What Giant Pandas
teach us
about contemporary art

by: Chris Vitiello

This article is adapted from a talk given at the Ackland Art Museum’s 2015 Spring Luncheon.


When I think overall about the contemporary art scene in the Triangle, Giant Pandas come to mind.

My daughters are worried about Giant Pandas. They used to be lowland animals when grasses were plentiful, but human encroachment has gradually driven them into the mountains of central China. They subsist entirely on bamboo, which grows only in a very narrow altitude range. So they’re trapped by their food source in that range, even over the harsh Himalayan winters, when other mammals move to lower, more hospitable levels. The pandas can’t even hibernate anymore because the bamboo has such little nutritional value that they have to eat all year just to sustain life.

My daughters see the writing on the wall for the pandas. One little thing goes wrong one year—a bamboo blight or a particularly brutal winter—and that could be it for them. The pandas have adapted themselves into a corner.

Humans, of course, are more inclined to adapt our environment to us, rather than adapting to our environment. Cold weather doesn’t prompt us to grow fur—we run a furnace. In densely populated communities, our bodies don’t physiologically make fewer humans—we raze some nearby land and build single-family homes starting in the $340,000s surrounded by a freshly plunked-down sod lawn of non-native grasses.green

What we are learning, of course, is that we can adapt the environment to our species to a point, and then the environment begins to spring back suddenly in unpredictable ways. The weather freaks out, our waste products pile up, our whole economy becomes just about fuel, we all get type-2 diabetes and heart disease. The 21st century is a lot of fun.

Young artists today—and by “young” I mean not so much their age as the fact of their beginning a professional career—are finding a comparably depleted environment.

The hillsides of academia used to grown plentiful bamboo. You get your degree, you get a teaching job, and you build a career that balances your artistic practice with your teaching duties, get tenure, get a mid-career retrospective and/or divorce, build a new studio in the backyard, and wait for MoMA to call.

But now that bamboo is scarce. The budgets of universities and art institutions have tightened. There are fewer jobs, they pay less, and the workload is larger. Fortunately, artists are especially adaptable creatures. They can eat plenty of things other than bamboo. They’re flipping the traditional function or role of the artist.

Here’s a traditional working definition of an artist: one possesses great technical skill, great craft ability honed through training and devoted practice (Malcolm Gladwell’s misguided 10,000-hours capitalist fantasy); and one is something of the classic idea of a genius, thinking better or imagining better than “normal” people.

Thusly trained and talented, whatever an artist expresses has by definition heightened cultural value. The artist is special, rare—so what he or she produces is special and rare—the very best cultural bamboo. Even the avant-garde movements of the 20th century that dumped on that precious notion of traditional cultural value were pulled back into it. Just try to buy a Pollock or a Warhol at auction.

Similarly for Basquiat

Similarly so for Basquiat

The Internet, however, continues to transform all traditional notions of cultural value. If all stuff is now completely available, the whole idea of relative value is thrown completely out of whack. Value is moving out of physical stuff and into virtual stuff—information, media. But that’s even changed—it’s more the availability of the information that holds value, often more than the information itself. Content is cheap—it’s the access to the content that you pay for. So… what exactly has value? It shifts quickly, unpredictably. Cultural value itself is destabilized.

Artists today must adapt to see this destabilization as opportunity. They’ve actually already evolved to have an advantage in this environment, since art has always only had a social value rather than an inherent value in the way that a meal or a tool does.

Artists now look around them to see what is culturally needed or missing and, just as importantly, figure out the best delivery method to satisfy that need or lack. Then they try to produce that work. Artists don’t follow the trained genius model to express something internal so much as they describe what’s external, or respond to it or question it, or demonstratively fail at that in a compelling way.

Their work is more situational, modular. You hear artists say things like “I really need to see the space where the work is going to be, in order to make the work that’s going to go there.” You have video artists releasing their work for free, and then producing a secondary body of sculptural set pieces or photographic stills for the marketplace. You have project-oriented artists that, conceptually consistent, exhibit no discernible aesthetic style across their works.

Rather than devoting thousands of hours of practice to absolutely master a single craft ability, artists quickly-and-dirtily get up to speed on as many abilities as possible, and find friends to collaborate with who have the other abilities that they’re missing. Rather than make discrete, perfect masterpieces, they’re producing a disparate set of works that can be recombined any number of ways to fit many different situations and satisfy as wide as possible a variety of needs. And rather than entirely depending upon galleries, dealers, collectors and museums to pay them for their work, they’re running their own online galleries to move their artwork, building their brands through the production of virtual artwork with little overhead other than their time, or launching crowdfunding campaigns to underwrite the creation of the work in the first place.

