Rise of Rebellion: DailyServing’s latest week-long series
Not long ago I had a conversation with a fellow artist. “I’m thirty years old,” she said, “and I’ve never really rebelled.” We talked about what rebellion means; it turns out that while I was imagining the traditional route of sex/drugs/rock-n-roll, she had something tamer in mind: “I was thinking about not bathing for a while.” I admit that I laughed out loud.
She and I were both thinking about social nonconformity in general, yet there are forms of revolt more specific to art and its milieu. True rebellion is a personal action, a stance to take against the machination of a system whether overt or hidden. When people talk about “the art world” they refer specifically to the capitalist market-driven system of exchange that takes place in the slim area of overlap between makers, dealers, and buyers. It’s a system of production and consumption like many others that relies on indoctrination, social pressure, and buy-in to a set of assumptions. In order to succeed in this world artists must play the game and follow the rules—all very insidious in a field that is purported to be about freedom and expression. Winners learn to play well and are rewarded for running within the confines of the maze and pressing the lever at the end. But the “art world” is not art, and never should the two be confused. Below are some of the tacit rules of the art world and the iconoclasts who break them. Consider this food for thought.
1.) Make all your work recognizable. A body of work is consistent and easily identified.
You’re a brand, and if you want to sell you need to make your brand instantly recognizable—just like a Louis Vuitton handbag or an Apple computer. Tell that to Paul Chan, the 37 year-old auteur of videos, sculpture, drawings, paintings, light projections, computer fonts, and the co-stager of five site-specific performances of “Waiting for Godot” in post-Katrina New Orleans. There is no “recognizable” here, no direct sense of continuity from show to show or even piece to piece; if you didn’t read the wall label you might not know who made the work. There is only a joy of making; freedom of expression, indeed.
2.) Promote your brand incessantly: lectures, residencies, studio visits, and visiting-professor gigs will help you advance.
It’s true that for most artists there is a social context to the work: after all, if no one knows what you make, how will they know if they like it or not? But is it true that one must exploit every connection, every opportunity, every possible avenue for social growth to create a career in the arts? Ask Cady Noland…oh, but you can’t. The reclusive artist won’t answer your email and won’t work with you if you she doesn’t trust you. Despite her many successes, Noland dropped out of the art world; self-promotion is not a game that she plays. In a 1994 review of Noland’s work, critic David Bussel wrote with keen prescience, “Anyone can be made into a hero or villain because minor celebrity is just another disposable object of mass consumption.” Despite Noland’s reticence to engage with the public, her work continues to be in demand.
3.) Hit the big time: get rich, develop a waiting list, and hire a cadre of laborers to keep up with the demand.
(Bonus points if your laborers live in “developing” countries and you make this part of your schtick.) This is the model proposed by Andy Warhol and adopted by Jeff Koons. Some, like Kehinde Wiley and Takeshi Murakami, even make it an overt part of their practice to manage a hive of workers. In the overheated atmosphere of the art world, it’s easy to think that the artist who doesn’t meet the production quota dictated by collectors is a species of failure. It is said that Dana Schutz makes all her own paintings (unconfirmed by her gallery at the time of this publication), waiting list be damned. For an artist of her stature to do so is a very passionate and hopeful gesture, proof that rebellion isn’t always some kind of adolescent sneer: sometimes it’s just sticking to one’s principles.
4.) Be famous, get old, drop out.
You’ve got enough money, and maybe university tenure. This is the time to take it easy: make work that just repeats your best years ad nauseum, or even stop working altogether. Disproving this are John Baldessari and Marina Abramović, who continue to work hard and push beyond previous limits. Baldessari is 79 years old; in the last five years he designed the exhibition Magritte and Contemporary Art, had strong new work at his show at Sprüth Magers (Berlin) earlier this year, and currently has a long-overdue retrospective, Pure Beauty, at LACMA. Abramović, now 64, describes herself as “the grandmother of performance art.” Performing The Artist is Present this past spring at MOMA, she asserted the right and privilege of the artist to continue to explore her own work, to mine it and delve ever-deeper into unknown territory. This is the benefit of utilizing a lifetime of knowledge, growth, and experience to make innovative art. May we all be so blessed.