Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Material of Controversy: Is the worth of our art decided by the materials we use?

What makes a work of art controversial? What gives a painting 'shock value'? A realistic painting of the Madonna with Christ done in oil paint is deemed beautiful, but a piece of similar quality and intricacy is deemed worthless by many if it is done in blood. If said piece is done with HIV infected blood (Which some artists have used as a medium) it is deemed horrible or downright blasphemous.

The HIV image would be labeled as 'shock' art by many with an end result of the artist not being taken seriously. Yet the images were both created by artists who share a close level of skill and natural talent. The two artists may even share an equal interest in exploring their artistic potential, process, and method. However, the oil painter will be accepted over the other and the 'loser' will be deemed untalented or unskilled.

Based on this observation, it would seem that the materials alone decided the fate of the painting. Do the materials we use really matter as to how our work should be valued?

Many would say, ""Why use THAT to create a work of art!" when observing the various materials used by artists in the last fifty years alone. Well, why not use IT and everything else? Is it a crime to experiment with materials? Why do so many seem to fear this form of change? After all, the goal of many artists is to learn what works and what does not. To some it is a form of science.

It can be said that such experimentation is the heart and soul of the 'art world'. The art world would become stagnate if artists did not work in new ways to express their vision. If it were not for this spirit of experimentation we would all still be locked in the cell of the academic tradition.

It is my opinion that the more these artists are censored by the public and rejected by their peers, the more the art world will be restricted before everything is said and done. And to think, much of it has to do with the materials these artists use... nothing more.

Why label a painter as a 'shock artist' just because he or she decides to explore the potential of a rarely used medium in order to convey a visual message? Would the same painting be enjoyed by the viewer had it been painted in a traditional manner? Remember, the artist may not wish to shock anyone. Shock may be the furthest thing from his mind. Yet he is labeled because of his choice of medium and his career directive is set in stone based on mere assumptions of what his intentions are.

Think of the 'shock artist' that disgusts you the most. Is the artist Damien Hirst? Perhaps the artist is Tracey Emin? How about Nobuyoshi Araki? Many people find these artists to be 'shocking'. Have you ever bothered to read what the artist has written about his or her work? Does the artist truly mean to shock others... or are you just shocked by the materials that he or she has chosen?

These artists may be representing a clearer image of our reality than any traditional artist. Perhaps that is why their work, and the way they present it by using unorthodox materials, is loathed or feared. Perhaps these works are to 'real' for many of us to deal with.

While you ponder this question think about how our world has changed. Some of your interests would be considered shocking by your great grandparents, true? Does that mean you should stop researching or exploring them? Is your answer "no"? If so, why should these artists stop creating?

Take care, Stay true

Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

concept concept concept.... yes it requires thinking ... our current culture doesn't promote it which is why art that opens a critical dialogue it pushed out of the picture... they don't want us talking about it and so they've programmed us to put a label on it and pass it along to the outbox.

Anonymous said...

Actually, You are using the expression worth as if it is an absolute. While your mother may not go for the Madonna in blood, most curators of major museums would vastly prefer that concept to a strait-ahead madonna which would have zero chance of making it into any biennial i could imagine.

Anonymous said...

As a sculptor material is my first concern: what the material conveys in the statement the work makes is of prime importance. Combining materials allows me to convey multiple layers of meaning.

The "worth of the art" is a relative term. You signed-off on the post by saying "Take care, stay true" -- a phrase that implies something of your values. The 'worth' for you as an artist is not the same as the 'worth' for the buyer in the marketplace, is it?

So the answer to the question you pose is booth yes and no, depending on how you view the work. I don't make art for the marketplace -- I make it for myself. I use it as a journey of self-exploration and discovery: finding out what I can and cannot express as I vary my approaches, tools and materials. The genesis of each work is a response to the material and conceptual environment I journey through in my life, so you might consider the works as snippets of dialog from an ongoing conversation.
The work is not complete until it has a response in the dialog. There is the value, the worth.

Anonymous said...

Great topic!!

Anonymous said...

There was artist who canned his own fecal matter, blood, urine, sweat, etc. It is worth millions. Materials does have a lot to do with pricing, shock has a lot to do with attention. Sometimes the attention plays into the price. There was a picture painted in elephant dung of the virgin mary a few years back. It's value is outrageous. Purhaps the lack of value of the peices you are comparing in your statements are not on the same playing field. A world class shuffle board player does not make the same as a world class basketball player, even though they are both world class players. Sometimes the reason/meaning of the peice plays into the value of the peice. For example, two pictures painted in blood of the same subject. One was painted in blood for shock value only, the other was painted in blood because of all the blood that was shed in the events that led up to the the subject of the painting. Sometimes the value is determined by the "value" of the artist. Well know vs obscure, young vs old, student vs professional, etc. There are a lot of factors that determine the value of a painting. Just looking for the basics of why a painting is priced one way and another is much less is like saying the Holocaust and the Civil War are the same because they both caused a lot of people to die.

Balhatain said...

I was thinking more along the lines of aesthetic value. However,
you raised a good point.

Why is it that some of these controversial works of art cost so much when they are loathed by so many?

The general population tends to feel that these works have no aesthetic or dollar value.
To be frank, very few people would pay any dollar amount for a can of crap... no matter who created it.

I was not talking about financial pricing.

Balhatain said...


"The truth of the matter is that many artists are held back if the general public is adamantly against their work."

I'm thinking more along the lines of the general population.

Most curators have a different view of art than someone who does not spend every waking moment researching such things. It is kind of like how professor often seem to live in an 'academic bubble'.

Your average person does not care what a curator or critic has to say about a work of art. They either like it or they don't.