Not that long ago I realized I was asking myself one simple question every time I pondered the contents of a museum or gallery: is it art, or is it artworld?
Art is famously hard to define of course. Artworld on the other hand is surprisingly easy - that’s because artworld has become a genre, just like craft is a genre, and pop-surrealism is a genre, and public art is a genre, and burning man is a genre, and vernacular art is a genre, and glass art is a genre, and so on. To understand artworld, the genre, all that is required is to go to artworld, the place (i.e. any contemporary art museum, gallery, or art fair), and look around.
The first thing to notice upon entering artworld is the sheer amount of stuff, the staggering variety… how in the world could any of it be lumped together? Simple: artworld stresses the importance of the idea over the object, and shies away from the technical skills found in other genres. The caveat to that is artworld allows unlimited fabrication razzle-dazzle from paid assistants, as long as the artists themselves retain a sort of white-collar managerial role. But for the most part, pushing the idea forward, and removing (or disabling) the hand, has really come to define artworld’s signature style. That’s why it’s nutty to imagine re-staging any of its marquee shows at the Renwick say, or the Cooper Hewitt, or the Mint, or installing them bit-by-bit as public art. The contours of artworld reveal themselves as soon as one steps outside of it.
It should be noted here that artworld is fantastic, a lot of the time, and it’s just filled to the brim with talented and fun people. So the real question is why does the whole genre thing even matter? To go a step further, genres are not only fun, they actually serve a function – innovation and insight are direct outcomes of sinking into any field deeply. The result of that is really the story of civilization itself. Why shouldn’t that same model apply to artworld?
It should. And it does. And by god we have innovated the shit out of artworld. This is no screed denouncing that, or denouncing genres in general. What I’m trying to do instead is explain why art isn’t one, and why that matters.
Imagine that there is a station on the radio called The Music World. It’s at the end of the dial, past the jazz station, and the hip-hop station, and the reggae station, the oldies station, the rock station, the metal station, and soul station, and country station, and so on. Music World is great. It’s definitely your favorite. But regardless of your feelings about the rest of what’s playing, the other stations play music too. Hopefully the analogy that I’m making here isn’t too terribly subtle: artworld might have the word art right in the title, but it sets itself up for a particularly unreasonable set of expectations if we imagine it to be the only place where art lives - much less the place where importance lives, or relevance, or meaning – because it’s simply the place where artworld lives. Art and artworld aren’t the same thing.
Before I get much further, I should describe how art, the word, got emptied of any specific meaning. If you don’t think so, then just ask any artworld denizen to define it quickly, and watch the tongue-tying begin. It’s necessary to explain how that happened, because despite what I’ve just said above, a lot of people still think of art as exclusive to museums and galleries - which is to say, art and artworld actually are the same thing. But starting about 150 years ago, art really dedicated itself to discovering it’s own borders, and by the time the dust cleared, it turned out that there were no borders – no hurdles, no barriers, no walls. And in that great expanse, the more we looked for art, the more we found.
The first real move towards figuring that out was impressionism, followed quickly by post-impressionism, then fauvism, cubism, expressionism, De Stijl, and so on and so on, at an increasingly dizzying pace. Modernism is described as the era of the Isms, and really it’s impossible to know how many came along during that time, but certainly it was in the hundreds. The upshot of all of this exploration was the realization sometime in the 1980’s that pretty much all avenues had been explored, and the only thing left to do was to make work pointing that out. By that time, many of the proceeding things, from as far back as dada, up through earthworks, social practice, and a whole lot else, had moved things way beyond a particular venue, medium, or discipline. The final kicker in the whole search for borders thing was to realize that all the new avenues to be discovered in the future wouldn’t really have to convince anyone that they were art, like the old one’s had to. In other words, the battles that abstract painters waged, or minimalists, or performance artists, or even photographers, just to be considered art, would no longer be necessary. You want to be a cook at your opening? That’s great. Do you just want to hire actors to greet gallery goers at the door? Excellent! How about making the lights turning on and off for your museum show? Yes please! Let’s give that one the Turner Prize. (Those are three of my favorite artists btw). The famous quote by Donald Judd, uttered in the early 70’s, about how art is whatever an artist says it is, has come true in practice: art has not only literally left the building, (those being museums and galleries), but it has left the studio as well. It re-appears there on occasion of course - art comes and goes as it pleases, free of any specific address - but wherever it goes, it’s only a visitor, not a permanent resident of anywhere.
