Institute Cultural Anthropology
Art and Society
WHAT IS THE INFLUENCE OF ART ON OUR SOCIETY?
Art and anthropology are very closely connected. Art is a fundamental component of culture and culture in turn is a big inspiration for artists worldwide. There is an increasing trend of artists who are engaged with societal issues and are making more art about people’s behaviour within society.
Within the discipline of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology there are courses like "Visual Methods’ and ‘Media Worlds’ that connect anthropology with art. By using a multi-modal approach, like imaging anthropology with visual methods, one could argue that art concerns the anthropologist more than we previously thought. In this ICA we want to dive in deep and discover the many art forms that are connected to anthropology.
In addition, something else worth mentioning: the very fact that this ICA has been posted online is a form of art. For many generations we used printed versions that would land on your doormats, and now we have entered the digital domain, which is filled with its’ very own challenges and possibilities. The internet has created a new space where art can be created and shared, and we have used that potential. We have combined this with the writing of our authors and editors to create this very special first of its kind online ICA.
Art is global. It can be made, defined, viewed and understood in countless ways and forms. These infinite possibilities burden us with the challenge of delivering a well rounded issue about such a multilateral concept. We hope that this ICA will help you understand what art means to you, and if there’s such a thing as non-art.
Feast your eyes on, listen and enjoy the art we present in this issue!
Editor-in-chief of ICA
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE LUNA PROJECT: FINDING MEANING IN THE FIELDS OF POSTMODERN DANCE
By Dena Davida
My ethnographic turn is a journey whose origin can be traced to reading Joann Kealiinohomoku’s essay (1969-1970) “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance”, during my masters’ studies in the late ‘eighties. It is difficult to underestimate its impact on dance anthropologists, historians and aesthetic philosophers over the decades. Her definitive argument that all dances are ethnic was brought into the mainstream of dance studies in North America when reprinted in two seminal collections of dance writing in 1983 (Copeland and Cohen) and again in 2001 (Dils and Cooper). This has effectively broken down the wall in academia that had long separated theatrical/concert dance forms housed exclusively in aesthetics programs from those designated as traditional, ethnic and social dances, and so to be found in anthropology departments and archives.
Following Kealiinohomoku’s lead, a few dance anthropologists began gradually turning their attention to ballet, modern and postmodern dance. At the time I began my own fieldwork in 1996. Three dance researchers had completed ethnographies in dance art worlds: Jennifer Fischer (2004) compared a small-town and big city production of the Nutcracker ballet, Helena Wulff (1998) examined classical ballet’s transnational culture across three dance companies, and Cynthia Novak (1990) penned her ethnohistory of the Contact Improvisation movement and dance jams. By 2012, I was able to edit and publish Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the worlds of dance, a collection with 26 more dance research projects I had located from around the world in which artistic dance was examined through ethnographic methodologies.
It was this reframing of artistic dance practices as purposeful social and cultural phenomena that shaped my own ethnography (2006), a doctoral case study of the Luna choreographic project of the O Vertigo dance company and its artistic director Ginette Laurin in Montréal. From the perspective of a mature professional contemporary dancer and choreographer in her fifties, my understanding of dance had long been confined to choreographic critique and analysis of dance composition, augmented with the subjective responses of audiences and critics. It was Kealiinohomoku’s (1969-1970) insistence that the significance of all dance genres is best understood within the holistic dance event framework which clarified my research question: What is the meaning of the Luna “nouvelle dance event” for its dancing and non-dancing participants?
At the time I was beginning fieldwork in the nineties, anthropology was engaged in a contentious critique about its survival, in light of its past history as a colonialist strategy. In response to this politically-charged situation, I chose to do anthropology at home as an insider ethnographer. The challenge was in learning how to make the familiar strange, and especially, how to account for my role and assumptions in this art world as I observed the dance company in their rehearsal studios and in the theaters in which they performed. My notoriety in the Montréal dance community posed obstacles to attaining neutrality in the field.
The contours and layers of the dance event concept had already been fleshed out by several American and European cultural dance anthropologists, whose ethnographies examined these events as symbolic microcosms of the societies in which they took place. As the time I was doing fieldwork, my primary art world vocation was that of a dance curator and university educator. Because my everyday work was (and still is) the organization of a season of local dance performances, the dance event concept was particularly suited to my “dance presenter’s gaze” and perspective. I assembled a research design from various models: Kealiinohomoku’s (1976: 237-289) who-what-where-when and why of the extended event, Ronström’s (1989) portrayal of a dance evening as an extra-ordinary occasion in which the experience of dance and music are the central focus (1989), the “event levels” diagram conceived by Snyder (1989: 9) in view of organizing layers of attention to various macro-and–micro aspects and Royce’s (1977: 10) advocacy of a holistic and contextual “dance event unit” in response to the competing theories in the ‘70s of the nature and function of dance. It is interesting to note that Royce’s monography The Anthropology of Dance (1977), based on her doctoral work, was the premiere North American publication in dance anthropology.
