Intro to prêt à emporter
Prêt à emporter is a conceptual project begun in 2002 and explores ways of producing art that is less expensive and more accessible while maintaining the quality of the work. Basically, its looking at ways to commodify (mass produce) art without making it feel cheap or unininteresting. The concept is partly inspired by the story of ready to wear and its impact on couture in fashion. This is a more difficult project than it seems on the surface because it requires considerable understanding and navigating how art is made, how it is sold, how it is consumed and how it is understood and judged by both the beginner and the expert. In addition, consider the idea that maybe its not important or useful to society for art to be accessible to more people. I mean, visual art is not obviously beneficial like books, which are so important and transformative to our world. Is there anything about visual art that merits the idea that it should be more accessible or is it fine functioning as a sort of luxury good?
Art is very much like wine in the sense that you can talk about it all day long but in the end you need to taste it and you need to taste a lot of different wine if you are going to grow in your understanding and enjoyment of it. There are many ways to view art and every one of them is problematic in some way. Museums, galleries, art fairs, and biennales require your physical presence in their geographic location, during limited time frames. Its great if you live in a major art city like new york or paris or hong kong but for the majority of the world it means travel which is more time consuming and expensive. Online sites like instagram have lots of art but they necessarily favor work that looks good when photographed and fit to a screen. Magazines are great for deeper undestanding but very limited in scope and the photos are often not obviously superior to a screen. Access can be expensive. Collecting art is fairly ideal because you can enjoy it at your leisure and over a large time span but you are limited by cost and wall space. In the art world the general rule is that the higher the quality and import of the art then the more expensive it is. So if you want to collect what most experts would agree is the best art then you need super deep pockets and maybe really great connections in the art market.
High prices and lack of access severely limits the impact of art on the world. Imagine if the greatest books were the most expensive. It would severely curtail who gets to read what. Our world would be so much less advanced if books still worked that way (before the printing press books were only for the most privileged). Same with music. Before recorded music and radio you either had to make your own music, go to concerts or hire someone to play for you. Accessible and inexpensive books and music have resulted in immeasurable impact and benefits to humanity.
Does art merit the same treatment as books and music? How is owning art different from owning books and music? If there were no unique benefits to owning visual art then it probably would not matter but there is a major difference between art and music or books and that is the impact of repetition and time. Think how we consume books for example. We read it and we are done. Maybe it contains the sort of ideas that we want to really learn and understand so we read the book again and maybe we highlight some passages and quotations and study them. Then its put away. On to the next book. The finished book moves from the pile beside the bed to the library. With art its almost the opposite. It probably won't have life changing impact on you in one viewing but if you live with it over time it becomes part of you. Its not uncommon for collectors to say that their favorite artworks are part of their family. Visual art in your environment has the same kind of impact that advertising does and we all know how effective advertising is. Its a multi billion dollar industry that demonstrates the power of repetition over time. Visual art is perhaps more similar to music in the sense that we usually repeatedly listen to our favorite tunes but it works differently in that the repetition tends to be brief and intense and then tail off over time. With visual art its slower and steadier. You don't have to consciously make an effort for it to impact you. It can just be there, in the background, influencing you at a subtle and less conscious way, like advertising. And there is lots of scientific evidence now that art can influence its environment, even if you are not consciously aware of it. 1
To me, the real strength of art compared to books and music is that its longer term. We know that change can be difficult and we've all tried and failed to change quickly in some area of our lives. You read the self help book and are inspired to be different but a few weeks later the book doesn't seem so inspiring and the change doesn't stick. Art is probably not going to transform your life in a month but over time, for certain areas of your life, its impact can be immense. Instagram and travelling to museums are probably not as effective at producing lasting impact in your life compared to owning and living with art.