We're all artists / by JW Harrington

My final post on Meyer Schapiro ("The Value of modern art" (1948) in Worldview in Painting: Art and Society).

Schapiro postulated an additional set of characteristics that distinguish “modern” artists from earlier artists. 

1)   The individual artist is driven to continual innovation in his/her work – not just distinguishing that work from that of earlier artists, but distinguishing his current work from her/his past work. 

2)   There are no generally accepted rules regarding materials, styles, subject matter, or formal qualities of painting.

3)   From (2), it follows that anyone can produce art.

4)   From (1) and (2), it follows that in her search for innovation, a contemporary artist may find inspiration from the art (and non-art) of any place and any period.   


Taking this a bit (but not much) further than Schapiro did, it’s easy to see the limitations this places on viewers or consumers of contemporary art:

1)   Without generally accepted rules, how can one discern quality?

2)   If anyone can be an artist, why not consume and enjoy art produced by anyone?

3)   Does the viewer lose some measure of enjoyment if (s)he is unaware of the meanings or contexts of the foreign or anachronistic allusions in a work of contemporary art?

And for the artist:

1)   If anyone can produce art, why would anyone pay an artist more than the cost of time and materials that the buyer would have had to use to produce a work of art?

One key to this dilemma is found in te congruence between art and broadly shared desires in the post-Enlightenment West.  The goals of the modern artist are the goals of most Westerners:  to pursue continual, innovative, self-definition and self-expression without rules except those against directly harming others;  and to make use of the broad sweep of history and culture without letting ourselves be defined by our personal history or the dominant culture.  The culture that many of us inhabit makes the ideals of modern art very appealing.  And if anyone can produce art, then almost anyone will, even though one may have to make a living through other means.  

Source: http://www.jwharrington.com/blog/