Wednesday, July 9, 2008

ART GALLERY 101: You Say You Want a Revolution...

REBELLION AND ROCK MUSIC have gone hand in hand since Elvis. A stick-it-to-the-man, question authority, fuck-the-establishment mindset that has been part of the wellspring from which so much great music has arisen over the past sixty years. It's an odd symbiosis. The musicians originally rebel against the status quo with something diametrically opposed to it. Their art speaks to others like themselves, the disenfranchised and disaffected (who are usually the young people, who by definition have little vested interest in a society run by those opposite themselves, namely, the "old people", "the squares"). And then an interesting thing occurs. This product of the counter-culture becomes a hit, it makes money and a lot of it (to translate into the language of the establishment), and this same establishment then goes out of its way to embrace it. And of course the musicians are swayed by suddenly becoming rich and famous, and eventually they succumb and "sell out", they break up over "creative differences", they die or commit suicide, or they form their own record label (like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin) to retain creative control and make even more money. (Today we have Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead pioneering the selling of their albums over the Internet, bypassing record companies altogether!) And as far as present-day rock rebellion goes, it's still very much alive in alternative, industrial, hard rock and heavy metal (check out the landing page!), not to mention rap (which can be the most rebellious of all).

So what about art? Where is that same kind of fierce rebellion in the visual arts? It still exists in isolated pockets (Joroko*1 is a great example), but overall today's artists remain a pretty timid bunch, especially the more they strive to become "known" and accepted into the "art world", doing things that we've discussed at length in other ART GALLERY 101 lessons, such as "branding themselves" and making art specifically for the "white-walled art galleries", which in turn pander to a rich clientele. And here is the fundamental reason why rock musicians are more rebellious, while so many of today's visual artists are rather tame. Young people are the ones who buy a rock band's CDs, whereas today's "known" artists must rely on rich people to survive (or to get rich and famous in the first place). In today's art world the rich call the tune. (And haven't they always since before the Renaissance?) And of course, the very nature of the products of art and music are factors as well. An original work of music is usually best represented aurally by the wonderful technology inherent in today's CDs, whereas the best visual example of a piece of artwork is the artwork itself. Original artwork doesn't lend itself to being mass-produced. And since young people don't traditionally spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on art, an artist must look elsewhere to make money. And this brings up another crucial difference. Rock musicians realize their work, their music through performance, primarily through playing live before usually enthusiastic audiences of young people (who in turn buy their CDs and the tickets to their shows). Therefore their music and their radical behavior are reinforced on a regular basis by their fans, to the point of most rock musicians echoing the sentiment that while record companies indeed suck, if it weren't for their fans they (the rock bands) wouldn't be able to keep going, both literally and emotionally.

Visual artists have nothing of the sort to rely upon.**2 Their artwork is realized on the public level through being displayed in the gallery, and of course the more "high-end" and "big-city" the gallery the more of a rich clientele they possess, the more chance there is of the artist selling her work and making money. And unfortunately the art world is still governed by this iniquitous mindset (the few upstart galleries like KRONOS notwithstanding), artists and galleries being suck-ups to the rich, in a closed environment that doesn't encourage rebellion.

So how can today's artists become more like rock musicians? (Dare to dream!) The answer is to bring young people into the equation, first by getting them into art galleries in the first place, and then having them think that art galleries are a place that's happening, that's vital. Young people recognize bullshit almost instantly, which is the reason why they don't traditionally flock to art galleries, so we must make the art gallery a relevant place. A place of new ideas, of fearlessness, and indeed of revolution where the spirit of art itself hasn't been co-opted by a pandering to the marketplace as defined by the rich. After all, what is art really about? The next step is that artists have to start mass-producing their artwork in the form of very affordable prints (or other such things) so that young people can buy them. (And it would help if they [the artists] could give up the idea of being "rich and famous", because this idea is perpetuated by the "white-walled gallery". To be a rich and famous artist today is to be either very lucky or to be a slave to an oppressive and creatively-stifling mindset.***3) Granted, an original piece of artwork is unique, one-of-a-kind, and as such should be valued accordingly. Its three-dimensionality, its color, size, and texture cannot be realized in a mass-produced facsimile. But that doesn't mean that vital, beautiful, affordable art cannot be made available to a brand new public, especially with the advances in today's technology. But this is where it's up to the artist. He must make the effort to make at least a part of his artwork accessible as though it were a CD, which is not to devalue the art, but rather, open it up to an entirely new audience. After all, revolution never originated from the rich.****4 And of course this will be a slow process, as there is no infrastructure in place for distributing artwork en masse as there is for music. (Perhaps the Internet can somehow be used in this regard.) Because it is visual, art can be just as powerful as music. Look at the enormous posters of Stalin and Chairman Mao. One glance can speak volumes, and if a picture is indeed worth a thousand words then let's make our artwork actually say something that matters, and then get it out there to the people. It's possible, but it will take a radical shift in thought on the part of the artists (followed by action) to make it happen.*****5


**2. Whereas rock musicians have fans, artists have the gallery owner!

***3. Refer to what Malcom X said about "house Negroes" vs. "field Negroes" ( "FILOSOFEE/Quotes").

****4. B'lee dat!

*****5. Through radical art galleries, guerilla art shows, artistic anarchy and the like in order to reclaim our power as artists. Anything is better than the way it is now.