Saturday, April 25, 2015

individual expression, part 1

Since establishing this idea, I have thought of a number of examples that apply and hope to outline a few to continue this dialectic.  I think in one sense, there is a link between individualism and American ideology that is actually fairly common, but I don't think that is the full extent of the historical basis (particularly because the United States is relatively young when it comes to art history, and certainly not the first to use the idea of art as expression).  I think this is more historically entrenched in the history of visual art (and other disciplines, perhaps) and will be harder to question and more difficult for people to accept, but these ideas are worthwhile.

I should also restate some of the texts that I have been reading that is certainly contributing to this thinking, primarily Dylan Trigg's book The Thing, Ben Davis's 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, and Eugene Thacker's In the Dust of this Planet.


The ongoing assumption has been that art is a matter of individual expression, and has been critiqued, theorized, looked at, and thought about as such.  At the very least this is a gross over simplification, if not a terrible mistake, because it does not acknowledge the complexity of an individual identity.  I must be careful of my verbiage here, because a lot of these words have philosophical baggage (identity, for one) but what I am referring to is the individual that produces/creates art.  I think this can also be the same for a group of artists functioning as a unit to produce a single art work (such as the Guerrilla Girls) that can be assessed.  What does not fall under this delineation is a group like Bruce High Quality Foundation that organizes classes, exhibitions, etc, which gets into the downward slope of "social practice as art", and I don't want to go into that here.  Mainly, I'm talking about an individual artist working on their artistic product.

Looking at artworks as individual expression assumes that one can know the individual and know, by looking at a body of their work, what they are expressing.  The inherent fault in this is that an individual may have some similar traits from one creation to the next, other traits of the individual have changed.  The individual is not a collection of their work, nor is individual a constant during production of a single work.  Individuality manifests itself in a number of ways and includes moments of disconnect (not fully understanding one's actions, being at odds with ones self) as well as moments where one individual overlaps and mirrors another individual.  These manifestations of individuality are so complex that it is questionable whether one can effectively evaluate "individual expression" as the motive and origin of the art work.

In watching Chris Marker's film La Jetee, the character of 'the man' is the subject of an experiment made necessary by the nuclear destruction of Paris (and, presumably, most of the rest of the world) after World War III.  The men organizing the experiment inject the man with drugs that aid him in to travel back in time, and along with electrodes that cover his eyes, he is able to place himself as an individual as an adult in a time before the war, where he eventually interacts with a woman that he remembers from a day on the pier.  The organizers of the experiment also learn how to send him in to the future, where he meets humans and is made aware that the race survives.  The man knows that his time is limited and is no longer useful to the experiment or its organizers, and chooses to return to the past to meet the woman on a pier.

One analogy that Marker's film provides is an evaluation of the individual in a way that is not often thought about, even though we know and accept (since Einstein) that time is relative.  Certainly the film is speculative fiction in form and genre, but I see La Jetee as a parallel to the complexity of individuality; the concept of the individual should not be restricted by time, nor determined by time.  I am completely able to return to thoughts, moods, and mind-frame of different times in a way that makes my own individuality parallel to itself as opposed to linear recurrences.  If I get angry every time I'm driving a car, it is not time that determines my anger but the context of driving.  Other individuals also get angry while driving a car, and all of these occurrences of anger in driving are called road rage--not linked to time (other than, one could argue, since the invention of the automobile) but linked to the context of the individual.

Both of these words, too, are problematic in a phenomenological sense; if one doesn't take into account the complexity of the individual, phenomenology can be relegated to the realm of outdated and modernistic (if phenomenology is only the philosophy of an individual in a restricted sense it can not necessarily account of a multiplicity of realities, or at least there is some contradiction in this).  Expression, too, then is an issue in terms of its origins in the individual, a sort of paradox (an individual studying and thinking about something created by the individual, which probably can't be fully evaluated).


Monday, April 20, 2015

oh, the agony...

A lot of these issues have been reoccurring since Roberta Smith's talk at the Des Moines Art Center. Other issues have come up in correlation to a book by Dylan Trigg titled The Thing.  Both are interrelated, but it might take a bit more than a single post to connect.

Two comments of Smith's are what is lingering to me; one was the "real artists suffer" comment, the other was an answer to my question in the audience.  I asked Smith if she thought whether artists should be able to talk about their work.  Her response was that it wasn't our purpose to talk about the work, our job is to make it.  She also commented on it being a product of graduate school.  She isn't upset, per se, when artists talk, but she'd much rather look and see and she feels most often that artists hinder seeing with talking (I'm paraphrasing, of course). I get this sentiment; I understand it from both sides--how great it would be to not have to think about my work and just make it (which is idealistic and false; it's a misnomer made by non-artists) and how great it would be to not have to speak publicly about my work; I also can see where experienced art patron/critic/supporter would rather look on their own and not be influenced by what the artist has to say.

It is hard, though, as an artist, not to see this as a position of power held over artists: either keeping artists docile, keeping them producing for the market, or exerting some other kind of control.

I'm starting to look into this as a point of research; figuring out historical models (albeit likely on a larger scale affecting more detrimental forms of power) but hope to think about these things in perspective, particularly in late capitalism.

