State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Art and its parts

When art collides with expectation troubles ensue. A recent article in Harper’s Magazine noted that two American artists who work in neon light and video are in a nasty fight with UK customs. The artist’s works were purchased by a gallery in London and shipped from New York. When the work hit customs in the UK the crate was examined and the officials marked the work as components, not art, putting it into a much higher tariff rate. The storm that ensued remains unresolved and the gallery eventually backed out of the purchase leaving the artists to fight on their own.

Essentially the art works in this case may have been art in New York and might be art in a gallery in London, but unassembled in boxes while in transport they are not temporarily considered art. What a decision like this does is say that art work must meet the expectation of a custom official; that they make the decision of what art is or isn’t. And once again we are back at a very old, very tiring discussion about what art should be. Art should look and act like art right? And that is what? And who decides?

For many people art is the Mona Lisa, a painting, a very old painting. For others it is what their kid did at junior kindergarten. And for a lot of people it’s just a bunch of crap the government wastes money on. For fun, try reading a mainstream media’s comments section on an art review. It is eye opening. Art can inspire some openly hostile vitriol. The custom officials at the centre of the article could be ignorant of current trends in art (if you weren’t paying attention or cared you wouldn’t know that tons and tons of art is now made with electronic stuff) and really did not understand what it was they were inspecting or they perhaps hate contemporary art and really enjoyed judging its merits. A tribunal held regarding the kafuffle ruled with the officials because they also agreed that the boxes did not contain art just parts. Here that art world? It isn’t art if it has parts.

As an artist who will be packing up work this time next year to transport to England for an exhibition I found this incident troubling. I work on wood. So, if you follow the logic of this incident, officials at customs could rule that I am trying to import foreign wood into the country and not paintings. The British are super touchy about what kind of wood is imported and I shall have to have custom made crates out of approved wood. But I’m not overly worried because my work isn’t worth a gazillion dollars and probably won’t get flagged.

Duchamp's urinal. Essentially art that changed everything. Art or plumbing material?
Duchamp’s urinal. Essentially art that changed everything. Art or plumbing material?

The implications of all this are kind of creepy. Why would a customs official not trust that a crate containing items from an artist for an art gallery with paper work that details it as art? Trust me, the paper work for shipping art overseas is extensive. Why would an artist and gallery go through the red tape just for components and not art? Why pick on an artist and gallery anyway? I would think a custom official in one of the world’s biggest cities would have much better ways to spend their time.

The banality of a government worker flagging art work and pigeon holing it as they seem fit highlights the casual brutality our institutions can behave toward art. I don’t believe in victimization however and think that the artists or gallery in question must have played a role here. Is this just another example of the public not understanding contemporary art because contemporary art doesn’t want to be understood? Does the art world wantonly keep us regular folks in the dark because perhaps the art world can’t really justify things like getting a low tariff rate on imported goods?

I would guess that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Artists are always on the low rung on the ladder of life. We are marginalized and perhaps marginalize ourselves. It seems like a vicious circle. I remember years ago when I was in theatre and at a symposium many voices complained that a certain national newspaper wasn’t giving live theatre enough ink. I was alone in my opinion when I countered that in fact theatre was given a ton of coverage if you took into consideration that only a few thousand people in Toronto would actually see the performance. And, most of the theatres I worked with didn’t buy ads in the paper so their coverage was even thinner. It seemed to me at the time that a lot of these artists didn’t have perspective on the size of their world nor did they understand how newspapers are run.

Sometimes I think the art world wants the perks of the ‘real’ world (money, stuff!) but they also want to stay naïve about how the world actually works. Perhaps it is a purgatory we are doomed to live in since being creative does need a certain amount of unconventional thinking and a bit of childlike inquisitiveness. I think however that the expectation of art can be mitigated and it should be done by us, not a customs official at an airport.

Pic found at Jamie Potter Blogspot

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