April 26, 2007

Transcendence of Site

Administrator’s Note: This week, Antea Roberts grapples with the dilemma of “site-specificity” and the “late Modernist” sculpture of Richard Serra.

Juli Carson speaks of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and the controversy surrounding his site-specific piece, but can a site-specific work really be site-specific if it interferes with the environment? Carson states there is “…a dialectic between a work seen to transcend any physical union with its site and a work seen to transcend any physical contradiction with its site” (pg 332). So what are you really trying to comment on with a work of art like this? How the work interacts with the environment or how the public reacts to a work placed in their environment, disrupting life?

Carson goes on to question whether sculpture can be defined neither as architecture nor as landscape. Could Serra’s Tilted Arc be defined as all three? Can sculpture be site-specific in a gallery space? The lighting, public surrounding the piece, and how they fit into the space, [the] environment it’s placed in - a gallery space - is the quintessential site.

Carson tried very hard to bring a new perspective to the debate on Tilted Arc, but I found her trite diatribe about “Father as Source” and “logos as being” a poor linkage to our Earth’s history to one man’s selfish quest through his sculptural/architectural/site-specific piece that ultimately meant more in its destruction that [in] its presence.

Reading for 2 May: Ch. 29: Repossessing Popular Culture by Laura Kipnis.

April 21, 2007

Transparency of Use

Administrator's note: This week I have elected to re-post an essay that I wrote on Nana Last's dissection of "conceptual architecture" and the "privileging of use."

" . . . conceptualism's redefinition of the territory of the arts threatens not simply architecture's autonomy as it is often defined through the emphasis on objecthood and functionality, but, further still, the logical implication of this boundary shift potentially challenges the 20th Century's priority on function upon which that boundary is often defined. While this situation can be and often is understood as a disciplinary territorial battle, that debate serves largely to mask the premises upon which those territorial lines are drawn. Whereas the question can be what distinguishes the functional from the non-functional arts, or even whether such a distinction can be drawn, the more interesting concern lies around the mechanisms whereby utility is set up - and repressed - as the criterion of evaluation, the content that remains unrecognized and unquestioned."

- from Function and Field: Demarcating Conceptual Practices.

The point that Nana Last raises in the midst of her brilliant essay is the realization that this “territorial battle” between architecture and art is founded on a “given” articulation of functionary privilege. With its “form follows function” mantra, architecture mocks art as “useless” enterprise, tethered to the contemplative and leisurely nature of enjoyment, something hanging in or in front of our homes and buildings. Art, with its own “exceptional” telos of both therapeutic and “social use,” chides architecture as mere necessity grounded in utility, not intellectually engaged, somewhere to hang our paintings or something to decorate.

In the world of contemporary “fine” art it is a foregone assumption that the objects that artists make, whether painting, sculpture or installation, have no “real” function or utility other than their existence as objects made “for the good of themselves as objects of contemplation.” This last phrase comes directly from the Modernist categorization of contemporary works of art which differentiates between utilitarian objects, including those that are ornamented, and objects that seemingly have no “use” other than being contemplated. One could trace this “modern” definition back through Kant (18th Century) and his art theories of “free play” and the engagement of one’s “imagination” and “understanding” with a contemplated object, and further still to the Aristotelian notion of telos and the original distinction of “purpose” as both epistemological foundation and artistic “intention.”

Conceptual art, in addition to placing less emphasis on “form” or the object, sought to regain the idea of “use” within the societal context of human engagement. Conceptualism shifted the focus from the medium used to the concept itself and redefined the relationship of form and content. Conceptual art might be said then to preach a “form follows concept” creed, enabling artists to attempt a “functional” position within society. Conceptualists critiqued the institutions that established the “context” for art and clarified the position of language and photography in the “construction of meaning.” In distilling the “act” as the primary focus of the art making equation, they were able to introduce a discourse about “documentation,” temporality, and memory, encouraging inquiry into the perception of the art “experience.”

All of these innovations do not exclude conceptualism from a thorough and rigorous critique, especially in light of the confusion surrounding post-conceptual practice. One avenue for this investigation, and today’s topic for discussion, is the privileging of use which establishes a criterion for a definition of both art and architecture. As Last writes near the conclusion of her essay:

”This pervasive privileging of function operates by instituting a criterion for judgment – utility – that seems unquestionable. This framework leaves the object, concept, discourse, etc. defined around the construct of use, as though it provided the one criterion in need of fulfillment. Use thus offers itself as an uncontested rationality definitive of the object in question.”

