Nate Hill: Art, Spectacle, and the Media

by Nate Hill on August 11, 2011 · 37 comments Guest Blogger

[Editor's Note: As Nate Hill observes below, people don't care about art. Frankly, I’d add, art doesn't care about people, either. It’s shy. While culture as a whole is ruthlessly spectacular, always pushed towards more efficient, more effective ways of communicating, art keeps to itself. Seeing the power of cultural developments in media, art runs to propose alternatives, point out flaws, or impotently quote Debord; this, in the face of the best tools yet for its own promotion.

Important work demands publicity, not as a matter of finance or fame but as a matter of honesty – if something’s worth saying, it’s worth saying loud. As an artist, Nate Hill gets this. Though he started using the spectacular in his work out of naïveté, he has since come to wield it with a skill and earnestness befitting his content. And that’s good, because when, dressed as Death Bear, Hill allows someone in pain to make a fresh start, it doesn't matter if they found him through Twitter or The Wall Street Journal; all that matters is the transformation Hill can create, there, one-on-one. As he’s written elsewhere, “This is real.” We’re very pleased to have him as a contributor. -WB]

Figure 1.1

Most people do not care about art. They watch TV, they fuss over their cats, they drink with their friends. As a result, artists who want their work to reach those outside the art world usually need to do a lot of legwork on their own. [Figure 1.1]

Art has to come to people, because people have shown they're not going to come to art.  Presenting artworks only to the already-defined art world assumes art needs that context to affect people, but that's not true. Good work speaks with a clarity and force that doesn't need to be framed by the art world, and should be spread to as many people as possible. One way to appeal to the non-gallery going population is to create a media spectacle — it's a proven way to draw attention and distinguish oneself from the competition. With so many artists working today, it would be dumb to ignore the spectacle's possibilities.

 

My Experience

In 2001, I dropped out of college in Florida to move to Brooklyn. I was spending more time in artists' studios than in my classes, anyways, so the move made sense to me. Before packing up the U-Haul, I stocked up on all the salvageable road kill I could preserve in jars of rubbing alcohol. I'd been doing a lot of hand-sewn taxidermy, so my pantry was pretty grisly: I had deer ears, raccoon legs, falcon eyeballs, indeterminate parts of pets, bits and pieces of nearly every Southern animal, all sitting around like puzzle pieces that didn't quite fit. I thought I was a great artist, but arriving in Brooklyn I soon learned that just being a great artist (if I was one) wasn't enough. With no art friends, no critic friends, and no dealer friends, I was lost. I found an apartment, but it was with normal people, and I had to literally hide my art in the closet. Later, a good impression was made with the lease-holder of a quirky, DIY live/work loft, but after the housemates learned of my taxidermy, they didn't want me living above their kitchen.  Eventually, I found a roommate who was sympathetic to my work, so we came to an agreement: I could cut up animals, if I did it on the fire escape, just as long as I kept the window closed.

Craving new bodies to work with, I started rummaging through the fish markets of Chinatown on a nightly basis. Through trial and error, I learned how to methodically identify which boxes and bags had animal parts in them because they are always prepared in a certain way by the fish market, and always in the same place every night. It became a routine, and fueled my work, but while I was doing a lot of art with these fish and frog parts, I still couldn't get into a gallery show. I didn't know how. I walked into random galleries and dropped off slides, because that's what I thought I was supposed to do. I'd come to New York to be a great artist, but so far I was a college dropout with a shitty bike messenger job, digging through the garbage for rotting fish to sew together on a fire escape.

So I turned that life into a spectacle. I started advertising monthly public “tours of the Chinatown garbage” with any New York publication that would run the event, and started transforming my solitary trips for art supplies into something else.  The art was downplayed, and the novelty and spectacle were played up. I distributed latex gloves to participants and wore bizarre period costumes while showing them where to find the most fruitful fish market garbage. Many participated, but most importantly, I was able to strategically show off a lot of the art I had made on the fire escape years before. The New York Times covered it in January 2008, and commented on its “self-conscious eccentricity”. I wasn't offended: Everything about the tour was odd, and there was always a lot of offhand humor too. If you keep people entertained, they will put up with anything.

