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This would look perfect above our sofa!

It might be true that most of the visual art being purchased, is bought purely for its utility as wall decoration. It may also be true that a majority of visual artists are content creating an oeuvre of pretty pictures. But good art, real art, serious art, transcends decoration. The best art is analogous to the best literature—it makes us think. It causes us to question. It induces wonderment.

Ancient cave drawing, artist unknown

Artists attempting to create work that is capable of defeating the demon of decor are faced with considerable challenges. Historically, even in non-Western, or ancient cultures, the most culturally important artists would have their creative fates enslaved to religion. Whether it was Catholicism or Animism, the role of the serious artist was often the role of shaman. Artists that wanted to tackle tangential projects needed to find a way to support themselves. They often also needed to find a way to protect themselves, since when art was meant to serve religious orthodoxy, any art that failed in that regard was often considered threatening. Usually with disastrous consequence to art and artist alike.

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel detail.
Detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo.

Nevertheless, the most important art of every era and culture transcended mere decoration. Even if the artists creating it were slaves to their cultural masters. Very few artists at work before the 18th century have left us a body of work that transcends any combination of religion, politics, or decoration. One possible exception being the brilliant polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, whose private sketches serve only his own purposes.

Some time, I'd place it near the end of the 19th century, visual artists in the Western European tradition, began to break free of the shackles of cultural and religious hegemony. A new phenomenon  emerged. The idea of artists creating art that was purely for their own interests. The best (most commonly referenced) example of these were the Impressionists. A group of artists who tried to push the limits of observation and experimentation to its limits.

Finally, there was an art for artists.

Starry Night Over the Rhone
Starry Night Over the Rhone (Nuit Étoilée sur le Rhône). 1888, Vincent van Gogh.

The seeds of demonic decoration were thus sown...

The art of the Impressionists is today considered to be beautiful. In its time it was considered revolutionary. Radical. Even dangerous. Art for art's sake, art created by artists for their own purposes was virtually unheard of until this time. It was an art that truly defeated the demons of decoration. And yet...

Today the art of these radical artists adorns dorm rooms on cheap poster paper. It can be found on coffee mugs and pillow cases, or trampled underfoot on cheap throwaway rugs. Only a tiny minority of artists and art history buffs still appreciate this art for what it truly was, and should truly remain.

As the twentieth century dawned and progresses, the same fate seems to have overtaken nearly every major art movement. Non-representational art such as abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction, and even pop art, have moved from underground artist studios, through avant garde galleries, to the walls of banks and multinational corporations.

Ellsworth Kelly paintings from an exhibition at the Marion Goodman Gallery

Once again, what began as a revolution in visual representation, ended with a whimper, on the walls of Ikea furnished apartments in suburban cultural wastelands.

There must be some way out of this place!

I am far from the first artist to notice this phenomenon. It is a big reason that I was attracted first to Dada, and later, to Fluxus.

Dada emerged from the ashes and ruins of the First World War. Artists, sickened by the death, destruction, and depravity of warfare, needed an art that could not be usurped. That by its very nature was resistant to being hung on walls to decorate living rooms and bedrooms. Art that would be difficult. Art that would be meaningful, precisely because the semiotic references and inferences would be non-obvious. Art that was for a revolution that could not be co-opted by men with money, or powerful people with mainstream (but ultimately destructive) agendas.


Allan Revich performs while reading the Dada Manifesto

Fluxus began in the 1960s, but grew out of a similar confluence of disillusionment and experimentalism. Fluxus was generally much less nihilistic than Dada, and was more self-consciously concerned with the media and cultural milieu in which the associated artists worked. Fluxus artists tended to create works that could be documented, presented and re-presented, even sold or traded; and yet remained somewhat ephemeral, and difficult to usurp commercially into the dominant culture.

Fluxus Manifesto by George Maciunas
Fluxus Manifesto by George Maciunas

The two most common "products" of Fluxus artists were the Fluxbox or Fluxkit, and the Event Score. Fluxkits were either limited or open editions of collaborative works. Sometimes offered for sale, and often traded among the project participants. Often the works were traditionally attributed, but were left unsigned, making their commercial values difficult to quantify. Even in the case of some of the groups most famous members, like Yoko Ono, works can be located for sale today for prices that would bankrupt commercially oriented artists like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons.

Where can we go from here?

Aye, there's the rub. It seems that artists who want to create serious art that is capable of defeating the demons of decoration are in bind. In a sense there really is no way out of it.

One might try creating ugly art, but even art that some feel is ugly, will be found to be attractive enough for someone's wall. There are subject matter games that can be played. For example, while even the most "difficult" abstract (non-representational) art will find a home on the wall of a bank or law firm, nudity and sexually provocative content is still taboo in the staid world of corporate interior decoration. But even sex and nudity are now consumed as entertainment and titillation, and not so much for artistic integrity or conceptual intentionality.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.
~ William Blake, circa 1793, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Opening the doors of perception

There is no way to escape the demons of decoration when it comes to any work of art that is intended to be hung on a wall. Works that exist in three dimensions (sculpture) is similarly doomed to decoration. Still, there is a way to create art that transcends its own destiny.

  1. Do it anyway. Artists creating two or three dimensional works can continue to create work that is layered with meanings that go beyond the decorative. While their (our/my) work is mostly consumed because of its decorative value, the work will always have more embedded in it for the artist, and for whatever minuscule audience cares to search for it. I've tried to accomplish this in my paintings and drawings by working with asemic text, and by using minimalist landscapes to suggest deeper layers of meaning. Something approaching a religious experience accessible even to hardcore atheists.
  2. Do the Dada. Dada may be dead, and Fluxus might be getting long in the tooth, but that does not prevent either of these memes from remaining viable alternatives to working within the confines of the mainstream art markets. Chaos, confusion, entropy, revolution, and even downright silliness are fabulous ways to create artwork that is interesting, dynamic, and highly resistant to commercialization or decor.
  3. Expand into other media, primarily temporal oriented media. Performance art, sound art, light art, action art, and any other activity that is hard to capture and package. Sure, you'll need a trust fund or a day job, but so what? You've broken the shackles of commercial conformity.
  4. Mail art, and other forms of inter-artist exchange. Why not break free of the art market and gallery scene completely? Artists have been sending each other small pieces by mail for decades now. Mail art is unjuried, unsold, and unfettered. With the Internet it is now easily possible to connect with other artists around the world, and to begin creating, sending and receiving art through the postal system.
  5. Web based art. Whether you build a blog, use a website, or participate on social media, the web is full of options and opportunities to create and exchange visual and multimedia content. Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are full of wonderful and eclectic artwork and visual content. Yeah, I know... "if it's free, then you're the product". But what the heck. Be the best damned product you can be, and get busy.

Dada meets fluxus dolls and false teeth

 

 

 

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