The art world is not one single place, but many intersecting spheres of interest and influence. I’ve tried to explain this a number of times to Civilians—people I meet who, when the conversation turns to what each of us does and I say, “I’m an artist,” hear me saying “I’m a nurse,” because that’s a believable occupation and artist is apparently not.
Upon realizing what I’ve actually said, such people will often ask me if I have heard of X, their friend/cousin’s husband/ kid’s teacher’s nephew. “She makes these fantastic bird house sculptures,” they will say, or “he paints beautiful pictures of sunsets behind country cottages.” They describe to me how successful these individuals are; the newspaper articles in which their work has appeared, the TV shows in which they have been featured--or, these days, their acclaimed Instagram feed. I listen, then I say, as warmly and politely as possible: “There are so many art worlds. This artist is just in a different one from me.”
Talking, I see a Venn diagram in my mind, with dozens of floating circles: some overlapping and others separate, standing alone. Here, I think, focusing on one large gold-edged blob, is the world as defined by Artforum and Frieze. Over there is the special universe of trompe l’oeil painting, or of academic yet hunky male nudes. Stuck to the edge of the Artforum blob, overlapping it a bit, is one of thickly impastoed abstracts in tasteful colors. Bird house sculptures? Yup. There is a place for those too.
Each of these circles encloses a group of practitioners, galleries, collectors, critics. Some painters are enclosed here in one period of their lives, drifting over there at another time. Sometimes artists are in a Craft Medium circle but also in a Fine Art circle. Sometimes they are not. Some canny individuals ARE the overlap between two bubbles— like Josiah McElheny, between Glass and High Academic Art (two worlds that approach each other, bump together and separate again with surprising frequency).
I respect many of these floating universes, even as I am certain I will never really know or even visit them. Still, Ars longa, vita brevis: art is long, life is short, and maybe you will be able to step into more worlds than I will. I wish you pleasant travels. Just mind the gap.