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.


Thomas Kinkade is Dead. Long Live Thomas Kinkade.

15 04 2012

When Thomas Kinkade died last week, I got a few emails and Facebook wall posts from former students.  “I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to inform you about this.”  I have had a long and complex relationship with the art of Thomas Kinkade, and his death brought him to the forefront of the greater consciousness (however briefly) once again.

This is an example of a Thomas Kinkade painting. There's no need to look at any other ones, they're all pretty much this.

Thomas Kinkade was a painter.  He was a very well-known painter who produced thousands of paintings of quaint cottages in idyllic settings.  Tomas Kinkade was a businessman.  His galleries are in malls all across America.  There are calendars, coffee mugs, prints of various qualities and price ranges, “original” paintings, and even a Kinkade-themed housing development in Northern California.  For most in the art world, this places Kinkade firmly in the category of kitsch, with his reliance on mass reproductions of artworks and an easy appeal to a general populace.

When I was a graduate teaching assistant, instructing introductory-level studio classes, our first-day activity was to have the students fill out a form answering various questions about themselves.  What kind of music did they like?  What other art classes had they taken?  And, of course, who was their favorite artists.  When the TAs would get together after the first day, the conversation always turned to that last question.  How many Van Goghs did you get?  How many Dalís?  Any late, great, unknown uncles?  And the kicker—the question that would make us howl with laughter and wretch with disgust—how many Kinkades?  We were snobs.  We were art snobs.  We were educated art snobs, and we were going to educate these uninitiated undergrads about what was good and what was bad art, and Thomas Kinkade was bad art.

Yes, this is exactly what we looked like. This is what all art snobs look like.

There are several factors that go into dismissing Kinkade outright, and the kitsch argument is only one of them.  His galleries, even if they were not franchised McDonald’s of paintings scattered across America and found next to the Dillard’s north wing of the mall, were vanity galleries.  A vanity gallery is an art gallery that is owned and operated by the artist himself or herself.  While academic art instruction sees itself as operating outside of the art market, the market’s peculiar institutions of legitimation are sacrosanct.

A gallery, in the operation of the art market, is a proprietorship of a connoisseur who gathers the work of a group of artists, legitimized by their inclusion in this stable (yes, this is how the collection of artists represented by a gallery are referred to).  The connoisseur in the form of the art dealer then sells the work to connoisseurs in the form of the buyers.  The connections and collecting history of the connoisseurs provide the provenance for the work, and the connection with that provenance further legitimizes the artist.  They aren’t just making great work.  It’s great because of who owns it and because of what else they own or have owned.  A Jenny Saville isn’t just important because it’s a monumental painting, but because it was purchased by Charles Saatchi, and Saatchi also purchased work by Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood.  Good connections in the primary market lead to even better connections in the secondary (auction) market, which lead to collection or donation to museums, which are the ultimate arbiters of what is important.  What is important to museums is what ends up in art history text books, and it is what is taught to students as high art.  This process, as convoluted as it is, begins in the person of the art dealer.

In a vanity gallery, the artist circumvents the dealer in order to get his or her work to the primary market.  The work is sold, yes, but in the view of the institutions of legitimation, a necessary step in gaining legitimacy has been skipped.  How can these primary consumers know what they like if they don’t have a connoisseur to tell them what is important?  Thomas Kinkade made the vanity gallery into Wal-Mart, selling directly to consumers, legitimation be damned.

Yes, this gallery is in a mall.

Aside from the inconsequential, saccharine-sweet subject matter of Kincade’s paintings, his primary sin in the eyes of the art world is this crucial skipped step.  Other popular kitsch artists are simply ignored:  Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, Anne Geddes, whoever took those photographs of children in adult clothes in the 1980s. For those who hate Kincade, he is more than ignored, he is reviled, and other “sins” are held up as support for this judgment that are allowed to pass with other artists—even artists widely recognized by the institutions as important.

Even as a student myself, I lambasted Kinkade’s use of employees in creating his works.  “They aren’t even his!” I would argue, “He’s just the financier!  He’s a businessman.  Not an artist.”  Many people share the expectation that the genius artist’s hands are the only hands that work toward creating the final object.  The image of the artist’s studio in the heads of art students and the general public alike is one of a lone artist, toiling away at his massive projects.

