Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Report from the Phantom Zone

So, this is the problem with language.
I went to a party the other day where I really only knew the host, everyone else was a stranger. This is how my conversation with the first person went:
“Hi, I’m Steve”
“Hi, I’m John. What do you do?”
“I’m a photographer.”
“Oh! Do you do family portraits, because my family could use a new one …”
“No, I’m a fine art photographer. I make photos for display in museums.”
“You mean you take pictures of art for the museum?”
“No, I make pictures that hang in the museum.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that was a job …”
This was followed by John looking at me like I was an idiot.

This is how my second conversation went:
“Hi, I’m Jill.”
“Hi, I’m Steve. What do you do?”
“I’m a painter.”
“Oh cool, I’m an artist too. What do you paint?”
“I paint houses.”
“You mean you make paintings of houses?”
“No, I work for a house painting company. I paint houses …”
“Oh …”
This was followed by Jill looking at me like I was an idiot.

This is how my third conversation went:
“Hi, I’m Steve”
“Hi, I’m Jack. What do you do?”
“I’m an artist.”
“Oh really, me too!”
“Cool, what do you do?”
“I’m a sandwich artist at the Subway downtown.”
“You mean the Subway restaurant?”
“Yah, I’m a sandwich artist there.”
“Oh …”
This was followed by Jack looking at me like I was an idiot.

This how my whole afternoon went and I could not seem to stop it. It was like I was using a different language no matter what I told people I did. What I realized is that our society no longer has any vocabulary for artists because most people simultaneously hate us, want to be us and appreciate us. This means that all of the terms for being an “artist” have been co-opted so that everyone can apply the terms to their own lives on some level. Somehow, everyone is an artist and everything everyone does is an art form. I have no problem with decentering concepts of art, but now when I say I am an artist, it has no meaning.

Perhaps more importantly, it also implies that what I do has no value.

I don’t have a solution for this, but I believe it is a problem that our community needs to address on some level. Artists are undervalued in our society partly because we refuse to define what we do in a meaningful and distinct way to other people. If we have trouble defining what we do, how can we expect other people to respect our place in society?

One obvious solution is for us to stop using the word “art” or “artist”. As a community, we should admit that we have lost those words forever because they no longer accurately define what we do to the rest of society. It seems logical that we should make up new terms, but when we have tried that in the past it has failed. Terms like “cultural creator” or “image maker” sound Marxist and most of society is afraid of Marx. Saying things like “I make work for museums” just alienates most people because most people have a love/hate relationship with museums.

I don’t have a solution, but I think one of the best parts of Big Red is that it is an artist community where we can bring issues and solutions to light for everyone. So I say we pool our resources and see what we all think about this problem:

What do you say when you meet some? Do you have the same problems articulating what you do? Do you have a solution to this problem?

If so, please leave a comment.

My favorite subway sandwich maker

My Subway Sandwich

Painters working


At 2:47 PM, Blogger Ian Aleksander Adams said...

Even though I'm not currently a professor or employed teacher, I like thinking of myself as an educator with an interest in visual culture.

I think people sort of understand what you mean by visual culture - and I feel that by participating in the creation of visual media (whether I call it fine art of something decidedly more lowbrow) my intention is often to educate, even if it's towards humorous or personal conclusions.

That sounds a little hoity toity though, doesn't it? It works in crowds that like polysyllabic words.

Often I'm just content to say "I make shit" or "I like fooling around with interesting stuff, often visual stuff, pictures, etc, and then sometimes people like it too and sometimes they even pay me for it. I get by."

Honestly, I think a good sandwich is art, and often brings me a lot more enjoyment than a mediocre painting. Sometimes even more than a really good painting.

I think Art/artists have always had trouble defining their place, but I think that is to the benefit of many artists. If that makes any sense.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger LKB said...

In the UK, they approach art as a form of research (and it seems way more valued there). In their degrees, PhD among them, it's a practice-based mode of inquiry -- artists just happen to use images to do so.

Congrats by the way too!

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Greg said...

I agree with you that we have lost the meaning of being an artist in the very traditional sense. I blame in part the abstract movement in the early/mid 20th century and photography, even though you know I am a photographic artist. I say this because I hear from people like my father-in-law, who is a certified redneck cow farmer will look at a Michaelangelo piece and understand the complexity and effort put into making it, acknowledging that he could not do this himself, but when looking at a Rothko, he will say, "One of my cows could that, just put a brush up it's ass and let it go!" The prevalence of photography in modern society has devalued it as an art form since anybody can make one rather quickly. Our culture pokes fun at our function with jokes like Stewie in Family Guy when the dog was dating an idiot by saying something like, "oooh...she takes photographs of trees, she so dark and brooding 'cause it means something..." Just like you, if I say I am a photographer people ask if I will take a picture of their kid's wedding, if I say I'm an artist they look at me like I'm pulling their leg. Art shows are a joke with all the people who think they have to dress in black and wear berets to show they are artists, too. I could go on, but it would be too much of a rant.


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