art dynamics

Symbiosis

Paul Cézanne, Bend in a Road in Provence, about 1866 or later, oil on canvas, 92.4 x 72.5 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Adaline Van Horne Bequest

“The painter can do no more than construct an image; he must wait for this image to come to life for other people. When it does, the work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist in only one of them like a stubborn dream or a persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition.”

From “Cézanne’s Doubt” (pdf) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

It never hurts to be good looking

In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp, 1964 (1915 version lost). Courtesy MoMA, http://www.moma.org

The op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, by Dennis Dutton, "Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?" will doubtless provoke brouhaha from foreseeable quarters. It is not a bad article, however, despite the tiresome Morley Safer-if-you-can-believe-this-I-have-a-bridge-for-sale-it's-all-a-ponzi-scheme tone. It simply points out, in a long-winded way, that once contexts are stripped from an artwork, the artwork is on it's own, and depends on its appearance to stay out of the dumpster. Nothing we didn't know.

The firstest-bestest example of this is Duchamp's In Advance of the Broken Arm, the shovel pictured above. It was once used by a museum custodian to clear the walks after a snowstorm, which Duchamp thought was hilarious. To reinforce Dutton's point, the original shovel was lost.

There are plenty of presumptions in the article to puncture, but this conclusion, regarding the beautiful artifact, was a bit bizarre:
Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human prehistory, tools attractively fashioned to function as what Darwinians call “fitness signals” — displays like the glorious peacock’s tail, which functions to show peahens the strength and vitality of the males who display it.

Hand axes, however, were not grown, but consciously, cleverly made. They were therefore able to indicate desirable personal qualities: intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability and conscientiousness. Such skills gained for those who displayed them status and a reproductive advantage over the less capable. Across many thousands of generations this translated into both an increase in intelligence and an evolved sense that the symmetry and craftsmanship of hand axes is “beautiful.”
I wasn't aware fine motor skills were so desirable to pre-Neanderthals.

One thing is for certain, and that is that all art has become much more self-consciously conceptual. In that sense conceptualism isn't going anywhere. Few artists make work without at least considering the intellectual precepts and ramifications of what they are creating. Whether that means that work solely dependent on a sophisticated web of reasoning and contextual bases to establish its relevance and meaning will remain compelling, we can't know. Maybe what we are now sorting out is what is vital and what is merely scholastic in the intellectual provinces of our artistic pursuits.

Postulates

(A 14th century manuscript of Euclid’s Elements, showing Proposition 29, the first to rely on the parallel postulate.)

1) What is the value in making a positive or negative case for expression, content or communication in art the first place? It is not in the least obligatory or even advisable for a painter or any other kind of artist to engage in these sorts of investigations as a basis or prerequisite for work. There are legions, perhaps a preponderance, of artists who work away happily without the slightest concern for any of this, and I wish to whatever deities that may populate the firmament that I were one of them. But along with my passion for painting has long resided a deep-seated skepticism about what painting is doing and how it operates that has both bedeviled and animated my work since I began. The resulting interest as an artist has been to ascertain what possibilities exist for painting, and how to sensibly proceed. Some of the writing here deals with that, and I am grateful for any assistance offered along the way.

2) That being said, an exhaustive analysis of the dynamics and manner in which we apprehend artworks would be a insuperable endeavor in search of a contemporary Sisyphus. Over the last 50 years or so, a primary focus of many artists has been to expand art’s dominion into countless fields of form and inquiry, which has been accomplished at an ever accelerated pace. As a result, the full range and manner of artworks and activities defies any but the vaguest characterization. The scope of art has become so broad, and the territory covered by the word “art” so vast, that the utility of the term has been curtailed as the set of things that are not art or could not be considered art approaches null. There really isn’t any object or activity involving human beings that can’t be considered art, and the simple proclamation that something is art preempts any contrary claim. Which is all well, of course, as no one is keen on sacrificing a liberty once won, and eventually the word “art” may be left behind completely and other ways to talk about these phenomena will arise, if it’s not happening already. I am most interested in looking at some examples from various genres as a point of departure, with painting, and a focus on abstract painting, the eventual destination.

3) The act of looking at art and paintings is of course an experiential and dynamic process. Anything canned or self contained—takeaways, in the current parlance—is anathema to art’s dexterity, which equips it to treat ambiguity and polyphony without compromise or reduction; examine unexplored interstices and marginalia to discover new connections and associations; give voice to nuance and embody the ephemeral; and, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, create new space for the viewer. Anne Carson makes an illuminating observation in her book, The Economy of the Unlost, beautifully demonstrating how poets can overcome limitations of language to bring into focus something beyond what language can manifest literally:

At the same time, Spirit does not arise of its own accord, but is wrested from behind the veil by an effort of language between I and Thou. The effort, as Simonides and Celan stage it, is very like a poetic act reaching right to the edge of ordinary babble, to the place where metaphor waits and naming occurs...it contains visibles and invisibles side by side, strangeness by strangeness. (p. 68)


