On a Saturday afternoon in June I, along with a panel of local artists and arts administrators, had the opportunity to take part in a public conversation at the Herron School of Art and Design. The subject under discussion was Indy’s art scene, and how it’s evolved over the past 30 years. We were there as part of the opening festivities connected to a show at the Indiana State Museum, 431 Gallery: Art and Impact, which you can visit through Sept. 14.
At one point, someone raised a hand and asked how we thought the arts had changed since 1984.
Good question. The short answer: Massively.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the arts world revolved around artists. Art was considered an almost mystical calling and artists were like secular priests. People turned to artists for their insights, their visions, for what’s been called the shock of the new.
Art appreciation was considered an aspirational pastime. People went to art museums, many of which were built and endowed around this time, for a healthy dose of “culture,” transmitted through the works of old masters and understood as building blocks of Western Civilization.
If you didn’t always understand what you were looking at, no matter. It was in a museum. You took it on faith that it was good. Not getting it was your problem; it was up to you to figure out what it meant.
This situation was great for artists. It made them pioneers, exploring the frontiers of consciousness. And it made art a kind of bellwether, the leading edge of what we were sure would eventually be recognized as progress.
It’s been observed that the trajectory of the arts mirrors our modern fascination with psychology; as we became increasingly absorbed by our innermost selves, art also turned inward. Artists began bringing back work that was ever more abstract and weird. Maybe that’s when the change started.
As people found more and more of the art they were exposed to confounding, they became suspicious. There were wisecracks about how “even my kid could do that.”
Jesse Helms, the senator from North Carolina, didn’t help. He started what were called “the culture wars” over a publicly-funded exhibition of erotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Helms treated Mapplethorpe’s art as if it was advertising for a homosexual lifestyle. Making like a disgruntled customer, Helms said his tax dollars had no business being spent on something he found offensive — as if all of us just love a good war.
Anyway, by this time (the early ‘90s), some kind of paradigm had shifted. Artists were no longer in charge of the arts, the audience had taken over. Where once it was up to the audience to figure things out, it became the artist’s job to anticipate their desires. Today artists and arts organizations spend much of their time trying to figure out where their audiences — their customers — are going.
The arts have become part of the service economy. Which begs another question: Is the customer always right?