The mainstream in Art is whatever is fashionable or popular within the art world at any given time. I can’t imagine any artist worth his or her salt aiming to be part of it. The mainstream is whatever the major dealers, collectors, museums and critics deem it to be. This of course includes artists who are, at the very least, complicitous.
Now this is not to say that artists should not want success. We all have to eat, pay rent, provide ourselves with health care, etc. and fame and fortune is not an unattractive prospect, but at what cost? Do I have to dumb down my work to widen its appeal? Do I have to gloss over some of its rough edges? Should I address popular culture now that high and low are considered equal? Must I strategize a game plan? Do I need a conscience? Is it bad for the work to be naïve about the art world?
My relationship to the mainstream depends on where you are looking from. I no longer keep up on the array of shows in Chelsea galleries as I did as a young artist during the Soho years. Visits to Chelsea invariably end up with feelings of anger and frustration. “How dare they show this junk and ignore me and my serious friends,” I ask. So if the mainstream is what is shown in Chelsea and written about in Art In America then I must say what my friend Norman Turner once said to me, "I have nothing to do with that!"
What I do however, is visit museums more than ever. I travel to Europe as often as possible to look at Art. I teach art history and feel immersed in it all the time. I wrestle with the canon in my studio. I am never bored and feel lucky to be involved in this discourse. With a longer view I can situate myself smack right in the middle of the mainstream after all. And here I can practice the fine art of discernment.
The kiss of death for an artist is to be called conservative. I have to believe that there is a way of using knowledge, judgment and honesty in the work that does not preclude staying relevant at the edge. With a great deal of luck perhaps the mainstream will pick up on it.
Originally published in 2008