the groundless declaration of independence and can eating salad truly be considered art?

“Dada was born of a need for independence, of a distrust toward unity. Those who are with us preserve their freedom. We recognize no theory.” 

Or so declared Tristan Tzara in his Dada Manifesto of 1918, ushering in an era of anti-art and art as a method of protest.

When Dada was born the idea of an anti-art, second nature to us now, could not have been more shocking.

)As an aside, it’s not easy to imagine anything in art falling under the label of “shocking” ever again? Disappointing.)

Nevertheless, for the society of the early 20th century, Dada was shocking, and the ideas it spawned; art as protest, humor in anti-art, the intention to shock and a post-modern refutation of tradition and standards, would spawn many similar and similarly shocking art movements over the next century.

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One in particular, one of the more interesting and either most accessible or least depending on how you look at it, was Fluxus.

While on the surface the group appeared radical, I posit they were simply picking up where Dada left off and formulating an artistic language for a new generation, a generation, which struggled with how to react to the massive technological and political upheavals that were happening all around them.

So what is Fluxus? And how does one defend the practice of eating salad as art?

 

Fluxus was born in the 1960’s without a unifying statement or clear direction.

Despite George Brecht’s (a founding Fluxus artist) rejection of a credo as central to Fluxus’ identity, several other founding artists attempted to create one anyways, albeit a very untraditional one. The most well known declarations were those of George Macinuas who wrote Fluxus Manifesto’s one and two.

In Manifesto I, which Maciunas authored in 1963, the three core principles of Fluxus, at least as Macinuas perceived them, were established. Taking as a starting place the dictionary definitions of three central words and adapting them to his purposes, Macinuas elucidated Fluxus thusly (abbreviated):

  1. Purge the world of the “intellectual” and commercial culture. Purge the world of dead or illusionistic art.
  2. Promote living, anti and non-art which can be grasped by all people
  3. Fuse the cadres of all revolutionary groups into one

It was to be a rejection of everything he and his contemporaries viewed as standard and accepted, as well as an incitement to cultural revolution.

Fluxus, just as Dada before it, spurned the notion of acceptance and strove to create a counter-culture.

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The loose group which assembled under the name of Fluxus was made up of many artists. George Brecht, George Macinuas, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Allison Knowles to name a few. They were the Neo-Dada in their conscious attempt to disrupt normalcy.

Fluxus art was a great many things but above all, it was action based. Performances were central to the Fluxus artists. New media was also essential. The Fluxus artists explored the use of electronic music and film extensively and very little ‘traditional’ art was categorized under the name due to its conscious reactionary stance against the mediums of the ‘system.’

Due to the temporary nature of the group’s most famous medium, the happenings or performances, much of what we know of Fluxus art is in the form of descriptions. Descriptions of what sounds like little more than organized chaos.

Fluxus was inaugurated, for all intents and purposes, at the first official Fluxus event in Wiesbaden, Germany. The event was called Festus Fluxorum and was organized by Maciunas. Participants included Knowles, Higgins, Brecht and Paik among others.

I won’t give a full account of the ‘performance’ but here is a taste.

Four men stand behind a table in formal suits rhythmically clapping their hands. One man blows a kazoo. Knowles forcefully sits down then stands up. Wooden blocks are smashed. Paik plucks a violin. Paik paints with his hands. Paik spits tomato juice onto a canvas. Knowles repeatedly shouts “Never, never” while another reads incomprehensible statements from a book.

I could go on.

Fluxus was born.

Fluxus movements occurred throughout the world in the aftermath of the Wiesbaden birth, and many artists grouped themselves under the conceptual umbrella of these “revolutionaries.”

One of the more famous, and actually remaining Fluxus works, was Paik’s “Zen for Film.” 23 minutes of nothing, blank film, often considered to be the first example of video art.

In my headline I alluded to a Fluxus performance by Knowles called Proposition. In the piece, performers go through the steps required to create a salad; cutting the vegetables, assembling the dressing, etc.

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Another example of a Fluxus performance is Ono’s Cut Piece, in which she invited members of the audience to cut away pieces of her clothing.

Suffice to say, Fluxus art could be anything provided it was governed by a general lack of structure, a calling of attention to the daily or mundane and demonstrated an overall lack of ‘skill.’

Examples abound but the idea of the performances is really summed up in my detail of the Festus Fluxorum. They weren’t, contrary to what you might suppose, random events, but actually carefully choreographed acts. Fluxus work could take innumerable shapes; a book, videos, combinations of multiple media, etc.

It’s weird, it’s nonsense, but say what you will, the movement is an important part of art history so it’s impossible to ignore.

I’m inclined to think Dada got it right and Fluxus took what is really an interesting notion to the point of no return, at least apart from legitimizing nonsense in art for a whole generation of artists to follow. A legitimization which would be unabashedly abused.

I’ll come back to me in a minute, but first, here are some ways Fluxus artists attempted to translate and elucidate their work to the public.

Dick Higgins said of Fluxus that it was “not a moment in history, or an art movement. Fluxus is a way of doing things, a tradition and a way of life and death.”

Fluxus artists touted their art actions as attempts to imbue the ordinary with meaning. By transforming things like sleeping, making/eating dinner and jumping into art, those things themselves became art, in their opinion. It’s kind of abstract but hopefully you follow. Intention is, after all, what sets art apart from the ordinary in this century.

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Fluxus artists strive for a lack of structure, they wanted their undiluted concentration to be the only thing keeping their art from being nothing more than random chance.

