Lies

20 01 2012

“Art itself is a lie—a lie told in service of the truth.”  — Robert Hughes

This quote from Hughes’ Rome: A Visual, Cultural, and Personal History may or may not hold water in my proposed method of thinking about art not as based on object, but as based in interaction.  Of course, the quote, as presented, is a bit out of context and, as Abraham Lincoln so famously said, “The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can’t always be sure of their authenticity.”

Bernini, Plato and Persephone, 1621-22

In the book, Hughes is discussing the importance of Bernini and the transcendent beauty he ascribes to Bernini’s sculpture Pluto and Persephone (1621-1622).  Hughes has never been shy about decrying the narrow focus of high modernism, as he illustrates with the statement, “The extraordinary character of the sculpture lies in a mastery over carving which transcends the puritanical mantra of modernism about ‘truth to material,’ as though there were only some things that could legitimately be done with wood or stone, and to go beyond them were a sin.”  Hughes revels in Bernini’s skill to make stone appear to be as soft and supple as flesh, leaving the Greenbergian “integrity of materials” in the dust.  “Is it wrong for it to look as though it were modeled rather than carved? Assuredly not, the marvelous surfaces and textures of Pluto’s and Persephone’s bodies tell us.  Is the effect a lie?  Of course, but art itself is a lie—a lie told in service of the truth.”

This kind of representational detail holds the beauty that makes this sculpture powerful.

It might be in that final statement, more than his dismissal of “truth to material,” where Hughes identifies himself as something other than a modernist.  The modern emphasis on authority, on truth with a capital “T,” is not so much that art represents truth, but that art is Truth. For Greenberg, the veracity of a painting was in its ability to be self-referential and self-reliant—art for art’s sake.  Add to that Benjamin’s concept of the aura of an artwork—the ineffable presence of the object itself—and you can see the supremacy of the artifact in modernism.  Art is produced to be an object, and the sole purpose of that object is to be art.

For Hughes, art, at least in this instance, serves another purpose than to be an object that is art.  It is in the service of revealing or communicating the truth.  In the case of Bernini, that truth would be the Biblical Gospel as interpreted by the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation.  With this in mind, the art of the Italian Baroque was similar to much of the academic and conceptual art produced today:  it was visual communication constructed by the artist.  One difference is that Bernini had an audience already literate in the iconography he was using as his visual vocabulary whereas contemporary artists rely on artist’s statements to explain the signs that are their works.  Another difference is that Baroque artists imbued their works with an ornate and decorative beauty abhorred by contemporary artists still affected by the modernist rejection of it.

Whether it is based in beauty or based in communication, Baroque Art and contemporary academic art operate on the assumption that art is something else.  So what of art that just is—not in the modernist sense that the mission of an art object is self-contained, but in the idea that art is within the interaction between artist and viewer, not in an object?  Is an interventionist performance art?  If so, is it a lie?  Can that lie be in service of the truth?

Yoko Ono, Box Piece, 1964

As I see it, the “lie” of art is in the idea of representational art. It is representing something else outside of itself.  Bernini’s Plato and Persephone is a lie—stone that is masquerading as flesh. Jeff Koons’ Puppy is a lie—kitsch masquerading as high art with the purpose of communicating irony.  Yoko Ono’s Instruction paintings are lies—words arranged to represent a concept.  Whatever truth these works are in the service of, and whatever importance you may or may not ascribe to those truths, the works are there to represent something outside themselves.

Whether I am modernist or something other than modernist (post-post-modernist?), I think that the true power of art is in the experience of interaction between the artist and the viewer.  In this, no object is necessary, and no representation is necessary. Without representation, there is no lie to be put into service as communication—the experience simply is.  Perhaps the “is” is truth.  Maybe I’m more of a modernist than I thought.

Works Cited:

Hughes, Robert.  Rome: A Visual, Cultural, and Personal History.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.  pp. 281.

