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.

Continue reading “On our absurd art”

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.

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.

Let’s Talk About the Inaccessibility of Modern Art

There’s a certain segment of the population that seems to perpetually bemoan the lack of curious consumers.

We sit around at bars discussing the lack of an audience for theater, music or art, and host panels seeking to discover how we build the new audience for art, theater or classical music.

Why are there so few people interested in stepping out of their comfort zone and experiencing something new?

In the theoretical once upon a time, and probably the actual one, everyone (or at least most) read about art. Everyone went to the theater. Everyone knew the composer of the day. Everyone discussed the arts and everyone loved them.

Then the 20th century happened. In the words of composer and critic Theodor Adorno, “New music has taken upon itself all of the darkness and guilt of the world.” Sure he was referring to music but the assertion could just as easily be broadened to include the entire world of art.

European and American artists and composers and writers in the early 20th century saw violence like the world hadn’t seen for hundreds of years. The manifold amount of changes wrought by technology and innovation in fin de siècle Europe and America meant nothing about life before would ever be the same. Then World War One and World War Two turned the world completely upside down. How could we go back to the way the world was before? The answer was that we couldn’t.

Modernism was here.

This sense of unease and uncertainty about the future and growing economic disparity, complicated by death on an unforeseen scale, inevitably made its way into the art world with dramatic results.

“Everything purely aesthetic has no cultural value,” philosopher Otto Weininger once said, more or less capturing the zeitgeist of art in the early 20th century.

The bourgeois worship of art, in the words of Alex Ross, turned modern artists away from aesthetics at the same time as it “made possible the extremes of modern art.”

Artists were infallible, as they had been for many years, but all of a sudden artists began increasingly isolating themselves. Adamantly rejecting the tastes of the masses, their creations became more and more difficult, almost impossible for most people to understand, but we were more or less forced to accept them. The incomprehensibility of life demanded nothing less.

The history of 20th century art is a study in revolution and counter-revolution; a continuous struggle on the part of artists to move further and further away from public taste and approval into an insulated world of other artists and the like-minded that could appreciate their complex, physical art and music. Familiarity was totally rejected.

In the words of Schoenberg, “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.”

Arnold Schonberg
Arnold Schonberg

Artists and musicians didn’t need or want the public, something brought to a culmination with composer Milton Babbitt’s admonishment to isolation, “Who cares if you listen?”

Who cares indeed.

Which brings me to my point. I’m edging closer and closer to the conclusion (and for those of you who reached it years ago, don’t hate), that contemporary artists, musicians, etc., don’t want you to like their work. When art became conceptual, cerebral and philosophical, it forced artists into a world of art education in which technique matters, but only in relation to the idea, which is paramount. Naturally the ability to elucidate the idea takes practice, often years of it, practice which is aided by arts institutions who have commodified centuries of art into these ideas, offering classes in critical theory and performance studies.

When an artist spend as much time thinking as they do creating, it’s little wonder they emerge with a rather stilted way of talking to and interacting with those who haven’t devoted years of their life to academics.

That of course translates to their art, and well, we’re left with Babbitt.

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Rauschenberg with White Painting. Yes, it’s art. But mostly it’s an idea.

I say all of this not to villainize the over-educated artist. I understand. If I too could throw around Wittgenstein’s ideas like I was discussing something that happened yesterday, I’m sure I’d have a hard time not feeling like my art was above most people’s level of comprehension.

I say all of this as well, knowing full well that there are numerous artists making work that is easily accessible by large swathes of the population and does not suffer critical revulsion in spite of its lack of academicism, (although typically there is a very academic explanation for even an apparently unacademic work of art).

I say it simply because it is. And it’s a massive shift in the way art has historically been approached and created. AND it’s a transformation in thought that doesn’t get a whole lot of discussion.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I personally enjoy digging into the research behind the work, learning more about the theorist who or personal history that informs a work. But I understand that many people don’t and/or don’t realize that that is now part of the artist/audience contract.