In the words of Fluxus artist Allan Kaprow on his happenings, it was time to move into the art, instead of just looking at it. Art should consume your time and fill an environment, something a mere painting could rarely do.

As mentioned earlier with Macinuas’ Manifesto, the Fluxus artists were reacting to an art world dominated by the elite and the intellectual and their nonsense and talentless work was their preferred method of revolution; the elimination of the professional in art.

Bringing modern art to a less elevated level is a noble aim, but by reducing art to nonsense, is that really what you’re accomplishing? Or are you simply altering the meaning of art, something that seemingly, or at least should, by definition implies a skill or talent?

In Macinuas’ Manifesto II, his “Fluxmanifesto on Fluxamusement” he attempts to do that very thing. Maciunas states the artist must demonstrate his own dispensability. “He must demonstrate that anything can substitute art and anyone can do it…Amusement must be simple, amusing, concerned with insignificances, have no commodity or institutional value…It must be unlimited and eventually produced by all.”

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The second manifesto was a harsher reaction to the art world while also a defense of Fluxus as non-serious art, something anyone who had already seen a performance would have deduced.  It reaffirmed the importance of the general public to Fluxus art as well as the self-sufficiency of the audience. They too could perform what the ‘artists’ were performing.

It was the notion of anyone as artist that most likely contributed to a decline in Fluxus practice. Rampant “performances” and “happenings” caused the idea to lose originality and fade into obscurity as it was impossible for the public to distinguish between the serious practicioners and the frauds.

One defense of the movement more valid than most others, is the centrality of Buddhist thought to the Fluxus practicioners.

Ellen Pearlman delves into the Eastern religion’s influence on the movement in great depth in her study Nothing and Everything.

Knowles, when speaking of her performances often used Buddhist terms for meditation practices and an idea central to the Eastern religion is the lack of a duality, an idea which Fluxus embraces in it’s attempts to make art both serious and not-serious.

There is a definite meditational quality to much of the work that was created by the artists which on the surface appears pointless and boring. Paik’s “Zen for Film” for example, could be nothing, or it could be an intentional calling of attention to the pieces of inert matter that naturally fall onto a camera or backdrop, mimicking the activity of the blank mind in meditation.

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It, just like Buddhism, sought to find and accentuate the value of the ordinary. To eliminate commodification and highlight individual experience. To embrace opposition and formulate and live an active philosophy of existence.

Artists who caused the notions of Buddhism to be central to their art insured that their art “sidestepped aesthetics through the act of immediacy and the inability to erase or second-guess one’s moment of creation.” (Ellen Pearlman, Nothing and Everything)

 

In Buddhism, art is an integral part of life and for Fluxus artists, the paramount aim was that art would resemble life. Therefore in their art, as in life, once a decision was made, it was final.

Again, all noble aims.

You can see where I’m going with this.

I recently read Jed Perl’s dissection of Ai Wei Wei as an artist in The New Republic, an essay in which Perl states Wei Wei has “no particular aptitude for art.” Despite the fact that the man is currently a subject of a solo show at the Hirshorn and has works in museums from the Tate to the Metropolitan.

As anyone who knows me is well aware, I am in a constant struggle with how to rationalize my love, or lack of love, for an artist or a style with his/her/it’s place in art history. In Perl’s piece I found some much needed confirmation that it is indeed okay to disagree on art.

Which is exactly where I stand with Fluxus.

The intention was noble and the reactionary stance understandable. The method is what loses me.

We will always want to react against the establishment. It’s in the nature of people, especially young people. Tumultuous times exacerbate the need and as everyone knows the 1960’s and 1970’s were enigmatic decades. The Fluxus artists were asserting independence from a world they didn’t understand, run by people to whom they could not relate.

If only they could have taken some of their worthwhile notions such as independence, individuality and the desire to allow everyone, not just the elite, access to art, and created a valuable method of expression and communication.

What we were left with instead was a group of people who wanted change but lacked a vision for what that change should be. Instead they floundered in a sea of nonsense, random acts and spectacle.

It was an art that didn’t make sense for a time that didn’t make sense but while attempting to express the feelings of a generation, I believe it served to devalue the very notion of art. While gaining a place in art history due in large part to it’s novelty and it’s philosophical similarities to Dadaism, Fluxus leaves much to be desired.

Tzara sought above all the preservation of an artist’s freedom. The Fluxus artists chose to capitalize on their relatively new freedom without explicating a clear and challenging vision concerning their intention.

Making the Connection: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

So much of the information each of us inhales on a minute by minute basis is isolated. We read a story about a vote coming before Congress, a bomb that went off inside a Greek supermarket and a defense of Richard Nixon, but each are laid before us with no context and therefore little to no meaning.

So it goes with art. It is frighteningly easy to go through your life without burrowing beneath the surface of an image or an object (what art is, in its most essential form.) We are bombarded by images. Who has the time?

We are a checklist culture. We have the ability to see and read and do more than people in centuries preceding could have even dreamed. But do we really gain fulfillment or even enjoyment out of any of it? Is this endless barrage of opportunities a blessing or a curse?

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I would argue it is neither. It is rather something in the middle, but something fundamentally antithetical to human nature’s tendency. This checklist culture? It emerged because it was intrinsic. Choice and opportunities don’t necessitate happiness.  In fact, quite the opposite, they breed malcontent personalities with the inability to attain happiness without stringent effort.

