Saying the art world has an elitism problem is like saying sharks have a teeth problem, but all the same, it’s an observation worth making because of how much still needs to be undone. Via the internet, an entirely new generation of fans of the arts have been able to comfortably cultivate their obsessions, but when it comes to the art world itself, there are enormous barriers guarding access to information, opportunities and wealth.
That’s why people like Hilde Lyn Helphenstein, an independent curator and an artist herself, are so essential to the art world as it fluctuates. Helphenstein, who goes by Jerry Gogosian on Instagram, dispenses incisive critiques, brutal wit and informed suggestions pertaining the art world in the form of memes, and she’s accumulated nearly 90,000 followers for her efforts. Over the weekend, Observer caught up with Helphenstein to talk about humor, digital dignity and the delicate art of compressed criticism.
Observer: How have your memes evolved in the last turbulent pandemic year in the art world?
Helphenstein: I cannot satisfactorily amuse 90K people three times a day like I did prior to the pandemic world. Humor since the Corona times has been swinging in a very delicate balance. For as we all know this year hasn’t just been affected by the Coronavirus itself, but also massive civil unrest, racial tensions, increased global poverty, national wealth disparity, political upheaval, and fear mongering.
Simultaneously as humans we are retreating deeper and deeper into our relationship with technology which acts like a pacifier offering endless alternative narratives and feedback loops. While normally I’d suggest that humor is the best medicine, in 2021, it is instead a carefully administered cocktail of innuendo, contemplating “facts,” and asking obvious questions stupidly.
“Cancelled” is also a word on the tip of everyone’s tongue. It is the greatest fear of any business or person who makes money off of whether people like them or not. You could easily become one among the many fallen “cancelleds” for unintentionally misusing a word, accidentally leaving someone out of the narrative, or simply offering an unpopular opinion. There’s also the chance you’ll be intentionally taken out of context and piled onto by the internet’s armchair experts. Try fighting your way out of that with jokes and dignity.
Honestly, I feel like a bull in a china shop with every meme I make these days. My jokes have become in a sense blander and more obvious, but also open to a much deeper, more dynamic interpretation. I’m not shock jock (edgelord), meaning I refuse to be reckless, but I’m also not a church mouse. That is the paradox of being an artist from where I sit.
Do you see your own creative output as art? As accessible commentary? How would you describe it?
Thank you for asking me if I see this as art. Short answer, yes, of course! I trained for 7 years traditionally as an artist but never amounted to much of an object maker aka no one would pay for a painting by me. I retreated into the commercial art market to make a living and realized I was obsessed with the performance of art in society and the massive unregulated market it masks. It sets a stage for the richest of absurd comedy, morality tales, love stories, and tragedies. I guess we could call the art world a Greek stage.
Memes became an excellent and simple way to begin to break down this cacophonous performance. An art form analogous to what I do is what a sportscaster does. I like to jump in there, keep everyone up to date, make nerdy references, make a few predictions, give all the players loving nicknames and stir up shit. The meme itself is a deceptively simple vessel for communicating complex ideas. Luckily because I use pop culture references it’s easy to get the point quickly and move on. I do see it as an art form and a persona. There have been a few articles that have taken the time to point out why what I do is “not art” and I’m pretty sure that is what happens every time someone finds a new domain to roll out their creativity.
Can the art world be fixed? Why or why not?
Can late stage capitalism be fixed? Art in the “art world” “art market” sense has become purely a derivative of finance with sentimental or academic language like icing on the cake. I’m not calling that not art, but this of course, is just a tiny sliver of what art truly is.
I think a better question is “Can art fix the world?” Art is a lens through which someone may approach their entire life. It enables a mindset for incredible freedom, creativity, and dare I say, magic. Like humor or intuition, we all possess art and it is up to us to develop this sense within ourselves to a much stronger degree than we have thus far. Jerry Saltz calls art a verb. I agree. It’s like a muscle. Rules in childhood which may have taught us to behave within society also tend to dampen this part of the spirit. Instead of being reliant on creating, we are taught to rely on what is provided for us, and to ask very few questions.
When I was about to finish college, I went crying to my department head in a panic, “WHY DID I CHOOSE ART?” She very calmly explained to me that artistic thought was one of the last truly free spaces to think without government, rules, and laws. I see artistic thinking as a valuable tool for us to save the planet and social society moving forward. We need to engage our brains at full capacity to think in new territories and reinvent parts of the world which are clearly broken. It’s time for artists to be brave, loud, and forceful about the alternative paths we should be considering as a species before it is too late.