I entered the field of the O Vertigo dance company to flesh out what might be learned by transposing the dance event framework from village dances to urban artistic dance. My presumption was that this cosmopolitan dance subculture, with its modernist ethos of artistic and interpretive freedom and cult of creativity and innovation, would require a significant refashioning of the framework’s habitual parameters.
Soon after entering the dance company’s offices and studios, it became clear that those engaged in the Luna project included not only the usual genres of dancers and non-dancers, but other categories as well such as dance world professionals and non-professionals, those for whom dancing was a full-time vocation and others who devoted only a few hours of their life to the dance event. The Luna study also unearthed various types of participants who had not been revealed in previous dance event ethnographies: theater technicians, rehearsal directors, dramaturgs, critics, visual and sound designers, arts programmers, venue and dance company staff members, members of the board of directors and more. Each one played a specific and significant role in creating and shaping the dance event by way of their actions, interactions and interventions in mounting and carrying out of the event.
The elements of time and space also required redefinition in the context of the postmodern choreographic project. It was difficult (if not impossible) to locate a clear beginning and ending, as the Luna choreography was literally, initially an idea in the mind of the choreographer. On this subject, Kealiihonomoku (1999) remarked to me in a personal interview: “[…] it has to be a clean slate, and you are a creative individual and you are inventing [the dance].” There was no ending in sight, as future historiographies might conjure up this dance event again in their writing, and the choreography might taught to dance students other dance companies. Time was also present in the form of timetables, micro-managed on a daily basis by the rehearsal and stage managers - by the day, hour, minute and even second - of the dance company and the presenting organizations. It is indeed time that may distinguishes most vividly this kind of dancing from that of traditional village dances for each choreography is conceived and created with the dancers and artistic collaborators over many months and so requiring a long preparatory period. As for space, the Luna event was multi-sited and included, in this case, dance studios and the dozens of performance spaces in which the performance was restaged eighty times during two years of international touring. It was the spatial organization of the large-scale performance venues - with their separation of distinct areas for audience, artists and stage technicians - that set the conditions for the “suspension of disbelief” that characterize these theatrical experiences. While positioned as participant observer in the offstage side passages (the “wings”) of the liminal passage where performers paused between on-and-offstage, I was viscerally struck by the power of the charged space of the stage during a performance for performers and audience.
In the end, I had entered the field of O Vertigo dance event in search of meaning. How was the choreography interpreted by participants, why was their participation personally and socially significant? Unlike traditional participatory social dance events, this presentational postmodern dance did not have prescribed roles, meanings and behaviors handed down over time and agreed by all. The modernist ethos of Luna was aligned specifically with the québécois autonomiste movement known for its belief in spontaneity and intuition. The newly created Luna choreography was composed of abstract, poetic metaphors. Each participant was obliged to create meanings from multiple frames of references, their own and that of the dancers. It was by way of two years of fieldwork and data analysis of field notes, interviews and focus groups, that I was finally able to chart the varieties of interpretive meanings, uncover motives for participation. This transposition of the tradition dance event framework to the art world of dance had yielded a rich set of ideas. I emerged from the field infused with renewed commitment to my vocation of contemporary dance curator and a deeper understanding of the functions and purposes of postmodern dance events.
Dena Davida (PhD) has been a contemporary dance performer, educator, curator, writer and researcher for 45 years. She lives in Montréal where she curates the Tangente performance space (1980+), taught in the Dance Department at the Université du Québec à Montréal (1979-2010) where she completed a doctoral dissertation in 2006, an ethnographic study of meaning in a contemporary dance event. She edited the anthologies Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the worlds of dance (2012), and Curating Live Arts: Critical perspectives, essay and conversation in theory and practice (2018).
THE ART VISION
A reasearch on alfa and bèta students and their opinion about art
By Willemijn & Veronie
Paintings, sculptures and music are all different types of art. But when can something be called ‘art’? Every person will give various answers to this question. One may think it is important that something is visually pleasing, while another person will say that uniqueness is important for something to be considered art. Will there be noticeable differences in the way alpha and beta studies look at art? We wanted to find out, and sent out a survey to Bio-Pharmaceutic Science students and Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology students.
We expected that Anthropology students would care about social relevance more than Bio-Pharmaceutic Science students do because anthropology is a ‘socially oriented’ field. Besides this, we expected that Bio-Pharmaceutic students would have a more convergent look towards art because it usually takes a convergent way of thinking for beta studies.
We found out that Bio-Pharmaceutic students prefer beauty and originality more in art than anthropologists do, and anthropologists prefer uniqueness more than bio-pharmaceutics. Our expectation that anthropologists would care more about social relevance did not turn out to be true. Moreover, all the averages are close to each other: there is almost no difference in the marks ‘depth’ and ‘social relevance’. Through this little research, we can conclude that there are almost no differences in the vision on art between students Cultural Anthropology and students Bio-Pharmaceutic Sciences.
