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Standardization vs. The Sublime

This article was originally published on August 23, 2013 on ArtSlant by writer James Pepper Kelly. This article is part of a series of article exchange partnerships between Sixty Inches From Center and other online blogs and journals that have missions similar to ours–to document and support the visual arts happening in Chicago. The goal of these partnerships is to build bridges within our writing community, help promote one another to new audiences and give more exposure to the art that keeps our Chicago experience compelling.

Thought Experiment #1:

A zealot has denounced plurality. He calls for his followers to storm the temple and restore it to holiness by casting out the false idols within. The local elders hear of the plan and, in response, decide to play a trick on them. When the zealot and his followers arrive where the temple once stood, they are surprised to find not one but three identical temples, none of which contain idols.

What does the zealot instruct his followers to do?

Choices can be terrible things. For three decades, teams of spirited psychologists and sociologists have been showing that consumers faced with too many options tend to: a) sink into indecisive anxiety and b) decline to make any decision at all. The clinical term for this is “choice overload,” and it appears to be true whether shopping for jam at the supermarket, deciding between health care plans, or even choosing a life partner. The surest way to induce anxiety is to present a choice over something that most people “lack familiarity” with—say, art.

Most of the public is so uncomfortable with art that it’s difficult to even give away, let alone sell. Fortunately for the sustenance of the market, there’s a simple, pragmatic solution, and it’s put to brilliant use in The Economics of Art, the current exhibition at Chicago’s Vertical Gallery: standardization. The show, curated by the gallery’s Patrick Hull and Ben Schuman-Stoler of Thumbtack Press, presents original work from thirteen artists alongside several reproductions of each piece. The viewer is invited to examine the differences between, for example, an open edition print, a closed edition screenprint, and the original work from which they’re derived, and to compare the corresponding price points.

It’s a canny setup. By shifting the conversation from concepts and aesthetics to technical considerations, the gallery eliminates the problem of lack of familiarity for the general public, and by having only three or four options per work it avoids presenting too many choices. The show has been a commercial success, suggesting an additional layer of meaning to its title: The Economics of Art doesn’t simply explain editions and pricing, it demonstrates how art can be effectively sold.

Jimmy Bunnyluv. Pink elephant, 2013. Mixed media screen print. (image courtesy of Artslant).

Of course, there are other factors at work here. Vertical Gallery is located in a well-traveled part of town but outside a gallery district, making it less intimidating to non-standard art goers. The gallery focuses on populist “urban, contemporary & street art” that, in most cases, would look appropriate on a living room wall. And the prints are affordable, many costing less than the “ready to hang” art at IKEA. All these approaches have been employed by other art spaces, but none have enjoyed the same meteoric success with both the public and the press. Owner Patrick Hull’s background in business, marketing, and advertising—coincidentally, the fields most concerned with choice overload and consumer selection—may have been the missing ingredient.

Thought Experiment #2

Indiana Jones is presented with two tables, each of which holds three chalices filled with water. On the first table, drinking from one of the chalices will grant a long, happy life and immortal fame, while the other two will instantly kill him. On the second table, drinking from one of the chalices will bring him a new hat and whip, while the other two will give him a slight cold.

Which table does Jones choose to drink from?

None of this is to denigrate Vertical Gallery’s accomplishments. In the five months since opening its doors, the space has generated a steady income, shown international artists, received excellent coverage and reviews, and turned a number of art neophytes into first time buyers. For any gallery to do this is both necessary and laudable. And yet, if the current exhibition’s goal, as per the press statement, is to “[start] a conversation on the way in which art is (re)produced, bought, and sold online and in galleries today…”, then it seems equally necessary to start another conversation, one less concretely practical: What about aesthetics and concepts? What about complexity? What about transcendent or sublime experience?

Installation view of Vertical Gallery, 2013. Humboldt Park, Chicago. (Image courtesy of the gallery).

Maybe these questions are tired, old-fashioned, naïve. Or maybe elitist, even pompous. Definitely impractical—they bring us right back to the sixteen types of jam on the shelf that we would rather skip altogether. Vertical Gallery’s popularity has something to do with conducting cheerful business as usual and avoiding irresolvable debates like this. When it comes to the sublime, one man’s sunrise is another’s smokestacks is another’s system analysis—why dwell? The fact that Vertical Gallery is showing reproductions does nothing to change the debate. If, historically, miracles could be expected of “forged,” manufactured relics, than surely a Jimmy Bunnyluv Pink Elephant editioned screen print is as likely to inspire a sublime experience as the original.

This relativism is useful for defending personal authenticity against cultural tyranny, but it doesn’t explain two things: why the work of certain artists—Rothko, Mozart, Fellini—is regularly described as a source of sublime experience; and, more importantly, why an unresolvable conversation isn’t worth having. Confronting the viewer with unresolvable questions may not make for pragmatic consumerism, but without asking them, what does the artwork become?

So here, reader, a choice:

Thought Experiment #3:

An abstract portrait of John Paul II is added to the Vatican’s Collection of Modern Religious Art without having inspired a single critical debate. On his way to the Sistine Chapel, a devout Catholic stops and spends a long while looking at the painting. Before he turns to walk away, does he make the sign of the cross, or take a picture?

The Economics of Art 2013 is on view at Vertical Gallery, 1016 N Western Ave., Chicago, IL 60622, through August 31st. For more information visit their website.

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