Book Review: American Art Since 1945, by David Joseselit (which is a handy distillation of current art orthodoxy to deflate).
This book could have been dictated by a blind person who had a peculiar obsession with rarefied conceptual art theory. The pleasure of looking at art is never considered.
American Art Since 1945, by David Joselit is relevant because it represents a mainstream, authoritative, even institutional overview of art (I got it at the local library). It’s an excellent introduction to a conceptual/political approach to art, which I reject. I will analyze some of the problems with this approach, how ludicrous some of the art is that it props up, and offer an alternative and more rewarding lens for looking at art.
The paradigm the book maintains is one in which art is reduced to concepts and ideas, and traditional visual art – as in any painting of an image – is ironically entirely sidelined as irrelevant to visual art.
The book starts off modestly interesting but becomes increasingly tedious as the art gets ever more inbred and obscurantist, and then along with the art leaps off a precipice into the ridiculous when it reaches its logical conclusion. The view of art promulgated is worth studying because it is a very prominent one, but claustrophobic and anemic when applied to non-conceptual/political art. It is also the narrative I was indoctrinated into during grad school, and which effectively ended my art career (though I’m trying to resurrect it from the ashes).
Consistently, art is reduced to mere props for ideas, and is valued as IMPORTANT within a presumed linear history of art, or for ostensible cultural reasons, while aesthetics or beauty are predictably as absent as oxygen in space. Of course I know that words like “beauty” are blasphemy to art criticism in the last several decades, and only brought up by conservative critics like Roger Scruton. On the other hand, to not address aesthetics, beauty, or the pleasure of the visual experience when addressing a half century of art is as perverse as not mentioning flavor in a cookbook.
Outstanding omissions in the book include Chuck Close, or any of the photo realists such as Robert Bechtle, Don Eddy, or Richard Estes; Richard Diebenkorn, the figurative painter David Park, or the San Francisco school at all; Leon Golub; Phillip Guston; Joe Coleman; Eric Fischl, or any Neo-Expressionist. Less obvious omissions would be the eminently popular psychedelic artist, Alex Grey, and a contender for the quintessential American painter of the second half of the last century, “Low Brow” artist, Robert Williams.
Honestly, I’d be shocked if someone had the audacity to include Williams or Grey, as they are outside the mainstream narrative, and highly unfashionable from that spectrum (Williams is doubtlessly a pariah because he paints T&A), but nevertheless enormously popular American artists with a unique vision. The conspicuously excluded artists are all painters of images, and ALL such paintings are either erased or not even considered for inclusion in this 50 year history of American art. And THAT is not even considered controversial or biased. It’s as odd as having a history of music that conveniently excludes all songs. It’s a duo, though, and not all the author’s fault. This was a period when visual art was pronouncedly devoid of art that aspired at all to be visually rewarding.
Hammering us over the head with Identity Politics!
Unfortunately, I’ve got to get some politics out of the way. It’s a nasty business but needs to be dispatched because the dominant art narrative insists art and politics are inseparable, which they aren’t.
The book starts off with the Abstract Expressionists, which it does a pretty good job of describing, but then the author suddenly slips in firebrand identity politics:
“the generality of the ‘human’ presumed by New York school abstraction is premised on whiteness and maleness, and therefore cannot be granted the generality it presumes.”
If one didn’t already know that radical left politics were interlaced into an orthodox view of contemporary art, the above quote would seem as startling as saying the New York school were a bunch of Yankees, degenerates, sinners, or commies.
[Note that while up until recently I was on the far left, political art has never been my thing, even if I agreed with the politics. For what it’s worth, as with Dave Rubin, Sam Harris, and a slew of other former lifelong liberals, to invert Groucho Marx’ famous line, I wouldn’t be a member of a club that wouldn’t have me as a member. The latest version of liberalism is so radicalized that, among other extremes, it censors art. I haven’t gone conservative, I’m just floating around in space, unaffiliated.]
And if you thought identity politics appeared in Obama’s 2nd term, or that people suddenly became woke in the last several years when they discovered they were being oppressed by systemic white privilege, you were just lucky enough to have missed its former incarnation in the late 80’s – early 90’s.
The initial impetus for identity politics was to shoot potholes in a dominant narrative in which women, gays, and non-whites were sorely underrepresented in popular culture, or excluded. The goal was to give opportunities to the underprivileged to voice their identities, and thus to expand everyone’s horizons. This was a good thing. But by 2003 (when this book was published) we can already see where this became an alternative hegemonic narrative with its own prejudices, scapegoats, and evil others. If it’s not obvious why Joselit’s position above is more than a tad pernicious, allow me to dismantle it for you.
Joselit, himself white and male, handily dismissed the entirety of New York school abstraction with a wave of the hand because of the biology of the artists. Unless you harbor that particular fashionable double-standard, it should be a WTF moment.
My counter to his argument is that if Abstract Expressionism is premised on whiteness and maleness than ALL cultural productions are automatically defined and limited by the biology of their authors. A snappy comeback would be that it’s not really exclusively about biology, but rather how a given race is groomed by culture. This is just more biological-determinism with a twist of lime, because it concludes that because of ones biology one is necessarily conditioned in an absolute and predictable way. It even extends to outliers and non-conformists such as avant-garde artists. Whichever way you slice it, it’s textbook racial profiling.
By Joselit’s logic (not that this is his original idea) no human can aspire to address the general human condition, but can only articulate an extremely thin and particular slice of it. Granted, if the white male artists presumed via some variety of entitlement to encompass the experience of everyone else, regardless of race or gender, THAT would indeed be infuriatingly arrogant (and impossible). Nobody’s experience encapsulates another’s.
All humans share some basic experience, however, such as being self-aware, grappling with mortality, and having the physical needs of eating, sleeping, and wearing clothes. Mark Rothko and Adoph Gottleib wrote: “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” If an abstract painting aspires to register on a more primal level, to address the tragic and timeless, and has absolutely nothing visible to do with any particular race or gender, it’s quite a stretch to dismiss it for being premised on a particular biological identity.
One problem we run into is that if the artist can’t communicate any fundamental/universal qualities which are not outside of the margins of his or her race and gender, than only other white males can understand a Rothko painting, no matter how many woman and non-whites claim to appreciate it on a basic or primal level.
Joselit asserted “The New York school sought to enact an experience of origins which could function on three levels at once – the personal, the aesthetic, and the cultural. In so doing they turned the personal inside out in order to produce a new paradigm of the public sphere.”
In other words, the artists tried to par down their individual existence in their painting to a fundamental, more universal level. In the Rothko above we see broad bands of color meant to convey a more elemental visual (even spiritual) experience of combinations of color.
Art historian, Dabid Hopkins, described the zips in Barnett Newman’s painting, above, as “evoking primal beginning: the separation of light from darkness, the uprightness of man in the void.”
How this is about “a new paradigm of the public sphere” is a bit elusive, while its being “premised on whiteness and maleness” is purely an after-the-fact superimposition.
We are left with the forgone conclusion that IF the artist is white and male THAN his work must necessarily be premised on being white and male. By this reasoning we are all hopelessly constricted products of biology, and we have no shared fundamental qualities that artists can communicate. Some call that progress, I call it punching yourself in the face.
