The Art Game (as interpreted through a scene from the film Basquiat)


A friend recently shared a link to this commentary on ‘the Game of Art’ (from the film Basquiat), discussing among other things how in order to be famous as an artist, in order to attract attention, there are certain ‘rules’ the Dungeon Masters, er… authorities, have for us. We can’t just do as we please, willy-nilly. If we are going to play the game we are going to be asked to play by the rules. An ‘artist’ isn’t just someone who creates art (Who believes THAT any more?). An ‘artist’ is more often someone who plays by certain rules. And the gatekeepers won’t always accept what you are doing if you are playing outside the bounds of their game. (This may or may not be an example of ‘confirmation bias’. You decide!)

You can buy this cynicism or not, but it is at least interesting to consider…. So lets investigate further! [And potters are so definitively outside the margins of this particular game that they have invented their own (occasionally related) reindeer games to play. For better or for worse….]

The unsurprising thing this excerpt suggests is that the gatekeepers will get “mad at you” if you don’t play by their rules. They consider it their game, and the poorly credentialed artists are just lucky to be asked to play. The artists don’t have any rights (inalienable or otherwise), but should just be happy with what they can get (And they will be rewarded if they play the game well). After all, the gatekeepers can withhold their certification or refuse to pay prices. And then where would the artists be? Its suck it up or be ignored, play by the rules or you will be subbed out.

It would seem that in the parlance of the Art Game we are artists at our patron’s sufferance, and its our main (if not only) priority to seek out their recognition and stamp of approval. We are confirmed as artists by the sacred act of an official blessing. We may not even really BE artists until someone important has applied the unction, existing in some weird sort of transitional limbo until we are anointed/discovered. Unknown artists are like pupae or larva awaiting the confirmation that they are honey bees or butterflies. But we live in a culture that celebrates celebrity, so what do we expect? To be congratulated on our anonymity?

And perhaps even less surprising (as portrayed in this excerpt) is that with certain of these Art patrons there is an agenda aimed mostly at their bank accounts, where quality is less important than the market value. The Art game is interesting for these patrons because its also a financial game or a game of prestige. The Art game often IS about artists who are famous. It often IS more about reputation than anything else, as if you only get to play the game if you have reliable credibility. The people who invest in Art don’t always care “how hard you worked on it” or the struggle to get to where you could make these pieces. They may not even see the work on its own terms, stripped from the context of marketplace. The point of Art can sometimes be not what it is, but what you can get for it. These folks often see the art only by seeing what its ‘worth’.*

If this sounds too cynical, just ask Psychologist and Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer. His post on how the brain perceives art is quite revealing. Here are some quotes:

“The scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.”

His post also investigates a study on tasting different wines, some more ‘expensive’ than others:

“Not surprisingly, the subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better. They preferred the $90 bottle to the $10 bottle, and thought the $45 Cabernet was far superior to the $5 plonk. By conducting the wine tasting inside an fMRI machine — the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes — the scientists could see how the brains of the subjects responded to the different wines. While a variety of brain regions were activated during the experiment, only one brain region seemed to respond to the price of the wine, rather than the wine itself: the orbitofrontal cortex. In general, more expensive wines made this part of the brain more excited. The scientists argue that the activity of this region shifted the preferences of the wine tasters, so that the $90 Cabernet seemed to taste better than the $35 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine.”

“We want to believe that pleasure is simple, that our delight in a fine painting or bottle of wine is due entirely to the thing itself. But that’s not the way reality works. Whenever we experience anything, that experience is shaped by factors and beliefs that are not visible on the canvas or present in the glass. Even the most exquisite works in the world — and what is more exceptional than a Rembrandt portrait? — still require a little mental help. We only see the beauty because we are looking for it.” (Check out this post on ‘change blindness’, or how we invariably simplify perceptual data to fit our expectations.)


Draw your own conclusions. I’d love to hear not only what folks think about this predicament, but what they intend to do about it.

Is it only right that artists play this game? Is there something else worth fighting for? Is there value outside of what the Art Game endorses? Do we sometimes play the game at the expense of our work being truly appreciated? And how does this make us feel? Is it good enough to be recognized, abide by the rules, or do we sometimes want something different? Does it even matter to us what the quality of our work is? Should it? What kind of priority is it? If we get a bit of recognition is that a sign that we have done enough? Is it more important to get paid than to make good art? Do we only hope we can do both at once, and that the rules of the Art Game won’t constrain us too severely? Does it matter more what other people think of our work than what we ourselves do?


(And let me present this moment as a time of pregnant pause), are we now in a new age that has significantly slipped beyond the grasp of the traditional gatekeepers? With opportunities like Creative Commons, Kickstarter, etsy, personal websites and stores, blogs, YouTube and other internet sharing sites, facebook, and all manner of personal expression that defies the Art Game regimes, are we now just more open to alternatives that bypass the herding of the Art authoritarian chute? Is the ‘Art Game’ simply no longer the only option for artists these days**? And if so, why do so many artists continue to feed their creative souls into the system? Why do we continue to play by the rules, focus on traditionally important ploys, even when we’ve sometimes stopped playing the Art Game itself?

Interesting questions…. I’d love to hear what you think!

Later all!

Make beauty real, whatever way you can!


*  Georg Simmel writes:

“To the extent that money, with its colorless and indifferent quality, can become a common denominator of all values it becomes the frightful leveler — it hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness and incomparability in a way which is beyond repair. They all float with the same specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money. They all rest on the same level and are distinguished only by their amounts. In individual cases this coloring, or rather this de-coloring of things, through their equation with money, may be imperceptibly small. In the relationship, however, which the wealthy person has to objects which can be bought for money, perhaps indeed in the total character which, for this reason, public opinion now recognizes in these objects, it takes on very considerable proportions.”

**  As an example of how it is possible to step outside the traditional gallery hegemony, Japanese living cultural treasure Shiho Kanzaki has an etsy shop where he sells pots that run from the mere several hundred dollars to tens of thousands. In the past 8 months he has sold 26 pots on etsy, and no middleman got the traditional 40-50% cut. The fact that folks can now find and buy (direct from the artist) these formerly exclusive, high end, and highly regarded pots by means of a simple google search is just an amazing possibility in today’s world. It takes authority out of the hands that have controlled the game for so long.

And somewhere there are gallery owners, ‘taste-makers’, and gatekeepers that are having sleepless nights. Will the purveyors of the Art Game eventually themselves be unseated by the googlicious accessibility of a DIY future? Will the great bastions of cultural sensibilities suffer an egalitarian demise? An interesting possibility for sure! (Are you listening Garth?)

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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2 Responses to The Art Game (as interpreted through a scene from the film Basquiat)

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    “Besides, he’ll just use you, man. He’s famous for it.”

    Great line; perfect callback to what he’s saying about how to get famous at the start of that clip.

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