Category Archives: Art For Art’s Sake?–Jun 11

Art For Art’s Sake?

A few years ago, the University of Auckland changed the name of its Department of Fine Arts to The National Institute for the Creative Arts and Industries.  The Institute includes things like music, art, dance and architecture.

I remember talking to some people at the time and being the only person who didn’t think that this was a Good Idea.  I was politely vilified for being old-fashioned, reactionary and out of step with reality.

My theory, then and now, is that although artists and creative types need to have some sort of financial support, they should not be organized around a profit motive, and the term “creative industries” sounds a little too entrepreneurial to me.

I welcome discussion on the topic, but I remain firmly convinced that “fine arts” are things like chamber music and Syd Barrett, while reality TV and Lady Gaga are Creative Industries.  Or maybe just industries in themselves.

But it turns out that there is an even darker side to the welding of fine art and industry, and that is the blurring of the line between industrial waste and art.

Consider two recent offerings from artists down under.

Back in May, a group of artists who call themselves “Greatest Hits” put together an exhibition called “De Facto Standard.” It was displayed at a Melbourne gallery whose “programming foregrounds engaged artistic practice which is challenging, experimental, exploratory, and diverse.”

It turns out that the exhibit is the air.  Well, actually, the scent in the air which will be “the uniquely appealing scent of a freshly unwrapped MacBook, iPad or Apple TV.”

Yes. You go into an art gallery and instead of looking at a painting or sculpture you smell the air. And you are transported because the smell reminds you of the time you took your last Apple product out of the box.

Yes, but is it art?

According to the article I read, the artists engaged the services of a company called Air Aroma “to scientifically recreate the smell of an Apple unboxing.” Unboxing!

It was a big challenge and French perfume chemists were enlisted to create “the smell of the plastic wrap covering the box, printed ink on the cardboard, the smell of paper and plastic components within the box and of course the aluminum laptop which has come straight from the factory where it was assembled in China.”

The way they did it was the artists shipped a previously unopened Apple Macbook Pro computer to the “fragrance lab.”  There it was “unboxed,” and the odor that emanated from the box was sniffed by the “professional perfume makers” and they drew on their experience to pull together the component scents and voila, Eau de Unboxed Apple was created.  The perfume makers didn’t get to keep the computer and the artists brag that it travelled 55,000 kilometers around the world as part of the project.

If, like me, you are a philistine and think that art is painting a picture or making a sculpture or writing a poem, you will be disinclined to include in the art category the act of sending a piece of equipment to a perfumer and having them replicate the smell.  It all just seems a little too, well, industrial.

According to my dictionary, “art” is defined as “the conscious use of skills and creative imagination in the production of aesthetic objects.”  And this seems to fail on every point.

But I have an even bigger objection.

Think about it.  Human effort (and fossil fuels to fly the thing 55,000 kilometers) are being expended to blow into the air the concatenated smell of a bunch of arguably carcinogenic chemical smells.  And why?  Because it is a smell that some people find particularly appealing.

And that is the key issue.  Who are “some people?” It’s impossible to tell for sure, but based on the number of Macbooks sold, less than 1% of the population of the world have one.  So this smell isn’t exactly as known and loved as something like freshly baked bread.

Not only that, doesn’t the whole idea of capturing the smell of a trophy purchase when you open the box seem a little bit materialistic?  I mean, why did you buy the computer?  Presumably to do something, ideally, productive.  Maybe even artistic.

But I must be wrong, because in the world of Creative Industries, Apple products appear to be as inspiring as the Last Supper was to Leonardo.

Not to be outdone, a NZ artist has, according to the article I read “stunned the New York art world with his series of photographs depicting ‘Deep Fried Gadgets’.”

Yes.  iPods, iPhones and laptops that really look like they have been deep fried and placed on plates in order to look as if they are being served for dinner have been photographed and the photos are on display. Yum yum.

I’m not saying that we have the term “Creative Industries” to blame, and I don’t want to appear snobbish, but I sort of wish that artists drew their inspiration from more human experiences than the latest Apple product. It’s one thing if an artist makes something interesting out of old car parts or junk.  That’s creative. Buying something and opening the box is just industry.  What do you think?