As it shifted from supply run to spectacle, the tour also became more personal. It began as a venue for exhibiting artwork, but became a place where I could just be my weird self with people and receive positive feedback. It was an outlet that was important to me: I was an outsider in the art world, but I was also an outsider in the real world, in New York. I never made a dime off the tour, the fans and friends I gathered were my reward.

 

Taking Advantage of the Media

The Taxidermy Tour's attendance ranged wildly – from two fellow taxidermists and my girlfriend, the first night, to more than two dozen, on nights when it tipped towards a circus. Regardless of my self-promotion and spectacle, the printed “point” of the tour was to teach people how to make taxidermy from the garbage, something that got tough when mobs showed up. Whatever the number, though, a quarter of the crowd was always made up of bloggers. Bloggers being bloggers, the number of people who read about the tour far outnumbered the people who actually attended, and that was the point: People love spectacle. So long as I gave the media what it wanted — material to sell ads next to — the media would give me ink. It works to everyone's advantage: the more spectacle you can drum up in your art, the more media exposure you will receive. [Figure 1.2]

Figure 1.2

This should be important to artists because the fastest way to share an art idea today is through online media: blogs, online newspapers, Twitter, whatever. Harnessing that media energy is part of an artist's job, just as attracting gallery exposure has been for decades. The media gives artists a platform, and artists give the media content. It's a symbiotic relationship that should be exploited.

In terms of spectacle, be careful not to make your art look too much like art. If it does, you've already lost. People will run. Artists have to trick people into getting interested in what they're doing. (This is how art becomes “digestible”.) To grab an audience from the real world, artists can't cater to too many of the aesthetic interests of the art world: if the two had similar tastes, the art world wouldn’t be so tiny. [Figure 1.1] For example, make your spectacle funny. Unfortunately, the art world may find it too silly to take seriously.

Artists have to get people talking. It doesn't matter what your work is trying to say: if no one's listening, there's no point. Only a fraction of any audience is going to look into the work to see what it really means, so a logical way to attract more committed viewers is to simply attract more viewers, total. It’s a numbers game. Sometimes, I don't even think of my audience as people when I am working on promoting a project in the media. I see them as numbers, and it's only when I perform or display my artwork that they become people again.

A final note: If you create a spectacle and the media still isn't interested in your art, do it again! Everyone can succeed through perseverance.

 

A Word of Caution

Exposure in the media could become a curse if you don't have traditional training. Once art world professionals see that the media is covering you widely in the real world, and people like it, they may dismiss you for being an outsider without any of the standard art world qualifications. Like the church, they want to bestow their own accolades. But don’t worry. Very few people make it in either the art world or the real world, and even fewer make it in both. If you even make it in one, you’re already out of the ordinary.

Art, Spectacle, and the Media is currently featured in the exhibition “Why Participate?”, at Flux Factory.

  • Saul

    I really like the way you articulated this idea.
    Thank you!

    • Nate Hill

       Thanks Saul

  • Mary

    Some very good points.  Would Lady Gaga have the world’s ear if she did not cultivate her spectacle?

  • Justin

    makes me think of the idea of the experience economy and the creation of an environment to deliver the artist’s experience. if you gave people a map for good garbage rummaging would it have been as successful?

  • Sven

    hi nate hope to move you again

    • Nate Hill

      Hey Sven. Hehe you can be be “a witness” to my many moves in NYC.

  • Nate Hill

    Thanks Saul!

    Hey Sven. It’s always a pleasure except for that time your truck got the parking ticket hehe

  • http://vernonhowl.info Vernon Howl

    cool ARTicle.

    • Nate Hill

      Thanks Vernon

  • http://www.facebook.com/danny.olda Danny Olda

    Very fun article!  However, one tool of the spectacle that I’m surprised wasn’t really covered is commodity fetishism.  One thing the art world and regular folk have in common – they like to collect the heck out of stuff.  Just make a simple switch of Sotheby’s for a happy meal, or Christie’s for a cereal box.  Relevancy to the max!   

