“People are trying to replace history with sociology. Which means you write about artists and you don’t write about art, and the object doesn’t exist. And I like objects: they don’t change, they don’t lie to you.” David Hickey
An American tourist accidentally snapped the finger off a 14th century statue while visiting Florence, Italy this summer leading to a storm of fury from residents who take their art history seriously and a wider discussion about art tourism and its apparent follies. Having been in some of the major galleries of the world and had to watch and listen to tourists who seemed to have no clue as to why they were there, I can attest to the fact that art and tourism is a necessary but troubled mix.
A larger issue might be at hand however. While more and more people engage with the arts all over the planet there also seems to be a rise in ignorance regarding art’s relevance and a growing movement around the issue of artists getting paid for their work. In a recent C Magazine, that shape shifting survey of hipster-art, this idea about art and its role in our world was made very clear. Critic David Hickey, who retired this year because he thinks that art criticism has no impact anymore, blandished the current denizens of the insidey-art world calling it “one nice big corporate nation”. He vented mostly toward the Masters of Fine Arts programs and ranted about how art was being pushed back inside institutions where it was being practiced by people who care more about their “retirement and medical” benefits than making good art. He was not very popular at the University of Guelph where his talk took place.
Why a university would ask someone like Hickey who is widely known for hating post secondary art schools to give a lecture is very strange. I can only think that it was because of his celebrity status, he writes for Vanity Fair and other tabloid style rags. The C Magazine interviewer gives him his due but also allows him to insult every corner of the current art world; again making me wonder why C Magazine actually cares about this kind of populist or should I say “pedestrian” (their word) thinking.
I believe that Hickey is on to something. Great art isn’t something that can be learned or taught. Technical skills and well rounded thinking can be demonstrated, I went to art school so I think some kind of education is necessary. But living in the world, making money, having loved ones die, seeing new life created, traveling, swimming, eating, sex, and finding love are the elements you need for great art. Essentially a free will and self determination can make great art. What Hickey is saying is that if you lock yourself away in an arts program and stay immersed in academia you get comfortable and risk- aversive. He believes that you just can’t make great art without risk, deep personal, terrifying risk.
Artists today talk about how the notion of starving for your art is an old fashioned idea and that we have progressed. Society wants to see well heeled, well funded art work by artists who are movie star-like. Grungy, poverty stricken art is so 20th century. I agree with this to a certain extent because I think artists should get paid just like any other trade or profession. I don’t however agree with the fact that art is entertainment and should be funded and packaged as such. Nor is art just dialectic – something to be discussed endlessly at symposiums over and over and over. Is this what art should become in order to survive?
Technology has helped make the movie star style artist who makes their work entertaining and then gets invited to talk about it endlessly everywhere. Audiences can engage with the work and the artist in a multitude of ways which is great in one respect however it can also make art a distraction or lost in the dazzling immediacy of things like Instagram. In fact in some ways I am uncertain as to whether we are watching art or the technology but that is another blog.
Complicity with a corporate agenda as Hickey is suggesting (universities are funded by corporations as much as they are by governments) has created a class system in our art worlds. Those who cloister themselves in academia need no reason to fear economic and artistic hardship and their decisions reflect this. Struggle is frowned upon. Insisting on being paid for your art work is now an unseemly discussion. Sunny, tidy, perfectly made work via Apple Inc. is what fills our galleries now.
But then Hickey and I are probably on the wrong side of history. I recently had a conversation with an academic who was telling me about how a friend of hers was getting a post graduate arts degree in social engagement. Her thesis involved organizing a conference. Perhaps one day there won’t be art just symposium after symposium, panel discussion after panel discussion taking place in galleries all across the country with Skype conferencing and Pinterest exchanges and the days of engaging in tactile art will be long gone. So will our relationship with the public who might already be disengaging with art’s relevance. Is snapping a finger off a medieval masterpiece an isolated incident or a signal of something more grim?