Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Who Defines Art, and Why?

Posted by Damon Lehrer

The value of art, as it generally has no intrinsic or practical value, is always in question. Everyone involved with art has a stake in the question. On the small end of the scale, most of us unconsciously tweak our art criteria to elevate our own or our friends’ artwork, for example, or a gallery may try to increase our desire for an artist’s work and therefore its value by paying for media coverage of that artist. But the surest way to fiddle with the value of art is to fiddle with its basic definition.

As I described in my previous post, the culture of the university frames art in a way that privileges the attributes of the university, and the marketability of the university experience. The universities are in the uniquely influential position of being the conduit through which most young people flow, as they move into larger cultural spheres. Universities are the Walmart of the intellectual world- their enormous cumulative size, and perceived necessity for a successful life, causes them to change the culture that exists around them, whether they mean to or not. The colleges and departments built around teaching art have become key constructors and gatekeepers of the contexts in which art is seen and understood. The nature of their business, which acquires, alters, and dumps large volumes of students into the culture, has managed through sheer numbers of graduates to swing the entire intellectual framework of the art world in their favor. Universities have rendered our art culture at once more similar and more amenable to university culture.

If you ask the average person on the street in a moderate sized city today who has NOT gone to college to define the word “ART”, their response would probably be fairly straightforward. For the average American a piece of art is still a painting that looks like something. This is a definition that serves the purposes of the average citizen. They can recognize when something before them requires an esthetic reaction, because it has a frame around it.

But ask the same question to a denizen of the contemporary art world of 2011, and you will likely get some version of this also seemingly simple kind of answer: “art” is something made by an "artist". Now why would they answer like this? It seems straightforward enough, not that different from the average uneducated citizen’s response. It’s almost a tautology: it appears obvious. But the reason a member of the contemporary art scene answers like this is not at all obvious to most of us. The reason is that this answer pays.

The contemporary art dealer’s greatest sales tool is the same one that serves other aspects of the capitalist marketplace so well: branding. Imagine what would happen to sales at a department or specialty store if every piece of clothing had to be tested for quality, fit and fashionableness individually. What if there were no brands whose quality, fit, and fashionableness were understood, and therefore of a certain minimum value to the consumer? That store would have to hire an army of attendants, all extremely versed in testing clothes and proving to customers that they were paying a fair price. Or, alternatively, consumers themselves would have to all be experts in cloth and seam quality, durability, the subtleties of fashion, and so forth.

The implementation of the Brand is an inevitable consequence of mass-market society, and is desirable in most contexts for the convenience of both sides of many transactions. The marketer gets a marketing tool, which helps them in their attempts to increase perceived value of their merchandise, and the consumer gets a buying tool, which at least purports to guarantee a certain degree of quality, and carries that same perceived value and status into the life of the purchaser. In the normal world of commerce, these benefits permit the economy to run in an efficient way, and give rise to an advertising industry. But what about in the non-normal world of art commerce?

In the art world, the dealer’s definition of art (that art is what is made by an artist) immensely favors the dealer. And the more open-ended the accepted definition of artist and art is, the more power the dealer has to create value out of nothing. In our department store example, the power balance is between buyer and seller is upheld by the relative expertise of the buyer in identifying a shirt, pants, shoes, etc. The only thing at issue is the quality of the stitching, materials, and fashion taste. Most of this information is clearly labeled by law, and only the taste of the buyer is left to chance and individual savvy. But what if taste was not the only variable left; what if the purchaser of clothes was not allowed to rely on his or her definition of what clothes should DO; what if clothes were allowed, for example, to be invisible?

Why is contemporary art seemingly all about knocking down boundaries, overturning categories, and destroying preconceived notions? To be sure, it’s an interesting and refreshing exercise to air out and test the usefulness of categories that have been with us for centuries. But it is much easier to knock down a structure than to build one up, and the task for the artist in this paradigm soon becomes finding new “old structures” to overturn, or attacking “old structures” in new ways. All fun and exciting, but why has knocking down assumptions and undoing established boundaries come to define the character and philosophy of most of contemporary art?

A history professor might answer this question with something like the following statement: following in the mold of many successive rejections of earlier art establishments, and accelerated by the cynicism about traditional culture and values provoked by the industrialization that culminated in the carnage of the First and Second World Wars, irony and mistrust of institutions and the categories that they support became a dominant cultural mood. This kind of explanation certainly has merit, but there is another force, like dark matter, that remains undetected by most of the art consuming public, and has nothing whatever to do with history or esthetics or philosophies of art. It is simply that in the absence of categories, the capitalist marketing tool of branding becomes a supercharged, unstoppable mega-tool.

Imagine a world of general commerce where all categories had been intellectually obliterated. A car dealership might decide that it wanted to make more money, and so begins to populate its showroom with large boulders, which it continues to refer to as cars. With the right marketing, and the right branding, these new “cars” fly off the lot, as people come to “understand” the colonialist and exploitative paradigm that the old form of car represented, and although their travel and commuting sensibilities are no longer stimulated by the new form of car, they feel cleaner and much more modern.

This is the reality of the contemporary art world. It is a fantastically profitable one for well-placed art dealers, as well as the critics, magazines, and university art departments that encircle, support, and are enriched by them, and whose inexorable adoption of and investment in this reality make it nearly impossible to make a credible contrary intellectual claim. The only way to take on this interlocking, mutually profitable cultural matrix of cardboard meaning is to begin with a new definition of art. While there isn't much hope of defeating the edifice that is built on the current definition, at least we can offer an alternative at the grassroots of the culture. If we begin to provide young people at the grassroots level with the means to satisfy the craving to actually go somewhere in a car, then they will begin to see that interesting and groovy as the boulder in their garage is, it DOES NOT DRIVE.

In part 2 of this post, I'll offer a alternative to the dealer's definition of art, and talk about the deliberate misuse of the word itself. The word "art" in this past century is commonly conflated with the word "important" in a very un-clarifying, and immensely remunerative way. Only the culture is impoverished, so who cares?


  1. I do! You do. Others will follow, I hope. Good post, D! One might even say it showed both craft and art, intellect and heart, style and substance, all at the same time! Not so much to ask, nor so hard to accomplish as so many out there would like to think, or are being made to think. Everything that issues from anyone who calls themself, or lets others call them, ARTIST should be held to such a standard. If the dealers won't do it, time for new arbiters of taste to take over.

  2. Fantastic post and great criticism of the influence of free market - credentials based ideals on the academia and the art world. I wonder Damon, have you read Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford? I can see many parallels between your writing and his. Thanks for this blog and your new project. This is much needed in the Boston area!