On the search for a literal art

Caption: Long before Michael Heizer brought “Levitated Mass” to LACMA, he took pictures of massive boulders, above. The photos and “Munich Rotary” are on view. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

A few weeks ago I was reading an essay about Michael Heizer and came across a reference to Frank Stella’s assertion concerning his own work that “what you see is what you see.” The author of the essay seems to leave space for the literalness of Stella, Johns, or Rauschenberg’s art while using Heizer’s photographs, with his manipulation of size and scale, to “explore the ‘truth claims’ of photographic media,” to assert, in fact, photography and film as mediums in which, contrary to what one might think, literalness is more difficult to take for granted.

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Language, the Mind, and the East vs. the West

Are we, in the West, overly consumed with creating validity through language? In other words, by naming something do we legitimize (or at least think we legitimize) something ie., eliminate the possibility of debate? 

I’m overly obsessed with language and the question of how it affects the way our mind functions analytically, so I was intrigued by Perry Link’s recent New York Review of Books blog post pondering the possibility that Western languages’ preference for nouns in contrast to Eastern languages’ preference for verbs, might lead Westerners to think something exists simply because a noun (label) for it exists. 

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On our absurd art

Image Caption: The Atlas Group – Walid Raad, Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars, 1989. Attributed to: Dr. Fadl Fakhouri. ©Photo: Walid Raad. Repro: Haupt & Binder.

Contemporary art is at odds. On the one hand it is interested in temporality and the dissolution of the individual as its practitioners attempt to extricate themselves and their work from the grips of the art industrial complex.  On the other hand it is consumed with creating information about art events, thereby preserving it (if you haven’t stopped to look around, much of our art is documentation in one form or another). It seems that, try as we might, despite a million desires and predictions to the contrary, we cannot allow the art object to die.

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On Nostalgia

Art is stupidly powerful, if sometimes, in a rather roundabout way.

About a month or so ago author and blogger Maris Kreizman published an op-ed in the New York Times on nostalgia in the wake of Netflix’s announcement of it’s “Full House” reboot.

A rabid “Full House” fan in her youth, Kreizman used the news to comment on the out-of-control nostalgia (my words) of our generation, attributing this to, at least in part, how technology has changed the way we interact with the art (or… not art) we love.

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Ramblings on why we love minimalism so much

It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.

It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.

It is, however, singularly more difficult to explain what that really means, and how it is that simplicity and repetition can affect our brains and emotions in such powerful ways.

Lately I’ve been rereading what is one of my favorite treatises on modern art, a sort of modern art apologetics if you will, Pictures of Nothing, an AW Mellon Lectures volume, compiled from talks given by Kirk Varnedoe at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2003.

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It’s a defense, in a way, of modern, abstract art since the time of Pollock, and Varnedoe treads waist-deep into the incredibly difficult terrain of defending modern artists and their “pictures of nothing.” It’s a lucid, wholly unpretentious accounting of the artists and their motivations, which have come to compose our modern art history, and Varnedoe is one of those arts world people who invites people in, instead of locking them out.

But I digress.

Varnedoe’s arguments pushed me back towards the place in my head from which I initially determined I would write about art, in which I would refuse to let the traditional critical dialogues be sufficient and would instead, strive always for an analysis, or an argument, which would make the most sense, to the most people, when writing about a subject. In other words, I would eschew dense art-speak and write for more than the .005 percent of the population who can (or want to) decipher it.

The old, transformation by reduction line, in defense of highly simplistic shapes or repetitive notes in music, is a great example.

The idea, in a very general sense, is that by cutting away all excess, anything that could be construed as a distraction from the essence, an artist can create for his viewers or listeners, an environment in which they can rediscover the beauty inherent in, for example, a square, or, if we’re using the music metaphor, an F-sharp, in a way that is impossible when the note is surrounded by hundreds of others.

In the words of Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, writing for ArtForum in 1974, artists, sculptors specifically but the same applies across medium, in this new minimal vein, (I want to say he was referring to the work of Carl André but the subject escapes me, regardless its applicable in a broader way) sought a “phenomenological reduction of the experience of sculpture to its essential condition.”

The assertion being that silence in music, or space in art, allows the mind to more easily process a visual or auditory moment.

But that doesn’t explain, really, how it is an art object or piece of music that is seemingly so simple, can affect our brain in such powerful ways.

A couple of ramblings on why I think that might be the case now follow.

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Part of it is, for me, the intimate connection we feel to the music or art as the artistic representation of our time. For me, it has always seemed like the music of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, for example, was my music. Not mine in the sense of me personally, but mine in the sense of my generation’s. Now part of that is certainly indebted to the fact that I grew up with the music. It wasn’t shocking as it may have been to those who knew life before it. The same could be said for Carl Andre’s floor pieces.