Don’t get the wrong impression, I’m not a Newman fan, and one of my first few articles of art criticism on this blog, back in 2013, was titled, Buying Barnett Newman’s Art on Faith. I think of the more minimal abstract art as foyer fodder, and I’m just not the type of guy that takes my coffee black, so to speak. I suspect a bit of machismo in Pollock, and I don’t see any overlap between de Kooning’s monstrous women and the women in my life. One could make a case that the New York school of painting was a dude’s club, but I won’t accept an argument that because the artists are white and male their art is necessarily flawed.
This reminds me of when I was a kid, and a buddy and I went to a used record store to try out some cheap albums. After looking around a while my friend asked the owner where the Jimi Hendrix was. “Look in Soul”. “Soul? Hendrix is Rock!” The owner got annoyed, “He’s black, isn’t he?!” My friend and I scowled at each other confirming the guy was an idiot and too far gone to reason with. If anything, you are better off defining the artist by his or her art, and not the other way around, and especially not by the artist’s skin color. To us, Jimi was a demigod, and it was incomprehensible to classify his music by race.
And this brings me to a point I always come back to. Like many teens, I was so obsessed with music (partly do to all the used records I gambled on from that shop) that as a young adult I couldn’t be indoctrinated into believing in fine art mind games.
Come to think of it, while writing this piece I’ve been listening to some CAN and early Pink Floyd albums on YouTube, and marvelling at how rich they are. I even stopped writing to exclaim to my girlfriend, “Holy shit, Pink Floyd is great. Meddle is amazing”. Nobody is ever going to convince me that Jeff Koons is better than Led Zeppelin, even if he listens to them religiously. If I had to choose between the rock of 65-75, or the contemporary art of the same period, the art wouldn’t stand a chance. Which would you rather have on a desert Island?
Have a look a less familiar Abstract Expressionist painting:
How can we appreciate this painting? The painting above, titled “Pink Psyche Queen” (1973) was painted by black artist, Jack Whitten. Is it premised on being black and male? Is the artist necessarily incapable of expressing any core, human perception?
Here’s another painting, this one from 1947, which is even before Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm.
If you don’t know the biology of the artist, well, you just can’t use Joselit’s litmus test to determine whether it has the potential of addressing any fundamental shared human traits or not, or which race it applies to. As with the rest of his criticism, art can only really be understood from the outside, from facts about the artist or in the context of theories. It can’t be understood directly. This paintings is by Norman Lewis. If you don’t know who he is and need to know the biology of the artist in order to assess the work for yourself, do a Google search.
Call me an optimist or unsophisticated, but I think abstract painting is a timeless style, like instrumental music, that can pretty much be practiced and/or appreciated by anyone, regardless of shade of epidermis or how his/her gonads settled in the womb.
Here we go, here we go again…
Joselit lights up identity politics again in regards to street photographers. Uuuugh!
“The social perspectives of Frank, Friedlander, Arbus, and Winogrand remain partial: each of these artists is white and therefore, in the United States, belongs to a majority or normative identity which is granted disproportionate power and privilege. Their poetry of alienation is therefore founded to some degree on the fact that they were able to move through space unmarked and therefore relatively unnoticed.”
What a whopper of an attack! The street photographers believed they were making a “poetry of alienation” when, argued Joselit, they were really part and parcel of a normative identity oozing with power and privilege. What hypocrites! On top of it they were able to move through space invisibly like UFOs undetected by radar. Nobody could see them with their cameras!
There’s too much to unpack here, so I’ll just point out that the author is categorizing people, making sweeping judgements about them, and dropping turds from on high. Anyone can be alienated for any number of reasons – Mark Rothko slit his wrists, by the way – and nobody was invisible in the 1950’s when wielding a camera. Why are we finding bogus excuses to diminish these artists?
Also, in a nutshell, you can’t be part of a vast majority and also be privileged, as privilege is reserved for a slim in-group that has exceptional advantages and opportunities relative to the majority. In America there is unquestionably a sliver of people with as much resources as everyone else combined, and they are the real privileged. What the author should have said, if he were being honest, is that the photographers were presumably, based exclusively on race, not underprivileged.
I’m not denying for a moment that non-whites are in general at a disadvantage in America, especially historically. Hell no! However, the majority is neither privileged nor underprivileged (just as they are neither rich nor poor), as both terms apply to the margins. Eliminating the vast majority as a category at all, while denying they suffer or are alienated is reductionism on steroids. [Also, you can be pro-women and pro-minorities (I am) without being anti-white or anti-male (I’m not). Shhhhh. You didn’t hear it from me. This seemingly obvious and innocuous idea may offend some people as much as the flyers that said, “It’s OK to be white”.]
Minimally Art, or, if less is more, much less is much more
I’ve never been a fan of Minimal Art, and reading Joselit’s chapter on it didn’t help. Minimalism extinguishes everything I like in art: feeling; transcendence; the personal; the artist’s touch; individual expression; subject matter; content; meaning; and any remotely complex combination of color, composition, or form.
Here’s how Joselit justifies minimalist art:
“The categorical indeterminacy of [Minimalist] works – their refusal to settle comfortably into any particular medium or message – shifts the burden of interpretation onto the viewer who must ‘invent’ a meaning for them.”
In other words, they are meaningless. He continues:
Unlike Pop painting whose content is instantly recognizable, Minimalist objects are intended to make their viewers acutely self-conscious of their own processes of perception.
In other words there’s no meaning or anything really substantive or interesting to perceive – rectangles were all the rage – in which case, well, the viewer has to catch his or herself in the act of grappling with trying to perceive something that’s not there to begin with. It’s kinda’ like being served a metal cube on a dinner plate in a restaurant.
The pinnacle of Minimalism has to be Carl Andre, unimaginative stacker of bricks on the floor in the gallery space, and that’s the point!
Above is Andre’s “Lever (1966)” which is composed of not 136 or 138 but 137 bricks on the floor. I’d prefer to stack them upwards, so there would be more of an element of balance and danger, but that’s too obvious. Here, it’s really about, well, how far precisely the row of bricks sticks out from the wall (any more or less would ruin it); how it alters the space in the gallery (don’t trip over it); and challenging the Philistine’s conventional conceptions of what art is or isn’t.
In Minimalist objects… every fundamental sculptural quality – shape, composition, scale, and material – was manipulated in order to produce a radically ambiguous kind of thing. ~ David Joselit.
It would be much more accurate to say that every fundamental sculptural quality was eliminated in order to produce a radically unambiguous thing. A row of bricks is NOT radically ambiguous because it doesn’t suggest multiple extraordinary structures. Consider the following:
Is the question mark radically ambiguous or just not really anything?
The sculpture above by Andre has 64 squares, but there’s another one using the same tiles that has 36 squares, and here’s one with 100 squares:
That’s got Spam in it!
Here’s another one with 144 squares:
There’s lots more where those came from. These square “sculptures” also come in different materials, thicknesses and combinations thereof (ex., alternating tiles for a checkerboard effect), ad nauseum.
