Art, Money and DNA — Are You Well-Endowed?

Like to win a cool quarter million dollars?  You may be in luck if you are a socially conservative artist.

ArtPrize, a community art contest founded by Rick DeVos, kicked-off its 2012 call for entries this past week. There are just a few caveats to keep in mind though: you must make something very, very big, totally predictable, and preferrably just a bit more than cheesy.

Last year’s big winner was a 13 foot tall Jesus, on the cross, cleverly titled “Crucifixion”. Its claim to fame was its utter resemblance to about 10,000 similar works produced about 500 years ago. Even adored art critic, Sister Wendy, would likely say: “yawn”. Yet by popular vote, in western Michigan — the bible belt of the state, tall Jesus took the door prize at the biggest church raffle ever.

Previous ArtPrize winners include an over-sized bronze of Gerald R. Ford, native son to this uber-conservative and mostly Calvinist side of Michigan. Most entries have proven to be nothing more than pedestrian pieces whose only notable feature was their ridiculous “god-sized” scale and cheese-based theme.

ArtPrize begs the question: How do we define art?  

My daughter paid me a surprise visit home from college this past weekend. As always, we got caught-up on her latest social and academic adventures, including the bizarre and fantastic things she’d recently found on the internet. Being a dedicated aficionado of Tumblr, she shared images of the world’s cutest and the world’s ugliest bunnies (yes, there really is an ugly bunny), then she showed me a YouTube video which she found hilarious. It was performance art.  (I know, I know, me too…ugh).

In it we find a woman in her mid-twenties, of prodigious girth and indeterminate ethnicity, wearing a seriously ill-advised LBD and stilettos, standing before a five by ten pavement of one-pound butter bricks arranged in a neat square. Queue-up the music. 

(pause…okay, we’ve set the scene…so let’s all just take a moment to close our eyes and try to envision her possible “performance”…stilettos, cubes of slippery butter, large woman…

…take your time.) 

If you simply can not even imagine what kind of thing could have happened, then you are probably a social conservative.

But if you tend to lean liberal in your social politics, then — hello, yes you guessed it!  She stiletto-stomped the butter as if in a dairy-based small animal snuff flick, only to fall repeatedly in the buttery goo with a resounding Mad Cow thud each time.

Art or waste of dairy product?

Tolerant acceptance versus utter disgust of the butter-dance girl relies on a slippery cognitive scale, rooted deeply in human evolution as demonstrated in our social politics and divergent definitions of what is “art”.

There is plenty of proof that the neurobiology of art and politics are intricately and inescapably woven into our DNA. A study published in Current Biology indicates that social conservatives have larger amygdalas than liberals. This is the part of the brain responsible for fear and primitive emotions. They also possess a smaller anterior cingulate cortex, the section of the brain that provides an individual with courage and optimism.

Further research indicates these attributes are reason for the measurable behavioral differences between social conservatives and social progressives. Liberals tend to to be open to new experiences and ideas, more tolerant of conflict and ambiguity, better prepared to deal with conflicting information, more accurate in their assessments, and highly supportive of scientific innovation. Whereas conservatives prefer a structured approach to life, applying a single-minded model to decisions and thought processes, with a tendency to stubbornly hold opinions beyond their usefulness. Conservatives routinely block-out what they perceive to be “distractions.” In politics those “distractions” often turn-out to be what liberals refer to as “facts.”

Formal scientific study of the conservative mind dates back to the landmark 1950 research of Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford, that examined the correlation between right-wing authoritarianism and individual fascist tendencies. Many cried foul at the time insisting that psychological traits can not be directly linked to political views. A more recent meta-analyis conducted by the American Psychological Association, using 88 studies with 22,818 subjects, confirms that conservatism is indeed directly related to specific personality traits. The analysis concluded that the right-wing mind is dogmatic, closed to new experiences, intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, structured and orderly, adverse to integrative complexity, resistant to change, and oriented to achieve social dominance. 

These biases are not confined to politics — they permeate every aspect of our lives, including our sense of aesthetic adventure.