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Mark Zuckerberg and Troy Davis

23 09 2011

Karl Marx famously stated that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”  By this, he meant that the institution of religion keeps the masses satiated and compliant to the will of those in power—those with the capital, those whose ultimate goal was profit above all else. Clement Greenberg had similar ideas about kitsch (though he would be appalled to be so closely linked to Marx). Kitsch satisfies the uncultured, the uneducated, and can be used by those in power to manipulate the opinions and will of the people to their own ends.  Walter Benjamin saw similar potential in entertainment, specifically in film—both Benjamin and Greenberg saw the way Hitler used propaganda and mass-appeal to his own ends as examples of entertainment, rather than religion, as the opiate of the 20th Century masses.

“Entertainment” as such is a bit more difficult to pin down in the age of simulacra, pastiche, and the hyperreal.  It has become ubiquitous and constant in American culture—the rise of the smart phone has brought the power of the internet into the palm of your hand.  Yet this power is used more often to play Scrabble with friends or fiddle around on Facebook or Twitter. One never has to wait to be entertained by an inane post from a friend, a Star Wars/kitten meme, or an insipid 140-character rant from a B-list celebrity or athlete.  Even while waiting in line at the movie theater to be entertained, we seek entertainment from our phones.

The infinite power of the internet... at its best.

The power of Facebook is both greater and less than it is purported to be, either by media outlets or by its own self-promotion.  There was fanfare and congratulations over the role the social media site played in the Arab Spring, with much media attention centered on its use in Egypt.  “Facebook made democracy possible in an oppressed country,” seems to be the underlying attitude of many.  But Facebook did not liberate Egypt:  Egyptians did.  Surely, there was some communication between protesters that did take place on the site, but it was the protests and actions taken by the people, and their resistance against being put down by force, that ultimately resulted in regime change.

Still, the perception of Facebook as the ambassador of democracy to a troubled region has led to an inflated sense of both pride and confidence among Americans. Since the ideology of democracy is at the core of our identity (i.e. “Democracy is Good”), and Facebook helped bring democracy to the Middle East, then Facebook is an example of democracy at its finest.  This, of course, is not true.

Facebook was invented, and is only possible, in a country that holds the Freedom of Speech in high regard.  Facebook is not a democracy, it is a corporation—a private enterprise.  The content placed on Facebook is the sole property of Facebook itself, which can censor anything it chooses (so far, it has chosen not to censor and has been banned in China since 2009 as a result). It can also make changes however it pleases, regardless of what its users may think about the changes.  This week has seen a major change to the layout of the site, with some new features added, and has brought the “wrath” of its customers, with countless angry posts (on Facebook) complaining and demanding a change back.  Mark Zuckerberg is not going to change it back.

This twerp's a billionaire. Do you honestly believe he gives a crap about what you think?

This is not the first time Facebook has made changes, and not the first time its users have been upset.  In the end, by and large, the users don’t leave.  There was an outcry over rules changes in 2009 that ultimately did pressure a reversal of stance by the website.  However, as far back as 2006, the “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group pressured the site to give some control to users to “opt out” of the news feed feature.  In 2009, those controls were removed.  In 2010, nobody was complaining about their lack of control of the news feed.  A year ago, the site made a gradual change to a “New Profile,” that initially seemed voluntary, until the “New Profile” was the only option.

What is dangerous is that Facebook provides the illusion of democracy outside of itself.  Jean Baudrillard made similar statements about the hyperreality of Disneyland.  Baudrillard is not concerned with the fiction that Disneyland presents (i.e. a cleaned-up version of American Main Street), but its function as a “deterrence machine… It’s meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere.”  For Baudrillard, the fiction of Disneyland allows us to think that the real world is just that—real.  When, for him it is hyperreal (especially Los Angeles):  a series of images and simulacra.

Facebook is not a democracy. However, the use of Facebook, even when acknowledging that it is an autocracy, allows users to believe that democracy is real outside of Facebook.  The ubiquity of the site—the fact that so many people use it—make it seem as if it is the perfect vehicle to enact democracy, even if it isn’t one itself.  However, this ubiquity feeds the notion that enacting democracy can be as simple as posting a link or a status or a profile picture.  “I’m communicating with so many people,” seems to be the thought, “of course this will make a difference.”  Posting on the internet, without any real-world action, is lazy activism.  It is akin to wearing a sandwich board on the sidewalk, shouting through a megaphone.

