Stretching the idea of art being like a “Grand Conversation” the question arises, just who’s holding it? It’s a delicate wrinkle on the canvas to pull out because, even though theoretically anyone can join in, the conversation itself is largely dominated by a group of people who, for want of a better word, are an “elite”.
They form a kind of strata above the artist, and it is through their scrutiny and criticism that an artist’s ideas and works pass before there is any recognition of the artist’s contribution to the Grand Conversation.
It takes a great artist to shift the dynamics of this conversation. There are many people talking at once and twelve thousand years of ideas by the world’s greatest thinkers and creators lie on the table.
“When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.” – Banksy
Banksy’s quote sums up an area of great contention in appreciating art – who exactly are these elite to tell us what and what isn’t art?
It is a common question and knowing the context of this “elite” in art helps in understanding why, up until recently, their opinions have dominated the conversation.
First off the notion of an “elite” in art is not necessarily a bad thing.
There have always been taste makers and taste breakers leading the conversation, like the Medici Family for example, or modern day equivalents like Solomon R. Guggenheim and Roy Neuberger who collectively are responsible for recognising and supporting some of art’s most influential artists from Michelangelo to Jackson Pollock.
Add to this that Academic Institutions, Museums, Significant Galleries, other Art Collectors, Patrons and Critics also weigh in with their knowledge and informed opinion, and you can see it is this collision of taste and expertise that drives the Grand Conversation forward.
There are of course many smaller conversations going on in art, meaning local galleries and localised movements, but few gain historical relevance and lack influence or power enough to sway the discourse of art history itself. However, when it comes to the elite group of entities, as a whole, the decisions they make, the artists they support, and the ideas they endorse generally do.
So, by working with this notion of elitism, that is an elitism not of a self imposed cadre granting themselves extra privileges at the expense of others, but of a group that behaves more as a professional, meritocratic filter separating the “fine art” from the “not-so-fine art”, we can see how and why it exists.
Theoretically, in this system only art of the highest calibre stands up to continuous scrutiny from these professional entities (and eventually history itself), because not all art is equal, and it takes expertise and knowledge to make the distinction.
This “discrimination” also confronts a pervasive modern misconception; that since everyone is created equal everyone has an equable contribution to make to the conversation – but for the most part we don’t.
A layman commenting on a piece of art is no more different than a layman on the street commenting on a legal case in a court of law.
In the same way as Lawyers and Judges – using precedents and criteria far beyond the layperson’s access, expertise and knowledge – will sift through a defendant’s history, alibis and other information to build a case for or against their acquittal; so too will critics and art museum curators probe and test the position of an artist’s work, put it into context and give merit where merit is due, or send the artist back to the easel.
In either case, the observations of a layman are moot, and this last point is what alienates a lot of people from the conversation in art – it is a one way communication, top down – and it’s not fun or engaging at all.
But things are changing.
In the past it has been very difficult for anybody on the “outside”, or a non-expert, to influence the Grand Conversation in such a way.
For a number of years there has been a clear delineation between producers of art and consumers of art, and as such it has really mostly been a closed dialog between established artists and the entities supporting them, but new technologies are allowing more and more people to have a voice, to be producers themselves, able to contribute to the conversation in a more direct and effective way, and the notions of what constitute good taste and good art are being radically altered.
Ze Frank explores this idea eloquently in his response to a critic of his competition to find the ugliest myspace page on the web. (See Links below.)
With new social media the box into which we place art and culture has radically re-sized and the power grip this elite has had on the history of art, and by extension on cultural aesthetic and standards is being loosened.
The question then of who is really holding the conversation now is clouded in a digital dust storm.
In this rapidly emerging socially interactive media we are we are being thrust into a read/write culture for the first time since the invention of the printing press and now we are constantly being asked not only for our eyes but our hands as well.
Everything online wants our comments, opinions, feedback, votes, ratings, rankings, and remixes.
Right now it’s akin to a drunken mob crashing a gourmet party with beer and chips and making so much noise it is difficult to hear anyone over the din.
Not that there’s anything wrong with beer and chips, but it does somewhat change the flavour of the party and conversation though, one has to admit.
The sheer scale of these lay contributions is making the aggregated contribution strong enough to sway history itself, and naturally it has professionals in a wide array of fields very alarmed, and when this trend swings towards areas like science or law the implications are frightening.
But in art it can be argued that this mass contribution is not such a bad thing, a great many art movements came about in direct conflict with the existing elite’s set of criteria and taste, and it was great artists who successfully argued their points across time until there was no choice then but to cede the table to their new ideas and new ways of thinking.
Who’s really holding the conversation then?
Perhaps only history can tell.