This month’s blog post features an essay by Amanda Koontz based on her recent visit to Art Basel Miami and the Spectrum Miami Art Show. Here she uses audience engagement with art exhibitions to discuss the relationship between inclusiveness and authenticity.
— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)
Consume This! Space, Place, and Authenticity: What Helps Create Inclusivity and Reflection in Artistic Spaces?
By Amanda Koontz
Somehow, I consistently come back to a quote by Paul Gauguin: “art is either plagiarism or revolution.” Recently, it struck me again after a trip to Art Basel Miami (December 2019), when I came across an article about a banana. While I was off observing up-and-coming artists, the banana was gaining a lot of attention.
The contrasting dynamics and publicity surrounding different exhibitions and staged performances brought me back to the Gauguin quote, and more specifically made me ask, Why is it that some artwork appears over the top and too much of a spectacle to deeply engage audiences, while other artwork seems to encourage authentic reactions and reflections?
Here, I consider how artists describe the purpose of the artwork itself, along with my observations of the interactions between the art and physical space. I use contemporary examples from this most recent Art Basel Miami to explore how staged artistic performances and works of art can reveal components that help to encourage, or potentially discourage, a sense of belonging and authentic reflexivity.
I do so to explore what contributes to the creation of an interactive dynamic that compels introspection. I contend that, in Gauguin’s terms, the interactions that can lead to a “revolution”—the moments that are powerful, even if personal and short-lived—are those that feel as though they organically encourage an authentic expression of one’s self in a safe and open manner.
Alternatively, those that lead to “plagiarism” maintain distinct boundaries between the artist, artwork, and audiences. This dynamic can contribute to reflection on how others will view the work—and in turn how one “should” view the work—which can perpetuate a form of exclusivity.
Art Basel Miami: Bananas, Chalk, and Making Connections
The Comedian. At the 2019 Art Basel Miami, Maurizio Cattelan stole the show with his art work “Comedian” – an art work that garnered publicity as a banana duct taped to a wall. This piece took the social media world, if not the art world, by storm—to the point that it was removed prior to the end of Art Basel in order to encourage visitors to look at other exhibits and diminish the flurry of people coming to simply take a picture and leave. Prior to its removal, though, popular interest increased even more after the performance artist David Datuna took the banana off the wall and ate it without permission of the artist (titling this performance “Starving Artist”). This occurred after 3 editions of the art work sold in the range of $120,000 – $150,000.
In explaining their purchase, one couple stated they did so as they felt the conceptual work would be “iconic.”[i] It was acknowledged that the banana was simply bought from a local grocery store, and the collectors also acknowledged the commonplace nature of the materials. They additionally recognized that the banana would need to be regularly replaced and that, in effect, what they had technically purchased was the certificate of authenticity. A Perrotin gallery spokesperson (the gallery representing Cattelan) explained that without the certificate of authenticity, “a piece of conceptual artwork is nothing more than its material representation.”[ii] From this, we can argue that collectors were literally purchasing “authenticity”.
Science and Humanism. For conversation and comparison purposes, let us also consider the artist Yang Yibin, an exhibitor at the Spectrum Miami Art Show. Spectrum ran concurrently with the Art Basel convention and featured 500 up-and-coming artists. As an artist from Beijing, Yibin won best international exhibitor for Spectrum 2019. His work, “Science and Humanism,” was interactive and the exhibition (labeled as an “Art Lab”) had a rotating theme each day of the show.
Located toward the front of the exhibition hall, the exhibition featured four grey walls that anyone could come up and write on with chalk. Inside of the four walls was an immersive video component. On the day I visited, one wall of the exhibition featured a scientific equation written on glass, while another had a television with a static display (“television snow”). I observed how people came up to the exhibition to write on the walls, with the artist even handing out chalk to people walking past or looking at his exhibition, silently encouraging them to write on the walls.
I had an opportunity to speak with the artist (through a translator traveling with the artist, due to the language barrier), and asked Yibin about his inspiration behind having people write on the walls. He replied that overall, the work was about civilization, so each wall provides a prompt, which then allows people to react. For instance, the back wall was entitled “Eternal Beauty,” featuring a mirror in the middle of the wall with an equation that he described as the basic equation for humanity, but since most people are not scientists, he did not expect for them to recognize the formula.[iii]
Accordingly, people would likely write something random (as in, not directly inspired or connected with the equation itself), but this would then encourage people to express their individualism. I asked if he considered it to be a time for reflection, and he replied that it created a moment for people to think about something small instead of everything larger, which can get confusing and mixed together. That small time of reflection helps to reveal the shared humanity (or civilization), even with the diversity of the attendees and their responses. Similarly, on the wall with the television, he compared the white static to snow, connecting this with how it offers a neutral—and therefore equalizing—backdrop for people to then respond to and interact with the work.
