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Everyone is an artist (essay)

by on May 25, 2008

“Everyone is an artist”[1]

“In the post-Structuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry.” (Wikipedia, 2008)

It was in this context that Barthes famously concluded “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (quoted in Wolff, 1983, p117). However, the artist function and identity was never static, and the “artist” to which Barthes refers is historically-specific, as I shall show. This question is, however, newly relevant today, in view of the

“recent surge in interest in collectivity, collaboration, and direct engagement with specific social constituencies … [which] occupy an increasingly conspicuous presence in the public sector” (Bishop, 2006)

The concept of the artist-author has not been fixed through history. Indeed, the history of Western art and craft production is the history of a collective process and of socially-produced “things”.

The concept of the artist as working under freely creative conditions; the artist as “genius” are ideas that develop during the Renaissance, largely due to the changing relationship of the artist to individual patrons (the church and the landed gentry). The issue of commission and ownership, both in the sense of “authorship” and “property” require a sole author, (Wolff, 1993, p122) and value is increased through art collecting both to increase status of the buyer (private individual or institution), and also as a financial investment.  The artwork is mediated by the owner, the artist and various layers of society.

“As capitalism has developed, the social role of artists has changed. Commodification of art has shaped artistic production itself […] since the middle of the 19th century at least.” (Neinham, 1999). Artists become less obviously part of the class system, and their output becomes commodified. This also intellectually reinforces the idea that artists operate outside the normal social and political sphere, encouraging an ahistorical reading of art (encouraged more recently by postmodernism).

“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only his eyes if he is a painter, or his ears if he is a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he is a poet, or, if he is merely a boxer, only his muscle? On the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly alert to the heartrending, burning, or happy events in the world, molding himself in their likeness.” (Pablo Picasso (18811973))

Here, Picasso, too, rejects the romantic/capitalist notion of artistic “freewill”, as does Foucault (1979) (although in fact from quite a different perspective):“The author-function is […] characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society”.

Walter Benjamin (1934) develops this from a marxist perspective: the artist is not creatively free precisely because they are not free economically: “The present social situation forces him to decide in whose service he wishes to place his activity.”

The industrial and post-industrial ages also quickly develop new materials and methods of production[2], which artists co-opt. Changes in society happen much more quickly than in earlier societies – also reflected in the speeding up of the development of artistic development. Over the last century or so, the variety of responses of contemporary artists to these two (related) things has led to a wide divergence of art practices and outputs.

In contemporary art there is generally more understanding of the social production of a piece of  art (e.g. we understand Shibboleth wasn’t physically made by Doris Salcedo, yet we can hold this and recognise her creative ownership of it). However, the way in which artists produce work can also reinforce or challenge this renaissance/capitalist definition of the artist.

Compare Salcedo’s “high” art conceptual piece above to what is usually considered “low” (or at least lower) art: equally highly trained artists who spend their time in socially-engaged art[3]. As Kester says, this practice is founded on/in the belief that “aesthetic experience can transform human consciousness” (2004, p153).

Artists such as Stephen Willats are even more explicit about their aims in this respect: “In a society which reduces people I’m working to celebrate their richness and complexity.“[4] Crucially he locates this as his practice (i.e. subject matter).

For example, in Person to Person, People to People he explores the tensions between the theory of social housing (in this project built in 1974 in Milton Keynes) and the realities of living there in 2005-7 through a self-selected group of it’s residents (see later).

This importance placed on process and collaboration is equally true of all relational aesthetics[5], which includes this socially-engaged art. The making senses of it all website (2007) puts it thus:

Employing a term used by Marx, [Bourriaud] defines relational art as the type that “represents a social interstice.”

Bourriaud explains Marx’s term thus, “The interstice is a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities that those in effect within this system.”

The meaning that results from works of relational art comes from the interstice between artist and beholder, the attempt at momentary intimacy set apart from “the alienation reigning everywhere else.”

The artwork is presented as a social interstice within which these experiments and these new “life possibilities” appear to be possible[6].

This practice places the artist, participants, and subsequently, “beholders” as collaborators[7], encouraging a dialogue between all three (while compromising none of the artist’s creative authorship).

The artist who comes to mind whose practice is most antithetical to this type of practice is Richard Long[8]. But his practice is fundamentally the result of his art training, of contemporary art history and art criticism in generally, as well as specific art movements (e.g. process art, land art, conceptual art), and his social circumstances and experiences.

And we generally experience his works mediated through photographs. He is in fact the central, creative individual in a wider body of people who have contributed, or do now contribute to everything that has led to his making of and our receiving his work. (Does he personally letraset his text pieces on gallery walls? I suspect not, although he does still do his own mud paintings for exhibitions.)

Clearly, some art forms lend themselves more towards social production (and an a priori dissolution of the romantic notion of “artist”, or the capitalist “hero”), however, as I have demonstrated, no artist can ever or has ever operated alone. But “high art” tends to hide and, in particular socially-engaged art, tends to make transparent the means of production, and will also value the process more also, which will be reflected in the outcomes (exhibition, catalogue, accompanying texts etc).[9]

The role of the reader (viewer) has changed through history, but that relationship, in whatever form, has clearly always been intrinsic to the work. Apart from the given, that artists need an audience to whom to communicate their ideas, it is the viewer (individual or institution) who considers a finished work, forming part of the dialectic that ultimately affords that work and the artist cultural “value”. “The role of the reader is creative but situated” (Wolff, 1993, p115, author’s emphasis). This creativity goes beyond the passive consumption of a piece of work; it is a dialogue with the work, which itself produces ideas and responses that range from the shared to the individual.

