Sociologist Robert Michels spent much of his career studying the dynamics of power in organizations. His studies resulted in a startling conclusion known as the iron law of oligarchy, claiming that all organizations, regardless of their original mission, structure, or how democratic they aspire to be, inevitably evolve to serve the interests of a small elite. Since its publication in 1911, many studies attempted to seek exceptions to the iron law. Very few were ever documented.
I was reminded of the iron law recently when a friend shared with me his experience of attempting to apply for an art grant. His art, like mine, is based on the photography of natural subjects. To the learned eye, his work is indisputably distinctive in style within what laypeople may generically refer to as “landscape photography.” His application was rejected, in part, because his work was perceived as “aesthetic” and “convenient,” and with the suggestion that he should strive to get a sense of what’s being done in contemporary photography.
Though the term “contemporary” is not strictly defined, a general review of photographic art exhibited, taught and funded in recent decades shows an overwhelming bias toward work exploring human subjects and interactions, as well as decidedly abstract art commensurate with the “art for art’s sake” dictum underscoring much of modern art. In particular, sorely missing from the institutional notion of “contemporary” is art utilizing natural aesthetics in its narrative. If, as suggested by Mahatma Gandhi, action expresses priorities; the actions of many art institutions, as manifested in the work they choose to exhibit, their teachings and the recipients of their financial aid, seems to express a degree of prejudice.
It is important for anyone attempting to navigate the murky waters of the “art world” to have some foundation in art history. What today we know as modern- or postmodern-art began with revolutionary trends in the arts, originally aimed at wresting art away from the grip of religious and political institutions, and later in opposition to the social effects of the Industrial Revolution. In all cases, artists rebelled to uphold art’s freedom of expression, be it founded in social commentary, aesthetics, or subject matter. Those in power always sought to use art to glorify themselves and to legitimize their power base (be it scripture, celebrity, ideology or riches) as well as to squelch artists’ ability to challenge and criticize the status quo. The result of such constraints was benign art based primarily on aesthetics, and devoid of any meaningful narrative that did not comply with the powers that were.
It is understandable why, in the wake of these important revolutions, art founded solely in aesthetics and lacking in personal expression fell out of favor. This, however, is not to say that aesthetics did not continue to play an important role in the success and acceptance of art.
As expected, the iron law prevailed yet again. In the absence of political and religious authoritarianism, other interests soon moved to fill the void. These included primarily business and academic interests who took it upon themselves to assert control over what constitutes legitimate art. Among their goals was the desire to do away with anything that had been done before, including the role and value of aesthetics in art. Some went so far in their zeal as to declare that art should exist unto itself, independent of meaning and purpose – art for art’s sake.
It’s not hard to see, then, why anyone associated with the art elite has an implicit vested interest in promoting art that either validates the current academic paradigm and/or maximizes financial profit for those in the art business. Neither is necessarily bad in itself, but a balance must be maintained to insure that art remains what most of us intuitively consider it to be: a subjective, personal, expressive pursuit, free from arbitrary constraints of fashion, dogma, politics or profit.
What I found most disturbing about the response my friend received was not the rejection per se, but the profound lack of foresight expressed in prompting an artist to comply with the arbitrary sensibilities of “contemporary photography,” rather than urging him to pursue and evolve his own creative path. The application was dismissed merely by virtue of the art falling into the general bucket of “landscape photography” and without regard to its innovative and personal narrative.
Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay: I believe that today’s “art elite” has again come dangerously close to the dreaded outcome of the iron law, placing too much power in the hands of a few. I believe that it’s time for another (peaceful, intellectual and creative) revolution.
What I offer below is something of a manifesto for those of us concerned with the future of art, and particularly our art.
We are those who believe that art should be free of constraints. Any limitations applied to our work are those we choose for ourselves.
We are those who proclaim ourselves artists, in the sense that we are people who create art, and who believe that no other qualification is needed.
We are those who wish for our work to be judged, above anything else, by the goals we set for it.
We are those who believe that art should have meaning and purpose, and thus is incompatible with the notion of “art for art’s sake.”
We consider art a construct of the human mind, and as such, believe that it should benefit the human experience. Beauty and aesthetics, although not a necessary ingredient, should nonetheless never be dismissed in and of themselves.
We are those who recognize other trends, fashions and movements in art, but choose to pursue our work in the way that we do, in a manner most honest with who we are; our personal sensibilities; the roots of our inspiration; our own creative voices; our choice of media; and the goals we set for ourselves.
We are those who believe that our work holds meaning to our audience, and that such meaning trumps any consideration of genre, movement or categorization.
What today constitutes contemporary art did not materialize out of thin air. It is but a point on a long continuum, much of which is still ahead. It will undoubtedly evolve and be supplanted many times hence. Many artists in the past were responsible for the evolutionary and revolutionary events that brought us to what we today consider contemporary. These artists worked in many media and espoused a great diversity of opinion and philosophy. They all, however, have one thing in common – they knowingly chose to do something different than their own era’s idea of “contemporary.”