Art is Pretentious* | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

We’ve been making
videos about art and sharing them on YouTube
for coming on four years now, a veritable internet lifetime. Here’s what I’ve learned
about art in the process. Let’s start with the bad news. Art is pretentious. I see this word again and
again in comments directed at artists, at art in general,
and at those who talk about art and think it’s cool. It’s most often
stated in response to art that is conceptual or
really abstract, or doesn’t seem to have taken a
lot of work to create. On our “Case for
Yoko Ono” video, one commenter says,
“Pretentious stupidity.” on our “Case for Minimalism”. One writes, “Interesting video. Minimalism is still
pretentious trash, though.” On our “I Could Do That”
video, someone else shares, “Modern art is
pretentious and is created by lazy, unskilled,
and artistic brats for elitists that will
go out of their way to get these in an attempt to
show how deep and artistic they are.” Now let’s consider
these comments with the definition
of pretentious in mind, one of
which is “attempting to impress by affecting greater
importance, talent, culture, et cetera, than is
actually possessed.” so if it’s artists
being referred to as pretentious, then
yeah, artists do regularly attempt to impress by affecting
greater importance, talent, and culture than is
actually possessed. In fact, it’s the leap
you pretty much have to take to create anything. It’s your foolish
hope that you might go from not knowing
how to do something to doing something, and
then eventually doing it well enough that you might want
to share it with other people. The creative process,
as I’ve witnessed it, is generally plagued by
insecurity, frustration, and doubt, alternated by
brief moments of pleasure in having made something
you think is halfway decent, followed by having to summon
ludicrous amounts of confidence in order to share that
thing with other people, and concluding with night
sweats as you wonder immediately after, and then forever
after, whether you are a fraud and your work is terrible no
matter how many people say they like it. Or nobody seems to
like it, and you have to believe that they’re wrong. Or that the next thing you
make might be good, and keep at it because you still have
this tenacious desire to make the things that you’re making I’m generalizing, of course,
but every artist I know is genuinely brave. You don’t know whether
something you made is any good until
you put it out there. And even still,
it’s hard to know. Of course you want to
impress other people with it. “Fake it till you make it”
applies to almost every field, and certainly art
is one of them. The successful artists I’ve
met have this unstoppable need to keep making, no matter
what their inner voices or actual voices tell them. Now if it’s art that’s being
referred to as pretentious, then I kind of have to
agree with that as well. Art is made of a bunch of random
stuff, objects and materials and substances and sounds and
movements that often aren’t expensive and don’t have
inherent value outside of the cost of materials. Through a kind of
alchemical process, or artists take these things and
turn them into something else, endowing them with
meaning and value that doesn’t reside within
the materials alone. Sometimes these processes
are hugely labor intensive, and sometimes they may
not have taken a long time but are nonetheless
moving, at least to you. These mere clumps
of materials are trying to impress you,
regardless of the fact that they are only made
of dirt, rocks, water, and their derivatives. So yeah, art is pretentious. More bad news. The only difference between
expensive and inexpensive art is name and reputation. This is another recurring
theme in the comments. One person responded
to “I Could Do That” by saying, “Even if I did
create these more simplistic art pieces, they wouldn’t be
worth millions of dollars.” And this is mostly true. Because of the
aforementioned situation where clumps of material are
attempting to impress us, the market value of art is
heavily, if not entirely, determined by perception. Let’s take this striped
painting by Audrey Stone, on sale for the equivalent
of about $4,700 US dollars, and compare it to
this striped painting by Bridget Riley that
sold last year at auction for the equivalent of over
$1 million US dollars. The Riley painting is
substantially larger than the Stone painting,
and size does factor considerably in the sale of
art, but not to this degree. The reason why the Riley
painting sold for so much more is that Riley has been
creating abstract works in this vein since
the 1960s, when she was part of the
influential Responsive Eye exhibition at MoMA in 1965. She’s been internationally
recognized since. Her name is synonymous
