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View all of Issue 1: "Where"

Reprint: This Is Art? The Alienation of the Avant Garde from the Audience*


Editor’s Note
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We reprint Lippard’s essay for its insightful use of “where” to suggest the avant-garde’s connection to and difference from socially engaged art.

Reprinted from Lucy R. Lippard’s Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change, with her permission. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1984, pp. 73–79.


A tall white room, high over lower Manhattan; it is empty, even of light fixtures and window frames; wind, air and sky fill the space. “You must be kidding. Where’s the art?” “It’s nothing, nothing at all.” “I kind of like it — all that emptiness.” “Is this a hoax?”

The empty room is a work of art by California artist Michael Asher. The quotes are some public responses to his 1976 exhibition. For me, Asher’s show was moving and beautiful, articulating interior and exterior spaces, their boundaries, mergings, light and shadow into a particularly subtle experience. But I have been a contemporary art critic for over a decade. To a general public there is, indeed, nothing there.

The alienation of the avant garde from a broad audience and the contemporary artist’s indifference to this situation are causalities of Modernism (the evolutionary theory of art which has dominated this century). The current art public is the rich and educated class attracted to status as often as to esthetics. A still smaller percentage of this group participates in the rituals of the “art world” — an incestuous network in which contemporary art is generated by other art, exposed, bought and sold, until it reaches the only available outlet to a somewhat broader public — the museum. Once there, it is greeted by the laity with bafflement, outrage, intimidation, and occasionally with genuine excitement. For in the field of contemporary art, almost everybody is the laity — not just the mythical men and women in the street with their assumed preferences for lurid sunsets and bug-eyed ballerinas, but the great majority of every socioeconomic class.

Art for art’s sake, concentrating on form and ignoring content, is an acquired taste. The entire history of modern art in Western civilization is that of an essentially intimate and private art, an art of “precious objects” on sale for those raised to “appreciate” them and the privileged enough to acquire them. (“Let’s face it. The public is imbecile in every country,” wrote Futurist Umberto Boccioni in 1912.) Through that same history runs a parallel thread of the loftiest idealism, the desire expressed by artists themselves that art might recoup its ancient vitality in social life, that art might change perception and thereby the world. I count myself as part of this starry-eyed troupe, and it is a melancholy task to have to report that the history of Modernism is in fact the history of antagonism against the same bourgeois establishment which, in the process, has become its prime audience. Having no history of involvement with the “masses,” new art has consistently ignored its own aspirations. There are chasms between the class that demands “culture,” artists who are making “art,” and the virtually unarticulated needs of everybody else.

A crowded concrete plaza in Manhattan’s financial district, surrounded by skyscrapers, a few trees, four of which are white, four stories high, made of fiberglass, and patterned with heavy black lines.

The gawky Four Trees is a sculpture by Jean Dubuffet, sponsored by the Chase Manhattan Bank. It is one of the few public artworks in New York which avoids a faceless decorator’s appliance look. One day last January, fifty-one passersby were interviewed in the plaza by Williams College student Mike Glier — twenty-seven of them “professionals” and twenty-four “nonprofessionals.” Half of them liked the sculpture and half didn’t. Eight thought the trees looked like giant mushrooms; the man who sweeps the plaza was reminded of a cave or “something from way back before I was born.” A “prancing courier” thought of cutout cookies. A new mother said, “It looks like the inside of a body and bones.” Children loved it and saw it as “a sandwich with a bite taken out of it” and “blown-up live stuff with black lines on it.” Two men described as “down and out” were angered by the $500,000 price tag and would have preferred a statue of General Grant.

Group of Four Trees

“Group of Four Trees,” Jean Dubuffet, New York, NY. Photo by Sabrina Chin.

