I am conscious these days, as both a teacher and as an artist, of the increasing presence in our dialogs around the study of art, of language related to the notions of career or professionalism. I suppose that it is a logical extension of working in a university environment, however it seems to be a part of a larger cultural shift toward the function of education in general. There are, of course, many other ways to talk about what we teach and do; practice, research, avocation…though such language carries a very different charge than descriptions that attempt to frame the doing of art as an undertaking similar to the law or medicine, i.e. an endeavor with a particular arc of financial success scaffolded over a working life. I imagine this is true across all of the arts in the re-framing of a practice, or a devotion to a deeply held set of beliefs in the transformative power of art, to something that represents a kind of job.
I have been thinking about what an intentional career in art might look like if designed by artists; would it be as simple as it seems? Would it include teaching as well as making, and would it look more like a business or more like the way in which art is often mythologized into an image of art? A contemporary definition of art is not monolithic, nor is a career in it.
Public taste, commissions, the avant-garde, decoration, and other such concerns are the privilege of a society with means, a society with time on its hands. In the period before mechanical reproduction, before the industrial revolution, and before the digital era, artisans were concerned primarily with the production of unique objects in the service of either ritual or functionality. What we refer to as “art” is a phenomenon of the modern era. It is conceptually different than (for instance) the paintings of religious scenes which we might find in European museums, or remnants of early photographs or sculptures made by people in the service of religious beliefs. As societies became more mechanized, and work became systematized, artists evolved accordingly. Without the requirement of utilitarianism, or functionality, the nature of what artists make also evolves.
Art as a course of study within academia is also a relatively modern conception. Traditionally, the techniques of casting, sculpting, painting, ceramics, etc. were the purview of guilds and artisans who participated in the perpetuation of such knowledges through systems of apprenticeship, often in traditional master-student relationships.
The philosopher Walter Benjamin described the liberation of art from the service of ritual in 1935 in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.
In a pre-photographic world, religion historically relied on artisans to tell its story, as did conquering armies and colonizing countries. Drawing, painting and sculpture were the social media of earlier ages and, in turn, ritual and religion kept artisans busy making the objects of worship and illustrating and transcribing sacred texts. However, as the processes of reproduction became mechanized, the need for artisans slowly diminished and they were able to turn their attentions toward other uses of their talents. Benjamin noted, “Mechanical Reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Such emancipation frees artists to think about their creative efforts not in terms of faithful re-creation of traditional shapes and forms or narrative pictorial illustration, but rather the more poetic uses of technique and materials. The liberated artist is free to think beyond mimesis; to think about abstraction, about esthetics and about the philosophical functions of art. Thus we arrive at art that is free to stand for itself, to address the internalized emotions of the artist and their concerns for the culture of their time.
At the start of the 20th century, we see a mind-boggling array of manifestoes, proclamations, polemics, and breaks with past traditions. Aided by the technological evolutions of the day we also see new methods of artistic practice taking form. And ultimately we see the possibility of art as a career, with expectations of professional standards and behavior. Beyond thinking about art in the context of commodity it is possible now to see career as a commodity. Perhaps this is the new normal, the conceptualization of art itself into a performance of expectation that more closely resembles what the avant-garde fought to distance itself from; yet another post-modern irony, but, nonetheless, a contemporary evolution.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department