February 22, 2010

Context 101

I was alerted to a new study undertaken by a university psychologist that purports to suggest that “Context May Diminish Art Appreciation.” 172 students were asked to look at selected works of art in various styles (Impressionism, Renaissance, Dada and Outsider) and then rate “how much they liked the work.” Half of the group was also given some “contextual information” consisting of a definition of the styles of art represented, along with short histories of the styles’ origins and “information on the goals of the artists who worked in that style.”(1)

Before I get to the psychologist’s findings, let me clarify a few things about context in relation to how we perceive art. Ever since Duchamp set a urinal, snow shovel, coat-rack, etc. within the confines of a gallery nearly 100 years ago, we have been wrestling with context in the visual arts. Duchamp’s actions caused us to consider how a gallery (or museum) setting affects our definition of what is or isn’t art: without this art context, his readymades are just plumbing, tools and hardware.

This contextual information referred to and used by the psychologist in his study is distinct from Duchamp's context; rather, this study concerns additional information or supplemental material about the artwork, style, history more than it does context. What I wish to emphasize here is that both the contextual (as site, i.e., museum, gallery, artist/art school studio) and the supplemental material are key components to establishing mere appreciation of the artwork but are the only access to its meaning; there is nothing without this contextual and supplemental material.

I question the intent of a study that sets up the visual engagement of art “in terms of eliciting enjoyment or appreciation” which sound better suited as gastronomic criteria. Certainly 21st Century art seeks to engage a bit more than enjoyment. Or is that all some of us expect of art?

Second, it is important to note that the “participating students had little or no knowledge about art.” Knowing this fact going in, I think it suspiciously skews the data and fairly well negates the study’s resultant findings as flawed. Is it not generally accepted logic that the more knowledge one has about a field, the more one appreciates it?

It is no surprise then that we next discover the psychologist provided all study participants with “a general definition for art” as well as “label(s) stating the style the works represented.” Regrettably, the psychologist’s “definition for art” was not shared with us but I feel that by providing the students with an “accepted” determination of art he set up a comparative and possibly negative criticality within the students; given a description of “what art is” consciously affected how they judged the artworks.

The hypothesis was that that portion of participating students that were given additional information (stylistic definitions, histories, origins, artists’ goals) are presumed to be better able to “appreciate” the artworks armed with “contextual information.” However, the psychologist found that “Providing contextual information led to participants perceiving examples of the various styles of art as matching less well with their internal standards than when no contextual information was presented.”

That is to say, students “were more likely to feel a piece conformed to their personal ideas about art — and thus more likely to enjoy or appreciate it — when it was presented without interpretation.”

On the contrary, I think this only really proves that students (people) are capable of being “likely to enjoy or appreciate” artwork that they know nothing about. This is neither news or earth-shaking research.

Finally, I find two intriguing points in the psychologist’s “explanations” that ironically reveal something unintentional about “art appreciation” and criticality. The psychologist found that “the contextual information presumably led to 'greater conscious processing' of the pieces, which may have 'led participants to be more critical.'” In my view, this means context provokes criticality, an altogether positive result from the contextual/supplemental aspects.

Further, the psychologist found “In this experiment, the contextual information was very concrete, and may have encouraged participants to think concretely.” The article concludes that after those study participants were “equipped with a clear, rigid definition of what constitutes a certain type of art, the students were perhaps more likely to judge a particular painting as falling outside of its parameters.”

In other words, knowledge about artworks enhances our critical judgment of them; knowledge provided by the indispensable context and frequently necessary supplemental information. Both are prerequisite for a critical opening to any meaning we might access. Without both the context and the supplement there can be nothing but empty aesthetic appreciation.

[My thanks to John James Anderson for bringing this article to my attention.]

1. All quotes were taken from the on-line article at www.miller-mccune.

February 18, 2010

Straight Air

The 2010 Winter Olympics has become a welcome treat, wildly distracting us from a harsh winter with chock-a-block thrills and spills. Short track has to be one of the more unpredictable, adrenalin-rush sports; it was fun watching the Koreans "x" themselves out of the final heat allowing Apolo and J.R. to medal. And the multiple crashes by the downhill women, who were all amazingly unhurt after hurtling 80 miles an hour down the hard-packed tundra, showed us their genuine toughness.

