Fine Art in Museums: Tigers in Zoos

This post is the second of what I hope will be a series. My friend Adrian Hanft and I are going to try having an ongoing conversation about art and creativity. Initially it was going to be held via email, but we’ve agreed that it might be more interesting to have it via our blogs by way of the internet. With any luck it won’t end up being a bunch of ill-thought drivel. This one’s a real hum-dinger though. Observe how I go completely off-topic by the fifth sentence.

Topic 1: Art and Culture

Adrian: I loved going to the art museum as a kid. It was so exciting to see beautiful pictures by famous artists. But I remember when I walked into the modern art wing of the museum and saw a row of Campbell’s Soup cans for the first time. It was utterly shocking. This couldn’t be art! It can’t be! I have been a Warhol fan ever since. I can’t think of anything that has changed my perception of art as completely as that. You were passionate about Jackson Pollock like I was about Warhol. What is the lasting impact that your studies of Pollock have had on you?

Jason: I think the ‘all-over composition’ is the lasting lesson learned from studying Pollock. But that’s just technique. Nuts and bolts. There’s no ‘why’ in there.

A large misunderstanding about reality has made it so that I sincerely insist that real art is not something that should be made or chosen to match a couch. Why does that statement get anywhere near my lips?

Its a problem with what I see as fine art’s arrogance. I think its revisionist history. I think the long list of well known artists are obviously the artists that were commercial-savvy or there was somebody that found their work and saw the commercial potential. They were working artists that got paid to make things that others liked to look at. And the names that we celebrate from the past are those that were the most successful. No art expert would debate that but somehow they overlook what that says about what art is.

Maybe I sincerely believe that ‘real art’ shouldn’t be chosen because it matches a couch, but the reality is that that attitude is self-important and false. The reality is that artists should recognize the truth behind the nostalgia for art history: ARTISTS ARE MAKING ART TO ADORN HOME WALLS, SIT ON TABLES, MATCH COUCHES AND SIT NEXT TO BUSHES IN GARDENS. Art doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Seeing a painting on a large white wall in an art museum is no different than seeing a tiger in a cage at a zoo. Only an idiot would think that that is its natural habitat. That the zoo is its destiny. And yet that’s what ‘fine art’ teaches people. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to put my beautiful painting next to an ugly couch.

Adrian: I never thought of it that way, but I like that analogy. But doesn’t it bother you to think of a Pollock hanging on a wall across the room from a screen that plays Dr. Phil all day? And given the choice between the two, Dr. Phil will get more eyeball time. I am not sure the home is the natural habitat for art, either.

Jason: No, it wouldn’t bother me to see a Pollock in a living room. I don’t think art should be treated like a sacred artifact. In this Dr. Phil-living-room case, the Pollock would be a decoration for the wall. A great decoration for that wall. Boy, I wish I had a Pollock to hang in my living room! My walls are bare right now because I don’t have any hand-made art to hang and I simply won’t hang some cheap mass-produced image there. Mass-produced furniture? Okay, well, I can’t afford/don’t have the time to make anything better. Mass-produced art? It’s not for me. Unless it’s a screen print. Or a lighograph. Wait, why isn’t mass-produced art good enough for my walls again? Well, however the art is produced (even, gasp, offset printing), if the image has been seen a million times or is not very good I have no interest in hanging it on my wall. There. Now it sounds like I know what I’m doing…

It’s no wonder contemporary ‘fine art’ is irrelevant in our culture. Graphic design/interior design/industrial design/architecture will be the most important artistic artifacts of society. Those are the things people pay for in our society.

Adrian: Society also pays for things like American Idol and liposuction. I sure hope that’s not what the history books are talking about when they write about our times. I completely agree, however, that our culture is shaped by the artists. Whether it is advertising, fashion, movies, music, architecture, the artists are the one’s that push the culture forward.

I just had a scary thought. I am almost certain that if Andy Warhol were still alive he would most likely be a judge on American Idol. Then he could actually hand out fame to people in almost exact 15 minute increments. And Jackson Pollock would make great reality television. What has this world come to?

Jason: In the words of the immortal Tupac Shakur: It’s strictly business, baby. Strictly business.

And I don’t find that offensive in relationship to all of art history as we know it. The fact that this is nothing new does leave a bad taste in my ideological mouth though. I do so want everybody in the world to get along and spend their time doing meaningful things.

This conversation will most likely continue on Adrian’s website. I’ll provide a link when that happens.

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