Two recent stories illustrate a contemporary phenomenon that is difficult for most to grasp in the context of wider history: Overnight exposure and rapid celebrity.
In the case of #AlexFromTarget, the unthinkable happened literally overnight. As detailed in a New York Times article on the aftermath of the event, celebrity has presented Alex (and his family) with an uncommon challenge: What to do exactly with newfound opportunity. And, surprisingly, how to deal with death threats.
In a similar case, the thinkable happened but not in the way that was probably envisioned. (It never does.) Artist Kristine Potter’s unusual photographs of cadets from West Point unleashed a minor firestorm of pointed – and sometimes juvenile – criticism on Buzzfeed as well as Twitter. Then it spread to Gawker. Some comments accused the photographer of disrespecting the institution of West Point and its cadets.
Potter wasn’t prepared. She ended up requesting that Buzzfeed remove the story, but on the web, that does little good. It’s also important to point out that Potter’s photographs were included in the original article with her permission.
Routinely in the art world, erudite talks and writings speak of an artist, or his or her work, as being “vulnerable.” For years, it has been a crutch on which an artist leans when on unsure ground: If a work is of questionable strength either in execution or vision, the artist may hide behind this sense of being vulnerable.
Invoking the state of being vulnerable blunts any criticism, whether objective or subjective. And, it simultaneously elevates the artist’s plight. Gallerists do it. Curators do it too.
This word should be eliminated immediately from art criticism, and while we’re at it, any art discussion. I don’t even want to hear it over drinks. In a world of virality, surveillance, and clickwrap, every day tasks and circumstances are increasingly subject to public consumption. The seemingly mundane can – unknowingly and globally – become comedic or heroic (another word on the precipice by the way).
In an artspeak sense, the word now has little or no meaning. Actively opening oneself to criticism or promoting one’s perceived weakness isn’t vulnerability. It might be a lack of self-awareness. It might be ignorance. Or worse, it might be marketing.
We Are All Vulnerable
Unfortunately, this incident has caused some to question the safety of making art available for viewing (and consequently open to criticism) outside the nest of the white cube audience and environment. Unbelievable. If anything, the act of making and displaying art creates an invincibility. The Average Joe, or Alex as the case may be, is more vulnerable than ever before.