That being said, recognition is the first step towards conquering an obstacle. Once the emptiness, to return to the analogy of art, of looking without understanding, is grasped, efforts can be made to counteract the lethargy with which we undertake our most important endeavors.

So goes my life. A constant battle between my natural inclination to check my list and move on to the next line-item and the effort it is necessary to exert to follow my desired path of deeper understanding. The sense of fulfillment when you realize you can discuss a painting or whatever your curiosity of choice may be, on a level you once thought was reserved for a nameless elite of which you would never be a part, as an example.

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The point at which a connection is made. When a deeper understanding of an issue or a painting is reached by contextualization. That is when the work becomes worthy of the time.

As an example.

I have always been fascinated by art. Not in the way in which I want to create my own art, but rather the ideas behind the art and it’s pattern and history. The pursuit of a deeper understanding has led me to reach beyond what I see in museums and into the context of a piece, a movement or an artist. And it is that search that has cemented the interest and love, which started before I understood why.

It happens on a daily basis, or at least it can, these connections. For example, I often find myself searching for the differences between movements, especially those which were similar and contemporaneous. I don’t mean the visual differences, those are oftentimes obvious, but rather the fundamental differences. The point at which the artists and their critics drew a differentiating line and why the line was drawn to begin with.

Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. The perfect example.

Two movements that truly encapsulate the importance of art history. They were the point of departure for almost every important movement which would follow; the beginning of modern art. They also emerged so close in succession and their vitality and color on first glance seems so similar, it’s easy to wonder what the difference is. Did the neo or post-impressionists reject the impressionists, or at least their dogma? And is that the reason for the distinction?

Impressionism in a nut-shell, at least the parts important to understanding its relationship to what preceded its rise and what would supplant its prominence.

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Unlike the dominant art, which came before the impressionist painters, this new brand of artist rejected an attempt at understanding the world around them. They were adamant in their refutation of the need for representation and leant instead towards the desire to “reflect the colorful surface of life.”

The relativity of the world, an idea which would take off in the subjective ideology and even morality of the 20th century, was captured in the work of Monet, Manet and their contemporaries. Everyone comprehends the world around them differently, why shouldn’t artists be allowed to embrace this fact and use their talent to capture it?

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Art was forever changed. It was the birth of subjectivity in art, a cornerstone for nearly every modern artist who was to follow. The dogma of artistic tradition was destroyed and instead, we learned to value individual experience and the artist him or herself.

Where would Marcel Duchamp have been without the path the impressionists paved for his radical notion of idea as art? The impressionists ushered in the notion that the subject of an artwork was subordinate to the personality and touch of the artist who was its creator. Taking that notion and subordinating the artist again to the idea, is only a natural evolution.

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The Impressionists captured the moment and our notion of their moment is one of beauty, charm and vibrancy. Movements that were to follow, such as the Expressionism of Kirchner and Munch, owe their identity to impressionism as well, and the subjugation of representation to relative visual understanding morphed into a style of art that was focused on the human as opposed to the world around him/her while retaining the subjectivity and emotion of the impressionists’ attempt to capture the world as they saw it.

Neo-Impressionism. The jumping off point.

Although they owed much to the impressionists, and knew it, the neo-impressionists were an entirely different breed of artist. In the opinion of this writer, the differences that divided these two schools of thought concerning the role of art in society and from whence it is derived, represent the two fundamental aesthetics and ideologies which have dominated much of the art that has followed in the 20th century.

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Neo-impressionism, and namely Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, initiated art’s love affair with science. True, an accurate depiction of life was not what was sought, but the spontaneity of the impressionists was too much for Seurat. Instead sciences were studied, geometries were consumed and theories and methods were strictly developed and adhered to.

The mixing of colors that was central to the beauty, newness and atmospheric quality of the impressionist’s work was anathema to Seurat who thought the process “dirty.” The purity of color was his paramount aim and it was Seurat’s belief that this purity of form would convey a certain prismatic brilliance in his work. Seurat even wanted to dictate the place at which viewers should stand to view his work to create the ideal mixing of color on the retina.

Seurat sought a permanence in art, what he called “art in function.” With pointillism and divisionism (painting in separated areas of color), he wanted to create a scientific method for art, he labored in the effort to pictorially recreate the ideal way for the optical lens to translate distinct colors into a vibrant work of art. It was methodical and painstaking, the exact opposite of the impressionists.

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Hence the distinction.

Where-as impressionism introduced spontaneity and subjectivity into art, neo-impressionism introduced scientific pattern and an attempt to create the ideal art.

Almost all art that has followed in the 20th and 21st centuries has been characterized by either complete subjectivity or an attempt to let scienctific patterns dictate the art, removing the subjectivity without, however, reverting to the objectivity of classicism. It’s fascinating if you think about it. Two art movements which on the surface could be valued solely for pure aesthetic pleasure, actually fomented an entire century of art. A revolution we will most likely never see again.

In a book I recently read, the short lifespan of neo-impressionism was explained thusly; no theory or method will ever supplant the creative spirit, no matter how hard one labors in the effort to create the ideal. When Seurat and Signac’s art form became yet another dogma, the vitality of originality was extinguished and it was time for another artist and another movement to rise in it’s stead.

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Artists and movements were to rise and fall in the aftermath of the impressionist’s revolution, but never again would objective or representational art have a foothold in the new and respected art forms. Subjectivity and science were king.

Connections.

