Rethinking Practices of Seeing and Being Seen in Art

Erin Storus
July 20, 2020
Carl Beam (Anishinaabe artist), Burying the Ruler, 1992.

When we consider the processes by which art is conceptualized and brought to life, we’re also considering the artist’s place in the world: what it means to be an artist, and our expectations of ‘art.’

A common struggle for artists lies in the creation of a work that is both authentic and relevant: a balancing act between what is natural to the individual and what is considered culturally and socially desirable.

Usually, audiences prefer works that speak to or inspire bodily or embodied experiences : pleasure or pain; joy or sorrow. 

When cultured elites engage with what they might otherwise refer to as  “lowbrow” art—often the work of marginalized individuals, depicting hardship unfamiliar to elite classes—it’s a momentary attempt at finding and experiencing authenticity.

Influential pieces, like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, examine how audiences assign artistic meaning to objects. Others, like the paintings of Kerry James Marshall, incorporate individual and communal meaning - making to personalize the process. Significantly, both approaches interrogate the process by which certain cultural narratives are assigned highbrow symbolism, while others are ignored or tokenized. In this sense, constructing a shared interpretation or identity is an act of power: privileging some memories and marginalizing others. 

Karen Tam's exhibition, "The chrysanthemum has opened twelve times" at the Koffler Gallery

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that elite socialization produces ‘sophisticated’ consumers whose discourse and practices mark them as distinct from lower classes. Often, these cultural elites choose to consume ‘distinguished’ works - Monet, Picasso, Warhol, etc. - whose cultural significance adheres to exclusivity and aligns with monetary value. When cultured elites engage with what they might otherwise refer to as  “lowbrow” art--often the work of marginalized individuals, depicting hardship unfamiliar to elite classes--it’s a momentary attempt at finding and experiencing authenticity. These forms of artworks are often referred to as “outsider” art.

Is the idea of outsider art simply that, an idea? I think so. To believe that an individual is “untouched” by culture and disconnected from society is fiction. Outsider art is a pejorative term that others unrecognized, and often marginalized or racialized, artists. This othering transforms mainstream white curators who promote or provide “outsider” artists with much deserved platforms into white saviours. The purpose is not to create a viable and possibly lucrative space for unknown artists; it’s about making white curators feel (self)important. This feeling of importance stems from the hope that they may be the one to discover the new trend; that they may position themselves as ‘do-gooders’ - above the pretentious and often volatile nature of the contemporary fine art market.

Some might respond to this scenario by pointing out that regardless of the intentions or subconscious desires of the curator, the unknown artist is nevertheless receiving exposure and thereby benefiting from these (exploitive) relationships . But herein lies the double-edged sword that is the popular promotion of “outsider” art. Yes, it is true that exposure is beneficial for the artist; however, how the work is being considered and discussed is of more importance. Having one’s artwork presented to the community as a statement of authenticity reduces it to a cultural ‘fad,’ undermining the work’s/artist’s narrative — which is oftentimes deeply personal. 

The problem with fads in this context is that the art and the experience is no longer about the artist, but the audience (gallery-goers, curators, art critics, and so on): engaging with fads is necessary for them to maintain their relevance. But these actors are not meaningfully engaging with the work. They expect the fad, the experience, the authenticity will pass, and with it the artist to fade into obscurity.

No self-respecting artist wants this for themselves. A self-respecting artist does not create art to make money or to find fame —they create an extension of themselves, and attempt to share that self with the community and society more generally. Art is an extension of voice—continuously navigating the usual oscillation between the visible and the hidden.

Museums must decolonize—authentically and seriously decolonize—if they want to remain significant

ROM's 1989 exhibition "Into the Heart of Africa"

Practices of seeing and being seen constantly undergo transformation within virtual spaces. These spaces are infinitely open and expanding, although some, like Facebook, are comprised of closed, inward-looking spaces of communication. Nevertheless, the democratizing effects of technology cannot be denied. One of the (many) problems with physical art gallery spaces is that those that remain (financially) successful contend with the desires of their benefactors, who are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. As previously mentioned, these cultural elites often prefer to consume and promote so-called “highbrow” art — works that are usually created by fellow white and male artists. But perhaps a more significant problem with museums, in my opinion, is they often only discuss “Othered” artists because it allows for a veneer of inclusivity, while simultaneously remaining blind to privileges and inequalities in the communities in which they operate. In this sense, this false inclusivity is simply about maintaining power and protecting the status quo. Virtual galleries are the way of the future.

The discussion surrounding the inclusivity of virtual galleries is nothing new, and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this topic is being discussed in arts communities daily. Virtual spaces allow for a plethora of so-called Salons des Refusés, thereby creating space for marginalized or rejected voices. In this sense, I believe that virtual galleries are entering a renaissance and beginning to overtake museums in contemporary social and cultural significance. In virtual spaces, there is no need for these Othered voices to continue to be so—they can now take centre stage. 

Museums must decolonize—authentically and seriously decolonize—if they want to remain significant. So far in the 21st century, progress has been slow and artificial. Museums, you better shape up, because it’s now or never.

Last Stream: A Glittering Gem Is Not Enough with Kendra Yee
Last Stream: A Glittering Gem Is Not Enough with Kendra Yee