Blog: What happens to “art” when it is part of a social contract?

Christine Alfery

Posted on April 17 2018

Blog: What happens to “art” when it is part of a social contract?

Featured image: The Juggler

Upon my return from Art Basel I have been researching several artists that drew a gut reaction from me. Gut reaction for me should be defined as– I stopped, walked into a booth and took a closer look. I left and returned several times. What was it that drew me in? What draws anyone in? Is it personal/subjective unique and individual or is it based on a collective way of thinking? 

I choose to examine the three artists, Mark Bradley, Jean-Michael Basquiat and Max Vityk works to answer this question. During Art Basel the work of Basquiat was tossed around a great deal because at the patron’s preview Leonardo DeCaprio was roaming around with his entourage looking for art to buy. Leonardo DiCaprio spent more than 45 minutes in a private room haggling over the price of an $850,000 Basquiat drawing at Art Basel Miami.

“The Oscar winner — who tried but completely failed to hide his identity under a baseball cap and a black hoodie while walking around with a huge entourage — spent more than an hour at New York’s Van de Weghe booth at Art Basel in Miami during Wednesday’s VIP preview. The 1983 Jean-Michel Basquiat work, titled “Wire,” measures 76 x 56 cm and is signed and titled on the reverse and features a figure looking at a fly with the words on corresponding parts “teeth,” “liver” “knee,” and a quite “keep your hands off that wire.” Click here  

Also from the online publication Page Six “The top-selling piece at Art Basel Miami Beach is believed to be Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Made in Japan,” which we’re told went for just under $15 million at Helly Nahmad Gallery. Sources say the artwork was purchased by Greek-born billionaire asset manager and art collector Dimitri Mavrommatis.” Click here 


    Another name band-ied about during Art Basel, Miami Art Week, was Mark Bradford. Mark Bradford was invited to the Venice Biennial as a representative of the United States. When I walked into the Hauser & Wirth Gallery’s booth because of one work it had in the booth. It was contemporary, “Moon Rocks.”  I did not know it was Mark Bradford’s work. I was given a pamphlet and the hostess stated that the pamphlet contained examples of the work Bradford took to the Biennial. This statement said to me, we handle Mark Bradford’s work and he is a very important artist because he was invited to the Venice Biennial. I walked in because I was drawn to the contemporary work. The Venice Biennial was considered the world’s oldest and biggest art festival. I did not work into the booth because Mark Bradford is “generally seen as one of the key artists of the moment. His work according to Hyperallergic Newsletter May 17, 2017, speaks of “Democracy’s Dark Side and a Glimmer of Hope. In the US Pavilion, the artist’s work takes on a new context: wrestling with the hypocrisy of Jeffersonian democracy. …embedded in the US Pavilion, which was built in 1930 and modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation: it’s wrestling with the hypocrisy of Jeffersonian democracy.” The work that drew me in, not the fact that the work was done by Mark Bradford. 


    Max Vityk, an artist born in Lviv, Ukraine, work appeared to be devoid of all social injustice commentary. What brought me into the booth of Taveras International Gallery, it was the enormous colorful canvases covering every square inch of the booth. The energy, the passion, the spontaneous-ness of the work was overwhelming. The fresh, naive mark making that draws me to Joan Mitchells work, to Miro’s work, to Klee’s work, to de Kooning’s work, it was all there, and it was wonderful. It is the raw mark, the independent mark, the unique individual mark that makes Vityk’s work glorious, that makes Vityk’s work art. Nahla Smaha, of Cairo states; “the emotional vulnerability of the Warriors of Light, fuels, their plea for change; it is something akin to going into battle naked…a certain nakedness protected only by an unfaltering conviction of ideals. Vityk’s work feels less like a personal enterprise and more like and ode, or act of adulation to the spirit of change – a spirit plagued by credulous hope for something better…happier.” Researching Mark Vityk’s canvases a couple weeks later I discovered the work in the booth “The Warriors of Light” reflect the historical revolutionary events Vityk lived and moved through during 2011-2015. “The 2011 Revolution in Egypt, along with its surrounding events, spawned an outpouring of cultural expression in forms of street art, performance art, and more. This artistic reawakening manifested sentiments, opinions, and ideas about Egypt’s social-political transformative period. Tahrir Square, known to locals as Maidan El Tahrir, became a physical grassroots symbol for change. …A wave of protests and demonstrations swept across the Ukraine, becoming known as the EuroMaidan. Protesters demanded the resignation of the incumbent president and his government, and an integration into the EU. Civil unrest, War, Demonstrations, Pain, Fear, Hope, Change, Aspiration. From within the upheaval a determined ray of light steadily emerged …and as the ray of light intensified, vague shapes began taking form, mirage-like figures dances and quivered. They were the Warriors of Light, Ukraine’s revolutionary symbol. Max Vityk, an artist captures the Warriors of light as they are truly meant to be: child-like, hopeful, positive, vibrant, naïve, and ingenuous.” (Max Vityk: The Warriors of Light. Makc Bitnk. pg. 13. Rodovid.). “Vityk’s eternal theme is the conflict between reason and emotion. His art is one place where he can be free from constraints.” (IBID pg. 19).

