every surgery, every climate controlled home is a testament to science. It isn't just something that happens in a lab. From Galileo to Google Earth, science has presented us with new perspectives on the world. Success in science translates into real and tangible change in the way people live their lives and in the way people see the world and their place in it.
Science is also cumulative. It builds on the work of those that came before.

As to art, I find Steve Jobs eye for design is significantly more influential, inspirational, and aesthetically pleasing than some modern day PT Barnum wrapping an island in fabric and calling it art.

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Jocelyn and Kevin R:

I generally agree with Jocelyn's take on Damien Hirst, but I do find some of his work too compelling to dismiss. That said, I'm totally with you regarding his animal works. Hirst, more so than Christo, is a "modern day P.T. Barnum," to use Kevin R's description.

But let's consider that P.T. Barnum comparison. It's an interesting parallel to draw. Barnum was a showman and provocateur. Many of today's better known artists aspire to the latter role (and, to some extent, also the former). But is provocation fine art? There's no tidy answer to that rhetorical question. In my estimation, though, provocation and criticism are both better served as text (e.g., op-ed columns, essays, or treatises). Sure, a "picture is worth 1,000 words" and a photograph of a crucifix in urine will have a social impact in a way that 1,000 articles won't, but little constructive conversation is generated by such (in my opinion, puerile) gestures.

But I don't believe that Christo, the wrapper of islands, and his often overlooked partner Jean-Claude were trying to provoke anyone. Their projects were predominantly concerned with aesthetics (excepting, perhaps, the wrapped Reichstag which was also political commentary). That said, the scale of their aesthetic enterprise is so dramatic it becomes a stunt, whatever the artists' motivation(s). In that respect, they are Barnum-like.

But however much publicity art stunts and provocations generate, the vast majority of contemporary artwork does not qualify as either. It's that work (i.e., the majority) that I'm wondering how we can connect to the general public.

The fact that the two of you highlight Hirst and Christo as representative of the art world writ large is, for me, further evidence that most non-art world professionals (and I'm assuming that Kevin R is not one) don't know what's going on in contemporary art. I mean that respectfully, and I believe it's our -- that is, the art world's -- fault that non-artists don't have a better sense of what's out there.

All that to say, I don't believe that most of the public would write off all of contemporary pop music, movies, or fiction as "ridiculous and irrelevant." Somehow, almost everyone knows that there is good music and bad music; taste is, to no small degree subjective, but with respect to those creative arenas, few people throw out the baby with the bath water. Not so with art....hence my desire to connect its satellite orbit with the popular ones.

Oy! It won't be easy! More thoughts?

Jocelyn said...

I agree entirely that I don't know what's going on in the contemporary art world. (I should also note that I have seen perhaps three movies in the last year (excluding those on trans-Atlantic flights); and I guess I do go see live music pretty often, even if not the kind that's mainstream popular. So maybe I'm not the best member of the general public for comparison.)

But beyond not knowing, I have essentially no interest in what the Arte Worlde is doing. I can and do enjoy sticking my head in an interesting gallery as I pass by, or spending an hour or two in a modern art museum. Even if I think some pieces are a waste of time and space, there are always a few that reward contemplation.

My feeling is that there are two separate problems for you here.
The first is that the high-profile art people make and reward the making of bad, culturally-irrelevant art. It's not clear what could directly be done about that.

The second is that the culture of artists in general avoids making products that are too accessible, and rewards with scorn those individuals who do it anyways. The effect of this is that becoming a member of fine art culture (whether as an artist or as an art lover) means developing a finely-tuned sense of scorn about the aesthetic preferences of the general public. I don't like Thomas Kinkade any more than I imagine you do - but there's something about his stuff that really engages a lot of people. Maybe making the art world more popular requires artists spending some more time teasing out exactly what that is so it can be separated from the things that are terrible.
I mean how is Lady Gaga different from (...oh, having trouble figuring out the right comparison...) Britney Spears? One of them is a real artist doing interesting work and one isn't, but they both got really popular.

andrea said...

Check out this article:

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Jocelyn:

You write: "But beyond not knowing, I have essentially no interest in what the Arte Worlde is doing."

Exactly, that's why the art world has failed you and failed most Americans. Hence, the need for an effort similar to what the scientific community is doing.