The same day Facebook users were writing outraged posts over the new layout, convicted murderer Troy Davis was put to death in Georgia.  The execution was controversial, not just because of the fact that it was an execution, but because many of the witnesses who had testified in the trial had changed or recanted their testimony.  Yet, through all the appeals and Supreme Court hearing requests, the verdict remained unchanged.

There was plenty of Facebook traffic regarding the case.  Many, many of my Facebook friends posted messages of hope for a stay or a pardon, dismay at the fact that the execution was carried out, and scoldings of the people posting about Facebook while a man who may have been innocent was put to death.

The similarity of the Facebook and Troy Davis posts struck me.  In a week, or a month, or a year, who will remember what the old Facebook layout even looked like?  Can you remember the layout in 2009?  Two days after the changes, I see no posts complaining about the layout, when it seemed to be all anyone talked about on Wednesday.  Those so passionately posting about Troy Davis are today posting about their writing, their workdays, their plans for the weekend.  There is no mention of injustice.  There are no links to websites organizing protests against capital punishment.  I am not saying there is no Facebook activity regarding Troy Davis—there are numerous pages and posts—I am saying that the traffic in my circle of friends has very little to do with the case two days after the execution.

This image puts the issues into perspective, but it highlights the limits of Facebook activism (I found this image on Facebook).

Facebook provides the illusion, not necessarily of democracy, but of involvement.  You can post, you can have your say, you can feel like you’ve been a part of something.  Then you can go back to your own life, back to your minutiae, back to being entertained.  When speech is not followed up with action, nothing changes.  When nothing changes, the powerful maintain power over the masses—whether it is Mark Zuckerberg, the State of Georgia, or a dictator in the Middle East.

As an Epilogue, I must say that I believe in the power of the Freedom of Speech, and I believe that Facebook (or, say, blogs) can act as a key communication tool to foment change—to act as the spark of activism.  But the key to activism is action—which takes work in real life, not just online.  I am curious to hear how people go about following up their internet communication with action, especially from those who may be rightfully angry about my dismissal of posts regarding Troy Davis.





Avant-Garde, Kitsch, and The End of Art

19 08 2011

I was having pizza with two friends who were discussing the song “Let ‘Em In.”  Not being familiar with the song by title or their description of the lyrics, I asked who it was by.  “Wings,” said one.  “So, typical McCartney drivel,” chimed in the other, and they both chuckled.  “Ah,” I thought, “music snobs.”

But this isn’t just an example of music-snobbery.  It’s more specifically pop music-snobbery, and even more so than that, Beatles- or John Lennon-snobbery.  These types of music fans (and there are many of them) place Lennon-scribed Beatles tunes or his solo work on a higher level than the works of his partner Paul McCartney, and have a particular disdain for Wings.  The reasoning?  Though it is often hard to get them to admit, it has to do with the perceived simplicity and popularity of the songs.  McCartney writes simple songs that are catchy and everybody likes and understands what they’re about.  Lennon writes deep, poetic masterworks that take time and education to truly appreciate.  McCartney writes “Back in the USSR,” while Lennon writes “I Am the Walrus.”

It’s an attitude that carries over into all areas of artistic evaluation:  that which is more difficult to understand or appreciate is of higher value than that which is easily grasped.  Clement Greenberg crystalized this attitude regarding visual art in 1939’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which he described kitsch as low art, the ersatz culture of the newly literate, but uneducated masses. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.”  Kitsch is mass-produced for easy consumption by people who like it because it seems like art, but is easy, convenient, and plentiful.

What is kitsch? This is kitsch.

The Avant-Garde, on the other hand, creates art that is forward-thinking, that is moving toward new ways of creating and thinking and is therefore inherently more difficult to understand.  Greenberg saw the Avant-Garde as a necessary product of a move away from what he called “Alexandrianism,” an attitude that looks to past masters and tradition for answers regarding questions of taste. Writing in the Twentieth Century, at the cusp of the pinnacle of High Modernism (indeed, Greenberg championed the King of High Modernist Art, Jackson Pollock), Greenberg’s emphasis on progress and originality is typical of the modern mindset.  Greenberg also saw the isolation of the Avant-Garde as necessary to move culture forward as a whole.  Modern art had to be separate from Kitsch, from the popular aesthetic of the masses, in order to bring about true originality and create a more pure form of art.  Ultimately, this led to abstraction and non-representation in works, divorcing them from even representing anything outside themselves. Greenberg’s “High Art” was art that was self-referential, art about art, art for art’s sake.