    Is that not the real question how does one show the conflict between reason and emotion in a work of art? Or as I asked, what draws anyone in to take a closer look at a work of art? Is it it’s personal/subjective uniqueness and individual charm or is it based on a collective, political way of thinking? How is a work considered and classified as art? Visual discourse, visually recorded history, does it create political binaries, or does it ask questions like how does one show the conflict between reason and emotion visually?

    Many say art is subjective – how one evaluates always has some subjectivity mixed in with their evaluation. It cannot be helped. What drew me in were the marks the artists made and the colors the artists used, and the shapes formed through negative and positive spaces. Marks are very personal. Color can be objective but how they are used and in what combinations they are used in can make them unique to an artist. If they are not, unique to the artist, then the application of color becomes a matter of techne, and not a matter of uniqueness. I use the word “techne” here to mean a craft or craftsmanship and rules. Not techne as an aesthetic.

When I view a work of art my training kicks in. The “rules” come naturally, they are rote like reciting the ABC’s.  A judge one said to me when asked what her criteria was for judging a work of art, “I check for design principles and elements, but for award-winning art, I look for even more than that. I ask myself whether the artist tried his best to explore creativity – to put his personal mark in his work. Usually that’s what speaks to me.” (Keiko Tanabe) That is what my gut reaction is. It is more than, for that matter art today is more than old rules. Old rules don’t define value in art anymore. Yes, they help to create a great composition, but they aren’t the end game when it comes to value in art. 

The artist self in the work has top priority for me. It is, why I stop walking, turn and am drawn into the booth. A work as a raw quality to it, unpolished, because whether we care to admit it or not the self without all the do dads of refined culture is just that raw, unpolished, extremely unpolished, individual. This rawness, this unpolished polish exists in any style, and can exists in any media, it is rare. This polish this rawness frequently as an artist becomes recognized and successful becomes polished, rote and is lost.

The artists self has a lot of baggage, this baggage appears in their work, it cannot be erased. Artists never stand in front of a blank slate. It is their anger, their joy, their sorrow, their fears, their hopes, their surprise, their pain that all should scream out in their work. Simply put this anger, joy, sorrow, fear–this hope and surprise, this pain all belongs to them, individually, uniquely, it is not part of collective that identifies uses these qualities for identification. 

Three artists: Mark Bradford, Jean-Michael Basquiat, and Max Vityk all had work at Art Basel that made me stop, walk into the booth and choosing to look at their compositions. They all had gut wrenching work that was unique and individually theirs.

When Mark Bradford first began as an artist, his work screamed of, social injustice and from the earth concerns. “My dreads,” he stated, “cannot be ignored. My dreads are a signpost declaring to all who wish to see and hear my commitment to my culture and to a spiritual, natural way of life…. Because of my dreads, I cannot be ignored. Dreads speak these truths from many people around the world. My message cannot be ignored.”

It was not Mark Bradford’s dreads that drew attention to his work – it was his work, and it was him personally, not how he looked but what he was visually saying. People were drawn to him and his honest passion to find himself because he was outside of the normal accepted center of thinking. He found himself along the edges of things and that was ok with him. It was easy to be pushed to the edges when he first began in the sixties because his issues where the issues of the baby boomers rising, screaming no war, no bras, they are the flower children, peace, peace, peace. People were drawn to Bradford’s work because people in the sixties were upset with the norm and looked for their own personal truth, their own personal identity. They went outside of their own personal studios, outside of the establishment. They found a community that accepted individuality and independence, uniqueness. The sixties environment, the collectives, honored the search for the individual and the independent artist was glorified, revered and brave.