They, by definition, complete and fulfill. Nothing exists in a vacuum and everything starts somewhere. So it goes with art. Without context it might be impossible to decipher just why the impressionists and post-impressionists were so vitally important to the history of art.

Checklist conquered. Understanding achieved.

The complicated world of Appropriation Art and Sherri Levine

I don’t have an inordinate obsession with Duchamp but here I am again, discussing a contemporary artist who owes him a massive debt.

Appropriation art. Appropriation in the art world, according to Google, is defined as “the artistic practice or technique of reworking images from well-known paintings, photographs, etc., in one’s own work.”

It’s not really a new thing. Artists were appropriating the art of other artists long before the genre became historically defined and prevalent in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Picasso and his studies of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” come to mind as a well-known example.

Appropriation art as we know it began with Duchamp’s giant art world fuck you, commonly referred to as “Fountain.”

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

By appropriating a mass-produced, straight from the factory item, rotating it and signing a name, Duchamp ushered in a new era of art-making, the era in which the idea would trump the creation. Modern art would now be defined not by beauty, artistic skill or intricate detail but rather the concept embodied in whatever the artist chose to call his/her art object.

Many art movements followed Duchamp, some more conceptual than others, but regardless of to what extreme the artist took the importance of conceptualism, in most serious forms of art, the concept was paramount.

Appropriation was also prevalent. Dadaism grew in the decades after Duchamp and the Dada artists continued Duchamp’s ready-made legacy with more appropriation of everyday objects.

In the 1950’s, Robert Rauschenberg and others used the concept of the ready-made but in a more involved way with intricate collages of found objects and their seeming allusion to, and critique of, the places we assign these objects in life.

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Retroactive I – Robert Rauschenberg

Pop Art exploded in the 1960’s and Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein appropriated images from pop culture such as the iconic Campbell’s soup can or in Lichtenstein’s case any number of kitschy comic images of over-sized men and women. By taking images that would be easily recognizable and modifying them as they saw fit, the Pop artists were inserting themselves into a previously created image and adding new layers of meaning to the reactions an image already produces in a viewer.

Pop Art, just as those previously discussed, again used art in the service of critiquing modern society’s ethos; in this case, it’s worship of celebrity and glamor, the exhaustive nature of consumer culture, etc., although it can be argued, Pop Art also served as an homage to the same.

By the 1970’s, the ground was set for a group of artists who would take the notion of artistic appropriation one step further, essentially redefining appropriation in art, and igniting a new level of controversy in the process.

One of the first to stir up controversy, though certainly not the last or most famous was Sherrie Levine, who, in the 1970’s, made headlines for her series of photographs entitled “After Walker Evans.”

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Evans, for those who don’t know, was one of the most celebrated modernist photographers in American history, famous for his poignant and iconic photographs of the depression era Midwest.

Levine’s series featured over a dozen re-photographed images of Evans’ photos. Apart from the fact that the photographs on display were not Evans’ original photographs and the occasional fuzz or discoloration, the visual differences are almost non-existent.

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, idea art, but bear with me.

After “After Walker Evans,” Levine went on to other similar projects. Some of her most famous include her bronze casts of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” photographs of Egon Schiele’s dark self-portraits and her copies of paintings by any number of famous artists.

The prevailing theme? Almost no innovation on Levine’s part in conjunction with minimal artistic interference in the original work.

So is that really art?

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Well, many in the art world unquestionably say yes, whether they derive aesthetic pleasure from Levine’s work or not. Assuming the people of the art world are not as a whole, insane (a taxing feat for some), then yes, it is art and here is why.

The first barrier to acceptance for some may be whether or not Levine is legally within her rights to call the copied photographs her own and as per the legal doctrine of Fair Use, she is. According to experts in the field, one of the exceptions to copyright law protected under Fair Use is when the work resulting from the original transforms and/or adds value to the original.

It’s interesting that in recent years, judges have been ruling harshly when cases against famous artists utilizing others images have reached court, most notably in the case of some Richard Prince appropriations and Shepard Fairey’s conspicuous Obama poster.

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In 2005, Jeff Koons was in a similar situation and the judge ruled in favor of Koons right to use a pair of legs taken from an Allure magazine photograph in a collage due to the “transformative” nature of the result. Anyways, that’s for another day.

Leaving aside the fact that who determines what “adds value” and how “transformative” something needs to be remains fuzzy, Levine’s work, although superficially not appearing to alter Evans’ photographs as is the case with the aforementioned artists, does add value to the photographs in the form of an idea; the very thing today’s artists are tasked so heavily with providing.

If an idea is what Levine brings to her photographs and transforms them to qualify as Fair Use, the idea is what must be understood and accepted.

One could assert, for instance, that Levine utilized her photographs as a critique of a media culture and the coming age in which images would become ubiquitous, each having been appropriated already a thousand times with no owner ever credited.

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Most likely what Levine was attempting to do with her photographs was to challenge the notion of ownership, an issue in my opinion which surfaced with the emergence of photography itself and has yet to disappear. Doesn’t the very technique of photography, with its use of an almost infinitely replicable print, make it difficult to accept as original art in the traditional sense?

In another sense of ownership, Evans did not own the Midwest or the people in his photograph, why should we allow him to call them his own?