Jackson Pollock, One (Number 31), 1950

This detachment of art from the rest of the world is not something that was new with Greenberg, however.  It extends as far back as Arthur Schopenhauer, who expounded on the idea that aesthetics and utility are separated from one another, “we rarely see the useful united with the beautiful.”  For a work of music, philosophy, painting, or poetry to be a work of genius (and therefore high culture), it must be “nothing for use or profit.  To be useless and unprofitable is one of the characteristics of works of genius; it is their patent of nobility.”  For art to be genius, noble, or of high cultural standing, it must exist for no other reason than to be art.

While ideas about beauty changed in the time between Schopenhauer and Greenberg, and the notion of making beautiful work was all but rejected in the mid- to late-Twentieth Century, the idea of a work of art having no other purpose than to be art remained.  We see this in Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism, surely.  We also see it in the attitude of many regarding the legitimacy of Duchamp’s readymades—that a readymade changes an object into art by denying its function.  You can no longer use the urinal for its original purpose, so you are forced to contemplate it as a purely aesthetic object—as art.

Another area where we see this attitude is in what is rejected from or marginalized by institutions of legitimation such as art schools and university art departments, museums, art history texts, art magazines and galleries.  Despite the continual visual dialog contributed by contemporary ceramics, art metals, illustration and graphic design, these areas are typically defined as craft.  Their primary purpose is not simply to exist on their own, but potentially as vessel in the case of ceramics, as visual embellishment of a text-based source in illustration, as a vehicle for sale of a consumer good in graphic design, and as personal adornment in the case of art metals.  Rarely are these given much serious consideration in textbooks for Art History Survey courses, and while from time to time there are museum exhibitions focusing on them, they are often treated as curiosity or as a method to lure the masses to see the other, more serious works of painting or sculpture.

In art schools and universities, these subjects are taught alongside the more expected topics of painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture.  It is tempting to say that this is creating (or has helped create) a more egalitarian attitude regarding these forms rooted in craft.  But while every art department surely includes painting, not every art department includes Graphic Design.  Where I earned my Batchelor’s Degree, that program was housed in the same department as Engineering and shop classes.  Many small (and not-so-small) universities do not include Illustration or Art Metals at all.  Even in departments that do offer these subjects, there is an unspoken prejudice among the students at the very least.  Go into any department and ask a Fine Arts major what he or she thinks about the Graphic Design emphasis.  Ask the Graphic Design students where they think their area of study ranks within the department.

To complicate matters more, there is also art that owes its existence to the conceptual work of Duchamp but also reaches into the social realm.  The experientially-based work of Fluxus artists like the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and the written instructions of Yoko Ono are relatively safe as “art for art’s sake.”  While they are not objects or images to be venerated, they are experiences separated from the rest of everyday life to be experienced as art, not as, say, exercise.  Activist art, however, is an aesthetic product made specifically for the purpose of societal interaction.  How is one to evaluate the work of Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping as art?  Its purpose is not simply to be art, but to provoke change in American consumption habits.  Evaluating the work as “art,” as something with no other purpose but to be art, ignores, and thereby negates, its social purpose.  Once this work is legitimized by a museum, it loses its use-value as a societal agent and becomes simply, and solely, art.

Bill Talen, aka "Reverend Billy," simultaneously engages a willing audience and the greater public.

Art at the service of a socially oriented program can be benignly dismissed as illustration or graphic design or, in the case of Reverend Billy, “fringe street-theater.”  It can also be more ominously feared as propaganda.  Both Greenberg and fellow cultural critic Walter Benjamin expressed concerns about the tools and methods of high art being used to influence masses through mass-produced kitsch productions (especially film, in the case of Benjamin).  One can easily see aesthetics put to malevolent use in the time that both of them were writing with the Nazis, Joseph Goebbels, and especially (and infamously) the films of Leni Riefenstahl.  As a German Jew writing in 1936, Benjamin was justifiably pessimistic about politicization of art.  But he also saw the potential for mass-produced and therefore easily accessible art forms like photography and film to bring at least some of the experience of “true” culture to the viewer, to meet the common viewer “halfway.”

