Out there in the real world people still ask those questions that should never be asked – and Carrie Miller has some suggestions for timely comebacks…
Several years ago I was standing with an artist in front of his painting which was hanging in the Art Gallery of NSW as a finalist in the Archibald Prize. A man came up to have a look at the picture, unaware that he was standing next to the maker of the work. After a few seconds of contemplation he felt compelled to share his judgement with us: “This is absolute rubbish. I work with developmentally delayed children and they could paint like this.”
Another time an Australian artist was showing at a regional gallery overseas. The gallery had a visitor’s book where people who saw the exhibition were able to leave their comments. One entry simply said: “Where has all the beauty gone?”
And once an artist I know had a work on exhibit vandalised. The work was a ready-made sculpture that partly consisted of a recycle bin. Someone took the trouble to slip a note in the bin. It read, “What is this shit? Fuck off.”
Traditionally, it’s been humanities-based disciplines that everyone thinks they have equal access to knowledge on. My two undergraduate majors – fine arts and philosophy – are particular favourites for the armchair theorist. Tell people you’ve studied those subjects and you’ll cop an earful. Every bastard is an expert on art – denying it is a favourite: “That’s not art!” – and everyone from Oprah on has a ‘philosophy’ of life that they’re more than happy to share at dinner parties or early openers, take your pick.
The same people who write off art theory and contemporary philosophy as impenetrable garbage wouldn’t dare criticise a work of theoretical physics, which – without training – is equally opaque.
On the other hand, it’s the visceral and defensive reaction people have to art in particular which points up the fact that, regardless of whether they want it to, art has an embodied impact on them – suggesting that they know instinctively that it’s meaningful, they’re just not sure how. Unfortunately, you can’t tell people this (I know, I’ve tried) because it just makes them more defensive.
As people involved in the art world we’ve all experienced hostility to the very fact of art’s existence and our involvement with it. This can be really annoying – you may have even felt the need to defend it. So here’s my handy guide for how to deal with the top 5 stupid things people say about art and to artists:
1. “What is art?”
Don’t say it’s “context” – deep down we all know that’s bullshit. You could give a Warholian response here – “What isn’t art?” – but if you’re an artist I think it’s better to say, “how would I know?, I just make the stuff”.
2. “My kid could do that.”
Don’t argue with this. Just encourage them to try and get decent representation for their clever child in a major capital city. Hand them one of Anna Schwartz’s business cards.
3. “That’s not art.”
Ask them what it is then. If they say “it’s shit”, as they are likely to, then explain that there is indeed a lot of shit art so just because it’s shit, doesn’t mean it’s not art.
4. “Contemporary artists are just trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. They are all frauds.”
Ask them what they think of Monet. When they stop gushing, tell them that troglodytes in the 1870s said exactly the same thing about Impressionism.
5. “Why don’t you get a real job?”
“You mean one where I get decent pay and conditions?” is the obvious response to this question.
But people who ask this question, especially corporate lawyers, deserve to get riled up. And the best way to shit someone annoyed with artists is to quote Andy Warhol:
“I suppose I have a really loose interpretation of “work”, because I think that just being alive is so much work at something you don’t always want to do.”
That kind of talk is, of course, just another one of the reasons people hate artists.