Opening disclaimer: I wouldn’t be inclined to write this if I were a member in good standing of The Art World.
This is by no means an original idea (which itself will be the topic of another article) but, notwithstanding an occasional breakthrough by folks such as the Gee’s Bend Quilters, art is by the famous for the famous. Art by the already-famous is much better than art by the rest of us. This must be true, otherwise why is it that the famous and well-connected have extravagant New York gallery openings and feature segments on CBS Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes? Witness celebrity photographers such as Leonard Nimoy, Dennis Hopper and Pattie Boyd (George Harrison’s first wife), painters such as Tony Bennett, Phyllis Diller and Anthony Hopkins, and sculptor Tony “Wally Cleaver” Dow. Important artists, all. Here’s what Tony Dow himself had to say about this at another blog dedicated to celebrity art:
Q: Do you have any formal training in art?
Tony: “I have very limited formal training. A couple of classes at UCLA which I found frustrating.”
Q: Do you think that being a well-known actor has any impact on your career as an artist?
Tony: “Having celebrity may influence some people. I’ve tried not to use or mix my celebrity with my art although it’s inevitable. For example, I was very happy and proud to be accepted in the international show at the Louvre last year as I’m sure the French had no knowledge of [Leave It To Beaver] or my acting/directing career.”
Gee Tony, maybe this is goofy, but you know how the French feel about Jerry Lewis and stuff. You don’t think Wally Cleaver punched your ticket into the Louvre?
No sour-grapes intended here: the celebrities named above are probably good artists (however you define that), probably better (in those same terms) than me. And it’s not like every celebrity is trading on his or her name. For example, Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James and Justin Timberlake, all famous, apparently have yet to find their inner Picasso — if they had, you would have known it by now, thanks to the in-depth reportáge of Morley Safer and/or Rita Braver. Nonetheless, I ask myself why this print (a print, not an original) by Tony Bennett (he calls himself Anthony Benedetto in The Art World) goes for over $1100. I left my wallet in San Francisco.
If you want to be a well-known artist, it’s not a bad idea to start by becoming well-known. And if you want a career in art, it’s not a bad idea to do it as a second career.
Somewhere along the way, I bought into this idea of merit-based art — judged in terms of how it looks in your space and what it does in your mind. Art you like to contemplate and that says something new every day. That is what I would like to create. As opposed to an object whose appeal depends on a back story, an artist’s statement or who owned it when.
That said, I know there is no merit in art, at least not in The Art World. It is human nature to attach a story to a thing, and in The Art World, the story or the personality eventually swallows the art. The story is ever-changing and can be continuously reinterpreted by one person after the next, while the thing just goes on being a thing.*
Even if art were about merit (aesthetics divorced from story and celebrity), you must admit there is a whole lot of art competing for your attention. The entry barrier is low. One can take a couple of pain-in-the-ass classes at UCLA and become an artist (if you play Beaver’s older brother) or take no classes at all and simply call yourself one. That’s the very-democratic beauty of art. Just look at photography. Anyone with a cell-phone is a photographer now, and the internet gives us unprecedented ability to publish our work. But as one face in the crowd, how does anyone stand out? As a viewer, how do you decide where to look? It is no wonder people use story and celebrity to help them focus on art that is important.
(In 2001, Swarthmore College stated that they rejected half of all applicants with perfect SAT scores. When merit alone is not selective, you need something else to tip the scales.)
On the other hand, maybe most art isn’t that good. Maybe art needs story and personality to get people interested. Maybe it is the rare object that invites the kind of contemplation and “something new to say every day” quality I see as the ideal. Maybe that kind of art is out of reach for most buyers (and most artists).
But maybe not. When I would buy a Beatles’ album way back when, it wasn’t for its merit, since I had not listened to it before. It was because I liked their previous songs, because friends liked them, because of the excitement of the times, because of my vicarious wonder about their music-making, all kinds of reasons. Now I listen to a Beatles CD and marvel at their art (the thing that was always there) and I think, how fortunate I am to have these sounds filling my home, any time I want to listen, for only $15. What a bargain, thank you John, Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin.
You don’t have to be a celebrity to make great art. But few become celebrities doing so. You don’t have to be a celebrity to share your art and enjoy the art of others. But celebrity certainly helps you find an audience. Lacking celebrity, I think the best I can do is look for a small pond to swim in with some creative friends. That version of The Art World would suit me fine.
* Here, let me mention electrons, the subatomic particles that carry one unit of negative electrical charge. Well, electrons are not that simple. An electron is thought to consist of a bare, intense point-charge — so intense that it attracts and surrounds itself with an oppositely-charged field. So what you “see” at a distance from the electron is not the “bare” point-charge but only the net charge that is not masked by the positive cloud surrounding it. Like a light that attracts moths and is then dimmed by them. Like art that demands a story and is then lost behind it.