Artspeak and Audience by Cara Ober was commissioned by BmoreArt as part of Field Perspectives 2019, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field. Field Perspectives 2019 invites thinking that reflects on the future of the artist organizing field. The program, a collaboration between Common Field and nine arts publications, is published in two parts. Part 2 includes texts by Art Papers, The Artblog, BmoreArt, Momus, Terremoto, The Third Rail, and Title Magazine. Part 1 included texts by Chicago Artist Writers, The Rib, and Sixty Inches from Center. Generous support for Field Perspectives is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
“I don’t think contemporary art should be for everyone,” John Waters said during a recent interview at Indecent Exposure, his retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “What if contemporary art is just for a select few? What’s wrong with that?”
He might’ve been yanking my chain. After all, he’s the writer/director behind Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, internationally beloved movies so vulgar I cannot watch them in the same room as my parents. Still, I wanted to know why his retrospective didn’t include film, his finest work in my opinion, especially alongside Indecent’s film still photomontages and ironic sculptures, a cinephile’s cabinet of curiosities which did not resonate far beyond the museum walls.
He adult-splained to me that movies belong in movie theaters, whereas the work in the museum—including “Kiddie Flamingos,” a hilarious video featuring children in colorful wigs reading a slightly sanitized Pink Flamingos script—was Art with a capital A, intended for collectors to BUY. He added that when he moved from film to visual art it was essential for him to separate his movie career from his art in order for collectors and curators to take him seriously.
No matter how successful, Waters said his films did not belong in the art world. Similarly, the audiences for his movies were not invited to follow Waters on this journey. He said the conscious division between discipline and audience, high- and lowbrow culture, was ingrained in him by Colin de Land, his first New York art dealer.
I cited recent examples of film I had viewed in museums, such as Arthur Jafa’s “Love is the Message, The Message is Death” at SFMOMA and Youssef Nabil’s “I Saved My Belly Dancer” at the Perez, where the gallery was dark and cinematic with comfy seating like a theater, but he wasn’t having it. I’m not sure if he thought I was being dumb or he just wanted to avoid the conversation, but I was earnest in my line of questioning.
Why is there a semantic divide between “art” and things that look and smell and act like art that are deemed not art? Who gets to decide? Whom does this divide serve? And how can art writers use their skills and influence to challenge antiquated barriers between art and audience? In an age with growing numbers of artists, why are cultural institutions decrying declining attendance and full-time art critic jobs disappearing?
The author with John Waters at the BMA, photo by Jill Fannon