What Represents You? To extrapolate from Yibin’s discussion in conjunction with my own observations, by offering prompts that can be understood as relating to something bigger (e.g., humanism), attendees are placed in a position to reflect on themselves long enough to decide first, if they do want to participate and interact (which still takes a moment to justify one way or another), and then second, to figure out what to write. This momentary time of reflection is fleeting yet telling, as you must make a decision about what to write in a public manner—what represents you?
This brief moment makes you a part of the exhibit and reflects a part of your identity, even if this symbolic expression is temporal and untraceable. In conjunction with this, the artist explained how the joint reflection and participation unites those involved into something bigger or higher; in his terms, a form of human spirit and spirituality. From a sociological perspective, in connecting back to expression of self, one then alternates between internal reflection, reflection on those around you (and living up to the expectations you perceive that others hold for you or how they will judge you), and then a reflection on what the narrative of the situation is as a whole. The spontaneity and lack of pressure, combined with reflexivity, offers a fertile ground for a moment of authentic expression.
Types of Urgency and Reflection
While it can be difficult to guess what will become an overnight sensation, the sensationalism greatly differs between the works of Cattelan and Yibin.
Turning Inward. Even if transient, the type of interaction encouraged by and theorized through Yibin’s exhibit offers insight into connections between broader artistic meanings and expression of self. As mentioned, the set-up can create a sense of urgency in determining if you will interact with the work and, if so, how (and usually why, because we like to have a rationale to create continuity in our actions). Yibin’s exhibit on science and humanism asks us to become reflexive and consider how we relate to the work, then and there. It makes us turn inward along with outward, in order to figure out how to personally interact with it, alongside the larger meaning of the work. This sense of urgency is rather different from that facilitated by “Comedian,” which arguably is a different form of spectacle.
Turning Outward. “Comedian” does not necessarily require reflexivity or turning inward; the provenance of the art is not even a part of the authentication process, as the artwork itself is not the point. Prior to the banana spectacle, Cattelan had been best known for his work that referenced Marcel DuChamp’s “Readymades.”[iv] As DuChamp was known for using his work to question what is art, “Comedian” is also considered to be potentially iconic as it helps audiences to consider the relationship between art and society. Along this line of questioning meaning, Cattelan is quoted as explaining that he titled the work “Comedian” in reference to the double entendre of the banana as representing both global trade and comedic humor. While potentially reflective of DuChamp or Warhol, in questioning the boundaries between the popular or everyday versus sanctified art, what is instead being consumed is arguably what audiences and collectors think that others will think of the art work.
Three Components of Inclusivity
Accordingly, we can consider three components related to authentic place and space to help determine what helps to create a sense of inclusivity. We do need to keep in mind that a certain habitus (e.g., embodied habits, skills, knowledge, mannerisms) will still help for some people to feel more comfortable interacting with art work over others. With this in mind, based in my observations, I propose that what particularly influences a sense of inclusivity includes: (1) roles, (2) observation, and (3) accountability.
Roles. Even in formal artistic spaces, there are interactional norms that make people have a sense of being the creator or consumer. As Howard Becker discusses in Art Worlds (1984), art worlds can have a hierarchy, including gatekeepers (owners, managers), through creators (artists), and then consumers (which can still be differentiated between established collectors and novice attendees). In a space that is more open, figuratively (e.g., informality; party-like exhibition openings) and more literally (e.g., festival-like environments), it is more likely that the boundaries between these roles can be blurred.
Through interactive exhibits and/or performance art, the consumers also become a part of the creative process, helping to equalize the space. Additionally, especially in such settings as festivals, the creators can become active consumers of other creators’ art work. This helps to create a sense of equal exchange, even of ideas and experiences, rather than a sense of hierarchy.
Observation. Related to hierarchies, a sense of being observed can also influence one’s presentation of self and the felt expectations for one’s actions. With a sense of observation, the audience member (consumer) may feel compelled to act one’s part in a particular way, rather than allowing a more immediate (“natural”) reaction. For instance, the strategic interactions of performance art have the opportunity to perpetuate a sense of hierarchy or to help question it. In this way, individuals with a certain habitus may feel more comfortable in playing out their roles while being watched. Alternatively, interactive pieces can help audience members feel less monitored, particularly in a judgmental manner, because there is no “wrong” way for an audience member to interact with the piece.
In such a setting, the artwork can be a vehicle for interactions with both the artwork itself and other consumers. Both the setting and the artworks can influence if the form of observation has a felt sense of higher or lower stakes. Non-traditional settings, such as a festival or pop-up event, may foster a greater sense of openness. This can breed a more authentic experience, in that the interactions and reactions can feel more organic. More traditional museums or galleries can feel more regulated, interactionally through social norms or procedurally, especially as there is oftentimes an obvious presence of formal monitoring by volunteer or hired workers.
Accountability. When boundaries and roles are more formalized and explicit, people can feel held accountable to their performance in a much stronger manner. To take this example into another setting, if one is in casual conversation with friends about their current work projects, they may have a greater sense of comfort and confidence even when their friends ask for details or probe further. Alternatively, if this same conversation was held with an authority figure (e.g., boss, manager, instructor, etc.), then these interactions could carry a certain weight due to perceived consequences that could result from the interactions.
