Art Should Matter

Hazel Dooney began a recent blog posting entitled “Art Matters,” with a quote by Robert Hughes: “The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.” Dooney goes on to detail what she perceives to be the relationship between art and society today, and she finds much wrong. She starts with the commodification of art, mentions branding and celebrity, and notes the lack of funding for “public and institutional galleries.” Dooney wants art to matter—to the public. She says that we “have to regain a public fascination for it, maybe even an awe of it.”

Though certainly no expert in art history, I cannot think of a time when the public had a fascination or awe for art. Patrons of the arts, regardless of the period, have always been different from the public—more monied, more refined in their tastes, more exacting in their demands. When art attempts to appeal to the public, it becomes what Dooney decries: “just another form of easy-to-consume entertainment.”

It has always been so. Shakespeare, perhaps the most revered playwright in the English language, whose work is held up as example of written and dramatic art, was writing for that public. He was offering a commercial entertainment that had to compete with the bear-baiting entertainment just down the street. Because we, like Shakespeare, live in a material society, much of what we see and hear is that which makes money, and technically, it is some of the best work available. It may not be profound, but it is certainly of high quality. When a product has to compete, quality is often one of the results.

Public art, Dooney says, has been replaced by advertising. It’s true; when public art is not entertainment, it’s advertising. (Sometimes it’s both.) Again, this is historically what has happened age after age. Some of the best art we know of was created in the service of those who were able to afford it and supported whatever cause or interest was important to those patrons. Whether we call that cause advertising or propaganda or religion or politics is immaterial.  Much of the work, which we today consider “fine,” was created to satisfy some ulterior purpose, not just for display and contemplation.

“For art to matter again,” Dooney says, “it has to be seen everywhere, every day.” She goes on to note that “many [artists] are trying to make their work more accessible – more apparent – to those who care about it.” She continues, “street artists are probably the ones who best understand this.” I would add that advertisers and producers of commercial “art” products also understand this very well.

Unfortunately, unless you are one of those street artists, the easiest way to make your work accessible is to participate in the commodification of art. You sell your work as best you can. If you become collectable, then you can participate in the investment commodification of art to which Hughes was referring. Selling out? Maybe. But, no matter how profound your work, if it is not accessible in some way, it’s not going to impact anyone. (Note: this does not mean making your work appeal to everyone; see “Making Your Art Accessible Is Making a Mistake.”)

And Dooney understands this. And while her work may not appeal to everyone, she has worked for years to make it accessible to virtually anyone who has a computer and internet access. (This is discussed at length in her blog.)

And she is right; there is much wrong with the art world, but then there is much wrong with the world in general, and much of what is wrong with the art world is a reflection of that larger theatre in which it operates. And unless we manage to change the system, or somehow circumvent it, it is within this system that we in the arts must work.

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Date: Monday, 13. August 2012 0:25
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