Schoenberg was one of the first to express the ideology behind the new art that was defined by its inaccessibility rather than vice versa, but he helped to launch a revolution in the ways we do or don’t approach art. It is what it is. But lets stop pretending like it isn’t.

the complicated nature of art and criticism in the contemporary world

People that truly appreciate art and architecture often appreciate most of all an artist’s ability to create something new. To force us to think about something in an entirely new way, to invoke surprising feelings or to stimulate curiosity and possibility.

But that appreciation is often based on nothing more than vague, ethereal reactions we may have towards a visual or auditory object and our experience of it.

Can the value of art really be summarized in such vague, emotive and all too relative judgements? And if so, why is our society’s engagement with art steadily shrinking?

Once upon a time, 150-200 years ago, art was beautiful. Not that it isn’t now. But once upon a time, we had one definition of beauty.

A lot has happened in those 150 years. In our headstrong rush towards a pervasive relativism, art, naturally, got complicated.

It was inevitable. We have lived through more life-altering evolutionary churning in the past century than many before us combined, technology being perhaps the main contributing factor in the change.

Existence is no longer simple. We’re used to that.

But despite the manifold amount of change, for some reason, the cultural dialogue surrounding art is much the same as it was 150 years ago.

Certainly we’ve adjusted for the conceptual nature of the art object and the philosophical nature brought along with a redefinition of art. But despite the relativistic society in which we live, a community in which anything goes, and I dare not press my religion, cultural ideology, style, taste in music, etc. on you, the art world still functions as it did before. An exclusive cadre of ‘critics’ and ‘academics’ determines who enters into the halls of the fine art world and that same club of art experts determines how we should talk about them.

The nature of today’s artists too has exacerbated the exclusivity of the art world. It is no longer enough to have a knack for painting or sculpture, in fact, you’re almost better off if you don’t. Today’s artists aren’t artists in the 19th century sense of the word, today’s artists are philosophers.

Artists have always been thinkers, I know this. It would be impossible to create even the simple beauty of Rembrandt or Van Eyck without a deep understanding of humanity, the world and religion, an understanding only possible through years of thought and meditation.

But today’s artists don’t stop there. They don’t meditate on just the world and humanity, allowing their understanding derived therein to inform their art. No. Relativism and the steady decline of our interest in, and ability to decipher, traditional philosophical writing, have combined to make today’s artists into today’s philosophers. Partly out of necessity and partly out of the complicated nature of beauty and taste in today’s world. An understanding of life today, after all, is inextricably tied to much more than religion and nature thanks to the suffocating grip of technology.

And if today’s art also functions as a stand-in for today’s philosophy, then art critics more or less, function as philosophers in their own right.

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Raphael Rubinstein writes in a recent review of MoMA’s Sigmar Polke Retrospective on the “mania for explanation,” wondering when it became such an imperative that artist’s explain their work to their audience.

“It’s as if their works never go out into the world without the company of their voices, which come to us via interviews, artist statements, video documentaries, panel discussions and artist talks,” he says.

Rubinstein’s arrogant bewilderment on this matter is an excellent illustration of the art world’s obliviousness to its own insularity.  When art is philosophy the artist statement and generally intimate knowledge of the artist’s worldview is imperative to an understanding of the art. Certainly once you’ve had the years of experience of a Rubinstein or otherwise, you may be able to deduce an artist’s objective without background. The rest of us, however, remain lost.

He then transitions into Sigmar Polke’s apparent refusal to explain his work. The few times Polke did speak in public almost always consisted of less than sincere responses to interview questions and art-world parody.

I don’t pretend to know why Polke refused to explain his own work but I would postulate it has much to do with a conscious rejection of what the art world was becoming.

Despite the rejection of Rubinstein, and I’m sure others, we started down the path of lengthy explanation when we began appreciating art less for its beauty and more for its originality in regards to the artist’s intention.

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It’s elitist to expect the casually interested art lovers to understand why Joseph Beuys locking himself in a room with a coyote for several days is worthy of our attention and respect without written and verbal explanation from Beuys himself, and the critics who support him, of the philosophical underpinnings which prompted the exhibition.