Michiel Folkers at work 2017
After this, we asked a question about this artwork from Michiel Folkers. We asked the respondents if they think this work can be considered as art. Three out of thirteen bio-pharmaceutics said that they would not call this work ‘art’. This was also the case with one out of thirteen anthropologists. A reaction of one of the bio-pharmaceutics was: “Well no, it looks like someone just cut and pasted some pieces out of the newspaper. I could make this too”, while an anthropologist said: “Yes it is art, because it is a jumble of components that make this beautiful and interesting”. However, the answers are again not very different. The most people from both studies answered that it is nice, creative and that it summons ideas related to art. The arguments differ per person, so there can’t be pointed out a separation between the studies.
Folkers (2018) refuses to call himself an artist. He has different reasons for this. Firstly, he thinks his work has no depth, because there is no deeper layer behind his work and he thinks that art should have this. “Can my work be considered art? Not yet, but in a while it could. Everything I do feels like practice. And what is art actually? Everything you call art is art, is what Duchamp said (Duchamp in Folkers 2018). I call myself an artist for the ease. I won’t know any word that fits better in the imagination of what I do. Why I’m not an artist? Because my vision on art is kind of traditional”, (Folkers 2018).
When we asked if the opinions about Folkers’ work being art after reading the citation above, only one student from Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences changed their opinion. An anthropologists argued that the citation above just made the meaning of this artwork clearer.
“Art is becoming a secondary issue, because acknowledgement and getting famous becomes more important now than ever. People want to buy your signature or they want their life to be associated with the lifestyle of an artist. Twenty years ago, you bought an artwork from an artist who was on the crack, but these days an artist is in the gym daily. He works on his image and his money, whereby he can maintain his luxe lifestyle. Picasso didn’t work on his image, he just had it. How much more amazing is that? The only fact is; time changes everything. So for me it is the question; do I participate in going with the time, or do I only want to focus on creating?”, (Folkers 2018).
I defy gravity Michiel Folkers
In the citation above Folkers (2018) speaks about the image of artists. In our research we wanted to know if there would be a difference between the opinions of bio-pharmaceutics and the opinions of anthropologists about the need for artists to worry about their image. And again, there was almost no difference in the answers. All in all, according to all the respondents the artworks are more important than the image of an artist. One of the students said: “The artwork is more important to me. Because when you go to a museum to watch art, you will criticize the artwork and mostly forget the name of the artist. The other way around, it does work. When you know that a work is made by a famous artist, you already subconsciously have formed an opinion”.
We can conclude that there are no big differences in the vision on art between students from Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences and students from Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. We do see that everyone has a different vision on what is art and what isn’t art, but this can not be associated with the course someone studies.
SMASH THE NARRATIVE
By James Flames
I recently spent thousands of euros of my own money to create an art prize on the theme of nationality. To explain why, I want to tell you about amnesia.
Michael Crichton, most well known as the author of Jurassic Park, writes the following:
“Media carries with it a credibility that is totally underserved. You have all experienced this,
in what I call the “Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect”. (I call it by this name because I once
discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater
importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of ‘falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus’, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.
But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.”
We’ve seen this phenomenon in full effect in recent years. This was perhaps most starkly illustrated by the 2016 US Presidential Election, the result of which the media assured us for two years was completely and utterly certain. The venerable Newsweek Magazine indeed printed hundreds of thousands of copies of their organ with Hillary Clinton’s smiling face on the cover. The magazine was full of smug articles explaining the many reasons her victory was inevitable and how they knew all along. The day after the election these all had to be pulped and a new version rushed out explaining how they knew Trump would win. This kind of attitude was not limited to Newsweek, but remarkably after the election the media just went on as before without any sort of apology or soul searching, relying on the incredibly power of the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.
What is the solution to this? My preferred response used to be to send the newspaper spinning across the room into the trash bin. But one day I started to wonder if I could find another way. Perhaps I could provoke and encourage people to think, to discuss and question what they are being told. I call this project “Smash the Narrative”.
With this in mind I started searching for a medium, and art is what I came up with. There is something visceral about art. Something that directly engages with the viewer and cuts through the usual layers of propaganda that pervade most other forms of media. Of course each artist has their own bias, their own agenda and narrative, but each one is unique, each one is personal.
The next thing to choose was a theme. I chose nationality. What does it mean to “come from” a country today? What alternative interpretations exist? I called the prize “Alter-Nation”. This is obviously a hot and controversial issue right now. But I also chose it for my own education. I personally seem to lack the tribal instinct present in so many people. I was born in England, yet I have no interest in whether the English football team wins, loses or even if they play at all. I do not feel the uncontrollable urge to force people from other countries to eat traditional British jellied eels and rave about how delicious they are. I am also baffled by the things people say when they talk about nationality. I have been told that the borders of European countries are ridiculous imaginary lines, that anyone should be able to live in whatever country they choose and “no human being is illegal”. Yet on other occasions the same people have told that the 1947 proposed borders of Palestine are sacrosanct and that the ‘illegal’ Jewish settlers who live on the wrong side of them should be driven out and their homes demolished.
