Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Art World as High School

Front portico of my high school, Montgomery Blair--an amazing place I stumbled into and marched out of with a high chin and mortarboard. Image pilfered without apology from a nice article in Open Salon.

When Jen Dalton asked me if I would like to take part in her table discussion “Art World as High School” (March 17) I had misgivings. I felt the description painted high school—and the art world—as a closed environment ruled by cliques, where acceptance and status are all-important and all-consuming.

Not only is this analogy incorrect—the world of art is infinite, as big as the collective imaginations of the millions who make and love art—but that line of thinking is unhelpful in the extreme. It seemed the opposite of helpful, actually.

As one who spends his days on the front lines of the art market, I constantly hear the voices of the excluded sighing predictable fallacies like “If I were an art collector…” “If I had money…” “If I had taste…” as justifications why they could not step deeper into the universe that art has to offer.

The absolute last thing I want to encourage is the idea of art as province of some elite cadre of insiders. That benefits only small-minded people jealously guarding an inflated market, while stifling innovation and depriving the larger world of art’s innumerable benefits. I don't think it's true but the perception is out there and it's devastating and part of me felt that to even debate the topic lends it credence.

Thoughts evolve and the only way to purge a demon is to flush it out into the open, so I decided to join the discussion: is the art world (if we can agree what that is) like high school? If so, is that a good or bad thing?

Let’s start with the profile of an Artworldling; how would they fit into the imagined cafeteria-table system? In my experience, the art world is full of former outcasts—people who were probably not sitting at the “cool” table in high school. They would be pretty nerdy, or natty, sitting with the “creative types.” If that group has morphed into a bunch of exclusionary snobs, it would be pretty depressing. Perhaps it is inevitable but those who have suffered should not make others to suffer at the first opportunity, especially when there’s not even a pretense of redistributive justice. I, for one, will not tolerate that on a personal level. Life is too short.

There is also the idea that those who peaked in high school have probably declined since then—the 20-year reunion phenomenon where the former cheerleaders are fat and the football players are plumbers, and the geek has a great life. While not a universal phenomenon, it does ring true to me. So if the art world is indeed full of closed doors, and the logic holds up, then it’s actually better to be excluded from the clique-du-jour. Those obsessed with status today will be pathetic tomorrow.

Maybe Art World High School is not so bad after all!

There is second way to approach the discussion. Instead of viewing high school from a hypothetical anthropological perspective, what if we look at it in terms of personal development? Then the analogy gets really interesting.

The high school years are a time, terrifying for many, when one begins to make consequential decisions about how to live. What we do not realize at the time, however, is that what we do matters much less than how we do it. Fashion and cool mannerisms are important not because they indicate some Darwinian capacity to keep up with the pack, but because of what it says about our relationship to our fellow humans. Will you follow or will you lead? Indeed, a terrifying choice and few choose the latter.

For me—and I can only speak of my own experience here—high school was a triumphant time, not because I was the most popular kid, but because I came to understand over the course of those four years that I didn’t have to play that game—couldn’t and mustn’t because it wasn’t my path. There are infinitely many ways to live and each person needs to do what works for them. Ultimately, that realization brought a measure of popularity by the end of high school and I’m well situated now with an interesting life, beautiful wife, and the same body I had back then.

That’s what art is for: it’s all about trying to make sense of a mysterious life and putting things together in new ways that somehow just work. So, from the standpoint of personal development, the life of this Artworldling is exactly like high school, and I love that.

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