Caption: Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923.
Is the art world’s codification of meaning-making in art responsible for the general lack of public engagement with it?
All meaning in art being necessarily tied to a social or cultural critique in an age in which we refuse to acknowledge the possibility of an author separate and distinct from his or her work, precludes the use of one’s own imagination when viewing an art object. Of course, regardless of what came first, artists have adapted their art accordingly; knowing their art will be viewed through the lens of their own lived experience irrespective of intention, encourages artists to create work that is overtly that; overtly social, political, cultural; mired in his/her own milieu. Is abstraction the answer? Robert Linsley would say yes. As a recent review by Mitch Speed of a book by the late author in MOMUS puts it, for Linsley abstraction in art is the practice that would allow people to re-see art as a “complex entity.” Linsley argued that transcendence (and he argued always for transcendence) was only possible through an art created by people “unfettered” by the inescapable dominance of a culture or politics. It’s something Speed struggles with because even Linsley acknowledges an art “unfettered” is only possible for certain people who, due to background, can escape their politics for long enough to create art. Art then, Linsley argues, needs to avoid any trace of cultural specificity should it wish to extract itself from the societal and cultural influence that will inevitably eliminate its power. “Why would anyone want to sacrifice that beautiful eventuality for the sake of their own personal story?”
Art is autonomous. Art is universal. Art must be transformative. Linsley also wants smallness, particularity, so when I speak of the universal I don’t mean universal in terms of meaning, ie., the message of the art should resonate universally, no, I mean universal in that a work of art is meant to be universally graspable- anyone should be able to encounter it, understand it or at least be moved by it. Abstraction though, is a challenge, because it is not obvious, in fact, it cannot by definition be recognized or understood, which I guess is Linsley’s real universal intent: we all know we cannot understand it but, as Dave Hickey beautifully writes on formalism, “we have no choice but to try.” It’s like a universal non-language that offers transcendence through an non-discriminatory inscrutability, which begs the question, it seems, of who an artist is creating art for. Linsley’s seems to be a strong argument against culturally specific art (or at the very least an attempt to distinguish certain types of art from others) – but it would be hard to deny there is any value in an artist who desired to create work purely for his or her community or even an idealistic (read, unfortunately, naïve) artist who wished to use his/her art to effect change. There should it seems, be room for both.
It would help the public case of art (and there is very much a need for a public case for art) if art could acknowledge different uses for art, different forms of art, any acceptable variation, and therefore different methods for evaluating it, in which case I would be happy to go along with Linsley’s argument that it is abstraction and only abstraction which offers an artist the chance for self-discovery or self-transformation, all art, in that case, would not be interested in seeking the same end.
It also occurs to me that the problem isn’t that art does or doesn’t want to do something, or that it should or shouldn’t do something, but simply that we’ve never been able to agree on what that something should be, and we’ve certainly never been able to persuasively articulate it. And even during our sad attempts to do so, we’ve certainly never communicated that to non-art world members. And I know I’m a broken record but I think its more important than ever that we begin to work towards finding ways to re-engage people (all people) with art.
Firstly for the sake of the artists who are trying to do something with their art, whatever it might be; bring awareness, move the dial, argue for a new understanding of something important, they deserve an audience outside of the echo chamber and we should find ways to give them one, but secondly because art does take place outside of the news cycle and doesn’t traffic in “facts” or objective truth. There could be a great deal of value in exposing contemporary audiences to subjective objects that document or memorialize actual events and offer highly and overtly subjective takes on them, socially charged art could serve as a powerful weapon against our polarized culture. There is rarely one truth and even the word fact has become meaningless in an age in which it is thrown around to refer to everything from climate change to a security breach to fill in the blank historical event. And if we learned anything from Marx, which we surely have, it is always to distrust those in power who lay claim to facts.
If nothing else art could trouble our experience of the world as this or that and nothing else, a new reality exploited by a media driven by various factors to couch complex topics into simplistic blocks of pre-determined length.
Art has always evolved. Most of what we call art today would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. There’s no reason it can’t evolve again.