    • Nate Hill

      Danny — I like this parallel. When I started art in 1999, I didn’t think about selling things, and I only started thinking about it seriously this year, so I’m behind. It’s an art in itself. That’s why this essay focuses on media exposure and not selling, if I understand your comment correctly.

  • Nate Hill

    Hey Justin.. I thought making a map might be a good idea for the Conflux festival which deals with “geography art” one year, but I don’t think they went for it or I didn’t submit it. I can’t really remember. If you’re suggesting that I give the people a map and subtract my performance then, I don’t know, that might make me a little irrelevant because they already have the map. Good to think about.

  • http://twitter.com/charleskaufman Charles Kaufman Art

    Fun read.
    art = spectacle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749864549 Warren Thomas King

    Enjoyed reading this material to post ads next to.

  • MAL IDEA

    I would have appreciated it though if the editors note came after the article rather than before.

  • Anonymous

    Figure 1.1 is a great, tongue in cheek commentary on how self-absorbed the art world can be at times–fantastic! 

    • Nate Hill

      My friend Jason thinks the art world dot should be smaller.

  • Nate Hill

    I’m kinda disappointed I didn’t get more criticism form this post. I thought the art fag city comment section were more ruthless. WTF?

    • Anonymous

      It’s true, though commenters tend not to attack personal experience. I think you’d be more likely to get a rise out of people if the piece weren’t rooted in that. 

      • Nate Hill

        Ok pretend I’m not reading the comments then people.. I’m bored

        • David McBride

          Since the Art Fag City link to this showed up in my inbox, and since you and I were in a show once together, Nate (Better Beasts), and since you’re bored, I’ll offer up.

          I’m not sympathetic to your ideas here. The success you’re describing, to me, doesn’t represent the success of an artist so much as the success of an entertainer. The art world is too diverse to speak of as a whole; but since there is a large (mainstream?) segment of it that hasn’t the grace to distinguish itself from the entertainment industry (see: art star reality shows, the Art Awards, Dallas Cowboys Stadium…), you’re probably onto something, which is disheartening. In my opinion it’s worth noting the way you manage to mangle an established understanding of spectacle (your “spectacle” is another’s performance art), and in my opinion an unwillingness to acknowledge a common language and to adopt its meanings impoverishes discussions about art. Anti-intellectualism in ‘the real world’ has enabled such obviously backwards institutions as the Creatonist Museum. It is a shame that there is analogous sentiment in “the art world”, and I have to insist that your blithe co-option of criticism doesn’t absolve of you it.

          Artists’ yearnings to transcend the art world and find relevance in the real world is an old saw by now, and to me has always rung as misguided. Lament it all you want, but the real world doesn’t much care for contemporary art, perhaps never has, and in any case there are far better entertainers out there. Your personal experience notwithstanding, most artists of our generation chose to limit themselves to an audience of the few by achieving advanced college degrees, whether they knew it at the time or not. Belly aching about it now is boring.

          • Nate Hill

            David,

            Sorry for the late response. I didn’t get or accidentally overlooked the email alert that you added to the conversation. I’m happy you did.

            I’ll do my best to understand and respond to what you are saying.

            “The success you’re describing, to me, doesn’t represent the success of an artist so much as the success of an entertainer.”

            I’m not sure what the difference between the success of an entertainer and an artist is or why it is important here.

            “The art world is too diverse to speak of as a whole; but since there is a
            large (mainstream?) segment of it that hasn’t the grace to distinguish
            itself from the entertainment industry (see: art star reality shows, the
            Art Awards, Dallas Cowboys Stadium…)”

            I’m getting that you think that art is special in some way and its qualities are something that my work or “art star reality shows” do not contain? What are these qualities? Or do you mean that what is important is that art sets itself willfully apart from “entertainment” and THAT is what is the important distinction?

