An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 2

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 10, 2009

In my last post, I asked about the difference between excellence and elitism, and queried whether accessibility in art must come only at the expense of quality.

It’s a common enough sentiment — well, of course it would be nice to make art that is readily accessible and could be understood by people of all backgrounds and education levels, but that would mean dumbing it down or making kitsch. The cynics don’t want for examples, either: there’s a seemingly-endless abundance of smarmy, kitschy stuff out there masquerading as artwork. But does the excess of poor art point to an actual demand for kitsch objects in our culture — or is it instead a symptom of severe neglect on the part of an increasingly elite and inaccessible art world?*

Is it genuine quality we have been seeking in our artwork, or merely a sense of our own importance — we chosen few who have been initiated into the inside joke? Because at the end of the day, our small gains are measured against a great expense to the culture in which we live and are called to serve. Our most brilliantly-expressed artistic truths are unnoticed and meaningless, and the inside joke is more pathetic than funny.

The time has come for artists to reclaim our cultural calling and to reach out to the communities we have abandoned and neglected. It is for this reason that I suggest accessibility as a central aspect of artistic excellence — not something to be avoided at all costs, but an essential quality to be carefully cultivated. After all, an uneducated viewer isn’t a stupid viewer. She isn’t seeking cloyingly simplistic kitsch, but meaningful artwork in which she can gain some foothold of understanding — in which there is an element of shared visual language between the artist and the viewer. As a gallery director, I often observed that a shy viewer who connects with the artwork on one level is then comfortable (and curious) enough to investigate more subtle levels of meaning in the work, as well. Let that happen often enough, and she will become an educated and appreciative viewer.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the divide between fine art and the culture at large. What makes a work of art meaningful to you? What is an artist’s responsibility to find common ground with less-experienced viewers?

* Bruce Herman compares this situation to a present-day Tower of Babel in his 2003 essay, Breaking/Open: Postmodernism & the Return of the Religious Element in Art.


2 Responses to “An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 2”

  1. There’s a lot of demand for kitsch. How many people are going to spend $1000 on a painting? Especially when I can have the cute picture of my child from last Christmas printed on 18×20 canvas and shipped to me in a box.

    But if you are solely talking about viewing/visiting art, you’d have to compare it to TV, movies, live music in bars and more exciting stuff competing for attention.

    Even on the (monthly?) gallery walks I’ve been on, I don’t know how many people are really there to contemplate the art instead of socializing, drinking, eating, etc.

  2. Sarah Jane said

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Stephen. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying here, and have some thoughts to add to the discussion.

    Regardless of their artistic merit, I don’t think family photos ever qualify as kitsch. Here’s why: let us say that you have a really adorable photo of your 3-year-old nephew and godson, which you keep on your mantle where you will see it daily and be reminded to pray for him. As long as it lives on your mantle, that photo will never be kitsch, because it is genuinely and personally meaningful to you.

    But what if, 10 years down the road, you have newer photos of your now-teenage nephew, and I happen upon that old image of your young nephew in a Goodwill? On my wall, isolated from its original context and meaning, it is a generic image of a ridiculously cute everychild. For me, its meaning is limited to a cloying reminder that children are cute, and I enjoy a vaguely good feeling when I look at it. It’s the same physical object, but it has become kitsch.

    I think tv, movies, & live music are art forms, too. And you’re right, they do compete with more traditional visual art, and sometimes the traditional kind loses out because it seems less contemporary, less exciting, less relevant, etc.

    You’re right about the socializing being a big part of gallery hops & art receptions, but that’s also true of concerts or movies, too. Art is a social and cultural thing, so I don’t see the problem with that.

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