Sometimes I say or do something that’s so obvious to me that I can’t believe nobody else has done it or said it. Apparently the above is an original quote by me [I also made the graphic.]. You can even take out the “for mental masturbation” part, and “art is not a conversation piece” is not a phrase that Google recognizes.
People’s understanding of visual art has gone so far astray that it is commonly held wisdom that art is a thing that starts a conversation (in linguistics). The purpose of art is now believed to be to spread ideas, or to argue a political case.
Let me clear that up with an analogy. The purpose of a pizza is to spread ideas about food culture, and in order to be appreciated it needs to be understood in a political, historical context. THAT is obviously ridiculous. You appreciate pizza with your mouth, not your ideas about pizza, or your idea of pizza in the context of your political agenda or worldview. In fact, you couldn’t explain what pizza tastes like to someone who didn’t have a tongue. It’s a peculiar kind of intelligence that mixes and matches flavors, textures, temperatures, and so on to create a delicious meal. The idea that a pizza needs to be understood linguistically is obviously ludicrous.
In the same way, visual art is a unique language with a long history, is not translatable into words, nor does it require linguistic context to have meaning. It has its own impact using its own inherent mode of communication. For example, consider that most anyone, regardless of spoken language, can look at a visual image and get some content from it. Further, it doesn’t unfold in time like sentences unfurl, one word after another. It is present in an instant, though more slowly savored or assimilated. Visual language may even use different parts of the brain, or in a different way than spoken language.
Sure, sure, some background might be useful to understand the woodblock print, above, but millions of people outside of Japan, and who don’t speak Japanese, enjoy this image knowing next to nothing about it. If you think it’s beautiful, stylish, crisp, evocative of a time and place, conveys culture, and so on, you’ve read the image and understood some of its content without any recourse to being told in words what it is about. And while we could use this image to discuss weather and waves in Japan, it is first and foremost an image with its own inherent value.
External information about “The Wave” may help you know about it, and may make you more curious or inclined to look at the image. Ultimately, however, the real content of the image must be understood with the visual imagination / visual intelligence. To give context and meaning to words spoken/written about the image, rather than the image itself, is to make the image mute.
And so it is with music. If the meaning you ascribe to music is not attained through careful and sustained listening to it, you aren’t talking about the music at all. What does one do with a purely instrumental piece? Is it meaningless? Do we have to look at the bodies of the players to assign some sort of meaning to it via the social justice narrative [ex., “because this piece was composed by a (dead) white male, it must necessarily uphold systems of patriarchy, colonialism, and the status quo, etc…”].
Can a melody itself carry meaning or have substance? Yes, it can. Well, you might ask, what the hell meaning does it convey? And that’s the point. It can’t be put into words. It does not belong to linguistics or reason as manifested in sentences. That one can’t transcribe the meaning of a melody into words doesn’t prove it has no meaning, but rather that it’s meaning defies meaning that can be expressed in words.
And so it is with a lot of visual art. If the meaning you ascribe to it isn’t garnered through looking at it, it’s probably some extraneous claptrap.
True, there’s a lot of art, including the holy grail of modern art itself, Duchamp’s “Fountain”, that IS an inert object which (according to his own attestation) is not worth looking at. We may want to reassess the stunning brilliance of the equivalent of a piece of music that is not worth listening to.
Duchamp chose his readymades on the basis of how utterly uninteresting they were visually, neither compelling not unpleasant, but rather purely innocuous. There is a conundrum with holding the visually utterly banal as a pinnacle of visual delectation and complex visual intelligence and communication. It isn’t. It’s an inert object.
So, yes, we can say that some “art” is not worth looking at, and is meant to spur conversation in the intellect, which is the medium of words. We could similarly say the sound of a buzzer, or a flushing toilet, is music, if it is uninteresting enough to not be worth listening to, in which case presenting it as music is a profound statement. In these cases what we have is not “visual art” or “music”, but, at its worse, pseudo-art, and at its best, “conceptual art”.
The idea that conceptual art has anything more to do with visual art than it does with music, or literature, or golf, is one of the more cancerous notions of the last century. Conceptual are absolutely does NOT encompass or replace visual art in the slightest, because it doesn’t use visual language. It is something altogether different.
Now, why do I say it’s mental masturbation? You might not ask that question if you’d been exposed to as much art-think as I have. Let me give you one bright, shining example.
