“Do Artists Have a Critical Role in the World?” by Debra Hand
A banana that was duct-taped to a white wall just sold for $120,000 and shocked the globe; well, every part except the art world. In that world the sale of taped-up bananas is not nearly as outrageous as past stunts. Incidentally, Andy Warhol also had a banana in his portfolio, a design he created for an album cover. Of course for Warhol, his grocery store inspirations went far beyond the produce section. After stuffing his shopping cart with boxes of Brillo he wheeled around to the canned food aisle and slurped up millions by actually replicating Campbell soup-can designs. So, it’s all been done before. My biggest fear is that some museum looking to increase membership will exhibit the taped-up banana or (once mushy) its banana replacement stand-in. I can already imagine the lines wrapped around the block…people queued up for miles to get a photo with this joke-of-art…just to prove they saw it in person. I can already see the viral photos on social media. That’s when the real fame will start, just as with the Mona Lisa when President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, hosted the painting in America. They treated the painting like a superstar diva. It arrived in America to the fanfare of press conferences, VIP receptions, and exhibits — all of this after having the painting escorted to America in a first class cabin on a luxury liner. People lined up to be part of the fervor and the Mona Lisa’s fame skyrocketed. Although, already famous abroad for having been stolen, recovered, attacked, etc., the painting arrived in America to the equivalent spectacle of a ticker-tape parade. I’m not saying the Mona Lisa wasn’t a phenomenal painting showing tremendous technical skill by Leonardo da Vinci, but what I am saying is that attention creates attention and this simple phenomenon allows mediocrity to morph into all kinds of forms of fame and myth. I mean, clearly, the Mona Lisa was not the most beautiful woman in the world as many experts claimed; nor does she have the most mysterious smile known to mankind. In fact, if the painting had arrived in America today with the current social media atmosphere, the Mona Lisa would have been dragged for her lack luster hair and makeup. She would have become viral for other reasons. Nevertheless, viral attention equals quick fame, and $120,000 bananas create curiosity seekers. So, this kind of gimmickry is simply what some sectors of the art world have been reduced to.
But art has a much more critical role in society and I’d rather remain focused on how collectors and artists might maximize its real potential to change the world.
Art is a gift to all of humanity, but it can only be distributed to us through our artists. This makes artists among the most powerful of our species because not only does life imitate art – but art literally dictates some of life’s most important parameters. When we truly begin to understand the real potential of artists to reshape society, we will begin to protect their gifts rather than to allow the greed and pressure of art market commerce to compress them into gimmick-wielding desperados fixed on shock-value and art-star attention. We will begin to allow sacred space for the expansion of human imagination.
Humanity as a whole uses art to define and refine its own reflection. Through the manipulation of symbols and images, art influences how we see ourselves and the world around us; and even how we categorize each other. So deeply does art factor into our social classification systems that even the color of our shoe bottoms serve as indicators of social status.
Artists literally shape our perceptions of how we should exist in the universe. If you doubt this fact, look around the very place where you are right now. You can easily count the ways in which artists have affected that space: the design of the furniture you’re sitting on, the clothes you’re wearing, the device you’re reading this article through, your watch, your cell phone, the way the food you eat appears in its containers on store shelves…it’s all determined by artists. What you drive, the bed you’ll sleep in tonight, the cup you drink your coffee from – they likely all started as artists’ renderings long before becoming a part of your reality. Even the way we see ourselves in the mirror is greatly influenced by artists, especially those in the motion picture and television industry where we are spoon fed the prerequisites for what is good or evil; cool or geek; good looking or unattractive; worthy or unfit. The fact is, the realities we conform to are largely constructed from the manipulation of images.
This is why I’m so adamant about artists and collectors understanding their place in the making or breaking of a meaningful cultural narrative. In order for us to really make a difference in the way our culture is defined and promoted, we must understand that there is a great difference between pursuing culture through art, and pursuing commerce through art. These activities are not one thing, though they can have overlapping areas.
Art has the power to shape the world and its inhabitants in a way that no other man-made force can. This is why it is the basis for all marketing. This is why online Ads and TV commercials — from social to political to philanthropic — serve up non-stop images of products or services artfully presented and designed to convince us of their power to define our happiness, our success, our family structures, our love lives, our worth…or who we should value, who deserves what treatment, who deserves our compassion as a society (or by the omission of images, who does not). It is the manipulation of images and imagery that eventually decides the zeal or apathy with which we vote, or choose not to; and that eventually dictates the laws of our land. So, art is a very big deal. It is used to establish the rules of not just culture, but of civilization itself.
