Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Who's Art for?

[this article was originally published at The Oakland Press on February 19, 2010]

It never ceases to amaze the how many people in the metro area have never been to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). When I moved to the area in Fall 2005 the DIA was on top of my list of reasons why I would want to live here. Having a world class, encyclopedic museum a few miles away from my home sounded like a dream come true. My surprise increased when I realized that many, if not most, of my students (I teach undergraduate Studio Art New Media courses) had never been there either. Since then, as often as possible, I incorporate field trips and/or homework assignments there and other regional institutions (such as MOCAD and Cranbrook) to encourage student engagement with the local art scene. Aside from historical issues between the city of Detroit and the suburbs, one nagging impression I have gotten from the people I talk to is their feeling that Art (with a capital A), is not for them. Many people think that Art is for other people, of a certain social class or background. While there is some truth to that notion, the fact is that art (and Art) is available for everyone who decides to pursue it.

It may come as a surprise to many people that know me (I’m a notorious art nerd), that I did not grow up in an environment where art was necessarily visible or available. Museum trips were not a family pass-time for sure. My access and interest in Art, however, came by through my education, which in turn became a passion. I began taking art classes in kinder garden, and continued all the way to high school. Eventually I graduated from an art college. To this day my parents’ home still have very little artwork on their walls (two or three pieces of original art given by friends); the majority of the stuff they display falls either in the category of craft or family keepsakes. Empty walls prevail. They do not have any artwork of mine. They have never asked and I have never offered, because I have the suspicion they’d say yes only to be polite.

My impression is that my parents also understand Art as something that only other folks should enjoy and own. Their existence is way too practical and straight-forward to indulge in such leisure. Whenever we are in the same city I try to take them to museums and galleries, which they actually enjoy very much. But by choice they would rather go to a restaurant or cinema with their free time, and money.  Because along with the feeling that Art is for other people comes the impression that Art is very expensive. Many times that is the case, but not always. Unlike most Western European countries, in the Americas (and specially North America) the share market for art purchase for the middle class is almost non-existent. While I do not have statistics to back this up, I would guess that there is a huge probability that most middle class art collectors are artists themselves (or their families). And even then, I have heard more than once in an art opening that an artist finds someone else’s work too pricey.  The fact is that many if not all of us spend the majority of our hard-earned money with nothing to show for at the end of the day.  Consider the amount of money you spend every year on your cable bill, or mobile bill, or car lease. If I canceled my cable television, I could probably save anywhere between $360 and $1200 per year (depending on what specific items I decided to go without). Now consider how much money you spend, per year, buying home decorating items, such as knick knacks and mass-produced art (with the small a), that you may find in the mall or chain/big box stores. Again the dollar range will vary from person to person.

You may ask me in turn, why should I go without all those things? My answer to you is that you don’t need to go without anything, because you should choose to spend your money in whatever way you see fit. But I would ask you to consider the following: will these things matter to you in 5, 10, or 15 years from now? Will the Pier 1 figurine from two seasons ago still be something you want to look at for the rest of your life? Will you reminisce about all your phone conversations and text messages as good ol’ times?  Chances are you will not, but a good piece of art could be something that will persist and prevail your times, while simultaneously provide you with much enjoyment.

With a little work, some time and plenty of curiosity you will find Art that speaks to you, that you can afford (yes, there is good Art out there under $500, even $200), and that you will want to live with. Investing in art will change the way you will relate to your living environment (you will own something unique, special), expand and strengthen your ties to your community (opening receptions are fun), and help the local economy (galleries, art centers, fundraisers, artists, etc). The over-used adage “buy American” could be adapted to “buy Oakland County.” Or simply “buy local Art.” And everybody benefits at the end.

P.S.: Funny enough, I am in the process of completely revising my finances, getting rid of many of the extras above mentioned in order to further invest in art pursuits... At one point in my life I lived without television, mobile phone, internet, and even a car... Hoping that I somewhat replicate that to some extent. Wish me good luck =-)

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