Reframing the question of art

self-referential art

self-referential art (Photo credit: jasoneppink)

There is an interesting blog on Tumblr called Great Art in Ugly Rooms. The concept is exactly that: taking famous works of fine art and placing them in banal settings, without the reverence and dedicated space that an art museum normally provides these works. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I find the blog compelling, perhaps because as a teenager I had my own small postcards of some of these works taped to the walls of my bedroom–no doubt a room ugly enough to fit the criteria of this project. 

I started to wonder if there is a snobbery at work here: do not ugly (perhaps simple, or, dare I say it, poor) spaces not deserve fine art? Is this a joke, perhaps in the mean-spirited way of the blog that shows photographs of people and how they are dressed when shopping at Walmart? I thought of how Mark Wallinger, among other artists, was commissioned to create art embedded for the Art in the Underground project in London and what a wonderful concept to bring fine art into everyday spaces to be viewed by all. I do question the “ugliness” of some of the rooms in the Tumblr blog. Ugliness is a very subjective term, and oftentimes one person’s standards of ugliness as regards a room or home may be determined by the size of his/her income.

However, I don’t think that there is an intentional classist impulse here in Art in Ugly Rooms. Art is a conversation, and sometimes the conversation is the connection between viewer and viewed in the pristine environment of a museum (which is however, not a vacuum, given that much thought is always given to lighting, flow, seating and arrangements of a collection). However, in Art in Ugly Rooms, the conversation between art and its setting is amped up. It brings into question, which pieces still look like fine art when the hushed atmosphere of an art gallery is replaced by a utilitarian room in a domestic space? Or a public restroom? Which pieces seem to belong in their new home, sometimes to the point of being hard to spot? Does the setting remove some of the veneer from the fine art label and would only a true art afficionado see its value in this setting? Or is the art devalued by the grime and grit of real life? Surely we should not have to elevate and isolate art to appreciate it? Great Art in Ugly Rooms is uncomfortably provocative in making us think about what we value and why.

There is also some humor here in the unexpected (a familiar trope of comedy) by juxtaposing fine art in an unfamiliar setting: the urban artist Banksy being showcased in your average little girl’s room; the McLaughlin posited as hotel art; the metallic Jeff Koons metallic bunny standing in kitchen made entirely of traditional oak. This project subverts the impulses of the artist. While many an artist has operated outside of the gallery space to showcase their work, not many have seen their art framed by such mundane/hostile environments. It is one thing to drape the trees of Central Park with orange fabric and make a gorgeous setting even more gorgeous. It’s another to see your art grace the walls of a urinal; I’m doubtful that Matisse would have been game for this project if he was still alive. The Francis Bacon works are extra disturbing in their–presumably–suburban context. Now I see how odd the screaming pontiff postcard I bought at the Tate as a teen must have looked pinned onto the apple-shaped corkboard in my bedroom.

Great Art in Ugly Rooms is an interesting medium for re-evaluating the eliteness of the art world and how culture and money are inextricably linked. The outlaw art of graffiti is perhaps the best bridge between art and the masses, a fact that favored street artists like Banksy capitalize on. However, many people can get no more than a glimpse of great art in trips to galleries; ugly rooms are frequently the only setting in which they get a chance to savor it.

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It’s personal: telling the story of small truths

There’s a worthwhile conversation going on right now about Everyday Africa, a Tumblr account that posts photos from daily life in Africa, taken by people who live and work there. The project was started by photojournalists Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill, who were inspired to show life on the continent as people who live there see it: in small moments of joy, love and connection, instead of through portrayals of the big tragedies that  devastate nations and dominate headlines. They invited photographers living in countries across the African continent to submit their contribution. At first, I found it interesting that there even needs to be a project like this, but then I thought of how little we are told of Africa, beyond the famines and wars that make the news, and that we can also, sadly, choose to ignore. Too many people confuse the continent for a country, and so many diverse, unique cultures and traditions, languages and histories get conflated in one word: Africa. While I recognize that it is important to know the big stories that are concerned with the fate of nations, as a writer, I also celebrate the stories of “small living”, the personal, the unexpected story that defies the generality, the little moment that would have been lost if it were not for the telling. I was reminded of Arundhati Roy‘s wonderful title “The God of Small Things” and how sometimes we can (or should) only focus on the small things; often, they are the only things in our control and they are the site of much joy and beauty.

You can find the Everyday Africa project at the Everyday Africa tumblr account and at the The New Yorker’s Instagram feed.