The potential function of artists in society is far more critical and profound than bananas and duct tape. Artists are far too valuable to be bred and cultivated for art market commerce like celebrated horse jockeys. Art is not racing, and artists cannot be classified by pedigree. Each artist is their own unique pedigree, exploring their unique imaginations as they hone their abilities to translate their visions into tangible artworks. They should be encouraged to grow and evolve… and to authentically push the boundaries of human imagination so we can all witness and experience our potential as a human group.
Artists are powerful, whether they choose to use that potential or not. Even artists who never exercise their potential still impact the balance of whether the power of art will get largely used for the best of humanity, or for the worst of it. Artists who understand their power and who use it constructively for human kind, make all of our lives better in some direct or indirect way. We cannot let the importance of artists to modern society be solely defined by games and art marketing trickery. There’s no such thing as “The most important artists working today.” This is not even a determinable thing. You can be sure that whoever is making such statements is making them from their own subjective place in the art market, and that they have some vested interest in seeing the reputation of that artist grow. Usually the interest is financial. Sometimes it’s ego based, promoted by an art school or teacher who would like to believe their tutelage has produced the next Rembrandt. Or someone might even say that this or that artist has exposed some deep dimension of being human that all the rest of us have managed to miss and will only be enlightened by visiting and contemplating this artist’s work. Eventually, it seems, these kinds of statements have slowly created an obsession for artists to spend their lives trying to provide the world with magical answers and insight, rather than just freely creating and finding out where imagination can truly take us. If by painting, or sculpting, artists could discover the solutions to ending world hunger, or creating world peace, or discovering where the soul of a man existed before or after life…do you really think artists — upon discovering such answers –would contort them into abstract artworks whose riddles must be exclusively decoded over wine and cheese by wealthy collectors? Imagine the artists among us holding the mysteries of life, yet being willing to reveal them only to gallery and museum crowds, to the exclusion of the rest of the world? Yet, this is the game that art is becoming. We are being told that artists hold all the mysteries to life on their canvases and that they must remain over our heads until the art experts release them in encrypted code meant for the esoteric few who can smack down $120k for a banana. This is the game our most precious creative species are being inducted into…reduced to jesters who provide spectacle and entertainment to the wine sipping, cheese chomping universe. Meanwhile, the masterpieces of truly devoted artists are reduced to backdrop fluff for International art-fairs, red carpet openings, and VIP galas where duct tape and bananas take center stage.
You may wonder how artists allow themselves to be pulled into this universe of affairs. It happens because they want to eat. Contrary to the popular slogan, artists are busily trying to avoid starvation just like everyone else. And, just like in any other profession, they want to be considered successful in their trades. They want to have those prestigious titles added to their names: “the most important artist of the generation” or “the greatest,” etc. They want to be known for providing the world with new insights into humanness, or for illuminating the lack thereof. They want to be validated by the art-world gatekeepers, just like every other being searching the face of the Earth for a place to matter.
But, the real gift artists offer society is in their potential to discover new ways of seeing, being, and achieving in every aspect of life. They should be valued as the keepers of imaginative energy and encouraged to dig deeper, rather than to limit themselves to the mundane in order to manufacture gimmicks. Our cultural narratives, our actual future as a species, lie in the hands of our artists and in their abilities to produce meaningful ideas, storylines, and creative output for the use of this and succeeding generations.
The only profound question a banana duct-taped to a wall poses to me is, “how much of a con game will the art world become in its pursuit of greed?” More than 50 years ago Andy Warhol brought the world his banana print. This month, a half century later, duct tape has been added and the game continues. Meanwhile, what becomes of the artists who are struggling to uplift humanity?…the ones who are laboring to create culture through their artwork so that we can all experience life more deeply? We all play a part in answering this question, and we will continue to do so by the future choices we make concerning artists. Which artists will you support, and which ones will we allow to fall away into obscurity?
As collectors, I hope you will proudly and generously purchase the works that speak to your hearts and not turn to others for assurance. As artists, I hope you will follow your hearts into and through your works so that they will resonate with the uniqueness of what it means for you to be you. Through your exploration of various mediums as you examine life, and through your ability to use them creatively to express the joys, pains, conflicts, and detritus of human emotion — we are all taken deeper into our own humanity. I hope we will all become more focused on the critical role artists play and encourage them on their journeys.
BAIA Readers, what are your thoughts on the role artists might play in society? Do you think they are being limited? Please share your answers with others below where you will also find a link to share this article.
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Debra Hand is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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