A friend of mine, New York artist Steve Harlow, once told me that he
believed painting had become an irrelevant art form. Something which is
only valued for purposes of nostalgia. Being a painter himself I thought
that he was making this argument purely for the purposes of
shock-rhetoric. As time passed though I found myself coming back to this
idea again and again, and each time finding more truth in it.
The heart of the
question that concerns me is 'is art relevant?' What art impacts society
in any way? Fine arts such as painting really have very little social
impact in our modern age. Except for a small elite in large urban areas,
the general public is completely unaware of the art world. It can be
argued that the art elite is a breeding ground for new ideas which then
slowly filter down to the general public. The weight of this argument is
discounted by the fact that there has not been a new original idea to
come from the art world in many years.
No artist has
become known to the general public since Warhol. And the art world is
not acting as a medium for social commentary or progressive ideas.
It seems the only
visual art that really effects people are commercial ads and billboards.
Some art forms such as movies and popular music do have a relevant
social effect on values and ideas. Unfortunately, both of these mediums
are so commercialized that they can barely be looked at as a place to
find pure artistic expression that seeks to communicate anything.
To return to the
area of fine arts, throughout the 20th century artists have searched for
ways to create art which would have an impact. In the early part of the
century this seemed to be fairly easy. Art was deconstructed through
various means and set free of the limitations and expectations of its
own traditions. The dadaists, cubists, surrealists, and abstract
expressionists, not only redefined what art was and could be, they
presented ideas that expressed and analyzed the changes in the human
condition in the industrial age.
Once art was
completely deconstructed and artists were given nearly absolute freedom,
the art world seemed to be at a loss for new ideas. Since then we have
had pop and graffiti, both of which could be seen as further
deconstruction, but in the last 20 years no original ideas have come out
of the art world.
In the last century
artists have tried to extend the canvas as a means of creating relevant
art. Installation art and performance art have given artists almost
unlimited creative freedom to express themselves. Both of these mediums
had brief periods of exuberant exploration of their own form, but both
soon began to repeat themselves and suffer from a drought of original
Let us try to take
the point of view of the artist who wishes to create art that impacts
society. If the artist wants his expression to be heard on a wider scale
which medium does he choose?
There is one medium
that has galvanized national attention. Although few see it as a true
artistic medium. The medium I speak of is the national media. The
national media when taken as a single entity is the most powerful medium
for communicating to a large audience.
Like all art forms
it has limitations. Namely, that it has a simple 'sound byte' mentality
to its power. Even given this limitation, it is capable of creating a
powerful image that can be imprinted on a worldwide audience.
As I stated few
people recognize the media as an actual medium for artistic expression.
To look at it further let's focus on the pop star Madonna. You may be
surprised to find out that I respect Madonna as an artist. Not for her
music or acting. In both of these she is mediocre at best. The area in
which Madonna is a great artists is in her ability to use the media as a
canvas to create her image and communicate ideas. In this she is a
We have seen this
in a few other pop stars as well. At his best David Bowie was also a
master of the media as medium. If we look back further in time we find
Shep Gorden, the manager of the young artist Alice Cooper. Gorden was a
master at using scandal to create an image for Alice Cooper. An image
that represented teenage decadence as a result of the corrupt values of
their elders. If we go back further we find Elvis Presley's manager
Colonel Tom Parker who created Presely's image as a symbol of sexual
expression for repressed teens. And back further yet we find P.T. Barnum
who is perhaps the grandfather of the art form.
Now you may argue
that these artists have not used the medium to express anything of
relevance. Although I would be inclined to argue that point, let us
instead focus on the political arena. Success as a politician depends
almost completely on the media as a medium to create an image which
embodies a certain set of values.
their people are masters of this art. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and
John F. Kennedy are the success stories. I guarantee you they studied
the art and took it completely seriously.
To look at the
political realm in another light the Republican party was a master of
the media art during the Clinton years. Many of the scandals which the
Republicans forced into the public's attention were completely baseless
and the accusers knew it. But the truth was not important. Perception
was everything. This was a work of artistic creation. The more the media
spoke of the accusations the more real they became in the public's mind.
