If, as we noted in the first part of this article, the desire to make some things special has evolved in the human species through natural selection and adds to their quality of life, then it should be practiced by everyone. Then, it ought not to be limited to just a select few who have been trained in “making special objects” and given the authority to practice “making special” by the self-serving art world. The label of the “artist” should be dissolved, along with all the structures of the art world. Everyone should be an artist, as I feel that labeling only some people as “artists” and placing them on pedestals turns “art” into this complex activity, perhaps akin to doing surgery or developing a drug, which requires inborn talent, special education and years of practice. This intimidates people and they develop a creative block―the art gallery or museum is, after all, an intimidating space. A visitor, seeing the crowd in front of the heavily guarded Mona Lisa, can be scared of not “getting it” and not being intelligent enough to appreciate “high art”. The art gallery or museum’s function is to maintain the status quo of high art and of all those who are linked to it in some way.
The art world has become self destructive. And as collateral damage, the arts suffer. Only a radical rethinking can restore the arts to their rightful place in society.
I will suggest a few remedies to achieve the same. (But, before I begin, I would like to stress that I am not against the arts, neither am I trying to undermine their importance for society. On the contrary, I am insisting that art is far too integral for the development of a balanced personality for its practice to be restricted to a select few.)
Firstly, the art world’s jargon should be strictly scrutinized. I believe that unless the meaning of words used in a discourse are not clear and mutually understood, progress cannot be made. The jargon of medical or engineering fields is well defined and precise because a misunderstanding between two engineers or doctors can be life-threatening. Or, the language used in a court of law, for example, is precise because a confusion can create a loophole through which a criminal can escape. Similarly, in the arts, words should communicate precisely what is intended by them. Also, vocabulary used in discourses about art should be replaced by common English. This is because the art world’s jargon is a trap―it encloses thought within a self referential loop and creates a mystique around art which scares away outsiders.
Secondly, the use of the word “art” should be discontinued as it has become ambiguous after being conceptualized over and over again for the past two centuries. Instead, verbs such as “paint-ing”, “draw-ing”, “sculp-ting”, “mark mak-ing” and so on should be used. These correlate better with a behavioral tendency of making special. The use of a verb to describe an artwork automatically shifts focus from the object as art to the process of mark making as art.
The gallery space, because of its prestige, is not the right space for such activity. People get intimidated and start acting “arty”
Thirdly, those who have been trained as artists should assume the role of facilitators and spearhead the move to give back to society that which rightfully belongs to it – that is, the right to express creativity through mark making. This can be effectively done by giving people the necessary tools in a workshop-style framework. But this requires a combined and serious effort by educational bodies, government bodies and the art world itself. Art education should be free and compulsory (or readily available, if optional). Art instructors should be provided job security by the government. Funding should be made available for free art education for adults with a focus on making art rather than merely learning art history.
Moreover, art throughout human history has been a central activity around which the social fabric is woven. Ellen Dissanayake writes in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from andWhy (1992):
We moderns feel “art” to be a private compulsion, a personal desire to mold or make something out of one’s individual experience. But art actually originated and thrived for most of human history as a communal activity: in the smaller and more interdependent and like-minded societies in which humans evolved, the need to make sense of experience was satisfied in communally valued and validated activities.
I first became aware of the connective nature of “making special” by chance. I hired a team to help me produce a new body of work for my third solo exhibition in 2017. During the period of working together, we developed close bonds with each other. I really enjoyed that collective activity. Finally, when the artwork was displayed and ready, I gave the gallery one last look. I could not help but notice that viewing the exhibited work gave me much less pleasure than the collective activity of producing it. During that time, the work provided a focal point around which all that social activity took place. I tried to use making art collectively as a tool to connect people, but my efforts were frustrated. I realized that in the first instance the social activity had happened naturally and spontaneously.
When an activity is devised for the particular purpose of connecting people and presented as an artwork in an art gallery, it becomes staged and artificial. People stop being authentic and perform their social interactions. Also, the gallery space, because of its prestige, is not the right space for such activity. People get intimidated and start acting “arty”. I finally concluded that making special as a communal activity cannot happen within the art world where one person is the artist and the rest are viewers or participants. The label “artist” is counter productive, a more friendly term such as “facilitator” should be used to create a more democratized space. I feel something similar has happened in the educational system as well. The modern education system creates a hierarchy between “teacher” and “student” which hampers the learning process.
The shift from art being a privileged activity to it being a cultural phenomenon has to be slow. This shift cannot happen as a result of a change in policy on the governing level. It can only happen through educating people about the real value of art. Contemporary art has gone full circle and has become so vague that its actual purpose has become confusing. The arts are aboard the sinking ship of contemporary art. They should be rescued and brought safely back to the mainland, that is, society at large.
Julius John Alam is a Lahore-based artist, writer and teacher. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from the National College of Art, Lahore and a Master’s Degree in Fine Art from The New School, New York, where he studied on a Fulbright Scholarship. His artwork has been exhibited in galleries around the world including New York, Philadelphia, Zurich, Dubai, Karachi and Lahore. He currently teaches at the Institute for Art and Culture, Lahore as an Assistant Professor.