Back to the Future: Why Does Art Survive?

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?

damienhirst_skull.jpg 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.


7 Responses to “Back to the Future: Why Does Art Survive?”

  1. 1 PaMdora April 1, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Thanks Kate, for a very personal reflection on this art.

  2. 2 Kate Themel April 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article.
    I was most struck by the description of Cristo’s & Jeane Claude’s work, (the New York “Gates” project as an example).

    It made me think of weddings. For the bride & groom, the day passes like a dream, a blur. Many couples say they don’t remember half the people they talked to. Part of this is because of the intense emotional experience of being married, I suppose.
    But another part, (especially here in America where weddings can rival Charles and Princess Di’s), has to be the relief getting through the day.

    After all the stress of planning, coordinating people, colors, travel plans and hiring everyone from a caterer to the justice of the peace… the event is almost defined by its planning. And just as you point out with Cristo’s installations, “the projects live on long afterwards in the photo and video documentation and the participant’s retelling of the event.”

    In some ways, the memories of the experience is a far greater pleasure than the event itself. I was lucky enough to walk under the Gates in NY when they were up. And they were impressive, magical and beautiful. But even as my friends and I walked under them, we knew they would not be there forever. So we just took it in and discussed art and the value of temporary settings as we walked.

    Even now, we say “remember that day when we walked through the Gates and…” yadda yadda yadda. The fact that we can access the impact of Cristo’s work in our minds, at any time, gives it a different kind of value. I’ve been equally impressed by works of art I’ve seen in museums. But somehow, no matter how I try, I cannot recall the painting exactly or have it in front of me at a moment’s notice the way I can with “my” Gates.

    As you say, maybe “that which survives is art”. I would add “art that is remembered survives.”

  3. 3 June March 26, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Del Thomas sent me this link for the “ultimate ephemeral art:” Now I think I will go make some tea.

  4. 4 Angela Moll March 25, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Great question, why does art survive?

    Initially your post reminded me of being once lost in the ancient wing of the Louvre. I was desperately trying to find my way out of those endless rooms filled with an even more endless collection of Greek and/or Roman statues. Boring, opressive accumulation of old, ugly objects, I felt. I turned a corner and found myself unexpectedly frozen in awe at the sight of a most amazing sculpture, the Nike of Samothrace. First time I ever saw it for real and it was totally clear to me why it is one of the most celebrated sculptures of the world.
    Why did the Nike survived? I am sure happy that it survived to move me that day in the Louvre.

    You do a beautiful job of listing the many paths for survival of art. Physical durability, curatorial care, documentation, purposeful ephemerality even. It is interesting to see all those approaches to longevity and how they tie into the issue of timelessness in art. A related but not quite identical concept. The Nike moved me when those other equally surviving statues bored me, thus I bestow the category of art to the Nike, and consider the rest just ancient artifacts.

    Thanks for posting Hirst’s skull. Obscene and brilliant, and he laughed all the way to the bank! It is actually a sharp and damning commentary on the values reigning in the art world. I agree with Catherine that it is depressing. Depressing because of the light he shines on the art world as much as because of the object itself and its cost (human and otherwise). Now the sale itself gets incorporated into the art work, at least conceptually, and its outrageousness will most likely contribute to the longevity of the piece.

  5. 5 catherine March 25, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for a truly thought-provoking article and especially the link
    to Patrick Dougherty’s work. Longevity in art is a deep, if painful, subject, and you raised important points.

    The cute grinning frontal view of the Damien Hirst skull made me want
    to go jump off the bridge. (Why have I wasted so much of my life
    trying to make art? How can I bear to call myself an artist if this is now a big part of what art means?) Then I had a cup of tea, calmed down, and wrote down some of my own thoughts on art and immortality:

    1. Many items in museums are there for their historical interest (i.e., as representative artifacts of a particular culture or movement), rather than for their ability to communicate directly as art with museum-goers.

    2. The verbal and historical context of a physical object (its provenance, its use, the value placed on it, and what people – including the maker – have to say about it) may or may not survive along with the object itself.

    3. An artist who wants to send a body of work into the future might do well to:

    (a) Be prolific. If one item doesn’t survive, another may.

    (b) Use a relatively indestructible medium; pottery, for example, tends to last a long time, even if it survives mostly as shards.

    (c) Make things that are either physically hard to destroy or else easy to transport in times of war and migration.

    (d) Avoid precious materials. Later generations may decide that the material is worth more than the art. Church bells and statues have been melted down and recycled into cannons.

    (e) Establish a verbal context for the art; talk about it; tell stories; make people care. Even if this verbal context doesn’t survive, it may save some of the work from physical destruction.