Reading for 25 April: Ch. 26: 1989 by Juli Carson.

April 12, 2007

The Future

Administrator’s note: Arash Mokhtar lives and works in New York City, maintaining a studio in Brooklyn where he works on his paintings, photography, collage and sculpture, continually entertaining studio visits to court gallery representation. He also writes, and his essays and reviews are considered and occasionally published online at ArtCritical. Professionally, Arash transitioned from the decorative and scenic art world to the independent film industry in New York, working as Assistant Director, Art Director and Production Designer on productions, features and shorts. He is currently working on a feature screenplay and adapting a Mark Twain essay into a short film.

His essay, “The Future,” represents a recently graduated fine artist’s view of contemporary art’s possibilities. While maintaining an incendiary and distinctively critical tone, his inquiry ranges from the art market’s “power” structure to the scourge of “relativism,” finally yielding to the dialectics of historicity. I am particularly impressed with Arash’s mind and his writing abilities, and I publish this piece because I feel it is essential reading for art students and practicing artists.


“Endurance is more important than truth.”
-Charles Bukowski

It is the first day of spring. For some ancient cultures it is New Year’s Day, the vernal equinox. Our American culture is facing off against other nations in an increasingly troubled era. Our limited resources undermine our expansionist tendencies. Art today reflects our limits.

Like U.S. politics, art culture has taken many missteps in the recent past. Relative to its place among the rest of society, the “art world” in America, that is to say, galleries, museums, so-called collectors, board of directors of fine (read High) art along with many well-established “emerging” artists are in a state of crisis, or perhaps more importantly, the work is. Not an impending doom like a horrible natural disaster coming in off the horizon, but more like a catastrophe brought about by a toxic mix of insouciance and greed.

Art, as a concept and a practice, possesses power. Many of the conflicts our nation seems involved in, and many of its scandals, are about this power, the power to represent. (The Middle East has been in a conflict to represent itself, unmediated by imperialists, colonialists, and “free-market” capitalists for nearly a century…) People’s minds can be affected, perceptions altered, lives and histories changed. The power to affect, to cause an effect, is an increasingly unpopular notion among the upper classes of art world insiders. (In the interests of full disclosure, I myself was at one point an art school rat and have been graced with the academy of High versus Low and exposed to the doctrines of post-art’s relativisms and theory.) Artists and dealers, academics and gallerists, enthusiasts and collectors, are all in a state of market-driven appeasement. The roster of endless art fairs circling the globe rather seamlessly testifies to this. Who is feeding this market? Who is driving it? What is the product? Has art, or what we’ve come to regard, and reward, as art become simply another negotiating tool? A product whose mutability can suggest an infinite market of goods that ride the guise of creative liberties? After all, who can really say what is art and what is not? What has quality and what does not? Can a judgment really be made?

This mish-mashed understanding of relativism has bred not only unimaginative imitators who find no need to endeavor to invent (and don’t believe in the concept altogether) and a cynical marketplace unwilling to seek out freshness and vitality in its young art. Of course, these traits can be imitated, much like the co-optation of underground and once transgressive subcultures throughout the U.S. as evidenced in stores, clothes, magazines, sports, and movies…ad infinitum. It almost seems like the human compulsion for rebellion, especially adolescent rebellion has been replaced by the deep desire for conformity and success. Art, as seen in commercial galleries and fairs, is fronting the cynical machinations of the desire and envy industry, most notably Fashion. Art is no longer in a relationship with fashion, it has become it, stripping away any real power it has. Possessive appeal usurps meaning. It no longer represents, it duplicates. The broadest possible appeal has brought with it the most irresponsible kind of neglect. The marketplace has infiltrated the studio, and worse, the creative imagination. Is there even an ongoing discussion in the intelligentsia, through magazines, newspaper articles, online forums, schools, etc. or is there only a whole lot of self-congratulatory validation going on? One senses that criticism has ceased to exist outside of the minutiae of what was created when and by whom and exhibited where; a veritable celebrity digest of who’s who in art now. How many artists compete for a chance to have a place in a true cultural dialogue, rather than a spot in the so-called “canon” as exemplified and disseminated throughout the market? How many works are made heavily tempered with a learned careerism that dismisses originality, struggle, failure and accomplishment as outmoded human qualities that belong only to Greenbergian notions of art? Works are made pre-conscious of their place in the bazaar. This is not a marketplace of ideas. It has degenerated into a self-actualized boast, a grandstand of privilege. There are now many easy prisons of thought seeking to restrict any art that attempts to provide something that could be called experience.

