Earlier this spring, I ventured to MoMA with my parents who were visiting from New Hampshire for the weekend. Since I can recall, my folks have consistently supported my own artistic endeavors, and over the years, this has grown to include visiting art institutions with me, especially now that I live in New York. At the time of our visit, several exhibitions were up at MoMA, including Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present.
Patiently curious about Abramović’s performance, my parents attempted to take in and understand the artist’s intent and the meaning of her work. Soon afterward in the retrospective galleries, my mother and I walked between two closely facing nudes in Imponderabilia. Immediately, my mom jokingly asked if that piece was supposed to make her feel fat on purpose. Chuckling, I replied that no, of course not, but that it was attempting to make one think about how they experience the world through their body and how this relates to space and to others. In a way, from even just asking the question, she already knew this.
Yet both of my parents tend to cite their lack of formal art education and defer to the artistic authority of a museum whenever they are uncertain about an individual artwork. And why not? If museums position themselves as institutions that facilitate the interface between art and the public, shouldn’t they be experts in this arena? It’s not that my parents don’t try to interpret art and dislike what they come up with, but it’s that they put the curatorial interpretation and museum’s authority before their own. Which forced me to wonder, how do people with various backgrounds approach art in a museum in the first place?
Accepting the trope of the struggling artist, many decide to go ahead and brazenly attempt to carve out a spot for themselves in the art world. You just need to be willing to work really, really hard, right? Right? If only it were that simple. If only the system that determines success for an artist working in the U.S. today lived up to the expectations set forth by our meritocratic upbringing, where hard work and a little pluck can elevate you to the top.
Instead, most artists quickly find that they are reliant on a system of various profit-driven art institutions with a general mission to foster original thinking and multiple modes of expression, while simultaneously practicing narrowly focused methods of supporting the careers of artists. Jennifer Dalton highlights this point in her recent Flash Points interview with Hrag Vartanian, stating that, “what used to be multiple avenues of artistic ‘success’ have winnowed down into the single definition of conspicuous validation by the art market.” Oh the art market, where artwork can transform into a luxury commodity and where the collectors, museums, and galleries determine what good art is. Considering the interests of these parties, it wouldn’t be too brash to assume that good art should be saleable art as well. Discussion over so-so blockbuster exhibitions and the general consensus that having a gallery in Chelsea does not mean you show quality work seem to confirm that this method of determining the cultural landscape has its definitive pitfalls, not to mention conflicts of interest. For someone like myself outside the boundaries of “success,” the system that artists must work in already seems somewhat fixed and in great need of ethical re-examination.