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Tag Archives: art

Post-Art

What is the difference between artists and poets? What does the nuances, the trace elements, of these two different words mean for the way that culture workers understand their work? I’m not sure and I have lived in shared houses with both. I have called myself an artist and a philosopher but I draw the line at being called a ‘poet’.

Will Coles, Pussy Riot mask, Hosier Lane

A century ago I would have still been talking about poetry with the Dadaists in Berlin but by 1919 Hugo Ball had already distance himself from Dada.

“Conclusion: that the political action in Switzerland no longer makes sense, and that it is childish to insist on morality in the face of these activities. I am thoroughly cured of politics too, having already given up aestheticism. It is necessary to have a closer and more exclusive recourse on the individual basis: to live only on one’s own integrity, and to renounce completely every corporate activity.” Hugo Ball 24/5/1919

Avant-garde art, poetry, political action or social practice; the emptiness of Dadaist nihilism is such that each interpreter’s transfers their own desires and expectations on to it. From Johannes Baader, the Berlin Dadaist who in 1919 showered the inauguration of the first German Republic with his home-printed leaflets, Das grün Pferd (The Green Horse), to Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk prayer’ performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, many people have taken a creative approach to politics.

However, I have growing doubts about this whole art thing. Why would anyone want to be an artist? I admire the people who quite art: Marcel Duchamp and that minor Renaissance painter, I forget his name, who tired of all the talk about perspective gave up art to become an innkeeper. (I’d like to drink to him.)

Why should artist be regarded as some kind of panicle of human achievement? The romantic middle class self-indulgent masturbation fantasy believing that they are expressing some vital essence for the good of humanity.

Art, the great appropriator comes into the room, and tells you that your stuff is part of its grandiose definition. It is the kind of blatant theft that it would make Jeff Koons and Richard Price blush with shame that they had been so modest. It is so colonial; items of cultural and religious significance are appropriated. From prehistoric cave paintings to religious material; every artefact becomes art. Anything that fits the current idea of art becomes the property of the Republic of Art; for “Art” like “God” is eternal, universal and vaguely defined. At the very least the word ‘art’ is over extended and is a poor model for culture workers.

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Logic and Art

Given: the waterfall and the illuminating gas

We assume that there is a logic to beauty and art. If x is art and y is equal to x then y must also be art. If you think that x#1 is beautiful then it would be reasonable to assume that you would agree that x#2 is beautiful. If not; then why not?

Artist painting at Flinders Street

Artists propose these questions all the time. If one Elvis is desirable then why not have more than one concluded Andy Warhol. If puppy dogs and flowers are beautiful therefore a giant puppy made of flowers must be beautiful concluded Jeff Koons.

The word art is used as both a category and a quality and this duality confuses many discourses about the nature of art.

If art is a quality with a certain cut off point, a bench mark of quality, then there is no such thing as bad or poor art. Are we talking about what qualifies to be entered into the category or about the quality? The idea that art is a category or a quality has led some people think that there is a rule book for art (sent down by God at the same time as the 10 Commandments) and become disillusioned when they discover that artists aren’t playing by this imaginary rule book. That the image wasn’t drawn freehand, that other people worked on it, that it was done to make money…

The distinction between the category and the quality of art is often raised in discussions about the defence of work accused of obscenity or pornography people will bemoan that they wish that it was a great work of art, as if, only great works of art are worth defending.

If art is a category then there should therefore be parameters that define the category. However, any attempts to find such parameters will be proved incorrect with counter-examples and excluding all counter-examples to the category of things that are called ‘art’ but aren’t becomes a curmudgeonly position because art is part of a continuing culture and not part of a narrowing category.

The idea of a category of art has emerged after many of its contents were created; as ‘art’, whatever it is, is an idea that has been made up by people as they went along and there are several different versions of ‘art’ in the last five hundred years.

However, art is not a category that can be empirically defined, such as a particular wave length of light. It is not a football code, there is no rule book that defines art. The more stringent the code that is thought to define it, ersatz art and the ossification of the art. The more that the logic of a rule book is applied to art the more that it becomes a tired, stale version of its former incarnations.

Art is sequential and each work is part of a very long series, a series that we keep on adding prequels as well as sequels too. The items in the series have a family resemblance because they are members of the series rather than that they can be a defined category because of particular qualities. Examining the items out of sequence makes no sense and nor is it possible to predict through logic too far ahead in the sequence.

Since Duchamp other artists have humourlessly followed the same logic that he successfully employed but as they have a different position in the sequence their desire is different; not to collapse the boarders of art but to extend them.


Misunderstood Art

Polonius: (To Hamlet) What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

(Hamlet II, ii, 192-3)

Nobody mistakes a game of football for anything else; there is never the question that it might not be a game of football or that it might be about something other than football. There are rare exceptions, the 1956 Russian Hungarian Olympic Water Polo match was about more than a sport. Generally the quality of the playing is tested and the results displayed on a scoreboard. Debate about sport is possible but eventually resolvable, the best team is the one that wins the most games.

Art is not like that; nothing will ever be resolved, it can be tested but not definitively. New interpretations and assessments are always possible for art but, short of revelations of cheating, nothing reverses sports results.

