29 04 2012

Artists, critics, and academics insist that the defining factor for any object or action to be art is intent.  Even in a postmodern mindset where anything—any act, any work of cultural production, or any object (any thing)—can be art, what makes that thing art is the intent that it is art.  This, of course, is rooted in the Modernist ideology of authority.

Modern thought places the utmost importance in authority, because it is through authoritative figures, statements, and processes that we can determine Truth.  And capital-T “Truth” is the utmost authority.  For this purpose, fields of study are singled out and highly educated experts spend their time investigating and advancing their knowledge of these fields, producing work that is True Science or True Music or True Art.  By designating himself as an Artist, a person then declares his intent to make art.  From then on, what he decides is art—what he intends art to be—is just that.  His justification is manifest in his position as an Authority on Art, an authority granted by specialization and expertise.

In the period of High Modernism (namely, the movements of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), the intent of being art was enough justification for a thing to be art. During the Postmodern period, however, simply being art was not enough justification for an object.  Beginning in the late 1960s, art gained (or re-gained) the requirement of meaning.  In order to have impact, the work needed to do more than just be art, it needed to mean something.

Barbara Kruger, Your Body is a Battleground, 1989

In some circles, this “meaning something” depended on shock—a tool inherited from early Modernist painters who seemed intent on forcing the advancement of society, which was another topic of Modernist importance.  High Modernists like Picasso and Pollock aimed their shock inward—the shock of non-representational painting pushing art to a more advanced, more specialized place.  However, like Realist painters such as Manet, Postmodern artists like Barbara Kruger and Ed Kienholtz aimed their shock outward, putting society itself in the crosshairs.

Activist artists like Judy Chicago, Mel Chin, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and Sue Coe made artwork with dual intent:  to be art and to disrupt.  The requirement for rupture seems to have become inherent, especially in art produced and justified in an academic setting.  Disruption  may not always be readily apparent, and thus artist’s statements emerge as a way to explain what is disruptive about a particular work or a particular artists’ oeuvre.

What is peculiar about the supremacy of rupture as a requirement of art is that the intent of rupture seems to have the capability of being granted after the fact.  Artists who do not intend to their work to be disruptive in the present to be dismissed, and artists who created rupture in the past, whether or not they set out to do so, are elevated.  A reader commented on my last post (Thomas Kincade is Dead.  Long Live Thomas Kincade) on Facebook, arguing against my comparison of Kincade to Andy Warhol:

Even if he claims that he did not intend to, Warhol’s imagery (as banal as it was) at the time forced an examination of the boundaries of art (rupture). That’s pioneering. Kinkade’s imagery (although his methods of production and commercialism could be argued as similar to Warhol’s) does not hold the same power of rupture, just based on content alone.

Warhol was famously non-committal about his intentions regarding meaning in his work.  He made works with a popular appeal in a businesslike way that seemed to challenge the accepted specialized, reified nature of art. Critics, history books, and hero-worship have assigned the intent of rupture to Warhol, not Warhol himself.  If intent is all important in the status of an artist, is assigned intent just as powerful as declared intent?

It appears that this is the case.  The reader concluded her comments by writing, “I believe Kinkade’s illuminated cottage scenes are more along the lines of an allopathic art—an easy sell.”  Kincade was about business and selling, and Warhol was about critiquing the art world and/or society. However, Warhol’s own statement on the matter was that “Being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

The figure of Andy Warhol has been ascribed the role of sly critic of mass consumer culture and big-money art markets even with the facts and trappings of his fame and wealth readily apparent.  A similar statement can be made about the work and person that is Jeff Koons.  My favorite statement regarding Koons comes from Robert Hughes, “If cheap cookie jars could become treasures in the 1980s, then how much more the work of the very egregious Jeff Koons, a former bond trader, whose ambitions took him right through kitsch and out the other side into a vulgarity so syrupy, gross, and numbing, that collectors felt challenged by it.”

Hughes goes on to say, and I agree, that you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in the art world who claims to actually like Koons’ work.  But because it is ultra-kitsch and still presented as art, we assume the intent is to critique the vulgarity and simplicity of consumer or of the art market itself.  Koons is a businessman, and a shrewd one at that.  He makes a lot of money by “challenging” collectors while stating directly that he is not intending to critique or challenge art, beauty, or kitsch.

Of course, he is challenging them.  It is not his stated intent that is accepted as fact, but it is the intent we as viewers and critics have assigned to him.  In a postmodern view, the authority has shifted to the reader, to the viewer—to the end consumer of a cultural product.  We are no longer interested in a Truth of art, but instead we accept the personal truths of our own subjective views.  Saying you didn’t intent to go over the speed limit does not mean you didn’t do it, and Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, or even Thomas Kincade saying they don’t intend to create disruptive art work doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it.

If rupture is the new defining characteristic of art, then intent no longer can be.  A child doesn’t intent to disrupt a funeral, but it will because it wants attention.  Attention is the intent, but rupture occurs nonetheless.  Kincade just wanted attention and fame, but that shouldn’t stop us from viewing the work as a disruptive critique of the market.  It hasn’t stopped us from doing the same with Warhol.