Art institutions and organizations are adapting too. You used to have museums for four-month shows of established artists from their collection and galleries for one-month shows of work for sale by emerging artists—and that was that. Now these roles are blurring together or shifting from week to week.

Galleries like Lump and Flanders in Raleigh—consolidated now under the same roof—behave like museums, showing work meant to challenge or educate rather than sell. Museums like UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum now carve out gallery-like areas for short-term curatorial projects like “Adding to the Mix,” which constantly remixes its collection. Other museums like CAM Raleigh operate without a curator on staff, using guest curators to deliver a greater variety of shows to their audience.

At Golden Belt Studios in Durham, you have the “Off the Radar” series of pop-up exhibitions in unrented studios, up for just three hours on one night only. The limited access creates a can’t-miss event. You have art co-op models like the spaceless Peregrine Projects in Raleigh, hanging their members’ paintings above the blouses and jewelry at the Edge of Urge boutique downtown. You have the open-access model of the donation-run Carrack Gallery in Durham, which takes zero commission from sales and hangs shows for only two weeks, creating a high-energy community by dint of the sheer rate of turnover in the space.

You have Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel devoting an astonishing amount of floor space to multiple galleries, using the draw of contemporary art to sell food, drinks and luxury hotel rooms, rather than the other way around.

inside 21c Durham

inside 21c Durham

You have the NC State’s Gregg Museum of Art and Design, displaced by campus construction, operating as a museum without walls for years, continuing to do shows all around Raleigh while fundraising to build their new space.

You have Greensboro’s Elsewhere, perhaps the weirdest art space in North Carolina, a thrift store transformed into a residency program in which artists cannot bring material in or take material away—instead simply remixing the vast stores of cultural detritus left over from its thrift store days.

You have percent-for-public art programs around the Triangle. You have robust storefront art programs in Chapel Hill and Durham. You have groups like the Raleigh-based SiteWorks, fostering a culture of site-based art throughout the capital city.

And while traditional funders like arts councils still pretty much run the playbooks they wrote after the art wars during the Reagan administration, new kinds of support are emerging in the form of umbrella organizations like Fractured Atlas or Saxapahaw’s Culture Mill, offering services and fiscal sponsorship so new projects can get up and running quickly.

That’s a lot of new stuff, and all pretty much unheard of in the area twenty years ago. Heck, five years ago.

You don’t need to climb a mountain in central China to go panda-watching to get the point: adapt to your environment or struggle. And in a cultural environment that changes quickly, even cataclysmically, your adaptation must be constant and at pace. Logically, this is the only sustainable model.

All around the Triangle, young artists, gallery proprietors, and museum directors know this. That’s why we have a lively art scene here right now. And although that doesn’t guarantee that we will have a lively art scene here tomorrow—we could easily just have a bunch of bar/restaurants and condos—you do have to feel pretty optimistic that the Triangle arts community won’t let us run out of bamboo.


Chris Vitiello is a freelance Arts and Performance writer. He is an independent curator and organizer. He is a poet and teacher who books include Nouns Swarm a Verb, Irresponsibility, and Obedience  He is at once Flaneur and Poetry Fox. He is also father to two terrific daughters.

Chris Vitiello

Chris Vitiello

Clarion Content

Clarion Content is a Durham-based online magazine that curates and creates the thriving culture that gives our city its identity. Our community building is only as strong as our collective contributions. Our team of curators welcomes your comments, suggestions, and concerns. We are open to all points of view, especially those that challenge and therefore stimulate our own. We also encourage reader submitted material as well as guest columnists. See something cool, outrageous, outlandish, or important? Have a great cause? Send us a note or stop by our offices at the Mothership, 401 West Geer Street inside the MotorCo complex.

1 Comment

  • Reply July 21, 2015

    Libby Lynn

    Thank you all. You’re great.

    What Durham’s art community is lacking is a lack of collectors, buyers, and the critically massive lack of patrons beyond us. The many diverse industries in this area would do their respective industries (through attendance, true engagement, patron-ship and purchases for collection of our art) a very good turn. What art communities are *not* discussing is making works of art in the NC economies. Art, art degrees and art-making = blue collar jobs. Our art isn’t sustainable without access to our work that people are able to afford. Art ceases to be a luxury when art-lovers can AFFORD it. I hope CC digs into art economies in cities comparable to Durham. “Buy Local Art” is not quite working towards a working wage in our forward-thinking city. We need income to keep Durham dirty.

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