I have to admit something. As I’m writing this and sharing these F’ing squares it’s pissing me off. So, I have to ask myself why this is making me angry, and it’s not just that people think a wide variety of variations on the most boring theme ever is not only worthwhile but priceless: it’s because while people like David Joselit and a lot of my instructors believed in this flat, metallic, drivel, it was at the expense of painting. Not only do you get an inedible cube served on your dinner plate, they threw away the spaghetti. Looking at this shit, my eyes are starving.
But wait, THIS one’s got 81 squares representing a radical departure from his other configurations.
Wanna know what this is selling for? Trust me, you don’t wanna’ know. Oh, you still wanna’ know no matter how ridiculous it is? Well, it’s $700,000 – $1,000,000. Keep in mind that you can replicate this exactly by going to the hardware store and buying a stack of the same tiles. Anyone who would pay a million dollars for this deserves what they get, which is a stack of worthless tiles. Personally, I’d buy Piero Manzoni’s canned shit before I’d buy a basement full of Andre’s tiles.
[Incidentally, you happened to catch me writing when I’m sleeping on someone’s couch and I don’t have a monitor or way of making art, soooooo…]
There’s another little thing about Carl Andre that’s maybe not so nice. There’s a strong possibility he murdered his wife, the infinitely more interesting (and attractive) artist, Ana Mendieta. If you want to know more about that, check out my article: Carl & Ana: Art, Suicide, Murder, Belief.
Joselit included Mendieta in his book, in a later chapter, but chose the single image I deliberately did NOT include in my own article regarding her. That would be a still image of her 1973 college performance, titled, “Rape Scene”, which prominently shows her bloodied derrière. True, the author was using the artist as an example of someone who addressed violence against women in her art, but, if I could choose just one image of the (possibly murdered) artist, I wouldn’t choose it to be of her ass. Thus I give you her bloodied face, which also addresses violence directed towards women.
Speaking of outstanding female artists who died at a tragically young age, Eva Hesse is the single artist whom the author included in his chapter on Minimalism that I like (Hesse died at 34 of a brain tumor, and Mendieta at 36 from plummeting 33 stories). Technically, Hesse is considered a Post-Minimalist, but I don’t consider her any kind of a Minimalist. Even in her most minimal works she’s reintroduced feeling, the body, aesthetics, meaning, content, a personal touch, and all those warm things that I cherish about art.
Even though Eva arranged a series of nearly identical objects on the floor, there’s an immediate critical difference: those things seem organic. Instead of prefabricated solid blocks delivered from the hardware store, we get individually crafted, slightly different, open containers made of fiberglass and polyester, and resembling skin. They are anthropomorphic, and I feel curious to look inside and touch them.
Joselit included Hesse in order to infuse Minimalist art across the board with a more human quality:
As a comparison of Hesse’s work and LeWitt’s indicates, the apparent rationality of serial composition is haunted by allusions to psychic compulsion and organic reproduction.
Uuuh, no. Even if you could draw a loose connection between Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt, that doesn’t extend all the way to Carl Andre. Have a gander at a typical LeWitt sculpture.
These sculptures he’s famous for, made from painted-white pieces of wood, remind me of a kid’s game where you eventually get to smash the construction to bits. I want to title this: Gimcrackery #2, 1976. It doesn’t piss me off like Andre’s squares-for-suckers, but it annoys me to the extent that it invites visions of smashing it to bits with a baseball bat.
Here’s another LeWitt sculpture:
To be fair I suppose you can read organic reproduction into this because, well, there are oblong forms and holes, and oblong forms inside of holes. I’m not tempted to annihilate this one like a piñata, but I would be frustrated if I couldn’t move the pieces around. It’s like a Rubic’s Cube behind a pane of glass. Even though there are opposites of protrusions and recesses, they are so angular and clinically white that R2-D2 wouldn’t find them remotely erotic, let alone organic, let alone human.
The other Hesse sculpture the author included was her Accession II, which he characterized thusly:
Hesse’s works have often been called obsessive, and indeed in Accession II (1967-8), she threaded vinyl extrusions through 30,670 holes on the sides of a perforated steel box to create an interior once fascinating and sinister in its evocation of a hairy orifice.
Hyuck, hyuck, he said “hairy orifice”. Despite the cringe-worthy choice of wording, and apparent too-easy association, Joselit rightly observed that Accession II has a living, biological quality to it, though I would have characterized it as reminiscent of a carnivorous plant.
Hesse’s work is not an extension of Minimalism that demonstrates the haunted …allusions to psychic compulsion and organic reproduction underlying all clinically cerebral and sterile Minimalist sculpture – it’s a repudiation of Minimalism!
The essential motif of Minimalism – the austere and impenetrable prefabricated cube – has been converted by Hesse into an evidently painstakingly handmade object which really is a radically ambiguous thing evoking both the mechanical and the biological, something dangerous and vulnerable.
Above, Eva Hesse with a few of her almost Surrealist paintings, and below another of her sculptures.
If that’s Minimalism, I’ll eat my hat! Instead of compartmentalising Hesse’s exceptionally fertile imagination, keen aesthetic sensibility, and obviously organic works as a sub-category of Minimalism (even if such pigeonholing lended her legitimacy back in the day), I believe we should view her work as a separate, individual, idiosyncratic, and IMO richer avenue of exploration.
[Note to rich collectors. Sell your Andre FAST and buy Hesse. Give me a generous tip for the generous tip.]
Consider the source:
It’s always useful to find out who is making an argument, and thus I tried reading some articles and interviews with David Joselit, only to find them nearly impenetrable sociopolitical theory, saddled with insider jargon, not quite as bad as reading Rosalind Krauss. One of the interviews was titled, not surprisingly, “Against Representation”. I’ve been thinking for a while that if someone’s prose is too convoluted and inaccessible, it’s probably hiding the fact that whatever the author is saying isn’t that clear, otherwise they’d express it directly.
Perhaps we are just on opposite ends of the spectrum. He comes at art through the realm of ideas as a critic, and I come at it as a visual artist. He values art for its extrinsic properties, and I for its intrinsic.
In the same way I would consider the source of the book’s author, you might wanna’ consider the source of my article. Rather than something else to read, you can take a break from reading and look at some of my imagery (preferable while suspending foregone theoretical conclusions about art) before taking on more text. Or just skip the slide-show and keep reading.
Infuriatingly boring or cringe-worthy art:
It doesn’t get any worse than Carl Andre’s squares, just different. A non-American contender would be Damien Hirst’s 1,365 spot paintings.
At least the Hisrt paintings have color. You can get this gift-wrapping for as much as $3.4 million a roll, nevertheless whatever you wrap in it is worth more than the packaging. I would be surprised if Hirst himself didn’t think anyone who buys one of these canvases is a moron.
Now for some serious American contenders you might have missed, and who David Joselit solemnly takes seriously as IMPORTANT in the evolution of art, civilization, and our species.
Hold on to your seats, astonishing conceptual profundity is about to knock your socks off!
This art is a gas! Artist, Robert Barry made a radically important conceptual breakthrough in perception when he released invisible gas into the atmosphere as sculpture.
Here’s what Joselit had to say about this profound action/sculpture:
This work is performative in nature but… it challenges our definitions of an object. What kind of thing is a cloud of gas dispersing into space?
Answer: It’s a gas. Joselit also wrote:
The infinite dispersal of these invisible substances served as a metaphor for a new kind of open-ended objectivity.
Is it really more objective? Or is it more subjective and relative? I rather think insisting something invisible is visual art is akin to insisting a postage stamp is a novel. There are many more and convincing arguments against than for the proposition, which makes it less objective.
How different would it have been if the artist simply farted and called it sculpture?
We’d still have to ask what kind of thing a cloud of gas is when dispersed into space, and considering it art would require being more open-ended, which could potentially release more sculpture into the atmosphere.
Should we take a fart less seriously as sculpture than releasing gas from a tank? With the fart we could ask more mind-blowing questions, such as,“what does it mean to make art?” and “what is the relationship between making art intentionally and unintentionally?” We could be even more open-ended and objective by considering non-artist’s unintentionally releasing clouds of gas into space art, and we could become connoisseurs of their art. Don’t stop there, is smelling clouds of gas released into space art when considered as performative? Smelling unintentionally released gas sculpture would erase boundaries between creating and assimilating, artist and audience, thus exponentially expanding objectivity.
Joselit very seriously talks about the “dematerializataion” of art, and this is a perfect example. Another way to put it is invisible visual art, which is about the same thing as inaudible music (silent but deadly).
If something can be so bad it’s good, than I guess something can be so boring it’s exciting.
Most conceptual art – with the notable exception of Chris Burden, who had himself shot in the arm, and another time crucified to a Volkswagen – strikes me as crushingly boring. My nominee for the most boring of the boring artists is Joseph Kosuth.
The next artwork I’m going to share is painfully boring, but don’t hold it against me or click away from my article. My dissection of why this is utter bullshit is interesting, and even a little entertaining, so bear with me. Note that this image got a full page in Joselit’s book, that’s how important it is in art history.
I’m guessing you didn’t actually read the artwork. I didn’t! If I wanna’ read, I’ll sit down, make myself comfortable, and crack open a good book. The last thing I wanna’ do when I wanna’ look at art is read shit. Image a show of these things, if you will, and how tortuous it would be to stand up in a gallery walking from one to another reading blown up dictionary definitions of words. Let me just give you a taste of what that would be like.
And she’ll have fun fun fun ’til her daddy takes the T-bird away, and takes her to a Joseph Kosuth exhibit.
If I could go back in time and either 1) Go to a Joseph Kosuth exhibit, or 2) Go for a ride with the girl in her daddy’s T-bird, guess which one I would do. At least if I had to vomit I could do it out the window.
This artwork is premised on some rich and creamy bullshit – we’re talking a real pasture pastry – which I will happily dissect once and for all, but first I want to make very clear why this is enervating if you happen to really appreciate visual art, especially painting. This kind of art insists that painting is vanquished, and it’s a little bit of a pisser when you go to art school and this dry-ass chicken feed is force-red down your throat.
The following viewpoint represents the (pseudo) philosophical underpinning of the anti-painting art world. Behold:
“Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art . . . That’s because the word ‘art’ is general and the word ‘painting’ is specific. Painting is a kind of art. If you make paintings you are already accepting (not questioning) the nature of art.” ~ Joseph Kosuth.
So, you see, quite simply, the function of art is to ask what art is, and if you make a painting, than you have already concluded that painting is a kind of art, in which case you aren’t asking what art is anymore.
I guess that sounds really philosophical and profound if you don’t cross-examine it. First off, if we insist that the function of art is to ask what art is, we have already answered the question of what art is: it’s the process of asking what art is. Further, by eliminating painting as a viable mode of art-making in the present, we are insisting on what art isn’t, and we are radically narrowing the definition of what art is: art isn’t anything other than asking what art is.
As it happens I seem to have written an article titled, What is the Purpose of Visual Art, in which case I can just quote myself to give an alternate view. Essentially, it’s to “see the unseen”, but here’s a longer definition, and if you want more you can follow the link.
The purpose of visual art is to explore and expand what can be visually represented. That’s one way of stating the obvious. There are other ways of articulating the same meaning.
In the past I’ve characterized the quest of visual art as to unravel the edges of the collective imagination. We could say that it’s to discover the previously unimagined. And this is taking place in the visual form, not the audio (that’s music)… I’ve said the goal is to see the unseen. And that is also to provide the unseen to others, to manifest ones own inner vision in visual form. It’s a bit like science in which we might say a primary goal is sheer discovery, in which case we may not know the value of what’s discovered until it is discovered. ~ Me
So, in short, I’d argue that asking what art is can be done by anyone, and doesn’t mean that you can’t actually make anything visually interesting at the same time, in the same way you can ask what the meaning of life is while getting on with living. Joseph Kosuth has added precisely nothing to the visual imagination.
Now to unravel the convoluted gobbledygook that is Kosuth’s justification for presenting dictionary definitions as art. This comes from his radical and important work, Art after Philosophy:
A work of art is a tautology in that it is the presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that a particular work of art IS art, which means, is a DEFINITION of art.
Joselit apparently agrees, and assumed that he clarified when he added:
Kosuth’s point is simple: when the work of art becomes tautological, the role of the artist is to guarantee both the authenticity of a particular piece and also the very definition of art which it illustrates.
By me, that doesn’t help at all. First off, Kosuth said “a work is a tautology” and Joselit said “when the work of art becomes tautological”. Two confusing explanations do not make one clear one, especially if they don’t even say the same thing. The way I deal with passages like these is: first I read them several times to figure out whatever the hell the writer is trying to say, and then I rephrase them in a way that anyone could understand, best done by giving an example.
A tautology is just saying the same thing in two different ways, such as, “they have pairs of two eyes”. You don’t need to say “of two” if you already said “pairs”. But you don’t need to use this word at all to make Kosuth’s argument. Here it is in layman’s terms:
If you make a piece of art, than your piece of art reflects whatever you think art is, and that idea is your definition of art.
This is not at all profound, and art is not the tautology, Kosuth’s definition of art is – IF art is a definition of art THAN art is a definition of art.
Let me illustrate how profound his observation isn’t. Say you fall asleep on your couch and your young children decide to make a cake. Well, they saw you put flower in it so they know it uses some sort of powder, and it looks spongy, and it’s got dark stuff on top. So, they get a big-ass sponge, put foot powder on it, and slather shoe polish on top of that. When you wake up you see they’ve presented it to you on a plate as a gift, and you say, “Is THAT your idea of a cake?!” Well, just about everyone has had Kosuth’s profound insight – that whenever you make something you make what you think that thing is. Kosuth just applied this to art.
His radical maneuver, however, was to take it a step further. The important thing isn’t the art or the cake, which are just examples of a definition. You can get rid of those altogether and just keep the definition. Now you can present the definition itself as art, or the definition of cake as cake. Brilliant!
I will now produce a cake in the manner of Joseph Kosuth. Hold on while I bake this in Photoshop.
Look who’s a conceptual artist now! I already did conceptual art in college, but I digress.