Dubuffet himself — a wine merchant who became an artist late in life — plays a contradictory role; wealthy, literate and worldly, he presents an “anticultural” stance, attempting to achieve a childlike innocence by borrowing from the art of “primitive” peoples, of the “naïves,” and of the insane. If Four Trees is a successful provocation, his painting Beard of Uncertain Returns, in the Museum of Modern Art, has in two surveys been the least popular work viewed, evoking comments like, “He doesn’t take himself of his audience seriously; he doesn’t believe in anything and his art is alienated.” The degree of abstraction may explain this. Representational art is preferred by the public across the board unless, as in Four Trees, there is an imagistic handle that allows the viewer to enter by some other means, the most useful of which is association — free, and frequently pointed. (As Brian O’Doherty has remarked, “shrewd common sense is the unconsulted public’s only remaining weapon when confronted with ‘elitist’ monuments;” he cites a smooth mound of black marble outside a San Francisco bank which was christened “the banker’s heart.”) But association is rejected and, if possible, suppressed by most avant-garde artists, who feel it is irrelevant to their formal intentions. Thereby, unconsciously or not, they raise a major obstacle to their work’s reaching a broader audience.

Right now, “public art” means to most people blown-up private art outdoors — looming Calders and mountainous Moores — cultural weapons with which to bludgeon “improvement” into the unruly classes. Both big business and the avant garde are now aware that art seen in a familiar space has a communicative advantage over art seen in artificial cultural contexts, such as museums and galleries. A college class interviewing on New York streets last year found that outdoors, people are less concerned with value judgements and more with their own opinions, whereas in the more detached and loaded indoor situations, this confidence is undermined. It is not surprising, then, that the majority of those rare artists making an effort to reach out have gone to the streets, where the audience can be caught unawares.

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For the most part, however, contemporary artists who have ventured “out there” and found sites and sights to revitalize their art have been more successful in bringing these awarenesses back into the art world than in bringing art out to the world. For example, when so-called Conceptual Art emerged around 1968, it was welcomed as a blow at the “precious object,” but none of us took into account that these Xeroxed texts or random snapshots documenting ideas or activities or works of art existing elsewhere would be of no interest whatsoever to a broader public. They were, in fact, smoothly absorbed into the art market and are now only slightly less expensive than oils and marbles. The perversity (and failure) of offering unwanted avant-garde art for the price of wanted schlock bears out in retrospect art historian Linda Nochlin’s depressing suggestion that, admirable as the move to get art out of the museums and into the streets may be, it can also be seen as “the ultimate act of avant-garde hubris.”

“I know very few artists who can even imagine the possibility of an art which is both good and more widely social,” says painter R. B. Kitaj. “The road ahead is blocked among us by so many failures of imagination.” It is also blocked by the rationalization that it is reactionary to try and contact the proletariat, who must “make their own art;” and these failures are sustained by an underlying fear, well justified but rarely admitted, that “the masses” will reject us if we leave the ivory walls and go out there with our present baggage — our art, our criticism, even our attitudes to life.

A vacant ground-floor storefront right off Times Square. A sign in the window reads, “Work for the Unemployed.” From time to time someone wanders in hopefully and finds a dim, abandoned space, empty except for a chair, a tape-recorder, and a supervisor who gently advises that this is not an employment office; it is art. If the visitor remains, she hears a long, disembodied monologue on tape about the artist’s political convictions. A crumb is thrown to accessibility; near the door is a pile of small, crudely bold black-and-white linocut handouts; “Want to Get Your Boss Off Your Back? Stand Up”; “Everyone Who Is Employed Is Being Robbed”; “Wages a Form of Slavery.”

Art like this perhaps courageous but singularly ineffective and even insulting piece by Saul Ostrow simply parodies the valid dialectic between the real and the art world, becoming a picturesque gesture rather than a commitment. Just as it is not a matter of jazzing up factories or city walls so that art improves the working environment without doing anything about fundamental social inequities, neither is it a matter of gratuitously provoking ideas without being willing to follow them through. It doesn’t help that “serious” artists are terrified that their art might be seen as “entertainment” — an unfortunate situation originating in understandable opposition to the sixties’ buying public’s consumption of art as a “fun thing.” The art world has come to mistrust accessibility. Art that communicates easily is often understood only on a playful or superficial level and appears to lack the profundity that makes other, more hermetic art endure.

