Leonardo"s Notebook by Mattheus Mei

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

QOTD: Lamentations on Art

I had what was for me a memorable conversation with an art student when she was my patient. She was in her second year of art school, and told me that one of the things she enjoyed most about it was art history. I asked what they taught in art history.

'The first year,' she said, 'we did African art. But now in the second year we're doing western art.'

I asked what particular aspect of western art they were doing.

'Roy Liechtenstein.'

As satire would be impossible, so commentary would be superfluous

When I read that I nearly choked from laughing so hard. The question becomes is Mr. Dalrymple - aka Anthony Daniels - an oversensitive critic or is he speaking the truth about our concept of art (the author's greater point about art was, for me least, valid)?

Mr. Dalrymple/Daniels was railing against the presentation of the creations of Mr. Jeff Koons in the Versailles Palace. Mr. Koons is a sculptor - I use the term loosely. His main form is giant stainless steel balloon dogs of varying colours and hanging lobsters. Talk about Arts and Crafts! But Dalrymple goes beyond the follies of Mr. Koon and laments,

The successful modern artist’s subject is himself, not in any genuinely self-examining way that would tell us something about the human condition, but as an ego to distinguish himself from other egos, as distinctly and noisily as he can. Like Oscar Wilde at the New York customs, he has nothing to declare but his genius: which, if he is lucky, will lead to fame and fortune. Of all the artistic disciplines nowadays, self-advertisement is by far the most important.
It was his deconstruction of the problem that led to the anecdotal story which is our Quote of the Day. 'Shallowness,' he says, 'has triumphed everywhere.'

But why? Dalrymple cites two reasons, one being an excessive emphasis on the concept of originality as an artistic virtue and the other is the falsehood of art imitating science.

As damning and true as these criticisms may be Dalrymple forgets something about the origin of Post Modern movement in Art, something perhaps even forgotten by those claiming to be artist of the movement themselves. I shared this article with my partner earlier today and though he appreciated the perspective and may have agreed with some points of it, Dalrymple's conclusion, for him, missed the point.

According to my better half:

Postmodernism, with its roots in Dadaism, is more like Nihilism applied to art, in that it does not assume there can be transcendent meaning in art. It was an anti-art movement.
Dadaism itself was a reaction to the horrors of World War. If Western Culture, based on its long pursuit of transcendent meaning in art, could not steer itself away from the horrors of mass killing and war, then what good was it? Dadaists rejected meaning as an altogether bankrupt concept, and started a new way of thinking about "art." One can argue that nihilism as applied to art is just the absence of any kind of ethos or aesthetics, but it marked a transition from a kind of art that had lost its influence on society.

Consider the term "classical music": the word "classical" means something ancient, definable and static. Something that we go back and visit, like a museum piece. When the music was written, it wasn't "classical". It was the contemporary art of the day. We can still appreciate its beauty, but it was written for a different time.

If art is supposed to make people think, how should it speak to the problems of the present age? Genocide and disease rules much of the continent on which we now know life began. A small portion of the world's population holds most of the world's wealth. Wars rage on. These were not things that were collectively understood by the masses when the depiction of "beauty" ruled the art world. With the dawn of mass communication, the world has come out of its Eden-like notion of beauty. We've eaten the apple and seen our naked ugliness.

So anti-art has persisted. It is still the predominant form of contemporary art today. Is it winding down? I don't really know, but it seems to me that as a reactionary movement that caused people to think about value of art, it did serve a purpose, even if it's only temporary. I don't claim any expertise on these things. I suspect it's time for a new movement in art, which is perhaps in its underground stage. Art started on the walls of caves, so it probably isn't dead yet.

[As an aside, I also think "self-aggrandizement" might be a byproduct of our overly-connected society, but nothing new in the art world. There's a romantic notion out there of The Great Artist laboring in anonymity until his work is discovered posthumously, but I'm not sure that is accurate. Art is self-expression. It takes a self-possessed person to create a statement of self-expression. If artists 300 years ago had the kind of easy access to media and audiences they have today, I'm not sure they would have stayed in hiding.]

Maybe hipsterism, defined as the pursuit of authenticity (the appearance of being HAND-crafted, HAND-stitched, hand-made, hand-rolled, hand-- bleh and yet available to the masses), is a symptom of the absence of meaning in art as well. And how about the proliferation of digital self-portraiture as a search for meaning? The MySpace mirror pic? Hundreds of facebook pictures of one's self? Clearly, we're still grasping at meaning.

I hope I'm around long enough to see the next movement take shape. As the saying goes: Ars longa, vita brevis.

What interests me both is that while Dalrymple laments the lack of meaning and absence of the transcendent, for the latter generations in the post modern movement especially - those who have been removed by decades from the first generation who espoused such detachment in art - there's an effort to reclaim the transcendent precisely because there's a search for the authentic.
"Authenticity" is my generation's category for the ever ethereal meaning, and our starting point is not in high culture, is not necessarily in "Art" as in our basic consumer goods (see the emphasis on "hand" above), we're reversing the process, it's a perilous task that isn't always successful. Who knows when anti-art gave way to consumerist crap that has populated the galleries of the last 28 years. Perhaps the logical conclusion is that the lack of communicable meaning which started out as a reaction created an actual vaccuum that could only be filled by the other forces which normally stand in contention with artistic expression from the solipsitic and acediatic to the economic forces of hyper capitalism where everything becomes a product and aesthicism is replaced with utility.
All I can say now is if there's one good thing about this recession/Depression it's that the art bubble is bursting and those folks who have capitalized and received what can only be described as Thorazine induced patronage (the Jeff Koons' of the world) will whither away and perhaps then we can rise above the frey and the understanding of everything as self and consumption. Then can we reclaim and reassert commuicable "meaning" despite ourselves or perhaps in response to ourselves as both creatures of profound Good and unspeakable evil.

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Anonymous said...

I would also say, the "art world" is bigger, more vibrant and complex than what one sees in mainstream media outlets, e.g. Jeff Koons and the like. The stuff that makes the news cycle of the day doesn't always end up defining a period. That's proven true of politics (e.g., although we remember the silly sex scandal of Bill Clinton's presidency, the economic prosperity and fiscal responsibility has come to better define the period). It may prove true of art as well. The defining works of this period may not be known for another 20 years.

I would also say that art is experiential. You have to go see it. If you can't get to one of the big city galleries, you can always log on or go to the library and get a book. But more importantly, go see what people around you are doing. Go see your world from their point of view. If their work means something to you, support them.

Art is closer to you than it may appear.

Anonymous said...

I would also say that I repeat myself.