Let’s apply accepted ideas in visual art to music to show how nauseatingly inane they are. We could easily say that the purpose of music is to ask what music is, and if you make a song of any sort than you are already irrelevant because if you make a song you aren’t asking what music is anymore. Further, if music is a tautology in which any music you make is necessarily a definition of music – and music is defined as defining music – than a definition is all you need. In the case of visual art a poster of a definition is art because you can see it, thus in the case of music reading the definition would constitute music.
I now present you with a musical composition or score, to be read to an enthralled audience (it’s performative):
There you have it. The musical version of going to an exhibit of Kosuth’s art would be to go listen to a musician who wrote a pamphlet called, “Music After Philosophy” read a bunch of dictionary definitions.
My version of this would include giving each member of the audience a raw egg and record them pelting the performer with them.
Forgive me, but there’s more Kosuth claptrap to shred. It’s worth slogging through the rhetoric to see how text-as-art became a legitimate mode of art-making, and moreso than painting.
According to Joselit, “Kosuth reasoned that since art consists of formal languages or codes, its nature is fundamentally linguistic”.
This is a peculiar proposition which seems to be based on two false conclusions: 1) that art consists of formal languages or codes, and 2) that anything with formal languages or codes is fundamentally linguistic (as linguistics applies to spoken and written language, things like grammar, syntax, and phonetics).
While traditional visual art does have a visual language involving the interplay of line, shape, movement, form, color, composition, perspective, and so on, Kosuth is making this argument post Picasso, Pollock, and Newman, in which case pretty much anything goes regarding painting (never mind other art forms). There are no strict rules in painting comparable to grammar.
All spotted dogs bark, but not all barking dogs are spotted.
Just because spoken/written language uses codes or rules or symbols or has some sort of recognizable consistency doesn’t mean that anything that uses codes… is written/spoken language. Otherwise we will have to say that football and all games are essentially linguistics, as is music, math, subatomic physics, cooking, and, well, EVERYTHING.
The important point is that if all art is essentially a manifestation of linguistics, according to Kosuth, it can be replaced by linguistics, and that’s a good thing: a word is worth a thousand pictures.
I argue the opposite, but first let me quote Kosuth so you can compare the types of arguments we make in terms of style and accessibility:
The propositions of art are not factual, but linguistic in character – that is, they do not describe the behavior of physical, or even mental objects; they express definitions of art, or the formal consequences of definitions of art. ~ Joseph Kosuth.
I can quote my article Why the Still Image is Still Vital to give my counter-argument:
The image is curiously outside of time and language. It doesn’t matter if the artist or the audience is Chinese and not bilingual. There’s no need for translation. There’s no rational argument to unfold in sentences, in time. All that is skirted around. Everything is already there, instantly, and you are allowed to explore, engage, and savor. Meaning manifests itself in a non-linear fashion, and even outside or independent of the purely rational intellect.
With a still image you have a manifestation of human intelligence and imagination that is outside of the tenacity of linguistic structures and foregone conclusions writ in sentences. This makes it a unique kind of expression with the capacity to convey understanding that other mediums cannot. This is always vital, or at least potentially so. Depending on your disposition, it may appeal to you more or less than other art forms, but no significant art form encapsulates or replaces another.
This is probably why Kosuth’s over-inflated dictionary definitions rub me the wrong way. You have to read them, in which case they necessarily unfold in paced time, and your eye is forced to move in a rigid path. You have to use the rational intellect, and can’t access the art without being able to read English. They have all the weaknesses of linguistics and none of the strengths of a visual image. As far as I can tell they are props illustrating a tedious philosophical argument which very well may be bogus. If he were correct a Beethoven string quartet could be reduced to several paragraphs of text – a definition – and the same text would apply equally to all his string quartets.
Kosuth’s most famous piece consists of a chair, a photo of a chair, and a dictionary definition of a chair:
The piece asks which of the three is the real one, and, according to the entry for this work in Wikipedia, “the definition is real; without a definition, one would never know what an actual chair is”. That’s consistent with his ideas about definitions, and in different shows the chairs and photos of the chairs changed, but the definition remained the same. But with a moment’s self-reflection, this idea strikes me as backwards. We often have feelings that we can’t or don’t yet know how to express. When we do find a way to express them it doesn’t change the feeling, it just puts it in words, and most likely clumsily.
When I was in first grade I had the chicken-pox, and when I got well enough to venture outside, a neighbor, who was a nurse, warned her daughter, “Stay away from him, he’s contagious”. I didn’t know the word (I went inside and asked my mom) but I understood what she meant, and I surely didn’t know stigmatized or ostracized, but I felt both those things.
If Kosuth’s conclusions were true than children wouldn’t understand what anything is until they were relatively fluent in their native tongue, including fear (and an animal would never know what fear is). If your child cannot yet read or comprehend the provided definition of a chair, would you agree that your child doesn’t know what a chair is? Does a child suddenly understand what a mother is when he or she has enough English comprehension to assimilate a definition (not just say the word “mama”)?
We could look at the example of Helen Keller. Consider this passage from Wikipedia:
Keller’s breakthrough in communication came … when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water”; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.
Keller was already familiar with the objects in her world before she knew their names or definitions. If this disproves Kosuth’s argument, how valuable is an artwork that merely illustrates an erroneous conviction?
Other artworks, even if they are based on bogus ideas, don’t fail completely, because their success may reside in how well they conveyed their feeling or understanding in relation to the idea. We will be impressed with Michelangelo’s Pieta whether or not we believe Christ is the son of God.
To give an example from our era, or epoch, consider these patently sexist, and thus deplorable lyrics from Zeppelin’s otherwise fantastic Dazed and Confused:
Lots of people talk and few of them know
Soul of a woman was created below, yeah.
I almost just had a social justice cognitive dissonance meltdown because I recalled that Zeppelin is always accused of ripping their music verbatim off of much more original black American musicians, in which case, the lyric’s might be by an unimpugnable biological type.
Luckily, in this case they merely expropriated white folk singer James Holme’s original song. Worse than that, Jim, they added the soul of women fashioned in hell part, not to mention the really bad-ass instrumentation (which is not to say that the Fugees didn’t rip Aretha Franklin who didn’t rip lily-white Lori Leiberman’s Killing Me Softly With His Song).
This is just one great song of many that lamentably portray females as supernatural, quasi-demonic entities: remember ELO’s Evil Woman or The Guess Who’s “American Woman” (absconded by Lenny Kravitz)?
What did groupies who were “just seventeen, you know what I mean”, and who rock stars went through like like surgeons through gloves, do to be immortalized as hell spawn, anyway?
It’s the music that makes the songs classics, not the lyrics, and Kosuth and Joselit be damned, you can’t translate the riffs into a definition within linguistic structures.
I challenge either of these living brainiacs (or anyone else) to translate the phenomenal opening synthesizer solo in Rainbow’s “Tarot Woman” into words (it’s another woman-as-demon song):
Maybe I just like music better than non-visual visual art, but, I’ll take the intro to this song above anything Kosuth ever manufactured, let alone combined with Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar or Ronnie James Dio’s singing…
It’s perhaps the intangible things in music, and visual art that are the most precious, not anything that can be replaced with text.
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. ~ T.S. Eliot, excerpt from ‘The Four Quartets’.
When it comes to appropriation and re-photography, a copy is always better (because more clever) than the original.
