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Art For Art’s Sake?

June 11, 2012

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?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2012 11:15 pm

    “Art” should really be a four letter word. I vote for adding a silent “e” to the end of it. The additional letter would make arte all the more inaccessible to philistines like us.

    As for the re-christening of the School of Fine Arts, it’s just marketing. I’m sure parents of college bound students will rest easy knowing their children are going to be studying in a group of buildings on a campus which has “industry” in the title. Surely little Bobby will be more likely to get a job once he graduates.

    Nice post, as always.

  2. June 11, 2012 11:42 pm

    Sniffing the air for Apple out-of-the-box is a stretch, for certain. I went to see the Picasso Exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario last week. Another stretch for me. But Picasso has stood the test of time, I guess. Will sniffing for Apple out-of-the-box be popular in 100 years. Doubtful.

    • June 12, 2012 5:24 pm

      I agree that it probably won’t stand the test of time. The creative act was thinking of it and outsourcing the work to the lab.

  3. June 12, 2012 1:40 am

    I agree with your distinction between Fine Arts and Creative Industries, Thomas. This is ironic for me, personally, because I worked at a contemporary art organization for four years. The experience was an eye-opener! Particularly because I have a BA in Studio Art and spent my junior year of college in Florence. So, circling back to my first sentence, these experiences are why I’m in agreement with you.

    On the other hand, while I secretly disagreed that some of the exhibits at the contemporary art organization should have been classified as “art,” I was amused by their statements … “Artistic Statements” … and developed an appreciation (for “some” – key word) that I would never have thought possible back in Italy! I always thought “composition” was a key component of art – wrong! (Apparently.)

    I don’t know. I get confused about art and talk in circles about it, as evident in this comment. Like, your post made me think, if “new iPod smell” constitutes art, there should be an “air” exhibit with Eau de New Car. Far more people could relate to this than the other. And I’m pretty sure there was a time when nudes were painted that people said, “You call that art?” So, here’s another question running in circles in my head right now: if art is thought-provoking, is that part of what makes it art?

    • June 12, 2012 5:27 pm

      Great question that deserves a lengthy discussion. My quick answer is that being thought provoking is part of the equation but there’s more–the only word I can think of is “transcendence.”

  4. June 12, 2012 1:51 am

    I was already fed up with this kind of thing decades ago. “Artists” in the contemporary world have reduced art to a punchline, and even those with talent have fallen for it. My gentleman friend’s mother is an artist of exciting talent, on faculty at a state university, and I have seen work of hers in pen and ink or pastels that spoke to me endlessly, things I would pay to hang on my wall. But she has gotten sucked into this idea that collecting junk and manufactured objects, and arranging them somehow in a space, is “art.” She sent us out once to a town up the rail line to see an “installation” by a colleague that consisted of copper toilet floats hanging at different heights inside a shop window. It made me want to repair my commode.

    As for obscenities like this guy who converted his dead cat’s body to an aircraft, or anyone who does something shocking and cruel and calls it art, these people ought to be locked up… and made to study the engravings of Albrecht Durer.

    But, you know, I am not opposed to the “industries” viewpoint; it actualy points in the way of solving the problem. All these self-indulgent “art” forms devoid of real artistic skill owe something to the idea that the artist is a wondrous genius whose inspirations must be followed independent of all social connection, a notion which plays into the agenda of the bullshitter. Read Bach’s dunning letters to his patrons or Durer’s proposals for a large painting with details of the cost of materials if you want a taste of art as industry; think of sculptures commissioned for Roman ceremonies.. To some extent the social demand for an artistic work is like the sonnet form, the restrictions create a container that draws out the artist’s vision — after he or she has spent a long time drilling skills until they are second nature. Don’t get me started on poetry without metre or music that consists of feelings barfed on the page. I’ve already gone too long, but this pushes my buttons.

    • June 12, 2012 5:38 pm

      Lots of interesting observations. I think the term for a person who collects junk and assembles it is calls an “assemblist,” and they are known for exploring “provenances.” I read that somewhere.

      As far as the economic question, Marx had some interesting things to say about that. If art is funded by rich patrons, is is really the expression of human transcendence (see above) because presumably the rich patrons only fund what makes them feel good, so transgressional art would not be funded and therefore not see the light of day. Which leads to the National Endowment for the Arts and some of the outrages you described. And then artists become entrepreneurs chasing funding.

      You mention Bach’s letters. Wagner sent out some pretty funny fund raising requests too.

      • June 13, 2012 6:38 am

        When I hear the word “transgressive,” I reach for my gun. (Aside from that, plenty of rich patrons and foundations seem prepared to shove money at bogus “art” that communicates nothing to anyone, simply to prove themselves sophisticated.)