But the fact remains that a minimalistic bent in art and music, makes sense to me (us), it seems to be the art of the present. Our present. And as such, we feel a powerful connection to it. Historical forms of art, or music, are exactly that, historical, and despite the fact that many of them incontestably maintain some of the same intensity and inner energy they must have possessed when they were created, the connection we have to our music is necessarily different.

There are two ways you can take this, first of all, it could be a chicken vs. egg thing. Do we feel a connection to the music simply because it is our contemporary and it is inherent to human nature to feel connected to something you associate with certain aspects of your life, or do we feel a connection to the music for a deeper reason? For the latter, in other words, do we feel a connection to this new kind of art because the language it is speaking, is directly related to our language, our internal language or philosophy, specifically?

Of course, really, you could postulate even further, concerning whether the art’s language defined our cultural language as a whole, or whether it was influenced by cultural history. Everything is a factor of everything else and I’m not a philosopher so won’t make an attempt at answering the question. Not quite ready for that.

Suffice to say, I posit modern music/art’s appeal is directly related to its contemporaneity with us as its audience.

Varnedoe, in another possible defense, writes of the art of the minimalists, take Robert Ryman for an example, and makes the not immediately obvious observation that “you can’t hang them next to anything else.” Like I said, not immediately obvious, but allow me to explain.

Picture yourself in a room with six paintings by Picasso, or Francisco Goya and hanging in the midst of the exquisite paintings of either master, is a Robert Ryman. A white canvas which reveals nothing more than white until it is examined closer. Upon which painting does your eye rest?

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Robert Ryman

Everything else is destroyed in the wake of the work of Judd, or Ryman, or the music of Glass, or Adams.

It almost seems like, for a beginner, it would be so much easier to understand the power of minimal art, if that very thing happened. If instead of walking into a room, like I recently did for Carl André’s retrospective at Dia:Beacon, and encountering work after work on the floor, one were to walk into a room full of figurative paintings and one André floor piece. The powerful statement of the work would make more sense wouldn’t it?

Of course art exhibitions aren’t designed for entry-level arts enthusiasts, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The work, in the rather uncommon context I described above, would make you stop and think. You’d ask yourself why, and, unless you’re an incurably, uncurious person, you’d wonder why it’s there, how it got to be there and what it means.

It’s involvement with you as the spectator would be “immediate” in the words of Varnedoe. In other words, you wouldn’t have to get up close and personal with the work to see what it included. It’s right there, all laid out for you. In this case, your gut reaction, of surprise, or immediacy, would be correct. In all honesty, you don’t really have to engage with it any further. You’ve already grasped its meaning.

And there-in lies its power.

I believe one of the stumbling blocks for audiences listening to a Cage piece, or examining a Judd sculpture, is the ignorance many have of the “artist’s” intention. The artists and musicians of minimalism weren’t really interested in art in the traditional sense, which makes it hard (impossible for some) to relate to their work in an artistic way. In the traditional way. They didn’t really want you to. Many artists of the period, Judd and André for example, were pretty vocal about not wanting to be a part of art. André’s “idea of art was related to some kind of abstraction, from something outside of art.”

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André, Judd, Cage, Reich, they all wanted their viewers or listeners to examine the idea of experience. They saw their work as an experimental departure, which is why context, in art, is often key, much of the work on view at spaces and museums of canonical artists like Judd and André, was never intended to be seen. We value it now from an art historical standpoint as we tell the story of how an important artist becomes an important artist. But even apart from that, much of André’s work, even the completed work, was still simply an experiment.

I could go on forever. Part of the appeal for me, specifically as it concerns visual art, is the minimalist’s penchant for creating useful art, entailing a strong belief in the power of design and simplicity, to better our lives. Something I believe in wholeheartedly, and another aspect of this movement that is worth exploring in more detail. It’s easy to say good design betters lives, much harder to actually explain how/why in an empirical sense.

I’ve got to stop there though. In summation? Art of one’s time is powerful. The most powerful. And minimalism’s power lies in its simplicity, especially when confronted in the context of traditional, historical art. You can’t look at anything else. And that’s all that needs to be said.

regarding the paradox of words

When an artist uses a certain color, is he using the color for the color’s sake, motivated purely by the aesthetic pleasure, or displeasure, the particular color has on the brain? Or is he using a color to represent what it is that that color has come to represent, thanks to a collective definition forged over centuries? A context which, like it or not, is seemingly impossible to eliminate.

As an example.

Is the color blue in a painting, chosen for its beauty, its “blueness,” if you will, or is it chosen as a signifier; intended to evoke, in the mind of the viewer, feelings of depression, or sorrow.

