The most critical thing you must understand about art. Part 3/5. / by Kirk Dunkley

(The most critical thing you must understand about art. Part 3/5)

In part 2 of this series, I explained the first of four sub-concepts that help us to answer the ultimate questions about the nature of art: "In what way or ways does an object or activity conform with the contemporary concept of fine art? To what degree is it art? To what degree is it not art?" 

If you are just picking up here, I would suggest going back and reading the first and second part of this series. You can find links below, or... I can save you that mouse scroll-wheel journey, and you can find them here:

The most critical thing you must understand about art. Part 1.

The most critical thing you must understand about art. Part 2.

Art museums, art colleges, art faculties, art galleries, dealers, art promoters, art publications, collections, critics, studios and organizations related to art are all part of the larger "institution" of art- the art world. The list goes on, and basically defines any undertaking or venture that contributes to the collective effort of defining the art world. The institution is the second major sub-concept of art. 

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If an object or an activity is defined as art, it automatically assumes an affiliation with the institution of art. In fact, by simply claiming to "be an artist", an individual can claim to be affiliated with the institution for whatever reason. The art world is not like other professional organizations; one needs to actually complete a law degree and pass a bar exam to become a lawyer, or to become a practicing physician, medical school and appropriate licensing are required. To “be an artist”, is for the most part, a proclamation.

Within the contemporary definition of art, an individual can basically produce anything with the intent that it is to be interpreted as art, and is automatically deemed an artist. That doesn't mean that the art institution will recognize the efforts as important or even at all, or that the artwork produced will have any intrinsic value. On the other hand, the institution of art has elevated some artworks to the point that they are considered highly important, but by professional standards lack all of the content, technical expertise, and are simply not meaningful in any way. For many outside of this sphere looking in, or those on the inside mastering their art, this can be an extremely frustrating situation. So, why does this disparity exist? What exactly is going on?

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It comes down to promotion. After a point, regardless of how spectacular an artwork is or isn't, it is entirely about acquiring and maintaining celebrity status through promoting. Especially now, with the dawn of social media, it is feasible for a self-proclaimed artist to acquire a massive followings and readership almost overnight. Huge followings elevate an unknown to a celebrity; by default, whatever they are doing regardless of how meaningless IS important.  

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Before I carry on, I MUST clarify that It is not my intention to discount the value of contemporary works of art that set an historical precedent for a new distinction, genre, style or conceptual direction of visual art. Such innovation does come at a cost, and is forever "immortalized" and canonized by the institution. For example, it would be entirely ignorant to categorize a Jackson Pollock painting as a crass and meaningless over-sensationalized work of art that falls within the sort of institutional corruption I am discussing. Such works of art have contributed massively to the arts in ways I will discuss in an upcoming ARTicle. To do so would be akin to denying the value of Elvis Presley to the evolution of music, or Alexander McQueen to the evolution of fashion.

 Jackson Pollock,  Number 5  (1948) (The father of Abstract Expressionism)

Jackson Pollock, Number 5 (1948) (The father of Abstract Expressionism)

For the average viewer, seeing is believing regardless of whether the following is legitimate or not. A sub-par artist that has a following in the millions vs. someone with modest numbers but incredibly technical and meaningful work is perceived as "more important". Whatever the popular artist produces will be of more value, regardless of whether it is good art or not. More so, nobody considers how many of the followers are actually real, were bought, or legitimately earned based on the intrinsic value of the content. If the readership is huge, the content must be important.

 A social media "click farm" generating fake follows, likes and shares. Commodities of the social media world in counterfeit form.

A social media "click farm" generating fake follows, likes and shares. Commodities of the social media world in counterfeit form.

Within the modern and especially postmodern visual art institution, this level of self-serving corruption is in full effect in the upper echelons. Art critics are paid off to write favorable reviews, galleries have a vested interest in particular artists, promoters sensationalize lackluster work and convince the masses that it is important. The prima donna social elite are convinced by the institution that there is an upper crust social status embodied within an artwork, it is placed on the auction block and massive bidding wars ensue. Subsequently, the artwork is further inflated to unimaginably iconic levels as the social elite battle for pretentious supremacy. In some cases, critics and galleries are owned by top artists who obviously have their fingers in the pie. 

By and large though, our perception of what is important in pop-culture is a mediated by powers with vested interests. Controversy is sensationalized because it out-sells professionalism. It is what pop-culture is entirely about. While celebrity status maintains the artist's place in the hierarchy of institutional importance, the sensational controversy keeps them relevant. When critically looking at art, it is crucially important to consider this. If you feel like you are being duped, you probably are.

 Bill McConkey,  80s Last Supper  (undated)

Bill McConkey, 80s Last Supper (undated)

Nonetheless, much of the institution does function with moral and ethical compasses turned on. It has to function within a demographic of buyers, viewers, students, and artists that are not seeking admission to an esoteric group of social elites. Being associated with the upper tiers of the contemporary and especially post-modern institution is for a demographic that are by and large looking for status. The rich and super-powerful invest in this sector to participate in controversy, buy importance, and make a deliberate or pretentious display of their abilities or accomplishments. Whether the artwork is good or bad becomes irrelevant; it is all about the level of importance that it represents, and even more so about how many other social elites are watching as the conspicuous consumption takes place. It’s so far out of reach that it is no longer real.

Realistically, many galleries are small, family run businesses that rely on art sales to pay bills, mortgages and put food on the table. They must display artworks that demonstrate a level of excellence if they intend to keep the doors open. Public galleries, especially within the non-profit sector, need to exhibit inherently valuable work to keep viewers engaged to acquire funding to stay open. Art that references history, politics and other social movements are found within this space. Most artists are trying to connect with their audiences in a meaningful and engaging way, and don't just try to dazzle their following with sensational drivel; their livelihood and relevance depend on it. Within this sector, the importance of an artwork isn’t entirely determined by the popularity of the artist, but by its intrinsic and innovative qualities as well. There is an effective system of checks and balances in place that keep this sector of the institution transparent and honest.