More Issue, Less Object

This past weekend I attended Creative Capitals retreat at Williams College.  It was a gathering of the minds, a real creative incubator.  New thoughts, endless connections, and collaborations filled the air, and there was not one. single. dull. moment.

Creative Capital is an organization that gives venture-capital style grants to contemporary artists.  It is a fabulous company, and I could type forever about it.  But for now, here is the link, because this post is about something a little different.

As part of this retreat, the artists who have been given money from Creative Capital have seven minutes to make a presentation to the entire conference (390 people!) about their work.  Upwards of 80 presentations were made in total to a desperately curious audience of artists guests, artistic consultants, gallery and museum representations, foundations, publishers, dancers…the list continues.    By the end of these presentations, not only were my creative energies simultaneously renewed and sapped, I was downright exhausted!  Fathoming new ideas is quite a task.  They get you going, thinking about new points of connection for new ways of thinking, or creating moments, making beautiful, or not beautiful things.  The presentations were like eating chips, totally irresistible.

By the end of the presentation, I started to think more on the macro level.  I noticed something that really stuck out to me.  Not one person presented a painting.  Oil paint on canvas.  Acrylic on paper.  Watercolor on a pad.  Nope.  I did not see any of it.  And I do not mean this in a bad way.  In fact, this observation didn’t even occur to me until I was on the train home.  I was so swept up in all that I did see, while experiencing it, it felt like there was nothing missing, that what I was seeing was everything.

So why no paintings?  For that matter, why no objects?  These artists are deemed some of the most high achieving, most influential contemporary artists out there, so what they are producing represents somewhat of the major trend in contemporary art.  I began to think that maybe the work they were producing was more about the issues it engaged with, as opposed to the objects it produced.

There were two projects that really stuck in my mind: The Ghana Think Tank, and the Mini Mart Project.  The Ghana Think Tank is a group of artists that has found a way to collect and send first world problems to third world countries in order to get the third world individuals advice on the potential solutions for these first world individuals, and vice versa.  The artists of the Ghana Think Tank have identified groups of people in both first and third world countries to field the questions, and respond.  Even the kind of design work on the post cards to be sent between the first and third world countries was considered.  These artists art is about flipping the paradigm of first and third world countries on its head by suggesting that problems may be universal, thus their solutions equally so.  There is no object to come of this whole thing, the exchange is what matters.  The exchange is the art.

Another project, the Mini Mart City Park Project, was a process of taking a decrepit area of a town and revitalizing it as a new public space for that neighborhood.  The art was the process of revitalization.  The artist actually soon doubled as an environmentalist because the process of finding, buying, and identifying partners to renovate the land put him in conversations and meetings with major gas company representatives and environmental protection agencies.  Who would have thought that an artist trying to bring life back to a small plot of land would be in the position to influence environmental policy by striking deals with major gas companies?

These artists are about the engagement.  Another way to put it is that they are about the issue behind the process.  They are working at the heart of cross-disciplinary collaborations; they embody collaborations.  This kind of collaboration then begs the question: how can is be shown in a gallery or museum space?  Should it be?  What makes this kind of art different from non-profit work?  

What makes this contemporary work decidedly different from anything that could be comparable is the vision behind it.  The vision of these projects is not necessarily to create organization that does social justice work, or create an object to be displayed.  The projects are part of the artists’ larger trajectory, their larger artistic vision of how they explore some kind of idea.  For the Ghana Think Tank the idea that interested them could have been how todays world prioritizes and defines “problems.”  For the Mini Mart City Park project, the idea that interested them could have been how people interact with old spaces.  The artist explores ideas and connects moments in an unlikely fashion, stringing together thought provoking occurrences.  How will this be communicated to audiences?  How will this kind of art be publicly valuable?  Or, how will this kind of art be valued?  If we are thinking about the art market, one cannot really put the exchange of ideas between first and third world countries to auction.  What tangible thing will come to represent this contemporary art such that the art can be identified and appreciated?  Or, will a whole new kind of value maker, unrelated to the object-focused dollar sign, come into existence?

Contemporary art is making us observe the nature of todays exchanges and presents us with the conundrum of valuing them.


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