I’m fascinated by language, how words came to be and how they develop meaning far in excess of their dictionary definitions, and have written about the subject before in the context of David Lynch. Lynch is many things, foremost among them, Lynch is a filmmaker. As such, he uses the vocabulary of film to force his viewers to reconsider, visually, the innumerable associations we have with words. Why can’t a scab be beautiful, for instance? And is there any way to shed the vast network of associations we bring with us to language?

William Gass is another intellectual fascinated by language; how it fails us even as it proves our dependence. After all, as I’m sure Gass is well aware, there is a harsh irony implicit in the necessity of words in examining the unreliability of language, as he was forced to do in On Being Blue.

The argument of Gass’ casually philosophical treatment of the subject, hinges, in my summation, on whether writers want to express what their words represent, or the words themselves, and whether or not the two can be disentangled. Spoiler alert, he believes it’s the former, that words are used for their particular properties rather than themselves. But he spends 90, give or take, fascinating (and humorous) pages expanding on that dilemma.

“Words are properties of thoughts and thoughts cannot be thought without them,” he writes at one point, expressing the futility of the entire endeavor.

Its mind-blowingly complex, this issue. Like, make your head hurt complex. A recursive, ontological meditation on the paradox of words indelible and ever-shifting meanings and the staggering fact, that without these unreliable signifiers, we can’t think at all.

It helps to think about the idea in the context of sex, as Gass does.

If we’re going to discuss, or even think, about sex, we have no choice but to use words. It’s a given. But try doing so and you’ll quickly see it become obvious that “anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writings which comprise it are ludicrous.”

Words are everything, it could be argued that we wouldn’t exist without them, and yet they are insufficient, even as they are essential. Unstoppable. Pervasive.

The struggle, for anyone perturbed by the idea, lies in how that fact, the centrality of words, can coexist peacefully in the intellect with the reality that “a random set of meaning has gathered around the word[s] the way lint collects.”

The mind just does that.

Fuck.

The debate concerning language and its “true” meaning easily elicits an association with Plato and his theory of Forms as the true representations of reality, e.g., the Form (capital F) of any thing, is more real than reality’s various manifestations of that thing; the Dog is the only true dog, therefore every particular dog is merely a shadow of the true Dog.

A rather conclusive take on ontology’s search to explain what the features of things are. For Plato, there can be no features.

Gass grapples with that idea in the context of language, challenging the dogmatism inherent in Plato’s line of argument in the context of language, the signifier, as opposed to the sign itself.

Approaching the idea in a different way, Gass instead allows for the particulars, or the features, although he reaches a conclusion of his own.

I read Plato’s arguments as attempts to definitively eliminate those “random sets of meanings” which inevitably cloud a word’s definition; to conclusively state that the ontology of a thing, exists only its universal, or essential.

But, in the words of Gass, if “signs are not the same as the things they designate, they are at least an essential segment.”

In the context of color, which Gass uses frequently as illustration throughout his essay (the book’s title is On Being Blue, after all), he somewhat boldly asserts as “fact” the idea that color is only somewhat subjective. “No one is going to call the sounds of the triangle brown or accuse the timpanist of playing pink.”

Gass will give into the futile consideration of subjectivity, metaphysics, and ontology only to a point, what thinking person can do otherwise, but Gass fights throughout his writing for concession, in a sense, begging for mercy from the obliterating force of the philosophical argument.

As Virginia Woolf’s ever-conflicted Orlando observed:

So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. ‘The sky is blue,’ he said, ‘the grass is green.’ Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. ‘Upon my word,’ he said (for he had fallen into the bad habit of speaking aloud), ‘I don’t see that one’s more true than another. Both are utterly false.’ And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is and fell into a deep dejection.

Haven’t we all had those out of body experiences? Who the hell decided what would describe what anyways?

But, as Orlando discovered, one can’t live like that. Not all of the time anyways.

Various qualities, or the “lint” as Gass calls it, words pick up over time, may not be part of the essential word, but, as Aristotle would argue, since our experience of a word, or a color, is by necessity, an experience of the whole; composed of each of our innumerable and unpredictable associations with it, we cannot help but associate the qualities we observe in reality, with its use.

It is the balance, in the opinion of Gass, between all aspects of a thing, that makes it what it is.

Perceptions are always profound, associations deceiving.

But they’re real, and we have no choice but to accept them.

I’m no philosopher but I would describe the two sides of the language debate as the essentialists vs. the pragmatists. In other words, those who believe in the existence, or the possibility of existence, of an essential nature to a word, just as there is for Plato with Forms, are on one side, and on the other are those who, like Gass, acknowledge and refuse to deny the cultural context words have.

Because life is just plain easier that way.