You write: "[T]he high-profile art people make and reward the making of bad, culturally-irrelevant art. It's not clear what could directly be done about that."

Not only is it not clear, I don't believe that much can be done; any "real" change on this front will have to come from the luxury market changing its tastes, and that will be dictated by curators, dealers, and critics. Perhaps, though, it's this group that improved communication between the art world and general populace could make an impact with.

On the Lady Gaga front, while she writes much of her own material and plays some of her own instruments, I'm not sure that Lady Gaga's end product is all that different from that of Britney Spears. It's the gloss that distinguishes her. Both of these pop stars have made some fun music, certainly, but Gaga seems to suffer from the same provocation=artfulness confusion that some of the fine artists mentioned earlier in the comment thread do (i.e., Hirst and Serrano). And, as we know well, shock sells! Consider all of the Madonna comparisons attached to Gaga; I'd argue, though, that Madonna married very good pop music to provocation, whereas Gaga marries standard-issue, flavor-of-the-month pop music to provocation. That said, yes, her show(wo)manship (e.g., grotesque costumes and predilection for religious-sexual innuendo) make her more captivating and interesting than Spears. Anyway, I don't want to digress into a conversation about Lady Gaga, and your point is well-taken.

The thing is, there are many bands and singers out there producing really quality music (with or without showmanship) who reach a huge audience. To stick with the mega-popular folks, I think Justin Timberlake has produced some music that will be around for decades or longer; he may not be the next Michael Jackson, but he and his team have earned the critical and popular success he's received. And that's an interesting element of the communication dilmma! Why are so many music critics willing to laud praise on uber-popular musicians while you'd be hard pressed to find a fine art critic who will do the same? 1) No fine art achieves that kind of reach (again, part of the problem). 2) The whole popularity=mediocrity stance of many in the art world.

Wowsers.....this is distressing!

Jocelyn said...

You can argue about many things if you really want to, but it is not in any way reasonable to say that Lady Gaga and Britney Spears are in the same realm of musical quality. One of them is a competent musician who writes interesting music. The other is autotuned at pretty much every moment.

Exhibit A:

Whether or not you really like the product, it is just afactual to say that Lady Gaga's music is mediocre pop in the same way that Britney's is. She's a good musician; she writes good songs, and sings and plays them well. (And, yes, she makes some very strange and awesome videos. Which I just watched again. I blame you now for my afternoon full of pop.) To try to identify the two comes very close to the fallacy under discussion, to wit: that because both are popular, both are mediocre at best.

The point I was trying to illustrate by discussing Gaga at all:
Pop music engages people in a very particular way. Some pop is trash, but other pop uses the same mechanism as does the trash to engage people in a product that nonetheless has value.

The peanut gallery adds at this time (brought into the conversation by a polite enquiry as to why I have insisted on an evening full of loud pop music) that much of academia is, for reasons entirely understandable, focused on the notion that novelty is the same as quality. Pop music is rarely anything like novel, but is often good music, fun, and worthwhile nonetheless. You can retell a story again and again and it is still good; and people used to make essentially the same artwork repeatedly in slightly different ways. It is postulated that the art world has been taken over by some of these novelty-fixated academics, and is thus hamstrung by identifying novelty as the necessary and sufficient condition for quality. With the obvious attendant problems.

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Andrea:

What a terrific article! Thank you for directing me to it. I've read a fair amount of Plagens' writing; it's almost always edifying stuff.

Interestingly, he interviewed some prominent art bloggers in 2007 and, after it was suggested that a number of us in then then growing art blogosphere answer them, I did. I revisited those responses this evening, too. It seems as though I had more confidence in art blogging then....or at least I still believed I might start making some cash from it! ;)

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Jocelyn:

A well-stated defense of Gaga! That said, having listened to all of her albums, I'm aware of the fact that most of her music is terrible, "Paparazzi," one of my favorites, notwithstanding.

I certainly don't think my critique of her is representative of "the fallacy under discussion, to wit: that [if art is] popular, [it must be] mediocre at best." Were I guilty of believing that, I wouldn't be a Timberlake fan, or an Outkast fan, or a Calvin & Hobbes lover. We are allowed our tastes, however, and little of Gaga is to my liking (even though, sure, three of her songs are terrific).