Last night I managed to watch the halfpipe finals and saw Shaun White and Scotty Lago clean up. It, too, was a brutal event as that edgy Japanese snowboarder Kazuhiro Kokubo did a faceplant and bloodied his upper lip.

Later on, my old pal @mdusham tweeted "art world needs a 'straight air' requisite like snowboarders: do 1 piece that's pure in concept/technique."

I immediately understood his reasoning. In halfpipe judging, the snowboarder must demonstrate at least one straight line jump off the wall or "kicker." No twists, flips or spins are allowed when demonstrating that "straight air" trick. If artists - especially novice initiates - were asked to exhibit a work that actualized a basic concept it might help yield real definitions for art.

It was only after I searched "straight air" that I realized how analogous this snowboarder term actually was to visual arts. In a piece on halfpipe judging, the requirement of this particular rule is explained: Though controversial, the straight air rule is in place according to FIS [International Ski Federation], to 'easily relate rudimentary halfpipe skills and style to spectators in an attempt to protect and prolong the sport.'(2)

Comparable relationships can be drawn between extreme sports like snowboarding and art-making as it has become evident in contemporary art that a basic ability to actuate basic concepts in your practice necessarily overrides "self-expression."

Yet some snowboarders don't like the rule, as this boarder's complaint about "straight air" clearly articulates:
"Snowboarding is about self-expression. It’s about doing it your own way and doing your best run, but when the rules start telling you how to do your run, it simply screws things up."

I have to disagree. It isn't that the rule "screws things up," ace. It's that this overblown importance and reliance upon self-expression gets in the way of how your "skill" can be judged. If art exhibitions were curated or mounted that challenged artists to submit and show basic, conceptual work - to clearly convey basic visual concepts to viewers - I believe it would serve to support, protect and prolong visual art.

We ought to be able to see your basic concepts before you show us your "Double McTwist."

Image: Danny Davis at 2009 Grand Prix Cooper Mountain Qualifiers; photo by George Crosland; courtesy SNOWREV; © Copyright 2009.


1. "Olympic Halfpipe Judging Explained" at Transworld Snowboarding.

2. Ibid.

February 12, 2010

Bad Boys? Whatcha Gonna Do?

Roberta Smith gets it mostly right in yesterday’s New York Times piece on the “Bad Boys” of art. Her criticism of art world snugglies like Damien Hirst and Gelitin is impressively frank (“In the beginning he [Hirst] conducted himself with intelligence or at least inclusive cheer. Not so much these days.”) and funny (“It’s better when Gelitin can see what it’s doing, and we can’t.”).

Among the few (two?) Ms. Smith “likes” I think there may be promise for Leonardo Drew. Although I have not seen the show, the work pictured above reveals an incisive and “muscular” exploration of site specificity and portends good work to come.

That said, the other “boys” get a fair spanking from Ms. Smith. I agree that the surface fascination with tendencies of rebellion and edginess have clouded the critical assessments of Banks Violette and Sterling Ruby. Our art world denizens seem to have limited hindsight when it comes to precedent and also appear blind to talent that comes up short when it is presented by youthful males.

My selection of current “bad boys” would vary wildly from Ms. Smith’s. I have different criteria for what constitutes cutting edge, provocative artwork. In my view, the “baddest” work challenges definitions of art, while being intelligently aware of the historical canon. My “bad boy” artists investigate the viewers’ physical and sensory perception of the work and how the work’s address affects that perception. Provocative work induces a cognitive response beyond surface appreciation and yields intellectual engagement with the work and its context.

Who’s doing that now? My partial list would include Joseph Kosuth, Pierre Huyghe, Francis Alys, Roni Horn, Sam Durant, Stan Douglas, Ai Weiwei, John Baldessari, Oliver Herring, Lawrence Weiner, Victor Burgin, Robert Barry, Bernar Venet, Marina Abramovic and Ilya Kabakov.* Their work expands upon and continues to develop theories of conceptual art while still managing a healthy acknowledgement of the art viewers’ visual addiction to an interesting “object.” They are the ones I would be watching now. They are not, as Ms. Smith noted about eldest “bad boy” Hirst: “on automatic pilot if not cryogenically suspended.”

