Return to Articles

Mat Gleason


Does art have any rules? So much art these days confabulates itself with “pushing the envelope” and exploring the line between art and some other endeavor. Blurring art and (fill in the blank) is an antidote to the seeming constrictions of traditional media. In some quarters, for some reason, there is a foregone conclusion that painting, drawing, sculpting and photographing are antiquated and feeble mediums. So much art today strives to inject itself into “reality” through the use of non-artists and their world as props and scenery for the egos and empty ambition of artists bent on reshaping art into pure experience. This Social Intervention Art has overtaken much of the dialogue in a quest to take art out of the confines of the gallery and bring it into the real world. As noble as this sounds, there is an irony when this supposedly egalitarian approach is preached loudest by tenured academics, who are as cloistered from the real world and unaccountable for their actions as those Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers that were shielded from you and I prior to the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.
There is no such thing as tenure in the art world, but the insidious reach of academia into contemporary art props up many a false philosophy. Once an academic has tenure, they can loan ideology into bankrupt theoretical practice as easily and incautiously as mortgage lenders were bloating up public debt up through early 2008. Art outside the academy depends on a varying combination of personal commitment, fashionably prescient timing, market economics, dumb luck, critical support, the interest of enthusiasts and message reiteration in a variety of scattered media. Meanwhile the tenured among us leave the gallery settings behind and push social intervention and new media with a never-ending supply of student labor and enthusiasm along with the knowledge that the worst thing that can happen will be getting ignored; and getting ignored may be supported enthusiastically by their mediocre colleagues.

While there are plenty of bad academic settings championing old media, new media in general is so easy to critique because of the seriousness with which it takes itself. No matter how much New Media wants to be different than the wallpaper abstraction and the dialogue between pop and surrealism, it is still poaching students from within art departments and trying to make them into political scientists and/or social workers – but all the while granting them an art degree for not making art. And like the “old” media in the art department, there are a thousand and one new media student parrots, only they scramble theory and practice into an unappetizing omelet of art nobody cares about and everybody nods approvingly over as long and mom or dad sign the tuition check. But some art departments are turning inward toward dialogues about meaningless trivia. Everyone becomes a specialist with increasingly tinier territory to defend. No turf is staked. No envelope is truly pushed, that is, until an institution is there to rationalize the most casual efforts as cutting edge.

Bernard Madoff (left) and Manny Ramirez (right)

New Media, Social Intervention, Art-as-experience beyond tangible form. . . is this starting to sound like derivatives, mortgage backed securities and leveraged buyouts? If you want those Wall Street money managers held accountable, shouldn’t you also be rooting for tenure to disappear and for art academics to also be regulated? Shouldn’t they too meet basic standards of measurable achievement and compliance or be tossed?

Social Intervention is the apogee of academia’s view of art. It is first and foremost engaged with the world, and almost always with the proletariat, a last hot ember in Marxism’s once raging collegiate inferno. But it has more in common with a junk bond than with Das Kapital. New Media is the equivalent of calling a You Tube video a Picasso. Isn’t that the dream of every Wall Street broker: To be as rich as an oil baron without the messy physical commodity? When art is pure experience, smoking a joint is a masterpiece. . . so then charging a fee for early withdrawal becomes an act of artistic sincerity?

Meanwhile, far away, in another part of human consciousness, Manny Ramirez, superstar left fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is suspended from baseball for fifty games. His crime? Using performance-enhancing chemicals to make himself greater than the game. He is being punished for literally pushing the envelope of what it means to be a man playing baseball. He is not the first; just the biggest name caught so far. But was this not simply an act of social intervention? A desire to please the crowd with artistry heretofore inaccessible drove this performer, this artist, to create a new media by adding substances to his body in an attempt to create an art that could not be made with traditional means, an art of pure experience with no responsibilities to the limitations of the object, in this case the human body.

There were no rules against using steroids in baseball for a very long time. The boundaries were pushed. Then suddenly, records that had stood for decades fell with regularity. The experience of the game changed. A strong player’s union and a weak institutional base combined to allow the definition of what a player was to change, and with it the sporting experience was altered.

There were no rules against mortgage-backed securities and the profits from the derivatives to insure them. The laws in place since the Great Depression had disappeared and in the absence of regulation, boundaries were pushed with new products, services and investments all made out of thin air. The definition of profit was blurred into a new meaning and challenged the prevailing notions of economics when it did not come associated with a tangible asset. Of course, no oversight, no object to be made, grown or mined from the ground meant that the financial system was built like a house of cards.

And baseball stepped in and regulated. The greatest player in the game was not above it. A suspension was handed down. The federal government has intervened on Wall Street and is regulating the bankers and their ilk. A stable, regulated financial market is in the interest of the many instead of the envelope pushing benefiting of the few.

And will it be thus in art? Can the pretense to abandon the methods and structures that worked for centuries be unhinged from academia and regulated by the need to succeed in an art world governed by forces outside of ivory tower faculty meetings? The notion of what art is and what can or cannot be doesn’t hang in the balance. History will mock the pretenders, just as steroid-using superstars will not likely populate baseball’s Hall of Fame in the future, and just as Wall Street titans will no longer be able to attain public acclaim if scrutiny reveals a past of shameful greed. What is at stake though, is the success here and now of a generation of artists who need to make art that is part of a wide dialogue about what it means to be human. Unregulated art faculty connive to make the system their own by simulating life experience as social experiment and calling it art, always being sure to hide the results behind a wall, ivy-covered or not.