And, yes, novelty is far too often confused with quality. Novelty, scope, provocation....all of those things garner an artist attention. Salvador Dali was a forerunner of today's showmen, he rolled around in his ovocipede to promote his eccentricities...and impress his over-sized personality on critics and curators alike; it works!

But perhaps the principal issue preventing the art world, in all of its manifestations, from connecting with the general populace is the fact that it isn't generally a trade in multiples? In the terrific essay that Andrea recommends, painter and critic Peter Plagens suggests that music, movies, and books are all thriving in the digital age (even if music industry and publishing executives might not be as enthusiastic) because they are reproducible and distributed with ease. Is that why Thomas Kincade is so popular, perhaps? Distribution?

R. Gordon said...

It seems as though contemporary art may be in much the same position as basic scientific research. Both are an absolutely vital foundation to the work that has "broader impact"--but it's the latter that gets funded.

I find it interesting that art might look to science for models of how to improve communication. I tend to assume that art, more-so than science, is for communication in a fairly direct way. But I also have to admit that I've met a lot of visual artists who never learned to express themselves well verbally.

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ R. Gordon:

Interesting parallel; thank you for it.

Some people are irritated by the stereotype that visual artists lack good communication skills, but stereotypes are rarely totally baseless. Generally, I agree, visual artists are relatively inarticulate people; they're neither good speakers nor good writers. According to some commentators, this is a relatively recent phenomenon; even 75 years ago, many visual artists were skilled rhetoricians! That said, it isn't just visual artists' wanting speech and writing skills that lead to the art world's ghetto status. In fact, I think most of the blame lies in the luxury market model that the art world has enthusiastically adopted.

Yesterday, I talked with a successful choreographer who explained that she prefers NOT to work in professional dance spaces anymore. Whenever she can, she instead opts to perform her pieces in public parks and other non-traditional venues. What was her principal reason? Because, she told me, the public appreciates the experience in a way that the art-viewing world does not. They become excited, they ask questions. They express surprise: THIS is contemporary dance?! Wow! It's fun! (Dance, by the way, seems to be similarly ghettoized, excepting the choreographers who get called for all of the pop videos.)

Visual artists understandably aren't wild about plunking paintings down in a park (unless that's their standard schtick). Public sculpture, too, has institutional associations that prevent most people from really looking at it. Perhaps the best way for visual artists to reconnect art with "the people," then, is to go "mechanical reproduction" in a big way? Discard the pretentious, luxury-market driven dismissal of ink-jet prints and find a big audience through inexpensive sales? It's certainly happening now, through Society6 and other similar websites. The artists who are embracing that model, though, tend to represent the "lowbrow" or street art aesthetic. More power to them, I say. Can the so-called fine art world use that model to reach a popular audience, too?

What do you all think?

Anonymous said...

a lot of diatribe in the comments, but i think that the post asks a valid question.
in reality, i think it is all a reflection on the society in which it is produced. and since that society places so much emphasis on immediate gratification, gloss and veneer, with a sincere lack of real engagement, why should most of the art produced be any different.
at the heart of it all is education. or the lack thereof. no matter what cultural form you look at, you require a way to decode it, and that is a learnt skill. you learn how to look. it is not instinctual.
more people listen to contemporary, albeit popular, music than are willing to engage with contemporary art or dance. most (perhaps not all) of those same people will not be willing to listen to classical music or opera, but love any art that would fit their description of classical or figurative, i.e. prior to the 20th century avant-garde. much less look at design or architecture.
it boils down to your exposure to culture. in Paris, many 7/8 year-olds go on school trips to Centre Pompidou, which includes Duchamps' urinal. for some, this may be their first visit, for others perhaps not but their parents might not have gone to a contemporary museum. but can you imagine if Duchamp is one of your first experiences of what art is, how much more open your definition of art will be for the rest of your life?

Hungry Hyaena said...

@ Anonymous:

Good points. Thank you for commenting!

Anonymous said...

You raise a very interesting points about art journalism dying, but I think it was irrelevant to compare it to that of science journalism. There is plenty of science journalism out there and available to read. Most of the journalism on science is written about medical science topics because that is usually the most popular, but none the less it exists. As far art I 100% agree. There is very little in our culture that focuses on promoting art to the next generation. There are sites that help promote art and develop taste such as and, but in order for these sites to be effective there needs to be a better way to drive traffic there.