You read Us Weekly for the articles. You can't help but be interested in what Lindsay Lohan snorted, ran her car into or slept with this week. But, you went to college, you read the new Chabons and Lethems as soon as they come out! You're not a vapid person! Good news: Celebrity is not only a major driver of the economy, it's a subject worthy of academic scrutiny. University of Southern California professor Elizabeth Currid, PhD., explains the sociology of fame and pop culture.
The art world has a problem with itself, verging on self-loathing. No, I'm not talking about the impending bubble bursting that will render currently celebrated (or at least expensive) art work valueless. I'm not talking about the transformation of starving artists into celebrities who sashay about town with socialites and end up in the gossip columns alongside Paris Hilton or Jay-Z. They are both only symptoms of a bigger concern: Art is no longer just the stuff on museum walls or in wealthy collectors' homes.
Art has become a marketable and highly successful commercial product that can be sold in many different forms, across many different genres, to lots of different people, and that success is creating a rupture within the art world between artists who believe that art should remain elitist and artists creating those commercialized products who believe art should be a part of everyday life for all different types of people. For sure, the translation of art into a commodity has been big business since Andy Warhol, who famously aspired to be a "business artist." But never have we observed it with the gusto and ubiquity seen in today's commercialized art. And nowhere is this more present than in the street art movement.
A stroll through the art districts of New York or Los Angeles or London gives you a sense of the buzz surrounding the contemporary street art movement—something unseen since the days of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Lines stretch around the corner for Los Angeles-based artist Shepard Fairy's opening. The photographer Ryan McGinley became the youngest artist with a solo show at New York City's Whitney Museum for his startling images of young graffiti artists, "The Kids Are Alright."
The anonymous London-based graffiti writer Banksy's show in a downtown warehouse in LA brought celebrities like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie along with 50,000 visitors. In the three days the show was open, every single piece of artwork sold. The Soho-based gallery Deitch Projects has become a pivotal force in the art world, forecasting the next rising star with frightening accuracy.
These days, New York City artists are playing a significant role in driving the city's economy. According to the Alliance for the Arts, a New York-based arts advocacy and research organization, in 2005 arts industries (ranging from theater to art galleries to commercial art) generated $8.2 billion in wages, $904 million in taxes, 160,300 jobs for New York City. If you consider what economists call the "spillover effect," which is all the restaurants, hotels, bars and clubs that arts patrons also go to when they attend art openings, museum exhibitions, comedy clubs or the Tribeca Film Festival, the arts have an overall impact of $21.2 billion on New York City's economy. Art galleries alone contribute $38 million in taxes and $420 million in wages, with an overall economic impact of $1.4 billion to New York City's economy.
Despite all the hype, some within the graffiti world resent the invasion of their subversive clique by wealthy art collectors, masses of gallery goers, and Abercrombie & Fitch-wearing co-eds. Thus has it always been: Success breeds disgruntlement and resentment. People have complained about the "undeserved" success of their peers for a long time. But instead of breeding nasty cocktail party chatter, this resentment over artists' "selling out" has bred something new: A campaign of violence (whether of actual or perceived danger) and intimidation against commercially successful artists.
In June, some kid lit a stink bomb at a Shepard Fairey opening in Brooklyn. Last November a hooded figure distributed propaganda flyers at a panel discussion that featured the street artist Swoon. And the last year has seen dozens of anonymous attacks on well-known street artists' work throughout New York City by "the Splasher" (widely believed to be a curmudgeonly vandal collective), who throws buckets of paint on the art work, destroying it in the process, and leaving anarchist messages like "destroy the museums, in the streets and everywhere." They also fancy themselves to be journalists, printing a mindless little treatise with the phrase "If We Did It, This Is How It Would've Happened" on the cover (a seeming play on the maybe-to-be-released OJ Simpson fictional tell-all) and a picture of a destroyed Fairey piece.
These attacks are not just for kicks. The attacks have been directed mainly toward street artists who have been able to translate writing graffiti into making a living. The attackers' fear is ostensibly invasion of the mainstream—save us from the pathetic masses coming from the Midwest or Pennsylvania or the Upper East Side to buy our culture. That this apprehension outweighs supporting artists' who are actually creating livelihoods out of their passion reeks of jealousy and resentment masked as self-righteous art snobbery. When it comes down to it, the Splasher(s) and his/her/their ilk (those who believe commercially successful artists are sell-outs) come across as losers who are pissed that their artwork wasn't good enough to get its own gallery show so they had to destroy someone else's. These stunts are the straw man equivalent of hating the Prom Queen because she's beautiful but pretending it's because she's a bimbo.
