I am excited to announce that my installation "Borderline" is now open, making it's premier at Louisiana College. I recently returned from there, where I set up the show, gave a talk, and, of course, attended the opening reception. It was a wonderful time. I stayed with good friends, met some wonderful new people, and ate fried alligator. What could be better?
In the midst of all the festivities there was one conversation I had at the opening that took me aback. A person who came to the talk and to the opening was really pressing me to tell them what the installation was "about," in spite of my saying just a few minutes earlier in the talk that I didn't approach work in a way that made that question one I could really answer, and that I was leaving room for the viewer to have their own conversations with the work. I think this person thought if they asked enough I would give them the inside track. I tried to reaffirm that I wanted the viewer to contribute their own experiences and interpretations. The response I got was what surprised me. I can't quote exactly, but the gist of it was this: I needed to understand that I was in the middle of rural Louisiana. People there have low incomes and low education. They just aren't going to get my work, especially if they didn't come to the talk.
So two things (at least) bothered me about that statement. And one thing I admired. First, for the admiration. It was blunt, and it was honest. That's not usually the kind of thing you get at an opening. So kudos for that. But what I take exception to is assumptions. There's one of two assumptions in that statement, or a combination of both: 1) that I am elitist, making elitist art for a small group of artist "insiders," none of which can be found in rural Louisiana or 2) that lack of income/education makes people incapable of interacting with contemporary art, or, at least, my contemporary art. Ok, to be fair, a third possible assumption is that there was something in the talk that wasn't in the work. But really, the talk wasn't about the work per se but about a way of approaching artistic practice, so I have a hard time making that one stick.
So why bring this up if it was just an isolated incident? Well, because it is not really isolated. The contemporary art world has been accused of cultural elitism, and at times by art insiders and not without cause. Plus, I have faced this kind of criticism before, either directly or indirectly, both publicly and privately.
Well, I have to say I don't consider myself an elitist, or that my work is elitist, or that contemporary art on the whole is elitist. I'm not interested in making work that is only for the "one-half of one percent," whether you define that by income or education. Yes, Borderline is conceptual. It's meant to encourage the viewer to slow down, to wonder, and to offer no easy answers. If it's something your mind comes back to days after you've seen it, even if you have no significant new insights as to it's meaning, that's a tremendous "win" in my book. But while Borderline is conceptual, it's not hard to figure out how to approach it. I mean, at the heart of it, it's a big bunch of ceramic bees. We all have our own visceral reactions to bees. That's a good place to start.
Concerning the idea that lack of income/education disqualifies one from participating with the work, I think experience proves otherwise. My work has been enjoyed—and disliked—by people of pretty much all social groups, and with all levels of education. This includes people inside and out of the art academy. Even kids. As a case in point, I had great conversations with several students at the opening reception in which they all shared with me what they thought about the work/ it's meaning to them. Only one of those students was an art major. All of the students were from the area. Their insights were both meaningful and varied. Granted these were people already pursuing higher education, but they had no particular art training (I know because I asked). I cannot comment on their social status/ income.
As for the talk I gave, well, I supposed you might be able to consider it a little bit "highbrow." It centered around the work of two theologians, Martin Luther and Thomas Merton, and how their writings have influenced my approach to art. It was a talk I designed for that very specific audience; students at a Christian liberal arts school. But I don't think I make work that has to be approached from that one perspective, or that that one perspective is somehow more authentic to the work than others; it was just the one I deemed appropriate for that audience at that time. To a different audience I would offer a different perspective.
So that's my story and I'm sticking to it. If you have felt that contemporary art is elitist, or that the art world is rediculously
out of touch, you are not alone. Many people in the art world, critics and artists alike, are with you. But please don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are plenty of us out there who really, really love contemporary art and want to share that joy with everyone.
the studio chair
A place for me to ramble on when I need to take a break.