Monday, June 27, 2011

The State Fair, John Waters, and Why Art is Scary

First, a disclaimer: I am aware of John Waters but am not particularly a fan. This is John Waters:

Photo from the New York Times, taken by Stephen Maturen; click here to go to the article.
Waters is a long-time, serious art collector who is mostly famous for making outrageous movies. I've seen Pecker, which I enjoyed, but not Hairspray (yet). I'll probably never bother with Pink Flamingos. And I think he is a creepy-looking dude and that moustache (is it even real? Does he pencil it on with eyeliner?) is one of the most bizarrely discomfiting things I have ever seen.

So why do I plan to go see the exhibit he curated at the Walker Art Center?

For the same reason I liked Pecker: he's poking fun at the Art World, and I'm hardly alone as an artist in feeling that the Art World desperately needs poking.

In the years I've been painting murals on the walls of regular Americans, I've learned that we are afraid of art, and afraid of artists. Or, if "afraid" is too strong a word, we are definitely intimidated.

People thought they had to walk on eggshells around me. I've had self-made millionaires, I mean amazingly astute engineers and entrepreneurs, worry aloud that I'd think their questions were stupid. I came to understand that we have a disconnected culture. We don't teach art in America. And yet -- from somewhere -- we all get this impression that if we know nothing about art, it's because we are somehow deficient. We're to blame.

Two things about this:

1. It's stupid.

2. Most artists don't believe it.

If you "don't know anything about art," guess what? Artists are fine with that. We don't expect that you will, any more than your electrician expects that you'll know anything about wiring your house.

But the You Should Know This Stuff myth persists, mostly not among artists themselves but among the general public and among some people in the non-art-producing segments in the Art World. Every artist I know has walked into certain galleries and instantly felt intimidated and unwelcome. One thing I love about the Twin Cities is that our galleries tend to be so friendly, but there's still that barrier of having to walk through the door, which can be hard to do when the You Should Know This Stuff belief is standing between you and the doorknob.

And that is why I just registered to enter the big art show at the Minnesota State Fair. Chances of getting rejected are about 80%, simply because there's limited space and so many entries, but I adore the whole idea. It's a huge gallery and nobody there is an expert. If you want to have a Pronto Pup and walk around looking at art, and saying just what you think about that art, you know it's okay. The Fair knocks down the barrier, the same way outdoor art fairs do.

Which brings me back to John Waters, who has apparently recorded an entire audio tour of the exhibit, in Pig Latin, which he feels makes just as much sense as most art-speak. He's put up a photograph which squirts water at any viewer who steps over the tape-marked Do Not Come Closer than This line on the museum floor. The Walker probably couldn't let him sell beer and Pronto Pups in there, but you get the feeling that if he could, he would. He's having fun, mocking the impenetrable facade of High Art, and no, I wouldn't call myself a fan, but for this? I think I might kind of love the guy.


  1. Oh, well said!

    I gotta agree with you on the 'You Should Know This' phenomenon, and I suspect part of it is rooted in social class--that if you are part of the world that 'consumes' art, you would Know This Stuff because you'd be able to 'afford' it, you'd grow up with it. If you don't Know This, that means you *gasp* don't belong.

    Which is also, on one level, ridiculous, because art isn't the sole domain of rich people.

  2. Hi there!

    On my way out the door right now, but had to stop and say thank you. The intimidation around art is absolutely an example of classism, and I could write entirely too many words about that and what I think of it. Especially here in America where we love to pretend we don't recognize social class.