WE DON'T TALK ANYMORE,
LIKE WE USED TO DO.
Did you know that Selena Gomez recorded her vocal parts for the hit duet We don’t talk anymore with Charlie Puth in a closet at his home?
This fact has nothing much to do with what I would like to say here. But for contemporary society today, such an allegory feels seemingly appropriate. Because we truly don’t talk about art anymore, instead, we speak incessantly of the art market and posture to the privileged each time they amass an art trophy. No, we also don’t talk about artists or artistic vision either, instead, we speak of their affluent patrons, glamorous parties and selfie-mad followers. And when many of those with knowledge (read experts) do speak about art these days, they don’t even pretend to do so from the top of their ivory towers, but rather, behind the closed doors of their private closets.
In order to provide knowledge access, public-funded art institutions, as an example, engineer a multitude of creative means to educate visitors with attractive, immersive and experiential programmes. As they continuously feel the pressure to meaningfully engage their expansive bands of audiences, institutions have, amongst others, adopted AR, VR and engage with popular online platforms and interactive technologies. Artwork captions and exhibition texts have been made more friendly, and programmes such as talks, tours and workshops have become obligatory staples. Social media influencers are now a must-invite at museum and art centre press conferences. Even festivals and biennales specially designed for children are now commonplace. These initiatives are clearly intended to make art more approachable, on point and fold museum-going into an adopted habit of society. Outside of museums and art centres, art festivals, biennales, fairs and gallery weekends appear to have grown in numbers and popularity with cities around the world. Each programme aims not only to attract visitors, but ultimately, pull in high visitor numbers. In doing so, corporate patrons are often roped in; partly to offset their high operational costs while offering tax breaks, exclusive content and opportunities to engage consumers with the mass socialisation of art. For the malleable, contextual possibilities that art allows, such partnerships do well to place brands in good light, extend their reach and value add.
However, in the rush to flourish and democratise public access to art, the essence of art itself appears more and more clouded within the thick shroud of its own festivities. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to encourage a snobbishness that demands the production and presentation of art only in its purest form. In fact, if anything, I have myself been guilty of curating some rather populist programmes. I had often thought that over time, and if provided with more opportunities, I could offer incrementally stepped-up access for the masses to embrace and appreciate the more difficult stuff. Alas, I often neglect the fact that as only ONE of the professionals on field, I have very limited access with even limited resources to influence or strategically roll out any kind of sustained public-centered programs. I understand that even for those with infinite resources on hand, it requires hindsight from years of field experience in order to craft meaningful, experiential, and insightful public engagement programmes within the ever-fickle art landscape.
Yet, skillfully curating and organising art events is only one factor. Not insignificant, but one. Bad curating and programming can only do better, but how? What really is the issue with promoting the joy of spectatorship and pedestrian-like encounters with art?
Layers of officialdom behind the veil of art are not unheard of. In order to unravel the conundrum, we only need to take a moment to look cursorily. Museums for example, are not run by the pure vision and veto of their directors, but also the inclinations of their board of trustees, government directives and private patrons. It is much the same with biennales and festivals. Meanwhile, art galleries, art fairs, auction houses and even art foundations, rely heavily and take cues from the participation of art connoisseurs, speculators and the spending public, each with their own vested interests. While it is undeniable that art is better off exposed to an audience than left frozen in cold storage or dormant in sketchbooks, these stakeholders are really layers in the filters of control for what eventually receives public airplay. They influence the packaging, transmission and channeling of the art we witness in public.
I believe that society’s appreciation of art could do better with more open engagements by critics and scholars, especially independent ones. Art presenters need to adopt more receptive attitudes and dialogues toward critical opinions. Surely, all art cannot only be skin deep. Critical reviews strike a balance between the obvious and the implied, peeling on the art theoretical, historical and often, social contexts of an artwork. Art that is worthy of being placed in the exhibitions and collections of any respectable institution should also be worthy of a robust discussion. Scanning many published reports by art writers and journalists, we will find no lack of surface level commentaries with regards to art activities. These are rather basic reports on the curating, programming and management of exhibitions, festivals, biennales and such. Yet, usually, in these reports, not much about the art shown is cited beyond the usual skimmed remarks. If we are lucky, in these writings, we might find a casual quote or two from professionals of the field.
So, what is the grip that could have choked critics out of their rightful roles?
Perhaps art is today seen to be less attractive when intellectualised. Perhaps, the demand of art today is only for it to be stunning, experiential and democratic. Perhaps, many more of us have become helpless culture diabetics, addicted to candy-coated monuments disguised as art. Perhaps, the critics feel a need to stay in good favour for fear of being cast out of the artworld’s privileged circles. Going against the grain might result in a loss of income and opportunities for them. Perhaps, art world news has been reserved for tabloid reading for moments when it encounters misfortunes or missteps. Or when it is a tool for protests or activism, or when it is called upon for charity, or to assist noble efforts to rehabilitate social delinquencies and cracks within society. When every art school student is grilled on the intellectual competence of their work, how sad it is to witness the creative finesse of professional artists left unchallenged and neglected. Are all spectators of today’s cultural tableau vivant really content just standing by while commenting furiously from the sidelines? Are we all complicit in short-changing ourselves of the seemingly inert yet potentially expansive power of art?
What is it about art that is so important that it demands insightful excavation?
We must agree that art has the capability to lift sensitive and philosophical enigmas to the surface. Maybe art is losing its poetry. A case of too much and too literal, if not derivative of the mountain of information avalanching upon us from the digital realm daily. Like emails in our spam folder that are conveniently ignored until the warning for our maxed-out mailbox quota forces a purge, but then, only for us to eventually allow more junk to enter.
Art is as equal a privilege, as it is a right. In this COVID -19 altered era, one could argue that the amount of resources put into the presentation of art could be put to better use. Art for the public, when funded with monies derivative of society’s toil in its economic cycle requires accounting for. Public exposure to art should not be limited to Facebook and Instagram posts that expire after a 24-hour digital existence. In the past decade or so, discussions surrounding art appear to have cemented its collusion with ‘market’. Even paintings on public walls by graffiti artists have been peeled off to be flogged at the marketplace. Market alone seems to have replaced its raison d’être. Although I am fully supportive of the need for the professionalisation and financial sustainability in the visual arts, I am sad to state here that many young artists I meet of late are creating purely in the direction of the market. Art need not solve society’s problems, but with the amount of public support it is receiving, it is only right for its players to be more conscientious and invested with their personal abilities to confer it with deeper resolution. So, you see, regardless of the platform, we still do need to talk about ART, because art is not just a game rich people play.
Khai Hori - May 2020
 We don’t talk anymore, Charlie Puth & Jacob Kasher, Atlantic records, 2016
 https://people.com/celebrity/charlie-puth-selena-gomez-release-we-dont-talk-anymore-recorded-in-closet/, 26 Jan 2016, Jeff Nelson, www.people.com