Art is not made this way.  For an artist to make money, very rarely is this even a possibility.  In pre-Modern art eras, the sole-genius-production ideal was not as closely held.  Renaissance artists like da Vinci and Michelangelo were part of a guild system, where apprentices would do basic work like backgrounds in paintings or rough out the major forms for a sculpture.  The master was the boss in this situation, but the workload was shared.  Four hundred years later, Monet used apprentices and employees to crank out painting after painting of water lilies and haystacks.  In the 1960s, Andy Warhol went so far as to refer to his studio as The Factory, with artists, actors, photographers, and even lackeys all contributing to its output.  Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami do not lay a finger on the massive sculptures and paintings produced and exhibited under their names.  These artists occupy the highest tiers of the art-historical hierarchy (Koons is certainly up for debate—another blog on him later), and their output is directly related to the use of employee artisans to physically create the works.

A painter at work in Murakami's Kaikai Kiki studio in New York.

I have written at length about the dangers of high art alienating itself from the tastes and opinions of culture at large.  The disdain for items produced for a consumer, mass, or popular market is self-defeating.  How much differently would high art be perceived if Alan Kaprow’s Art Store had been in malls all across America?  What if connoisseurship was permanently circumvented and every person’s opinion had equal validity in the market?  What if legitimation depended more on quality of communication than quality of provenance and connections?  Would Kinkade have died an art start?  Would his paintings be in the Powerpoints of 100-level Art History survey courses?

In many ways, Thomas Kinkade fit the mold of the superstar hero artist.  He had ambition, ego, and is even rumored to have died due to alcoholism.  In the pantheon of art gods, those qualities have eclipsed any technical talent since 1956.  Personally, I can’t stand the work of Thomas Kinkade.  I also hate the Rococo.  But the Rococo has a place in art history textbooks.  Maybe Thomas Kinkade should, too.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, "The Happy Accidents of the Swing," c. 1767.
Just... ew.


25 11 2011

Cultural figures regarded as heroes often follow a similar path to other, mythical heroic figures.  From Superman to Hercules to Jackson Pollock to Kurt Cobain, there are components that we tend to latch onto in order to label the person as “great.”  Aside from a skill in a particular field, are that the hero must be, in some way, separate from society.  In mythology, the hero must make a trip to the underworld.  “Real world” heroes, it seems to follow, must also take a trip to the underworld, but they don’t end up returning.  “Real world” cultural heroes must be dead.

Even Superman made a trip to the afterlife.

In the classic Western, the man without a name shows up in a seemingly sleepy town that is overrun by a criminal cattle-rustling gang (Tombstone), or a corrupt mayor (Unforgiven), two families vying for its control (A Fistful of Dollars).  The hero is a symbol of something from outside of society, as represented in the town.  Superman is outside of the society of Earth, as Superman is from Krypton.  Spiderman is a little bit of a trick to fit into this mold—Spiderman is a teenage boy, not necessarily something outside of the society of New York.  However, Stan Lee purposely created Spiderman (and many of his heroes) to be a teenager—teenagers, almost without fail, feel alienated from the society of which they are a part.  Since they feel themselves to be outside of society, they see society as an outsider—even if they really aren’t.

With real-world cultural heroes, it is a similar stretch to see how a given person may exist outside of society.  However, it is often what is glamorized about the person.  Take Vincent Van Gogh for example.  If a person on the street knows nothing else about Van Gogh, they will know that he was in some way crazy and they will certainly know the story about his cutting off of his own ear—which is a crazy thing to do.  A person afflicted with mental illness is outside of the normal boundaries of societal expectations.  This also shows up in the chemical dependency of many cultural heroes.  Earnest Hemingway was an alcoholic.  So was Jackson Pollock.  Sigmund Freud was hooked on cocaine.  For Elvis Presley it was pills, for Kurt Cobain it was heroin, for Hunter S. Thompson it was every drug under the sun.

