When Does Fan Art Become Real Art?

07/17/2009 4:00 AM |

This March at the SXSW Interactive Media festival, MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Co-Director Henry Jenkins restated his much-tweeted maximum, “Web 2.0 is fan culture without the stigma.” According to Jenkins, the Internet is now the primary outlet for culturally-accepted obsessions about one thing or another. The statement proves to be true for most of us — who doesn’t identify as a “fan” of something — but it made me wonder: where does fan production show up in the fine art world? I drew a blank.

Prompted in part by Michael Jackson’s death and the subsequently renewed interest in artworks using him as subject matter (Jeff Koons’ Bubbles [above] and Dana Schutz’ The Autopsy of Michael Jackson amongst them), I decided I would try to get to the bottom of it. But in order to locate fan production in the art world, I knew a few working definitions needed to be established. After all, who are fans and why are they important?

According to Ivan Askwith, a senior strategist at the digital marketing company Big Spaceship, the term has evolved from those exhibiting a freakish obsession to simply describing an “engaged audience.” Online marketing companies understand the expanding definition represents a mobilizing force likely to result in cash, so at least from a production and economic stand point, it isn’t difficult to establish that fans are a powerful force in contemporary culture.

But what does this have to do with fine art? As far as a cultural product goes, artists seem just as interested in using material made by fans as anything else. Shinique Smith’s assemblage and painting exhibition at Yvon Lambert provides a recent example — her palette includes everything from paint, ink and clothing to a River Phoenix clock bought off eBay. (We’ll assume this was fan-collected material to make the point.) Fans themselves however — at least by their traditional definition — tend not to penetrate the art world. Britney Spears supporter and YouTube star Chris Crocker won’t be making it into the New Museum any time soon, but someone appropriating his videos might.

When comparing this fan-professional dynamic to that in other fields, the cultural landscape looks significantly different. In the publishing world, fan-fiction like Wicked and The Mists of Avalon represent such a high level of skill that we tend not to describe them as such. The only fine art equivalent to this might be the homage. Paris collective Claire Fontaine’s smoke tribute to Bruce Nauman’s sculpture reading The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths, provides one such example. The group’s response reads: The True artist produces the most prestigious commodity.