At the risk of sounding brusque or curmudgeonly, I have always felt that asking or being asked, “What is art?” has been a bane ever since art school, because the answer is so complex. People often ask that question in order to plumb the shape of culture at a given time, or in order to “know what art is” so they know what to make to be accepted by a community, gallery, etc. Perhaps I am a bit cynical.
I find that art is a set of cultural and aesthetic practices that have many categories and cultural functions. It is driven by position, context, history, and community – all of these things. It is a dim mirror for the human condition, and an early indicator of trends in culture.
There are many kinds of art and corresponding cultural functions for these forms. There are the independents, of whom Gregory Sholette states constitute the “dark matter” of the art world; there are the artists who to it for therapy, there are décor artists like Peter Max and Thomas Kinkade, there are “art fair artists”, and there are ones who do it for the joy of making art. Keep in mind that categorically speaking, we are just scratching the surface.
The most interesting ones are the sort who knowledgeably try to move the art historical discourse forward through experimentation and challenging of cultural norms. This is what can be considered as the current state of the ‘avant’ and the real drivers of the art conversation. The reason for couching myself in these terms is that in many media, and especially electronic media, there is such seduction for technology, because of its novelty or beauty, artists who work in novel or technological media often feel what they make is groundbreaking only to find that fifty are doing it on sites like deviantart.com. The best work questions form and practice, and springboards from historical frames. This is my biggest problem with communities that use software technologies like Bryce, Poser, and Second Life, as it is relatively easy to make work that “looks like art” when they are ostensibly saying nothing new or challenging nothing. New Media does not necessarily mean new ideas. On the other hand, there are artists like Cao Fei, and Gazira Babeli, in Second Life who pushed distinctive aspects of the medium in its Golden Age (2006-2008), to paraphrase Antin. To go further into this is an essay into itself, and I only make such a specific reference to Second Life art because a Second Life Artist posed the initial question.
Another aspect of the question of “What is Art?” is often conflated with the question of, “What is HIGH Art?” This is art that gets into Art in America, Flash Art and the museums, and that is a very specific question. This is the actual question that is really asked asked many times when people ask, “What is Art?” It actually translates to “What kind of art gets recognized by the art world establishment, or what will a gallerist or curator find acceptable?” This is where we get to the foundations of the matter – are you making art because you love making, or do you want to be an art star?
In the latter case, High Art is the locus of an ecosystem of power, money, fashion, and history driven by curators, critics, collectors, museums, and other institutions. It is a circuit of power, money and influence that began to resemble the current milieu in the early to mid-20th Century, especially through figures like Peggy Guggenheim, Jackson Pollack, and the New York scene of the 50’s. The problem with this is that is reduces the question of what art is to being what curators, collectors, and critics accept as art through the systems of taste and desire that are currently defined. This is far from a clear definition, but a Cleveland gallerist, William Busta, once gave me a key insight into what “High Art” is merely by looking at my portfolio when I was beginning, turning to his bookshelf, pulling out copies of Parkett, ArtNews, Art in America, et al. He spread these before me and said, “Buy these. Read them. Understand what the conversation is about. If you are still here in ten years, I would love to talk to you.” Perhaps that is what I am trying to say – art is a conversation, and his demonstration was the most useful thing anyone has ever done for me in regards to my development as an artist aspiring to interface with the High Art world at all.
As for art in the 21st Century, perhaps what has become most interesting is the emergence of social practice as extension of performance art. The best examples of this is Creative Time’s groundbreaking exhibition, “Living As Form” and Gregory Sholette’s book, “Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture”. These sources show that Bourriaud’s Relationalism is now behind the curve as of 2012 as process and content have merged without any definite desire for material product, and traditional performance art is relatively dead, as Marina Abramovic continues to emphasize through her decontextualizations of the genre. What seems to be at the edge of the Avant is a set of social processes as conceptual art put forth by groups like Theaster Gates, Temporary Services, 16 Beaver, Critical Art Ensemble and many others. Probably the closest progenitor of this line of thought is Joseph Beuys and his concept of “social sculpture” and Kaprow, et al’s idea of the Happening. The new genres of the 21st century seem to be based around autonomy, social collectivism, and general weal.
To close, as this question was put forth to me by an artist working in Second Life, and that my root practices are in New Media, it might be surprising that I have made so little mention of technological art, and this is intentional. Why? This is due to my observations that the linkage of the idea of the trope of the 21st Century as linked to cultural production automatically calls into play so many other agendas like technology, “innovation”, and “creativity”. This invokes a circuit of other agendas of technological and industrial seduction that want to disguise themselves as art but are ostensibly about technophilia and corporate culture. It is so easy to be seduced by the tools and their flexibility that they can masquerade as content. But my favorite analogy is the famous soliloquy uttered by Bruce Lee when he was disciplining a pupil that is focusing on technique rather than content, feeling, and gestalt. He smacks the student, points to the moon, and says (I paraphrase) “Do not look at the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory…” The finger is the seduction of techne, and the moon is the connection to humanity that art provides.
This is why as a New Media artist and practitioner who works in media like Second Life and Augmented Reality, I am particularly conscious of the seductions and absurdities of my own practices, and use those as part of my process. There is nothing specific to Second Life, or AR, or physical computing that makes my art any more compelling, as art still comes down to looking into that smoky fun-house mirror of human experience. In asking what art is in the 21st Century, I think what is important is that we not be distracted by the seduction of our shiny toys, but perhaps reflect on why we might use a given medium and practice and how it reflects the current condition.