Though art in general is something people would really like to like, contemporary art cannot meet the challenge because it isn’t accessible, even physically. In its place are the flower paintings, Paris-in-the-rain scenes, cats on black velvet, Spanish dancers and moonlit harbors found in shopping malls, frame stores and art festivals all over America. “The art is counterfeit, but the need is authentic,” as Baruch Kirschenbaum of the Rhode Island School of Design has pointed out. Workers in Minneapolis, interviewed about art by artist Don Celender’s students, bore this out. The large majority felt that “people need art,” “It brings us closer to what we really are,” and “It makes the world seem brighter.”

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Sounds fine until taste again rears its ugly head. When asked what art the respondents had in their homes, their answers ranged from an occasional abstract painting to antique furniture, a ceramic duck, Blue Boy, The End of the Trail, a stuffed pheasant, a print of the Lord’s Prayer, “optic art, lamps, couch and chairs,” candles, driftwood, “bubblegum acrylics,” finger paintings of fishes, statues of saints, “oil paintings which I appreciate because they look hard to do,” yarn paintings, “pictures of artificial flowers,” and a great many reproductions of “scenery.”

In 1967, according to the International Council on Museums (ICOM) report, people liked art that was relaxing, calming, comfortable, conservative and realistic, art that was already familiar to them through the media and reproduction. Animals and birds were liked, fish less so; deep space was preferred to two-dimensional decoration. Direct stares in portraits and emphatically sexual images were rejected, as were both drab colors and very hot, bright ones, vertiginous views, dazzling light, and “childishness” (the “my-six-year-old-could-do-that” syndrome). People tend to be lost when there is no recognizable subject matter or to confuse the subject matter with the painting itself. (A friend overheard one well-dressed woman in the Metropolitan Museum standing in front of a Degas ballet painting say to another, “Why my daughter dances better than that!”)

Anything the least bit radical was seen as a put-on by artists who “don’t care if ordinary people understand them.” The 507 ICOM respondents wholeheartedly rejected art that was in any way disturbing in subject, that referred to social problems or suggested any negative aspect of life. The report concluded that “What is common on television in the way of violence and other distortions is not, in their view, equally acceptable as subject matter for painting” — an indication as to how far art has been removed from life.

Where do people get this “average” taste? In most cases it is a product of the media, which are certainly to blame for spreading the word that contemporary art is “news” for its peculiarities rather that for its virtues. (One survey even discovered horizontal paintings were much preferred over verticals and suspected a connection with the shape of TV and movie screens, though the walls of a house are also suggested.)  Taste is also — to a lesser extent — affected by what is seen in museums, and how it is seen. One of Celender’s respondents liked “old artworks because they’re more classy,” and class and intimidation are certainly factors in the public image of museums; along, of course, with boredom and mystification.

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A truck full of Puerto-Rican teenagers from New York’s Lower East Side is going past the Metropolitan Museum; one kid asks the driver, “Hey, man, is that City Hall?”

The Met’s pseudo-classical design is identical to that of law courts and government offices, hardly inspiring confidence or conveying a welcome to the underclasses. Once museums were free, at least. Now, though tax-exempt, most have “discretionary admission” fees. Prominently displayed signs “suggest” that you pay at least $1.50 a head. The less comfortable the visitor is in befountained, bedraped and bepillared halls, the more likely s/he is to pay the demanded fee than to hand over the penny that is equally legitimate. The richer you are and the more at ease in your society, the less humiliating it is to “play poor.”

A Black family in their Sunday best hesitates before the cashier at the Met, reluctantly turns back and leaves, despite the protestations of a concerned middle-class visitor who tries to convince them they can pay a dime.

Another survey found that many more people would visit museums if there were no charge. At the same time that museums all over the country were patting themselves on the back for increased attendance figures, the ICOM report said that these figures merely “mask facts of a more disquieting nature — namely, a visit to a museum does not guarantee understanding or acceptance of the art in it.” Long lines formed for popular shows like Calder’s mobiles or the Mona Lisa actually lead to impossible viewing conditions and increase alienation. There is little popular or “low art” in museums because if it is truly popular it is not considered “high art;” it doesn’t get into the art history books and it is not given to the museums by the rich. (God forbid the rabble should choose its own art.)

