If You’re Not Making Visual Art Proper, You’re Not Playing The Game

Artists can make whatever kind of art they want, and it’s totally legit. I’m all for it. It mostly just comes to good or bad examples of the kind of art in question.

People might think that because I am pro-visual art, and because I criticize certain conceptual works, that I am against conceptual art in general. That’s not the case at all. It’s just a different game, and the conceptual art I dislike is the negative variety: the anti-art that presumes importance because it seeks to diminish or destroy another avenue of artistic creation and human communication. I quite like conceptual, installation, and alternative media of all varieties if it’s creative, interesting, and doesn’t rely on vanquishing visual art, originality, the imagination, or things like Western culture, the canon of art history, or whiteness. When art is a prop for an ideology or pseudo-philosophy, that’s not only when it gets tedious and boring, but when its success is predicated on something else’s explicit projected failure. Here I’m going to talk about a simple idea, which is that other forms of art besides visual art proper — usually painting, but definitely not excluding digital art — are not playing the same game, and can’t assume victory specifically by doing something entirely different. You can’t triumph over the best painters or image-makers without making imagery, just as you can’t encapsulate anyone’s music by stapling a manifesto to the wall of an auditorium.

A good example of a living conceptual artist I admire is Roxy Paine. You have to be pig-headed to insist his machines that pump out hot polyethylene organic sculptures on a conveyor belt aren’t art, or cool.

Roxy Paine: Scumak No. 2, 2001 Aluminum, computer, conveyor, electronics, extruder, stainless steel, polyethylene, and Teflon, 90 x 276 x 73.

Even if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s definitely a cup of tea, with added cream and sugar.

Conceptual, installation, performance, and all manner of newer mediums don’t have to be as elaborate or sophisticated as Paine’s work to impress me.  Gotta’ love me anything and everything by Andy Goldsworthy, even if it’s just arranging colored leaves in the forest:

An ephemeral and site specific work by Andy Goldsworthy.

The kind of conceptual art I don’t appreciate isn’t fun, interesting, creative, cool, and doesn’t give us anything to look at. On top of all that it presumes to, with a fling of the wrist, lay waste to legions of visual artists, historical and present, with it’s super-genius mind game. The classic example is Duchamp’s “Fountain”, and contemporary varieties include all the stale regurgitation of the same blanket rejection of the visual imagination and visual language in favor of a mute, banal, object. A stunning example is Sherrie Levine’s re-photographs of classic photos by great photographers.

Sherry Levine’s photos of photos.

Here the visual is only relevant as an illustration of a highly debatable idea that somehow, by taking a photo of a photo, Levine challenges the authorship and authenticity of the original work. Thus we have a grand meditation of what truly signifies authorship, and with a sterile and cynical conclusion: there is no such thing as originality or authenticity. Everything, we are to understand, is borrowed and recycled ad infinitum, and this art is supposed to prove it. IF Levine’s photos have no originality, and the prints she photographed are themselves mere copies, than Walker Evan’s negative when he snapped the photo at a specific time, and in a specific place, is also purely derivative. The assumed profundity of this realization is what gives Levine’s anti-art and anti-artist work its supreme importance in the evolution of contemporary art and theory. Except it’s bogus and self-defeating.

I am not the one being negative. If you are anti-anti-art, you are pro-art. Levine even goes so far as to not only topple photographer’s claims to any originality or authenticity, she also congratulates herself for kicking the stool out from under Vincent Van Gogh.

Reproductions of reproductions of Van Gogh paintings, by Sherrie Levine, presuming to deny his originality once and for all.

I realize there are philosophical underpinnings for Levine’s anti-art, and I’ve eviscerated their nihilistic claims in loving detail:

and even more pertinently:

Do we really gain anything by convincing ourselves that our species is now completely incapable of originality and authenticity? Not only is it a supremely negative outlook, shooting ourselves in both feet, and boring, it’s a crock of shit.

If a critic, philosopher, or artist wants to say that they are themselves incapable of imagining a new image, or painting a new painting, well, that’s their problem, their self-fulfilling prophecy, and their ultimate imaginative sterility. They speak for themselves.

Ironically, artists like Duchamp or Levine boldly propose that their props illustrating their philosophical conclusions are momentously important, even changing the course of art history, because of their crystalline brilliance and staggering originality. We are to accept that it is an original realization that we are incapable of originality. But really, what they are after is that visual artists, and painters specifically, are incapable of doing anything new or relevant, so F’em.

Her Beautiful Alien Voice, by Eric Wayne [20″x35″@150 dpi. 6/12/007].

The proof is in the painting, I like to say. Above is a little something I made, which I don’t consider one of my best pieces, but it has a spark of originality. Outside of contemporary art theory — which has governed art since art critics elected to place theory above practice, which thus made themselves imminently important in deciphering the theory — originality and quality are not synonymous. This piece just happens to use digital sculpting, digital painting, bas-relief, and painterly impasto in a way I’ve never seen. One of my favorite elements is the thick painterly swatch that crosses the upper chest of the monster and through its claw. That is, of course, a nod to Abstract Expressionism, just as the creature is borrowed from 50’s sci-fi, which is now nostalgic Americana. She (if her gender wasn’t obvious) has a thought bubble that is a scrabble of Expressionist, impasto paint. The boobs appeared in my art a while before as an ironic criticism of clickbait YouTube thumbs, and clickbait imagery in general. It was a wry way to get people to knuckle-jerk click on my art, for one.