If Beuys wanted to be taken seriously, and even have a gallery willing to support the performance in the first place, he needed a damn good reason. And that proposal and artist statement had to be good enough to impress the critics and thereby the public.

The writing is necessary.

And here’s the rub. I’ll go with Rubinstein to the natural conclusion of all of this, the need for explanation has given rise to too much explanation. Too much explanation at the expense of emotional response.

Once upon a time, when beauty was simple and writing wasn’t vital to our understanding of a work of art, we were allowed to emotionally react to a painting or sculpture, although the range of emotions we allowed ourselves was almost certainly smaller 150 years ago.

The philosophy of today’s art is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, art as the expression of a philosophical construct or ideological deconstruction allows the possibility to engage with a piece of art on a deeper level and to experience one of today’s most influential expressions of philosophical thought, on the other, when our discussion of art seems to imply that is the only way to respond to a piece of art, we’re excluding the audience who would choose to engage with art on a more feelings-based, reactionary level.

And that’s where the art world has acted against the public in its perpetuation of a form of art writing that doesn’t allow for individual taste and the possibility that art can be appreciated in its own right in the context of our visual and emotional responses.

Where does that leave us?

With an insular art world that refuses the rest of us the experience of our own “possibility” with art, as Jeff Koons puts it.

We’re left with a public who insist they “don’t understand it” and therefore cannot, and do not, meaningfully engage.

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We spend so much time writing and thinking about how important art is, and performing academic studies on how our “brains are wired to appreciate art” and how art uplifts us, feeds our spirit and on and on and on. But most of us cannot appreciate art because we’re still trapped in the endless cycle of self-perpetuated ignorance, a cycle in which the art world is complicit and unsympathetic.

Koons puts it simply. “I create art to inspire feelings,” Milton Glaser puts it another way when he says “The deepest role of art is creating an alternate reality.”

Put in my words? Art can very much be about sensation and emotional response and for many artists that create, that’s all that it is.

Therefore, it should be about learning what you like, not what the critics like, and not what is (necessarily) in museums.

The catch?

You have to expend the effort to discover what you like. That means curiosity, discovery and engagement.

Yes, art will still remain complicated and contemporary art will always be something of a mystery, even to many of the critics who engage with it daily. But maybe it doesn’t have to live only in the realm of academia, maybe art can continue to evolve and our appreciation of it, flourish yet again. Maybe fine art can once again be a part of the popular culture conversation.

What happens when alternative culture is co-opted by the mainstream?

David Foster Wallace may have been one of the most outspoken cultural critics to point out that although at one point irony was a powerful weapon of artistic response, especially in the 60’s and 70’s when trust in establishments such as the government seemed especially misplaced, irony has since become so mainstream it is now necessary in the creation of art simply in order to achieve acceptance. To imply your cultural complicity.

Sukhdev Sandhu, another cultural critic, refers to the same in an essay on music in which he describes the trajectory of critically acceptable music. The sentimentality and ‘schmaltz’ of earlier musical periods has been replaced in the recent past with the idea that music’s value is defined more by its ‘realness’ and ‘truth.’ Scholarly writing on music today looks for neophilia, an illustration of the musician’s subcultural awareness, or, as in Wallace’s take on irony, resistance towards the mainstream. Emotion, ‘yearning,’ as Sandhu says, is rejected, critical acceptance being reserved for the alternative.

The problem?

The alternative has now become the mainstream.

We’ve reached a point in Western culture at which everything we once viewed as revolutionary or anti-establishment has become the establishment.

Sure irony was once a culture’s useful critique, a tool to “Lay waste to corruption and hypocrisy,” to respond to the vapidity of US culture. Certainly, the emergence of ‘alternative’ music in the late 20th century; the anarchic sound of the Sex Pistols or the vocalization of a marginalized subculture in early West-coast rap, served as a much needed dose of reality in a world whose popular music had for too long been dominated by the majority.

But imitating the revolutionary work of a Thomas Pynchon or a Robert Rauschenberg or recreating the sound of 2Pac or the Ramones isn’t, in and of itself, grounds for artistic acceptance. A groundbreaking new way of making art is groundbreaking in its novelty. When the work is recreated, the revolution is over, and, well, you get where I’m going.