The Dalai Lama caused consternation recently, much to my amusement, when he spoke in Rotterdam and said that refugees in Europe should plan to return to their own countries and Europeans should seek to preserve their own culture. Those shocked by this seem to have forgotten that he is a man living in exile from his home country of Tibet, a place of which the Chinese government has sought to destroy the traditional culture and society by flooding it with Chinese immigrants. Therefore his views should be unsurprising.
This theme was deeply inspiring to a lot artists as it is so personal and important to many people. Indeed many of the works in the exhibition and many that didn’t make the shortlist were created specifically inspired by the prize.
Some of the works from far afield arrived at the gallery in huge wooden shipping crates. The vast majority of the artists traveled to Amsterdam for the opening. Some interesting themes began to emerge. One common theme is the idea that traditional notions of nationality are being torn down. A major preoccupation of Dutch artists is refugees and Muslim immigrants to the Netherlands and the fear that they might feel unwelcome or alienated by the Dutch nation such as Marjolein Witte’s collection of portraits of snakes with Arabic names. Eastern europeans on the other hand were often much more proud of their cultural and religious heritage and saw it as something they wanted to preserve at all costs such as Greg Brat’s defaced image of the Madonna and child in the colours of the Polish flag. This clash of attitudes was played out recently on the world stage where the Western European dominated EU attempted to censure Hungary for its anti-immigration policies. Some artists saw nationality in a much more personal sense as representing home and perhaps having to leave that home such as Maurice la Rooy’s installation of household objects being born aloft by glass blown balloons. Others looked at the theme in a much more abstract and generally optimistic sense of the whole world and how the various nations, while separate and different, could live together in harmony such as Ilse Sjouke’s multi coloured painting of teams all doing their own thing on an imaginary planet.
The first prize was awarded to Daria Tyrina for Art Unites. An enormous turning globe resembling a hot air balloon hangs from the ceiling. The different countries of the world are painted in bright colours. Supported by the balloon are a number of wooden panels with the silhouettes of artists backed by the vibrant colours of humanity. Yet the bottom of these panels are broken and burnt. Below this, the other end of the panels show soldiers surrounded by blood and fire. Is art something that allows the world to rise above suffering and conflict and leave it behind, or is are the artists themselves only able to reach such heights because they are carried by the legacy of sacrifice and bloodshed that lies beneath them?
We had over 100 entries from around the world, but we narrowed it down to a shortlist of 21 which included artists from Indonesia, Russia, Bulgaria, Taiwan, Poland, Belgium, Switzerland, Ukraine, France, Vietnam and of course the Netherlands. They all made amazing work for the project with the statement: “Smash the Narrative”!
ART AROUND THE WORLD
James Flames is a professional gambler living in Amsterdam. He is the founder of Smash the Narrative and is always looking for new projects.
Phan, B. H. (2018) ID
By Lisa van Rompaey
There are three things I am very passionate about. This includes travelling, cultures/religions and tattoos. I combined these three things in a trip around the world. I left on 17 September 2017, and travelled on my own to five different countries: the United States, Fiji, Australia, Indonesia and South-Africa. I saw five different cultures and got in touch with different religions. But what has this to do with art? Well, a lot!
During my trip I got in touch with many kinds of art, while I did not visit any museum at all. This is because I do not think art has to be in an exhibition or a gallery. I visited Los Angeles, where there is graffiti on each wall and each house. There is often a lot of meaning behind all these drawings, and that makes it so special to see all the art in the streets, available for everyone.
In Bali I got to know a new form of art. Hinduism is the central religion there. They have many different rituals and traditions, which I have been fascinated by ever since I got to see them. For example, there is the Barong dance, which is based on a Balinese mythical creature. The way girls dance there is so different from the way we know dancing in ‘the Western culture’. The make-up, the folkloric costumes, the masks, the music and the dance itself is so special and perfect performed, that it seemed like art to me.
There is a huge ‘tattoo culture’ in Asia. I really like tattoos, the more the better. My plan was to get a tattoo during my trip. I got my inspiration from the Barong creature. I am so fascinated by the way it is presented, that I wanted to let it be a part of me. In this way, I will always carry a little piece of art with me.
Graffiti, dance and tattoos are the three types of art that I numerated. Of course there are other types of art, but these three are the most important to me. There is so much to see in the world, and so many different kinds of art, which means to me that my journey to discover the world is not finished at all!
STATE OF THE CULTURE, PART I: MUSEUMS, 'EXPERIENCES,' AND THE YEAR OF BIG FUN ART
By Ben Davis
Last year, the day after the election, the headline of the New York Timesblared “TRUMP TRIUMPHS.” Below the fold, another story was teased beneath the heading “FAILED PREDICTIONS,” whispering something else: “Media Didn’t See It Coming.”