Levine’s work can and should be interpreted with a subversive, sarcastic bent as she mocks the art world’s old-fashioned notion of originality as well as copyright. Obviously Levine desired to provoke. But while she did so with her tongue in her cheek, she genuinely alluded to issues she believed were inherent in the nature of art today (in her case the 70’s); ownership and originality. Levine questioned, as many before her, whether our notion of ownership was not too restrictive, and forced us to question and reevaluate as many had done before her, what constituted an original work.

When I think about it , Levine’s work makes sense in light of Duchamp. After all isn’t what Levine was doing with her photographs essentially the logical extension of what Duchamp did with his ready-mades? An object is declared art and we accept it as such, noting it is not the object that is important but the idea. The precedent was set and maybe what we should be asking is whether or not Levine is simply re-creating something Duchamp already did.

What Levine did do, however, is add another layer of murkiness in this complicated world of modern art, ideas and originality. By “creating” a work that was neither the original work nor her own traditionally defined “original” work, in an attempt to question our notion of ownership and copyright, she is updating Duchamp’s ideas for a new generation and adding the notion of celebrity. Is the criteria different for a household product, also an original creation of someone’s, than it is for a piece of “art” by a “celebrity?”

It’s a circular and altogether complicated issue and one I’m clearly still wrestling with myself, but it’s not as easy to dismiss as you might have assumed. When original work now equates to original ideas, nothing is all that easy to dismiss.

on art as philosophy, simplicity and those darn cubes

Even as someone who will defend modern art and its contributors until my dying breath, I occasionally find myself skeptical of certain allegedly important artists and their place in art history. Sol LeWitt has always been one of those artists.

In my rather brief life I’ve yet to encounter LeWitt’s infamous wall paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of photographs along with dozens of imitations, so maybe I’ve seen them after all? But no, what I’m talking about are those infuriating cubes. When I see Lewitt’s cubes I don’t think twice and just keep walking. I always assumed there had to be a reason they were in art museums and not just children’s playrooms or my math textbook and not surprisingly there is.

According to the artist Joseph Kosuth in his landmark essay “Art after Philosophy,” the 20th century saw a radical redefinition of philosophy that was the impetus in the same for art. By Kosuth’s line of reasoning philosophy has historically concerned itself with the “unsaid.” For many centuries, scientists and philosophers were one and the same, contemplating the great unknown with many questions.

It’s a given that today’s science is different than the science of the philosophers and there is very little left “unsaid,” leading Kosuth to ask the question, is man and his “intelligence” such, “that he cannot believe the reasoning of traditional philosophy?” Maybe the unsaid is unsayable.

Now these conclusions are only one man’s opinions but hear me out. Philosophy was struggling with its place because science had entered the technology age. Suddenly we knew what else was out there and had ways to analyze ruins and determine where we came from. In this age of the automobile, electricity, the atom bomb and space travel, what was the point of traditional philosophy?

Traditional art too, suddenly seemed irrelevant. With the advent of modern science, aesthetics as a societal value was second to an emphasis on modernity; formalist artwork somehow seemed trivial.

For Kosuth then, aesthetics could not be the basis of good art. After all, judgments based on aesthetics are based entirely on taste and never on a work’s “reason for existence.” It was that “reason for existence” that became the defining quality for artists of Kosuth’s generation. Traditional art was valuable as a certain type of art, but it was just that, one function of what should be art in a much larger context.

The vaccum left by the dissolution of traditional philosophy was filled by these new artists who were suddenly creating work in which the idea was the central focus, what I like to think of as art as philosophy. The birth of conceptualism in art.

According to Sol LeWitt, the new breed of artists associated with this conceptual movement were so-called because they concerned themselves solely with the conception of the idea and its realization. The finished product was meaningless.

Apart from the centrality of ideas, conceptual art also grew out of the modern artist’s distaste for the commodification of art and its status, by the mid 20th century, as little more than consumer good. Robert Smithson reacted to this by avoiding the gaze of the consumer and using nature as his gallery. While all conceptual artists didn’t shun the public art world, most at least expressed their distaste for the traditional by creating works based on a framework that differed drastically from that which came before them.

Sol LeWitt, in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” may have defined the practice the best. According to LeWitt, conceptual art must be mentally interesting. It must be intuitive to the artist, free from an artist’s skill and most of all free from what he called the “emotional kick” the audience had grown to expect from the expressionist artists. That kick inhibits the significance of the idea being expressed.

One way to look at the new art was expressed by Kosuth as a difference in language. Conceptual art wasn’t the beginning of modern art, obviously. Before the insurrection brought about by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, modern artists were already changing our definition of what was acceptable (Manet, for example) but were doing so by speaking the same language as traditional artists; what Kosuth called the European painting/sculpture dichotomy. With Duchamp’s revolution, artists realized an ability to speak another, new language.

Another artist who famously laid out the framework of the new movement was Lawrence Weiner in his brilliantly brief “Declaration of Intent.” This is it:

  1. 1.     The artist may construct the piece.
  2. 2.     The piece may be fabricated
  3. 3.     The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

In summary, whether or not the artist created the piece or even built it was immaterial provided the intention and idea were satisfied. It could be instructions concerning how to create a piece, as LeWitt was famous for, or it could be a piece that never even took on material form. As long as the idea was fulfilled, the artist had succeeded.

While LeWitt wasn’t the founder of the conceptual art movement by any stretch, he for many personifies the central notions of the movement. LeWitt, like many of his contemporaries, was dissatisfied with the state of modern art and early in his career as an artist determined to “start over.”

He acquainted himself intimately with shapes and lines; the shapes, squares, circles and triangles we know so well. We take them for granted but without them there would be no art. LeWitt’s art was about essentials.