with the op art movement, and for the past 50 years Riley
has used line, shape, and color to convey movement and create
entrancing optical effects. Audrey Stone is younger
than Bridget Riley, and while she has been included
in a good number of shows, she hasn’t attained the
same level of renown, at least not yet. Riley also has a track
record of auction results that demonstrate to collectors
that the pricing, however ridiculous, has a rationale. That record also shows that it
will probably retain its value, if not increase. You may think Stone’s
painting is better, but that has no bearing on the
monetary value of the work. There is more demand
for Riley’s work, and thus it will
fetch higher prices in galleries and auctions. Riley’s work also
carries with it a history, like how gold
sunglasses are gold sunglasses unless they’re the gold
sunglasses that Elvis wore. There are arguments
you could make for why the Riley
painting is objectively better than the Stone painting. But determinations
of quality, for me, don’t rest on solid ground. There’s taste,
trend, and hype that figure into an art work’s worth,
along with systemic sexism and racism. And those factors
are always shifting. And on that topic,
“The art market is a scam perpetuated by
the rich to launder money.” This is a recurring sentiment
in our comments as well, and it’s also sometimes true. “Adam Ruins Everything”
made an episode where he describes
the art market as a massive price
fixing scheme that benefits wealthy collectors
and excludes most artists. He points out that
even those who donate their works
to public museums aren’t necessarily doing
so out of the kindness of their hearts, but because it
can be a massive tax write off. But the art market is
not synonymous with art. And in fact, there’s a lot
of excellent contemporary art that circumnavigates the market
and critiques the way market forces affect the
valuing of art. Think of the Guerrilla Girls
or William Powhida or Banksy. There’s much more to the
experience of art today than the ugly aspects
of the market. The art market
Adam describes can dominate, or seem to
dominate, your experience of art in a few major cities. But in the rest of
the world, and even in less fancy areas of
those same big cities, there’s a lot of art happening
completely separately from dark art market forces. No one’s getting rich on that
other side of the art world. But on the plus side,
no one’s getting rich. In undeniably good news, people
are open minded about art. You may be surprised
to hear this one. Haters gonna hate,
but the huge majority of the comments on our
videos are positive. Our case for videos
present an argument for why you should care
about or pay attention to an individual artist
or a kind of art. And much to my
surprise, we do manage to convince a few people. “All right, I accept
your case for Yoko Ono,” said one commenter. Another said, “OK, fine. I won’t hate on Yoko Ono.” Someone else said,
“Man, every time I get persuaded that I was wrong on my
assumptions about these artists when I watch these. Thank you for opening my mind.” And another said, “If you
keep making these videos, I’ll have no artists
left to dislike.” My favorite moments come when
the video doesn’t sway you, but you’re still really cool
about it, like the comment, “I appreciate the
positivity of these videos. I really dislike Yoko
Ono’s art, but I’m happy that there are people
willing to defend it.” Or, “Still don’t like
minimalism just aesthetically, but these are great points,
and can get behind this 100%.” I mean, these are almost
better than praise. It means you considered
what was said, approached it with openness,
but also trusted your judgment to disagree while also being
accepting, even embracing, of the contrasting
views of others. But even, or
especially, when people are nasty in their disagreement,
I find solace in the fact that people care about art. Sure, it may manifest in
angry, unrepeatable comments. But when someone says “I hate
modern art with a passion” I find myself oddly reassured
that the person cares at all. In my museum work, I often
fear that while the galleries may have had people in them,
what’s going on in their heads? Are they there just walking
from artwork to artwork at a pace they hope won’t give
away that they’re just thinking about lunch? Although that is me sometimes. When I hear anger,
I hear that people have firm ideas
about what art is, or at least what they
think it should be. And for me, that opens up a
space for us to talk about art, to consider where our views
about it might overlap, and gives me hope that
we might allow art at the time and attention
and consideration that I believe these pretentious
clumps of material deserve. The Art Assignment is funded
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