Finding Romance in an Age of Paradox (Part Two)

Written By: Brandon Regner Constellation 23 3.1.13

Finding Romance in an Age of Paradox (Part Two)

By Brandon Regner

I. It is the It

The purpose of my last article was to examine what exactly fine art is and how it operates: a system in which artists make work, and institutions validate art works by including them in collections, articles, and exhibitions. This system projects boundaries of fine art and provides a language to understand those boundaries, such as the date of completion, the biography of the artist, the concept and medium of the work, etc. This language is mistaken by the public as a definition of fine art. For instance, fine art is not oil paintings, nor is it a specific oil painting. This equation is false because fine art is not the language through which we understand work, but rather the system itself that is constructing, projecting, and enforcing these boundaries. What makes an object fine art is its inclusion in this conversation and within this system. Based on my experience working in the prop-shop industry, I came to question the system’s strange logic of inclusion and exclusion.

Fine art is difficult to understand because its institutions create its boundaries. If an institution is a component of the fine art system, then a part of the whole is defining itself. Fine art is self-reflecting and adapts its definition to accommodate new ideas. Though counterintuitive, this is exactly what’s happening and it is what fine art currently looks like.

This tradition of fine art exists because (1) artists made unsolicited work that was (2) curated by institutions. (3) The inclusion of the works within these institutions announced the importance of the work. (4) The acceptance by artists and the public of the institutional authority to declare this hierarchy (5) validated and solidified the importance of the institutions, which then created (6) a vocabulary to understand the boundaries of fine art. These boundaries (7) informed artists to make new work, which (8) informed new exhibitions. Thus we move from making to curating, constructing importance, accepting that very importance, which in turn validates the authority of the institution to determine the language defining fine art, before we return to artists making work–and the cycle begins anew. This exchange between artists and institutions is fine art.

Fine art is not a color. Fine art is not a medium. Fine art is not made by a man or a woman or an American or a European or an African. These statements have not always been true; they are true today. Fine art has no specific look or genre and will always exist as long as a new definition can be prescribed: it is the power to describe that gives authority to the aforementioned institutions. The institutional power will declare a work of art a “masterpiece” and as a result perpetuate the hierarchical system that will continue unless the definition of “fine art” becomes entirely open-ended and anything is fine art, a point on which I elaborated this point in my previous argument in Quodlibetica.

II. You Know You Love It

In the two years after graduating from the College of Visual Arts with a B.F.A. degree in Painting, I needed to find a job and sought out opportunities that I felt were directly related to my training. Thanks to Nathaniel Freeman, Tobias Lawson, and Asa Hoyt at the CVA sculpture studio, I was made aware of a field that I came to know casually as the “prop shop industry,” in which large corporations contract companies to create billboards, displays, and sculptures. I had the privilege of working for two local firms on several projects. During this experience I began to question the current definition of fine art.

The first company for which I was hired to work as a subcontractor was Atomic Props in Saint Paul. Atomic Props specializes in large sculptures and 3-D billboards. During my second contract with Atomic, I saw their Giant Kraft Macaroni Noodle sculptures for the first time.

I want to be clear that I was not involved in the creation of these particular sculptures, but they were the initial inspiration for my thoughts here. The sculptures exceed the limitations of a mere macaroni noodle and become art objects in their own right. They are giant, bright yellow, high gloss, inverted arcs. They embody Pop Art without the contrived reconstruction by a self-proclaimed fine artist. Branded with Kraft’s slogan “You Know You Love It,” the sculptures stand as a testimony to the power of commissioned artwork while maintaining every bit of integrity that, for instance, Claes Oldenberg and Coosge van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry or Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate bean in Chicago’s Millenium Park possesses.

To make that point clear, Spoonbridge and Cherry was manufactured (gasp and surprise) not by Claes Oldenberg or Coosje van Bruggen, but by a team of artisans between “two shipbuilding yards in New England,” according to WalkerArt.org. As for Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate? It was made in California by Performance Structures Inc, (PSI); in other words, by a group of highly skilled artisans—one of whom was CVA’s sculpture technician, Asa Hoyt.

All of these works of art share similarities. Each work was commissioned. Each work was initially conceived by a “master artist” and then executed by a team of trained artisans. In the instances of Spoonbridge and Cherry and Cloud Gate, the master artists are Oldenberg, van Bruggen and Kapoor, respectively. In the case of the Giant Kraft Macaroni Noodle, the master artist may have been Kraft, an advertisement agency, an independent designer, Atomic Props, or any combination of these. In all cases, the artisans were the ones who actually possessed the skills necessary to create the physical work, while the “master artist” approved stages of development during the process. This system of hierarchy strikes me as very similar to that employed by Renaissance artists, and echoes the relationship between “master artist” and “apprentice” that existed during the period. It is also very similar to the work produced by the studio that Andy Warhol ran, which he appropriately dubbed “The Factory.”

III. The Church of Pop

There is a tendency to discuss Warhol’s importance by defending or disputing his right to steal imagery and call it his own. He recognized the beauty of advertisements and remade those objects himself. In doing so, the imagery was “appropriated,” exhibited, and recontextualized. Once in this new context, viewers could observe the beauty of the “pop” format. The objects could be looked at as artifacts rather than only advertisements. On his experience with Pop, Warhol said this:

“The farther west we drove [to California, fall 1963], the more Pop everything looked on the highways. Suddenly we all felt like insiders because even though Pop was everywhere—that was the thing about it, most people still took it for granted, whereas we were dazzled by it—to us, it was the new Art. Once you -’got’ Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again.”

