The trouble with

March 14, 2012 at 9:15 pm (Uncategorized)

I recently got an invitation from the long-awaited internet experiment (known in shorthand among a lot of people as “the Pandora for the art world”), and I checked it out. I wasn’t, shall we say, blown away… but there’s a lot of perfectly good reasons why that might be. Perhaps not enough galleries have signed on to really reflect a diversity of artists; or maybe they’re just simply still working the kinks out (it is, after all, still in Beta).

But then I’ve been thinking to myself: would a “Pandora of the art world” even really work? Say you had this program that ran perfectly, and it scanned each and every art work at a microscopic level, taking into consideration how blue it is and how abstract it is, and (somehow) what it all means, and when it was made. Could it then, by using those measurements it’s made, then make recommendations of works of art that you’d be likely to enjoy, based on the measurements of previous works of art you’ve enjoyed?

That sentence was tortured and wrong, but what I mean is: If I type in “Britney Spears” into Pandora, it will spit back at me (eventually) a Christina Aguilera song. It’s reasonable to think that if I like the pop-y, bubbly sound of one female singer who got her start in the 1990s singing frothy, dance-oriented songs, then I would probably like another doing the same thing. And if I didn’t like Christina (say, because I took sides on the whole Britney vs. Christina thing) then chances are I’d like… oh I don’t know… insert name of 90s blonde bubbly little thing here:__________ works on the premise that hey, if you like Hans Bellmer, you’re gonna love Diane Arbus. After all, both of them took black and white photographs of “freaks,” so why wouldn’t you?

Except I’m convinced that art doesn’t really work this way. Or that rather, instead of art being the exception to all the rules out there, that music really is, and that we’re wrong to base a premise of a $6 million dollar program on the way in which music fandom works.

In my mind, here is how music fandom works:


A small percentage of them are “nerds” – these are the devoted fans who, for instance, only buy(/hoard) vinyl or indie rock, or wouldn’t be caught dead listening Christina if they love Britney. That percentage of people will never be made happy by any program recommending anything at all, because they have such strong opinions about things that there’s no reasoning with them. Sure, maybe they “should” like an artist that Pandora might suggest, but they just don’t. Period.

Most people who listen to music are “fans” – they know what they’re listening to (they can identify Britney from Christina), they like certain things over certain other things, they purchase or download music, and so forth. These are the people you could sway with recommendations. They’re open-minded. If you slip a little Christina in there, they just might like it. Or maybe not, but you might have luck next time.

The remainder are “passive listeners” – they have music on in the background, barely aware of what they’re hearing. Sure, they’ll take their Christina with their Britney, but who cares – they’re not likely to buy either anytime soon.

However, this is how I regard the kinds of people who think of themselves as being invested (emotionally or otherwise) in art:

ImageI’m betting that if you were to poll people at museums and galleries, this is what you’d get. A certain percentage are “passive viewers” – if they’re in town near a big art museum, they’ll go just to get the name-dropping credit of saying, “Oh yeah, I went to MOMA last week…” They want to see “culture” and trust the institution to make the decisions for them. (Note: This isn’t a bad thing. I know fuck-all about science, and you don’t see me arguing with the displays at The Museum of Natural History. It’s just that, on my time off, I’m also not pouring my life into finding out more info on some display that I learned about in the Bio-Diversity Wing. For me, the experience of going to the museum is enough. I go, I see it, maybe I learn something, the end.)

For those that do care and like certain things and dislike certain other things, but it’s all in broad swaths, there’s being a “fan.” Fans know they might like “contemporary photography” and will go to any show of that, but don’t feel the need to narrow it down much more than that. Maybe they like really big, color photography. Maybe they like small, intimate black-and-white photography. The “fans” can’t quite articulate it just yet.

But the vast majority are “nerds” – art people through and through, who walk in the door knowing what they like and what they don’t. They know their history (or think they do) and have strong opinions about what is good and what is bad. They’ll flat out skip over the Contemporary Wing if what they love is Impressionism, and not feel the slightest bit of hesitation.

Here’s the problem for the group in play, the group that they really want to engage, is the “fans.” They’re the ones most open to suggestions, and most open to also pouring in a bunch of free time to digging through a database of art looking for new suggestions to like. For Pandora, that’s an awful lot of people. For… not so much.

For better or worse, art is more like food than it is like music.

I like apples. Oh man, I really like apples – is there anything better than a crisp, bright red apple on a fall day? No way… so delicious and satisfying. It’s enough to make you think I would like pears. After all, they’re crisp and sweet and just like apples and…

Yeah, except I fucking hate pears. In elementary school, I used to pretend that I was highly allergic to pears, and I would scream whenever they appeared on my cafeteria tray, scooped there by some unsuspecting lunchroom worker. I’m not allergic. I haven’t had a pear since I was 5 years old. Chances are, if I were to try one, I’d probably really like it. But hell no. I’m not touching a pear. I know that shit’s poison, and I’m not going anywhere near it.

Just like I wouldn’t cross the street to see Diane Arbus’s photography, but I’d wait in line for hours to see Hans Bellmer. Why? The reasons are stupid and irrational. But they’re huge, and the chasm that exists in my brain between the two cannot be breached no matter what. I want to like Arbus, I’ve tried to like her, but I just don’t… and I love love love Bellmer. Pick it apart and give me each individual reason It’s because Bellmer is all constructions It’s because Bellmer is about desire and I’ll just deny it. I can’t articulate it.

In the moment of total fandom, the Nerd is rendered the Passive Viewer. It’s an altered state, just like if I were high or in love or otherwise not thinking straight. I like it because I like it. And all the reasons why just don’t make any sense.

And that’s where the program fails. Art, like food, is just awfully complicated.

What’s more, when someone recommends to you some art that you “should” like and you don’t, you’re horribly offended. You think I’m the kind of person who likes John Chamberlain? My god, what do you think of me? Certain artists develop a kind of stink about them for certain individuals, just like if I met someone who fucking LOVED pears, I might think less of them. Again, totally irrational, and almost out of a Seinfeld episode. But so it is. And so if you recommend John Chamberlain to me, I’m going to think your whole system of recommendation is a total fucking sham, and I will laugh at you (because it’s easier and kinder than thinking that I might have revealed something about myself that would have tipped you off that I secretly love smashed things) and expect that you will of course know that Chamberlain isn’t cool among my personal little vision of art and therefore shouldn’t be recommended, ever.

This is the problem. It’s not “there’s no accounting for taste,” rather, it’s “there’s no accounting for taste mixed with half a dozen different things, including what teacher from grad school said what about your work and who hit on you when you were in your early 20s.” Art is complicated. And there’s absolutely no good reason I don’t like pears (except that they’re poison).


1 Comment

  1. joygarnett02 said,

    “Art, like food, is just awfully complicated.”


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