In thinking about culture it occurred to me that culture is like an ornate vase sitting behind a protective glass case on a pedestal in a prestigiously stuffy museum somewhere. It is to be admired, gazed upon and theorised about, but never to be touched by the greasy hands of mere peasants, and the light-fingered parties of thronging proletariat children on their annual field trips.
But this notion of an untouchable authority figure leaves us in the uncomfortable position of being armchair spectators to an apparently powerful and socially significant force. So this is where art comes in. As I see it, art is a flexible, open-ended method for contributing to both local and global society, through ideas, actions, and other more commonly recognisable artworks. In effect the artist is a creator of culture, contrary to the person who simply reads a lot of books and regularly visits galleries who is considered “cultured”. In fact, the term “cultured” would seem to suggest this difference, that the individual has been affected by culture and not the other way around.
The failure of our society is to promote worship over participation, history over the present or the future, and the group over the individual. We are taught not only who our idols are, but why we should idolise them, in a one-way system that belittles personal participation. Critics and reviews tell us what our responses should be before we’ve even had the chance to think about or even experience the work for ourselves, and institutions everywhere provide the final word on what is interesting, relevant, and valuable.
The art world is a competition to be the newest, most innovative or provocative, to be the best at pleasing the authorities and conducting one’s self in accordance with institutional standards. The art qualification is just the beginning in a long line of irrelevant hoops.
According to those in the know and those with their fingers on the pulse, everything you do is insignificant unless they say otherwise. The accessible-for-all, self-empowering power of art has been buried by capitalist interests and shallow, extrinsic motivations.
Graffiti never belonged in a museum because writers had already taken matters into their own hands by contributing to hip hop culture. By passing from the street to the gallery they gave up their source of power to the establishment, and the same is true of the other elements of hip hop culture that were exploited by the already-wealthy, who only cared for their own financial gain.
The power imbalance remains strong. Institutions are still holding many of the keys, not only to exhibition spaces, but to funding and remuneration; the two most important things if you want to make art make money. Increased competition means that more and more, especially debuting and would-be-professionals are willing to work for free, and little or no recognition. Corporations, businesses and even government institutions continue to take advantage of this fact, helping de-value the work that artists do, all while continuing to promote the noble ideas of sharing and appreciating art. Not only do we have art residencies that pay less than the equivalent of minimum wage, we now have a host of other traps designed to entice artists with promises of recognition, status and financial reward, but are really just money-making schemes for those that set them up. Photography competitions with (huge) entry fees, exhibitions without pay, and artist-holidays that pose as residencies but demand more in fees than you would probably make at a real residence of equal duration.
This state of affairs leaves the artist at the mercy of the institutions, meaning that instead of being a true contributor to culture, the artist becomes a performer who simply acts out the values and ideals of the dominant authority, instead of expressing their self-generated interests.
So what I propose is a DIY solution – a culture that is created by you, for you, where the individual decides the values, themes, goals and ultimately outcomes, instead of having them dictated by a higher power. But the meaning of DIY culture is twofold: it’s not simply about changing roles from spectator to creator of art, it is about adopting a general do-it-yourself approach to things. When the pre-existing solutions and ideas are uninspiring, the empowering route of the pro-activist is to turn to a home-grown response.
I think that art needs a certain amount of separation from financial reward in order to continue to exist in its purest, intrinsically-motivated form, so we could consider the difficulties involved in making art profitable for the artist, to be strong environmental pressures that may actually be a benefit in the long-run. In any case, it rests in the hands of the artist to create, not just works of art in the traditional sense, but to shape the world into a better place to be for himself and others.