December 30, 2012

My Resolution


"The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere." (1)


For some time now I have become aware that our preoccupation with the momentary facets of our media culture have moved beyond mere distraction to dangerous manipulation. Our daily addiction to these cellular technologies and their proprietary structures is altogether troubling. But the barely camouflaged agendas within the media-driven services, created via corporate programmed commerce, dictate our willing enslavement for most of our waking hours.

We sign on to the Internet, a ready stand-in for Guy Debord's "Spectacle," believing that we are "just checking our Facebook," only to be prompted to some "suggested post," a disguised advertisement poised to register our "likes" for future "call lists." Our keystrokes and movements through this insidious "World Wide Web" are tracked and monitored, with the resultant "spam" steadily filling our filtered lives, and our habits and preferences traded to those corporations complicit in the deceit. Because distraction is just a click away - political scandal, celebrity misadventure, YouTube miscreants and fiascoes - our loss of time is imperceptible as we text, scroll and meme our way through the Spectacular.

This is not to say that the Internet has no function, for that would be patently absurd. The ‘Net’s usefulness as basic information source cannot be denied. From students to academics, to research scientists and authors, the ease and speed with which any topic can be accessed and explored on the Web makes it the premier tool for gathering and gaining knowledge, or at least a sense of knowing.

We could never have known how correct Debord's predictions would become. We communicate via The Spectacle, controlled by its machinations, lead to wherever it wants us to go. This may be harmless for the young, perhaps even amusing for five or six years as they sojourn through the tethers of Academia. However, the adult mind becomes besotted among the zeros and ones, drugged by the "Now," mired in the false belief that this "Media Culture" is the "Only Culture."

As I have aged, I have begun to tabulate what I have missed, what I haven't read, the things I haven't seen. The experience of Here and Now is lost to me when I am on the Web. I can no longer allow myself the sloth of wandering through meaningless gossip, innuendo, "fact" based on opinion, "truth" based on Wikipedia.

Before there were blogs and digitized media there were books; before YouTube there was cinema, before iTunes there was jazz. How many hours are left to me? How many days?

I have read only fragments of Dante, Ben Jonson, Coleridge; and I haven't read enough Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Clemens. I have seen bits of Griffith, Eisenstein, von Stroheim; and I haven't watched enough Chaplin, Ford, Kurosawa.  

This is my resolve, to wisely use what moments remain, to be in the moment. My plan is simple and forthright: I will abandon the superficialities of Facebook, YouTube and the "social media." I will seek knowledge through books, art and poetry through film, to rekindle these lost art forms and the essence of their relationship to me. I will stay aware of my epistemic conditions but go deeper than The Spectacle allows. I take a chance that there is a life other than that proposition of an existence "mediated by images." I seek a social practice among humans whose being is defined by actions. The possibilities are too promising to ignore.


IMAGE: Still from Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, Kino, 1925.

__________________________________________________

1. Debord, Guy. "The Society of the Spectacle," Detroit, Black & Red, 1977, #30.

December 22, 2012

P.F.D. (2 Bobs)


"...I thought Bob Dylan was just Prince's giant middle finger to the screwed up art system that doesn't give enough of a damn to look at what it's buying and selling and fawning over. Not just the death of the author, but his murder, and the propping up of the author's corpse, Weekend At Bernie's-style, in order to keep cashing his checks."(1)

As I have often told my art theory students, generating discourse about and around your art practice serves to authenticate and reinforce your position vis a vis the Art Canon. The more print and chatter reviewers, curators, collectors and peers generate about your work, the better. Because it is not just the audience of spectators that you want to impress, but the peripheral legions of those critics, theorists and thinkers who will promote your place in the canon if they cotton to your output. Or, as Duchamp more elegantly and arcanely put it:

In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.(2)

Thus, it should surprise no one that that well-traveled and thoroughly ensconced ar(t)biter of all things fashionably artsy, Richard Prince, would upend Ye Old Art World with his latest con(ceptual) art piece, Revisionist Art, currently at Gagosian Gallery (NYC: Mad.Ave.). 