You can see this influence in works such as Campbell’s Soup Cans, Three Coke Bottles, or the Brillo Boxes, for example. However, the matter of originality was not what drew me back to his work. Warhol’s work does three things exceptionally well. First, his concept defies the existing system of fine art. Second, the content of his work suggests the existence of another system of fine art altogether, separate from everything that I have described thus far. Finally, the production of his work embodies this other, second system. Although Warhol was not the first person to suggest the dismantling of fine art’s hierarchy, the content of his work points toward corporations as specific subject matter in many of his paintings and prints.

I draw a direct parallel between modern corporations and the Catholic Church during the Renaissance. I believe that Warhol’s work best illustrates this connection. During the Renaissance, it was the artist’s role to accurately communicate the subject matter of the Holy Bible to an illiterate population through paintings and sculptures. The Catholic Church used its power and capital to fund the artwork, a process that eventually elevated the artistic practice of the era from a period of medieval art into what we now know as the Renaissance. This change was marked by an increase in the depth of paintings, an understanding of communicating perspective, increased articulation of volume, foreshortening, an understanding of atmospheric perspective, and the use of extreme lighting, or chiaroscuro.

Artists such as Giotto Di Bondone, Filippo Brunelleschi, Titian, and Michelangelo and many others created masterpieces that were commissioned by the Church. The artists were essentially hired as contractors to perform a task at the will of the Church. This system offered actual jobs for artists, who were paid and directed. The Catholic Church created a brand that was surrounded by recognizable and consistent icons, a lasting visual identity and legacy. Artists who worked for the Church during the Renaissance were not performing self-satisfying acts of expression. The Catholic Church was not selecting and curating pre-existing works of art in an effort to elevate and immortalize the master artist and the masterpieces. The collection of work that the Church commissioned served a purpose different from creating a place for an art collection to exist and for viewers to see the work. It also goes without saying that the Church did not exist because of the collection: The collection existed because the Church dictated what content should be included and then paid for that content to be created. In this system, fine art is defined by rewarding the artists who possessed the most skill with a contract to create new work. That system is in sharp contrast to the current system, a system that rewards artists who exhibit originality and excellence of independent self-expression.

Although Warhol’s content was often borrowed, seemingly defying the imperative to be original, the act of appropriation itself was extremely conceptual, a self-directed and self-motivated expression of an honest observation: Pop advertising signage is beautiful. Why is it that it took an artist’s hand to recreate popular culture imagery in order for us to identify it as fine art? This is not because institutions valued Warhol’s ability to re-create advertisements representationally, or the skill that it took to perform the task of recreating the advertisements. Warhol is valued because of the original idea that there is beauty inherent in the images that he was stealing. He chose to make paintings and prints of existing content as a means to describe that concept and make a sellable good. Had Warhol exhibited actual cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup and signed them (a la Duchamp’s urinal), would we be discussing his name? Had Campbell’s directly commissioned Warhol to make that series, would the works be as influential? Do you know the name of the original designer behind the Campbell’s soup can that was hired to perform a job at the will of the company?

These questions, and not their answers, are why a direct parallel can be drawn between modern corporations and the Catholic Church during the Renaissance. It is also why I believe that Warhol exists at an intersection of this argument. Corporations are the entities of power during our lifetime that have the resources and motives necessary to commission artists based on the quality of the skills that those artists possess. The motive of a corporation in hiring artists is to create new content in their honor in order to communicate their ideology to the potential consumers in easily accessible visual language. The images become part of the collective identity of that company. The intention is not to create a self-referential location to view artwork, nor is it an artist’s self expression made tangible through the creative process, but the purpose of the commission is to create a work of art that supports the company, for the public to see and be reminded that the company’s products exist. That is exactly what the Catholic Church was doing while commissioning artists during the Renaissance. Pop Art, at its core, is about appreciating the beauty of sale and what it takes to get the attention of the public. This is what I do for my day job.

I believe that the prevailing system that defines fine art in our society gives authority to institutions that are also dependent on the existence of fine art. These institutions exist as a means to give artists the right to be self-expressive and in return, profit from both declaring landmark changes in the field of fine art and possessing artifacts that document that change in their collections. In my mind, it is obvious that an alternative system to the institutional-approval system exists, and that this other system gives authority to powerful and wealthy companies. While this system gives artists (and many artisans) the ability to make a consistent living, the individual sacrifices self-expression in the process.

After being hired as a full-time employee at Tivoli Too, another local prop shop that specializes in full 3-D sculptures and murals, I have come to the conclusion that the work done in my industry should also be considered fine art. Its historical roots can be traced back to the height of the Renaissance. Its imagery is reflected in modern art’s inclusion of Pop Art. The significance of the work should not be determined by a self-proclaimed fine artist re-articulating an existing work, when hundreds of hours of labor by formally trained fine artists already went into the original. The clients of today are the equivalent of the Catholic Church during the Renaissance, and Tivoli Too as well as Atomic Props should appropriately be viewed as the Titian and Michelangelo of our time.

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