            “you manage to mangle an established understanding of spectacle (your
            “spectacle” is another’s performance art), and in my opinion an
            unwillingness to acknowledge a common language and to adopt its meanings
            impoverishes discussions about art.”

            What is the established understanding of spectacle? You lost me here.

            “Anti-intellectualism in ‘the real world’ has enabled such obviously backwards institutions as the Creatonist Museum”

            Did you mean the Creation Museum?

            “I have to insist that your blithe co-option of criticism doesn’t absolve of you it.”

            I don’t understand who is being co-opted here or what I’m absolved of or why. You lost me here. Perhaps you do not like the tone that I took with the essay. Yes, I took an instructional tone. Think of it as a manifesto if it helps.

            “Artists’ yearnings to transcend the art world and find relevance in the
            real world is an old saw by now, and to me has always rung as misguided.
            Lament it all you want, but the real world doesn’t much care for
            contemporary art, perhaps never has, and in any case there are far
            better entertainers out there.”

            Crossing over my art into the mainstream is of the highest importance to me. I make socially conscious work that is designed to help the most people possible. I don’t care how improbable it is that the real world care about it. Improbable is not impossible. I’m not going to stop trying. I enjoy the challenge. The point of the essay was to get the idea across that you have to make the art entertaining to get it across to the mainstream. You say there are better entertainers out there. It sounds like you gave up? Or never cared? Or don’t think it’s worth the effort to try?

            “Belly aching about it now is boring.”

            I don’t think that’s what I was doing. Frankly, I made it already. I’m a success. The point of the essay was to help other artists who may want to follow in my footsteps.

          • David McBride

            Hey Nate, now my response is late, too, and the conversation is buried, but that’s probably better.

            I’m not going to go point by point, but I’ll respond to what to me are the important points. I think if we can agree that there is such a thing as the “entertainment industry”, then I believe that is a new phenomenon, probably a 20th Century development. And yes, while I do think that art is special in a way that the entertainment industry can’t abide, that assertion is not original. On a fundamental level, entertainment is made to be consumed, and art isn’t. I think of it this way: before there was such a thing as an entertainment industry, or before there were individuals who could make a living creating entertainment, there was art, and there were artists. These are my opinions, and they are what prevent me from sympathizing with your manifesto.

            To take my (admitted) moralizing out of it, my point is that art and entertainment aren’t the same thing. I don’t like a lot of what seems to me to be the products of the entertainment industry; I feel much of it encourages superficiality and lazy thinking and doesn’t contribute much. But that aside, it is my hope that the aims of the two spheres of cultural production are not the same. 

            The Situationists and Guy Debord established the consensus understanding of “spectacle”, and it’s not a generous one. “Spectacle” under this definition is not a good thing in that it is psychically debilitating to people living under it, the “society of the spectacle”. I think it’s important because the discussion enables an understanding of artistic production as engaged with philosophical and political interpretations of society. Unentertaining things.

            Today I finally got around to reading “The Long Tail” essay, and I think it’s relevant here. Art is in the long tail. It won’t ever really be a hit, or very relevant to the mainstream; but it will always be produced, looked at, interpreted, criticized. That’s good enough for me.

            I’m glad you feel you’ve made it. I should be so lucky.

            I did mean the Creation Museum.

          • http://twitter.com/TheodoreArt Stephanie Theodore

             just to address your point about Situationists and Spectacle… it was a major point of the SI that art was NOT separate from life.  entertainment is not separate from life.  I think Nate is actually succeeding in detournement of both the idea of entertainment and the pretension/elitism of art.

            go Nate!

          • David McBride

            Stephanie I’m not arguing that the Situationists understand a separation between art and life (I am also not advocating a separation between art and life). I’m arguing that spectacle invoked within our context ought to at least pay lip service to the Situationist understanding of spectacle. I personally value this understanding of spectacle and I find it useful for establishing a basis of criticism. Reading an artist extoll the virtues of spectacle as a way of massaging the “numbers game” in his or her favor compels me to understand that person’s work as cynical, and precludes an understanding of that work as detournement.

