April 10, 2004    Arts

Art and the Cult of Inaccessibility

I am an artist.

I used to think that it would be so cool to be able to say that to people when they asked what I did for a living. Now I realize just how loaded these four little words really are. There’s no telling how people will respond.

There are the respectfully curious: Oh! How did you learn to do that?

And there are the mildly fawning: Wow! How did you get to do that?

Then, of course, there are the people who just give you a sideways look and ask, How do you make money? (Subtext: How did you weasel your way out of having to work for a living?)

To many people, hearing someone say, “I am an artist” inspires about as much social credibility as hearing them say, “I am a trust fund baby” or “I live on a commune”.

Can you blame people, really, for thinking that artists are from the planet Mars? Isn’t being an artist kind of like being in some bizarre, hyper-exclusive club with no law except elitism and self-indulgence?

It can sure seem that way, sometimes, even to someone who should know better.

Contemporary art is a funny thing. It plays by its own rules, in a way that no other institution can. Except, perhaps, religion.

For a little while, I thought that the negative aspects of the art world were best examined in comparison to old-fashioned monopolies, like the coal industry in the bad old days, when the companies had virtually no opposition as they gorged themselves on vast areas of Appalachia.

The art world is nowhere nearly as cruel to its workers as the mines were, of course. It’s not fair or respectful to compare the two industries in terms of injustice and human suffering. And that analogy really falls apart when you consider what’s going on today in the coal mining industry. The bad old days of coal mining are back with a vengeance…but that’s another story.

In terms of offering a product that reflects a fair, democratic production process, the art world really is decades behind the times. Behind all the glamour and mystique, the art world has a lot in common with business values that went out of style along with the mule. Even so, the industrial model is still little too limited in describing what is wrong with the art world.

Contemporary art is not selling something simple, like heating fuel or soda pop. It sells strange, mysterious objects whose value is governed according to a set of standards that almost nobody can figure out, much less justify.

To a certain extent, that is necessary. When you get right down to it, art trades in human enlightenment. Or it says it does, at least. So how can you put a price on that?

Art is a sacred pursuit. We need it. In the spiritual sense, we would die without it. The people who defend this sacred status are right to do so. But the very sacredness that surrounds art is what leaves it so dangerously open to corruption.

Art is extremely vulnerable to exploitation by those who are skilled in making themselves seem like they have a mainline to some unknowable, earth-shattering mystery that is far too complicated for the rest of us to figure out.

As a result, the contemporary art market has the ability to operate like a religious cult, with inaccessibility as its gospel.

At every level of the art world, there are people who wrap themselves in thick layers of pretentiousness, self-involvement, and incomprehensibility, as if it were some uniform that defined them as an authority on art. And to a certain extent, they are right. In many ways, that really is how you play the game.

The sad, ironic truth is that the people who play by these rules in the world of High Art are the ones who help to ensure that art enjoys such a ridiculously small audience. This kind of nonsense is extremely transparent to most people.

Selling art to the public is difficult, but I don’t think it’s because people are too stupid and shallow to know a good thing when they see it. It’s because they are smart enough to recognize a scam when they see it. And unfortunately, in the minds of many people, that is exactly the kind of label that art has succeeded in giving itself.

Imagine what it’s like to be working a double behind a counter at a truck stop and seeing an article about a man who sold his bodily fluids for a million-and-something dollars. That is the kind of thing that is likely to make you quite angry on a very personal level. It’s the kind of thing that is going to stick with you for years.

Overpricing, aggressive posturing, and alienating art rhetoric have succeeded in driving away vast numbers of potential consumers in the world of contemporary art. And although some critics might say that the average person’s taste in art is so hopelessly inane that making art more palatable to the general public would require a massive devolution of art itself, I am less cynical about the average person’s ability to understand the real value of art.

If popular taste does sometimes tend towards feel-good aesthetics and happy little colors, I can’t help but conclude that it is, for many people, an attitude that grew from a hurt, distrustful reaction to the perception of being deliberately excluded from the world of art.

Negative experiences with contemporary art drive people into their “safety” zones, where the boundaries are clearly established and the rules are simple: Cute, lighthearted, whimsical, decorative. If contemporary art is not going to give people what they need, at least they can cozy up with art that will not hurt them, or insult them, or call attention to their socioeconomic shortcomings.

For many people, art is an enemy territory, and art-making is a form of trespass. Even people who feel generally sympathetic to art often suffer from a crippling sense of inferiority in relation to it. Their creative gestures are furtive and self-deprecating, or they are a slavish imitation of what they think contemporary art is supposed to be. It’s as if they want to avoid attracting negative attention from the terrible, incomprehensible gods that determine what is and is not art.

Why should people feel this way? Why should a basic sense of democracy be so conspicuously absent from the higher echelons of the art world? It’s as if art considers itself to be above the law.

The last thing I am trying to do is argue that art should forevermore be conceived and executed within a framework of mass-marketability, or that artists should become any less guarded against the corny sell-out mechanisms that often try to creep into any creative endeavor.

What I am suggesting is this: That everyone who comes in contact with art (buyers, sellers, makers, mediators, promoters, educators and outside observers) do away with the idea that pretentiousness equals professionalism in art, and abandon the idea that inaccessibility is some kind of magic wand that you can wave over art to make it “real”.