I might as well lay my cards on the table: I don’t like blanket appropriation (as opposed to interweaving references to popular culture and history into an original whole, as is brilliantly done by The Simpsons and Family Guy), and re-photography is the worst.
According to the author:
Like tourist snapshots that recreate postcard views, the typical late twentieth-century photograph was considered to be little more than the citation of a tradition – a picture of a picture, or according to the influential French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, a “simulation”.
And if that’s the case, why not just deliberately take a picture of a picture? This is the conundrum where it is original to insist the human imagination is sterile, and it’s sterile to make something new with your imagination.
About the best example of the worst of this kind of art are the re-photographs by Sherrie Levine. Again, we can’t blame Joselit if the art-world was churning out so much threadbare art, but we can blame him for promoting it while simultaneously expunging figurative painting from current art history (and making a career out of it while undermining the calling of visual artists who paint images).
Levine took photos of Walker Evan’s photos out of a book, thus adding another dimension to them.
Levine performs a sort of mystical transmogrification of original photos in much the same way weasels improve coffee beans by swallowing them and expelling them as feces.
Admittedly, Levine’s original re-photographs of Weston’s derivative photos are virtually indistinguishable from the book plates (though smaller than the originals), in which case the real visual art takes place outside of imagery, and thus achieves the highest aspiration of visual art: invisibility. According to Levine:
The pictures I make are really ghosts of ghosts: their relationship to the original images is tertiary, i.e., three or four times removed. By the time the picture becomes a book plate it’s already been rephotographed several times. When I started doing this work, I wanted to make a picture which contradicted itself. I wanted to put a picture on top of the picture so there are times when both pictures disappear and other times when they’re both manifest; that vibration is basically what the work’s about for me – that space in the middle where there’s no picture.
In quotidian reality a single reproduction is always present, and what manifests or disappears are ideas and orientations to that image (which happens, incidentally, with any picture). In this instance the ideas that materialize in consciousness are potentially particularly profound.
As Joselit explicates:
When Levine re-photographed famous modernist artworks by documentary photographers like Walker Evans, she projected several versions of economic and artistic ‘ownership’ onto a single picture. Works in the series ‘After Evens’ are in one sense or another ‘authored’ by Evans, by the photographer who shot the work in the book in which it was illustrated, and by Levine…
You could say that Levine added value to the original photographs by adding her authorship and her ownership to them (even if that would then be true of all plagiarism).
But there’s much more to a Levine photograph than doesn’t meet the eye. Joselit continues:
In ‘After Walker Evans’ the technical capacity of mechanical production to replicate an image is manifested not only as the relationship between an original image and its copies, but also between patriarchal traditions of art-making (represented by Evans) and feminist challenges to them (as embodied by Levine’s re-photography). In such a context the act of copying is both gendered and historically charged: both as an artist and as a woman, Levine comes ‘after’ Walker Evans.
Why does Walker Evans represent patriarchal traditions of art-making? He’s male isn’t he?!
Whether or not Levine came after Evans chronologically or hierarchically, we should now accept that Levine is better than Evans because he represents an outmoded and pernicious paradigm. Much of the importance and grandeur conceptual art accrues to itself is borrowed from the prior art it presumes to triumph over (conceptual art is relevant partly because it is presumed to have rendered painting irrelevant). In other words, conceptual art isn’t so much intrinsically great as it is great by default because it trumps great art of the past.
The re-photo above is selling for just $6,000, and is one of an edition of 25 prints. Mind you, that’s just one image in the series of at least 22 re-photographs, and is meant as a critique of the commodification of art.
By multiplying the owners who attach themselves to a particular photograph, Levine undermines all of their claims, causing the picture to collapse as a form of property. ~ David Joselit.
She undermines ALL their claims?! “The photographer who shot the work in the book in which it was illustrated” never laid any claim to the property in the first place, only Levine did.
Note here that $6,000 for the re-photo above, times 25 editions, times 22 images, is over $3,000,000: a fortune in uncommodifiable art. It looks suspiciously a lot more like making a mint off of declaring someone else’s original photography ones own property. Would typing up (or just photocopying) Shakespeare’s sonnets similarly undermine the poet’s authorship and ownership of his own (necessarily patriarchal) writing?
Levine’s work might make more sense if it just applied to mechanical production, but she also re-photographed Van Gogh’ paintings from a book in order to critique limiting ideas of ‘Artist Genius’ in which Art History has traditionally undervalued the role of female artists (Wikipedia):
I thought everyone knew that when Van Gogh died he was considered a third-rate, self-deluded, looser, nutjub, even to a degree by himself (he commited suicide, after all), and NOT a genius. Everyone knows he sold just one painting in his life.
How did he compare to his female contemporary, Mary Cassatt (of whome I am also an admirer)?
The painting above appeared in the Salon of 1872, and was purchased.
She exhibited 11 works in The Impressionist exhibit of 1879 (including the painting above) and made enough on sales to purchase a work by Degas and another by Monet. While she did struggle with conservative tastes and some prejudice against women, she went on to participate in more Impressionist shows and later sold in New York galleries. Her success easily eclipsed that of Van Gogh during his lifetime (he died in 1890, long after her most notable triumphs). While I think Cassatt deserved her success, cherry-picking an artist who had no success and was reviled in his lifetime as the epitome of the cult of male genius success is vile. Levine, of course, enjoys more success than Vincent ever dreamed of, and by 1986 was showing at Mary Boone, one of the most prestigious New York galleries.
While Van Gogh is retroactively considered a genius, to denounce the man or his art as inherently reflecting such biases, when he was notoriously humble, is a kind of art theory/criticism that is at best without feeling or compassion, and at worse calculatingly cruel and self-serving (not to mention tediously boring).
I gather than that if Levine could challenge Van Gogh’s authority over his own paintings, she really could have re-typed Shakespeare to undermine HIS authorship with her own.
C’mon folks, imagine the musical equivalent. She’d have tape-recorded records by Stravinsky, or Satie, or Schoenberg, then sold limited edition pressings of her recordings in order to challenge the authority of the genius composers and undermine their property by making it her own.
Even if I found Levine’s ideas interesting, there’s not enough philosophical argument there to justify more than a few pages of concise argument. None of her artifacts express her stance any better than any other, in which case any more than a few is redundant, and the multiple editions are just an excuse to have something (property) to sell for a lot of money. Once one has processed her ideas, the only thing left to sustain my interest in her re-photographs is the original pilfered content, in which case I’d rather just check out books on the artists from the library.
I never thought I’d be saying this, especially twice in one article, but Piero Manzoni’s cans of artist’s shit are, compared with Levine’s re-photographs, a steal for $80,000 a tin.
They have more substance in them.
In case you were wondering how many cans of shit Manzoni produced, there are 90 (altogether valued at over $7,000,000).
Recycled Conceptual Crap is always a Radical New Breakthrough!
You might get the impression that I don’t like experimental art. Quite the opposite, but I have some standards, and the Emperor needs to at least be wearing a codpiece. So, for example, when I was still in high school I was fascinated by John Cage’s music for prepared piano, but his 4’33” – which is just a pianist sitting there and not playing anything for 4 minutes and 33 seconds – has never impressed me. The point of 4’33” is that you listen to the ambient sounds, and any sound can be music. The visual equivalent would be to cut a square hole in a wall and put a frame around it.