Spirit itself cannot be represented, named, but can be interpolated by poetically framing its absence. In one of her examples, “If to you the terrible were terrible,” from a Simonides fragment, “babble” is laid into the symmetrical structure of the line to illustrate the gap in the perception, between the speaker and her sleeping infant, of a violent tempest, while also pointing to the invisibility of the tremendous event to the sleeper. (p. 58) What Simonides is showing to us here, according to Carson, is that “'if to you the invisible were visible, you would see God,’ but we do not see God.” The gap between the capacity of language and our aspiration for it—demarcated but not bridged—shows language failing in a primary sense, but succeeding by making invisibles visible, framing what cannot be directly seen. “We know [words] don’t count, but we lay them against the abyss anyway, because they are what mark it for us, contrafactually.” (p. 65)

As a conception of art or as an artwork lists toward the declarative statement, so its compass contracts in direct proportion. Art is exceptional among human pursuits in its capacity to work fruitfully with what cannot be declared.

Expression

Igor Stravinsky said once that there is no such thing as expression. Samuel Beckett expressed his creative credo in 1949 as “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Nothing new, then, about the idea that expression in the arts is suspect. At the same time, the presumption that the artist is communicating something is built into our language and thought, and hard to elude. We talk about “content,” “meaning,” “medium” and “message” of an artwork. Medium for what? What is being transmitted via the medium? Content? Ideas? Emotions? Where does it come from? The artist, obviously, no? Eliminate from consideration the hyper-rationalist notion that there is anything unadulterated—in terms of content, idea, what have you—that moves from artist to viewer via the artwork, the message in a bottle. Surely, though, illumination is at hand. If the artist is not telling us something, what is the point? Why do it and why look? How come I feel or think so when I see this particular painting, for example, and why do others feel or think similarly? Doesn’t this ratify that art is communication of some kind? But then what of the many differences in interpretation of works? A veritable Babel. One would not aver that competing interpretations are simply wrong, yet how can one call it communication when the response to the artist’s impetus is so varied? If one cannot track back through the work to some operating assumptions of the artist, how can there be expression? Maybe there is a more nuanced way of looking at it, less black and white. What if we talk about “feel” or “sensation,” rather than “content” or “communication,” can one capture the sense of the dynamic between artist, artwork and viewer, without getting tangled up in a philosophical Sargasso of artist intent and information transfer? On the other hand, either there is communication or there isn’t, right? And even if you describe it in more vaporous terms, there is still an implied connection to the intent of the artist, and thus communication? The artist did what they did so you would feel, more or less, the way you do. What if someone doesn’t “get it,” does that mean there are right and wrong responses to the work? Is the artwork itself the vehicle for the expression? If so, what happens when you pluck it out of its particular geographic or cultural sphere; doesn’t the interpretation vary wildly, and so how could the artwork be communicating anything? Mustn’t it then have much more to do with information in the artwork referencing things about which there is a preexisting cultural agreement within the sphere in question? Is that a problem, can’t it still be communication even if the artwork is reduced to a kind of semiotic matrix or forum? Do any of these questions actually produce contradictions? Does it matter? Should one just throw up one’s hand and get on with making art?

These are vexing questions to anyone who has examined them with the intention of clarifying their understanding of what occurs when art is made, viewed and processed, understood, discussed—complicated at times by the visceral aversion to erase one’s ego as an artist or, as a viewer, to confront the confounding miasma spawned by the realization that one’s response to an artwork is potentially ungrounded in the artwork itself, or in any intent of the artist, beyond the question of right or wrong interpretation.

Zero Hour Interview

Here is a link to an interview I did with Tim Bowring on his radio program, Zero Hour, on WRIR in Richmond, in conjunction with my show at 1708 Gallery. Tim has done over 300 such interviews, documenting the arts and culture in Richmond.

The interview covers some issues that I address on the blog. You can listen to it here (mp3).

The meaning of meaning

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity, c. 1410

Several years ago I came across an article that lamented the loss of meaning in painting. (I can’t track it down.) It occurred to me at the time that the problem was not that meaning had been removed from painting, but that it never had any.

The primary sense of the word meaning is that of definition—not fully appropriate to this case, but worth bearing in mind as the gloss of this use casts a monolithic shadow of literalism across our terrain. In art, meaning is generally used as a synonym for content. In this application, meaning is message; it is what the painting holds and delivers, what is “contained” by the painting and what is consumed. The painting becomes a bearer of information, information that is received and understood by the viewer. There is an appeal for something artist and viewer could point to as probative (regarding the value of the painting) and determinate. The presumptions here are prima facie untenable. “Art is not a telegram,” Lyotard once said. Meaning and content in this case imply something discrete, a quantum, something that can be deduced and set aside as fact. This closes the door on the complex of interactions that constitute the conversation of art in our moment, and even of prior moments, and reduces the potential of painting rather than securing its value.