Proof of the cultural influence of the counter-cultural.

For each of these, and for many more, we see the figure as being outside of the normal confines of expected social behavior.  They are, in some way, “other” than us.  Hunter S. Thompson might be close to the perfect example because, not only did he exist outside of society, he did it in a purposeful manner.  He plunged headfirst into Gonzo journalism and brought the rest of us along for the ride—to see the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas not as a participant, but as a mentally altered, “objective” observer.  His writing is from the point of view of alienation, and through that, we can put ourselves in the position of the hero, if only for a short while.

The real world cultural heroes I have listed here have something in common other than substance abuse.  They are all dead.  Classical Greek heroes make a trip to the underworld.  So did the Roman copy of the Greek hero, Aeneas.  So did the American version of Hercules:  Superman.  So did the basis for the Christian faith:  Jesus.

Non-mythical and non-religious figures have a difficult time returning from the dead, but figures who leave some sort of artifacts have a way to continue “existing” after they have died, even if they are not technically alive.  Van Gogh’s paintings draw crowds and high prices well into the 21st Century. The songs of Presley and Cobain continue to get airplay or to be downloaded onto ipods, even the work of Sigmund Freud, largely abandoned in professional psychology, finds its way into literary, artistic, and academic production.

The longevity of the work of these individuals is the indication of their heroic impact. However, the impact of the works themselves is largely dependent on the fact that they are dead.  Once an artist is no longer capable of creating new work, their oeuvre is complete.  They won’t be around to create new work—so the supply is fixed (hence, with increased demand, prices can go up—see sales figures for Van Gogh’s sunflowers or Warhol’s collection of kitsch cookie jars).  Also, the work is static—unchanging. We can think of Jackson Pollock’s work as the drip action-paintings of the 1950s and not have to worry that he may have been influenced by Minimalism or Pop or some postmodern abhorrence later on in life.  He wasn’t around to be affected by those.  His work can remain pure in his death.

In poets, artists, and musicians especially, (and certainly other professions who heroize historical figures) the pattern of substance abuse and death influences the behavioral patterns of students and young professionals in the field.  In ways, it seems that art students want to find some sort of chemical dependence in order to be like the artists they are taught to revere.  On the flip side of that, one might argue that the “creative mind” is already inclined toward such behavior, since to be truly creative requires an ability to think outside of the accepted confines of societal thought—to exist outside of society.

Personally, I am wary of any broad generalizations made about “creative minds,” as if they are sentenced to be artists and addicts and have no way to behave as, say, an engineer or someone with a “scientific mind.”  While some truly creative people are truly troubled mentally or chemically, many, many more are wannabe hipsters who think that if they drink enough or take enough drugs they’ll be able to be like their heroes—addicted, then dead.

To that end, I am reminded of Sid Vicious.  Sid was no great bass player and really didn’t have an ounce of musical or poetic talent in him.  He was recruited to be in the Sex Pistols because he had the punk look—he seemed to embody the attitude of a group desperately rebelling against society. Maybe that’s all that punk truly was (or is)—an all-encompassing, willful effort to exist outside of society, not necessarily to change it in any way or to contribute some “great” work of art to make general progress.  If that was the goal, Sid Vicious can certainly be seen as punk’s patron saint.

Sid Vicious: A whole lot of style, very little substance

This attitude of nihilism, however, doesn’t line up with the notion of the heroic cultural figure.  Heroes, in existing outside of society, in some way progress or protect society as a whole.  The good guy in the Western chases the corrupt officials out and the city can be civilized again.  Superman fights for “Truth, Justice, and The American Way.”  Jackson Pollock influences the direction of abstraction in art, and the reaction against abstraction, to this very day.

Kurt Cobain existed at the intersection of the outsider and the cultural paragon.  He wanted so much to be outside of the popular culture he was so much an influence on that, in the end, it killed him.  Rather, he killed himself.  True cultural heroes, whether they want it or not, are as much a part of the greater culture as anything they project themselves to be apart from.  Perhaps it is that paradox that drives them further away.  Perhaps it is the paradox itself we end up elevating as heroic.

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.”

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