Jean-Michael Basquiat’s rise to stardom also began with his rawness. His first work, in the New York/New Wave Exhibition, shown in 1981 at the PS1 gallery in New York, alongside the work of Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe, curated by Diego Cortez, was raw, unframed and innocent. Faces, cars, airplanes could have been the drawings of a young child. Aggressive, angry gestures, drips and graffiti filled his compositions. His work would later lose this uniqueness as he progressed and became part of the art scene along with Andy Warhol, who took him in. His media changed, his work was no longer done on torn pieces of paper and empty walls of buildings or on scrap wood but instead he had a large studio and large canvases to create graphic black and white figures, but mostly black, with afro’s and large hanging gentiles, and angry teeth and mouths. Basquiat was no longer on the outside. This changed his work and him. His raw innocence in his work changed once he became part of the art scene never to the rawness his work first had. His later work became formulaic.

The community of art lovers and collectors who were looking for uniqueness and originality in the 60’s began to scream, uniqueness doesn’t exist, all is mere repetition, there are no new ideas. Warhol was amongst them. The concepts of independence and individuality within a community shifted in the eighties from honoring the independence and individuality of a person to honoring the community. It was believed that the only way an individual could be recognized was through a group through a collective. Thinking shifted away from individual thinking to group thinking. Individuals found strength and power within this group think. Thinking they were fighting for independence and individuality and the only way to accomplish that was through a group think they said, strength in numbers. Individuals and independence became puppets to the those who told them how to think about themselves and what they stood for. Those who made it, like Basquiat, agreed with the group thinkers. The work that drew a gut reaction from me was one done by both Warhol and Basquiat. There was very little Basquiat and a whole lot of Warhol. It was like Warhol’s large blocks of color overrules the raw independent, individual mark making of Basquiat. Did Basquiat’s art work make it, become a collectable, because of groups like Warhols? I would answer yes.

During the 80’s and 90’s the concepts of independence and individuality began to lose their power their strengths they had in the 60’s. Artwork needed to match the sofa. It was easier to match something than to think about something, let alone think differently about something. Community in the eighties shifted from honoring the independence and individuality of a person into a community that used that very independence and individuality to control the individual. At the same time, how the golden rule was understood shifted, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Those in the group who never knew how to find their independence, their individuality thought that they could find it by helping those less fortunate, they believed their self/soul would shine and make them feel good by helping others, others less fortunate.  They forgot how to help themselves and how to find themselves and completely lost their independence and individuality. The Tao concept of nothingness and purity in the 60’s that would define an individual changed, defining a group. Fighting for group individuality and independence is an oxymoron if groups are made up of individuals and independence.

Basquiat’s work, like Bradford’s was changed by the very ideal they were angry about. His raw self-became covered by collective thinking that screamed we are for you, your uniqueness and independence but this very thinking by the collective erased the very thing they were fighting for independence and uniqueness. Basquiat on his way to success, that very thing he never thought would be available to him, in the end that success destroyed by collective thinking that took away his independence, his uniqueness, and his drive to be what he naturally was.

Community rather than honoring individuality and independence, required dependence and group loyalty. Community became gang like, with a leader and an enemy. Community only spoke of individuality in terms of how individuals fit into their group – not how individuals could be individuals and still fit in. It wasn’t Basquiats work that made him famous it was the group think tank about social injustice that did. It was the message they presented that fit in, not the work itself. Because Basquiat was an outsider, like the outsiders of the 60’s, he was taken in. But the very outsider-ness of outsiders had begun to deteriorate because it was part of a group think and was no longer independent, there was an agenda and a way to be within the group, within the community.

Their, Bradfords and Basquiats, message lost its artiness, its uniqueness, it’s rawness and individual independence once it became part of a larger collective social message. There is no question in my mind that Basquiat’s work could have been invited to the Venice Bienniale like Bradfords were he still alive today. Basquiat, like Bradford would have conceded to a group thought of individuality and independence. Which really means there is no individuality and no independence, now all the social yelling and shouting is the same and everyone’s shout matches everyone else’s shout and it all becomes just loud noise. The rawness of uniqueness and individuality in the 60’s shifted to a collective think regarding individuality and uniqueness today. In a collective think there is no room for the individual to be different, unique, to be independence, individual and still be part of a group.