As I tried to imagine what to say about this intense year, I thought of that. In 2017, the political outrages were so many and so battering that it’s easy to lose track of the ways that basic assumptions about how art functions are changing. Without some assessment of the latter, it’s hard to know if art is properly responding to the moment at all. With all of the flashes of controversy in the air, we may miss the larger, slower, destabilizing tectonic shift underfoot.
In other words: We may not see it coming, again.
So I thought I would end the year with some reflections on the shifting art-and-media landscape, and how it is affecting museums, artists, and critics. Here we go.
A Bit of History
What are the conditions under which art reaches a broad audience today? Museums are probably the biggest stage for art. How are they faring?
The idea of art as a popular spectacle has a complex history. In the 1800s, when painting was still far more advanced than photography in its ability to convey the detail of the world, huge crowds could turn out for artists like Turner, Church, or Géricault, whose large-scale canvases served as the IMAX entertainment of the day.
But then, in the 19th century, the opposition between highbrow and lowbrow culture was still solidifying.
The church-like atmosphere that came to characterize modern museum culture was designed specifically to be anything but populist. The preciousness of the “white cube,” as Brian O’Doherty famously termed the space of the modern gallery space, had an embedded message: “Esthetics are turned into a kind of social elitism.”
And so, the demands of radical art activists in the anti-establishment ’60s focused on making the museum less aristocratic, more accessible to a wide-ranging audience. In that sense, the idea of the truly mass-appeal museum is recent-ish—born yesterday, in art-historical time—and is thus still evolving.
In the 1966 essay on “The Historical Function of the Museum,” the art critic John Berger recounted a scheme proposed by an unnamed “French curator” in a then-recent book. “[T]he museum of the future will be mechanized: the visitors will sit still in little viewing boxes and the canvases will appear before them on a kind of vertical escalator. ‘In this way [the curator wrote], in one hour and a half, a thousand visitors will be able to see a thousand paintings without leaving their seats.’”
In the ‘70s, the highly hyped and merchandized “blockbuster” exhibition arrived, and museum culture began to dance to the tune of “King Tut”. Trying to justify their existence amid the changing, post-’60s culture, as the less buttoned-down Baby Boomer sensibilities went mainstream, museums (or those museums that had the budget) turned towards touring spectacles to draw big crowds.
“The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls,” libertarian bard Joseph Schumpeter once famously said. When art observers repeat the demand, today, that we bring “art into life” or bring “art to the masses” (or “make art as popular as music”), this missionary imperative seems to me to ignore the degree to which that particular demand has already been fulfilled, just not in the form that people imagined.
“Art for the masses” already achieved a consumerist fulfillment in the museum gift shop: A poster in every dorm room, a print for every price point. As for the technological populism, envisioned by Berger’s curator, it was prophetic not of the solution to museums’ popular educational mission, but of the new challenges facing that mission that arrived in recent years.
From the Touring Blockbuster to the Mobile Internet
In 1995, Bill Gates released his autobiography, The Road Ahead. In it, he imagined a device called Interactive Home Systems, which would fulfill the functions of the encyclopedic museum—but now as home entertainment. It resembled, in its prototype form in the Gates household, a bank of Nam June Paik-esque TV monitors.
“If you’re a guest,” Gates wrote, “you’ll be able to call up portraits of presidents, pictures of sunsets, airplanes, skiing in the Andes, a rare French stamp, the Beatles in 1965, or reproductions of High Renaissance paintings, on screens throughout the house.”
This scheme foretold the collapse of different levels of culture into a single, on-demand media space—but it was still out-there stuff in the ’90s. The idea didn’t catch on. Eventually Interactive Home Systems was rebranded as Corbis, the stock photo archive, later purchased by Getty Images.
Two years later, when internet-based art was first inserted into a major art show, at documenta X, curators faced the problem of how to present it. They settled on an office-like environment of dedicated computer stations. At the time, this alien presence caused a prophetic shiver of anxiety to run through the space. As Domenic Quaranta explains, “the internet connection was often seen as an open invitation to the user to leave the work, go and check her email, or, even worse, to freely surf the internet.”
A little more than a decade later, Apple launched the iPhone, referred to at the time as the “God Device.” Now, another 10 years later still, the god-like capacities of the mobile internet have become such a boring, banal fact that it is hard to recall that something like it was envisioned as a utopian outcome for culture not so long ago.
Banal—but very alluring as an aesthetic object: The average person supposedly touches their phone more than 2,600 times a day. Whatever is in front of you, there is always a potentially more interesting thing available at the swipe of a finger—French stamps, Renaissance paintings, candy-based slot machine apps, whatever—with social consequences we all know (have you “phubbed” someone lately?). It’s an encyclopedic museum in every pocket.
