Pick of the Day: Selling Out

I reviewed this show at the Dunlop Art Gallery in the Jan. 14 prairie dog. It's by Ottawa-based, Montreal-born artist Michele Provost. The mother of four, Provost is intimately familiar with the explosion in marketing that's occurred in the last two decades tied to big-budget Hollywood movies like Stars Wars and all the super-hero flicks.

If you're a habitue of modern comix shops you'll know what I mean. In addition to the expected comix you'll find action figures, video and board games, trading cards, posters, T-shirts and other merch. For this show, what Provost has done is replicate the look of a modern comix store. Only instead of superheroes and the like, she's created a product line focusing on well-known visual artists throughout history (that's one of her embroidered comix covers, pictured above. Action figures, trading cards and sliding puzzles are also on display).

The action figures either depict the artist, or more commonly, one of their master works. In some instances, Provost's clearly targeting the artist in question for, as the title of her show confirms, selling out. That's a touchy subject in the art community. The arts, in the past century or so, unfortunately, have been significantly eclipsed in our society by sports and more popular forms of entertainment. Artists generally operate on the margins of society now. When one does become successful, attracting a lot of friendly media attention and big-dollar sales, their integrity is almost always called into question.
Not every artist who achieves mainstream popularity is a whore, obviously. But many do push the envelope pretty far.

As I noted in my review, art institutions, due to stagnant government funding over the last 20 years, have also been forced to become more entrepreneurial to sustain themselves. Again, that's a touchy subject, with critics discomforted by the proliferation of corporate partnerships and sponsorships, swank fund-raising galas and gift shops with occassionally tacky merchandise. Other things that museums and galleries have done to heighten their profile, like enhanced outreach and education programs, have been more warmly received.

Ultimately, in my review, I concluded that the biggest middle finger that Provost was extending was to "politicians like Stephen Harper and the dickhead constituency that they represent" -- namely, people who cannot conceive of anything having value unless you can attach a price tag to it.
If given their druthers, I'm sure most artists would just as soon not put a price on their work. But to survive in our consumer culture, they must. And I doubt there's a profession in our society that has been more misrepresented. According to Toronto-based Hill Strategies Research, the typical income of an artist in Canada is under $15,000 a year. That's income from all sources, by the way, not just their art production. Yet in the 2008 federal election, Harpo was able to shield his government from criticism (in most of Canada anyway outside of Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver) about killing culture via draconian funding cuts by dismissing the arts as a niche area characterized by snooty elitists hobknobbing at rich galas.
I know that describes my life to a T, Steve. You prick.
Selling Out closes March 7. Check it out if you get a chance.

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