First off, no one is admitting - publicly, that is - that the assembled silkscreen paintings are actually Richard Prince's work, and the Gagosian Gallery press release holds to the party line that these works, characterized by some as "jaw-droppingly awful," are indeed created by the iconic and legendary singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. Dylan showed his Asia Series paintings at Gagosian Gallery last year and Prince wrote about them. But Prince has remained quiet about this series so far, busily Tweeting about his other passions - his "invitation only" bookstore and hanging with the babes from the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. And don't hold your breath for Dylan to comment; the notorious recluse rarely grants interviews. Perhaps that's why Prince "adapted" this current series of works to "represent" Bob, knowing that Dylan would probably not care less. 

All this back story is tiresome to slog through and other sites have covered it all in infinite detail. Greg Allen quite smartly gauges all the possibilities on his blog, greg.org. I have Mr. Allen to thank as well for prompting my useful acronym for the concept of "Prince (works) for Dylan (works)," P.F.D. Greg readily admits the P.F.D. conspiracy theory idea was originally floated by GalleristNY's Michael Miller and also shares links to talk that continues on various Dylan fan sites about these putative "paintings" of Bob's.

However, allow me to focus my attention on Richard Prince and engage my anxiety that his art practice may have begun to spin out of control. In order to proceed, of course, one needs to assume that this "Prince for Dylan" theory is factually accurate and that Prince has actually foisted these "Revisionist" silkscreen paintings as Dylan's. Therefore, I must stress that what follows is pure speculation based on the above premise that Prince is representing a current body of work as another person's and thereby upping the ante on his appropriative modus operandi.

Prince's earlier forays into appropriation initiated a discussion that would include semiotics and signification as referenced through the writings of Baudrillard and other critical theorists. Prince's use of appropriation, along with other artists like Sherrie Levine and Jack Goldstein, was able to manifest these theories of the signifier (a photograph) being subject to manipulation through presentation as other signifieds (meanings). A Marlboro man became emptied of meaning when taken from the contextualized world of advertising. The postmodern view has expressed that there is a disconnect between the signifier and the signified. This results in a variability of meaning, wherein signs are "emptied" and transformed into "floating signifiers," never in sync with definitive endpoints. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari would write of this inevitable loss of significance:

"...it [the sign] is thought of as a symbol in a constant movement or referral from sign to sign. The signifier is the sign in redundancy with the sign. All signs are signs of signs. The question is not what a given sign signifies but to which other sign it refers, ... it is this amorphous continuum that for the moment plays the role of the 'signified,' but it continually glides beneath the signifier..."(3)

I have long been a supporter of Prince's work, even stepping in to defend it whenever I felt it maligned inaccurately. Prince's best work challenges the inherent power of images, their meaning and relationship to "truth." He leveled a clear, intelligence at the Spectacle and played havoc with the World of Signs, eliciting a reassessment of the very nature of representation. Along with the other first wave of post-Duchampian appropriationists, he paved the way for a critical analysis of authenticity, originality and the very definition of art.  


To what end, then, is Prince's faux-presentation of himself as Bob Dylan? If we are to understand that the essence of this provocation is to extend the vacuum of meaning that surrounds an image, a representation, to include as well the public image of a pop cultural person, then we may further propose that the P.F.D paintings function as props for the staging of the real "work" of the "Revisionist" show: identity theft as art.

If so, then I propose at least two conclusions can be drawn here. First, Prince's expansion of the practice of appropriation to include "impersonation" resurrects the original charge of theft that these acts of "borrowing" provoked. This P.F.D. tactic itself posits a question about "truth" by operating as a fallacy. In this sense, Prince might be seen as returning to address the original attacks on appropriation by traditionalist critics that his work was nothing but falsification. This is perhaps a belated attempt to return to those original talking points and debates about authenticity and the definition of what constitutes art.  

It is my second conclusion that gives one pause. When Prince assumes the identity of a living person and presents his own work as another person's work he weakens the substantive theories that were initially behind his previous output. Prince's earliest work was structurally connected to media; the representation of advertising and print ads that he built upon connected his entire oeuvre to semiotics and postmodern theory. As he continues his drift toward a quotidian pop-social media culture, his work deflates and reveals an actual emptiness. Far more stark and repellent than that structuralist signifier "emptied" of meaning, the "Revisionist" show is indicative of the fact that Prince currently runs the risk of his art becoming facile and shallow. Truly, with "no there, there," Prince treads on the thin ice of critical theory as we struggle to keep aloft his once prescient ideas. Now that impersonation and sham have been taken up as his new act, it is as if Prince seeks to remove himself completely from art discourse and excise all critical theorist connection to his work.

