What We Talk About When We Talk About "Art About Art"

The Art Genome Project
Nov 21, 2012 4:59PM

We know that a picture is but a space in which a variety of images, none of them original, blend and clash. A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture…We can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.

-Sherrie Levine

We created a gene called Art About Art a long time ago to capture aspects of artworks that were self-reflexive, i.e. that dealt with historical artworks, the art world, or individual artists. In this way it was definitely one of more “art nerd” genes on Art.sy and always very satisfying for all of us here. It was like a homemade quiz for the art and art history crowd.

Yet as time passed we realized more and more that the gene was becoming too large and was trying to do too much. Artworks that appropriated historical artworks had a value for Art About Art, as did works that focused on or critiqued the art world, as did works that featured images of famous artists. Art about Art thus was starting to say very little.Our solution was to delete the Art About Art gene and create genes out of what it had been capturing.

One of these is Visual References, which captures visual references to an existing work of art in another. Certain works of art—such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes can paintings or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisahave become such an important part of the art-historical canon that they take on a meaning far beyond their original time and place. Subsequent artists (like Malevich above) who self-consciously refer to these previous works are often doing so to insert themselves into the narrative of art history and add some commentary or self-conscious adjustment or amendment to the art of the past.

Another is Spaces of the Art World, which captures the places where works of art circulate after they leave the Artist’s Studio. From Matthew Pillsbury’s long-exposure photographs of the Louvre, to Christian Jankowski’s Strip the Auctioneer, this gene allows one to see the fascinating diversity of the art world’s physical environments. Additionally, we added a gene for Figures of the Art World, which, like Spaces of the Art World, is a lens through which you can explore the way the art world works—but this time, through the people who make, display, buy, and care for art—from the art student to the collector. 

A more conceptual engagement with the art market will be captured in another gene: The Art Market. The works in this gene take as their subject the art market itself, but do not always make overt visual references. For example, Jennifer Dalton’s Art Guide March and April pokes fun at a standard art world publication: the exhibition guide.  

As the genome has grown, we have redoubled our efforts to make sure genes remain relevant, clear, and interesting. Please check them out, and, as always, send us your feedback

-Jenny Tang, Summer Arts Intern

The Art Genome Project