There is, however, one art with a large audience that cannot be accused of going ignored, or of avoiding provocative subject matter. The inner-city mural movement, on New York’s Lower East Side, Chicago’s South Side, L.A.’s, San Francisco’s and Santa Fe’s barrios, has become an effective public art precisely by dealing with local life and welcoming art as an arena in which to expose it. The community murals, varying widely in style, subject and “quality,” are on the whole consciously opposed to art for art’s sake, though they too have an art-historical model to which they look — the Mexican mural movement of the ‘30s and ‘40s. They can provide an outlet for destructive energies, a catalyst for action to improve the quality of urban life, and they assert the presence of a politically invisible population. At their best, they do so by the same means the avant garde itself admires most: directness, simplicity, strength and personal commitment.

The audience for the murals is ready-made and ready to empathize and act. In the Mexican tradition, pictures take the place of words. Content ranges from bitter social comment (against drugs, inflation, absentee landlords, corrupt cops) to pride in heritage, culture, race and sex. Some derive their power from conviction alone, others from considerable artistry; the artists are frequently not professionals and the apprentices are youths from the communities. The murals are in some senses a regional art (cement roots instead of grass roots), their makers uninterested in the kind of “universal quality” that reaches museums. They claim their own context; their audience is basically alienated from ruling-class culture and is unaware of most intellectual stereotypes and expectations about art.

A Watts Neighborhood Arts Council report on art and welfare from 1973 quotes a survey in which the vast majority of respondents identified “culture” with a total experience, including “education, learning, life style, refinement, anything uplifting, historical background, customs and traditions, progress and development,” in that order.  When the Decentralization Committee of the Art Workers’ Coalition circulated a questionnaire in the South Bronx in 1970 to determine what the community would like in a local art center, the replies included basketball, sewing, and day care as often as anything conventionally considered art. At the same time, the art world, trying to bridge the gap between art and life, has claimed for the art context aspects of and references to basketball, sewing, and social systems, not to mention didactic display, unaltered objects bought in stores, street actions, primitive rituals, boxing, toys, real estate and ecology, physics, sociology, and so forth.

Context has become a much-depended-upon concept in visual esthetics since the mid-‘60s. It is used to defend the activities of the far-out artist against the response, “But this isn’t art.” The argument goes that if “it” is seen in a museum, gallery, or art magazine, then it is art no matter how bad or antiart or nonart it may appear. This simple solution to the no-longer-burning question “What is Art?” is a reasonable one and makes sense within the art world, though it is invisible and incomprehensible to most of the audience.  Ironically, however, the “context” concept, in fact, serves to further confine art within the art world by fixing its validity there. If it communicates, and satisfies the esthetic needs of its immediate audience, who cares what it’s called?

Yet, when doubts are expressed within the art world about the ability of contemporary art to communicate, the need for artists to choose their own audiences and be responsible to them, the reply is instant defensiveness on the order of “Artists are free;  Artists work only for themselves; Artists don’t make art to please anybody,” and even “Art is not communication.” Nevertheless, it is patently ridiculous for any of us — artists and critics — to work under the illusion that we are not making products for a specific consumer — the international art audience, for whom fashion plays a huge part in success and failure. Those artists who refuse to consider a new audience for their work are simply accepting the existing one.


Lucy R. Lippard is a writer, activist, sometime-curator, and author of 24 books on contemporary art and cultural criticism.

*This essay was written early in 1976 as a much longer piece; a short version was published under the same title by Seven Days in its first preview issue (Feb. 14, 1977), and for this version, a few sections from the unpublished long version have been reinserted. The surveys consulted for this article were ICOM (A Zacks, D. F. Cameron, and D. S. Abbey), “Public Attitudes Toward Modern Art,” Museum 2, no. ¾ (1969); Don Celender and students at Macalester College, The Opinions of Working People Concerning the Arts (New York; O. K. Harris Gallery, 1975); George Nash, “Art Museums as Perceived by the Public,” Curator 18, no. 1 (1975); Williams College students directed by Lucy R. Lippard, What Do You See? Think? Say? Private and Public Responses to Art (Williamstown, Mass. 1976).

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