Andrew Keen's book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture," is the talk of Internet blogs these days. The software entrepreneur reportedly argues (I haven't read the book yet, just reviews) that amateurism, encouraged by the lax atmosphere of the Internet, is lowering the standards of our culture in every respect, from our understanding of general information to our appreciation of the arts.
In the arts, at least, I believe the lowering – or at least the radical changing – of standards predates the advent of the Internet. For some time in the arts, and especially in the visual arts, there has been a shift from skill-based craftsmanship to abstract ideas as the core of a work's value. I wrote about this last fall in The Desert Advocate, as part of an article on artist Jarvis Rockwell’s “Maya II,” an installation of found objects. Here’s the story:
Back in the days when arguing moot points was my favorite pastime, the favorite question I asked myself was, “What is art?” it’s not a bad way to wile away time, come to think of it, since it sends you to the museum, to the concert hall, to the theater and to the library on a regular basis. You look at, listen to, and otherwise experience all these different things that people have called “art” and you ask, “What do they have in common?” Of course, there’s no answer. What do poems by Lord Byron, solos by Charlie Parker, canvases by Vermeer and movies by Kurosawa have in common? The same thing as ancient Greek drama, Navajo rugs, Balanchine ballets, and Springsteen. Which is precisely…what?
Walk into the atrium of the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts – it’s open to the public during business hours, as well as prior to performances – and you may find yourself chewing on this same old bone. For there, rising before you, is a wooden pyramid on which artist Jarvis Rockwell has arrayed…11,000 action figure toys.
Commissioned by the Scottsdale Public Art Program, the piece is notable for the sheer imposition of its size and solidity. Rockwell might have made a shaky pillar his ground for such a display of obvious consumerism and childish obsession, but he chose instead the most imposing of forms, a pyramid. Upon this ageless form sit…Superman and Batman, Dorothy and the Tin Man; Darth Maul, Darth Vader, and Spongebob Squarepants (twice); Gumby, a Power Ranger, and several dozen small blue elastic men who form a triangle of their own on one face of the pyramid. Barbie makes an appearance, but she is overwhelmed by the presence of monsters and dinosaurs and all kinds of unnamed figures from animated films and seems ridiculously passé. There are so many figures you can’t see them all, let alone guess their identities.
Rockwell calls his monument to toys “Maya II” (there was a “Maya I” a few years ago in New England), and points out that “Maya” is sanskrit for “illusion.” With that in mind, it’s easy to draw a conclusion about the artist’s intent in putting together such an F.A.O. Schwartz-ish display, but one should rush to a conclusion. Rockwell says the work’s meaning consist in whatever the viewer brings to it.
It’s the sort of artwork that used to prompt two stock reactions from the general public: 1) “Is it really art?,” and 2) “Couldn’t I do the same thing myself?” Couched as a kind of recoil, those statements are merely close-mindedness. But as inquiries, they strike me as entirely legitimate. As to the first, I don’t accept the idea that “art is whatever artists do.” If chemists do biology, is biology chemistry? I do find, however, that just about everyone agrees that art is something unnecessary, unconnected to the urgencies of daily life. And nearly everyone recognizes that experiencing art tells them something about what it means to be alive, to be human, and to exist now. Roughly, art is an object or experience that takes us out of our everyday selves and puts us into a state of mind and feeling unique to that object or experience. Clearly, “Maya II” is just as much a work of art as, say, the Jacques Lipschitz bronze that sits, abandoned and unlabeled, just a few yards from “Maya II.” Maybe more so.
It’s that other question that nags at me -- “Couldn’t I do the same thing myself?” – because the answer is, in all honestly, yeah, you probably could, provided you came up with the idea and found the underwriting necessary to do it. Skill long ago stopped being the prime requisite for making art of any kind – visual, musical, cinematic. The idea is everything, and the technique that has traditionally stood between the idea and its communication need not stop anyone.
Art has rapidly gone from being a set of recognized forms practiced by professionals to any form practiced by anybody. A century ago, a visual artist was someone who mastered painting or sculpture. Today, it could be someone with a cellphone videocam posting to YouTube. Fifty years ago, a composer was a specialized musician who studied with masters for years. Today, it can be a guy with a guitar, a few chords under his fingers and a friend who’s a drummer. This doesn’t mean things are worse – or better – than they were in “the old days.” But it darn well means they are different, and not just different in the way that the Lipschitz semi-abstract sculpture differed from Rodin, or the way a Picasso contrasted with a Renoir. It’s much more radical than that. The arts are still there to take us away from our mundane selves and into some other place, but the modus operandi has altered almost absolutely.
There used to be a saying, “Everyone’s a critic,” meaning that anybody can nitpick or naysay. We may be coming into an era when a better, more accurate saying is “Everyone’s an artist.”
- Kenneth LaFave