Column: Arts

by Rachel Albright

My Thoughts, My Vessel, Your Tumblrs, Your Memes
The art world can be tricky to navigate for most artists, but what happens when it’s not your dealer, disgruntled studio mate, or your show’s latest lackluster review in the L.A. Times that you’re battling, but how the work itself communicates?

Creating a dialogue between an artist’s work and the rest of the universe (or at least, the parts within reach) is essential, but art in the present tense is a different ballgame than art in a historical sense. Artists have always spent much of their lives redefining mediums (and their careers within those mediums), but current art trends move quickly, and what once developed over a lifetime is now confined to the length of an app trend.

And sure there’s an upside to these technological advances. You no longer need a booth at the Whitney Biennial, a retrospective at Tate, or even a local university group show to think yourself something of an artist. Web artists like Brad Troemel and Ann Hirsch are building entire careers on the Internet. In lieu of a gallery: an Etsy page, a Vimeo account, a crudely built html site. In lieu of a gallery contact: a Gmail account.

But regardless of the technology employed, artists have always had little to no artistic control over the viewer once work leaves their turpentine-pruned fingers or porn-riddled hard drives. With that in mind, should artists continue to push the boundaries, challenging notions of art itself, and create with reckless abandon, while largely ignoring audience approval? Fellow net artist Ryder Ripps chastised Troemel—incidentally, over the Internet—for his perceived lack of audience acknowledgment. Ripps notes that with art the artist “Cannot simply ‘like the way it looks’ without thinking about its context.”

An artist once told me that the act of creation was markedly more important to him than the finished product. But how important can those background ideas be to the artwork itself if it doesn’t properly function as a vessel for them? Intention only goes so far; no viewer is able to see or understand the process in the same way the artist can, and the completed work is built to exist far longer than its creation process. As Duchamp once said, “The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world,” therefore rendering that viewing as part of the process itself. Art cannot exist without both the maker and the viewer. Intent is not futile, but perhaps the solution to this great battle is in the presentation—a visual language that considers a marriage of the exo- and esoteric. But it’s a thin line to walk between challenging and pandering to an audience that is essential to an artist’s existence.

Current new mediums offer an infinite amount of opportunities to create something substantial, thought provoking, interesting—and of course with that, as with anything, infinitely more opportunities to create something that’s shit. One could argue that in today’s art world, there seems to be a multitude of the latter, and few artists fighting to hold on to the former. And the Internet itself lends to distracted viewing: A quick, and often pixelated, scroll sees your hard-wrought concept sandwiched between a dog meme and Helmut Newton’s Le Smoking on the dashboards of Tumblr, your artist statement eking out in supplemental hashtags. It seems to be the downright opposite of what the great masters had in mind, as they wasted away, suspended from a vaulted ceiling, dutifully transcribing the Assumption onto the Parma, meditating through devastating shoulder cramps.

For the artist, it may be hard to decipher whether these conveniences elevate or devalue their creations. Do the pratfalls of contemporary art also mean the discretization of the artist? Or is this bickering between art and artist primordial? Marcel Duchamp—again—once famously said, “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists,” which is seemingly nonsensical—except that it does make sense, even now. Perhaps especially now. Duchamp accused the word ‘art’ of becoming discredited, but never accused the maker himself. The artist is the creator of those thoughts and ideas; the work is merely the vessel. A vessel not always in tune with the act of making art, and often dictated by trends (and those trends often dictated by resources available). In that context, what art is—or at least, the functionality of it in our society—can seem largely meaningless.

In an influx and often-aimless contemporary art world, practice, intent, and beauty jockey for relevance. In any pursuit, ideally an artist should care about substance and dialogue, and, in art specifically, fight to elevate work despite variations in mediums. Of the many battles facing artists today, it seems the discourse between art, artist, and viewer does not yield to delicate handling. As an artist who is not Duchamp once told me: “Sometimes you do have to bite the hand that feeds you because that hand is feeding you bullshit.” Maim away, intellectuals.