September 3, 2012

Art for Artists’ Sake

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When I was in Rome last semester, art critiques were so frequently interrupted by non-art majors that we had to put up a sign: “Critique in session. Please use another entrance.”

At Cornell, there’s no danger of non-artists walking into crits — or art shows either. In an op-ed that ran last week (“So Much Art, So Few Audiences”), Dan Rosen ’13 lamented the poor attendance at campus arts events and encouraged students to culturally enrich themselves.

Although Rosen lists legitimate reasons to explain this phenomenon (Cornell students are too busy and intellectually over-extended as is), I want to posit a different theory. As Rosen acknowledges, this is not just a problem at Cornell but a problem for the arts community at large — and I think that the arts community deserves as much blame, if not more, than would-be audiences.

Last semester, I had the unprecedented opportunity to see, talk about, and make art in the company of urban planners and architects in the Cornell in Rome program. Previously, my art was confined to Olive Tjaden Hall, a building wholly devoted to fine art and solely populated by fine arts majors. Meanwhile, during my time in Rome, the artists, architects and planners shared the same working spaces and visited numerous galleries and museums together. Although this posed unfortunate problems (architects interrupting art crits, planners monopolizing the computer lab), it was a transformative experience to learn from non-artists about art.

I found my non-artist peers interested in but somewhat intimidated by contemporary art. Contemporary art is challenging, because it usually does not seek to portray beauty, realism or skillfulness.  In more traditional art, it is easy to judge whether something is “successful” because we have each have a built-in values system. In contrast, contemporary art often demands a unique value system, one based on how we experience the piece rather than on how “skillful” or “beautiful” it is. Poor arts support is not from lack of interest:  many of my non-artist peers were open to learning about and experiencing contemporary art, even going out of their way to attend the Cornell in Rome art show. The problem occurs when a few non-artists dismiss nuanced artworks (“That’s bullshit. I could do that.”) that do not adhere to their traditional modes of evaluation. Rather than experiencing the work, they expect simplistic answers, demanding to know the artist’s “message” or whether the piece is “good.” We don’t expect someone without a Ph.D. to understand the intricacies of nuclear physics; why do we consider the study of art any less rigorous or specialized?

While non-artists are sometimes guilty of seeking shortcuts, the arts community is also at fault for not reaching out to them. Were I not an art student, I definitely wouldn’t know about the student art shows either. I only receive emails about student art shows because I’m on the AAP list-serv and see flyers for them in the Green Dragon, which is mostly frequented by AAP students.

However, reaching out involves more than just spreading the word about events. Just as non-artists sometimes dismiss difficult works, artists sometimes dismiss non-artists (“You can’t appreciate the genius of so and so? What poor, proletarian taste you have!”). Much of contemporary art is self-reflective, meditating on art world concerns alien to a non-artist audience. This is fine — not all art is meant for all audiences, and a work might be artistically significant even if it only addresses specialists. However, the problem is when all of our art is like this, operating in a purely formal, meta-fictional realm. I do not believe in dumbing art down. But I do believe that some pieces can have multiple levels of accessibility and that artists should not criticize such works as “populist” or “commercial,” as they frequently do. Some contemporary artists have created participatory, interactive works that engage audience members. Others have taken art outside the gallery, choosing instead to create site-specific art or street art that directly engages non-artists. There is art for artists and art for wider audiences; we need both.

I’ll admit that I have not personally experienced the lack of support Rosen identifies. Last fall, I was pleasantly surprised when one of my professors and many of my classmates, who I had never spoken to outside of class, went to see my work in Tjaden. In Rome, some of the best art conversations I had were with non-artists who casually wandered into the studio spaces to ask what we were working on or stuck around to listen to an art critique. I do not have the conversations at Cornell.

It is “a shame and a waste,” writes Rosen, that these shows are mostly attended by artists: “It’s preaching to the choir. It is not just art for art’s sake; it is art for artists and their friend’s sake.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s a shame that Cornell makes it so difficult for non-art majors to take art classes. It’s a shame that so few non-art majors will ever set foot in the Tjaden galleries, or peer over my shoulders to ask what I’m working on. It’s a shame that so few interdisciplinary options exist for students across colleges to collaborate in the arts.

If art is a dialogue between artist and audience, what happens when that wider audience is replaced by other artists? At its mildest, it’s like talking to yourself in the mirror; at its extreme, it creates a false consensus, where we mistakenly believe more people hold our opinion than actually do.

It’s a shame to not need that sign.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg

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