The notion that “true” culture or high art are somehow separate from the rest of society damages the potential art has to affect as many viewers (or readers, or listeners, or participants) as possible.  Work that is purposely obtuse and aloof leads to disinterest and even distaste from the general public.  Moreover, insisting that an object of true high art has no use value other than to be art marginalizes it and leads to societal and political dismissal.  When NEA budgets for visual art were slashed in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, there was little public outrage because art, with no use value, isn’t necessary to the everyday existence of taxpayers.  In our current economic climate, arts budgets are the first to be cut again.  Perhaps a public more invested in art—more connected to work because it means or does something in their everyday lives—would be less apt to accept the financial dismantling of government assistance for the work.  Art can and should engage the public.  Social projects like Judith Baca’s The Great Wall of Los Angeles are community-based artwork that is integral to a greater population, not just art existing to be art.  However, this crossover creates problems of classification, which I will address later.

Conservative politicians like Jesse Helms used outrage over the display of controversial images, partly funded by the NEA, to spearhead devastating cuts to the visual arts budget of the National Endowment for the Arts during the late 1980s

To dismiss kitsch, as Greenberg does, is alienating and unhelpful.  Works of kitsch can, at times, influence works of “greater” culture.  Many viewers come to an awareness (and subsequent appreciation) of art through kitsch-influenced works like the Pop Art of the 60s or even Jeff Koons.  Say what you will about Thomas Kinkade, but his method and level of production has similarities to that of Monet.  Paul McCartney wrote “Wonderful Christmastime,” but he also wrote “Helter Skelter.”  John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” but he also wrote “All You Need Is Love.” They didn’t get to “Strawberry Fields Forever” without first recording “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” What’s more, as much clout as we might give Lennon or The Beatles, they are still a Pop group—kitsch—when compared to the “true” high-art music:  Classical.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. And yes, I am comparing Koons to Lennon. Get over it.

I argue that accessibility in art is necessary not only for its survival, but also for its advancement, and the advancement of culture as a whole.  In my post, “Art, Meaning, and Language:  Part 2,” I pointed out that art can be everything.  In comments to that post, other bloggers pointed out that if art is everything, it is also nothing.  The story goes that once Duchamp decided that everything could be art, he stopped producing any art whatsoever—because playing chess could be art, and he would rather have done that, so he did.  Since we currently view art as being something that exists only as art, to think that art is also everything negates its status, its special place as some sort of beacon of (or for) culture.  The term itself implies separation—isolation.

Arthur C. Danto makes the argument that we are currently in a period of historical time After the End of Art (which is the title of the book).  I don’t know if I’m in total agreement with him that we are experiencing that epoch in history at the moment, but I do argue for the viability of that change.  The “Era of Art” is the historical period where we as a culture have separated art from religious, merely decorative, or use-value and place it in its own sphere to be art alone. We are now entering (or have entered, or should enter) a period where cultural production does not have to be isolated or legitimated through academic institutions; where, say, a social experiment aired on YouTube can have more of a cultural impact than a painting.

Allan Kaprow writes of a project undertaken in the 1970s in which artist Raivo Puusemp became mayor of Rosendale Village, a small community in New York.  The Village had serious financial and infrastructural problems, and, in the end, Puusemp provided an atmosphere in which the citizens of the village themselves made the decision do dissolve and become part of the larger Rosendale Township.  Puusemp himself did not refer to the venture as an art work, nor did he see it as a purely political act.  It was what Kaprow would define as a meaning-making activity, somewhere between the two.  And that is where the power of the story is:  that it is in between.  By putting it into an art text book (or an art blog, perhaps) the story becomes art, the frame of “Art” descends upon it, and it becomes solely art, no longer viable as public action.  It is the label that isolates it, not the action.  Perhaps it is time to discard the term itself.  This is something after art.  It’s something other than art.  It is something more pervasive, more connected.  I don’t know what to call it.  Perhaps it is best to not call it anything at all.








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