It was also about concepts. He focused on ideas such as volume, transparency and sequences, things he believed, as did the other conceptual artists, equaled aesthetics in importance.

Perhaps what helps to enlighten the casual viewer concerning LeWitt’s artistic oeuvre more than anything else is his definition of the artist. By LeWitt’s line of reasoning, if we consider architects artists and their creations works of art, why can’t art function like architecture? The artist creates a set of directions carried out by a team of artisans and a piece of art is born. It actually makes perfect sense.

LeWitt’s wall paintings were his embodiment of this. When we see a LeWitt wall painting today we’re not seeing something physically created by the artist, but we are seeing the embodiment of his idea, and isn’t it the idea that counts? Isn’t it the idea that spurs every action and accomplishes every goal.

LeWitt prized the idea over the object, taking our 20th century redefinition of art one step further than the Abstract Expressionists who valued the process over the object.

“Conceptual art is not necessarily logical… “ LeWitt once said,  “Successful ideas have the appearance of simplicity because they are inevitable.”

Conceptual artists and Sol LeWitt once again changed our notion of what we can and should consider art. They didn’t negate formalist art (although many were disdainful of the practice), they simply enlarged the artistic framework and they did so in a way that made us stop and think. These works of art force us to stop and think about the simple things we take for granted, like a chair, and they do so in a way that really elevates the idea in a way complicated art could never do.

LeWitt’s art may on first glance appear simple or trivial, in my case boring, but when you understand the concerted effort he makes to draw the artists and the viewers attention to the concepts and systems without which we could not work or function, it becomes clear that conceptual art, just like the ideas within it, was itself, inevitable.

“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Sol LeWitt

on museums, nature, universal symbolism and land art

With the first “retrospective” of the Earthworks movement, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” currently on display at MOCA, I thought it an a propos time to explore (briefly) the ideology and work of Robert Smithson, one of the early artists working in the Land Art movement and probably most well-known. While many high profile artists are associated with the movement, Smithson’s prolific writing and his high-profile project “Spiral Jetty” allow a deeper understanding of the “why” than most of his contemporaries.

Land Art, or Earthworks (a term Smithson coined) is an art movement that falls under the category of minimalism and emerged in the late 1960’s.  Land artists utilize land or the landscape as their canvas (or on their canvas) and are characterized by a rejection of what they saw as the commodification of art in the 1960’s, a fascination with nature and an emphasis on the product used in their art rather than the finished product (see minimalism as a whole).

In the 1960’s the art world was seeing a plethora of movements rejecting established practices. Art historian Donald Kuspit describes the systematic rejection of the frame and the pedestal in painting and sculpture during the decade while artists attempted to redefine the boundaries of their art. Removing art from the gallery and giving it indefinite boundaries, ie. Land Art, was simply the next logical step.

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A still from Michael Snow’s “La Region Centrale,” 1971

Minimalism attempts to expose the essence of something by eliminating everything but the necessary. For artists working within the tenets of minimalism (including the Land Art artists) a museum tended to offer their pieces a sense of grandeur and importance the piece did not deserve.  Moving the piece into nature allowed the majesty of the outdoors to dwarf the artist’s creation, better achieving the goals of the minimalist artist.

Smithson began as a painter but his ideology was always minimalist. A rejection of the traditional museum/gallery system as well as a systematic attempt to reject the art world’s insistence on defining an artist and his art form, led Smithson to produce works not easily categorized, even before he delved into Land Art and developed his important notion of the site and non-site.

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Smithson’s “Partly Buried Wood-shed,” 1970 – an example of Smithson’s fascination with the relationship between man and nature as well as the concept of entropy

Site and non-site meant for Smithson respectively the creation of his art in nature as a part of nature and in the case of the non-site, the movement of articles from a site in nature and their placement in the gallery. In the late 1960’s, Smithson’s output was almost entirely focused on these sites and non-sites as his art grew more and more inextricably intertwined with nature.

Apart from a rejection of the establishment, Smithson and others also sought in nature a therapeutic removal from the “life-draining urban environment.” Like many before and after them, an aversion to the technology and chaos implicit in modern man’s daily life, led Land Artists to escape to nature in order to attempt to assuage some of the human trauma incurred through what they saw as life on overload.  It also allowed them in turn to explore the chaos inherent in nature, something especially important to Smithson who was fascinated by the concept of entropy and the effects of the elements on his outdoor work.

Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a 1,500 foot long coil composed of rock and soil dramatically jutting out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the embodiment of much of Land Art’s central tenets as well as the significance of universal forms and symbols.

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For Smithson the “Spiral Jetty” explores not only the majesty and at the same time fragility of nature as well as our relationship with it, but it also explores the concept of the universal form, in this case the spiral, as a “symbol of the cosmos.” It exemplifies the Land Artist’s desire to avoid the placement of their creation onto the landscape, but rather to work within it as they explore the human relationship to nature.

“Spiral Jetty” in short, inspires viewers to contemplate the complicated notion of human manipulation in nature while viewing a symbol we as a collective humanity have been inserting into our dialogue for centuries. What is the true relationship between man and nature?  The choice of the spiral is no accident. As Smithson attempts to ease the trauma of daily life through nature, he is also attempting to do so by creating a link to the centuries of civilizations that have come before us.