Consider this stunningly brilliant quote from conceptual art philosopher, and guru, Joseph Koseth:
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.
Here, Kosuth argues that painters are not artists. Do I need to cut this rhetorical sleight of hand down a bit to make it all the more obvious? Here it is:
Being an artist now means to question the nature of art… If you make paintings you are … (not questioning) the nature of art.
People will have predictably taken umbrage at my first paragraphs and the heading of this post, and say that I’m ignorant and just can’t fathom contemporary art, so dismiss it. Who is dismissing what? I am dismissing the dismisser. It’s conceptual blow-hard artists that are the ones claiming to have snatched the ring and disqualified other artists on categorical grounds.
Worse, is his argument is a self-indictment. If the purpose of art is to question what art is, than we are not questioning the nature of art because we have already concluded that the nature of art is to question the nature of art. When all art must question the nature of art, there’s no question what all art must do.
THAT is mental masturbation (masquerading as art). If you prefer you could say, uh, spurious mental gymnastics.
I’m fine with Kosuth making his dry-ass, pseudo-philosophical props illustrating what are in hindsight bogus theoretical conclusions, but the problem is that the litmus for conceptual art is applied to ALL art, and that is a horrendous mistake.
Let’s apply his ideas to music, because I consistently find people are much less mushy-minded and capable of believing anything and everything when it comes to music.
Musicians today challenge the notion that music is music. The person who plays an instrument, sings, hits the right notes, composes a song, is NOT a real musician because he or she accepts that music is music, and is not questioning what music is, and is not doing something else entirely to prove that musicians aren’t musicians.
I think we all know that if you can’t play an instrument, can’t sing in tune, can’t read or write music, and can’t come up with a melody or some coherent grouping of sounds that resembles music, you aren’t a musician. But in the art world, if you can’t draw or paint for shit, have no real grasp of perspective or anatomy, don’t understand color or composition, don’t know how to render forms, and can’t make a picture, than you are a REAL artist! The real artist is against making images!
This may make Duchamp’s radical gesture of exhibiting a urinal as a sculpture more clear. It is art specifically because it is NOT art. Those who try to ascribe aesthetic properties to it miss Duchamp’s stated intent, which is for the object to be absolutely inert, and to be visually mute, incapable of communicating any meaning or substance through visual language. It represents the denunciation and eradication of visual language, and visual art.
If you are not aware, that was HIS argument, not mine. He stated he wanted to end art as religion had been, in his mind, discredited. The object was to discredit and undermine visual language, visual art, and visual intelligence.
I picked on Kosuth here, but, yeah, a lot of Duchamp’s staggeringly brilliant philosophy is kinda straddling the fence with inanity. I saw an interview recently in which he claimed that painters never know what to do with the background, and he didn’t, and this was one of the great flaws of painting. Instantly an image came to mind.
Utterly refuted without a word uttered.
[There’s another unquestioned idea about art that is perniciously myopic, and that’s that any development or challenge to more traditional visual art is an advancement and evolution of art. This spurious notion allows us to herald anyone doing some radical bullshit as necessarily more evolved artistically than anyone who makes a visual image. Consider this applied to political revolution. You could never go wrong, in which case we would worship Pol Pot for challenging the institution of the nuclear family by having children report their parents for thought crimes and other transgressions, in which case they would be murdered. We can appreciate in politics that death is probably a bad outcome, but we celebrate the death of painting (visual art) as the most crystalline expression of visual art, without realizing we’re punching ourselves in the face.
Artistic movements, like political ones, are not necessarily all a part of progress, but may merely be non-viable alternatives, something altogether unrelated, or, at worse, insulting abominations. We spend so much time questioning what art is, and demanding that visual art isn’t art, that we don’t question what isn’t art. We should be smart enough to recognize that any and all developments or whatever new thing is called art are not automatically the next evolutionary stage of visual art. Most likely, most of it isn’t. I might remind you that the human brain contains the reptile brain, so to speak, and when fetuses develop they go through stages very similar to less evolved organisms. The point is that evolution builds on what went before, it doesn’t completely reject it for something else that’s on the face of it ridiculous. If you are rejecting all of art history before Duchamp, you aren’t evolving art, you are making an alternative to it. Don’t confuse those two very different things.]
Art is not about ideas in the intellect which manifest in linguistics. SOME art is about that. Other art, most of it, is about communication that can’t even be translated into words, and that’s the point.
