What Art is For Part 1: The Works and Art Walk
By Blair Brennan - Part one of two
A Rainy Day at Art Walk – Some day a real rain will come…
No, painting is not done in order to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy. —Pablo Picasso, conversation on Guernica as recorded by Jerome Seckler, 19451
Picasso was wrong. There are two kinds of art—art that decorates our homes and art that is a weapon that can change the way humans think. It is a confusing distinction for both art-makers and art-viewers because art can be profound or pleasing to the eye or both simultaneously. It becomes further complicated because an art work can start as one of these things and become the other and because artists may believe themselves to be creating socially or politically relevant art when their work is barely fit to decorate hotel rooms. Hundreds of art reviewers in local newspapers everywhere make matters worse by describing art work without ever telling you whether it has the potential to start (or win) wars or simply beautify your stark cold apartment. Lack of discourse about art contributes to the situation; however, the greatest offender in the confusion about the role of art comes from major summer visual arts festivals.
Edmonton hosts two regular summer arts events: The Works, a (predominantly) downtown-based visual arts festival and Art Walk, a south-side, Old Strathcona-based visual arts event. For some time now, I have tried to determine why these events make me anxious and, at times, angry. I’m fond of trying to express my own emotions with the thoughts of others and no quote comes out of my mouth as frequently as Jean Cocteau’s “Art is a priesthood not a pastime”. I use this a lot during our summer arts festivals because when visual art meets the festival format, it inevitably becomes trivialized. It appears a pleasant pastime rather than the tiny tip of an enormous sacred iceberg.
Summer arts festivals promise artists “exposure”. The larger the group of people you are in contact with, the logic goes, the more likely you are to find people who want to decorate their apartment with your art work or help you with the revolution that your art is going to facilitate. This is not a reflection of the relative intelligence of the viewers. It is simply numbers. For artists, this is the attraction of exhibitions (or art practices based) in larger cites, the potential of intelligent public art and public art interventions and the promise of the internet (though few in my acquaintance have realized this “promise”). It is also the raison d’être of the visual art festival in all its forms. Because the stated aim of most of these types of events is exposure for artists and educating and/or entertaining a broad public audience, debate about the usefulness of these events centers on the importance of public access to visual arts and the delivery of effective art education and interpretive programs rather than problems with the festival format itself.
The Works attempts to be more avant-garde and experimental in its programming. However, intelligent, socially and politically engaging work is often undermined by the dominance of home-decoration displayed in Edmonton’s central Churchill Square and further diluted by some truly shoddy presentation. This includes works or shows that are difficult to find, misrepresentations and mistakes in printed material along with a litany of display, lighting and presentation gaffes. Even the best visual art has limited defense against poor display. Deficiencies in presentation effectively silence any boundary-pushing potential in the art and give further prominence to art work that is more “market place” than “consciousness raising”.2
Art Walk makes no claim of presenting avant-garde and experimental art work. Most participants freely admit that this is a chance to sell some art. Hundreds of individual artist “market stalls” line Whyte Avenue and adjacent streets in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district. Smiling art lovers stroll the Art Walk on the sunny days and some of them are willing to spend some money for original art work by local artists. What could be wrong with that? Local artists need support and encouragement and winters are long here. It is difficult to begrudge any one a few hours in the summer sun but clearly these events and the art work exhibited are not intended to raise difficult questions. This brings up the subtle and devious prospect that The Works, Art Walk and countless other community’s Art Strolls, Jaunts or Crawls are the contemporary “circuses” in an eternal succession of “bread and circuses”.
I don’t believe this duplicity is premeditated (I’m not that paranoid yet). Some intelligent and well meaning organizers and artists present work to some equally intelligent and well meaning viewers. However, despite everyone’s best intentions, these events reinforce the idea of artists as a class of contented amateurs with a parallel class of contented viewers – the whole affair, just another (small) cog in the producer/consumer machine. The artist as a Cocteau-like priest is nowhere to be found at these events because to be successful (i.e. to make participants, organizers and sponsors happy), these events require a lot of complacent viewers who are appeased with a superficial understanding and appreciation of the art work on display. However, viewers can’t be too passive. Occasionally, they have to pay admission to galleries, make donations, buy art and write or call City Hall or their MLA (or express, with their vote) how important these events are to their quality of life (maybe I am that paranoid). Large popular appeal is the most important criteria for the success of these events. In this respect, they are similar to major art galleries and museums. “We are in the entertainment business and competing against other forms of entertainment out there.”3 Ben Hartley, the Guggenheim’s director of corporate communications and sponsorships said some time ago in the New York Times, effectively summarizing everything you need to know about the current state of public art galleries and local arts festivals.4
“Don’t go to Art Walk or The Works if they bother you so much”. That is the sage counsel that I receive at home. “But”, I sputter to my wife “it misrepresents what I do!” I asked a colleague, another artist, what he thought. He did not think these events trivialized what we do though his comment was a more colorful “I don’t care what they do. They can shove it in a tent or they can shove it up their ass!” Equally funny was another artist friend’s comment: “If they want to show my work in a tent, that tent better be in Venice.” A tent in Edmonton’s Churchill Square is still a tent and even the best work is somehow made to look tawdry and inconsequential without a real wall behind it. A wall is commitment and a tent is only there until they need the space next week so the same sugary-fried-dough-eating-taxpayer can enjoy a guy on a unicycle juggling chainsaws.
My quibble with Picasso was merely a pedantic foreword to this whole discussion. There are obviously more than two kinds of art but Picasso’s “home decoration” vs. “weapon” will always be a major dichotomy in contemporary visual art. Picasso and countless others have said that you can expect more from visual art than decoration. At its best, art can seize even the least receptive viewer and encourage profound introspection but the major summer arts festivals like The Works and Art Walk do little to assist this basic form of self discovery. Despite “edgy” promotional campaigns, genuinely provocative art is seldom found or poorly supported at The Works. The amount (Art Walk) or public prominence (The Works) of art that is more couch-matching than incendiary gives the broad impression that this is all art has to offer or, worse, all that Edmonton audiences seek in their art.
Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1968), 487. ↩
Some disclosure is required. I’ve been in a number of The Works shows in the past. I’d like to say that The Works was better back when I participated more regularly but I probably overlooked the festival’s shortcomings for selfish reasons. I’ve agreed to be in The Works (and other exhibitions) because friends or curators that I respect have asked me to participate. I’ve exhibited because I respected the other artists involved; I was interested in the concept for the show and the “conversation” that emerged between the works on display. These are the “noble” motives. I have often participated in The Works with an “only game in town” attitude and that most selfish of reasons (shared by many artists at some stage in their career), CV padding. To be blunt, The Works, Art Walk and similar events in other communities rely heavily on exhibitions by artists who have few other exhibition opportunities — artists eager to add another show to their resume without too much concern about what or where that show might be. ↩
John Seabrook, “Nobrow Culture: Why it’s become so hard to know what you like,” New Yorker, September 20, 1989, (Page). ↩
More fully explored in my article: Something Profound and Something Box Office: The New AGA and the Local Arts Community, PrairieArtsters.com, May 5, 2010 ↩
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Pay attention Edmonton.
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