I'm not suggesting the dissent or disagreement is stupid—it's not—but throwing buckets of paint is. For more constructive, pointed, creative responses to the commercialization of art, consider the recent flurry of attention London artist Damien Hirst is getting for his latest installment of absurdity: "For the Love of God," a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, which, with an asking price of over $100 million, is the most expensive piece of art ever made by a living artist. You may or may not like Hirst's formaldehyde sharks, millions of dead butterfly wings or chopped up cows. His latest creation can be looked at as hilarious genius or simply an exercise in rococo kitsch. But even the critical responses to Hirst's work represent everything art dialogue could be. The Polish artist Peter Fuss is selling a parody, "For the Laugh of God," a skull encrusted in almost 10,000 fake diamonds.
Another artist, known as "Laura", dumped a skull of her own with Swarovski crystals and a pile of trash outside of London's WhiteCube Gallery where Hirst's skull was being shown. Or consider the recent gag at the MoMA, "Excuse me, is this a work of art?," which entailed artists putting up signs complete with artist names, date of creation and origination in front of banal objects like water fountains, bathroom sinks and fire extinguishers, incorporating them into the museum's collection. Or Banksy's dozens of clever commentaries (and pranks) on the art world that are actually pieces of art in their own right. Creating a dialogue about what is good or bad art is important for the future of the art world, but at the very least the responses should be thoughtful and intelligent, not just thinly-guised jealousy towards an artist who became successful or famous.
Those within the art world who resent the commercial success of fellow artists who get book deals or commissioned work for fashion houses or sold out shows really need to think about what they really think they're up against. Is it that street art is getting respect and admiration from the general public not just art collectors and gallery owners? Is it that these artists' are able to hold down full time jobs as artists and not have to work part time as waiters or Starbucks baristas? Is it that these artists have become successful in a variety of different cultural ventures ranging from magazines to sneaker designs to clothing companies?
It strikes me that the anti-commercial sentiment within the art world ironically exhibits the very same "short cut to celebrity" that its followers rally against. Isn't throwing buckets of paint on famous graffiti and having your protests written up in major national newspapers just another version of getting attention the cheap and easy way?
One might argue that commercial success is not the same thing as artistic success, but Warhol taught us that things can be otherwise. Business art was the ultimate validation of one's aesthetic skills. If people bothered to buy an artist's work then by extension one could conclude that the artist was producing good art. These days, the intimate relationship between money and successful art means that really good art sells. And maybe some good art doesn't sell, but when the bohemian art demigod Ryan McGinley gets hired to do photography for the New York Times and has an entire project devoted to documenting Kate Moss, one might say that the economic market validated what the art world already knew: McGinley is an art superstar. His commercial success is merely a signal of his brilliance. Art goers can bicker endlessly about whether commercial art validates or detracts from the virtue of an artist, but ultimately this is an existential debate: The reality is that given the opportunity to make a living out of making art, many artists will choose to do so and there's really nothing wrong with that.
When I interviewed Shepard Fairey several months ago for the research I conduct, he (like the other artists I spoke with) bore no ill will toward either the masses or the elite art world. He just wanted to do what he loved to do, and he was happy that it had been a successful venture that allowed him to provide an income for himself and own his own company. He also told me that it was important that he was able to get his art out there to as many people as possible. As he put it, "I can make pieces that are expensive but I want to sell $35 screen prints and $25 T-shirts. Where I am coming from in my work is that art is empowering. I want people to be able to access me...I never started as a fine artist and felt like a 'sell out'. I went in the opposite direction. I really like the street artist - you didn't have to submit to a gallery or a magazine, you just went out and did it...A T-shirt is a walking piece of art. When I do a record label's album cover, I am producing art that gives people pleasure while listening."
I'm not exactly sure what's worth making a "splash" about other than the fact that street art is actually getting the respect and public interest it deserves. Isn't that what art was always about in the first place?
Elizabeth Currid is assistant professor at University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development. Her first book, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City, will be published by Princeton University Press this September.