Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Function of Art

I have been thinking a lot about the function of art, for several reasons. Firstly, my heart goes out to the French artists and citizens who are in mourning after the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo. This was a stark (and unnecessary) reminder of the significant impact of art in our society, and the important role that artists hold.

I also read this fascinating article, The Death of the Artist, which explores the trajectory of the artist throughout history. According to William Deresiewicz, artists used to be artisans focused on tradition above all else. In order to become "master craftsmen," artists apprenticed alongside the greats of their time, putting in their 10,000 hours and then some. Art back then was something to be built and crafted with care, like a seaworthy ship.

In what was later called the Romantic period, this all began to change. There was a shift away from tradition and rules in favor of individualism and originality. With revolution came secularization, and artists became prophet-like. Art moved away from craft and attained a "zenith of spiritual prestige." A century later, artists had become "cultural aristocrats," a far cry far from the lowly apprentices of the 16th and 17th centuries. 

In time, art moved away from the sacred and  into the realm of bureaucracy (I wrote bureaucrazy at first. Mistake? I think not). Deresiewicz explains that "after World War II in particular, and in America especially, art, like all religions as they age, became institutionalized." Institutions were created to "support" artists: museums, ballet companies, graduate programs, art councils, managers, agents, record labels, grants, etc. The trajectory of an artist became less spontaneous and serendipitous; now there was a formula for success and it involved climbing the professional ladder, as doctors and lawyers do.

Now, though, those institutions are disintegrating and the professional artist is left to fend for themselves. And so, the creative entrepreneur is born. This person must know not only how to create thoughtful art but also how to market themselves. Luckily, the internet provides us with a plethora of self-promotion options. And like any good business, artists must diversify. We have seen a rise in "multi-platform artists," people who claim to do it all but probably not very well. Additionally, like businesses, artists have moved towards selling an experience and not just a product - meaning they sell not only their work but also the creator and this person's lifestyle and process. I am somewhat guilty of this by writing this blog.

Several things are at risk for art today. First of all, artists have moved away from the long-held belief that one must put in 10,000 hours to make good work. Instead, they are spreading themselves thin and focusing too much on self-promotion. As a result, the artist of today makes many "contacts" - at the expense of lasting and collaborative relationships with others in their craft.

Additionally, the customer has become the central figure in an artists's life, and we all know that the customer is always right. Art has become a commodity to bought and traded. Deresiewicz  says it best: 

"It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favor work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please—more like entertainment, less like art."

And so, this begs the question: What do we lose when we lose authentic art? What is its purpose in our culture? Yes, art can be entertainment and art can be aesthetically pleasing, but in my opinion, it does little if it is not challenging the status quo, making people think, and moving our culture forward.

Images taken from