          • Nate Hill

            David,

            “I think of it this way: before there was such a thing as an
            entertainment industry, or before there were individuals who could make a
            living creating entertainment, there was art, and there were artists.”

            There was never a pure art. The first artist was trying to get something from what they were doing. I’d guess sex. There also will never be a pure art. Human beings are flawed. I’d encourage artists to meet people where they are, which requires spectacle.

            “To take my (admitted) moralizing out of it, my point is that art and entertainment aren’t the same thing.”

            My point is that we should blend the two, to get more people to see the art side who wouldn’t normally get much art at all. I think you’re saying that once you blend them, the compromise is not a good thing for society. What’s the alternative? People who don’t see art, keep not seeing art? That doesn’t seem great to me either.

            “I don’t like a lot of what seems to me to be the products of the
            entertainment industry; I feel much of it encourages superficiality and
            lazy thinking and doesn’t contribute much.”

            I would agree.

            “The Situationists and Guy Debord established the consensus understanding of “spectacle”, and it’s not a generous one.”

            I gotta read up on him. Coincidentally, I got some hate email mentioning Debord this morning. The person also called me a “Whore”. Not much else was said unfortunately.

            “Art is in the long tail. It won’t ever really be a hit, or very relevant
            to the mainstream; but it will always be produced, looked at,
            interpreted, criticized. That’s good enough for me.”

            Ok. I’m glad you wrote this. It’s actually persuasive to me because it feels humble. But why shouldn’t art be relevant to the mainstream? I would agree with you, but it’s just depressing. Do you mean: Art that is not molded to the mainstream will not be relevant to the mainstream? I would agree.

          • David McBride

            Please don’t mistake me for someone who believes in purity in art or art’s pureness. That’s not it. And entertainment is a huge part of contemporary life, so that the ideals of entertainment are becoming fused with artistic representation is only depressing, not surprising. 

            Almost everyone does almost everything for sex; but I would hope there is a way to understand the impulses behind past art in a more complex way, even if it’s very difficult for us today to imagine supernatural beliefs being taken seriously.But I do insist on a distinction between art and entertainment. I would like to turn your question around and ask, why should art be relevant to the mainstream? Elitism is a charge often leveled at a way of thinking that dispenses with the mainstream, but I think that’s wrong. Elitism to me is a political position dependent upon arrogance and chauvinism. I don’t think a belief that art is distinct from mainstream culture is either of those things. For my part, I come from a working class midwestern family and I like to watch sports; I don’t think I’m elitist. But in my experience, most people aren’t interested in art and I don’t see what’s wrong with that. And your piece sounds like you think it’s a bad thing only insofar as it keeps you and other artists from enjoying greater accolades for your work. It’s a numbers game, right?

          • Nate Hill

            “But in my experience, most people aren’t interested in art and I don’t
            see what’s wrong with that. And your piece sounds like you think it’s a
            bad thing only insofar as it keeps you and other artists from enjoying
            greater accolades for your work.”

            I’m working under the assumption that art has something to offer that viewers can only get from art, that is valuable, and that they need. That’s whats wrong with most people not being interested in art. I could be wrong. But I am advising artists to change their art to get attention because the assumption is that they have something that needs to be heard. Whether this is good or bad for the art is up for debate.

            “Elitism is a charge often leveled at a way of thinking that dispenses with the mainstream, but I think that’s wrong.”

            I don’t get into calling people elitist either. People usually don’t respond well lol.

  • marcussc

    Art historians and art writers make the Arts World go around – good art is not made by artists, it’s what the commentariat make of it that counts. 

  • Gagagosian

    I showed some folks, the kind you describe in the beginning of this piece as “most people”, the pic’s of your Chinatown tour posted on your blog – and they decided ly did NOT like them one bit. Then I showed them to my younger art-friends. They all loved them!  Oooh’s, Ahh’s and ye-man’s… 100%.
    So by this survey you are indeed in the little tiny art dot. You are an artist!

  • Jason Stopa

    I know this is incredibly late, but I wanted to add to the discussion.  This quote below, in particular, is a clear example of how late capitalism has altered people’s perception and relationship to others and art.

