A Binding Choice
The Value of Risk - 2019
1: "Where do you want to go today?"
The choice is yours; pick a destination. You can choose to play, create, connect with other users or hit the books on the World Wide Web and the only limit is your imagination.
Microsoft sold us this iconic slogan when the internet was in its infancy. And as we waved farewell to Windows 3.1 and the monochrome of MS-DOS, we caught our first glimpse of the bright blue skies of Windows 95.
The dial-up generation was offered a world of possibilities. (Elliott, 2019)
As more users plugged in and signed up to the global network of innovators and free thinkers the unit of measurement by which we measure cyberspace began to narrow. The world had grown smaller and the question of "Where do you want to go today?" was truly limitless but our answer must first navigate the compulsory, hardwired logic of Microsoft and pass through the checkpoints of the many operating processes that responded to the presence of a one or a zero; a non-binary question that was validated by an ‘either/or’ mechanism and our destination was calculated by an unknown number of preset conditions. (Verweort, 2019)
We could choose to gaze out of the Microsoft window but the vista may not be as advertised.
Jan Verwoert explores the oxymoronic nature of the ‘binding choice’ and specifically Microsoft’s contradiction of a boundless sphere of possibilities versus the constraint of an ‘either/or’ requirement; the conflicting principles of applying binary assessment criteria to a question designed to entice a response of inexhaustible possibilities; using ‘yes/no’ to define the propositions of a creative mind. (Verweort, 2019)
I wonder whether this façade of infinite choice is a common aspect of the contemporary creative process. When invited to experiment freely must we still abide by a set of requirements each demanding a yes or a no? Do binary validation devices impact on the practicality of risk in a developing creative practice and are there pressures to favour tried and tested methods?
To answer these questions we must first consider the roles of our creative practitioners.
2: Creative Dark Matter and Perceived Artistic Value
Gregory Sholette defines those who make up the creative ‘Dark Matter’ as the “marginalised artists of the art world who are essential to the survival of the mainstream.” (Sholette, 2010) The term gives a name to the practitioners, critics, administrators and art dealers who contribute to the creative economy but largely remain anonymous.
Let’s focus specifically on the defining variable that differentiates between the marquee names who exist in the limelight and those who reside in the obscurity of the dark matter; value.
How do we place value on art? And how do we define the term ‘artistic value’? These are important questions when considering the rules of success and failure. Sholette describes his model of the fine art community as a pyramid structure with the number of artists on each row decreasing as the perceived level of significance increases. I would suggest that when understanding a value attributed to an object or a practitioner perhaps it is helpful to consider the pyramid at its most literal. (Sholette, 2010)
We could choose to explore the site of the three Great Pyramids that form the focal point of Cairo’s complex of Giza; we could consider the largest of the trio, the Pyramid of Khafre. How would we assign worth to each of the limestone courses? Do we consider the stones at the base to be less important when assessing the integrity of the structure? Or do we believe the stones at the top to be carved to a greater specification or sourced from a superior seam? In this model it is an objects position within the structure that defines worth. And as we ascend we see an ever decreasing number on stones on each subsequent layer which inevitably promotes a hierarchical notion of exclusivity with the upper echelons assuming the role of a lofty height to which the stones at the base should always aspire to reach without any realistic expectations of doing so. And yet it is these bricks furthest from the summit that are left exposed to the erosion of sandstorms and bear the scars of the rigours of daily life while their contemporaries benefit from the short supply of polished casing stones that offer security and protection for the pristine minority at the top. When positioned at the apex and blessed with a fine polished façade those stones must look god-like to the forgotten majority that form the base.
But is this an accurate model for understanding the artistic pecking order? What is the process of apportioning artistic value to contemporary art? And how can we explain any perceived inequalities?
Economic anthropologist Stuart Plattner presents the ‘Tournament Model’ in an attempt to understand the apparent disparity of a spotlight that remains focused on the few compared with the near invisibility of the many. Imagining a fictitious competition between elite level athletes, Plattner explains that although the frontrunner may finish a mere fraction ahead of their rivals they will be deemed the only winner irrespective of the herculean efforts of their competitors and the incredibly small margins of victory; some may feel they have not been sufficiently compensated for their efforts whilst a select few are handsomely rewarded. (Plattner, 1996) When considering the exposure of creative practitioners and the value placed on their work what are the subtle differences that propel some to a podium finish and leave others to participate purely as a pace setter for the victor? Perhaps it all comes down to market forces and revenue.