As a result, the public is ever more encased in some form of culture or other at all times, at levels that weren’t imagined five years ago, let alone 50. This year, the average American adult consumed more than 12 hours of media a day, a staggering total only made possible by the fact that people are often consuming multiple streams at once. There are mobile video games designed to occupy bursts of as little as three seconds of your free time.
Art, in other words, has embedded itself pretty deeply into life.
The Culture Industry Begins to Deindustrialize
When people talk about “blockbuster” museum shows, they draw on the language of Hollywood, the archetypical “culture industry” of Horkheimer & Adorno’s apocalyptic tract on the commodification of aesthetic experience, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Blockbuster franchise cinema appeared on the scene at roughly the same time that “The Treasures of Tutankhamun” was touring the world, inaugurating the museum blockbuster, in the ’70s: Jawshit cinemas in 1975; Star Wars, 1977.
Well, what is the state of blockbuster cinema today? Have you noticed that Hollywood is in trouble? It is. Fewer and fewer people are going to see cinema, as the moviegoing experience is beset by competition from steaming services and video games and social media.
The internationalization of the film market and rising ticket prices keep the industry afloat. But, as a result, character-based mid-budget movies have all but ceased to matter in theaters, while the war for your attention is commanded by tentpole franchise films aimed at the broadest possible audience, armed with the most iconic IP (Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar, to name only the ones Disney owns) and propelled by marketing budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
This stratified dynamic definitely finds an echo in the gallery scene, where the biggest gallery chains and fairs are consolidating a hold over event-driven art crowds. Smaller galleries weigh whether it is even worth it to maintain a physical space, as foot traffic dries up. Record-setting blockbuster museum shows in tourist capitals and splashy new private museums have emerged parallel to a now decades-long erosion in the audience for the fine arts.
A Big Fun Year
Last year, I visited Meow Wolf, an art (or para-art) experience in Santa Fe, New Mexico, partly funded by George R. R. Martin. The brainchild of a collective of talented artists, it is very successful and amounts to an interactive haunted house, full of tricks and tactile attractions and eye-popping props, with a pulpy sci-fi backstory that you could unravel upon repeat visits.
It was impressive, and bound by dint of its popularity to be influential. I thought we needed a name for what it represented, to take it seriously as a trend, and I proposed Big Fun Art. At the time, I said, “this kind of art’s influence is likely going to spread quickly from the margins, putting pressures on museums to embrace it or define themselves against it.” The year since has proved that hypothesis, in spades.
Meow Wolf’s creators had theorized what they were doing, arriving at their attraction by studying what worked in the larger contemporary museum ecology. “What we did was focus on kids, because the admissions-based market is driven by kids,” Meow Wolf frontman Vince Kadlubek told Albuquerque Business First. “We also didn’t want to alienate adults and teenagers so we still stayed true with very mature themes inside our exhibit.”
For its part, Meow Wolf structures its environment around the same kind of popcorn sci-fi narrative that undergirds the present-day blockbuster movie economy. It’s fantastical, but familiarly archetypical enough to tap into a broad audience.
In its Google search index, Meow Wolf puts the words “Immersive Art Installation” even before its own name. In the end, a sense of you-have-to-have-been-there immersion is its most important draw. Meow Wolf, in effect, offers a fabulated cabinet of curiosities, all of it designed to be very photogenic.
Sharing photos of things has now become the main driver of the outside-the-home experience economy, with design implications for everything from restaurants to architecture to vacation resorts, which are being reworked around the principle. This year, social media advertising became a more important channel to reach culture consumers than print, according to Culture Track.
Not long ago, museums were trying to curb phone use and picture-taking. Now museums beg audiences to share their shows under dedicated hashtags, the vast majority of which fall comically flat in the virtual scrum.
This year, the Takashi Murakami show at the MFA Boston offered this label, which says it all:
A Kusama Sundae
Another name for the Big Fun Art phenomenon might be Kusamafication.
The Hirshhorn leveraged the mania around Yayoi Kusama‘s mirror rooms to increase its membership by 6,000 percent—so of course other attention-starved institutions are realizing that their future is intimately bound up in catching the viral social media wave too. In LA, so ardent were the crowds looking to share a photo from the storied Japanese artist’s installations that the Broad Museum instituted a 30-second rule for the actual in-person experience, which is about just enough time to snap a decent picture.
The genre-blurring of postmodern art was rooted in Marcel Duchamp’s hostility to “retinal” art. How funny, then, that conceptualism yielded up “relational aesthetics” and various forms of new-media installation, which then, in turn, have merged together with the more powerful interactive capacities of the smartphone to create a new form of art that is pretty much the ultimate in “ocularcentrism”: art environment as photo backdrop, aka “selfie factories.”
Big Fun Art doesn’t require any historical knowledge, context, or even patience to be enjoyed (except the patience of waiting in a line). On the other hand, that also means you don’t really need something like a museum to vouchsafe it.
