May 26, 2013
Art Has Lost Its Meaning
Posted on Jan 10, 2013
By Thomas Hedges, Center for Study of Responsive Law
But when I ask the artists to elaborate on their pieces, they choose not to.
“I never want to speak for the artist,” Scharf says. “I’m an artist, and I don’t ever want anyone to say what I’m thinking about my work.”
“It’s just her work,” he finally says about a woman’s photograph in the gallery.
There is a pervading sentiment that artists ought to fit somewhere into the general arch, which has little room for artists who search for truth. There is no talk of the cokeheads that stand in the street one block away, looking for a fix. Nor is there talk of the gangsters who pull up in their sports cars and sell them the drugs they crave. There is no talk of power, even though the White House, Capitol Hill and K Street—where the lobbying firms are located—sit fewer than four miles away.
Centuries ago, the power elite controlled art through propaganda. Artists were paid to enshrine the aristocracy.
“[Francisco] Goya, before he became the Goya most people think of,” Shetterly says, “was a court painter. He was there to reinforce the caste system and the system of royalty.
“A person who painted a portrait for a king,” Shetterly says, “was painting what the client wanted to see. A person who’s painting for the rewards of an economic system is painting, similarly, for what the client wants to see.”
The difference between then and now, Shetterly says, is that art today is not about superiority and propaganda, as with royal portraits, but about turning our brains off. It is about silencing pain and suffering, and distracting ourselves with images that bring short-term pleasure, surprise and satisfaction.
Mainstream culture, Shetterly says, keeps us distracted from the fact that our luxury, for example, comes at the expense of cotton farmers in India, garment makers in Bangladesh and Hispanic tomato pickers in Florida. The goods we buy at retail stores and supermarkets are cheap because the labor used to cultivate those products is underpaid.
“Our culture has been taking a lot of warmth and comfort from the rest of the world in a very exploitative way,” Shetterly says, “so that we can live that way while other people don’t.”
When art ignores truth, it mirrors a society that is unaware of its surroundings. Art as happiness is a defense mechanism. It reinforces our desire to live in a vacuum that is free of anguish and responsibility.
“The market encourages artists to find and capitalize on gimmicks,” Shetterly says. “It’s the argument of Coke, of Exxon Mobil.”
Art today is about protecting the consumer. It is no longer propaganda for those in power, as art has been for most of history. It is about reassuring customers that there is nothing wrong, as long as they continue to shop.
This article was made possible by the Center for Study of Responsive Law.
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