For example, in the Willats pieces what we see is the reality of the project participants mediated by the artist, and viewers from the estate will read the works differently, as will those who have no experience of social-housing, or live outside Milton Keynes (or me, experiencing the work only through the catalogue). There cannot be an absolute reading of the work, and the authorship is open to interpretation also. But the artist is not dead, only less visible: he is the “cultural generator” of the piece and the process, and the pieces shown in the are immediately recognisable as the artist’s (SW’s) work.

As I have shown above, the concept of reader changes slightly depending on the type of work the artist produces. The lines between production and consumption are often blurred through commodification and increasingly also through celebrity culture[10], both bringing the artist (seller) closer to the viewer (buyer), but through highly mediated encounters. In contemporary society, the artist, the work and the reader always form part of an on-going, mediated dialogue.

The third and most powerful element in the creation and reception of art and of naming “artists” is the art establishment – “the art world and the cultural industries” (Molyneux). This part of the superstructure[11] ranges from the global to the national to the local, and includes everything from art schools to funding bodies such as the Arts Council and Lottery funding-bodies; publicly- and privately-owned galleries; awards etc; biennales; as well as curators; critics and cultural commentators; academia; the media and  so on. They are also the key “commodifiers” of art.

Collectively this part of the superstructure represents the art establishment, and reflects the ruling class in wider society, but, as with any part of the superstructure,  they are not a static or homogenous group in terms of ideas or people: there is an on-going tension. They are not also immune to the rest of society: for example both Chris Ofili (2006) and Jeremy Deller (2006-8) had pieces bought by the Tate whilst the artists were serving trustees, which caused public consternation; and Hirst’s recent attempts to buy back his work from Saatchi also shows that none of these relationships is either mechanical or stable, but dialectical.

Damien Hirst was number 11 in Art Review’s 2006 power 100[12], and number 532 in 2007 the Sunday Times “Rich List”[13] (up from 2006),  so Art and Capitalism are enjoying a productive and mutual relationship! In fact, elevating certain artists like this fits with “a vision of the world that dovetails with capitalist values of individual competition” (Battacharyya, 2008).

However, as I have said, there is a mediated relationship in art, between the artist, the viewer and society, and public opinion (human agency) can influence art, just as it can influence wider society. Consider Mark Wallinger’s installation, “State Britain”. Site-specific (the installation includes a taped boundary of the one mile exclusion zone imposed by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005[14] (Haw’s Law)), it would not have been installed, never mind have contributed to Wallinger being awarded  the 2007 Turner Prize were it not for the size and activities of the Stop the War movement in the UK. As Battacharyya (2007) comments on this exhibition “Every age has it’s defining political struggle”.

And reciprocally, it “sexes up” the image of Tate Britain at a time when it is in some respects in competition with the Tate Modern. (There was a 6% uplift in general visitor numbers in those 6 months of 2007 compared to the same period in 2006[15].) With the planned expansion of the Tate Modern, this becomes more pressing and directly (i.e. economically) relevant.

To conclude, “[c]onformist, rebellious and even eccentric views are always a function of the social position […] of the individual concerned.” (Wolff, 1993, p119). In addition, all art is socially produced, from the work of Rembrandt to Judy Chicago, from William Morris to Tracey Emin. The present discussion is a response to a specific art theory debate, situated in the context of some specific developments in current contemporary practice, and a historical materialist perspective.

Artists work within an overall system which mediates their practice. However, “[t]he centrality of the author […] is a vital matter, and a modified conception of authorship does nothing to alter this fact.” (Wolff, 1993, p136). Throughout ALL history people have produced art and the role of the artist has always been that of a key “cultural generator”: this seems unlikely to change in the future.


[1](Attributed to Joseph Beuys by Stephen Willats, 2007)

[2] E.g. screen-printing (1900s), plastics and polymers (1920s); welding methods (1940s); acrylic paint (1950s); video (1960s); digital media and internet art (1990s);

[3] Also known as community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, participatory, interventionalist, research-based, or collaborative art (Bishop, 2006)

[4] Quoted in Kester, G, 2004

[5] “An art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space (author’s emphasis) Bourriaud 2002

[6] Bourriaud himself occupies an interesting role as both art critic and curator, as co-founder and co-Director of the Palais de Tokyo during the 90s and early part of this decade

[7] !Aassociates in an activity or endeavour or sphere of common interest” (WordWeb, 2008)

[8] See also e.g. John Latham

[9]Usually an art “object” is only one element of the project (see Cole, South London Gallery/Sceaux Gardens 2007).

[10]Some are celebrities  eg YBAs/sensation – Hirst and Emin; some make celebrity their subject matter eg Peyton; and some are both eg Warhol

[11]Within Marxist social theory, superstructure is the particular form through which human subjectivity engages with the material substance of society. The form is to an extent objective and to an extent subjective. The relationship between superstructure and base is considered to be a dialectical one, not a distinction between actual entities “in the world”. (Wikipedia)

[12] Serota is 3 and Saatchi 7

[13] The Saatchi family are 312

[14] This was not the only artistic response to this legislation. See also e.g. SOCPA – the movie
(Director: Rikki Blue. UK, 2007)

 [15] “However a comparison of the general visitor figures from year to year is not very helpful as the Duveens displays are on for 6 months and numbers fluctuate during that long a period for a variety of reasons, most of them to do with the special exhibitions”.  (Tate Britain)

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