Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Selling *the artist*

With the rise of contemporary art came mass marketing and commercialism. Literacy was at an all-time high, television, newspapers and radio spread ideas faster than ever before in history. Trade agreements paired with new shipping routes brought wonders from every corner of the globe, all available for sale at your local department store.

Since the early days of industrialization, production wasn't dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. Time was money. Capitalism was rampant and with their new-found freedom, artists were doing all kinds of crazy stuff...

Synchronism swept through the art world, often known as non-representational painting, where the artists took Impressionism one step further -> they were interested in the effect of pure colour on the eye. Scientifically. These are often compared to music because they were abstract yet created an emotional response. Instead of painting the tree, they painted the green so the viewer would feel the tree.

This was the first big American art movement where they weren't just copying what was going on in Europe.

Non-representational art was the first art that wasn't telling *a story*. There were no people, no landscapes, no recognizable figures within the frame for the viewer to draw associations and conclusions from. Through simple blocks of colour, artists were no longer restricted to lessons, history or statements. The Ideas that they were selling were distilled, simplified and wrung out. Scientifically using how the human brain reacted to colour, artists tried to capture/translate the pure Idea of emotion into a canvas. Instead of a lush forest with serene, lounging figures hitting the right emotional/psychological points on the viewer to tell them how to *feel* about the scene portrayed, this was just about colour. How could one paint *serenity* in pure colour?

Not all of them were interested in representing emotion, but they were still trying to capture and translate a pure Idea and sell it to the public.

If we wanted to compare writing to art, I think non-representation art would probably be the closest approximation to poetry. Clyfford Still is my favourite color-field artist. In my mind, his works truly are like poetry or music.

On the opposite end of the scale, Marcel Duchamp was obsessed with chess (he represented France in Olympic chess four times) and he created conceptual art, where the idea was more important than the work of art/material. This was the birth of ready-mades, where a mass-produced object is re-conceptualized as *art*. His most famous pieces were, "Fountain" and  "In Advance of a Broken Arm".

Look at those two pieces of art. Do you think they could get any further away from expressing emotion?

They're more like a pun, don't you agree? They're clever, witty, they make you re-evaluate how you view a common object, but they aren't trying to sell a strong emotion like glory, power, love, fear, etc.

American artists weren't only lashing out against old, European values/traditions, they were lashing out at the institution of art itself.

Personal freedoms were also celebrated with an influx of gay and feminist themed art. Women artists thrived for the first time in history and radical political, social and ideological ideas (like free-love and birth-control) came bubbling out from The Art School League, of which many students lived in the infamous Greenwich village. It's interesting to note that most of these artists were middle class and well educated. Essentially, a bunch of rich kids rebelling against their more conservative parents. Due to their gathering in that specific area, the wealthy packed up and moved away, which tanked the property values and turned it into a cheap-rent, bohemian paradise.

*Starving Artist* was like a badge these people wore... they used their art to scream, 'this is who I am and this is what I want'. They were selling rebellion, they were selling attitude, they were selling freedom from the old ways, the old rules, the old world. They were saying, 'my individual view of the world is important'.

Art began selling the artist.

Jackson Pollock was the first celebrity artist, where he was heavily promoted all over the USA, not only his art, but his rebellious-artistic-spirit. Peggy Guggenheim was his first major supporter, and her gallery was the focal point for American abstraction and surrealism. in 1951, Vogue magazine shot a lineup of spring dresses with Pollock's work in the background, to showcase their fashion as *sophisticated*.

Vogue magazine was using Pollock and his art to sell that image...

...and how is that any different from what traditionally-good-art was doing? No matter what material, what form, Western art was still about selling Ideas. Abstract art was just a new way to sell it. Because abstract art is hard-to-understand, it's a different level of elitism. Really, it's no different from the portraits which showed the upper-class Europeans as god-like, and what's funny is that the wealthy in New York city were all paying for similar, old-world-European-syled portraits to be made to show off their status. The same parents whose kids were rebelling in Greenwich village.

So instead of selling the elitism of being wealthy/powerful, abstract art was selling the idea of sophistication/intelligence/genius, which was attractive to the younger generation who were growing up in an entertainment/commercial-infused world.

Is everyone familiar with the tv series Mad Men?

Life magazine, August 8, 1949 ran a photo spread of Pollock with the question, "Is he the greatest living painter of the United States?" They were selling his attitude, marketing him. He was posed as a rebel/cool with legs crossed, smoking, arms crossed/etc. He glared at the camera, confronting the viewers. The photos screamed, 'if you don't get it, he doesn't care.' This image was taken up by actors, James Dean, for example. Pollock was shown as a star, and this trumped-up commercial image of himself is what broke him as an artist. He basically drunk himself to death after someone filmed his painting process.

But this is what first sold the idea of artists rebelling against the norms of society and living only for their art.

Freedom is what America was built on. Even Pollock's self-destruction was fed back into the marketing of art. Painting became a holy space to act, not recreate something. The artist was the actor, the viewer became the audience -> not allowed to be involved, the viewer was passive. What was important was the artist exploring themselves through the act of creating art.

Harold Rosenberg was a lawyer/poet who fed this new idea through his writing in the '40's. He reworked Kant's old idea of genius and pushed the idea that only the elite could completely understand an artist's genius/vision.