Through this method the Republicans were able to destroy the image
Clinton had created and replace it with a new image that represented a
different set of values. It was a war of art against art. An art form
that almost toppled a presidency.
One of the ways in
which the media is employed as an artistic medium that profoundly
effects society is through advertising. Through advertising the
corporations use the media as art, not only to create a demand for
products, but also to create a system of values which will guides the
The artists who
create advertising campaigns are the true masters of media as medium. A
close examination of their techniques reveal that these artists study
psychology and social trends to bring power to their art. Advertising
campaigns regularly use psychological manipulation to sell their
products. Techniques both subtle and overt are used to effect the
unconscious minds of the viewers. Often they do so by playing on our
fears, sexual desires, feelings of inadequacy, and sense of duty and
self-worth. When manipulating through the media it is most effective
when appealing to primal instincts. Everything from camera angles, to
music, to the most subtle expressions and body gestures are employed to
communicate the message.
Many people have a
hard time believing that this is taking place. When one considers that
there is big money involved it makes sense. An advertising campaign can
make or break a company. Those who create the ad campaigns know the
stakes involved and are ruthless in their determination to
For those in
advertising the media as artistic medium is a reality that no one
questions. It propels the world economy. If you question the media of
medium ask yourself how many jingles you can sing. How many company
logos are imprinted in your mind. Or how many advertising catch phrases
you can repeat.
Contrast that with
how many great paintings you can visualize. Or how many pieces of
classical music your can hum. I would bet next week's allowance that ads
score higher than all the other arts combined.
advertising has played a large role in creating the social values of the
modern age. Most obvious is the ascendancy of materialism as the highest
goal. Add to that the population's preoccupation with sexuality,
acceptance of the status quo, and ideas that there is a 'good life' out
there with perfect families and great fun with beautiful friends. And if
only you drink Mountain Dew or brush your teeth with the right
toothpaste it can all be yours. These ideas are preached between the
lines in add campaigns. We are indoctrinated without ever having
considered the issues.
When an advertising
agent approaches a new product often the very need for the product must
be created in the public's mind. If you can create the belief that the
new product is needed, it is guaranteed to sell. Without exciting the
desire for these products the wheels of the economy would stop turning.
Advertising has been the most effective tool used by the world's power
base to control the population. Advertising provides the carrot on the
stick that keeps the beasts of burden trudging forward. In a land of
plenty such as the United States, to persuade an entire population to
spend the best part of their time and energy in labor is an amazing feat
One of the reasons
capitalism has succeeded while communism has failed is because communism
used force to control the population, while the capitalists have
brilliantly brainwashed the population into doing what they are told
while making them believe they are free. It is a master job of social
control that keeps the economy moving and the rich powerful and
One of the main
tools used in achieving this amazing feat is the national media. Those
in power have been effectively using the media ever since it emerged,
and in their hands it has defined our values as much as religions did
even previous ages.
Although people do
not generally recognize the media as an art form, in the back of their
minds they understand it's power. Given this, there is one more
disturbing trend that has emerged in recent years. Let us return to our
original questions: How does an artist create relevant art? How does an
artist create art that has a social impact?
individual feels a strong artistic impulse. Perhaps they do not even see
themselves as an artist. Still, they feel emotions that are bottled up
and they need to express them. They have ideas they need to share with
the world. And yes, like all artists, they are crying out for attention.
This is the artistic impulse at its most basic level. This is the artist
Given this, what
should the individual do if he desires to impact the world? Should he go
to a theatre in New York's underground and do performance art? To do so
would hardly impact anyone and would only be heard by a few like-minded
souls. Should he splatter his ideas on canvas then beg an East Village
gallery owner to display it so a few art-snobs can analyze it between
sips of cheap wine? It hardly seems worth the effort. But now imagine a
young man. He feels ignored and abused by the world around him. He
instinctively feels there is something wrong with the society he lives
in. He is angry and has no voice with which to express himself.
He could pick up a
guitar and bang out ugly chords and sing aggressive rock lyrics. He
could throw buckets of ocher and burnt sienna at a white canvas. Instead
he buys a long trench coat, an assortment of firearms, and a supply of
ammunition. In the morning he loads his weapons and hides them
underneath his coat. When he gets to school he begins shooting people
randomly. After murdering and wounding dozens of innocent classmates he
turns the gun on himself and ends his own life.