There is a legitimate practical concern of ensuring that one’s activity as an artist is not…meaningless, nugatory, but assuming fixed coordinates for meaning is not effective, and also has a nostalgic timbre that ignores the entropic nature of art in our moment and the entropic impossibility of reversing course.

As an alternative, a conventional maxim one sometimes hears is “meaning is what happens,” which is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go very far. Posit further then that meaning does not reside in the body of the work but instead begins with the experience of the viewers; that the artist is the first viewer, and from there meaning accrues in incremental and polyphonic fashion in the public sphere; that there is nothing irreducible “contained” in the painting as object; that agreement on subject matter in the work comes from agreements reached outside the scope of the painting, though these may be employed by the artist (e.g. iconography).

When the “content” of a painting is evaporated, or found to be non-existent; if the painting is not a means of expression; if there is not consensus on the significance or purpose of a painting or artwork, what is left to the artist? What form can meaning take? Are alternatives necessary? Is this a kind of nihilism, or cause for optimism? If one accepts these propositions, what products or activities are sensible for painting, for art?


Coda

I’ve been dilatory with posting, mainly due to travel for much of the last three weeks. I returned this weekend, and had a radiant, amusing and perhaps not unrelated dream on Sunday night. Some friends and I were in a cathedral, and the interior was filled by the colored light of tall stained glass windows. A friend asked me something and I replied, “Stained glass was the conceptual art of the 12th century.” It had something to do with the divine figures portrayed in the glass being manifested as bodies of tinted light inside the cathedral.

“L’artista è la controfigura per il filosofo”

(“The artist is the stuntman for the philosopher”–G. Baruchello)

The issue of what is happening when we look at an artwork, and how to talk about the dynamic between the making of an artwork, the artwork itself, and viewing, is something I have thought about a great deal and will write about. In deciding how to begin I realized that, at least on this topic, a little background on why this matters to my work, in more than a philosophical sense, might be useful.

Several years ago I went through a pretty thorough evaluation of where I was with painting. The examination was triggered by some moving events during the prior year. I had become interested in visual art and begun painting because art seemed to me a boundless vessel for working with the widest variety of human interests—a thing that could accept whatever one put into it and that one could never exhaust. I had, however, begun to feel that the events and concerns that were of highest import to me were alien to the paintings I was doing, which was not acceptable. Pushing paint around aimlessly, without deeper impetus or aim, did not interest me.

As a result I decided to halt painting, perhaps completely, while I looked into how, or whether, painting could do what I asked of it. If art, or painting, was not fulfilling the obligation that I had for it, if I was not fulfilling my obligation to it, it was better to leave it behind and search elsewhere for that fulfillment. It wasn’t clear to me where I would end up—as an activist, in a day job of some sort, law school, in a monastery, back in the studio—but I was content to leave it open for as long as it took to arrive at an organic decision. While sanguine, I was not going to return to the studio unless I was able to find a way to make the work and activity relevant to the things I cared about most. I found that my identity as an artist was not important to me, and told Amy at the time that the only thing I wasn’t ready to give up was breathing.

It took about three months, and the intervention of a transformative retrospective of Cy Twombly’s work on paper, to resolve, and of course it did so in an unforeseen way. Soon after seeing the exhibition the subliminal started oozing up from between the cracks. I found myself scribbling on scraps of paper, doodling over my notes. Externally, the more I considered it, the more the whole question looked twofold. On one side was a problem of the language we use to describe what happens when we make and look at art. Words like “expression,” “content,” “meaning” and even “medium” conjured, explicitly or implicitly, some kind of transfer of information, for which I could find no justification in the dynamic between artist/artwork/viewer, and which is completely outside of the way we understand art in our moment, for good reasons. On the other side was the presumption of any correlation between what the artist does and what the viewer takes away. If one dispensed with that, lots of problems went with it, though others appeared.

What finally presented itself was an equilibrium between impossibility and new possibility. The above points indicated that what I had been seeking could not be done. On the other side of the balance, however, these seemingly negative conclusions had opened up a lot of new space. If there were contradictions embedded in going back to work, these contradictions seemed capable of bearing some unfamiliar fruit.

Coda

1) Article on David Hammons in Alexandria. I will never forget a walk through Harlem he took us on years ago, at the behest of Stanley Whitney. Among other things that day, he helped me pay attention to the artifacts and interactions of public spaces with the same devotion I was giving to visual phenomena. You’ll find the same acuity and precision in this article.

2) Judit Reigl at Janos Gat. Some very tough paintings from the 1960s. Sort of like the love child of Umberto Boccioni and Clyfford Still, if you can imagine anything that irascible not self-destructing on impact.

3) Dona Nelson’s painting at Thomas Erben. A complex, though-provoking and lovely painting. She uses the back of the canvas in a resolved and innovative way that opens into notions of duality. Very daring. Dona always has one foot on a banana peel and the other on a skateboard. (As of posting, the Thomas Erben website is not updated, but the exhibition runs through 1 February.)