Contemporary art appears to be having a breakthrough moment, thanks in part to celebrity cross-overs, ubiquitous fashion collaborations and record-setting auction returns. But why is it still so difficult to talk about?
For artists, curators, collectors and museum-goers, thinking and speaking about art may come as second nature after years spent in the field. But with the proliferation of art online, and the audience for art expanding, the art world's at-times daunting vocabulary remains somewhat inaccessible to many. A level of discussion that could bridge these two worlds is therefore still missing.
Around 2010, as a consultant for Ovation TV, I first had the opportunity to think about this major challenge in a context that had real potential for impact. How could the conversations around contemporary art be broadened to attract a more mainstream audience, yet remain meaningful in order to retain an intelligent level of discourse?
Earlier this year, Sonia Tower, who oversees Ovation's foundation and corporate relations, introduced me to Shaw Bowman to provide art world expertise and engagement for its first original web series, reopening this discussion. Shaw had joined Ovation from Comedy Central, and he wanted to tackle the subject of contemporary art--specifically, how to bring it into the realm of entertainment while still informing a wider audience about important issues in the art world. He envisioned a series in which experts would provide viewers with talking points, giving them access to discussions about contemporary art--and in a fun and entertaining way.
Shaw then reached out to artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison to create a character who would serve as an intermediary between the art world and the viewer, mixing sincerity with skepticism.
The result is Touching the Art, in which Casey wades into the Art World's least favorite subject: Art. Her blunt, reductive line of questioning takes aim at the barriers between the uninitiated viewer and the contemporary art world, and the show creates a platform upon which her panel of art world professionals demystify, in their own words, the most fundamental issues surrounding art and its place in broader society.
With two pilot episodes finished, I talked with Shaw and Casey about our experiences working on the series.
Bettina Korek: What triggered the idea for Touching the Art?
Shaw Bowman: When I moved over to Ovation, I was excited to apply principles that I'd learned about web video--using comedy as a tool to propagate big content--and apply it to contemporary art, which is also a major interest of mine.
BK: When did you first become aware of Casey?
SB: We have a lot of friends in common and I knew she was a performer from some of her stand-up routines posted on Gawker. I was really excited by her performance but didn't think I would be able to work with her at Comedy Central. At the time, I was in pursuit of a target demographic described broadly as "young guys" (men aged 18-24), and I felt that, in the best possible way, her voice was too niche. But I quickly realized I was wrong. It's the combination of her attributes--conceptual, queer, feminist, hilarious, and with a Wikipedic command of pop culture--that makes her comedy so exciting and accessible.
BK: How would you characterize her style?
SB: As smart and self-aware. Her character in Touching the Art is kind of a performance in and of itself. It's also comedy, designed to break down those barriers around how seriously people can take performance and contemporary art. She's employing the vernacular of digital space and adopting millennial ways of interacting with others, which often involves self-promotion.
BK: Now that you have the first episodes in place, what strikes you most about how the project has turned out?
SB: Well, it reinforced for me what a challenge it is to find a balance of humor and intelligent discourse about contemporary art. It's so easy to get bogged down by self-referential vocabulary and academic jargon, but at the same time we didn't want to be dismissive or reductive about art. We also didn't want the guests to seem undermined by the acerbic, somewhat dismissive personality of Casey's tone, because it really was important for us to convey that she was complicit in this competition both as an artist and a character. She comes from this world, but at the same time has a kind of no-nonsense perspective on it, and that was important to set up. It was tricky to strike this balance, but I think we eventually achieved it and will hopefully get even better as the series goes on.
BK: Do you think there's an audience for this, or does one need to be developed?
SB: I think there's an audience for this, but it's hard to say how big it might be. My hope is that we can reach art world insiders who appreciate seeing their world made light of in an intelligent way, as well as a wider Daily Show and Mashable audience who can find interest in subjects like "post net" and gender bias in the art world without needing to dive too much deeper. And then Casey has a great following digitally, and so I hope to reach the fans of her earlier work.
BK: What were the inspirations or references in putting this show together?
SB: When we were originally talking about an interview show, Casey brought up the concept of The McLaughlin Group and bringing in multiple guests. That would take some of the pressure off individuals to have to make pronouncements about the art world. The undercurrent of the whole project is that it's difficult to talk about art for many different reasons. Between Two Ferns was another web series that we considered. Andy Warhol's interview show Fifteen Minutes also became an inspiration for its 1980s public access aesthetic. These are casual scenario talk shows that aren't very high concept as far as the setup, but that really focus on the discourse.
BK: Casey, how did you see your role in this?
Casey: I wanted to take part in a conversation about art that's self-aware and interesting. I wanted to help facilitate that and participate in it. Not all artists want to make such direct contact with the outside world, or display their practice so publicly, but I'm interested in working within that sphere.
BK: Whatever direction the show takes, it's an interesting experiment that captures so many of the dynamics at play, both in your work and in the context of this art channel. Now that you've seen the first two episodes, and think back on the original shoot, what are your strongest reactions?
Casey: Shooting was incredibly fun because it was the first time that I got to meet these women (artists Catherine Opie and Mary Weatherford, writer Jori Finkel and Carol Cheh and gallerist Michelle Joan Papillion participated the two pilot episodes) and I didn't know how the questions and discussion topics would be received. And what I found is that they wanted to have these discussions, and they were more than open about how they felt about contemporary issues in the art world. I learned a lot that day. I was playing the role of a host who maybe wouldn't have an answer for these questions, and that role actually came true. I became a student by listening to their responses and participating in the conversation.
Something else that struck me was that the conversation felt equally cathartic for the guests. There were clear through lines in our discussion, which pointed to major threads that can be easily exposed to viewers. These are subjects that the art world is thinking about, but that people don't talk about much, and so they don't reach that broader audience. So after working on these pilots, that feels like an achievable thing to do. It's just that no one was really doing it.
There are also conversations that artists have amongst each other. Beyond the information available to the public in exhibitions or catalogs, there are real discussions that are happening face to face between artists, and I think this series offers a view into those dialogues.
Shaw: It was really important for me to have four people, including Casey, and for everyone to be complicit with the art world and part of those dialogues. What was always missing in earlier attempts to bring art to a mainstream audience was a host, or intermediary, who was directly involved with art. Touching the Art is an example of the art community really speaking for itself.
BK: We decided to have all women panelists, but that wasn't the intention at the outset.
SB: There have been discussions lately, on blogs and by artists, about the dominance of the male voice, specifically in these types of shows. This felt like an interesting response to that situation.
Casey: Conversations today are still dominated by a male force, and this was a way to open the discussion. I think it's a nice change, honestly. I also think it's just not a big deal. We take a defensive stance on that choice, but if we didn't mention it, I don't think anyone would care.
In a sense it also makes the acerbic aspect of my character more unexpected. Some viewers will see me as being "mean" to the guests, but if I come off that way to someone, I think it says more about them than it does about me.
BK: You're also representing a very real stereotype--the frustrated artist, for example--and I think we fail to acknowledge that there can often be vast distances between different people's literacy of contemporary art.
Casey: I agree. In my own experience, trying to find your place among these worlds that were already built without you can be kind of maddening. As we discuss in the show, the modernist idea of the "original" in art is basically over and the definition of art is constantly changing. I can just imagine that coming to this history for the first time and trying to make sense of art being made today can be difficult and even create anger.
SB: Casey's character asks the questions that the audience itself might want to be asking. Between her and the expert panelists, I think this series offers viewers a primer on how to talk about art. From one art movement to another, the "rules" for how to appreciate art can completely change, so engaging with it can sometimes feel insurmountable. Without sounding too didactic, it's important to give people a little vocabulary and an introduction to concepts that they can put to use. I think that's really powerful.