July 14, 2011
Crisis of Ownership
Regardless of your comfort or impatience with pluralism in visual arts – whether you condone or disapprove of the multiplicity of “styles” rampant in today’s contemporary art world – there is one conclusion we might draw from the abundant varieties of approach to visuality: the apparent unconcern for the once dominant critical hierarchy of visual art focuses our attention on the content of the art object, exclusive of whatever form that object takes.
Whether it be figurative, abstract or conceptual, all visual art styles are now permissible and marketable. Perhaps this is the ultimate psychic reversal of a public grown tired of pseudo-intellectualism, critical theory and excessive self-expression; the final irony of “I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like.” If there’s an artist who paints Neoclassical nudes, while another one crawls around a mound of salt – no worries, we can sell the art.
We will let others with more time, patience and the resources pursue the socio-economic and/or epistemic logic of how we arrived at this critical juncture in Art History. My brief speculation here will merely touch on a couple of points that I want to make about this crucial period for contemporary art.
First, what I want to say is that our obsession with style barely conceals our repressed desire for content. Indeed, we are so surface-oriented that we allow ourselves to be distracted by superficialities of color, sheen and gloss. The moral imperatives of advertising were life lessons for Pop artists and they took the skeletal basics of branding, repetition and ennui and wallowed in it. Look at any two-dozen YouTube mash-ups today and you can glimpse the mutant stepchildren of Madison Avenue and MTV.
Yet, sometimes reflected in the yearning discourse found in those comments under these “outsider” videos, there are inquiries into “meaning,” relationships drawn between other works with similar content, or arguments over precedence and originality. This is all the more remarkable because of the “free” nature of the Internet – there is no concern about “borrowing,” copying or appropriating anyone else’s content. In fact, such freedom of use is allowed, even encouraged, because the fact remains that if you put it up on the Internet, you have abdicated “ownership” of that content.
Where form had once usurped content as prime motivation for art making and dominated the discourse surrounding Modernist art, content returned in the guise of conceptualism. In the 21st Century, content has ironically been upstaged again by a postmodern fascination with form. The fetish of functionality and blurred distinctions of art and design have further confused the art object’s usefulness with its intention. Moreover, the significance of the value attribution of an art object resides primarily within its cultural and institutional validation, not within the inherent qualities of an object’s form.
Language functions as the essential marker of content, as ideas and concepts are first projected within words and sentences. Both speech and writing are inherently viewed as “free” within democratic societies, regardless of their qualification as “intellectual property.” Ownership of one’s content, as epitomized in open source text, on-line posting or blogging, is already under attack through corporate and institutional manipulation, as Facebook, Google and Apple continue to colonize their users. Thus, form and content are currently undergoing a period of unstable value attribution, whether exchange or use value, as both intellectual delivery vehicles have been negated through a crisis of ownership.
Image: ”Untitled participatory installation #4”; in “Medium of Exchange” exhibition at Center for the Arts Gallery, Towson University; © Copyright 2011 by Mark Cameron Boyd.
“Medium of Exchange” runs to August 6, 2011. Info: 410-704-2787