From unique luxuries to a product of the masses, art today has many faces.
By Aaron Grierson
As much as it is meant to be absorbed and enjoyed, art can be broken down on many levels. Not only from the philosophical or technical perspectives, but to the very way art is created and maintained. Increasingly, we can view this breakdown through the technological advancements over the centuries which affect all aspects of the artwork, from its lifespan to its very composition. We have taken ‘high art’ and stuck it on postcards; a very kitschy way of commodifying what was once probably a cultural icon. While the most embedded concept of art may primarily evoke painting or sculpture, it would be wrong to omit all other art forms. This is evident through the work of composers like Beethoven, who have since been turned into cell phone ringtones as well as concertos, or dramatists such as Euripides, and even philosophers as old as Zhuangzi or Confucius, the latter of whom is misquoted by pseudo-sages, be they paper or flesh. But to understand how we advanced to where we are now when it comes to presenting artwork, we have to start with early institutions.
Once, museums served as institutions that helped demarcate what class you hailed from. Much of the art found in museums (and now reproduced in households across the globe), was once considered “high class”. Even philosophy was typically for people that could pay for the lessons. Now, you can buy entire anthologies for a small sum. In a way, money and leisure turned these art forms into cultural icons.
Museums were established by wealthy individuals who were able to gather together some quantity of artwork and host them somewhere. This would often be at one’s estate, adorning the walls with a gorgeous, yet smug sense of self-satisfaction and material reminder of their financial, rather than moral worth. This is something I have very little of, though by contrast I may be just as capable of appreciating the same artwork. A commonality is that I would have to buy a ticket to see these galleries although technology has progressed to the point where I could order admission tickets over the phone and print them out in a matter of minutes, compared to the waiting times of yesteryear that could stretch out for weeks.
While attending museums and other such galleries still might be considered a classy outing, in being more accommodating, even to the point of having summer day-camps for children, they are available for, and generally appeal to, a much wider audience. That doesn’t mean there aren’t wealthy collectors anymore. Instead of housing works of art in their estate, they may donate an entire exhibit’s worth to a museum, and in return get their names on said exhibit, along with the self-satisfaction that often comes with such philanthropic acts. This goes hand-in-hand with the technology that allows for such collections to be put in a public place and kept in the same, if not better, condition than wherever they were housed before.
As much as we might hate to see commercials advertising some random product, galleries of any sort have jumped onto the social media bandwagon. And why not? I enjoy seeing ads for the new collections on loan to the Royal Ontario Museum (the largest museum in my area). Even if they do not pique my interest, it is still enjoyable to see the variety that is available. Besides, it’s unlikely that I would hear about such events without their little quarterly booklet or online advertisements. The same of course, can be said for the performing arts, and, especially in my case, the Stradford Shakespeare Festival, as I am not physically located within the hosting city’s community.
There are other innovative ways in which the arts are breaking the mould. Some artists, like Stelarc, a physical performance artist, have used technology to become mobile art while pushing the boundary in a much more serious and thought-provoking way than the most tattooed or pierced person could. In spite of the potential, not all artists turn to technological augmentation to turn their bodies into art exhibits. Instead others, like Marina Abramovic, use their bodies in other creative ways, creating a display that ranges from insightful to grotesque. Such people may be viewed as a cross between a circus act and an art gallery. Perhaps they are simultaneously both. Participatory art of this sort is a lesser known field, but it is growing.
We are getting better at preserving artifacts, while at the same time, often uncovering new ones. On the flip side, there is more artwork being made by a larger number of people who often are talented in their own right, even when compared to a five hundred year-old maestro. The same can also be said of the scripts that are turned into plays or operas or even dances. There is a greater quantity of them than ever before, and within that quantity there are necessarily a number of quality pieces that rise to some recognition. But in addition to preservation, whether a work of art is two weeks or two millennia old, a lot of it winds up on hosting and sharing sites for people to enjoy. Arguably the best part about places like this is that they are free of charge, if you can survive the irksome commercials and other advertisements that automatically pop before the selected article appears. While typically stored in databases rather than our personal computers, the data becomes intangible and thus, in a way, longer lasting. No one can really hold it, but it can probably surpass human existence. This fact, when taken into consideration, can in and of itself inspire a sense of awe that artwork has, in many ways, transcended its creators. While this may border on magical, there are problems of attribution, accreditation, misquoting, misunderstanding, and just plain butchery of a lot of artwork.
One might say that increasingly, individual artists are aiding in the propagation of a more ‘experimental’ art scene. But that is essentially the nature of the production of aesthetical experiences. They move. Not necessarily forward, but certainly somewhere. Imagine if a troupe of opera performers went door to door asking for funds, or held bake sales so that they had the money required to practice for their performances. It echoes of the archaic Greek theatre, where often Greek actors (there were no actresses in the western world as a general rule until about the 17th century) had to cater for money, not having taxes, or even patrons before promising a performance. And while we still have the results of such feats on paper, the memory is a living one. The preservation of such things has extended well beyond the individual or even collective memory, transposed elsewhere.
The question of who gets the fame and for what artwork, might just come down to luck, or timing, or perhaps simply to what is the most recent cultural trend. A growing concern with artwork in general (regardless of form) is that there are some who may just pander to whatever is popular, often sacrificing quality in the quest of making ends meet. Conversely, there are those who refuse to do just that, even if it means they become the caricature of the starving artist. Attempting to find this balance can be considered as something of a political negotiation for the artist. When and where will what be popular for whom?
Coming clean from such conflicts leaves us with a final point upon which to impale ourselves, i.e. the negotiation for the reader. Not only to make sense out of what’s been written thus far, but to engage with a third facet of the politics of art discussion. What do we like and why? How do we experience or engage with certain pieces or performances? Do titles such as ‘high’ or ‘popular’ style mean anything? Do actual genres or time periods mean anything? Do we have a preference for a historical period or location when it comes to museums? (Other than dinosaurs of course. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs?) For some, these questions may only come into play when we are at a play or a museum or a concert of some sort. For others, these questions are constantly reconsidered and engaged with on a deeply personal level. We may even have to consider which of these categories we fall into as individuals while on our quest in navigating the political world of the aesthetic experience, searching for the sublime, no matter how young or old it may be.
Aaron Grierson is Senior Articles Editor for the magazine, and is based in Canada.