American art is moving through a state of crisis and denial, a deluge of newly minted art and artists of the anti-ecstatic. Real connection and parallels have been replaced by isolated gestures. A sense of proportion, or scale, is lost, in terms of where one’s work fits in any historical context. The idea of history itself is dismissed as mass appeal has replaced individual curiosity. This is the dictum of marketing. Art can, and should be, more. Young artists in the States seem to be embarrassed and repelled by honest exchange. The work masks emotional response with a superabundance of stylistic metaphors and cliché colloquialisms expressing ennui. Art is ideas and can provide truly unique and independent experiences for people. This, in fact, can be a responsibility of art, if artists choose so. This is not a precept of artmaking, or necessary condition, as any cursory glance at the history of art would easily demonstrate. Anything goes, obviously. There should, however, be more than lazy intellectualism and regurgitated theory; stylistic meanderings of the comfort class. Outside of a handful of artists, art seems so safe, an easy commodity that doesn't dare disturb the ether of sales, but only postures and poses in neo-punk platitudes and stylings.

This is a crisis that comes in the form of willful neglect. We live in a time of global connectivity, radical change and superb action. Being disconnected from change and relying on heavy-handed imitations with total disregard for invention and investigation should be detestable, not readily rewarded. Too much that passes for Art today avoids connections that could provide experience. It dabbles in fashion-driven marketing practices. It has been recruited and reprogrammed to drive the engines of mass culture: to forget history, deny experience, and forego relationships. These things can be messy, awkward, “uncool” and discomforting, much like our troubled times. But art in America today reflects little to none of this. It relies highly on distorted capitalist notions of success--fame and fiduciary evidence being the proving factors. Connections to history are crudely drawn in afterthoughts only to prop up the artist’s myth and to provide depth to otherwise vapid art. It has become a race to the bottom. Forget history. Broadest possible appeal. Lowest common denominator. Is this the future of American art? Is everyone really so tired that they feel actually “feeling” something is too much effort (and much too embarrassing)? Our culture, our collective American consciousness, is at a low point. Artists seem afraid, uninterested and not up to the challenge. They should attempt something more but don’t. Why should they compose work when an isolated and meaningless gesture will do? Why should they develop if imitation is enough? Race to the bottom…when we reach it, I hope some of us will continue to possess the desire, and energy, to find our way back up.

Reading for 18 April: Chapter 25: Function and Field: Demarcating Conceptual Practices by Nana Last.

April 6, 2007

New Asia: Endgame of Late Capitalism

Administrator’s note: This week’s post by Patrick Donovan weighs in on the contested nature of “late capitalist culture” as epitomized in contemporary art in the “New Asia.”

Lee Weng Choy in Authenticity, Reflexivity, and Spectacle, Or, the Rise of New Asia is not the End of the World, posits Singapore, or more broadly a "New Asia," as representing the telos, or end point, of the culture of late capitalist history. This culture is characterized by vulgar, violent, and repetitive spectacle as evidenced, for example, on Singapore television. Lee suggests, based on writings by Walter Benjamin, that this late capitalist culture views history as not progressive, but merely a montage, or juxtaposition of moments in time. Thus, apparently, late capitalist culture is essentially a juxtaposition of otherwise disconnected images and ideas without any historical sense. Citing Arthur Danto, Lee states that late capitalist culture is reflected in contemporary art, which is characterized by a radical plurality in which anything can be, and does get cited and re-sited as art. This culture, we are told, may be the avant garde of the next stage of capitalism.

But, although ostensibly about New Asia, Lee is examining late capitalist culture and contemporary art in general. He states there is a crisis in contemporary art: it is difficult or impossible for art to provide a critique of, or theorize about, a culture of radically pluralistic spectacle; it is difficult for art to avoid becoming just another juxtaposed image. Lee seems to be asking: how can contemporary art transcend this plurality?

Unfortunately, Lee does not provide an answer. And, we might question possible assumptions underlying "late" capitalism. "Late" capitalism implies a possible end of capitalism, but for all we know capitalism may continue for quite some time. Also, the "end of history" may be misleading. Obviously, history will continue. But, the characterization of contemporary art as pluralistic seems accurate and Lee may be correct that there is a yearning for the old fashioned virtues of "progress" and "unity."

Reading for 11 April: Chapter 23: Notes on Surface: Toward a Genealogy of Flatness by David Joselit.

Image: China Sample 1, M. Cameron Boyd, Copyright 2007.