In an arts setting, the consequences for audiences may be more social and identity-oriented, although for the creators and in the case of networking, the felt pressures can be greater in relation to career opportunities. As such, accountability also related to observation. In more monumental settings, the openness can, at times, create a greater sense of accountability for actions because of the ability to be monitored and observed by all involved. Ironically, this same sense of accountability can occur in galleries due to the proximity.
When physically close to others, how one reacts can be observed potentially instantaneously by owners, creators, and fellow audience members alike. As such, one’s actions can potentially be deemed as deviant or uncouth, thus incurring the fate that Erving Goffman would refer to as “losing face”. In a space that has been designed as interactive, then the interactions can be less pressured and with decreased hierarchical divisions, along with the associated expectations. When the expectations are to be deeply and personally engaged, rather than an academic disengagement or cultural aloofness, then the concern for losing face can be far less.
The Authentic and the Aesthetic
With the three points of inclusivity established, we can now further consider how the resulting dynamics of “Comedian” and “Science and Humanism” helped to re-establish or question hierarchical boundaries for who could legitimately participate, and in what ways they could interact in the space. The performance artist, Datuna, created such a splash because he knowingly broke the boundaries to add even more sensation through eating artwork. Even so, we must consider how this could still reinforce the boundaries because of what a spectacle it became.
Full interaction was not expected; as DuChamp had noted, simply by taking the banana and creating a certificate of authenticity and placing it on a wall, it had become sacred as a form of art. Even by intentionally questioning what is art, this form of art reinforced that only some people could feel comfortable and access this art. The others taking pictures were a part of the spectacle, but not the art itself. The experience itself was aestheticized.
In such moments in which the only explicit intent is for one to react and interact, the stakes can be high for the presentation of self. In fact, the expectations of the true expression of self can actually block the true expression of self, due to concerns that one’s reaction may not appear “correct” enough for that setting and associated habitus, or one’s general constitution (e.g., skills, tastes, habits, mannerisms, dispositions, etc.). It can be an authenticity trap – we have little else but authenticity (being true to ourselves) to guide our decision-making, yet every choice accordingly has the possibility of “exposing” us, or who we truly are.
Alternatively, by requesting people to interact, they became a part of the art. Audience members were asked to be a part of the art to give it full meaning, rather than creating an aesthetic. Therefore, the interactions that can feel as though they organically encourage an expression of one’s self in a safe and open manner can be powerful, even if the moments themselves are short-lived.
The uncontrollable crowds help to show the accountability to actions that were to take place—the banana is the center of the show, not the crowds; they are on the outside looking in. Alternatively, pictures and selfies at “Science and Humanism” included the audience, and oftentimes their own contribution to the artwork, which shifts the accountability. This accountability to boundaries is also how the performance artist broke the rules, in that he took advantage of the observation to again redirect the attention to him. The casual observation of “Science and Humanism” fostered inclusivity, while the use of observation in order to bring further attention to “what is art” perpetuated a form of exclusion, even with the attention being garnered.
All of this also suggests that high attendance does not necessarily relate to inclusivity; participation can feed inclusion or exclusion from particular worlds. In these instances, authenticity is experienced in differing ways. The incorporation of reflexive exploration of humanistic authenticity differs from the symbolic exploration of legitimation of high culture. From a critical perspective, “revolution” occurs through questioning the everyday order of things. Through inclusive interaction, we question ourselves and our part within the bigger picture. Through exclusive interaction, we question why that object legitimately belongs, and this reinforces our place within (or outside of) that world. Artwork that blurs boundaries in roles, observation, and accountability can arguably create a revolution, while artwork that upholds these boundaries may be a form of plagiarism in upholding established dynamics.
Just a little something to chew on for a bit.
About The Author
Amanda Koontz – is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Florida, whose primary areas of interest include the sociology of culture and consumption, social inequalities, and identities. Her current work focuses on connections between constructions of authenticity, identity work, empowerment, and definitions of success.
[i] As cited in multiple news sources, including: https://miami.cbslocal.com/2019/12/12/miami-couple-explains-why-they-bought-120k-art-basel-banana/; https://www.newsweek.com/banana-duct-taped-wall-comedian-maurizio-cattelan-buyers-absurdity-1476414; https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-nw-art-basel-banana-duct-taped-20191212-xqrkdtzd35defey2ckoibl7jp4-story.html
[ii] Ahmed (2019): https://apnews.com/a53e1ece92974f26108ec14d222c3c31
[iii] Due to the conversational nature and use of translator when speaking with the artist, I do not use direct quotes. I practiced reflective listening to ask a question, listen to the answer, and then ask a question back to ensure I was capturing the artist’s response as closely as possible. The artist did give verbal consent for our interactions to be included in this write-up.
[iv] For more information on “Readymades”: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/dada/marcel-duchamp-and-the-readymade/