Robert Rauschenberg - Untitled, 1963
Robert Rauschenberg – Untitled, 1963

When Mike Will Made It produces Miley Cyrus’s albums. When LA’s Hammer Museum produces a show of artists who practice institutional critique. When upper middle-class teenagers wear GG Allin t-shirts….

The ‘alternative’ has lost its definition.

David Foster Wallace:

And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

Whether its irony or some other form of cultural critique in art or music, when something becomes what is expected, we stop trying. When artists, I’ve heard the example of Richard Phillips, can create insincere art contributing nothing new to the conversation, and we are more or less asked accept it at face value ‘because it’s ironic,’ we’ve begun the gradual destruction of an intelligent culture. We’ve stopped asking questions and we’ve stopped having to explain ourselves, assuming, because we are perpetuating cultural norms, our work is self-evident and valid in its own right.

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And irony (insert other culturally acceptable means of expression here) means safety.

So what’s next?

In short, the risk of failure. The risk inherent in creating art that is different and perhaps in direct contrast to what the art world has been trained to accept. Risk being labeled sentimental or ‘full of conviction.’ And perhaps the idea of good art can move past irony into sincerity into an art that can ‘open possibilities for the future’ instead of wallowing in its own nihilism and irony. After all, being right is the opposite of being original. You can’t be both.

The move in music criticism towards acceptance and the well-argued and well-defended justification of divergent musical styles once considered inauthentic, naive or simplistic, is a start. When other art forms, visual art in particular, can begin to ask the same of its critics, perhaps a new kind of artist will again grace the spotlight and the age of an absolute which requests the ironic or the rebellious before originality and authenticity can be granted, will be over.

Musings. 4.6.14

Fail. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett

Photo by Repeat Pattern
Photo by Repeat Pattern

Ryuhei Asano, AKA Lee, makes soundscapey, sample-based music which he pairs with his own drawings in attempt to recreate his feelings. This stuff is good.

The superior man is distressed by his want of ability. – Confucius

Learned from Milton Glaser this week:

  • treat your audience as citizens first and only secondly as consumers. and never treat them as a commodity.
  • the dyad of clarity and ambiguity: allow your work to be ambiguous and your audience becomes complicity in the artistic process
  • advertising can transcend reality by seeking to practice the above in its creation. it can reach the status of art and in itself become worthy of meditation

The deepest role of art is creating an alternative reality. – Milton Glaser

Glaser’s ‘Mad Men’ poster (photo by Andy Mills)
Glaser’s ‘Mad Men’ poster (photo by Andy Mills)

 Sara Cwynar. A shot glass with the leaning tower of pisa. A t-shirt boasting of a trip to the great wall of China. Souvenir kitsch and its unfortunate consequence; emptying history of meaning. Cwynar takes as her subject the image and the fallacy of the thinking that a souvenir photograph can capture the living world in its print. The layers of material with which she covers her staged and appropriated photographs is intended to disrupt the false sense of authenticity we receive from a photo. Her fascination with kitsch is born of the fact that history is over and our attempts at its preservation are flawed and meaningless.

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Sara Cwynar “Girl from Contact Sheet 2” 2014

 

Laurie Anderson, Performance Art vs. Theater, and Minimalism

Laurie Anderson “works in real time.” That’s her take on what differentiates her from theater artists. A response to that age-old question of what really is the difference between certain performance art and theater.

Anderson, who made a name for herself in the aftermath of performance art movements such as Fluxus and minimalist musicians such as John Cage, has experience with many different mediums, separating herself from the Fluxus artists whose ‘happenings’ earned them a spot in the art history book but whose artistic merits rested more firmly in the tradition of philosophy and protest movements than it did in true art (although that term’s definition is up for debate.)

Professionally trained, Anderson is a renaissance man when it comes to artistic practices; she writes music, she designs sets, she writes dialogue, sings, acts, and more. If you see something on stage at an Anderson performance, she designed and most often fabricated the piece or set.