    4. Art-celebrity status (writ grotesquely large in the case of Damien Hirst) is, by its nature, a self-limiting phenomenon. There’s probably only room in the world for one piece of skull-shaped kitsch (with attached philosophical musings and intimations of cruelty – what human cost behind those diamonds?) priced at $100,000,000. Art, the art-making impulse, and the longing for immortality may last as long as our species does; I wouldn’t say the same for any particular art market or set of critical assumptions.

  6. 6 June March 24, 2008 at 9:26 am

    I wrote a long muddled post last night and deleted it as being too confused even for me to reread.

    This morning I’m more sanguine. Although I may still be muddled.

    I think our desire for the longevity of art is composed partly of our longing to understand historical cultures and events. There’s an unfettered thrill in seeing the Chinese warrior sculptures unearthed — to smell the odor that their makers smelled. It puts us into perspective as part of a long history of noble endeavors. I love drawing the figure in a crowded room of likewise involved art students — it makes me part of a great history of drawing ateliers and struggles to represent the round and alive in flat and inert. I can imagine myself in Holland in the 17th century. I like these historical journeys.

    There’s also the desire to have something of ourselves around longer than our short 80 or so years of allotment on this earth. Part of this is sheer vanity — the thrill of seeing our work outside our studios, placed in a prominent place where people will exclaim in awe. And part of it is the universal wish that we be remembered for something besides being placeholders in the sweep of historical events. It’s not a bad thing, this desire for immortality and sometimes it can spur us on to better and yet again better work.

    Of course, we base these desires in some kind of optimism that says war and famine and religion and floods and global warming and overpopulation and chance and death won’t destroy even the greatest of artifacts, that the cenozoic era of relative geologic calm will continue way beyond anything human have experienced thus far. And it’s also based in the kind of optimism that says that each of us can excel beyond our wildest dreams and be the named or unnamed architect of a world wonder.

    A more middling view goes to the market place, plays with ethical stances vis-a-vis the consumer and sees the enormous sums paid for work that gets blown away by the first wind and says, “I can do better than that.” And that’s probably true, if we are talking about craft. And probably untrue if we are talking about taking hold of the hearts of collectors of such things as Damien Hirst’s diamond skull. Success and doing well in that realm are beyond my ken — I know I’ll never be there.

    So, if we refuse baseless dreams of immortality and see the way consumerism is limited to some other realm, we can fall back on Olga’s “expression of my emotions,” as well as her generous gesture of regard for the person who cares for and saves the art rather than the person who made it. We can say, “for myself alone,” and only accident will make it otherwise. A tidy and somehow comforting place to be in.

    But, for me, even given the cynical, factual knowledge about money, history, and geography, I find myself thinking of Robert Browning, who said, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” Aside from his small solipsism (“man”) I can’t fault him for the sentiment because regardless, it’s what exists for me. I want to do better because it’s in my nature. And doing better means seeing that those who did better made artifacts that have longevity.

    So it’s a kind of longing and vanity on my part that overcomes experience, history, fact, and personal understanding. I like challenge and striving, even when I can laugh at myself for thinking I would get anything out of such attributes. If I make things only for myself and throw them away afterward, then I can’t see the use of it. If I make things only for myself but then hang them up to be seen, I’m inevitably hoping for the exclamation of awe and the consumer who loves it too — the one that Olga pays homage to.

  7. 7 Olga March 24, 2008 at 3:43 am

    I started thinking about this question of survival and conservation when I was shown an item in the Embroiderers’ Guild collection which is made of leaves – and which is gradually disintigrating. About the same time the Eva Hesse exhibition was on in London, and so much of her work is disintigrating too.

    In the days of powerful religions and leaders art was commissioned to glorify god/pope/politicians etc., and the art was meant to last forever to serve that purpose. Once art became much more a product of individual expression with diverse ownership, whether it lasted or not became a relative matter. Galleries and Collectors continue the glorification theme, but with the artist now included in those intended for that glorification – yet the time scale has shortened. Posterity seems to be as long as a good investment. (This is too harsh a generalisation, I realise.)

    Also reproductive media have developed to such a state that the fame of the pieces/artist/curator can be preserved. However, it would be interesting to be around in 100 years time to see if Christo & Jeanne Claude and Andy Goldsworthy and Wolfgang Laib are rated as highly as they are now, and as highly as artists who have surviving works such as David Smith, Dan Flavin, and Louise Nevelson.

    Personally I don’t care about posterity. My work is an expression of my emotions, and it is a wondrous bonus when someone likes it enough to want it for themselves. If any of it survives after I have crumbled into dust, then it will be a testiment to the person who cared for it rather than my concern about its longevity.

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