    “Sometimes, I don’t even think of my audience as people when I am working on promoting a project in the media. I see them as numbers, and it’s only when I perform or display my artwork that they become people again.”

    Seeing people as “numbers” as Nate suggests, casts them in the role of exchange value.  Their time, energy, and effort seen as commodities.  When Debord outlined his thesis on spectacle, he was seeking alternatives to what he saw as the commodification of art, objects, and soon to be, everything else.  Historically, the avant-garde has been concerned with resistance to this degrading process.  A process, which turns all exchange into one of monetary value, and inevitably lessens the social value of human interaction and universally shared mutual needs .  This latter value being the very reason why people formed civilization in the first place.  

    When art cohorts with spectacle it de-values its capacity to create alternative experiences to the dominant paradigm.  This dominant paradigm being rooted in spectacle for spectacle’s sake, the pursuit of financial success, and popularity.  If in fact, this is the impetus for any visual artist, and not that of perceptual, formal, and philosophical inquiry, I would like to note that their “contribution” to history is scant.  Further, taking the gamble that they will achieve “success” in the capitalist sense of the word, is slim prospect.  It may be true that art can take the form of anything, but that does not necessarily make it a worthwhile experience that rewards the receiver beyond the level of cheap thrill.  I love roller coaster rides, but rarely gain formal, emotional, political, and philosophical insight, from the trip.

  • Nate Hill

    Jason,

    Personally, I think it’s important to make the art first and worry about the money later.

    Popularity in art, for me, was always a means to an end. The end was getting exposure for the art, not being popular.

    “It may be true that art can take the form of anything, but that does
    not necessarily make it a worthwhile experience that rewards the
    receiver beyond the level of cheap thrill.”

    I agree.

    “When art cohorts with spectacle it de-values its capacity to create alternative experiences to the dominant paradigm.”

    God point. I agree that it is dangerous to mix spectacle and art, if you’re interested in keeping a safe distance from the paradigm that you’re commenting on. I’m trying to subvert the paradigm and slip by unknowingly to people who normally have “art detectors” that would otherwise keep it out and not see it at all. Hope this makes sense.

    “I love roller coaster rides, but rarely gain formal, emotional, political, and philosophical insight, from the trip.”

    So I think what you’re saying is that spectacle related art lacks what other formal art (or whatever) offers? It seems to me it’s what the viewer decides to bring to it. No one’s ever written a poem about a roller coaster? Probably.

    • Jason Stopa

      Nate

      This last point is exactly what I’m getting at though.  People are essentially writing poems, making songs, and creating art based on a roller coaster, figuratively speaking.  One need look no further than Lady Gaga.  Where is the content?  If she had content she would most likely lose fans.  They are not attending her concerts to gain a larger perspective on their world and their relationship to others in it.  The point and only point, is entertainment.  

      When art dresses up in the clothes of entertainment, it will be consumed by mass culture as such. Even if it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, its disguise will suffice.  I would venture to say that such fans are not invested in de-constructing the nature of their entertainers anymore than they are invested in de-mystifying art. 

  • Nate Hill

    I see your point. I’d argue that I have good content, but of course I’m just a little biased :)

    • Nate Hill

      Jason,

      This is starting to feel like a paradox. You “dumb down” the work to reach more people and you lose content, or else you suffer from a small audience without dumbing it down.

      • Jason Stopa

        Hi Nate

        I agree it is quite a paradox.  Which is why the avant-garde is in a difficult bind.  I think you’re on to something, and I don’t mean to question your content, your argument has just raised big questions.  Questions that don’t have easy answers.  Nice little discussion, glad it got revived.  

  • Richardkooyman

    The relationship between art and it’s audience has been tossed around since the birth of modernism. Let’s not overlook the wide diversity of who is “the audience” and what is their responsibility in the debate. 
    Some people also don’t look at art because they are lazy, or not very educated, or to base, or even idiots. Should we reduce the spectacle for them?

Previous post:

Next post: