Looking Beyond the Western Art World

Small Art School, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2016. Courtesy Ben Valentine. © Ben Valentine.

Small Art School, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2016. Courtesy Ben Valentine. © Ben Valentine.

Over six years of working in the art world, I’ve undergone a series of disenchantments, largely resulting from a misunderstanding of what art does—miscalculations of audience and misalignments between my personal politics and the dominant logic of so many art scenes. By refocusing and reinvesting myself in what it means to engage with art, I find my perspective has shifted: creativity—not art—is the key tool for personal and communal empowerment, self-expression, and healing.

I grew up feeling that art and mainstream media contained real power to change minds and shape the public discourse, for better or worse. I visited museums and galleries to see the world from different perspectives; I saw wars both advertised and protested through art and the media; I saw communities coming together around their culture, their music, and their dance.

Creativity—not art—is the key tool for personal and communal empowerment, self-expression, and healing.

That fascination led me to study sculpture and art history in college. Upon graduation, I came to New York embodying a cliché: a young sculptor, excited by the plethora of conversations and art spaces suddenly available to me. Becoming involved with the “Art World”—the largely Western art market dominated by blue-chip galleries, the mega-wealthy, the house parties, the after parties—was thrilling at first.

But the more I saw, the less riveting and (more importantly) the less relevant to society, to daily life, it all felt. As Occupy Wall Street stormed downtown Manhattan, I entered the service entrances of endlessly tall buildings to install artworks with six-figure values in the homes of the unfathomably wealthy. To some, I was “making it.” But this felt so far from what originally drew me to the arts. I remembered the William Morris quote: “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”1 As a writer, textile artist, and activist, Morris saw an inextricable link between how culture was made and distributed through society and the wellbeing of that society. For me, working for art for the one percent left little illusion that I was creating something of value for the majority of people.

Soon after this realization, I left the art world—at least, I tried to. In an attempt to change careers and exit the art bubble, I moved to the Bay Area, began volunteering, and worked in communications for a nongovernmental organization. Still, something kept pulling me back to the faith that art and culture did matter. The conversations, the serious respect for alternative ideas, the promise of outsider perspectives and voices—I sorely missed all of it, but I desired a balance.

I rediscovered my passion for art in networked media, which the art world seemed to be overlooking. I focused on media forms that often weren’t even considered art by their creators. Memes, Tumblrs, hashtags: these existed in society and were accessible to anyone with an Internet signal and a screen. Most of these projects will never make it into museums or into the homes of the mega-rich, but their audiences and participants are more diverse and more exciting to me than the majority of what I saw in the Chelsea gallery district. In these new-media forms, the creativity, accessibility, and ability to include more people—rather than fewer—felt vastly more relevant to my ideals. In Morris’s time, the context for his ideas was the English textile factory; today, I realize that everyone seems to be writing on the walls online.

A workshop at Sammaki Community Arts, in Battambang, Cambodia. 2015. Courtesy Ben Valentine. © Ben Valentine.

A workshop at Sammaki Community Arts, in Battambang, Cambodia. 2015. Courtesy Ben Valentine. © Ben Valentine.

But I wanted to push further. My same apprehensions about the art world—its isolation, its inaccessibility—applied to much of the networked media I reported on for art publications and included in exhibitions. Living in the Bay Area, it can be hard to remember that less than fifty percent of the world is online and that the benefits of connectivity are unevenly shared. Racial, gender, economic, and linguistic barriers remain strong or are re-established in new ways. Once again, I felt I was working within a bubble. In the same way that I grew appalled at Wall Street’s influence on New York’s art world, I saw that Silicon Valley’s money and rhetoric was seeping into networked media.

In the same way that I grew appalled at Wall Street’s influence on New York’s art world, I saw that Silicon Valley’s money and rhetoric was seeping into networked media.

The cyber-utopianism of Silicon Valley impedes proper understanding of technology’s real role in the world. I was disenchanted by the rhetoric but still believed in its powerful potential for creativity. Wanting to see behind the advertising and beyond my privileged perspective, I packed my bags and traveled, by bus and train, from Beijing to Myanmar.

A year and a half later, I’m writing this essay from Cambodia. While I came to this region to test my assumptions about technology, I’ve realized that my worst assumption was placing such value on the technology itself. For the majority of the world, communities with high poverty and low levels of access to education and opportunities, the impacts of technology—both positive and negative—are lessened significantly. The harsh realities of local politics and environments hold sway over the subtle gifts that technologies can offer them.

During my travels, I found the most generative spaces to be the local artist hangouts, in coffee shops and living rooms. While the art produced in them didn’t look like the net art or new-media art I covered as an art writer, these creative hubs embraced and nourished local difference, in spite of dominant narratives from the West or the local authorities.

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Small Art School, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2016. Courtesy Ben Valentine. © Ben Valentine.

These community-based art spaces excited me because they challenged my perception of what could—and couldn’t be—art. I didn’t understand them at all; to do so required a deeper knowledge of the local culture and historical context. Unlike the global contemporary art world that seemed increasingly irrelevant, exemplified by the works in art fairs in mega-cities around the world, these alternative spaces were engines of difference and alternatives that I wanted to learn from.

It is unfair to value Western forms over others and to evaluate all work through that canon. Worse, it does a disservice to the work being made around the globe.

For me, forgetting the art world and refocusing on creativity—and the people and places that nourish it—has allowed me to accept new understandings of culture that look different from my own and different from what I was taught to value. It is unfair to value Western forms over others and to evaluate all work through that canon. Worse, it does a disservice to the work being made around the globe. Recognizing and celebrating local creativity allows new stories about a culture or society to emerge, ones that are very different from those that mainstream media has been telling for too long.

The creativity I’ve seen around the world—the music, stories, installations, art, temples, and more—bears witness to the power and value of creating for society. This experience has cemented my distrust in the art world back home and renewed ten-fold my faith in creativity itself.

 

1. William Morris, Wikiquote

 

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