Friday, 12 September 2014

The Ins and Outs of "Why?"

photo collage

There are many typical questions asked of artists by audiences. One questions the medium or technique used to render a particular image. Looking at say a clay piece, a viewer might ask the artist, “Why not bronze?” Or looking at an acrylic painting, “Why not oils?” Or in response to a work on paper, “Why not on canvas?” The implied assumption is that the work would be IMPROVED if it were in bronze or oil or on canvas, that the artist somehow made the wrong choice of medium or technique.
Where does that kind of subliminal judgment come from? Not from a true response to the work being viewed. The persons looking approach the work with a pre-set programming; one that has been sustained through the generations and about which they are not even aware.
In this sub-routine of the viewing experience, media live in a stratified critical environment. Such media as pencils, clay, paper, glass and fiber, for instance, have retained their low ‘art’ status because they were once cheap, meaning accessible, are associated with functionality, and over the history of art, they have been used for sketching, and some by women and children. Over time, they have also developed a reputation for being fragile or worse, for being impermanent, for not retaining their freshness for more than a few human generations.
These considerations are not really a part of the viewing experience; they are knee-jerk reactions by people coming to look at art already convinced that supposed fragility, impermanence and accessibility reduce the value of a work of art, and that media like paper, clay, pencil or fiber are less ‘art’ than such media as canvas, oil and bronze. Also, for some, somehow, their association with function sullies their potential purity as art media. Art teachers, galleries and museums sustain these attitudes – the MOMA, for instance, has separate museums for works it deems ‘craft’ and ‘art’ based largely on the work’s medium not its intent or effect (Yet Picasso painted on clay, Chagall made stained glass, Duchamp’s urinal became iconic, Andy Warhol based much of his imagery on functional objects…).
It’s a great victory for the art dealers. It is in their best interest to promote and sell an artist making bronzes (multiple times) than one making clay pieces, or one painting in oils on canvas than one working in print on paper. Why sell something for $3000 when you can spend as much time and sell for $30,000?
Self-sustaining longevity is, after all, a big selling point, and it can justify big prices and hefty gallery commissions. A work that lasts with little help from its owner is more desirable than one that needs care, or that can be damaged by dusting, for instance. As long as there’s no war or shortage of metals, or as long as they’re not dropped or banged, bronzes are forever, and as long as there are no floods, no direct sunlight, no mould or too much touching, oils are forever- if they were painted well to begin with. (Yet, fine art museums have staff and spend much money on display, restoration and preservation of their collections).
Ok. To a person or especially public institution investing considerable amounts of money on a work, self-sustaining longevity  might be relevant. However, judgments based on this question rarely have a place in a viewer’s pure viewing experience. All media well used require serious technique, and all works, no matter their materials or functionality, express through their media.  There are probably many fascinating reasons why the work is in one medium or technique and not another, but the most important is that it’s in the medium or technique the artist chose. That could be the starting point of any query, not what the artist didn’t choose.

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