If this still doesn’t make sense because we’ve so fetishized the ass-backwards as fast-forward that stating the obvious is incomprehensibly unfamiliar, consider Zen.
The idea in a lot of Eastern mysticism/philosophy, what have you, is that reality is unveiled when the linguistic mind shuts up. Our ideas about realty, and the narratives we spin, are necessarily always insufficient to describe or apprehend broad reality. Language is always a flow of sentences in time, and thus is always at a given point of specificity. To appreciate the whole, you can’t be in the middle of a sentence, articulating a part. Apprehending reality is more of a realization, or an epiphany, that one them fumbles with words to try to express, and ends up sounding like a ninny.
And here you can see one of the ways visual art and music function, which is to communicate understanding, knowledge, perception, and intelligence without recourse to words unfolding in sentences. If we can appreciate that meaning is not a rational conclusion expressed in a sentence, than it becomes counter-productive to reduce art to props for conversations in sentences. It guts it.
And why would we really want to “get rid” of art like Duchamp proposed, or disqualify painters as artists, as Kosuth argued? Why not just pluck out our eyes while we’re at it.
Insisting that visual art is about intellectual ideas is to completely miss the point of visual art. I guess I needed to point that out.
And if it still isn’t clear, let me give you an example most people could relate to. I’ll just use myself, but you can easily apply it to yourself. When I was wee lad, my parents used to play 8-track tapes in the car when we went on long drives. Little me had his favorite songs, and he didn’t know ANYTHING about the musicians or the history of music, and mostly didn’t understand or appreciate the lyrics. What the hell did he like?
I liked the sounds. And I learned to recognize patterns and grew fond of some through exposure, listening, being curious, and savoring. None of that involved words. You, in your childhood, probably had similar experiences. You may even have loved a song partly because of the words, but may also have really appreciated the melody and the musical interludes.
You can conduct a little experiment on yourself now. Most people have never heard of Hukwe Zawose or heard his music. Unless you are from Tanzania, you won’t understand the lyrics. Have a listen, and see how much you appreciate that has nothing to do with sentences in your mind:
I can describe some of the sensations or feelings the music conjures, but my description is like a photograph of food, which you can’t eat. The real art is in the notes, the sounds, the combination of sounds, the singing, the voice… The first time I heard this song, knowing nothing at all about it, and hearing it on the (alternative, college) radio, I was mesmerized. I went out and bought two of his CDs.
By the logic of contemporary art (pseudo) philosophy, we would consider Hukwe Zawose a reactionary, someone who wasn’t able to evolve as a musician, not a REAL musician. He’s not even trying to stamp out music, like Duchamp tried to do with visual art. He’s not questioning whether beautiful, resonant, meaningful, coherent combinations of sound and voice is music at all, and whether the sound of a toilet flushing might be superior!
In the art world we worship a urinal as the greatest artistic achievement of the 20th century. That’s just some anti-visual art, anti-artist, asshole bullshit on a pedestal. It is a clever prank by an art-critic, and as such I enjoy it. But because it doesn’t use visual language, it isn’t visual art any more than it is music.
Reducing art to words, or that which can be expressed or contextualized in words is, in a word, stupid. Time to pan back and look at the big painting.
[Elsewhere I will address the artists who think they are “interdisciplinary” and that their shows incorporate painting, because, well, there’s some color over there, and they used a photo. I suppose I can dispel that nonsense here. One of my former teachers argued that painters were annoying because they were so limited. You see, artists like him were like polyglots who could speak several languages, and dealing with painters was like going to a party where everyone spoke multiple languages and then there were these people that only spoke English. The problem here is that for the analogy to be accurate, when they say they speak multiple languages, they are not fluent in any of them, nor do they have a functional level of speaking, and their English consists of simple phrases everyone knows. They would be incapable of expressing sophisticated thought in ANY language.
I played clarinet in band in high-school and jr. high, took a 10-week piano course in jr. college, and taught myself to play the acoustic guitar on a basic level, but I do NOT consider myself a musician. These “interdisciplinary” artists flatter themselves that their art incorporates painting and visual art wholesale because, well, they kinda’ made some sucky drawings and paintings at some point in some class, and, yeah, that sign that says, “End White Supremacy” uses two colors, one for the letters, and one for the background. Give me a break. If your interdisciplinary art has a minimal level of visual language, it is minimally, and probably very minimally visual art.
And let’s not forget that your video component must necessarily encompass all of film. Riiiiight.]