But firstly we should consider the subject of authorship.
3: Questions of Authorship and the Tournament Model
Maintaining the ‘track and field’ metaphor for a moment we could also choose to visit Berlin in 2009 and witness the fastest man on earth leaving competitors in his wake as he travels 100 meters more rapidly than anyone in human history; although it is important to note that one competitor did maintain parity with our champion for the majority of the race.
The US National Center for Biotechnology Information examined the performance of Usain Bolt and also the stride pattern of the lesser known Tyson Gay, the second fastest human being ever to have existed. The findings demonstrated that throughout the race the pair ‘spontaneously and intermittently synchronized their steps… demonstrating that even the most optimized individual motor skills can be modulated by the simple presence of another individual via interpersonal coordination processes… opening promising new research directions for better understanding and improvement of athletic performance.’ (NCBI, 2019) In summary, we find that our ‘Tournament Model’ gold medallist benefits from the elite athletes competing beside them and requires their presence in order to achieve the blistering records set on track. The investigative research of the NCBI would suggest that these times would be slightly more pedestrian were the athlete required to run in isolation. As Gregory Sholette observes, “we witness the dark matter indirectly… viewing the motions of the visible.” (Sholette, 2010) With this in mind to what degree does this record also belong to Tyson Gay, the necessary dark matter foil to our Usain Bolt supernova?
So how much significance can we place on our artistic runners up? And as artists are we as successful or creative when working in isolation?
Considering the notion of a shared authorship Sholette asks, “Was the painting of the Demoiselles d’Avignon truly the result of one man’s virile talents? Did Picasso, Matisse or even Bertolt Brecht not draw ideas and material support from an invisible entourage of mistresses, amateur actors and non-western artists? What percentage of their historic importance owes itself to the skills as well as the creativity of artisans who prepared pigments, brushes, engravings or props, sets and stage lighting? Did these other men and women not have talent and ambition of their own?” (Sholette, 2010) But is this view of authorship only partially accurate?
Jake Chapman questions whether “a person who makes hubcaps …points at a passing Mercedes SLK, saying, 'I did that?' No. So why should assistants claim possession for their work? It's a job.” (Jeffries, 2019) In reply Stuart Jefferies observes that, “Even if Hockney's RA show was the work of many, it was his name that induced art lovers to queue in the rain.” (Jeffries, 2019)
For the purpose of attributing value we are interested primarily in the notion of a creative eco-system that nurtures ideas and experimentation; how much can we say anything was entirely our own original idea? The role of a studio assistant in the process of production, for example, is less important.
Brian Eno describes this model for a network of creative minds as “scenius.” (Jeffries, 2019)
Eno refutes the idea of a light bulb moment in which an auteur is struck by a bolt of pure genius and then immediately sets about putting a complete and fully formed idea to paper, canvas or film. He suggests that in reality creativity is rarely found in a vacuum but instead thrives in the fertile minds of an experimental community. Art, he says, is always a collaboration of sorts. (Jeffries, 2019)
This is of course simply a better way to appreciate the importance of a collective and is not to detract from the accomplishments of the individual.
What of the individual then? Is it simply the name attached to the art that carries significance?
4: R. Mutt
Quite simply, are we to accept that an objects value is entirely dependent on the position of the author in Shollette’s pyramid? Marcel Duchamp’s seminal exhibit ‘Fountain’ is an interesting place to search for the answer.
In 2004, Duchamp’s porcelain urinal was named as the most influential piece of art produced during the twentieth century. Five hundred industry experts agreed that this ‘sculpture’ changed the face of contemporary art more than any other. (Jury, 2019)
Initially attributed to a fictitious contributor named ‘R. Mutt,’ this piece challenged the definition of what fine art could be. It was this provocation of the established order that gave Duchamp’s intervention such wide reaching influence. Although only a handful of people actually saw the original piece a series of replicas have appeared in exhibitions spanning several decades and the influence of ‘Fountain’ is undeniable.