Viewing Smithson’s masterpiece is moving as the viewer contemplates the universally emotional experience of an un-touched nature, only this time, it’s only seemingly un-touched. Smithson here has been able to create an item that is inextricably linked to the human experience while at the same time it’s presence in nature seems perfectly natural; as if Smithson’s intrusion almost didn’t happen.  Maybe man and nature are closer than we think.

So there you have it, Land Art, art within nature that attempts to be a part of nature and while almost succeeding, still serves as an example of man’s manipulation of nature. We can attempt to make our mark minimal, but it’s still there.

Side-Note: Smithson’s notions of entropy and the ephemeral nature of the landscape and his art within it were subjects upon which he wrote profusely, making the Dia Art Foundation’s discussions of the “Spiral Jetty’s” preservation somewhat ironic. Just something to keep in mind as the debate continues; Smithson valued the aspect of nature that involves organic growth and decay. Would he have wanted “Spiral Jetty,” an artwork that almost isn’t an artwork, to be preserved as such? Or would he have wanted it to go the way of nature?

How I Began Contemplating a More Serious Study of Buddhism

Okay, deep breath.

I’m a self-admitted religion skeptic. Who isn’t these days? And for quite some time Buddhism has drawn my most potent skepticism. Consider that changed.

The Crow Collection of Asian Art opens their new show, Noble Change: Tantric Art of the High Himalaya this weekend. The exhibit contains eleven gorgeous copper Buddhist sculptures as well as one embroidered silk panel and represents work acquired by Trammell Crow last year for his private collection.

While I guarantee you’ll get lost amongst the glistening pieces, this exhibit is about much more than aesthetic pleasure. This is part of what will be over the next several years an important project for the Crow Collection; introducing Dallas museum-goers to the hyper-relevant practice of Tantric Buddhism. Spoiler alert, this is not an article about sex.

According to Crow Collection Curator Dr. Caron Smith, the principles of Tantric Buddhism have in the past been dismissed as “titillating erotica or stultifying ritual” and during the 1960’s, were appropriated by the Hippie culture as a justification for their pursuit of un-inhibited sexual pleasure. Smith states, “The time is ripe to reveal tantra for what it is truly intended to be.” And what exactly is that?

The answer isn’t simple, but if you find religion and human nature even remotely interesting, you’ll be fascinated.

The teachings of tantra are part of Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of the complex and constantly evolving teachings of the Buddha that arose in the 6th or 7th centuries and is especially prevalent in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia amongst others.

Like all forms of Buddhism, the base of tantric teaching lies in the four noble truths: The truth of suffering: the truth of the origin of suffering: the truth of the cessation of suffering: and the truth of the path of the cessation of suffering.

Contrary to the sound, people who practice Buddhism are not consumed by depression. Especially so in tantric Buddhism, where students or followers use suffering and other negative aspects of existence in order to achieve a higher state of being, one in which the goal is to reach a simple life through reflection and the emptying out of themselves.

Becoming a student of tantric Buddhism is reserved only to a select few, similar to a mystic Christianity or Judaism for example. Students of the official practice work with a guru and study secret texts in monastic settings. Free of worldly influences, they tame the mind through reflection, begin to question the “real world” around them and empty themselves of temporary reactions to feelings and emotions, admitting the world around them is not “real” as we tend to define it. It is only after this that man’s compassion for others can expand. (Sidenote, the Dalai Lama is a practicioner of tantric Buddhism).

Tantric Buddhism is essentially a reaction to previous forms of Buddhism through its embrace of ordinary experience and human instinct, not as ends in and of themselves, but as means to inspire change. No longer is the negative ignored, instead it is embraced, all of humanity is embraced in fact, to incorporate change not for our own self-gratification but rather to foster compassion for others.

The dualities of traditional Buddhism and Hinduism are shunned while the idea that the deities are not here to help but rather to inspire remains integral in tantric practice. Students learn that the potential for change is within themselves and our lives are fulfilled through their own, unique evolution. Tantra, in its simplest form, means continuity. Continuity of actions, impulses and desires in a constantly evolving state of being.

At least that’s my brief summary from my very brief study in an attempt to better understand these intricate and highly symbolic pieces of art that were created in the ateliers of Tibet to inspire the followers of this unique not religion per se, but rather science of the mind. A science of the mind which, might I add and assume many will agree, represents more closely than many other “religions” the psychology and mentality of modern man. In the opinion of this writer, Smith could not be more right in assuming that “the time is ripe” to expose the West to the tantric notions of openness, compassion and self-sufficiency.

Now on to the art.

When exploring the intimate gallery space at the Crow it’s vital that the viewer leave preconceptions outside. This work is highly symbolic, overtly sexual and complicated, but don’t let that intimidate you. Keeping in mind the philosophy behind this exhibit while viewing should at least make the works accessible enough to enjoy for more than aesthetic beauty, as they were intended to be.

The deities on view in the exhibit represent various Buddhas. Two Vajradharas, in other words the first Buddha, are represented here, each signifying the unity of male and female. Part of the “revisionism” of tantric Buddhism allowed for a stronger role to be played by the female in the “story,” and in these Dorje Chang (in Tibetan), there is rampant symbolism indicating male aspects in the female, and vice versa. The sexuality of the two will be obvious.

There are also two Dakinis represented amongst the scultpures. Dakinis in tantric Buddhism are the female embodiment of wisdom and energy. The Sarva Buddha Dakini, or Dakini of all the Buddhas is represented as a young female, innocent and therefore able to serve as the protector, provider of wisdom and home to all. The symbolism in the Naro Khandoma (in Tibetan) is throughout as she treads on Ignorance and Ego and drinks the defilements of all in order to liberate.

