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