When people smugly declared painting dead, they had no idea that there would ever be software capable of doing this, or that anyone would use it in such a way. I sculpted the alien myself (from This Island Earth), and made some modifications. Again, I’m not saying it’s great, or important, or one of my best images — it’s not in my Top 25 — but it has original components and visually refutes the arguments against the infinite fecundity of the visual imagination.

Note that some people smugly denounce digital painting as painting at all. They are functional morons when it comes to a true understanding of what art is, or what the purpose of it is. I’ve dealt with their angry inanity eslewhere.

Contemporary art theory — including very specifically my education through an MFA — generally holds that conceptual art evolved out of and replaced painting, rendering it permanently redundant. It’s now a bit unfashionable to keep deriding painting, so theorists will begrudgingly allow that painting is also potentially contemporary art (more likely if it addresses the correct political topic, and issues from an artist with the appropriate DNA).  But people notice when the Turner Prize doesn’t include a single painter, and wonder if J. M. W. Turner isn’t spinning in his grave as if on a rotisserie.

I’m here to tell you that painting — visual art and the visual imagination — is alive and well. No medium can replace another, and conceptual art, even the best of it, no more replaces painting, or even competes with it, than it does music.

If you want to be better than painting, and claim supremacy over the long tradition of Western painting, you gotta’ do something better with imagery yourself. You can’t win the game by playing another game. Visual art is a specific language — potentially including composition, color, lighting, subject, texture, modeling, anatomy, perspective, and sub-divisions — and you don’t get to trounce it by carting a urinal in a gallery, or taking a photo of a reprint of a painting. It’s not enough if your art is not invisible to call it visual art. You’ve got to use visual language in a complex, sophisticated, intelligent, and captivating way.

Your imaginitive sterility as applied to the visual imagination does not mean everyone else has to abstain from making images, or that your props asserting that the visual imagination is dead are superior to all visual art.

There are pieces by Duchamp I like, notably The Large Glass, and there you have him trying to do something interesting with what were then alternative mediums (and which now are a bit of a cliche everyone’s learned to use in art school). His general stance, that painting was washed up, again, applies directly to his own mind and imagination, not others. He couldn’t compete weith people like Picasso, or say, Dali, or Max Ernst in the realm of painting, so he did something else. When he did it well, I applaud him, but when he just kicked down other kids’ sand castles, so to speak, I take exception.

What I want people to take away from this, and which helps me think about art myself, is that visual art is a completely different genre of art than is conceptual art, has it’s own parameters, and more importantly its own language. We’ve seen invisible gas released into the air, by Artist Robert Barry, heralded as a great achievement in the advancement of visual art.

Robert Barry, Inert Gas Series: Helium, 1969. Seeing is believing. Oh, wait… er, um… believing is seeing.

There’s a quote mis-attributed to George Orwell, but which is worthy of him, and it does a little something like this:

If you think invisible art is visual art, uh, you are so abstractly brilliant you are in practical terms a blinking idiot. It is anything but visual art. However, we can say it belongs to another genre altogether. Conceptual art can have in its pantheon invisible gas released in the air in the desert in 1969. It is no more visual art than it is a novel, a symphony, or a work of architecture. And there’s nothing wrong with that, unless we decide that it renders all of music bankrupt. That’s as cuckoo as seeing it as a triumph over art that can be seen.

In short, it’s cheating. A lot of contemporary & conceptual art is cheating, presuming to gain relevance for itself by automatically starting where visual art left off.  It does no such thing.  It is simply another kind of art which presumes to make a philosophical statement or social observation, and its quality is determined by how true the observations is, and how well the piece in question conveys the idea. This piece is a bit jokey, and I’d put it a rung below Manzoni’s canned artist’s shit (which made me laugh more, and which, while I like to poke fun at it, I consider a worthwhile piece of conceptual art).

So, quit thinking conceptual art, or any other medium, somehow replaces, transcends, or is more relevant or powerful than visual art. And if you wanna’ strut your stuff and talk down to painters and visual artists, get your ass in the ring and show us what you can do with the medium and the language. That’s the challenge, and that’s that game: using visual language to make something meaningful.

It can be done.

~ Ends

6 replies on “If You’re Not Making Visual Art Proper, You’re Not Playing The Game

  1. very interesting. i agree with most of it as well. a lot of concept art has always bothered me, but i have liked some. i worked at a modern art museum in my 20’s and saw a brilliant concept art thing that i loved with pears that represented women’s bodies, but i saw a lot of really weird shit there too and some of it bothered me but then i thought maybe that’s what makes it art. it’s hard to say what is and isn’t art but like i said, i mostly agree with what you said

    Liked by 2 people

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