Recently during an artists’ on-line discussion about the archival properties of materials and how that contributes to the value of the art, the question kept popping into my mind. Why does art survive?
Damien Hirst, a British artist whose work explores mortality and death, self-financed this sculpture, a life-size platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. He estimates the project cost between 10 and 15 million. It recently sold to an investment group for $100 million. This investment seems a pretty good value in the archival sense, since everyone knows, diamonds are forever.
But is it really through the intent of an artist to make the work as durable and long-lasting as possible, that art survives?
Obviously some contemporary artists work in the most durable materials, such as Richard Serra who uses steel to create what he says are “works not predicated on images…if works are predicated on images you collect the image: sometimes you can retain it, sometimes not. For me, the better works make you go back for the fulfillment of an experience that’s not commensurate with what you’ve retained, therefore the experience always remains vital.”
But Serra also thinks it’s odd when he sees himself written up as a “man of steel” because he sees steel merely as material that he “understands its potential, and <has> a direct connection to it.” His use of steel has roots in his background working in steel mills and shipyards, and not because he is not “enamored with it as a material in of itself.”
Others such as Wolfgang Laib who creates work concerned with daily rituals uses the most fragile of materials — milk and pollen, ingredients he says are “so universal, any human being can relate to it without language or explanation.” Caring for the art by the curator or museum is actually intended by the artist to be part of the recognition of ritual.
And yet others work in a gray area, where materials have unclear origins or an unknown lifespan, such as Patrick Doughtery’s dwellings made of sticks and Peta Coyne’s elaborate installations of wax, hair, beads, feathers, fake flowers… (an interview with Peta Coyne).
And for other artists, the question of lifespan of the art has no clear answer. Though in the public’s mind, Christo and Jeane Claude‘s The Gates in New York City lasted only two weeks, the project was years in planning, which for the artists is a most important aspect of the art. The event is documented extensively by Christo through drawings and paintings which are sold to finance the projects, and the projects live on long afterwards in the photo and video documentation and the participant’s retelling of the event.
In thinking about this question of the lifespan of art, I began to question why art from ancient times survives? A lot of it doesn’t, but the few examples that we see in museums are there because they are something worth preserving. Masks and other objects that were not broken for their inlaid gems, fragile textiles that were not relegated to a rag bag — because someone or a lot of someones recognized that the object was more than a sum of its parts.
So is it fair to turn the question on itself? Maybe the answer to “why does art survive? is “that which survives is art.” I hope so anyway.
But back to the future. How do we as artists know that our work will survive, or that someone will find it worth preserving? We don’t of course, but as craftspeople, we just have to keep making the work to the best of our ability.
And as artists, we must remember to balance our lengthly discussions of the “how” of making, with more discussions of the “why” of making. Perhaps then the crafted object can move into the realm of the art.
p.s. If you are interested in a couple of good surveys of contemporary sculpture, look up A Sculpture Reader for critic’s views on contemporary sculptors or Conversations on Sculpture for interviews with the sculptors themselves.