Rethinking the art in 'artless'
I was sitting in my Anthropology 101 lecture, watching the documentary “In and Out of Africa,” when I finally came to an understanding.
The documentary is about the African art dealer Gabai Barre, who travels from the rural Ivory Coast to Long Island, selling his work. He explains his creation process, and the documentary addresses the idea of authenticity and exchange values.
One of the people interviewed poses the question: Is something considered art if it’s being created to be sold? The question hit me as extremely relevant, and not just in the context of African art exchange. Can art be constituted art even when it is created solely with the audience’s preferences in mind?
The woman being interviewed went on to answer her own question, discussing how she believes it is still artwork, because it contains the mind of the artist. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps to a certain extent, all artists think about their audiences when creating their work.
Another important facet of African art exchange is replication. Barre admitted that many of his Western customers wanted an original piece. He would reassure them that they were the first ones to see his new work, when in reality, the same piece had already been sold to others.
This raises questions about the relationship between replication and true creation. In the context of Barre’s work, it could still be argued that there is nontraditional artistry in his work. If one pursues art as a profession, then their work is being created to be sold. The goal is for their pieces to generate a profit.
While many famous artists such as Vincent van Gogh or Claude Monet were not profitable during most of, if not their entire lifetimes, their work was initially considered either successful or unsuccessful based off the monetary value of their art.
Barre and other African art dealers are profitable because they factor in what their buyers seem to prefer. After working with a buyer several times, they develop an understanding of what their buyer wants, something of which even their buyers are often not aware. This showcases an inherent artistry in the practices of these art dealers. It’s unconventional, because the artistry is in their understanding of the artistic styles that their customers want and their ability to produce this.
The issue of replication does raise ethical concerns, considering that their customers are being deceived. Setting aside this problem, replication of an artist’s own work is not wrong — depending on the artist, it could be even more artistic than the original piece, allowing the artist to rethink some of the concepts and ideas behind it.
Many of these questions stem from the monetization of artwork. Many African art dealers like Barre use this to their advantage by blending their talent with marketing skills and creating an intriguing and artful practice to analyze. Likewise, many famous actors, musicians and entertainment celebrities are economically successful because they capitalize on the monetization of artwork. Instead of minimizing the artistry in the work, maybe we should consider their work to be artistic in a different way, for their understanding of their audiences.
The Monets of history were ahead of their times, only gaining recognition very late in their lives or after death, making little money during their lifetimes. However, they are now considered highly influential artists who were leaders in artistic movements.
Regardless of how much these artists make or made, their processes require artistry. This artistry manifests itself in different ways and has varying levels of impact, but ultimately stems from the same place.
I believe that we, as audiences, appreciators or customers of artwork should be cognizant of the inherent artistry in art industries where it is often ignored. We should be aware of the potential ethical dilemmas, but we should not completely write off these works as artless or sellouts. True, these works might not be the Water Lilies of the 21st century — but most artwork will never gain this level of recognition.