Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Trend?

Perhaps a trendlet?

I've run across several bits and pieces of Modern Art, or references to Modern Art, or whatever, which take the general form of the artist refusing to admit that there's a concept behind the Art. "The meaning is fluid" or whatever seems to be the catch phrase. One collection on display right now in Vancouver is literally random detritus glued to a table, with the meaning "fluid" and "open to the viewer to interpret" or something. Which tells me "we glued a bunch of shit to a table and have no idea what it means either, fuck you, sucker."

We also see this in a fair bit of the sort of amateur-hour political art that is in vogue in some circles. "My practice deploys multiple media to interrogate the various aspects of the Corporatist Stateoid Mechansism" or whatever.

There is a certain vague sense to it. 200 years ago Art was largely about technique, artisanal skills. It was assumed, I think, that there were ideas and concepts and so on, but that was basically just assumed. Then we get photography and that leads more or less directly to conceptual art, where the work, the skill, is basically nil. The idea becomes dominant. Art is no longer about skills, it's about ideas. Naturally the next thing to do would be to jettison ideas.

The begs the question of what the hell Art's about now, and I think there's a real problem here.

Secondarily, though, we see a related problem.

We've all taken that picture of grandma, which has so much meaning to us. When we were naive and young, we probably didn't see why everyone didn't see what a powerful photo it was. Everyone else just saw a kind of blurry photo of some old lady they didn't know, after all.

In much the same way we have naive young artists taking, I don't know, a bunch of pictures of refugees. Because they are good lefties, they see a Powerful Political Statement here, and assume that everyone sees the same. It's obviously an indictment of the anti-refugee policies of The State, or of the policies that created the refugee crisis, or whatever.

The trouble is that it's not obvious at all. The Artist won't take a position, he or she insists on just documenting the thing. Positions, ideas, concepts, opinions, those are all so last century. We're in a post-conceptual world now, and Art is just printing out a bunch of appropriated pictures and letting the meaning be "fluid." Sure, your friends all get it, because they're basically little clones of you, with your same simplistic leftie politics, they'll recognize all of it and they will applaud you for your Powerful Work.

This, unfortunately, leaves things too open. Plenty of people in this world look at a bunch of refugees in a camp, or drowned on a beach, or whatever, and say "good idea! Send 'em back!" and plenty of people see the tools of The State and say "hooray, we're very powerful!" and so on.

If you don't, as an Artist, make your opinion, your concept, clear, then the critics will gabble on about "fluidity" instead of repeating the position (and then judging you based on it, to be sure, but they'll start by stating your case). If the critics don't state your case, then the only thing that has a chance of leaking into the wider culture is the raw "documentation" you have so cutely put together, and everyone who runs across it will interpret it according to their own lights.

This completely de-weaponizes Art as a tool of change.

Colberg, unfortunately, missed out on a lovely chance to get in to this. His most recent piece reviewed Generation Wealth, which seems to be one of the patented modern "just the documentation" pieces, with very little opinion stated by the author (although one cannot be sure, Colberg, infuriatingly, turns the bulk of the piece into a boring paean to his own sensitivity and forgets to tell us much of, well, anything about the bloody book). This could be usefully, I think, compared to the work of Gordon Parks (which he reviewed the week before).

I admit that Colberg might not be aware of this, it's not clear that the Parks book makes it at all clear what Parks was up to. A book of the photographs of Parks seems about as useful and sensible as a book of Shakespeare's verbs, but there you have it. I assume Colberg has done at least as much work as my trivial poking around, and is aware that Parks a) stated opinions and b) fomentend change, while modern efforts to do the equivalent to the modern oligarchy are mysteriously stalled out.

Anyways. I'm not blaming the academic artists for all the world's problems, but I do think that the ones that persist in not making their position clear aren't helping really at all. Their work is more or less by design not powerful at all. It is completely toothless.


  1. The following is my not so humble opinion.

    A concept for a given work serves two purposes:

    1. For the creator, establish a scope in which the work is created - something like a guard railing which ensures that the projects stays on track.

    2. To provide some sort of introductory background for the beholder of the work.

    If the beholder or viewer requires the concept to understand the work, then something went wrong. Art is supposed to work on a non-conceptual level, so if you can't feel it in your guts, it is a failure.

    Best, Thomas

    1. Well, I'm not sure what the distinction between "provide background" and "necessary for understanding" is.

      I'm certainly NOT saying that every work of art needs an essay with it, just that the artist needs to have some sort of an idea. It's not even clear to me that the original idea needs to read, particularly, although that's a nice feature.

      There are cases where the whole point, surely, is that the original idea must read: If I do a work on the plight of refugees, it ought to be be more or less impossible for a reasonable person to read it as a, I don't know, tract in support of eugenics.

      In other things, I suppose if the idea is something fuzzier, a "revelation of the sublime" or whatever, I think there's probably a lot of scope for reading the idea in this way or that, without much loss.

      I do think that if the artist has no idea, then reading anything out will be difficult and somewhat random. We already did Dada, revisiting it under the name of "documentary" or any of the other several names that I dare say are running around, seems a waste.

    2. I think the distinction between "provide background" and "necessary for understanding" is not always sharp, sometimes blurry, but nevertheless important. For example, if I look at W. Eugene Smith's work about Minamata, it is of interest for me to learn about the background. I'm human, hence I love stories, and I want to know about the context of the pictures. I believe this is markedly different from the statements which accompany a lot of contemporary art, and which serves to elevate otherwise mediocre work. Mr. Smith's pictures, on the other hand, are a punch right into your soul - the human tragedy and suffering becomes obvious without further explanation.

      Another example would be abstract expressionism: I'm a big fan of the painter Emil Schumacher. Whereas the work of most of his contemporaries really needs some theoretical context to be appreciated, his pictures and objects radiate raw energy, and are accessible on an emotional level.

      From your reply to my comment, it seems that we basically agree.

      Best, Thomas

  2. uurrgggh... I was trying to forget those glued-together things....

  3. I suppose the conceptual equivalent of "Untitled" might be "Pointless"...