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Art vs. Mediocrity

Art Meets Reality (Television), or, A Supreme Victory for Capitalism!

I would like to postulate that the artists who attended the Bravo auditions are motivated most simply by a desire to be liked. Fame and worldly success are not peripheral or shallow ambitions in this culture. The pursuit of capitalist values is typically rewarded with more of the above. In fact, from the gold rush to reality television, beating the odds and competing against your neighbor is synonymous with the American Dream…

"Art lies in concealing Art." - Ovid
"The revolution will not be televised." - Gil Scott-Heron

Bravo television, renowned for reality programs like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, has a new concept program titled, “Untitled Art Project”. I am imagining fashion make-overs at Urban Outfitters, paint splashes courtesy of Dick Blick and soundtrack by Someone’s iPod. Like all reality television, it will have little to do with the actual lived-in reality you and I humbly call “dragging ourselves out of bed in the morning”.

The artists who attended the Bravo auditions may simply be motivated by a desire to be liked. Or, they could be savvy strategists with social-networks and hundreds of “friends” ready to vote for them when the competition gets rough. Before we continue, we should acknowledge that seeking fame and fortune are, if not literally touted as character-defining ambitions in our culture, suggested means of attaining grudging respect, professional jealousy and free stuff (aka. sponsorship). Why shouldn’t a visual artist also be a pop-culture icon? The agreement to pursue, or, to play the game, for those tokens representative of success and power is typically rewarded with – whatdd’ya know – more tokens. From the gold rush to reality television, beating the odds and competing against your neighbor has been synonymous with “Ye Olde American Dream”. We are constantly surveying the lay of the land over the figurative picket-fence, sizing each other up and placing ourselves in a social hierarchy based on where we live, how we dress, what we drive, and what we do for a living. The emerging artist just wants a piece of that dream.

Contrary to some purist views about “selling out”, money does not (necessarily) pollute the innocent intention or oceanic feeling of the Sensitive Artist. Neither money, nor art, has any intrinsic worth but represents the values that we imbue them with (all things being equal). Unless independently wealthy themselves, artists need a flexible job or patronage of some kind in order to develop their craft. People who have earned, or are blessed with, a stable financial future should want to (and usually do) foster cultural enterprises. The patron and the artist are like chocolate and peanut-butter and society benefits from their collaboration – the creative exploration by the artist generates new ideas, philosophies and may even provide an influence on the visionary aspects of technology and science (take Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine for example); meanwhile, the speculation and support from patrons of the arts generates the all important cultural productivity that marks a prosperous civilization. Mass-media outlets, and the corporate entities behind them, could pick-up where private patronage and government funding for the arts have waned to become cultural stewards and incubators of future artistic movements.

Just one small problem there – American corporate interests and its brand-ors have no “taste”. Adept at absorbing anarchistic elements (take any youth culture movement from Hippies to Hip-Hop), its digestion and re-packaging of youth fashion, sensibilities and rebellion leave only a trace of original content. This liquidation of a range of values into the one-size-fits-all cultural entertainment model sells. The formula for success has been made efficient and precise, from films and music to industrial design. In terms of contemporary art, most obviously in today’s popular music, the assembly-line logic applied to creative output means art can only be entertainment. Entertainment sells more advertising and, most importantly, disseminates an increasingly potent brew of wants that supersede needs. If we don’t know how to think, and looking at art that makes us think is tedious, boring, and hard, why would we want to learn how to do that? Art offers no reward to the palate accustomed to convenience and mediocrity. Decorative pillows and gallery wrapped giclée prints are scaled to our experiences and desires. Understanding, a sense of deeper meaning, and a connection to the world through a work of art requires effort and meditation. As with anything worthwhile – it must be cultivated and learned. Good art is able to communicate and transcends the mundane clutter of our app-addled brains because it has intent, purpose, drama and humanity.

Marketing gurus will never be able to master the universal elements of the human story. They can imitate – but their language is too much about simplification, the breaking down of unique elements to form a generic, palatable object like remembrance-bracelets for-all-occasions. Artists’ are builders – we destroy in order to create. Taking apart an idea, structure, or image we learn how it works, what is essential to its process and finally how that idea, structure, or image relates to ourselves as members of a larger society.

Ultimately, we have the choice to watch or not watch as a group of hapless artists submits itself to degrading competitions that measure only their willingness to please the judges. I admit, I am interested if only for the critical fodder and sheer spectacle. Intellectually we understand that “reality television” is an oxymoron, a parody of reality, where we can be entertained by a cast of characters that approximate ourselves but not quite enough to cause us any discomforting introspection. I only hope that the participating artists will realize the tawdriness of their bargain and do something unprecedented that upsets the rules of the game – like working together.


Read more about is in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/arts/television/20bravo.html?_r=1

And, if you want to know more about Gil Scott-Heron, who wrote and performed the spoken word piece, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (later sampled by Public Enemy), look him up. Find him on YouTube or start at NPR.org >>