January 25, 2007

When Form Becomes Attitude

Administrator’s note: As a new component of Theory Now this semester, each student will post a topic for discussion based on the assigned weekly reading. This week’s post is by Jackie Ionita.

In his essay, “When Form has Become Attitude and Beyond,” Thierry de Duve talks about how the art teachers of our generation have endured the “crisis of invention” and “have never themselves been submitted to the discipline of imitation.” He goes on to say that their teaching results in students who haven’t even had a chance to construct their own ideas of art and of culture and they are already being trained to deconstruct it. Sounds like a case of selling the horse before the cart.

As I look back on my education in art school, I realize that this is in fact true, we deconstruct everything we come across with a cynical “been there, done that” attitude, when in fact we are so young in our art-making that we haven’t been there, and we haven’t done that. Come critique time, we are so quick to decide that our colleagues are trying to pull a fast one on us, but we gotcha, and we’ll tell you what you really mean in your art.

It is a difficult position we are in now: no one wants to strictly discuss art work in a formalist manner because it tends to be boring, especially now that art seems to have to be attached to a grand political message or criticism; and constantly reducing work down to the “real meaning” (which, pompously, we decide is usually nothing) can be tedious. Since institutions and attitudes are constantly evolving, how do we move out of a cynical under-developed attitude about art without leaping to the other end of the spectrum, which completely dismisses content?

Reading for 31 January: Chapter 3: One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity by Miwon Kwon.


Antea Roberts said...

Do we deconstruct artwork in school as "been there, done that" because we have indeed seen other artists and recognize when students are being influenced by them, or is it the "everything has been done before" phrase we learn as soon as we arrive? Is that motto being drilled into our brains hindering our forms of expression?
We were talking about concepts in class last week, and though we mentioned that our artwork is constantly being judged based on concept, I notice that most people in school don't have or want a concept in their work. I have seen this primarily in Junior core, when you ask someone what their concept is (because we all know that's the first question the teachers ask) they answer with "I don't know", or "I don't have one, I just wanted to make this". Is this the right approach to artwork whether it be in or out of school? Is concept really that important in a piece?

emily said...

Antea Roberts:
I wonder too, if students have come to their own conclusion to say "been there done that" or if that attitude has been drilled into them.

Did you mean to say '"everything has been done before is the phrase we learn as soon as we arrive?'
or did you mean to say that the "been there, done that" attitude is the motto that we learn?

I ask because the phrase "everything has been done before" would not hinder our forms of expression the way that the phrase "been there, done that" might.
"everything has been done before" is a popular phrase that should have stopped thinkers by now if it was believable. but the phrase remains unheard because linear and constant progress is too pleasing an illusion. (The patent office was supposed to have closed under the general consensus that everything had already been invented, but every year more applications arrive than the year before.)
On the other hand, "Been there done that" would imply that we are capable of improvement and that everything in the past is dead and totally understood.

I'm glad that the Junior core will not adopt a concept just to go along with the common practice. That seems like the right approach to artwork because it shows consideration for the work.

Looking at the last paragraph of the entry..."how do we move out of a cynical under-developed attitude about art"...

Both the teacher and students must make a constant effort to keep questioning ideas that have been printed in books and passed around so many times that they begin to seem like fact.

Notably, art schools rely on textbooks, which present information as if it is effortless to draw conclusions... (no cross-outs, no coffee stains).

Unless the book makes it apparent that the subject is worth struggling over, or unless the reader glimpses the cutting edge with the experts, it seems natural that the reader would develop a cynical attitude. Critiques would be a joke if textbooks dictated what could be considered.

So long live discourse and people making art

Emma said...

what all artists need to understand is that we live in a post-duchampian world of creation. by opening pandora's box, duchamp made almost anything possible. therefor, your lack of concept is the concept. we find it difficult in a place like the corcoran to accept this as a fact. for the most part we are makers and not revolutionary art theorists. we are assigned projects and expected to create a concrete "object" not an "idea".

we must constantly question the theories of the past in an attempt to find holes in which to move art history forward. you have to understand where you came from in order to better understand where you are going.

emily said...

'the lack of concept is the concept'- emma
'the breaks in logic have become the reality' -previous post

I like these phrases side by side

it seems to say that
artists study nothing in particular, everything that isn't yet defined

Emma (or anyone), if you have a minute, what exactly did Duchamp do? I know he wrote LHOOQ and played chess... (my email is emily_chimiak@hotmail.com if I am straying too far and confusing this forum)

Randolph said...

It seems to me that presenting art is to seduce the viewer. Where you show enough skin to keep the viewers' interest, and that hint of ambiguity becomes the focus of your work. The audience wants to know whats beneath that plunging neckline. A cerebral message that we are all to decipher, and as viewers, we are left to fabricate a meaning based on how what we see relates to the life we live. If this is the case, does the intention of the artist truly matter? especially when there is no true commentary to be made. I was taught that everything else is just a pretty picture. In breeding this mentality are we recreating the same mentality of those who dismiss conceptualism?

Antea Roberts said...

