To democratize art is to make it inclusive, to allow a wider audience to have access and participate.  Art is often a field that causes many feel excluded from, that they are outsiders who do not belong to this otherwise unreachable and untouchable world that is controlled by the elite few.

The two exhibitions, Work Ethic and Amateurs, feature artists whose work leads us toward a more accessible and open standard of art by deconstructing the hierarchies we assign to our aesthetics and the value we give to the process of creation. By exhibiting works that challenge and confront the ideals in which we measure these standards of art making, both exhibitions are able to bring forth critical questions of inclusivity in the art world.

“Amateurs,” installation view. Photo courtesy the Tremaine Foundation.

Amateurs, curated by Ralph Rugoff at the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2008, exhibited 18 international artists whose work demonstrates amateurism as an aesthetic, including such artists as Andrea Bowers, Josh Greene, and Jim Shaw. Jim Shaw’s collection of paintings titled Thrift Store Paintings (1991-2006) embody perfectly the notion of the word “amateur,” as Shaw simply finds paintings in thrift stores, often by anonymous artists, whose contents have been described as “crude,” “bizarre,” and even “wrong”by art critics. The salon style in which these paintings are exhibited is a nod toward the academic salons of the 1800s, directly challenging—and almost mocking—the aesthetic standards created during this time by the elite that have since continued to impact contemporary standards today.

Andrea Bowers “Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Drawing Series—Go Perfectly Limp and Be Carried Away” (detail), 2004. Graphite on paper. Three parts, 20.5 x 15.25″. Depicts protestors complying behavior instructions during non-violent civil disobedience.

Amateurs explores the notion that an artist does not need to utilize or accept a certain aesthetic standard within their art practice to have their work valued or placed within a museum. What happens when unestablished artists can have their work exhibited in a museum—when even artwork created by the anonymous can be shown in a prestigious setting like a fine art institution? If we no longer need to possess or obtain a specialized skill set, training, or even, education, then we no longer exclude those that are unable to have access to it. Here, art can have the potential to become an inclusive space.

In his essay “Other Experts” in the Amateurs exhibition catalogue, curator Ralph Rugoff explains:

“The artists in Amateurs are not simply using amateur cultural production as a means of interrogating the exclusionary principles and enforced aesthetic boundaries that underlie the operations of the professional art world. They are putting into questions their own position in relation to amateur activity, and their own status as authors.”1

By breaking down these standards of artistic skill, perhaps anyone can be included, not just those artists whose aesthetic is in line with cultural standards. Instead, art can be a platform where any and all voices can be heard, where artistic expression is non-exclusive, inevitably changing the potential of what art can be. We are the creators, the authors, and we have the ability to alter the standards of our practice.

Work Ethic, curated by Helen Molesworth at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2003-2004, explores the democratization of art by way of artistic production. The works included investigate the value we assign to artistic labor and material, focusing on the process of creation. Production value in art is often dependent upon the means in which it was made, which can include material, time spent, or even, how much the artist was involved. Like in Amateurs, this exhibitions questions traditional standards of production and what society deems as professional. Work Ethic subverts the hierarchy within standards of production by disrupting the relationship between artist and artistic labor, challenging the current system in place for assigning value to labor more generally.

The exhibition was divided into four sections: “The Artist as Manager and Worker,” “The Artist as Manager,” “The Artist as Experience Maker, and “Quitting Time.” Almost fifty artists were featured in the exhibition, including Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono, Jean Tinguely, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Martha Rosler, Tom Friedman, and Roxy Paine.

Roxy Paine, “Paint Dipper” (1996), image courtesy of the artist.

In Roxy Paine’s piece Paint Dipper (1997), the artist’s hand in the creation of the art piece is kept at a distance as canvases are dipped into white paint by a machine. In Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), the artist sits in a room, inviting viewers to cut off pieces of her clothing, thus becoming participants in the work. In works such as these, the role of the artist in the creation of the piece is called into question. If the viewers are actually the one doing the action, or perhaps finishing the piece like in Cut Piece, could they be considered collaborators, or even the artist of the piece itself? What if the artist is not physically creating the finished piece, but instead a machine performs the action, such as in Paint Dipper? Does the value of the artwork change depending on who physically does the creating?


Yoko Ono ~ Cut Piece from paulanow on Vimeo.

In the section of the exhibition “Quitting Time,” many artists remove themselves from the physical artistic process entirely, subverting the value of authorship of the artwork. Another, perhaps more humorous, work included in the exhibition was Tom Friedman’s 1,000 Hours of Staring (1992-1997) in which the artist stared at a piece of paper during a five year duration. In this case, the work that was supposedly put into creating the piece did little to nothing to the current physical state of the object. We cannot visibly see the hours spent staring at this piece of paper. Friedman’s piece cleverly calls out the instability of our standards of artistic process by creating a piece that would technically take hours to make, but with nothing but a blank sheet of paper to show for it, shifting our attention back to the relationship between artist and their labor.

In her review of Work Ethic in 2004 for the College Art Association, art historian Wendy Koenig explains:

“Another goal of ‘Work Ethic’ is to defend works that often confound viewers (leading to reactions such as “Why is that art?” or “My kid could do that”) by placing them within a larger context in which the definition of work itself was expanded to include management of others, and intellectual labor as opposed to simply the fabrication of products.”2

Together, the exhibitions Work Ethic and Amateurs explore ways in which artists are able to interact with and use, or not use, materials, as well as ways of challenging and questioning valued aesthetics, demonstrating a type of art making with fewer restrictions, opening up the field to be transformed by a wider audience.

Header image: Jim Shaw, “Thriftstore Paintings,” Amateurs. 

1 Ralph Rugoff. Amateurs. (San Francisco, CA: CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, 2008), 14.

Wendy Koenig. “Review of “Work Ethic” CAA Reviews, 2004. doi:10.3202/ 2004. 103.

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