_________________________________________________

1. Allen, Greg. "If He Did It," greg.org, Dec. 5, 2012.
2. Duchamp, Marcel. "The Creative Act," lecture given at Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, TX, 1957.
3. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 112.






December 17, 2012

On Historicity & Obscurity

Having recently taught an introductory course in art and “art appreciation” for a community college, I can now inform readers of this site, most of whom genuinely love and respect art, that the recording of art history is under serious attack and subject to whims and allegiances of authors and their publishing houses. Furthermore, the “appreciation” of art, in all honesty, is presented as dependent upon supposed truths disseminated through the validating authority of The Text.

It is this hierarchy of validation and authentication, established hundreds of years ago with the advent of the printed word that reveals the tenuous reality of historicity. History – at least art history – is malleable, suspect, corruptible and ultimately flawed.

How do I prove this and what does it mean? Suffice to say, in terms of evidence I will point out a rather glaring omission of one 20th Century artist from one particular required textbook, the elimination of which appears to doom this artist to academic obscurity, at least as far as this art history text is concerned.(1)

My brief elaboration on this artist is related to the specifics of what I know and teach, performance and contemporary art, and the failure to mention the artist in this textbook’s version of 20 Century art history can only be surmised as an exercise in academic censorship. Certainly, this demonstrates that different versions of history are being represented and, although this perception of historicity's putative "truth" is not new, it clearly shows that an academic censorship agenda may be afoot.

The artist missing from this text that I want to discuss is Chris Burden. From 1971 to 1974, Burden engaged in a series of iconic performance art pieces:

Working out of his Venice studio, Chris had himself shot with a .22 rifle, nailed to a Volkswagen roof, fired a pistol at an airliner, tried to "breathe" underwater, crossed two "hot" electric wires at his chest and assaulted a television journalist by holding a knife to her throat. These are difficult performance art pieces that Burden was keen to present as “sculptures.” They have a mythic presence in “body art” yet he has grown reticent to talk about them as he aged, apparently seeking to distance himself from his destructive early work. His evolving sculptural process began to explore the physics of stress and energy (Samson and Big Wheel) with a whimsical fascination with the “gee whiz” of science. Yet the legacy of Burden’s body art assured that the possibility of imminent and unpredictable violence would remain inherent in the work of succeeding generations of art students “attempting to emulate the transgressive character of Burden’s early work” and contemporary artists like John Bock and Matthew Barney.(2)

But Burden is not mentioned in this textbook; not in the index, not in footnotes, no photographs. He is not even listed in the textbook’s passing reference to performance art. Why?

Could it be that Burden himself refused permission to the author or publishers to reproduce photographs of his seminal performance art pieces in their text? As has been noted, Burden’s work has evolved through the years to encompass more traditional sculptural concerns, with installations and even public art commissions. Perhaps he wishes to control his legacy and focus attention on his more recent projects instead of a four or five year period soon after he graduated from UC Irvine. As substantiation of this possible theory, it has been reported that he denied Marina Abramovic permission to “replicate” his “Transfixed” piece (in which Burden was nailed to that Volkswagen) for her 2005 Guggenheim Museum show, “Seven Easy Pieces.”(3)

Coincidentally, Marina Abramovic is presented in this textbook, complete with two reproductions and quoted statements from the artist about her work.(4) Abramovic’s efforts at legitimizing performance as archival media and gaining institutional acceptance have been extensive, and her efforts were duly rewarded with a 2010 retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Abramovic’s inclusion in this art history text as one of the sole practitioners of performance art may be a testament to her obvious success as performance art’s unofficial spokesperson. But the complete omission of Chris Burden’s performances as validated, authenticated pieces within the canons of art history is troubling.

IMAGE: "Transfixed," performance by Burden, April 1974; © Copyright by Chris Burden. 
  
_______________________________________


1. Sayre, Henry. A World of Art (Seventh Edition), Pearson Education, 2013.

2. Quoted from my October 18, 2007 post, “Chris’s Burden.”

3. Nancy Princenthal, “Back for One Night Only!” in Art in America, Feb. 2006, 91-92.

4. Op cit., 322-323.