As a result of his
actions the people in his hometown have been terrorized. Police and
ambulances rush to the scene. News helicopters fill the sky. Reporters
swarm at the edge of the police line. The news headlines flash across
the nation. Special reports interrupt regular television programming.
The event is treated as a national catastrophe. For weeks afterwards TV
news pundits ponder his actions. Why did he do it? Who is to blame? What
is wrong with our society? Do we blame the parents? The schools? The
kids that picked on him? Rock music? Media violence? Or is America just
sinking into a morass of nihilistic violence?
At this point we
must ask ourselves an unpleasant question: Which act will make a
statement with more impact? Throwing paint at a canvas or the act of
extreme violence described here? Given the horrible nature of this act
it is hard to answer honestly. If we are able to leave good and evil
aside we are forced to admit that this act of violence was most
affecting. People are numb to art.
One can put
anything on a canvas and no one will bat an eye. You can say or do
anything in music and no one is shocked. None of it is taken seriously
enough to be considered as a sincere statement. But by employing extreme
violence the artist was able to capture the focus of the national media
and cut through the public malaise to make them seriously consider the
meaning of this act. Whether we like it or not the artist achieved what
few artists ever are able.
Now by this time,
surely many of you are offended by the idea of labeling this act a work
of art, and awarding the murderer the lofty title of 'artist.' We should
remember that to do so is not to condone his actions. It merely allows
us to learn through analysis. And it is an important question to
consider. In recent years such acts of violence have become more and
more common. Is such violence stemming from an artistic impulse? Can it
be considered performance art or living theatre? Is the alleged artist
motivated by a desire to make a statement to the world? And does
awareness of the national media as a medium for expression make such
violence a viable option?
One of the things
that makes the shootings so hard to understand is that they seem to be
completely irrational acts. In most cases the victims are randomly
chosen. They kill whomever happen to be unlucky enough to be in
shooters's range. The murders are usually not aimed at a specific
persons. To the public there seems to be no real logic to these acts.
They seem to be aimed at shocking the world. Or aimed at doing something
extraordinary so the world will recognize their anger and pain.
In most cases it
appears the killers have day-dreamed of the news reports and public
reactions before they commit their art-crimes. Buford Furrow, the
shooter at the Jewish day care center is reported to have ran to his
hotel room after the shooting so he could watch the news coverage on
When reading the
journals of these people we find that they express emotions and ideas
that many young artists express. The difference is that they have no
means by which to express themselves and no vehicle to elevate
themselves or make a mark on the world.
impulse is frustrated. The tension builds into an explosion. The most
extreme symbolic act, mass murder, is chosen to express these pent-up
emotions, and the most powerful medium if expression, the national
media, is taken as the canvas for their art-crimes.
consciously recognize the national media as a medium for artistic
expression, we are all extremely aware of it's power for communication.
We live in the age of celebrity. Our royalty, our gods and goddesses,
are created in the media. We know them only through the media. We
commune as a nation through the media. Our sense of national identity is
formed through the media. The media is capable of turning a pauper into
To be the focus of
media attention, whether positive or negative, can be the road to
In recent years
television corporations have made a fortune by exploiting people's
willingness to humiliate themselves for a chance to be in the media. All
you have to do is watch an episode of The Jerry Springer Show to see how
low people will go in order to have a taste of the media spotlight. The
reality TV craze has taken this to new heights. People will risk their
lives, starve themselves, go to any lengths to be in the media. The most
successful of these on shows such as Survivors have become household
names who cashed in on their moment in the media through book deals, TV
commercial, and Playboy pictorials.
In our era the line
between art and artist does not exist. The image we project is our own
means of expressing ourselves to the world.
Time and time again
young women tell me how seeing Madonna on MTV inspired them as little
girls. They say seeing Madonna made them feel 'like they could do it
too.' That they could express themselves and be loved by the
In our modern age
everyone wants their 15 minutes. Celebrity is a power that seems it
could be available to anyone. The national media is tool by which we may
express ourselves to the world.