Who is art for?

26 October, 2010

Note: this is the first in a series of posts exploring ideas for my ITP thesis. These posts will range in style and subject matter from general background philosophizing to concrete documentation of my own peculiar process.

Who is art for and what can it be?

Up until the advent of the art market in the late 19th Century, one of art's central roles was to tell important historical stories in public ways that helped define the identity of countries and peoples. Artists worked for kings and depicted their military victories; they worked for churches and depicted their doctrines and stories. They created myths that gave these groups their collective meaning.

These relationships had obvious downsides: restrictions on the subject matter, stylistic approaches, and political positions artists could employ. But they also had one big upside: they placed art at the core of the process of defining our communal identities; they gave artists a complex terrain of political and aesthetic geography to work within and against.

When the market came along art became wildly more diverse. Instead of funding their work through the direct support of individual patrons, artists sold their work to a diverse collective enterprise that abstracted the demands of its buyers: galleries, dealers, agents. As long as they could find some critical mass of interested buyers, artists could find support for the work they wanted to be doing no matter its subject, style, or politics.

However, the art market did have one large limitation that gradually became obvious as it matured. To wit: in such a complex and diverse enterprise the only thing that all of the market's members had in common was art itself. Hence any work that could be widely appreciated by the full market needed, almost by necessity, to be about art itself. The result was that art moved away from the kind of direct engagement with important issues of collective identity that it struggled with in the era of princely patronage. In the process the market for art became increasingly circumscribed: as art became more about its own concerns the barrier to entry for new viewers got higher and hence the average level of insider knowledge rose further, and on and on in an upward spiral of sophistication, specialization, and isolation.

In summary, we call this period 'modernism'. And, in general, we think of it as having come to an end sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Obviously, historical periods don't end neatly or all at once, sometime in that period, the regime in which the market — and the attendant navel-gazing it induced in art — fully dominated the art world began to wind down and be replaced by something new and, as of yet, not fully defined. This new world promotes museums and international biennials to the rank of first-class patrons. It has also opened up art to a whole new range of interests outside the art world, from politically-driven work to pieces inspired by the insights of science.

But what about making myths and defining collective identities? Is this something art can now start to do again? Could art actually be important to how a group of people define and understand themselves? If so, who would fund it and where would it be shown or sold?

I think the answer to these questions is yes. And I want to set about making work that aspires to do exactly these things. In future posts, I'll explain exactly the myth I want to make, to whom I think it will matter, and how I propose to go about doing it.