The other Dakini in the exhibit is Kurukulla or the Dakini of flowers. Using her feminine seductiveness, Kurukulla is able to subdue and pacify demons. She treads on a naked body representing her dominance over desire and the skulls surrounding her are reminders of death. A quick note on the skulls. Buddhism is stringent in its embrace of the ugly, the dirty and death as parts of life, just as the religion does not shy away from sexuality as so many others (Christianity and Islam for example). Buddhism embraces the disgusting as part of life, as it is.

One especially meaningful piece in the exhibit is the unadorned Samantabhadra, the supreme Buddha and the primordial form of Shakyamuni or the historical Buddha. The union of man and woman is honored in this gorgeous, simple sculpture.

Viewers will also encounter the Jambhala, the Buddha of wealth.  He looks out for the wealth of others while seeming to greatly enjoy the corporal aspects of the flesh, yet another example of Buddhism’s rejection of the demonization of human desires. It is assumed, however, that the embrace of the wealth and sexuality of the two in union will be used to inspire the attainment of the next level of existence, as each of these pieces is intended to do.

You may not need the reminder but this is religious art, not in the sense that it is to be worshipped or even instill reverence, but rather to inspire. It is not “art for art’s sake” in the words of Smith. Dissolving duality (namely that of male and female), embracing the unity of ourselves and using our human form to achieve these aims are central tenets of tantric Buddhism. These exquisite pieces were created in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to arouse a desire to improve the world and those living in it.

Although you may not begin living your life in pursuit of Buddhist principles following an exposure to this unique and high vein of Buddhist practice, I think most viewers will recognize aspects of their psychology in this difficult but innately human “science of the mind.” Thanks to the Crow Collection, westerners have an opportunity to discover it through beautiful, artistic representation.

The Anti-Celebrity Celebrity Photographer

Russell Young was always fascinated by America. He admittedly observes that it is far more common for Americans to wind up Anglophiles than vice versa, but Russell Young isn’t normal.

Marilyn Crying Diptych, acrylic paint, enamel and diamond dust on linen, 2011, courtesy of the artist

After a career photographing celebrities throughout England Young turned his focus towards creating a different form of art. Art that he kept to himself until his first exhibition in 2003.

Now, less than ten years later, Young has made a name for himself throughout the world as a young British artist working in a unique vein; melding screen printing, photography and the assertion of himself as artist into his occasional photographic appropriation.

At the retrospective of sorts the Goss-Michael Foundation currently on display throughout the gallery, Young’s critique of celebrity, which has characterized much of the work he created in his post-celebrity photographer phase, is glaringly evident.

The exhibit contains examples from several of his earliest series of paintings which include “Dirty Marilyn” from his Dirty Pretty Things series, images of Muhammad Ali and Jackie Kennedy from his American Envy series and “mug shots” of Elvis Presley and Sid Vicious.

Perhaps the easiest way to sort of define Young’s work, especially these early screen shots usually manipulated in some way; (his use of diamond dust is signature and in the case of the Vicious and Presley shots, the use of off-beat coloring), is as reaction to his career making celebrities look good.

Vicious, having just been brought in on the charge of murdering his wife looks like a killer, and Monroe, crying, is clearly immune to the country’s infatuation with her celebrity. Kurt Cobain is another image Young used in the Dirty Pretty Things series, a series perhaps intending to indicate the danger of the celebrity obsession and the lack of fulfillment found by the celebrities themselves.

Despite the “warnings” that seem to be implicit in these depictions of ours, and especially America’s obsession with the stars, Young remains a dedicated lover of America.

In 2010 Young endured a serious illness and was hospitalized for days as friends and family worried about his chances for recovery.

Post-illness, Young’s work, as will be obvious in the exhibition, took on a new form with political paintings such as “Helter Skelter” and Young’s use of the famous image of the Hell’s Angels at Altamont in 1969. Young called the event the “start and the fall of modern America” although his choice of image for his massive paintings in the series, seems to have taken place without significant reflection. Listening to Young speak, it seems as though his aesthetic notion of re-printing the photo over and over again onto the canvas, then proceeding to walk through, or crawl over the canvas with paint, is more integral to the finished product than the photo itself which is often unrecognizable. Although perhaps the aesthetic notion of distortion lends itself to a deeper critique of the incident inside the photo.

The exhibition includes one other notable series of paintings, the most recent set Young completed, entitled Only Anarchists are Pretty.

It’s almost as if these works were added as an afterthought, placed in the front room of the exhibition with no clear ties to the rest of Young’s work on display. To hear Young describe the rationale behind the large-scale canvases featuring photographs of women in various positions of bondage, is to hear the emotional rememberings of a childhood spent in the London council flats, the equivalent of the projects. Enduring beatings at the hands of schoolmates and living in what he equates to a feeling of entrapment even in his own home, led Young to create these images and name them for the projects themselves.

Perhaps the images are not as sexually indulgent as one might initially think, but even after the artist’s philosophy is revealed, the connection of nude women in various positions reminiscent of torture to a young boy in the London projects seems tenuous at best.

Despite a few moments of weakness, the Young show is valuable and will be especially appealing to anyone with even a passing interest in celebrity culture. His “anti-celebrity” paintings as he calls them, have certainly become more “beautiful and iconic” than he may have initially intended.