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IADT-Online Asks: Where Will You Stand in the Next Great Art Debate?

July 11, 2011 IADT General, IADT Online 0 Comments

James Bennett, Dean of Instructional Technology at IADT-Online, warns that we're overdue for a clash of opinions about what does and doesn't constitute true art in this article from the Summer 2011 issue of Artistik, IADT's student magazine.

We might be in trouble. I mean real trouble. I am talking about the kind of trouble you see only in movies about the end of the world. You know exactly the kind of movie I am talking about: asteroids, global catastrophes that begin with a bad strain of some virus from outer space, and zombies– a lot of zombies.

Have you ever noticed that many of these catastrophe movies follow the same story line? All of the world’s scientists, government officials, and taxi drivers ignore the obvious signs that something terrible is about to happen, yet there is usually one lone person that gets it. He sees the pattern, but no one will believe him, until the whole world turns to chaos and normal folks can no longer have their daily doublemocha latte (to heck with Venti, Grande, or any other liquid measurement that ends in a vowel – just bring me a bucket of the stuff. The world is about to end and I intend to go out very caffeinated).

So right now, I am the guy playing the role of “Chicken Little” in this story and I am telling you that the big one is coming. This is much scarier than the fact that the Mayan calendar ends next year. This is really big, but I know I will need to convince you first, so here goes.

About every few decades, a reoccurring debate rages in the art and design community. It is a controversy that can be traced as far back as Paris in the 1800s, but I suspect that it may have occurred even before then. The problem is that we seem to have missed one of these artistic shouting matches recently, and like a volcano that is overdue for an eruption, when it finally does go, you know it will be a doozy!

The cultural wrestling match I am referring to (yes, I did mention culture and wrestling match in the same sentence – yet another sign that the end is near) always revolves around a concept the artistic community has come to call Highbrow vs. Lowbrow art. It usually comes about when artists start incorporating styles, subject matter, and techniques into their work that appeal to the masses. The sensitive sensibilities of the art snobs are offended and they usually get their impeccably pleated underpants in an uncomfortable wad.

One of the most well-documented instances of these battles for cultural taste occurred in Paris in 1863 when the art officials of the day rejected over 3,000 works of art from a Salon exhibition. This was bad news for any of those artists back then in Paris because inclusion in the show was about the only way to get the recognition needed to survive. A second exhibition was held next door with the very unattractive title of Salon des Refuse. The idea behind the second exhibition was to let the public decide. Interestingly enough, several paintings from the Refuse exhibition are now considered priceless masterpieces.

Of course, all of this sort of proves the point I will eventually get around to making in this article, which is: Low-Brow always wins in the end. So why all the fuss?

From that time forward, the cycle went into full force with a new movement every couple of decades – the Fauves (which is French for Wild Beasts, a name that they were called by a particularly mean art critic), Dadaism, etc.

In the 50s, a similar issue reared its ugly head again with the Pop Art movement. Artists actually had the audacity to begin incorporating advertising imagery into their work and call it art. They cut up magazines and pasted them into collages, copied comic book art, and Andy Warhol made prints of soup cans. In fact, he went so far as to taunt the art community by publicly declaring that anyone could make art.

I was able to experience the rivalry firsthand in the 80s. I was in school and had the opportunity to show my work to a famous artist by the name of Phillip Pearlstein. I had lined up my work in a classroom for his professional critique and I was more than a little nervous. He looked my paintings over and said, “Your work looks like that guy that does the low-art, advertising stuff.” For a moment I was confused. Surely he did not mean my art looked like the work of my art school hero. “What’s his name?” Pearlstein said, looking around the room. I hesitated and then meekly offered up my hero’s name, “Robert Longo.”

“Yeah, that’s him!”

Longo’s work was heavily influenced by advertising imagery, and so was my own.“Thank you!” I said, elated to having been compared to an artist that had recently graced the cover of Art News. “It wasn’t a compliment!” Pearlstein said in his gruff, New York tone.

The only thing I can compare the experience to is when you’re given a slice of hot apple pie smothered in ice cream, but then told that dessert is only for people nobody likes.

But all of this is just background to the main point, and the main point is that we should have hit this cycle again sometime in the last 10 years. I, for one, am more than a little worried. Maybe we can blame it on the Internet. Maybe there is such an influx of lowbrow art that it is too overwhelming to protest.

On the other hand, just maybe the art and design community has begun to recognize that there is a cycle where the use of popular imagery and advertising styles is an acceptable method of artistic expression. I mean, after all, advertising styles are effective at communicating. If they weren’t, they would not work very well as advertising, would they? And every time the art world has had this argument, lowbrow always wins in the end.

Have you ever heard of Louis Vauxcelles? Probably not. He was the guy that called the artists known as the Fauves “wild beasts." He didn’t stop there either. He called the work of Picasso and Braque, “bizarre cubiques.” That term found its place in art history with Cubism and Picasso is now a household name, but Vauxcelles is only known for making disparaging remarks that end up becoming more famous than he is.

Just maybe the art community has finally figured that it is the sensation created around the high-art vs. low-art controversy that gets the attention, which ends up putting egg on their face. Regardless of the reason, we are overdue and I fear the backlash. Without the controversy, how low will low-art go? Will some clever artist begin exhibiting the little pillow tags with the “DO NOT REMOVE” labels as art? Or will it be something even more insidious and mundane like last year’s tax forms displayed in alternative galleries?

Regardless, I can tell you it is coming on like one of those vicious sneezes – the kind you can feel building but cannot do anything about (other than tilt your head back and flap your arms in warning to everyone in the direct line of fire). With those kinds of sneezes, the more you try to restrain it, the worse it will be. Consider this article as a dire warning. But before it hits, it might be a good idea to decide which side of the sneeze - or rather, “art debate” - you are going to be on.

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