Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on September 11, 1998 in Resource Library with permission of the author. Prepared for the column Dunbier on Fine Art Valuation, Dr. Dunbier writes on issues regarding the valuation of fine art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.


"Don't Call Me an Artist"

By Roger Dunbier, PhD  


"Don't call me an artist, I'm a painter."  These words often repeated by my father were never fully understood by me as a child.  I now think I understand what he was saying and how prescient he was.

The word artist has always had a narrower and wider meaning.  The narrower traditionally has described the individual who produces paintings and sculpture.  The wider includes dancers, actors and diverse performers on high wires or in the nude, always before audiences. It is this concept of audience that more than any other separated the narrower from the wider meanings.  A painter or sculptor were always artists even when alone, whereas a dancer or actor unseen was just Hilda or Bill.

In recent years, the meaning of the word artist and what is encompassed by the word art in its narrower sense has taken on new meaning. In illustrating this, we will first dispense with art in its earlier, wider sense and park these entertaining individuals for the moment under the rubric "show biz."

Concentrating on the traditional "narrower" meaning, we find that here there has been an aggrandizement of definition to the point that it could include just about anything.  Making a quilt or a duck decoy, practical work which used to be with confidence classed under the heading "craft" is now art produced by folk artists.  Well and good language changes, but I think it is somewhat impoverished if the word "craft" goes in the dust bin.  Corollary to this and still within the former, narrower definition -- art and artists who mainly perform no matter how amateurishly, scatologically or obscenely, infringing on the show biz category are included as artists and listed in "Who's Who in American Art" as Performance Artists. It seems that the editors of that publication do not agree with Senator Helms and for that reason alone cannot be all that bad.

In what follows, however, these categories, which formerly were known as craft or "bad acting," are NOT under scrutiny.  What deserves more than passing attention is sculpture and its transmutation commonly known as installation art.

A recent book titled Installation Art defined it as "a kind of art making which rejects concentration on one object in favor of a consideration of the relationships between a number of elements or of the interaction between things and their contexts."

Not rejecting this definition, because it qualifies in and of itself as something of a verbal installation, I propose a shorter version:  An installation is a "room full of something."  Or one would be equally accurate and concise with just "more of something."

Now that "more" may be several original creations or nothing original, only accumulation or a little of both.  It might be anything.  The room you are sitting in right now could be considered an installation, but alas if you have not yet proclaimed yourself an artist, it will still be defined as a furnished room.  Too bad!!

As you are probably detecting, your correspondent is not a great advocate of this metastasized form of sculpture.  It is not installation art that draws my criticism, but its parent, sculpture. It is there wherein lies the problem.  More accurately, a well deserved opprobrium falls on sculptors who as a group laid the groundwork for installations, even if they are not themselves practitioners.

I began musing on this subject when given a tour of a major museum's storage facilities.  It is well known that there are usually more pieces there than on display, but the disparity between the room dedicated to painting and those housing sculpture was immense.  The very fact that sculpture is by definition three dimensional creates the disparity and the problem for those storing sculpture. One needs much more room. This was always the museum's dilemma,  but with installation it has become a debacle; one needs rooms that can hold rooms. I would pity the museum personnel except for the fact that they are in large measure responsible for the art form and deserve the tonnage.

It was sculpture which transmogrified itself into installation.  Two unrelated sculptures in a room constituted an installation if it was so described.  Add a chair or a toaster, and it is still an installation.  Only subtraction can result in de-installationÐtaking us back to sculpture which alas might be the toaster.  By current definition, that would be sculpture if it came thorough the museum door under the arm of a "sculptor."

And in that is the rub.  It all began with the modern art movement when a sculptor was able to select a crushed Chevrolet from a wrecking yard compressor and "schlep" it down to the museum proclaiming it a work of art.  This proclamation was seconded by the museum who put it on display. A world developed in which a sculptor called something  "sculpture," and it was accepted willy-nilly by the anointed.  Call it a piece of junk and you're a Philistine.

Sculpture, not painting, as it seems, was destined to be the mother of what has transpired in the contemporary fine art museum.

Painting -- all painting -- is by its very nature abstract.  One is making something less out of reality or fantasy.  A world which operates in three or four dimensions is reduced to two. Abstraction has been the essence of all painting beginning in the Cro-Magnon caves. The Renaissance added the recreation of an apparent but unreal third dimension. Less became more. But it still remained abstract.

Sculpture never faced this basic type of problem of learning how to work in a context of less, a world of only two dimensions.  It faced only decisions encompassed by the context of more or how much. "What percentage of Mount Rushmore is this statue going to be? Should the edition be five, fifty or five-hundred?"


So far this discussion has focused on what has happened, not the why.  Among the several causative factors put forward, I, of course, like mine best.

We are coming to the end of what future art historians are sure to call the "Century of Originality."  Originality in and of itself became an end in itself.  For all too many critics and the naïfs who followed their lead, if it was something they had seen before or had read about, it was immediately sent to oblivion.  Of the thousand or so DeKooning imitators, there must be one or two that were close to equaling or exceeding his ability to uglify a woman but who are they?  Pollock was certainly original in how he applied paint but name one individual who followed his lead.  I am sure there were some, but they of course failed the originality test. To the critics, even a better, say the best drip ever, just could never by definition pass the originality test.

One-hundred years of looking for the original fueled with thousands of American university art majors weaned on the concept of originality "uber alles" has produced -- that's right -- originality in abundance.  So much so that it is exhausted.  ORIGINALITY IS A THING OF THE PAST.

Painting constricted by the two-dimensional parameter was the first to peter out.  There is just so much you can do to astound and amaze the jaded self-anointed trailblazers of modernity when one is so confined.  It became even more difficult to find the word to put in front of the ever-ready "ism."

Where-o-where was that graduate of Ohio State who would set the art world back on its heels with something really NEW?  After sixty or seventy years of originality, painters were failing them.  Some said painting was dead.

But sculptureÐthat was a different story.  It lived in a world without that nasty two-dimensional stricture. Here originality could run on and on, long after the death of painting.  And if single works of sculpture fail to provide, one can always produce infinite permutations of multiple sculptures.  All that was needed was a name and that need produced "installation."  And the art world of the critics searching for the original was saved.

Now you can understand why my father who, in that pre-modernist era, studied painting in the Kaiser's Academy at Dusseldorf did not want to be called that all-embracing term -- artist. With installations, he would have another good reason.

© 1998 Roger Dunbier



About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 17,000 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

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