        The truly artful things I see around me in daily life are done by people who have a craft, something that often seems to have been taken out of art. These are the people who started with a hobby and found a way to spend time at the potter’s wheel or drew on their corporate clipboard all day long because they *needed* to. And at some point, they found a way to turn this into something that non-pretentious people would pay for. I have a cupboard full of ceramic tableware, each piece of which I consider worth more than some ridiculous piece of ugly public art with a gimmicky theme that will get old in two years. I eat off them. Then I wash them, admire their glazes and feel their textures. We need more appreciation of patient talent like that and less of arrested adolescents seeking attention.

        • June 14, 2012 2:07 pm

          Exactly–start with cave paintings in France and go from there.

          I like your reaction to ‘transgressive,’ I think that’s what Hermann was trying to say, too!

  5. June 12, 2012 1:37 pm

    The City of Miami spends tons of money on these ridiculous outside “sculptures” that are nothing more than pipes and cans welded together and painted in vibrant colors or some other garbage to display in little parks so we can be a world class city. World class jackasses I’d say. And found $900 million for a new baseball stadium(corporate welfare). But the homeless shelters, free clinics and drug rehabs and other social agencies for the most unfortunate get cut or eliminated. Really enrages me just to think about it.

  6. June 12, 2012 3:00 pm

    Thomas I do agree and pardon my ignorance but is “unboxed” really a word. It doesn’t appear in any of the many dictionaries that litter my home.
    I guess I am a philistine because I just don’t understand some of these works of art. The NZ Academy of Fine Art recently staged an exhibition that included an empty frame – well the backing was painted grey; a painting with the word MILK only and a pile of broken crockery. And people were standing around gazing as if mesmerised by these things.
    And Hargreaves’ Deep Fried Gadgets is surely a joke.
    The City of Wellington, like Carl’s Miami, has many sculptures of boxes suspended in the sky, pieces of plastic floating in the air etc and yet we don’t have money to house our citizens. But that’s a whole new rant and I won’t get started on it.

    • June 12, 2012 5:42 pm

      I didn’t think unboxing was a word either, but that’s what they called it. I guess they were trying to create the impression of “unveiling” or something like that. Like people are really going to be in suspense about how the thing is going to smell when they open the box.

      Remember a few months ago in Wellington when that Mexican artist was going to put on a display where you walk into a room and get showered by bubbles that were made out of water that had washed corpses at a funeral home? It was supposed to make us think about mortality. Fortunately the local iwi demanded that they pull the plug (no pun intended) because it was disrespectful and in bad taste.

  7. June 14, 2012 2:53 pm

    You hit this right on the head. The name change just indicated not only the nonsense that was to come but also the underlying idea that anything creative is Just Great! Creative artist- Lady Gaga. Fine Artist- Beethoven.

  8. June 15, 2012 1:22 am

    I’m old school. If it ain’t hand drawn, it ain’t art. But then again I’m highly biased

  9. July 5, 2012 9:19 am

    Love this post!!
    I’ve gotten into fights with people about this. Then again, when it comes to turning art into moolah, it has been suggested that I am a naive idiot…

    To me an artist is someone who HAS to do what they do, regardless of the fame and benjamins that may or may not ever come. (In this respect, I actually would call Lady Gaga an artist, as she was singing and playing piano in bizarre cabarets long before anybody was paying her millions of bucks to be bizarre…)

    One of my art spirit animals, Robert Henri, said something to the effect of ‘we [artists] are not here to do what has been done before’… along that vein, I know that art is supposed to continuously challenge the public’s definition of ‘art’–and that the public is often hostile to anything that does not fit into their tidy definition (ie, beautiful oil painting of whatever)–I am also a firm believer that excellent technique does not mean that the wielder of such technique necessarily has anything meaningful to say. And no matter how masterfully a painting etc. is executed, if it is technically perfect yet emotionally dead, I would rather have a piece that makes up for technique with passion. ….HOWEVER, I also believe that before artists smugly belittle a public too stupid to appreciate their genius, they should ask themselves–are they even making anything worth viewing (experiencing?)

    In this viewer’s opinion, the scent of an unboxed iTurd does NOT merit a trot down to the local museum and it never, ever will!!!!!!

    • July 5, 2012 9:31 am

      Thanks! And thanks for the comment. You mentioned Infinite Jest in one of your posts and that’s a great example of a work of art that challenged the definiton of how a novel should behave, etc. and I think it succeeded even if it’s not exactly fun or easy.

      The iMac unboxing thing is just commericalism gone wild. Like when Adidas came out with their Star Wars range of shoes and packaged them in blister packs to remind overgrown kids about how Star Wars action figures used to be packaged.

      • July 5, 2012 11:28 am

        Commercialism gone wild, exactly. Apple is a solid product–they don’t rip you off, but they make you pay. A lot. Makes sense if it’s become a status symbol and the fanboys will eat this hoax up–haha, will the delightful scent of an unboxed Dell be soon behind for the proletariat? 😀

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