Recently, there was a flurry of activity online about a story produced by CBC Radio's This is That program. The story was about a NYC artist named Lana Newstrom who makes arguably the most conceptual artwork ever produced – invisible art. The article and accompanying audio piece feature people raving about how revolutionary Lana's work is and how being in front of it can move you in unexpected ways. The story has incited waves or outrage and disgust in the comments for the article, on Facebook, forums, and even several small news sites like this one, this one, and these guys.
Fortunately, the whole thing is a brilliant bit of satire. It's produced with exceptional skill and creativity with believable actors – Lana's voice actor gives a wonderful performance – and even a few subtle caricatures of art world stereotypes. There's even an art critic that comments on the work and references a previous influential artist! Looking past what the snap judgements about the story say about our instant gratification culture here on the web, the piece and the source of that outrage speak to a vital issue running through the art world of our time.
Since the rise of conceptual art and the fame of artists like Damien Hirst and Dean Koons who challenge the idea of what makes art great, skill and material awareness have fallen out of favor for those inside the art world. As a result, this part of our culture has become increasingly detached from everyday life. This question of "What is art?" and the iconic "I don't get it" reaction of Jon and Jane Doe to contemporary works are just friendly manifestations of what I see as a truly important conflict. Artists no longer feel the need to make their art accessible to the general public. That's what design is for, right? There's also little attention paid to honing one's craft and skill to make great work. The idea of the concept of the work being just as, if not more, valuable than the physical work itself takes the most recognizable source of artistic achievement – being awestruck by exceptional skill and talent – and devalues it. When critics and collectors buy into this without considering the broader implications of an unsustainable set of values, it leads to the art world being a source of comedic ridicule instead of a bastion of cultural and intellectual progress.
In the piece, we here collectors commenting on "what they think they feel. What they think they see." There's even one moment when a visitor asks Lana about a piece and she responds, "You're actually not looking at anything." The imaginary price tag of over $35,000 per piece speaks to how the exceeding wealth of art collectors just adds more presumed credibility to work that most people would question as culturally valuable in any context.
This is what I see people reacting so negatively about. It's also what makes it so hilarious for those who see it for the satire it is. The whole situation is so zany and absurd, but is also just close enough to reality for it to have maximum comedic pop. As we laugh to this wonderfully crafted piece of radio storytelling, it's probably also a good idea to keep it in mind when hearing about celebrity artists getting in trouble for supposedly copying the work of others instead of creating an original work through a more traditional process.