Jeff Koons next to his own sculpture, Pink Panther (1988)

The reader’s comment used the word “allopathic.”  Allopathic, according to Merriam-Webster online, is “relating to or being a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated.”  In this case, the system of art critique is allopathic.  Typically, critique is aimed at works of art that intend to be art in a certain way.  Here, we are critiquing work in a way different or incompatible with its supposed intentions when being produce.  In a world of relative truths, that doesn’t make the critique any less valid.


Art, Meaning, and Language Part 2

24 06 2011

My proposal to think of art as something that should not be required to have its existence justified through language is something that seems to negate itself.  In the form of a blog I am justifying, via language, that art shouldn’t have to do so.  My proposal is also something that, at its core, begs the age-old, perennial, and annoying question, “What is art?”  This is a question of classification, and language lies at its root.

But, really, what is art?  What makes one thing “art” and another thing “not art?”  Does it need to be an object?  An artifact (art-ifact)?  Is it something that must be manufactured and therefore not quite real?  Artifice (art-ifice)?  With Fountain in 1917, Marcel Duchamp rejected both of these criteria.  The urinal was not a facsimile of a urinal, not a representation or abstraction, but the item as it existed on its own—reality.  It became art based on the intention of the artist.  Duchamp changed the item from plumbing fixture to art by declaring it art and contextualizing it in a gallery exhibition.  It was art because he said it was art.  The fact that it happened to be a physical object is simply coincidence.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

The true power of the work is the idea that art is qualified by the artist’s intention over anything else.  The fact is that Fountain was not actually shown in the exhibition to which it was submitted under a pseudonym.  Furthermore, once the iconic photo was taken by Alfred Stieglitz, the urinal itself disappeared.  Years later, Duchamp signed other urinals and dispersed them to museums and made miniature versions included in his portable Box and Valise; the urinal you see at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art is not the same object that was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917.  But that’s not the point.  The idea that art is dependent on the intent of the artist is the point.  At SFMOMA, it is represented through a copy of the original act—it is the idea behind that act that is important, not the object or its copy.

With the emergence of art as idea, its relationship with and reliance on language is cemented.  The intent of the artist is what qualifies anything as art, and that intent must be communicated in order to be understood.  It is the understanding that justifies the qualification and legitimizes art status.  This has led, in some cases, to overly simplistic, didactic, single-issue art—where the artwork is the primary form of communication.  The artist has something to say, and they want the viewer to understand, so they beat them over the head with obvious imagery and often supplement that with text within the work.  It has also led to the reliance on the artist’s statement.  If you didn’t understand the point of the painting or photo or performance, the artist will tell you exactly what it was all about.

Barbara Kruger, It's a Small World, but Not if You Have to Clean It, 1990

For this reason, artists feel the need to delve deeply into linguistics, semiotics, visual communication theory, psychoanalysis, and sociology.  Forms and individual usages of communication shift over time and across cultures, and for artists to effectively communicate, they need to be aware of how to most effectively construct their visual and textual signage to be understood by a contemporary audience.  This is a historically novel role for artists to assume.  Artists of the Renaissance were not required to give artist’s talks about the meaning of their paintings.  Their focus was less on content and more on mimesis—creating an illusionistic representation of the real world.  Beauty was the preferred outcome of any work of art until the dawn of Modernism.  Now, it is a dirty word, used to dismiss artwork deemed too “decorative.”

In this TED video, Denis Dutton proposes the idea that a human understanding of beauty predates the invention of language.  I argue that the dismissal of the notion of beauty in art is a by-product of the Modernist elevation of rationality.  Rational decisions can be explained.  Liking something and not being able to communicate why is irrational.  The ineffable—the beautiful, the sublime—cannot be adequately justified in a critique or in an artist’s statement, and therefore undermine the scientific seriousness now expected of art.

This doesn’t mean beauty has ceased to exist.  It also doesn’t mean that there is no beauty in art.  While it may remain ignored or unacknowledged by artists, instructors, and critics, it is often the primary source of attraction for a viewer.  When I was in graduate school, a fellow student was going through his end-of-semester critique.  One instructor attempted to describe her opinion of the work, saying, “These are—and I actually mean this as a compliment—beautiful.”  When I first viewed works by Abstract Expressionists in person, I was taken aback by their physical presence and, yes, beauty.  I have since attempted to explain how much different my experience was from viewing slides of the paintings to students, and have received silent, slightly bemused stares in return.

Jackson Pollock, One (Number 31, 1950), 1950

If we rely less on language to justify the existence of an artwork, we can return to acknowledging the role beauty plays.  If beauty is central to art, all things beautiful can be art; Duchamp’s rejection of the qualifications of object-ness and artifice for something to be classified as art remains intact.  The key is in the fact that, if we maintain that beauty is ineffable, it isn’t something that can be communicated, it is something that must be experienced.  The beauty isn’t in the object of the Abstract Expressionist painting, it’s in the experience of one’s interaction with the painting.  It’s in the process of contemplating the purpose of art while writing (or reading) a blog.  It’s in the abrupt stop of running aground in a fishing boat and in the time spent waiting for the tide to come back in.  It’s in the smell of the air as the sun sets over Garden City, and in the camaraderie shared between friends in a bar.

Sunset over Garden City, photo: Samuel F. Stimpert

When we acknowledge that art is centered around beauty, and that beauty can be anywhere, then art can be anywhere and art can be anything.  If the question is, “What is art?” the answer is, “Everything.”

%d bloggers like this: