Archive for the The Cult of the Amateur Category

Why is art failing in this country, in this world?

According to author and Harvard psycology professor Steve Pinker in his essay A Biological Understanding of Human Nature, the art world, as it has developed in the modern and post-modern era, is not fulfilling a societal obligation, and that is at the roots of its failure.

In the twentieth century, modernism and postmodernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that our predilections for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any schmo could afford a Mozart CD or go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. So art became baffling and uninterpretable—unless you had some acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don’t think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. …many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend.

Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the permutations and combinations of human conflict—and these are the very themes that fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and social psychology try to illuminate. The sciences of the mind can reinforce the idea that there is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.

I’ve been busy with administrative tasks on CAFA the past four days, so I’ve not had time to think any new thoughts about failure. (I promise, by the way, to have my blogroll back up soon…)

However, here are some interesting links from sundry Friends of Failure:

—One of my favorite artist blogs, SELLOUT, which is an examination of the hard issues facing artists—written by artists—declared suddenly yesterday it’s going on a hiatus to refine and retool. The reason for this sudden stoppage, despite the quick notoriety the site has gained: Overwhelmed with email… Hey, SELLOUT, I hear ya. If you figure that one out, let me know. But hurry back!

—Sharon Butler, author of the arts blog Two Coats of Paint, which recently went through its own retooling, just published an expose-style article in the Brooklyn Rail, called Swimming in Pigment, about the lollapollooza art fairs that occur in Miami Beach. Her conclusions about the events? They’re a mixed bag, but mostly, when you take into account only the good art that was there, she found the experience positive:

It’s too easy to scorn Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellites as a vulgar coalescence of dilettantes and profiteers. Beneath that veneer, they provide an invaluable one-stop annual inventory of the art world: a dazzlingly broad array of artwork, much of it vigorous and thoughtful, in two nearby neighborhoods geared for high-intensity viewing, through which art becomes a proud rallying point for an entire city. On an individual level, accepting the challenge of apprehending such a vast ocean of work without props, as it were, is to rediscover the very process by which you first figured out what you loved about looking at, and making, art. The opportunity to redefine and articulate your passion is a lot more than just a good party.

—Meanwhile, Art Happy Hour!, which also just retooled (must be the season for it), wrote that it is holding its inaugural gathering in Minneapolis. If you’re anywhere near the area, you simply have to come check this out—the first artist community-wide happy hour in the country (that I know of)!

–And, finally, your favorite CAFA administrator, Michael Fallon, has just caused himself no small amount of trouble by publishing an essay about the artistic drive in artists, titled (provocatively, on purpose) “The (Endlessly Annoying, Horribly Consuming, Creepily Off-Putting) Drive in Artists to Make Art.” Here’s just a little teaser, in which I take to task a pretentiously wannabe-artist, and former friend, named Mike:

EVERYONE AT SOME TIME IN LIFE ENDS UP WITH A FRIEND LIKE MIKE. Mike wanted desperately to be a screenwriter. Or, to put it more accurately, he wanted you to think of him as a screenwriter.

Another friend of mine, G. (who wouldn’t care much whether or not you knew how accomplished an arts writer, artist, and craftsperson he actually is), first encountered Mike after a meeting which was initiated for the purposes of “screenplay research.” “Man,” he said, “that’s a guy who’s just desperate for attention. Do me a favor and keep me out of the loop next time.” S., yet another friend and a self-taught artist who earned his skills by hard toil over band saw and workbench, after a few months’ acquaintance took to calling Mike an intellectual Baby Huey. “You know Baby Huey, right? Always wanting attention, always bumbling into every situation like an attention-seeking whale in a wading pool. That’s Mike!”

Online surveys are usually silly, so I very rarely endorse them or pass them on to friends. However, anyone interested in artistic failure should check out this online survey that purports to measure whether or not you’re a “tortured artist.”

What’s interesting about this survey is how dreadfully stereotypical is its view of artists. In real terms, of course an artist is, simply, someone who makes art. Period. This survey, however, doesn’t even ask that question. Instead, its questions suggest that artists apparently are (or have to be): poor; TV-less; drug-addicted; lazy and dirty; gay; friendless; unhealthy; anti-family; single-minded; and misanthropic.

Again, there’s no reason any of these things have to be true. I’d posit that these notions of the artist are a actually example of the self-prophecy effect. That by suggesting an artist has to be these things, you actually make it so. But that’s just me…

In case you’re wondering, I took the survey myself. Here is my result, for what it’s worth:

You are 24% tortured artist.

You should be happy. You have a normal life. You have no artistic ability and are not cursed with the realiztion [sic] that everyone is an idiot, because you are one.

I’m currently reading Andrew Keen’s insightful book on the Web 2.0 movement, The Cult of the Amateur. Its arguments—while a bit pat and polemical—reveal a lot about why things are heading south currently in so many “traditional” sectors of cultural production—such as the press, the book industry, the music biz (and I’d add the art market).

One focus of the book is that, while the utopian vision of the Web 2.0 movement is appealing to a wide swath of the populus, it ends up diminishing overall cultural accomplishment. That is, if suddenly everyone is deemed an artist, a musician, a political commentator, a filmmaker, then suddenly truly talented professional versions of these figures are left out in the cold–unsupported (in real financial terms) or forced to water down their content to gain support from a wider (but less deeply supportive) audience.

The music industry is probably the best indication of the way things are going. It’s all so au courant to bad-mouth the music industry—to claim it gouges us, it doesn’t treat artists fairly, it’s uncaring and unfeeling—as a rationalization for our habitual stealing of the intellectual property of music. There’s a widespread assumption that everyone’s stealing music—the kids are all stealing music—so, why shouldn’t I?

Well, interestingly, here’s a letter to the editor—written in response to a Penn State Daily Collegian article called “Music lovers deserve free market of songs” (which argued: “No matter what they call it — illegal downloading, piracy, whatever — a free market for music is a good thing.”)—that clearly hints at the results of the “utopian” vision of free art for all, whenever and wherever they want it:

The column “Music lovers deserve free market of songs” Oct. 30 failed to acknowledge the consequences of free music and the music industry’s suffering. The music industry employees are paid for their effort to bring the public music. Without these people, music would not be able to be distributed. Consumers are the only way the artists and industry employees obtain their paychecks.