OK, I get it, but it’s like (to modify an analogy I’ve already used) getting served an empty dinner plate (minus the metal cube) in a restaurant. I might think about food a lot more during that meal than most, but I’d come away hungry for food. I come away from these thought experiments about art hungry for something to look at. By me, you can have a much better experience of looking or listening to the absence of music or art by sitting alone in nature.
Even if that is so, and it is, I don’t mind clever little thought experiments except when they are presumed to trump any and all art that came before, and to have permanently rendered actual visual art – as in any visually interesting image – permanently irrelevant. Art is presumed to be moving forward, like science, and some things have irrevocably been left behind, such as the notion that the stars revolve around a flat Earth, and painting.
This kind of view is evident in art critic, Martin Gayford’s grandiose praise of Marcel Duchamp and his “Fountain” (the urinal he tried to exhibit as a sculpture):
Duchamp has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci, as a profound philosopher-artist.
Fountain was … a blindingly brilliant logical move, check-mating all conventional ideas about art. ~ Martin Gayford (for The Telegraph)
How appropriate that Duchamp’s prank was a blindingly brilliant move, because the winning art, by Duchamp’s own admission, never needed to be seen in person. I suppose Cage’s 4’33” was a deafening maneuver.
While ostensibly overthrowing accepted masculinist (male) assumptions of genius and hierarchies of quality (making something visually interesting with hard-earned demonstrable skill), artists from Duchamp to Levine are heralded as super geniuses of Übermensch proportions for merely making cynical gestures with innocuous props. The overblown status awarded to conceptual artists reminds me of Neo eliminating all his enemies with cringe-worthy cartoonish super powers in the crappy sequel to The Matrix.
That said, it’s time to move on to more Übermenschian art. In the 20th century the apotheosis of visual art was reached by not making art at all.
Here we might pause and consider the Kiai Master who could hurl opponents by making churning motions with his hands. He could knock over a line of standing men without touching them. This conceptual fighter was surely unbeatable until paired against an average MMA fighter who took him out within seconds.
If you haven’t seen this video, it’s a sobering lesson in believing in your own bullshit:
If you’d like to see more examples of FAILS committed by Kiai Masters and their ilk with ridiculous but somehow appropriate commentary, go here.
Enter Lawrence Weiner! [Note that is the correct spelling.]
I’m going to let Joselit introduce him, and then I’ll put his paragraph into layman’s terms:
The propositional nature of Conceptual art has led many critics to consider it’s procedures as a ‘dematerialization’ of the art object. In actuality, however, such practices manifested a new kind of materiality well suited to documenting the intellectual and physical properties of the artist. The work of Lawrence Weiner (b. 1942), for instance, often appeared as linguistic instructions.
In other words, Weiner typed up ideas on paper and assembled them in a book. The ideas are the art and the book is the material object. Pay close attention – a book is a new kind of materiality. You can
read the book participate in the documentation of the intellectual and physical properties of the artist by downloading this pdf.
Each page of the book contains an idea for a lousy work of art, such as:
An amount of paint poured directly u
pon the floor and allowed to dry
He deliberately breaks the text in the middle of words in order to be edgy. Notice here that “allowed to dry” is redundant, because what else is the paint going to do, get wetter? So, the grand idea is to pour paint on the floor.
Here’s another thing you can do on the floor:
One sheet of clear plexiglass of arb
itrary size and thickness secured at
the four corners and exact center by
screws to the floor
The plexiglass wouldn’t be so much an arbitrary size and thickness as just any size and thickness. What else can we do to the floor?
One aerosol can of enamel sprayed to
conclusion directly upon the floor
I think you get the idea and can just make up more horrible ideas on your own. Let me have a try.
One tube of green paint placed arbitrari
ly on the floor and then stepped on
Not just the floor, though, Weiner has ideas for the wall:
One quart exterior green enamel thro
wn on a brick wall
The interesting thing about Weiner’s 1968
book new kind of materiality is that Yoko Ono already did this in 1962-4, which Joselit mentions. First compare his descriptions:
- Ono developed a series of textual instruction works…
- The work of Lawrence Weiner… often appeared as linguistic instructions.
In both cases the artists created textual/linguistic instructions for making arguably abominable art which were collected in an anthology/book. Here’s an example of an Ono
linguistic textual instruction work.
What is the difference, other than Weiner arbitrar
ily breaking words? According to Joselit: Unlike … Yoko Ono … Weiner appropriates the neutral rhetoric of law and business. In so doing Weiner-the-alchemist created a new kind of
material materiality. Later, text from his book was formally painted on walls of galleries ‘n shit:
The less you know about conceptual art, the more an individual work can pass as original or radical, if more than a bit ludicrous. But the more one gets into it the less originality there is, and there’s a lot of recycling ideas which were kinda’ stale to begin with. And if you went to an art school where conceptual art was taught, all the students churn out this stuff just like children would make dioramas in elementary school if assigned to ( I speak from experience).
Christopher Wool’s paintings, for example, are a lot less original if you already know Weiner’s work.
Weiner went on to make a career out of text on walls, exploring a narrow and uninspiring range of font and design possibilities. His text art at first appears to contain some mysterious meaning just beyond ones grasp, like a Japanese Zen Koan perhaps, but on closer examination is mere gibberish. Have a look for yourself at a fairly representative sampling:
Looks like drivel to me, and the shapes and arcs and whatnot don’t add anything. I suppose that’s the point – to learn to read meaningless blather as art. Let’s take a closer look at one piece.
The graphic design element is just whatever seemed cutting edge at the moment, and the message is your typical Weiner, Zen-light, wisdom/conundrum/inanity. You may see something relevant in the design or content, and think I’m just hopelessly behind and incapable of fathoming contemporary art (leave a nasty attack in the comments section).
You could be correct, but I’m going to go out on a limb and boldly declare this new manifestation of materiality documenting the intellectual and physical properties of the artist is utter bullshit. I’d bet money on it, and I don’t consider myself lucky so don’t bet unless I’m pretty damned sure I’m right. In this instance I’m quite confident because I made this image myself in Photoshop.
Now, if you want to argue that I’m critiquing postmodern conceptual artists’ claims to super-genius status and the eschewing of the visual from visual art, while indeed doing this in a different
medium mediumality and that I’m documenting my individual and physical properties… OK.
[There’s also a lot more where that came from which you will discover if you prowl around my site. The Wool and Prince pieces in this article are also by me. I find that a good way to undermine the pretensions of conceptual art (ex., “but you DIND’T do it!” ) is to make passable conceptual art.]
Another approach to art
The paradigm Joselit outlines for art is one in which figurative painting is no longer a legitimate approach; the visual imagination is largely irrelevant; beauty is a bad word; the author is diminished; originality is impossible; and it is desirable for art to disappear altogether, or be replaced by text. Art becomes an artifact which has no intrinsic substance, but is a sort of fulcrum for a contest of ideas and politics. Art is a means to an end.
