For those who have taken an interest in the contemporary art world and its process, that is to say the graphic arts of painting, drawing, on to sculpture, photography, multimedia, etc. inevitably the moniker of 'elitism' is raised in resentment to the seeming obscurity of so much of its production and the alleged waste of time, effort and process. That contemporary art is the province of the elite and has little or nothing to do with the lives of the many.
It was the perceived rawness of the work back in the late eighties and its offense to sensibilities by the likes of artists such as Serrano and Mapplethorpe that in large measure brought on our government's culture wars. Tensions that resulted in the symbolic emasculation of our one great government institution supportive of the creative process of America's artists, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This was sadly the result of Congress' mandated dismantling of the NEA Fellowship Grants and its brilliant peer panel review program, fearing that left to their own devices artists would create work that could be construed offensive to some. The dismantling came about irrespective of the fact that the program's success was brilliant, helping to launch hundreds of careers and becoming a cornerstone to the arts community. One of America's greatest artists, a veritable national treasure, Chuck Close, was to say, "Of all the awards I have received through my lifetime, none ever meant more to me than my NEA fellowship." And so it was with hundreds of others.
At the time of the politicized demise of the NEA's Arts Fellowship program nary a voice was raised within our political class to protect this program so key to the nation's sense of self. Instead there was plenty of piling on, pandering for political gain. After all, the art world holds little political weight and the 'elitist label' could be readily bandied about without fear of reprimand nor accountability. It is an attitude of government that continues to this day, (please see "A Nation's Shame; Bailing Out Wall Street By The Bucketful While Supporting Our Art Traditions With An Eyedropper" 04.12.09)
Perhaps, just perhaps all that is changing. I have just returned from France where amidst strikes and general disruption an art fair called F.I.A.C. took place. Galleries from all over the world exhibited and works of art were splendidly displayed in the magnificent glass enshrined belle époque 'Grand Palais' as well as a tented courtyard adjacent to the Louvre. The art on display by the hundreds of galleries from around the world was not only demanding, but exhilarating. And the visitors came from all of Europe and many from the Americas, but most by far braving strikes and general chaos, from Paris and environs.
Yes, the art was for sale and much did indeed sell, but that was not the draw for the tens of thousands of visitors standing in block long lines to gain admission. It was, a least in this viewer's opinion, something much more basic, much more visceral. You see, contemporary art has become to many and especially the young a mirror of our lives, of who we are, how we communicate, how it is still possible to coexist and more fundamentally what commonality we all share.
Contemporary art has long since left the airy of elitist fashion. In my travels, perhaps it was best explained by Mme. Octavie Modert, the Cultural Minister of Luxembourg whose Ministry is responsible for the oversight of the brillant I.M. Pei building housing the 'Musee D'Art Grand-Duc Jean' more generally known as the 'Mudam'."Yes", she would acknowledge, "there was considerable public resistance to a contemporary art museum in Luxembourg, but we have all come to recognize what an important role contemporary art plays in the very lives of our young people and now for most of all our citizenry."
It is a lesson we would all do well to heed.