It has since been asserted that the true exhibitor of the piece was in fact Baroness Elsa von Fretag-Loringhoven. Duchamp wrote a letter to his sister in April 1917 in which he revealed, “One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.” (Higgs, 2019) The fictitious Mr Mutt was also said to have a studio in Philadelphia – the Baroness’ home at the time. Furthermore it is suggested that the name ‘R. Mutt’ would read as ‘armut’ or poverty in German. It is believed the Baroness was making a statement regarding the intellectual poverty of the piece. (Higgs, 2019)
In any case the authorship of the piece is certainly a complicated one; believed to be the work of an unknown artist, then claimed by a leading contemporary practitioner and now suspected of being the work of a forgotten visionary. My question would simply be; does it matter? Would the perceived influence of the piece change were we to re-attribute the authorship to Baroness Elsa von Fretag-Loringhoven? As the piece no longer exists perhaps we can accept that it is the idea that is imbued with worth rather than the object. At this point would it matter whose idea it was? I suspect not. The influence/damage is done.
Perhaps then we should consider market forces to be the determining factor when considering real artistic value.
5: The Value of the Market
Joanne Lee asserts that for many artists success will always be determined by fame and commercial sales. She offers the Young British Artists as an example of a market driven artistic practice (Lee, 2019); indeed the National Gallery of Australia cancelled a planned ‘Sensation’ YBA exhibition due to concerns regarding the commercial motives of an exhibition owned and promoted by advertising guru and influential art collector Charles Saatchi declaring that “As a publicly funded institution… It is not tenable for the National Gallery of Australia to take on an exhibition which... has been too closely aligned to the commercial market”. (Lee, 2019)
The media attention from ‘Sensation’ catapulted the Young British Artist’s into the consciousness of the general public with many exhibitors becoming household names overnight. People voted with their feet and the show attracted over 300,000 visitors. Surely this market appeal is a clear indication of success and value. A canny use of museum and gallery spaces to add monetary value to an artistic investment. (Jury, 2019)
But I wonder about this notion of an external locus of identity; that the value of art and by extension the artist is defined by forces other than object or practitioner. I wonder what was the perceived value of the exhibiting pieces prior to Saatchi’s involvement?
When an artist has tasted commercial success it is understandable that they may feel compelled to shy away from experimentation and instead feel pressured to revert to a safe and commercially accepted option; a cyclical process of supply and demand. If we accept Saatchi’s assertion that the phrase ‘fine art’ is used to differentiate between “works by artists who were the sole agent of creative expression and works that were created by commission,” (SaatchiArt, 2019) then we must consider that a point exists when the professional requirement to use tried and tested processes to create work with a proven track record of commercial success is in itself a commission.
Sandro Chia saw his stock rise and fall in direct correlation to the buying and selling habits of Charles Saatchi. Whilst reflecting on the rollercoaster experience of being plucked from obscurity and then banished back to the anonymity of the artistic ’Dark Matter’ Chia reflected "Thanks to him I am probably less successful but much freer in what I do." Is freedom not a success in its self? (Akbar, 2019)
This new found freedom to work to a self-defined brief and not pander to the preconceived expectations of the gallery and the buyer seem to better fit the generally accepted definition of what fine art is at its purest form. (SaatchiArt, 2019) It could therefore be postulated that to follow the lead of market forces when establishing the value of art is detrimental to the creative ambitions of both the individual and the wider artistic community. Equally, if the value of art can be so easily manipulated by a single investor then perhaps this isn’t a true reflection of worth.
6: Fear of Risk
So what of the practitioners of the future who have yet to enjoy the trappings of critical or commercial success? What does the notion of value mean to them?
Let’s first consider our scientific contemporaries.
The nature of science dictates that only through experimentation will progress occur; trial and error; failure and success; research as a learning outcome. “Comfortable science is an oxymoron. If we want to make new discoveries, that means taking a leap in the dark — a leap we might not take if we’re too afraid to fail.” (Nature.com, 2019) Science can conceive of an attainment without a resolved conclusion. Can the same be said about art?
As creatives do we encourage risk taking and applaud bravery?
In 1976 the Sex Pistols performed to a modest audience at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall. Frontman Johnny Rotten later stated; “They say everyone who was at that gig went out and formed a band but that wasn’t our plan – or our fault!” (Morley, 2019) Indeed Bernard Sumner (later of Joy Division and New Order) recalled that he “saw the Sex Pistols. They were terrible. I thought they were great. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.” (Morley, 2019) It is believed that approximately forty people bought a sixty pence ticket for the gig which is incredible when we consider that in attendance were future members of Joy Division, New Order, The Fall, Buzzcocks, A Certain Ratio, Ludus, Simply Red and The Smiths. (Morley, 2019) Certainly an example of risk taking and bravery inspiring the dormant creativity residing in others but this is over forty years ago. Can the 21st Century world embrace experimentation and potential failure in the same way?