Image: “Number 134”, © by Leonardo Drew; photo © by Librado Romero/The New York Times.

* UPDATE: I must include AiA February cover boy Simon Starling for his efforts that generate critical and viewer investigation beyond his installations, objects and projections.

February 10, 2010

Power Outage

The total loss of electrically-generated power experienced by millions during the Blizzard of 2010 has revealed a simple fact about 21st Century humans: we rely exclusively on media-driven technology - the Internet, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, broadcast and cable television - to construct our social identities.

Debord was right. He predicted over 40 years ago that not only would our interpersonal relationships become dependent upon our ready and casual use of images, i.e., the spectacular, but that our understanding and extension of Enlightenment ideas about the “Self” would morph into a malignant reliance on image-gadgetry, jpegs and downloads to construct our individual “lives.”

With the loss of basic power that occurred this week throughout the Northeastern United States, total separation from favored and addictive web sites, media outlets and laptops resulted in a fear of self-awareness. Beings who had avoided one-to-one connections with other humans by referencing, citing, texting and sharing stories, gossip and infotainment through the corporate media-controlled spectacle were now forced to turn inward to their solitary psyches and they were unprepared for the attention required.

The result has been a kind of cold turkey withdrawal typically expressed as a “cabin fever” dementia; we can’t stand the quiet, darkness is oppressive, we must “get out.”

Resultant aberrant and socially useless behavior like skiing city streets or mass snow-ball fights only avoids the key issue - without our “power” we are not prepared to talk to one another face-to-face, or read a Printed Page, or spend time with our own thoughts. We would rather power up, up-link, log-on and commence the Endless Download so that we can continue circulating and recycling our media-constructed identities in what has become the semblance of a “life.”

February 8, 2010

Another Kind of Machine

“A menu of certain favorite artists has gotten expensive because they have been promoted. This is my opinion and it has very little to do very often with how important they are. […] If you’ve got an artist…like there’s a huge supply, it permits…promotion of the artist, you can have exhibitions everywhere and it’s worth people’s while to promote it. Some of the stuff that’s consequential doesn’t get shown because it isn’t trendy and why it isn’t trendy I’ve just explained: basically, it isn’t worth anyone’s while to make it trendy.”
- Richard Feigen, NYC art dealer.

“An all-consuming art market has become the dictator of taste. It’s largely turned into a game between a few artists and the promotional machine that surrounds them.”
- Robert Hughes in “The Mona Lisa Curse.”

February 2, 2010

Le Deluge

Artist Michael Landy has launched a project whereby artists submit artworks to be “trashed” in a vast, glass-walled container. Notable names so far include Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Gillian Wearing - all have donated works to be unceremoniously dumped into Michael’s bin.(1)

Notably missing from this account of the project is any reference to John Baldessari’s 1970 Cremation Project. Baldessari decided all of his earlier work needed to be destroyed so he hired a crematorium to assist him with incinerating the lot.

Landy apparently did an earlier destruction piece called Break Down where he destroyed all of his possessions (car, clothing, personal items). Somewhat different than Art Bin, the earlier work obviously concerned consumerism and our addiction to amassing products. If we assume that Art Bin is about artworks that artists consider “failures” it seems to be more about definitions than destruction. Thus, it begs the question as to “why” the artists consider these particular works to be failures.

Two quibbles to note: Hirst’s donation of screen-prints hardly qualify as unique artworks given that they are reproductions; seems Damien is only paying lip service to Landy’s idea. Perhaps more disappointingly, it is also revealed that there is some sort of “jurying” process that possible donations have to go through before being consigned to the “skip.”

So Landy decides if the artwork is sufficiently enough of a “failure” to be granted the validation of joining the art star trash heap? Very disingenuous, not to mention an elitist take on who is avant enough to join Hirst, et al. in the art bin.

And I think they will need a bigger bin.

[Thanks to HAHA MAG ART for pointing this out.]


1. These three artists were also (formerly) Young British Artists, i.e., yBa’s. Does this mean that Landy’s project has their “official” sanction?