Commercialism isn't necessarily about mass-producing products, it's making people want to be part of the elite lifestyle, but it's all smoke-and-mirrors. Do you want people to think you're sophisticated, cultured and intellectual? Well, then slap some abstract art on your wall and buy the leather-bound complete collection of Charles Dickens novels or Pliny the Elder's letters. Who cares if you never read the books or even like the painting, it sells the Idea that you're of the cultural elite. For some of you, it may be interesting to know that Rosenberg later became a famous art critic for the New Yorker.

Stop for a minute and look again at the date of that article. August, 1949. The glorification of *the artist* as a product started just a few decades ago, and even that was driven by pure, unadulterated salesmanship.

After this brief history of Western art, can you still say art isn't all about creating products? Granted, now the artist him/herself is also a commodity. You can also port this directly into the writing world. Isn't it so important nowadays to be active online, as a writer? To have a fan page, a blog, Twitter, etc? It's not only the book that's being sold, it's the author.

No matter what form or technique, Western art always has been and always will be about selling Ideas, so what else can you call it?

Okay, I promise, my next post will be my last on this particular subject. the way, for those who have been hanging in through these extremely nerdy posts, you have now been officially introduced to what my husband teasingly refers to as my 'National Geographic Voice'. Seriously, never ask me about certain topics in real life, 'cause I will actually talk like this too...

Oh, and those ever interested in museum-hopping in New York city, if you go to the Met, check out Pollock's famous painting Autumn Rhythm. Here's a very nerdy bit of trivia if you like 'Where's Waldo?' books. The colours in Autumn Rhythm are all browns/etc right? Well, somewhere on that painting is one, tiny dot of bright red paint. The reason is, Pollock spread his canvases on the floor of a warehouse to paint and always had multiple paintings on the go at the same time. Because he was interesting in capturing 'movement' on canvas (in simple terms, he danced around and flung paint at the canvas), that tiny dot is a splatter from another one of his works that ended up on there by mistake.


  1. Yes, there is a strong correlation between writing and visual art. The author and the painter are both artists, but they express themselves differently. The painter draws what he sees in shapes, sillhoettes, figures etc., until he/she has a picture. The writer draws pictures with words. Great post, thanks for sharing. I learned a lot.

  2. I rather like National Geographic voice. I learned a lot here. I could see this being one of their specials.

  3. funny - at my peer group today one of the classes is artists and how the culture of the time influenced them. Their hand out contained about a dozen contemporary, not modern, artists, most of whom I'd never heard of.

  4. @ Andrea Franco-Cook

    Yes, as I see it, there really isn't a difference, nor is there really a difference between art/writing and commercial products... 'cause in the end, anything successful, by definition, is a product.

    @ Michael

    Well, you would be one of few ;) At least this has a wider appeal than my spouting off about slime-coats (on fish).

    @ sue

    Yeah, since artist materials have gotten so cheap in the last few decades, it's literally impossible to keep up with every artist out there, and there are like, hundreds of different artistic movements, ONLY in North America in the last 50 years... so much, you can't know everything :)

  5. Interesting. I do find the selling of the author a problematic point at times, because as it seems with Pollock -- and, I would argue, Byron in terms of history/poetry -- the artist becomes more important than the art. So the 'artist' dies and in general their work vanishes into relative obscurity.

    Some of this is no doubt that problem of 'you can do literature OR bestsellers' but I do have to wonder how often this tends to do a disservice to the actual art made, since the artist isn't the actual art and conflating them together is not always a good idea.

  6. @ Alcar

    The thing is, by selling the artist, the art becomes more valuable. I don't think that depreciates after death, I think it can be one of the selling points... look at Van Gogh

    Plus, most people know the name of *famous* artists, even if they have no idea what paintings the artist did.

    I once had someone brag to me that they paid over $10,000 for a painting by some famous Montreal artist... she couldn't remember the name of the artist, and she couldn't even tell me what style the painting was... and I was asking pretty basic questions, like is it abstract or some kind of representational art like a landscape/etc, and she couldn't even tell me that... at one point, I think I even just asked her what colour it was and she gave a really vague answer...

    Again, it's showing off the name to enhance status, even if they know nothing about, or even like it.

    Name value is often more important than the actual product.

  7. True. I was coming at the subject from the pov of poetry (and seeing how in some ways that mapped onto the art stuff) and in general more populist-era poets tend not to outlive their area and fame. Or, put another way, Byron was more famous for being Byron than for his poems -- which actually hurt his poetry in terms of receiving adequate criticism as a work in and of itself after he died.

    Name value may well be more important than the product, but I'd also argue it can undermine said product when the author eclipses their own work.

    Mind you, the idea of 'famous for artist and no clue about their work' is odd to me, perhaps because I can't think of a literary version of that. Also, I thought everyone know about Raphael via Donatello, Michelangelo and Leonoardo.


  8. @ alcar

    Well, you'd know more than me about poetry :) But yes, I see what you mean. Kindof like how after JK Rowling had a good following for Harry Potter, suddenly the size of her books ballooned out. If she had been less famous, I'm betting she would have had to stick closer to word-count limits.

    I think, in the instance I mentioned, the person only cared that other people know how rich/cultured she was. When she found out my education was based in the arts, it seemed like she was trying to get me to say, 'wow, how amazing!' and validate her *purchase*. But, since there are a billion artists and she couldn't even tell me what style it was, it just ended up with her looking... a little vapid.


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