I. Introduction

Phantom cultures emerge from two distinct and related tendencies in humanities discourse. First is the fallacy of assuming that “culture” is an exclusive abstraction, something that happens elsewhere and elsewhen, independent of the individual. My own experience growing up in the American Midwest had a huge influence in shaping my understanding of what constitutes culture. The pervasive idea that only others are the authentic participants in cultural production was one of the more difficult misunderstandings that I have since tried to correct. Part of the basis for this attitude, at least as I observe it, comes from a lack of representation in popular media. As national news stories rarely focused on Kansan events and movies almost never depicted any lives that resembled my own, the feeling that my reality was not only remote and isolated from America’s cultural centers, but also a type of inauthentic annex of American life altered my perspective in a way that still impacts how I view the world. I can imagine similar complexities affecting immigrants, their children, and other minorities in even more difficult ways. The process of reconciling our status as a nation of immigrants, a melting pot, a salad bowl with the disconnect that even something as prevalent as regional differences can generate is still open-ended.

Another side of this tendency is the belief that only certain contributions are exceptional enough to significantly push an aggregate society in any direction. In one sense this can be seen as the opposite of assuming society is created separately from the individual, as it places the entire task of cultural production on extraordinary figures. In both cases responsibility and authorship are displaced to a virtual other, the phantom that somehow seems to have more power than the real. The concept of an “art world” plays directly into this misunderstanding. The idea that the art world exists is ill-defined at best, if not counterproductive to the role of art in the world. By overemphasizing high-end sales in descriptions of how the art world functions, the real world experience of how most artists sustain a practice can seem like a secondary activity, a temporary step toward the undefined spectre of success. In practice, a very small number of working artists today make their living from art sales, and the alternative spaces, artist-run galleries, online exhibitions, and break-even publications that comprise the bulk of contemporary art activity have an undeniable role in shaping the current experiences of art. Moreover, the process of canonization has historically favored the privileged, and to assume that prodigies are who shape the art world can deepen the injustice of overlooked voices.

The other discursive error that generates phantom cultures is to underestimate the role of individual perspectives as a factor in building beliefs about experience. The kind of objective distance and observational rigor that anthropologists are taught to employ when studying groups of people doesn’t carry the same expectation in art theory and criticism, where the subjective experience of a work of art is often a trusted source of conceptual guidance. This is not to say that embracing the unique opinions of the viewer is always misguided; part of the richness and value of visual art lies in its ability to shift meaning from one encounter to the next, and this expansive role gives power to its generative ability. Subjectivity can also cloud judgement, however, by obfuscating the fact the worth of an artwork is always attributed to it externally and never an endemic component of any piece. In a similar way, beauty can never be understood outside of cultural conditioning. The task of curating and classifying art can sometimes overlook this, as it’s common for collections to be composed based on superficial material or aesthetic similarities. The danger in this modality lies in attributing too much cultural meaning to what more accurately amount to stylistic trends or practical choices on the part of the artist. It’s helpful to remember that aesthetic leanings in visual art function not unlike those in fashion: they are created through popular use and easily discarded with time. The ability for art to produce lasting cultural shifts is less clear when considered based on the phenomenological moments of present experience with a piece, and this is the set of possibilities by which I think contemporary art history can offer insight.