Joanne Lee discusses the fear of risk that she recognises in our creative youth. The term failure, she suggests, is generally an issue to be solved; a whispered concept of right and wrong that plants a seed of doubt in the mind of our aspiring artist. What follows is a defensive methodology that creeps in to studio practice, requires constant reassurance and a need for “clear guidance as to what needs to be done in order to achieve a good mark.” (Lee, 2019) The student demand for a checklist of the required components of a successful course submission is far removed from the exploratory promise of a fine art apprenticeship. Lee asserts that the concern that any deviance from the well-trodden line may result in “getting the art wrong” (Lee, 2019) is perfectly understandable and declares that the reality of failure is not an option for tutors either. (Lee, 2019)
Lee stresses that with extreme pressure put on course leaders to achieve maximum pass rates and a demanded student body approval rating of close to 100% there is little room for risk taking. (Lee, 2019) Indeed for a student acquiring substantial debt whilst suffering possible financial hardship I would suggest taking the safe option is entirely logical.
An educational system that trains for exams and measures success based the collated data of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet will inevitably reward logic and resolution over experimentation; as predicted the answer to the question "What do you want to think today?" will be validated by a predetermined checklist.
Joanne Lee concludes that ‘we need to be less binary about the idea of success or failure. We ought to be more open to the actualities of making and experiencing things and able to acknowledge that complexity and even contradiction can be strengths. If students are confident in their uncertainty, it surely means they have not failed.’ (Lee, 2019)
Perhaps this journey of an organic creative process is best summed up by Brian Eno. “Old wooden ships,” he says, “had to be constantly caulked up because they leaked. As technology improved they could make stiffer ships but they broke up. Ship builders went back to making ships that didn't fit together properly, ships that could flex. The best vessels surrendered: they allowed themselves to be moved by the circumstances.” Eno continues to consider that whilst a surfer is always partially in control they allow themselves to be taken by the current. (Jeffries, 2019) As a creative is our practice not more fruitful when we reject rigid ideas in favour of flexibility and investigation? This pursuit of the experimental and acceptance of risk sits in stark contrast to the route of treading a well-trodden path and sticking to accepted artistic positions.
7: A Projection of Perfection
So how does a notion of ‘playing safe’ translate to the practitioners who create in anonymity within the vastness of the dark matter? What pressures exist when working in a vacuum and is there a tendency to bend to the accepted laws of the fine art universe?
Social media certainly plays its part.
Stephanie Sharlow sums up the pitfalls of Instagram by saying, “Social media has come to serve as a platform not for engagement and interaction, but exaggerations and bragging, and creatives may, in fact, be the biggest offenders. Instead of harvesting a community of collaboration, supporting one another, learning from others and blending ideas to form more impactful pieces, we use the Internet to puff our chests.” (Sharlow, 2019)
As creatives on social media there is a tendency to chase the ‘like’ and ignore the process. Indeed, New York based artist Andrea Crespo told of his own Instagram experiences “Reward systems in social media were influencing my decisions while art making. I would think about what people would think based off of likes and comments.” (Vulture.com, 2019) So should the artistic community be concerned with a climate that compels practitioners to tailor their own creative processes for an Instagram audience?
Clearly peer review is a vital part of the creative process. Feedback from our contemporaries is a necessary part of artistic development. “If the Duchamp urinal is art, then anything is. But there has to be consensus about good art among informed people -- artists, dealers, curators, collectors. Somebody has to be the first to say something is good, but if you put it up the flagpole and nobody salutes it, then there's nothing there.” (Wallach, 2019) How odd then that even established artists fall victim to the pursuit of the Instagram ‘Like’ from an audience that is anything but informed.
As artists we rarely show our processes or failures and only exhibit our resolved and successful pieces. Perhaps Instagram is dealing with fiction and an augmented reality viewed through a rose tinted filter. “Artists are here to tell the truth. So do that, or don’t do anything at all.” (Sharlow, 2019)
Even the most famous and celebrated artists were amateurs once; but what drives an amateur to create? And does the lack of an audience have any impact on this compulsion to mark make? Perhaps there is there an honesty to be found in the practice of the amateur?