Basquiat and Bradfords work is still on the art scene because there are still group thinkers who network and support the group.  There is no room for outsiders, but there is a continual search for an outsider, it is by chance that they are found. Social collectives dominate the art scene.

Is this what art is today? A social message created by the collective. Devoid of any independence, any individuality. Individuality still exists, but there are so many are afraid to venture out and be the black sheep in the herd.

Bradford’s and Basquiat’s work and compositions had a rawness to them, a rawness that made me stop and walk into the booth where their work was displayed. Their work so fresh as compared to others at Art Basel.  There was not enough of their work in the entire exhibition for me to grasp the total journey they took and are taking. Which is why I researched them when I returned home.

Basquiat’s journey ended abruptly but Bradford was invited to exhibit in the Venice Biennale. How did I want to think about Bradford’s work today?  In my research, Bradford states that eventually he became less radical in his thinking and work and admitted that his work had “feeling.” “Looking out at the world and feeling something, that’s different. Pulling the emergencies in from the world and still demanding that there’s a beauty, refusing to see just the horror in the world, thinking there has to be something else – that’s what happens in the studio.” “…At the end of it, that’s my belief, I still believe the world is a beautiful place, and I believe that inside of me there’s beauty. I have to believe that, but I’m willing to say I’ve been in and out of a few liquor stores. I’ve been a little messy. I’m willing to say that I have history, and I’m willing to let it leak out and spill out. But I’m also willing to say that I have faith.” And then there is this statement by Bradford keeps coming back to me and all his work that I see is shaded by this very statement his; “the idea of going inside yourself is that you’re going to meet some type of enlightenment. The cowboy’s met enlightenment; they met the Indians, they met spirituality, they met the earth. But if we unpack my history in this country – being brought here as slaves, going through slavery, going through Jim Crow – if I unpacked that history, unpacked my internal landscape, I might not run into enlightenment and Indians, I might run into hero. So maybe that’s why I decided to grab things that existed in my social condition, because those things could more closely give me, make me understand, the experiences of some of the horror that I inherited, some of the horror that, generationally, I do believe you inherit. But did I want to go inside? It’s a very privileged idea to think that you’re going to go inside the dark but enlightened part of you. It’s sort of like in every yoga studio and every spiritual retreat is some middle/upper-class white woman standing in for the Indian.” 

What the heck! His work, even that initial gut experience I had for Moon Rocks, lost all credibility for me with that statement. His work, his social injustice statement, along with many others became merely a mocking jay saying ditto to all the social talking points, that remove uniqueness and individuality anyone might have had. There are no black sheep in their herd only the large ram leading the herd over the cliff. Can there be a herd without a ram – yes, I believe so. Can it happen in the arts? Yes, it can, but we need to recognize what is truly individual and independent, where the uniqueness is in the work, is it the herd mentality created by a group so one can be in the group and have group values? Or is it a uniqueness that doesn’t care if the group accepts it or not? Is a uniqueness that is valued by the creator of the work and not created to please a group who believes they are unique? The artist today needs to rethink why they are creating and for what? They also need to think that they are trading value for value when they trade a piece of work they created for something they need. Do they work with an honestly that is theirs and theirs alone? Or is there honestly and in turn their truths simply formed through a shroud?

All this is a personal enterprise – it is real, it speaks to today and our need to rethink individuality in the arts. Our need to value art not for it’s social commentary, or historical documentation but for its stubbornness to still scream out for the individual to speak. The individual is not created through a social collective. Finding the individual is not some form of inward enlightenment, finding the individual voice is hard and often the search takes time, and often is terrifying, but the individuals voice can be heard not only in the arts but everywhere if we respect the individual for their uniqueness and not their ability to copy the ideals of a collective. The individual doesn’t not need to belong to a collective to find their voice, in fact they probably never will find their voice if they try to be part of a collective in any way other than as themselves.  The work of Max Vityk does not show that fear, Max Vityk shows his voice, and is not afraid to be the black sheep in a collective social commentary. 

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