The war for relevance in the “attention economy” hits new heights. Branded experiences (like the art/sponsored-content hybrid known as “29 Rooms,” from Refinery29) compete with retail spaces looking to refashion themselves as “experiences” to get some advantage over online shopping (Behold Yankee Candle’s “Candle Power” exhibition). These in turn compete with the various new para-art pop-ups that now go head to head with museums for the adult theme-park dollar.
Here’s how that Culture Track study summed up the trends facing museums this year: “For today’s audiences, the definition of culture has democratized, nearly to the point of extinction. It’s no longer about high versus low or culture versus entertainment; it’s about relevance or irrelevance. Activities that have traditionally been considered culture and those that haven’t are now on a level playing field.”
Such cultural flattening echoes the effects of capitalist globalization and information technology on labor markets, where the “disruption” of old ways is pushed as a dogma and local borders no longer defend workers from competition from half a world away.
In 2017, facing the headwinds of audience indifference, the Indianapolis Museum of Art cannily rebranded itself as Newfields: A Place for Nature and the Arts. The refreshed identity promotes the institution less as an arc of timeless culture and more as a hub for experiences, focusing on attractions like artist-designed mini-golf, a beer garden, Christmas light shows, and its outdoor nature park.
That’s the highbrow version of the trend. As Newfields ditched the “museum” label, the touring juggernaut that is the Museum of Ice Cream has colonized it, and has already been hailed as the pop-up millennial answer to Disneyland. It is an attraction that quite literally aspires to be the visual equivalent of junk food, featuring various ice cream-themed environments tailor-made for selfies. It is a very, very serious force to be reckoned with, rivaling the popularity of actual museums in any city it lands in.
At year’s end, Instagram said that it was the 10th most photographed museum in the world, already in the same league as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Mona Lisa on the same level as a pool filled with plastic ice cream toppings.
Revolution in the Air
Were there very good shows this year that pointed a different way? Oh yes, absolutely. “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–1985” at the Brooklyn Museum was its own kind of new-model blockbuster. Surfacing history that hadn’t been given its due, it has the potential to have powerful aftershocks, opening up the canon and speaking to new audiences.
“We Wanted a Revolution” affirmed what museums can do at their scholarly best. It had important discoveries. It had a mission. It also packed in a ton of history and context. The crowds that came out for it were definitely there for more than a 30 second photo op.
Such a show takes time and resources, faith in an audience’s intelligence, and careful thought about how the past informs the present. Maybe museums can balance both that mission and the other pressure—but the centrifugal pressures on art institutions are only increasing as the attention space grows more crowded.
“As the world bifurcates into fast and slow lanes, museums will have to find temporal or spatial ways to accommodate different paces,” the Center for the Future of Museums warned, already a few years ago now.
But, look, to be clear: The Museum of Ice Cream and its ilk aren’t the End of Culture. Fun things aren’t bad. Everyone likes a good milkshake once in a while. Milkshakes bring people together. And if you were taking your 13-year-old niece or nephew to something, you might suck it up and pay the $38 for the Museum of Ice Cream rather than the $25 for the Museum of Modern Art. But if your only plan to feed your nephew is to give him milkshakes, you are in trouble.
How do museums navigate, productively, the Big Fun Art present? To rise to that challenge, they need the vision of artists and the support of critics. What this year offered those two constituencies, I will tackle next time.
Ben Davis is an art critic living and working in New York City. He is the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket, 2013) and currently National Art Critic for Artnet News. He was an editor of The Elements of Architecture (Taschen, 2018). Recent essays have appeared in the books Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good (MIT Press, 2016) and The Future of Public Space (Metropolis, 2018). His writings have been featured in Adbusters, The Brooklyn Rail, e-Flux Journal, Frieze, New York, The New York Times, Slate, The Village Voice, and many other venues.
IN THE PICTURE
By Anouk Zilverentant
Photo by Veronie Rouschop
CAN ART HELP PROFESSIONALS?
By Anke Tijtsma
Professionals, a group of people around a table. An issue is introduced by one of the professionals. All participants, including myself, tumble over each other with rational questions and ditto answers fired at the introducer. Many different opinions, wise advices and well-meant tips. That seems like the purpose. But is it really useful in an intervision meeting between professionals?
As per usual, we first receive a comprehensive, fact-filled introduction from the introducer of the issue. Thereon follows a lot of commentary from the group, towards the client in question. Then we start repeating ourselves. No new insights are added anymore. The presented issue is complex and provides differing opinions. What we, as participants, especially did? Handing out advices and showing disapproval towards the professional that earlier on introduced her query to us.
After this quite cognitive beginning I got the feeling that it was my turn to interfere. I felt like inducing some kind of ‘arty’ disorder into the conversation. And so my question to the other participants was: ‘Shall we literally and figuratively ‘shape’ this conversation differently? Would you like to explore with me if we can have a different conversation about this issue by activating our imagination?’