Trigg's book, too, has impacted my thinking about artists in the history of art and, perhaps, something that has either been overlooked or not discussed in art, particularly the artist's position in movements classified as Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and others.  Trigg is making a case for a new type of phenomenology that acknowledges a complexity in the concept of a body, which has always been the assumption of phenomenology--the study/thinking about what a body can sense.  Trigg, and others, acknowledge that this is a mistake--even Merleau-Ponty can be interpreted as to realizing the complexity of "a body" as a singular concept.

Likewise, whenever we think of art making (or the artist, for that matter), particularly when we assume "art as expression", we are talking about individual expression.  Even so-called contemporary political art and social practice art still assumes individual expression of political statements and "making something better".

Not only is this incredibly problematic to assume such individualism is the single source of expression (albeit the American way), but I absolutely believe/confirm that this is the wrong conception of expression, and that an individual/body is much more complex.  It is incorrect to assume that Monet was, theoretically, a single individual for the duration of his life as a painter and it is incorrect to define his "expression" in a singular way.  Certainly criticism and history allows for multiple interpretations, but these interpretations, though differing slightly on his aesthetics, view, outlook, influence, etc.  all assume his body of work coming from a fixed individual, which is false.

More on all of this soon.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

suffering (or, rather, not having enough of something)

Another assessment of artists from non-artists:  the suffering.  

I listened to Roberta Smith last Thursday evening at the Des Moines Art Center, and there were a number of interesting stories about the world of New York, the myths of artists, and lingering ideals of Modernism.  It coincided with my reading Robert Storr's somewhat honest (but perhaps more attention grabbing) interview on WYBCX about the state of art criticism, too, and a reminder that there are surprising parallels (though of course on a much smaller level) with the "real art world" and the micro-art world of small town Des Moines.  

This is interesting for a number of reasons, but one that is very apparent is the perspective that there does exist a "real art world" in New York, LA, London, etc and that nothing happens in smaller cities.  A New York times critic talking in Des Moines is only ever going to be a visiting lecture, it is never going to be a look, from that critic, at the art environment (can't use community here because it is loaded) of the town that she/he is visiting.  

The parallel between Storr's "calling out" of critics like Smith, Saltz, Hickey, etc in Des Moines is the chatter about Bad Art Reviews in Des Moines.  While its not the same thing, it is parallel in the sense that a town with very little art criticism, there are still threats, disagreements, and preoccupations with the trivial.  Dissent is not appreciated, nor seen for its discursive power, in almost every environment of art.  

While I was certainly taken with many of Smith's stories, I find myself days later focusing on one part of her talk--telling BFA students in the audience that they are not going to be artists, that if they have something else other than art that they are pursuing, they should do that.  Artists, she said, suffer, and are artists because of their suffering. 

Now this seems easy to dispute as the scrapings on the bottom of the pan of Modernist thought, but I think it is incredibly problematic in a broader sense.  

One aspect of this suffering is the myth of New York, which should have been eradicated with the rise of the West Coast art scene, but apparently is not dead yet.  Myopic vision of New York as the one and only art world, determining what is good and bad in art, and determining what sells is a problem for all of us outside of New York, but particularly for those of us that see New York as a giant machine that is the spearhead of the unregulated art market that drives up prices under the auspice of "cultural value" and remains both untouchable and esoteric to the general public.  These same ideas are related to the notion that any artist worth their salt lives and works in New York, so why would one of the very few staff art critics write about someone outside of New York?  It is easy (cheap) to live in Des Moines, therefore artists living here do not suffer enough to be "real" artists.  

Suffering, too, is a bit of a complex thing; Chris Burden suffered very differently than J.W. Turner.  Its a smokescreen statement to say that artists must suffer to be what they are; suffering in Late Capitalism is largely deficiency (not having what one thinks they deserve), and I guarantee that all artists think they deserve more than what they have (should have gotten in to an exhibition, should have sold that artwork, etc).  Suffering is an internal emotion, and not something that can be judged by anyone.  Roberta Smith will never know whether or not I have suffered, and I'm still an artist.  

Were I a BFA student in the exhibition, I might have wondered about safer career paths.  As an artist in a ill covered region of the United States, I'm pissed, because this is another version of elitism: I interpret the notion that artists must suffer to mean that people living in Iowa can't possibly suffer enough to be artists, so go do something else.  I had a painter in New York talk to me about teaching, and she said that I should teach students to be collectors and patrons as opposed to artists.  While this might not have been directed to me coming from the Midwest, it is still part of this detrimental rhetoric against artists geographically outside of the "art centers".  

As a professor, I don't see myself as educating artists, though.  While I'm frustrated at the elitism, I don't see that as my mission, and encourage students to pursue whatever they wish to.  I teach art as a means to teaching non-conformity, original thinking, and perhaps most importantly to teach students to think critically about the single-serve, instantly fulfilling, and vapid culture and society that we live in.  While I've thought that critics were cultural mavens and guideposts in the past, I now wonder how much a part of this structure they are; perhaps they do not question culture and society in the same ways that I do--that, perhaps, my problem with most art critics is that they are looking at art as a cog of the vapid culture and society as opposed to something working against it.  

I will gladly work, think critically, and not suffer; always reflecting on my place in society.