Meanwhile, possibly because of some kind of autosuggestion built in to the name, art and artworld have gotten hopelessly tangled. People have tried to pin art on the artworld alone, while at the same time denying or diminishing art as a part of other genres. Here is the philosopher George Dickie, outlining what he calls the ‘Institutional Theory’ of art: “The primary function of the Artworld is continually to define, validate, maintain, and reproduce the cultural category of art, and to produce the consent of the entire society in the legitimacy of the artworld's authority to do so. The Artworld is distributed through a network of institutions (schools, museums, galleries, commercial market systems, and professions), all of which participate in constructing a global, international system or network of networks for Art. The Artworld is thus part of our system of professions, and many parts of the artworld network are now highly professionalized and careerist.”
In Dickie’s definition, art is a thing that springs directly, and solely, from the institution of the art world. This line of thinking defines what I think of as the Invisible Membrane Theory, where art exists only in certain places and contexts. Here’s George Dickie again; “What makes something an artwork is invisible: there's no "there there" outside a position in the artworld network. What makes something an artwork is not an observable property in an artwork itself. The work is a node in a network of forces without which it would be unrecognizable-- literally invisible.”
But the Invisible Membrane Theory has some very obvious problems. For starters, any complete definition of art essentially attempts to make an open ended concept, like art, which is based on the idea of endless revision, into a closed system, where it exists only when it satisfies certain conditions. To close the system is to fundamentally cripple the idea of endless, which means that any revision that happens must do so within the borders of a genre.
But the second thorny problem with the invisible membrane theory is that it’s like saying that beauty only exists within the fashion world, or that intelligence only exists within academia - that these concepts become genre specific. ‘Beauty’ and ‘Intelligence’ are both pretty squirrely concepts to nail down of course, but very few of us would see them as the exclusive property of a specific place or people.
And the same goes for art. In fact, it’s pretty clear that the stuff of art is everywhere - if it wasn’t, than it would be meaningless to encounter it in a museum. It’s the day-to-day experience of living our lives that makes art a possibility, and not the other way around. Before we knew what art was, we knew what living in the world was. That means that art – or the building blocks of it – are everywhere.
But the same can’t be said for artworld. That became clear to me in school, where I was discouraged from pursuing certain things (furniture, utilitarian objects, craft), discouraged from using certain words (illustrative, narrative, vernacular, traditional, regional, artisanal), and even discouraged from living in certain places (anywhere outside of New York, Los Angeles, London, or Berlin). At the very same time, ironically, I was told how art was a place free of borders, or even rules. That story isn’t exactly wrong – art probably is free of all that - but artworld isn’t. It’s pretty clear which one of the two I was being taught.
Not like I blame school for that. Artworld is actually teachable, like any genre is, while art, (that indefinable thing that floats around indiscriminately), not so much. But the schism between the two really begins when school tries to make them one and the same. The irony is that academically approaching art is like academically approaching free jazz say, or punk rock – good in theory, but rooted in paradox. As soon as there is a pedagogy designed to teach freedom and flexibility, the cognitive dissonance begins. Meanwhile other genres, like craft, or furniture, or glass, already know this, and are content to dispense technical information as part of their training, without calling the results art. Art school on the other hand sees their goal as teaching art, full stop, rather than what it actually is, (or should I say usually is) – artworld.
The other thing that school doesn’t tell you is that artworld exists primarily as a high end, luxury brand for the wealthy. Again, there isn’t anything inherently bad about that; it’s at least logically conceivable that meaning is available for money, and that the most meaning is available for the most money. It’s the conceit of artworld that it can make those distinctions. But it’s illogical to conceive of a situation where the only way to experience meaning is to buy it, because those of us who don’t collect art still manage to have meaningful lives. That means that despite artworld’s heroic effort to commodify art, (and godspeed to you artworld), its success at doing so has been dubious at best. What it’s been hands down brilliant at is finding new exciting versions of artworld. But just like the idea of buying anything intangible, like love, or virtue, or truth, the buying of art is more aspirational then proven - who knows what the hell art is?
That’s how we have arrived at a point in time when using the word art actually confuses things rather than clarifies. If art can be anything, anywhere, via anyone, then it really has no functional meaning. The solution that artworld has come up with to deal with this state of affairs is to install a complex series of gatekeepers, tasked with winnowing out the art from the non-art. Or should I say the artworld from the non-artworld? Meanwhile, as the specialization of artworld increases, due to the influx of a lot of non-artist, academically minded arbiters, the knowledge required to participate in the conversation also increases. But despite that sophisticated chatter, there still is no reliable litmus test for what art is, so that effectively means doubling down on the artworld genre. What else is there really to decide on?