I hold the opposite perspective, and I’m not really invested in the perspective. Rather, art, for me, has intrinsic worth and is an end in itself irrespective of ideas and politics. Any ideas I have about art came after my love of art, and I’m not that attached to the ideas. The relevant ideas only interest me in that they are tangentially related at all to art. In and of themselves, most the ideas, even if I can understand and dissect them, bore the living crap out of me.
I can explain my orientation to art better through music, and I also believe most people have a much richer engagement with music than they do with visual art, so can easier relate.
My attachment to music probably started with my parents playing 8-track tapes on long drives in our ’66 yellow Chevy Nova Super Sport. Sometimes my brother and I accompanied them to construction sites in the rig (a big truck for spraying acoustic ceilings…), where they worked, and of course the radio was on most the time there and back (the truck didn’t have an 8-track player). Altogether I was exposed to countless hours of rock music.
As early as the second grade I had my favorites, and also songs I detested. Among the latter I couldn’t stand “Love me Tender” by Elvis (it struck me as syrupy), “Suzy Q” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (I thought it was dumb), or Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds (the chorus annoyed me because it didn’t make sense). I dug Blood Sweat and Tears and Jim Croce. If I listen to something like “Spinning Wheel” it brings me right back into the yellow Nova, looking out the window, on the highway.
There was one song that really grabbed me, and to this day I don’t know who it was by. My parents’ 8-tracks were stolen, and I really don’t know which bands they had anymore.
My favorite song was about a girl, and that really just doesn’t narrow things down at all. And when I was a child I’d get whopping crushes on girls, usually secret. I never went through the phase where girls had cooties. My infatuations started so young I may have fallen for the nurse when I was born. I’d obsess on a girl and think about her all the time including while on those long drives listening to music. It could even be that the music had done this to me, because it was mostly love songs, and one of my first memories is hearing a Beatles song: I believe it was “I Wanna’ Hold Your Hand”.
So, let’s just put a few of these childhood things together. In the 2nd grade I had a perpetual, sad, enduring crush on the girl who sat next to me. During this same period my teacher became convinced that I was retarded and had me carted off to Room 10, where we had coloring books with outlines of Indians and we got to stack plastic cones and put round, square, and triangular objects in the appropriate holes. I guess it was too easy for me because I was moved back to my classroom, but the teacher next thought I was deaf, and my Mom took me to the doctor to check me out. That wasn’t the problem either. The teacher concluded I was dyslexic, which also wasn’t the case. I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me, but I must have been withdrawn. My home life wasn’t without its own difficulties, either. This was also the time when I received free lunch tickets due to economic hardship.
I have a distinct memory from that period of my favorite song coming on the 8-track tape while my mom was driving somewhere (quite possibly to the doctor). It was just the two of us in the car, and she started to talk over the song, asking me about school. I became visibly upset, and when she asked me what was wrong, I confessed I wanted to hear the song.
THAT is art!
I didn’t have any theory about art or music, was just a working class kid, and my teacher thought I was retarded, but if my engagement with the music was interrupted it made me angry. The music spoke to me. It added another dimension to life: an entrance into an elevated, ethereal, communal, aesthetic, and mysterious or even magical realm.
Am I supposed to shit-can that sort of early experience of art for a dry chuckle at a can of artist’s shit? I believe that if you love music, at whatever age, you are a connoisseur of art. To say otherwise is just to be a pretentious snob.
When I had a Music Appreciation class my personal litmus test of whether or not I actually understood a piece of music is if I genuinely liked it. This doesn’t mean that if you don’t like something you don’t understand it, but rather if you do, you must be approximately tuning yourself into it. This doesn’t necessarily happen through the rational mind or linguistics, and might rather occur through emotion or feeling. In my case it can gradually sneak up on me, and suddenly I’ll be receptive to a song that never did anything for me before. I dare say children might be more open to (age appropriate) art than critics.
And then, I might even ask if the goal is to develop the child’s awe toward music, or to regain it?
As an adult I listened to a lot of very eclectic music. You might have thought I just liked rock, and maybe my tastes were a bit broad within the genre because I went to used record stores (true, when other kids in high school were listening to Van Halen and AC/DC you could find me listening to Gentle Giant and King Crimson), but I went through a classical phase, and then when I discovered WFMU my musical world exploded.
WFMU is a free-form, commercial free radio station where the DJs are true music aficionados and play whatever the hell they want. One of my favorite shows, for example, was and is Transpacific Sound Paradise, which explores world music, past and present.
Because I donated to the station the station manager gave me the back-door pass to their archived programs, and I used my computer skills to download them and splice out the songs (using Soundforge) and name the resulting MP3s against their published playlists. Thus I amassed thousands of songs most people would never have heard before, and bought CDs of my favorites. I listened to these songs on shuffle most of the day while working in a bank (as a long-term temp with no benefits) making PowerPoint presentations, and this went on for years.
The point of all this is that as a kid and as an adult I developed my ear and fondness for all sorts of music through listening alone.
What is particularly relevant here is that no styles or eras are automatically irrelevant. No music is defined by the biology or politics of the musicians. No style is propped up because it presumes to replace another in a linear development of music. There is a plethora of approaches and gems within each genre. To get some idea of my musical tastes, here’s a playlist I put together on YouTube:
There’s also a 2nd playlist (though this one’s predominantly folk-psyche-rock).
I’m sure one of the reasons that conceptual/political paradigms didn’t cripple the music world in the same way they did the art world is because bullshit is unlistenable. You can nod sagely at a Carl Andre square of tiles on the floor and move on in a minute, but you aren’t going to listen to even 10 minutes of the aural equivalent. That, and there’s too much really good competition.
With visual art my approach is the same as with music, but instead of listening I look, in which case what impresses itself upon me is what I can see. All the invisible concepts, texts and political posturings are tangential to visual art.
If I can’t hear it, and I can’t learn it by listening to it, it probably isn’t music. And if I can’t see it, and can’t learn to appreciate it by looking at it, it probably isn’t visual art. It can, however, be another form of art, and I’m cool with that, especially when it is a good example, but it will never replace either music or visual art.
True, for non-visual visual art, you can’t set aside your preconceptions and spend time looking at the work in question. For the kind of art where the placard on the wall is more important than the art – or IS the art – than, yeah, you gotta’ do a lot of reading, and the act of looking is somewhere between a mere formality and redundant.
I have to reject a paradigm of art that accrues importance and relevance to designated art of choice by trying to undermine or destroy another art form (especially if the motivation is political or ideological).
This book taught me some nit-picky ideas about representation, authorship, and so on (a goodly portion of it quite likely bogus), but I learn more about art, and discover more interesting new artists just by looking at Instagram.
Be back soon with another baboon…
[About the baboons. Now and then I come up with a goofy or witty phrase and wait to see if it ever catches on. “Be back soon with another baboon” is silly, but distinct. If anyone else ever does say it, I’ll know it somehow spread. A couple more are:
- Pound out a steamer. (You can guess what this means.)
- Christ kabob on a skewer! (As an exclamation referencing Jesus and the crucifixion.)
So far, I’m the only one who says these things.]
Funding. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per month to help keep me going (y’know, so I don’t have to put art back on the back-burner while I slog away at a full-time job). Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.
Or go directly to my account.
Or you can make a small, one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).
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