I’m drawn to Anderson for many reasons, not least of which is her innate ability to defy easy classification.

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The recipient of an extensive education in the visual arts, Anderson achieved notoriety for, for lack of a better term, performance art, but has left a lasting legacy that is often most closely associated with independent music, owing in large part to her radio ‘hit,’ “O, Superman.”

Despite what she’s known for now, in Anderson’s prime, she spearheaded a form of performance art that bridged the gap between the ‘happenings’ of the 1960’s and the opportunities that video would provide artists and performance artists in the 1970’s and 80’s.

But Anderson’s sensory overload productions were only part of what earned her a place in the history books. It goes without saying there has been no shortage of meaningless ‘art’ that stimulates plenty of senses. No, to enter the canon, as it were, Anderson had to create content and dialogue and a production that would coalesce to deliver something imbued with meaning and importance. That’s exactly what she did.

In the 1970’s Anderson began performing a set of performances she collectively entitled “United States.”

In the over seven hour work which skips precariously between topics, Anderson simply used her unique style to portray the (or at least a) collective American dream, in this case broken up into four parts: transportation, politics, money and love, resulting in what was referred to by the New York Times as a “pop Opera.”

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The lengthy staging featured Anderson performing her act solo. Singing, ‘dancing,’ miming, talking, conversing (with herself), performing ‘stand-up’ and playing musical instruments (many of which she had altered or straight up invented. She was a pioneer in the combination of unique synthesizers). She tells stories, she sings songs, she changes her voice (Anderson is synonymous with instruments which could alter her voice so she could perform as numerous characters). Sometimes she makes sense, sometimes she doesn’t. Images are projected, props are used, she uses and re-uses musical themes and more. If you’d seen it (or if you have), some of it you’d like, some of it would speak to you, some of it you’d hate, some of it wouldn’t make any sense but you’d probably leave feeling like you hadn’t totally wasted your time and you’d certainly leave impressed by Anderson’s talent and creativity.

Despite the way it sounds, Anderson’s work is strangely minimal. Not minimal in the visual or even sensual sense, but rather in the artistic, performative sense. A sense wherein the performance itself is defined as the copresence of the performer and their audience. One cannot exist without the other. And just as with minimal art, the experience of the artwork is dependent upon the temporal and spatial condition in which the audience member views the artwork.

Here’s what I mean, and here’s a key differentiator between performance art (at least Anderson’s style) and theater.

While it may not always be the case, it can be widely agreed upon that playwrights very predictably utilize their work to vocalize or artistically express their philosophy, worldview or some kind of life experience.

Anderson doesn’t do that.

If you go to an Anderson performance expecting to learn about Anderson, you’re shit out of luck.

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Anderson’s performance art is minimal in that she utilizes herself as a medium, “elucidating ideas and notions from a cast of characters” without ever indicating when she is playing Anderson and when she’s simply using her voice to as the vehicle for someone else.

Anderson’s purposeful obscuring of herself (both implicitly and explicitly through disguising her voice) in order to express myriad viewpoints and portray myriad characters allows her audience members to draw their own conclusions and experience the art in their own way, just as a viewer experiences not Donald Judd’s silver boxes, but rather the space between and around them.

She skews our collective notion of performance art, subverting it to her own aims of forcing us to question where the thoughts and voices she is acting as a channel for are coming from. Are they coming from us? Are they coming from our friends? Are they simply imaginary?

According to Anderson, her approach to theater and performance leaves her “freer to be disjunctive and jagged and to focus on incidents, ideas, collisions.” The fact that there is no cohesive structure, no attempt to create true characters or project the future allows room for the audience to work with the creator in orchestrating a complete work of art. Just as Judd and others rely on audience members to complete their sculpture with spatial experience of it.

Anderson was and is an incredibly unique artist whose artwork defies categorization while redefining what we think of as performance art. She’s hard to understand, combining frenetic, sensational productions while at the same time serving as the proponent for a unique, minimalist take on performance. And, as mentioned previously, despite a prolific output, you’ve been fooled if you think you know anything about Anderson from her art.

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.

Retroactive I - Robert Rauschenberg
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.