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Up Against The Wall

July 29, 2013 | WALLS OF THE BOX

I will start that discussion with these questions.  Where does a concept of freedom start in a country, as an idea of the citizens and their government? Or does it come from development of a common cultural practice. Leading to the citizen’s need to have the concept formalized by their government?


Are common culturally observed restrictions more influential then politically legalized ones?


In the U.S., all forms of government are kept from restricting freedom of expression with only a small set of exceptions.  So we American artists are quite free relative to the law.

However there is our culture, it prefers that artists do not get great public exposure unless they and their work are vetted by the non-artist professionals in their medium.  Editors, galleries, museums, schools all got to promote a small percentage of the artists while sidelining many others, some of whom may have also been excellent.  This system of judgments through the private sector was well meaning and offered no realistic option to artists who could not make the cut.  Unfortunately a lot of great work never gets in front of the public in that system.   Without the approval of the institutionally connected folks, an artist might remain invisible.   Lately the internet has loosened some of that control giving ambitious artists a direct connection to the larger public.  It is a virtual democratization of the visual arts.  The system promises the public that what it sees meets  some form of standard but it may not be effective in recognizing qualities and strengths or new ideas that are not part of the already familiar mainstream.  Short of that, even today, the uncelebrated artists who are good still have few alternatives.  The lack of democratization in the system limits the public to seeing only the chosen artists.  They only get to see the chosen ones who are very persistent, and that is not many more.  Fortunately photography uses portfolio reviews to open the process up.  The unchosen have wonderful opportunities to meet the institutional professionals and apply to become among the chosen.


It our common culture that takes an elitist view of elevating an artists stature.  That is, an artist must obtain approval from non artists who have positions and titles before the greater public accepts that their work is worth seeing.  In more recent years, money often influences the decision options available to the titled non artist folks.  That has not helped the U.S to foster greater creativity.  Too many of us artists are more focused on repeating what is already successful, staying on trend. and conforming to the collecting market’s latest fads.  They can not afford to go there own original way and allow themselves to be wrong with that.  After all they have to earn livings, need approval and acceptance so they must please the institutions.  That degree of conformity can not help them create and their deeper expressions suffer under the culturally restrictive system.  Without realizing what has happened, their deeper inspirations have become co-opted.


Let me take you on a virtual moment into some other typical countries with less cultural but more political restriction.  As one artist put it.  “We don’t have the cultural limitations that exist in the U.S.  We can rent a space, put up an exhibit and people will come to see it.  The audience does not need writers or other institutional folks to tell them what is and is not good art.   They go and see for themselves and make their own decisions.  So we can express anything we want, and in that basic condition we are free.  Our limitation only comes when we engage in expression that is felt to be harmful to our country or culture.  In those cases the restrictions are tight.  Imagine a big box that we live in and it is filled with expressive freedom greater than in the U.S.  It works for artists except when we reach the walls of the box.  Those are the official restrictions and are way to high for us to climb over and there we are have no freedom compared to Americans”


Maybe there is still advantage to the U.S.  model.  As artists we can fight institutional disinterest by looking for the institutional connections whose interests match are own. And there are many thousands of arts institutions to engage with.  I think American artists can be thankful government is not much of a factor and would rather duel with the private sector.  I will try to keep that in mind next time I have my portfolio reviewed.