"The audience wants to know whats beneath that plunging neckline." - That's a nice visual, Randolph.
Sorry I didn't make myself clear when I was trying to say that I think "everything has been done before" has been repeated constantly through out our schooling. When we come up with what we think is an original piece of work, only to have teachers say "everything has been done before", is that forcing us to find something that hasn't been done before or does that resign us to the fact that nothing can ever be original??

Professor said...


Nicholoas Carr said...

There is always something new to discover on a road you walk everyday, not to mention the main streets you haven’t even walked yet. Having or promoting a “been there done that attitude” is a detriment to our growth as artists. We have to believe that there is nothing truly discovered, there is always something more to reveal.

Being discouraged to try something because it has “been done” is the same as dead bolting doors that have only been cracked open. Exploration of methods and discovering what works for you is paramount as developing artists. As far as I am concerned we should never stop developing.

It is easy for us to start feeling like we have seen it all, we are bombarded with imagery and everyday there is a new fresh artist with old ideas. We need to digest this information in a different way and figure out how to use it to our benefit, promoting good ideas and curiosity in the new and old. This is not to say that I want everyone to fall back on ideas that have already been done, but use them as tools to build something new, and to not be afraid of a door that has already been nudged open a bit.

Jackie – as far as the attitude during your critique time, do you think that it is more a byproduct of competition or is the attitude you are referring to coming directly from the promotion of a “been there done that” mindset?

patrickjdonovan said...

Although the article by Thierry de Duve purported to be about art school, it seems that he is at least as much making a comment about the art scene and marketplace in general. De Duve seems to be saying that art today is cynical, reduced to mere process, dissatisfied with both the academic tradition and modernism but unable to come up with a satisfactory new development to take their place. I don't know if this is true or not.

However, I don't read his point as being that artists must produce completely original concepts. That would seem to be a very high and perhaps impossible hurdle to surmount. Nor does the marketplace seem to require it. For example, Cecily Brown has been taken as trying to occupy a middle ground between figuration and abstraction. But if this is what her art is about, de Kooning did the same thing. Ms. Brown's concept, if this is what her art is about, is not an original concept, but the marketplace does not seem to care, or has a short memory. She does present figuration vs. abstraction in a new style that seems to be her own, although even super thick impasto has been done before.

It was interesting to see that the materials provided by the National Gallery accompanying the newly opened Jasper Johns exhibition made it clear that all of the concepts in or about Johns' work identified by the curators of the exhibition were not ones that Johns ever claimed. In fact, Johns appears not to have made signficant conceptual claims for his work at all. Therefore, in the end, it may not matter if art students do not identify concepts in their work, at least as far as the marketplace is concerned.

emily said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
emily said...

patrickdonavan's quote from Thierry de Duve "dissatisfied with both the academic tradition and modernism" is a nice observation that i have never heard so succinctly.
. reminds me of Edvard Munch in Prideaux's Munch biography: "Remarkable and amusing to look at. Cows in paintings always used to go nice and tidily to church. Now they leap about and dance, which is a new departure. The colours are fun but I've no idea where it's all leading to"

it would be wild to be able to produce a completely original anything..i don't think that has ever been done.

seeing the words 'plunging neckline' in print made my day, strangely. i have to agree with antea roberts' remark about that, sincerely if they were being sincere or sarcastically if they were being sarcastic.

are critiques really competitive? how refreshing. i find critiques to be too reserved.

RebeccaCJones said...

I think it's this type of back and forth/circular discouse that usually leads me to making work off the top of my head, completely void of a heady backing...

PjDonovan: I agree that it may not matter if students do or do not identify concepts in their work. I think the act of identifying is something that should be considered duelly: On the one hand deconstructing your work and putting all of the pieces in a place (historically, theoretically...) is an act that should be done by the artist, because it will be done by others, thanks to post-modernism. And on the other hand, considering every aspect of your work before or during the process, I believe, can lead to contrived decisions and consequences.

By the same token, critique and art education, I believe, should be looked at as the same dualistic process. A good balance of deconstructing the work and communicating immediate, visceral, and capricious reactions should be employed.

RebeccaCJones said...

**Dually not duelly

Tiffany Mamone said...

:in response to Antea and Emma, I think that it is more important as making a piece based on feelings and inner emotions. Wouldnt you be happier if your piece connected personally?

Liana said...

I think that the whole concept idea really depends on who the art is being made for. If someone doesnt want to have a concept to their work i think that is perfectly OK, but then the art does not reach out to others as it would if it had a strong concept. i think that when the art is made without a concept, it needs to be for the creator of that art exclusively, because when you make art that has no concept it becomes harder for those viewing the artwork to place it as art. for example, a lot of the people who say that they have no concept and only made the art because they felt like it, are preventing their art from connecting with ohers because there is no mutual concept to grasp. and so the art becomes understandable to them only. so unless there is a high amount of skill required in the art, the art then just becomes bad art.

Katie B said...

I have to say that I think it is impossible to talk about conceptless art because everyone has a reason for creating, otherwise they wouldn't be making anything. Whether it is a societal critique or just an examination of form, there is always some sort of concept behind the art even if the maker denies it.

Jessica said...

Katie: I agree that in art the maker always means something whether he is
aware of it or not. Our critiques help us to become more aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it. However, I think we should also ask ourselves the often-overlooked question: why should anyone else care?