Thoughts while listening to Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador”

How much are we influenced by memory, experience and location when writing, or listening, to music?

The composer Gabriel Kahane, I believe, would say the influence is inextricable. In The Ambassador, his most recent song cycle, Kahane uses the titles of his songs to literally inform the listener of the song’s spatial and/or artistic influences, essentially telling the listener what to see or think about while listening.

For the cycle’s subject he took Los Angeles, a city which is host to a mythology constructed from our cultural portrayals of its residents and environs over the greater part of the last century. My guess is that unless you have been living in a cultural vacuum, there are a set of feelings and images the city’s name conjures, even if you’ve never visited.

Kahane, I’m sure, was quite aware of that fact, and in The Ambassador, he utilizes both film and other image sources, as well as books he’s read and his own personal history, to inspire an illustration and recreation, through music, of the intoxicating atmosphere of Los Angeles as he has experienced and remembered it. It’s beautiful, cacophonous, occasionally mathy and occasionally simple, but the power Kahane wields by telling us his subject, is what I found particularly interesting.

To what extend does music derive its meaning and effect from the realm of the visual world? And/or, do you lose or gain something in its experience by having a musician literally explain the atmosphere he would like his music to conjure?

I think it’s safe to say composers are undoubtedly influenced by various sources, both from first-hand and learned experience, when writing music. Whether you lose, or gain something in experience with the knowledge of those influences, is another question.

Listening to someone like Kahane explain his music, which is all I can do not, as of yet, having had the opportunity to see him perform it, my mind immediately wandered towards a contemplation of what the gesamtkunstwerk looks like, or could look like, in the 21st century.

It’s not a term we discuss much anymore, Wagner having co-opted the term and destroyed it with suffocating elitist idealism. I’m using it here to refer more to the idea of a perfect work, not any actual piece. It’s an abstract idea, in my mind, which could more or less assert that the visual or aural component of a piece of art is not the entirety of the work. In which, maybe, we acknowledge that all (or at least most) art, is a synthesis of various influences internal to the work’s creator and, therefore, inseparable to the result. Here’s what I mean.

I’m not referring here to an art exhibit or installation which incorporates multiple forms of media from various artists, with a vague philosophy attempting to connect everything. I’m talking one artist, who, since we value ideas over results much of the time anyways, offers the whole of his art, the real whole, to experience. Can we honestly, in a post-structuralist world, assert a work of art is complete without its influences? Just as the art visual, and even musical artists create, becomes less and less “art” in its classical definition.

In other words, the 21st century gesamtkunstwerk is less an artist utilizing various media to create various components of an experience or exhibition, but an artist whose influences which are necessarily varied, are overtly on display.

The history we’re in the process of making seems like it might be pointing us in this general direction.

Opera, the great and historical art form which does combine disparate forms of art into one work, seems to be enjoying a popular resurgence, in so much as opera ever can. And artists of all types are disrupting the boundaries between their form of art and another, creating art that is difficult to classify.

Maybe this trend towards cross-pollination acknowledges that perhaps we have failed to engage with art and music in the correct way (in so much as there is a correct way which of course there’s not, one of those wonderful contradictions we are meant to embrace). Perhaps somewhere along the way, we lost track of how to present it (art) and our perpetual need to explain or disclose artistic influences would seem to attest to our fascination, interest, need, pick your word, for a context.

What if we could experience that context at the same time as we experience the art? Maybe that’s what we’re attempting to recreate in all of our “installations” and “performances.” A real complete story, not an opera, play or film that attempts to fictitiously recreate, what each of us already has inside of us.

I’m not advocating screening shots of Austrian landscapes behind the music of Mozart. Not exactly. The presentation would be less a disparate weaving together of art forms, and more, as in the work of Kahane, the offering of clues, and the creation of an environment through which we are meant to experience an individual’s art; essentially recreating the environment he/she experienced while creating it in the first place. I’m not entirely sure what it would look like really.

We’re fully aware artists don’t create art in a vacuum, why should we have to experience it in one?

This dovetails into, as all my lines of thinking usually do, the future, and the art world’s mounting fear of losing its audiences.

It’s interesting to think about the idea of multisensory stimulation and a more comprehensive experience of art, like the music of Kahane, in the context of film, something he, unsurprisingly, cites as an influence for much of his music. Great film artistically incorporates a bit of everything; dialogue, visual and aural content, and, while we fail to bring new audiences into other art forms, film (yes, thanks in large part to its facility of distribution, but I’d posit more than that), is thriving.

Perhaps there is a key to art’s future somewhere in this rambling. Perhaps it lies in, as many artists seem to already be exploring, a better experience. Not for the sake of experience, and not because we can’t appreciate the art without it, but instead, because we’re meant to know where the art is coming from in the first place.