I will first tell you why I proposed that. My intent was to get out of the default mode, which we as professionals often end up in during meetings. That results in situations as I illustrated above. A session in which our ratio prevails and we share cognitive knowledge with each other. In which our egos do the talking, and we sometimes literally drift away and wander off. Not always a bad thing, but this time there was a reason for me to initiate to another conversation.
I placed various art objects on a table. The start question was: “Choose an object that appeals to you and take it outside. Walk or stand with it in the garden for five minutes and take in what it tells you regarding this issue. Look at form, shape, etcetera. Let all your thoughts in. What it evokes in you, is what you continue to think about. Note-taking is not necessary yet. What you forget, apparently is less relevant. What stays, that is what matters. After five minutes I will call you together again.”
In the frame of my recent masters at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht I investigated the efficiency of all kinds of artistic forms of conversations in work situations. That is why nowadays as anthropologist (I graduated in 1998), I carry a bag with a wide range of art artefacts with me. The urge to initiate a bit of ‘disorder’ arises on the spot, through the course of the conversation. I felt that we were working hard to help the issue introducer. We did that in a standard way, like we are used to do. You probably recognize what happens to you in such a setting; your focus zooms in for a while, and then out again. You give your opinion. You force your brain to once again come up with something sensible; something of use to the other.
Listening well to the other participants in the meantime is not very easy, because of the overload of information. While that multiplicity of voices surrounding an issue actually has so much value. One of the questions I ask in my research is: what could art and ‘art-thinking’ (which is something different than ‘design thinking’) mean for a better utilization of each other’s’ knowledge and ideas, to collectively come to new insights?
Everyone from the group selected an artwork and after five minutes they were invited to – standing in a circle outside – collect the harvest. That turned into a sort of ‘performance’.
What I heard were wonderful reflections, much imagery and many metaphors. And: a lot of ‘ease’ in the speaking. The shape and features of the objects were used to illustrate the characteristics of the issue to each other. Sharp edges, for example, became the shared ‘image’ for ‘stalemate’ and for two conflicting aspects in the execution of the consultancy assignment. The participants held the object in their hands and spoke about and through the artwork, while they exchanged their insights and feedbacks. A new form of bringing structure to a story came to existence.
Imagination received a place and there was being thought ahead instead of looked back. We found a space to share more than just the usual, cognitively-laden, professional sentences with each other. Magnificent and powerful. It was about what really mattered – no noise or unnecessary references to own heroic deeds. There followed open questions and collective examination about what wisdom in this case could be. In short, an interesting exchange between the participants with the characteristics of co-creation, because each other’s contributions were evolved. In and throughout the conversation fresh and new insights were born.
The power of imagination that we activated
through the use of art objects,
created a whole ‘different’ conversation.
After that I continued with this instruction: “Walk into the garden with your object once again. Do this for one to two minutes. The object has now become a subject. What question does it ask you?”. After that, the group shortly shared these reflections with each other. By doing that outside in a circle again, it caused a theatricalization of the conversation. The participants are the actors performing with each other. This playfulness created a light-heartedness and a sense of looking for answers together.
Once back inside around the table again, I asked the participants to “make a few written notes from that last round. What more would you like to talk about? What matters now? We write this down in four to five minutes and then share that with each other by reading our reflections out loud.”
From this resulted wonderful summaries and reflections. Just ‘writing’ for a while makes way for philosophical clearliness and refreshing thoughts to continue talking about. It also creates the feeling of togetherness and new insights are ‘born’.
We all got energy from it and it did not cost any effort to stay completely focused. Suddenly, everyone was turned on and as good as everything that was being said, was of value for continuing the conversation.
By introducing the art objects in this intervision meeting, a light form of disorder came to existence, in contrast to the default mode in which we as professionals were stranded. Art brought fresh directions for solutions.
Two weeks later I called the lady with the query; she still was very euphoric and had started to work expeditiously. But what I found the most beautiful, was that she told me she felt ‘initiated’ to show courage and stand up for what really matters to her.
Postscript: In my work as anthropologist I research the conversation culture in organizations. I regularly look for possibilities to cause some ‘disruption’. If it is about ‘space’ for innovation and inspiration in professional settings, organization philosopher Robert Cooper suggests putting ourselves in a situation of disruption (induced disorder) of all senses. Art has qualities that can be useful to ‘cause disorder’ with the purpose of renewal and to highlight what usually lies beyond the normal thinking frames. That is what art and artistry do. It creates a certain distance from the work in which new insights are born.
Currently, I have completely integrated working with art and imagination into my work as anthropologist. With this, through conversations and team sessions I contribute to the questions about change and innovation that are present in many organizations, in all kinds of ways. More about this, you can read on: www.buroaanzet.nl.
Anke Tijtsma is anthropologist and conversation maker. From Buro AanZet, she works at various organizations with art(ists) to contribute, through imagination, to organisational change, renewal and social innovation in, amongst others, the health care sector. She is also ceramist.
By Mark Lindenberg
Today on ICA-Podcast we talk about art and a new model of society called