Illustration by Alisa Yang

Illustration by Alisa Yang

DECODER: Shades of Fame

Get It While You Can

Art fame is a weird fame: I know artists whose work has been seen by millions who can’t pay the rent. I know artists with unrecognizable names who could pay rent for a year with half a piece.

Unlike the film or music industry, fine art isn’t based on selling lots of cheap things to a mass audience; it’s based on selling one expensive thing to a tiny audience. Mass fame—usually youth culture fame—is bigger and faster than the NPR fame that the art world traffics in, but has less money in it. The fame which made prog rock artists David Choe or Roger Dean famous, is more tech savvy and more eager to share (or at least Tumblr) than the fame bestowed in gray and worthy journals where Freud and foreign policy are discussed. The grayer fame shares much in common with professional respect, like the local fame of an honest mechanic: the reliable provider of a valuable service, passed by word of mouth between prudent owners of vulnerable vehicles. Young fame is a badge in the creation of communities—you like OFWGKTA? I like OFWGKTA! Let’s fuck. The fame where these two fames overlap is film-star fame and it’s the biggest and most versatile fame there is.

Young fame is a fame of want. If you’re wanted you’ll be cut out and taped to the wall. Old fame is a fame of need. The award needs to go to someone. The magazine needs an editor. This chair needs something orange over it. The city needs a museum, the museum needs a spring show. We need far fewer things than we want.

Youth culture’s fame is promiscuous, a fame of successful and failed experiments, one-night-stand fame and three-month-boyfriend fame. The elder fame is a marriage—there are huge monetary commitments and public displays of affection. People get put in chairs that taxes bought.

Because of this, the public has the right to protest the older fame, since it eats their money. So this fame has to be defensible. That is: respectable—which is a word that means so powerful that it rolls over obstacles or so dull that it slips under them. No one protests youthful fame but parents—and they only protest when they have noticed and (because they are parents) they only notice when it is too late.

The old, gray respectable NPR fame granted to fine art has all the vices of marriage. Anyone unable to hold their peace at the wedding commits a deep breach of decorum—no matter how reasonable their objection it is presumed without argument to be missing out on some deep, unquestionable, and half-secret connection between the betrothed. The married will have kids whether they should or not—and the art-famous will have imitators, whether they should or not. The difference is that, while marriages can end, no divorce court can ever get back even half of what Henry Clay Frick or Sol LeWitt took from us.

Young artists often make the mistake that their work can argue for its own legitimacy—it can’t. Either it’s famous, and so there will be an argument that it’s legitimate and an argument that it isn’t until the earth falls into the sun, or it’s not famous and so it doesn’t matter whether it’s legitimate. Guernica isn’t interpreted because it has so much to interpret—it’s interpreted because its fame demands it be given interpretative attention.

Stranger still are the actors and filmmakers and the already-otherwise-famous who decide to show in galleries: I can see why they want to make it (I like making art, too)—but I don’t see why they would want to show it in a place where art gets sold. They already enjoy all the rewards such a display could possibly offer.

Kind-of-youth-culture-Vice-Illustrating-famous, kind-of-respectable-famous-Occupy-and-Guantanamo-documenting artist Molly Crabapple put it to me this way:
“All I wanted to do, at the start, was make art for a living in my hometown, New York City, in an apartment that did not have rats. Respectability, fame, fuck it, anything, those would have been means to this end… Respectability, like sexiness or professionalism, is just drag. Like all drag, it becomes itchy and constraining by the end of the night. It’s an aesthetic posture to get you into the parties you want, where you think you can hustle money out of someone. If you can use that costume, rock it, but never forget it’s a costume.”

Which is all to say Being Taken Seriously is like Being Popular—it’s not an end in itself, it’s only as good as what it gets you.  

Illustration by Alisa Yang