In the 1970’s, the Artist Joseph Beuys described something that he called ‘Social Sculpture’. He emphasized how politics and economics required a humanizing force to make them bearable, and that humanizing force was art. In his view, participating in culture was enough to qualify anyone as being an artist – artistry was required for the greater good of society. His famous sound bite ‘Everyone is an artist’ comes out of identifying this universal need.
The whole thing is a very compelling argument, though Beuys chose to retain that word – art – which ironically, he himself did so much to make meaningless. So let’s start over, with a new word: is it culture, or is it artworld? It should be implicit by now that cultural relevance is not bestowed simply because of allegiance to a genre – which is why a movie, a video game, a novel, a You Tube video, or an art show at the Tate Modern might have cultural relevance, but then again, might not. The curious corollary to this is that even if they turn out to not be culturally relevant, they could still be perfectly acceptable examples of artworld. Which is where we run into problems.
Making perfectly acceptable artworld, for an artworld-centric audience, is to really take advantage of the fact that every genre I’ve mentioned is more defined than ever. In fact, our era could really be described as the era of the developed niche, the rabbit hole, the echo chamber. We can disappear into our instagram, our chat rooms, our twitter feed, our blogs. And before you blame it on the internet, a brief look at history will confirm that the postmodern arc we were already on really was sending it in that direction anyway - the internet just turbocharged it.
Postmodernism is in politics, it’s in art, it’s even in things like science, and sports, and television. Postmodernism was the method by which we fractured narrative down to smaller and smaller bits, deconstructed as it were, and in so doing we created many different stories, rather than just one.
That was a good thing. The arrival of postmodern thought was logical, and necessary. Postmodernism ultimately allowed a lot of voices that weren’t being heard, to have their say, even if it was only in a muted form a lot of the time. Which is why there is still a need today to cast light on dominant forms of power in order to challenge them.
But like anything at all human-related, there were unintended consequences as well.
Different stories means different allegiances. It was once famously said by Daniel Patrick Moynihan that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Now, in the postmodern era, we are finally entitled to our own facts.
Rather than having one story that we agree or disagree with, there are many, a cacophony. Choosing sides in a debate today, on any subject, means retreating into our various bubbles, with facts and studies quoted to support whatever side we want. But how can that be possible if we soberly assess the data in front of us? Easy. A life lived under a constant stream of advertising has made all of us extremely wary of ‘facts’ and ‘studies’. Couple that learned wariness, with a primary human impulse towards emotionally spinning information, and the motivated reasoning begins. That’s a clinical term by the way - psychologists have studied this phenomenon for years. Motivated reasoning is emotion enabled by data, usually parsed, and often flat out wrong. It’s reasoning not designed to uncover the light, wherever the light might be. It’s reason designed to generate it’s own, and shine it on what we want to see. Voila! The result is a world that makes sense to us emotionally, even if it doesn’t remotely add up intellectually, or factually. And that sets the tone for a postmodern world – the one filled with conspiracy theories, endless political debate that goes nowhere, incredible passions, and equally numbing apathy.
It’s not surprising that a lot of us have discovered how comfortable it is to stay deeply ensconced in our particular niche. Disappearing up our collective asses is more available to us now than it’s ever been - our warm, safe, comfortable asses. And that’s about as useful as it sounds.
We have cultural problems that need to be addressed that require talking to each other. Not just a few of us, but all of us – our problems span the globe, they span races and creeds and economic strata, and they are devilishly complex. Talking through all these things amounts to more than a political imperative at this point (though our racial dysfunction alone should make that clear), and more than an economic one as well (though billions of us live in squalor), it’s a species survival imperative. Our emergencies are real, and multiplying, even as we retreat from them.
Beuys was basically right – the peculiar super power of culture is that it is able to connect pretty much everybody. We reject that power when we are content to make stuff look like art, and sell it at art fairs - winning at artworld doesn’t equal cultural relevance. Beuys himself was a very committed teacher, and found that to be one of the most important aspects of what he did. He also made stuff for artfairs, ‘natch, because that’s no crime. But he had the presence of mind to understand the difference.
So the real question becomes, how do we learn to poke our heads up from our developed niches/genres every now and then, and maybe even learn to travel freely between them? What is the mechanism for going beyond what we already know and agree with? How do we learn to talk to each other, and maybe more importantly, to listen? How do we learn to be visitors, like art is?