Moving Image 10-4-2005

Too Much of Everything Means Not Enough of Anything, Part 2

Michael Fallon concludes his thoughtful and upsetting piece on the plethora of art choices and the effect on both artists and viewers of this glut. See the link at the foot of the article for Part 1.

Michael Fallon

WITH SO MANY PRODUCTS AND OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO CONSUMERS THESE DAYS, one might likely assume that there’s no limit to the potential for each of us to be personally fulfilled and happy. After all, since everyone is now able to obtain precisely the formula of sugar-reduced carbonated cola-flavored drink that suits his or her individual needs, what’s to stop us from obtaining everything we want and who can keep us from being what we want to be?

But is hypersonic rate of change and proliferation of products truly beneficial? After all, don’t we, as simple human animals, have a finite capacity to truly know and understand what our choices are in any given market? If a grocery store has 724 varieties of vegetables, how many of them will we be able to look at and recall seeing? And if our tiny brains can’t comprehend all the choices that are available to us today, aren’t we likely to get agitated and constantly worry that we might be missing out on something better? If trends and fashions shift more quickly than most of us can keep tabs on, doesn’t that call into question the very validity of all fashions, trends, and ideas? If something new is going to come along in just a few days to replace what we currently know, how do we know what to trust or invest in?

Yale political scientist Robert Lane is a leading proponent of the theory that humans aren’t equipped to conceptualize all the market choices companies are now providing, as he explained in his 2000 book, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies: “Choices proliferate beyond our pleasure in choosing and our capacity to handle the choices.” As social critics and scholars have pointed out in recent years, too much choice in our consumerist society seems to be actually increasing personal anxiety, decreasing confidence in social structures, and creating a net loss of happiness.

According to researchers, there is evidence of a rising tide of clinical depression in most advanced societies, and in the United States studies have documented a decline in the number of people who regard themselves as happy. “As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear,” writes Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice. “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

According to one study, societal trust in various institutions of authority has eroded dramatically in the past twenty years. Whereas 54 percent of people reported having high levels of trust in TV news in 1987, by 2001 the number had fallen to 26 percent. And the public has experienced even more extreme drops in trust for salespeople (from 23 percent to 7 percent), corporate advertising (20 to 3 percent), advertising in general (8 to 3 percent), and used cars salesmen (15 to 2 percent). We are now a society where more and more stuff is offered by exactly the people we trust less and less.

As mentioned in my column previous to this (see link below), the art world has not been immune to the market expansion experienced in other fields. And just as in the commercial realm, the expansion of choices in the art and cultural market is a tyranny. With so many options, consumers are often confused about what art to invest in (either time-wise or money-wise), and so they tend to turn to what’s safest and most comprehensible (i.e, another Hollywood movie) rather than something new and hand-made by a lone artist who could really use the patronage. But it is any wonder? The art-world is a muddled market, with new trends emerging weekly and fading away a month later. Even the most art-educated person sometimes dreads entering the average art center and trying to decipher the art flavor-of-the-month.

Artists themselves often complain and rail against a society that they feel ignores them, but I wonder if any artist has ever tried to look at the art market through the consumers’ eyes. As with a store with 724 varieties of vegetable, there is an external price to be paid by the overall market when the number of options spirals out of control. It doesn’t take a huge leap to link the abiding dissatisfaction of arts people with the haunting spirit of confusion that afflicts consumers looking at art. This is occurring even as it becomes harder and harder for trained and experienced art critics to find venues to explain the work. Each new variety of art added to the art market results in an deeper “art vertigo”—a dizziness and queasiness about art that will only grow more pronounced as more and more are drawn to make art, and fewer and fewer are left to try to sort out the art all these artists are making. In such as market, is it any wonder then that so many artists find it hard to sell even a single work? And is it any wonder artists are so viciously bitter about their marginality?

ODDLY, EVEN AS WE LOSE TRUST IN OUR INSTITUTIONS of commerce and information, our faith in ourselves has risen—from 80 percent in 1987 to 85 percent in 2001. Perhaps this is the only thing that explains the basic irony of the art world—that more and more people continue to become artists even as art matters less and less to the culture at large. Neophyte artists are blinded by faith in themselves and their eventual success, even though this faith is not at all justified by the decreasing odds.

Art critics often get blamed by artists for not writing more often and making more clearly the case for art to the public. But speaking from my vantage point as one, I often feel particularly tyrannized that there are so many endless varieties of art that I have to sift through and try to explain to a distracted audience. If I stopped reading art magazines for even six months, I myself would be lost in a world of confusion—the turnover in hot new artists is often that rapid. Even when I do manage to write something fairly insightful—that I’m satisfied explains the art and gives a potential consumer an idea of why they would (or would not) want to buy said work—it rarely satisfies the local cadre of frustrated artists. Artists are typically the only ones who respond to critical reviews in letters to the editor, and typically their response is solely based on his or her individual bias. If the review ain’t responding to the work in a way that makes sense to the artist, or it doesn’t compare the art work in question to the type of work the artist likes, then the review and the work is not valid. The graffiti-obsessed artist dismisses anything that is not as graffiti-obsessed as he is, and the underground expressionist who paints farm murals is not interested in anything that’s along the same lines. In the long run, the overall dialogue about art is at as much of a stalemate as is the art market, as even artists can’t deal with varieties of art on the market that are other than their own.

So what’s the solution for the art world? An obvious answer would be to limit the number of artists, or art styles—but that’s as unlikely to happen as a limit to the number of consumer choices. I’ve heard people take to task the educational institutions that churn out escalating numbers of artists each year, just as others have blamed corporations for becoming too marketing-reliant in product development, but the fact is both are simply responding to consumer demands. If kids didn’t want to learn to be artists, then programs wouldn’t exist—just as diet Coke with Splenda wouldn’t if there were no consumer demand for it.

I don’t know what the solution is to this unhappy art market. Maybe we just need to know that our own greedy natures are making us unhappy, that our gluttonous tendency to want, want, want is ultimately not good for us. We want more and more, and we are willing to give less and less trust—this is really what’s wrong with consumerist society and the art world. And fixing both means fixing our very natures.