The “Painter of Light”, Thomas Kincaid, who died this month, left a legacy of creating a vast marketing empire based on his sickly-sweet sentimental paintings of idealized villages. Claiming to be a born-again Christian, Kincaid capitalized on the archetypical aesthetic that social conservatives are drawn to so readily. His work represented fantastical scenes of a completely imaginary and idealized past, depicting cozy cottages all-aglow with the safety of hearth and home set in villages that could only exist in the dreams of the simple-minded.

Kincaid’s work unapologetically appeals to the values of faith, family and home. They are predictable, non-threatening and purposefully not provocative in the slightest — and Christian conservatives snap them up to the tune of $100 million in sales per year. His art adorns the hearths of the Hummel figurine lined mantles of  five percent of American households. They are willing to pay up to $10,000 for a limited edition lithograph. At its peak his “studio” was churning-out 500 pieces a day.

Kincaid knew he was on to something and marketed himself accordingly. He is quoted as saying: “People who put my paintings on their walls are putting their values on their walls.” As with most artists, his work is now worth more after his death. If there had been a means for Kincaid to take it with him, he certainly would have. He was a capitalist first, and a Christian as a far distant second.

Bad art like Kincaid’s is flying off gallery walls, albeit, “galleries” that are located between The Gap and Bath and Bodyworks at the mall, leaving the quality, one of a kind, artwork to gather dust and for their creators to find day jobs at that mall.  It is tempting to blame the slump in the “real” art market solely on the economy. We all know that the arts are the canary in the coal mine indicative of the health and vibrancy of a culture and its economy, but maybe there’s more to it than money. As conservatism is on the rise, and becoming more stubbornly strident than ever, contempt for innovative and provocative art is also on the rise. Galleries that once sold fine art by skilled artists have now turned to marketing baubles and trinkets to stay afloat.

Conservatives certainly have not cornered the market on bad art. For the most part, they limit themselves to inoffensive kitsch. Many of the worst examples of art hale from the far left. The butter-dance girl “art” is not alone. In fact, it’s mild compared to some of the work that’s intended to offend the viewer. We’ve all seen the much decried art that is annually trotted-out and stamped with a scarlet letter by conservative lawmakers, especially as their budget deadlines loom, declaring them reason enough for a wholesale defunding of the arts. Citing these raunchy pieces is a time-tested tactic of the right. Politicians know that conservatives hold a special contempt and distrust for art. They are hard-wired to be suspicious of anything new or innovative. They simply can not help themselves.

And there is plenty to offend them.

From Damien Hirst’s macabre jewel-encrusted Crystal Skull to Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora, depicting the Pope being hit by a meteorthere exists a whole array of esoteric crap designed to fit almost anyone’s bad taste or delicate sense of outrage, but all for a price. On the tail of the Vatican’s uproar over La Nona Ora, Cattelan’s piece sold at auction for $3 million. It pays to offend.

Some of these edgy artists have tapped a new market — one which actually satirizes the kitsch so prized by the artistically-challenged conservative collectors. Others have embraced the artistic cheese whiz in its most honest and pure form without the filter of satire. They celebrate tacky art with a condescending affection, all while looking down their noses at its very essence. There’s both a collector’s market and a museum dedicated to these works. 

Bad art is everywhere. Several years ago I attended a juried exhibit at a respected museum in my town. Among the winners were a piece of crumpled tissue stuck to the wall and a work with three small boards nailed together, entitled Three Sisters. The latter took the top prize with a gushing account of its provocative artistry from the juror — not a word of which I understood. On a sad note, the tissue entry experienced a catastrophic installation failure and fell to the floor. The artist was unaware that the white sticky-tack she used simply does not have the adhesive power of the blue variety. She should have asked a teacher. Tragic, really. Although, my daughter would have laughed.

So what is art? 

Don’t ask an art critic, or an artist, nor a collector or a politician. They simply don’t know.

Ask a Neurobiologist.

Amy Kerr Hardin

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