8: Working Class Fantasy
Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge introduced the idea of ‘Working Class Fantasy’; the urge to create, intervene or mark make as a reaction to alienation or as a show of defiance in the face of authoritarian oppression. Negt and Kluge explain that these instances are often the result of the “residue of unfulfilled wishes, ideas, of the brain’s own laws of movement...” (Negt, Kluge and Labanyi, 1988)
Sholette gives us numerous examples of the working classes experimenting with intervention in the face of mundanity and the absence of intellectual stimuli. We could look to the muralist who added Nazi storm troopers to a painting for a Walt Disney hotel or the stock broker who took advantage of his access permissions to create market shares fluctuations. (Sholette, 2010) These small acts of intellectual violence receive no critical response and no monetary reward. The process of striking out at the world that left us ignored and isolated seems an innate human characteristic but aside from an impotent rebellious action what are the wider implications of the actions of our artistic outsiders? What should we make of these small interventions that we see all around us? What artistic value should be placed on those?
Richard Wentworth’s examination of the modern landscape, “Making Do and Getting By” is a visual diary of contemporary public intervention and the chance encounters that provide a snapshot of the experience of modern life. (Wentworth and Obrist, 2015)
Wentworth’s record of ‘oddities’ in the urban liminality is the first step to defining a clear route of influence beginning with the experimental dark matter of the fringe and continuing straight up main street to join the refined art in our town centres.
9: Dark Matter and the White Cube
Gregory Sholette confirms the measurable influence ‘Dark Matter’ has on contemporary institutions and elite level artists. He argues that without the pressures of market expectations, it is the element of risk that facilitates a progressive and challenging base that reverberates to the very top of the creative pyramid. (Sholette, 2010)
Taking the example of New York’s 2002 Whitney Biennial we find examples of creative practice operating “without concern for the art market or art world accolades.” Sholette highlights the ‘Forcefield’ arts collective as an example of the ‘self-consciously amateurish.’ This aesthetic, labelled ‘slack art,’ was best illustrated in their exhibition entitled “K48-3: Teenage Rebel – The Bedroom Show.” The show was considered ‘essential viewing’ by a number of high end art publications with Roberta Smith of the New York Times reporting that if this exhibition “signals a new openness, then the outskirts look very much like the centre of town.” (Sholette, 2010)
The blurring of the space between critical acclaim and the anonymity of dark matter begins to render accepted characteristics of artistic merit and value irrelevant. Sholette suggests previous measurements of technical capability become redundant as the dark matter infects the white cube and questions what it is that prevents a trading of places between amateur, activist and blue chip artist. (Sholette, 2010)
When positioned midway between the foundations and summit of our pyramid we may struggle to differentiate between the raw working class fantasy of our base stones that are busy lashing out at an unfair world and our polished fine artists at the peak of their profession.
So where should we look for a true measure of artistic value?
Through Negt and Kluge, Sholette and Roberta Smith we can track the journey from ‘Working Class Fantasy’ through the artistic ‘Dark Matter’ arriving at the centre of town White Cube; a process of artistic integrity and authenticity that feeds from root to branch.
The volatile nature of market forces and the ease with which an object’s worth can be manipulated suggest the monetary cost of an artwork is not an indication of its value.
Authorship clearly plays a part in the worth of an artwork but a piece can have very real value without a famous moniker.
I would propose that true artistic value exists in affect. How has a piece impacted on an artist’s contemporaries? Has an individual offered something new and influenced the creativity of others? Art is not a one-player game and good art is rarely created in a vacuum.
Experimentation and taking risks; without accepting these attributes in our creative practice we risk stagnation. New ideas come with bravery and this opens the door to the possibility of failure. We should accept research as a learning outcome and not adopt a false façade or the projection of perfection.
Our social media should be a platform to share ideas and feed our creative eco-system not an arena to puff our chests and battle for the mantle of Alpha Artist.
As long as our creative practitioners of the future rely on the ‘like’ of an online stranger and our student’s success or failure is determined by raw data collated on a spreadsheet, we will be restricted by the limitations of a binary checklist and a crippling fear of failure.
In 1976 the Sex Pistols chose to visit Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall and accidently inspired a generation; In 2019 the question is “Where do we want to go today?”
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