With all art there is always the possibility that it will be fundamentally misunderstood, not just in meaning or quality but also in its very category. It could be interpreted in a number of ways, or in post-modern speak, there are multiple readings. It is this possibility of being misunderstood that brings a special kind of quality to art. Not that all misunderstood things are of art, nor that ambiguity should be the objective of art, but that without the possibility of being misunderstood, that ambiguous quality, that makes art more than the sum of it constituent parts.

According to Mary Douglas’s theory expounded in her book, Purity and Danger (1966) the ambiguous category of art should make it taboo, a pollution that should be expelled. Or, because it does not fit into any category, that it should be sacred. Art is seen as both sacred and a pollution in society.

This ambiguous quality means that art can be about something else. Art has a relationship to a subject that cannot be reciprocated. For example, art can be about football but football can never be about art; as football is always about football. For art is a sign and signs also have a non-reciprocal relationship with what they signify.

Humans naturally want certainty but art requires a sophisticated, civilised approach that is, in this aspect, against nature. Art requires a degree of uncertainly, ambiguity or cognitive indeterminacy; to not know if you are looking at an image or paint, a story or words, Hamlet or an actor. Art requires possibility of multiple correct readings and even misunderstanding.

The unsophisticated mistake fiction for fact: a character for a real person, an actor for the character played, etc. They are apt to mistake art as pornography, sedition, blasphemy or some other prohibited or offensive category. These are unsophisticated views because they are forgetting that art is ambiguous, that they are looking at nothing but a creation of ink, or paint, or lights on a screen.

When a government’s claims to be able to make unambiguous distinction between what is permitted and what is censored the government case will always appears unsophisticated. How an unambiguous distinction can make about ambiguous material is never explained. It is simply assumed that the government is acting in a reasonable and rational manner. That agencies like the Australian Classification Board represent community values in their decisions. That it’s arbitrary interpretations of ambiguous material are certain and definite even when they very from year to year.

Sport is uncensored and more approved of than art because sport can be legislated. It can be legislated and controlled because it is unambiguous.


Open Entry Art

The Linden Post Card Show 2014 at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art has hundreds of entries. There are so many entries because it is a long established open entry show. (Did it start in 1986 when the Linden Centre opened?) Open entry means that anyone paying the entry fee of $55 for one work, $66 for two works, $77 for three works is exhibited. All the work must measure 8” (20cm) x 10” (25.5cm) (landscape or portrait) including any frame.

Linden Centre for Contemporary Art

Linden Centre for Contemporary Art

Looking at the entries and thinking why are there so few photographs, given that it is a popular media and the winner was a photograph. The winning entry was from WA artists and 2013 Archibald Prize finalist, Abdul Abdullah. His The Reintroduction of Australian Knighthood is a powerful, frightening and topical image of a masked thug draped in the Australian flag.

I was also thinking why are there so few artists that I recognise? With hundreds of artists on exhibition I started to wonder if I had missed an entry, forgotten a name (I don’t have a great memory for names). The mix of “professional, emerging, amateur or hobbiest” in the exhibition was not the problem because I regularly review that kind of mix of artists. But it did make me think that maybe there needs to be more short hand descriptions for artists, more words than: established emerging, professional, amateur … I mean what do you call an artist who has been around for a couple of decades but is not represented by any gallery and has not won any major prizes?

Linden Post Card Show 2014

Not that a lack of such terms is the biggest problem, the problem of the term ‘art’ is enough of a problem. Sometime in the seventeenth century, as the Enlightenment took the epiphany and mystery out of religion, Art emerged: Art with a capital A, Literature with a capital L and Music with a capital M. Robert Dixon’s The Baumgarten Corruption – From Sense to Nonsense in Art and Philosophy (Pluto Press, 1995) identifies the start of this process with Alexander Baumgarten’s use of the word ‘aesthetics’ in the 1750s. Roberto Calasso in Literature and the Gods (Vintage, 2001) places that start of what he calls “absolute literature” in 1798.

For me, it obvious that there is Art and art and after a walk along the Sunday market at the Esplanade, or even, a look at some of the entries in the Post Card show, you might agree. Oh, look another version of the Redhead brand match box, this time it is made out of bits of tin nailed together.

You might not agree, many people at the both the Post Card show and the Sunday Market clearly did not. The word ‘Art’ is probably more divisive than the image of the ‘Australian Knight’ by Abdul Abdullah.


Person of Interest – Laurie Anderson

I first saw Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” in 1981 on the Kenny Evert Video Show. It was great, so witty and with the art sensibilities of the best of new wave music. I’ve been listening to her music ever since. But this post is not just about being a fan of Laurie Anderson but a way of understanding what is broadly called alternative music.

I felt that “O Superman” had destroyed the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow pop music. It was a turning point in uniting contemporary performance art with alternative music. (Instead of worrying about the distinction between high and popular culture/serious and middlebrow culture it is more interesting to see when and why good art and popular culture intersect.)

Alternative music was a Gesamtkunstwerk, the unified art form of the late 20th Century. It was not just the music but also the music videos, the performance, the image of the band in photos and interviews, all of that as a total work of art. I hoped that music videos would be a new forum for alternative film-making.

The history of art and rock music became permanently interwoven in the 1960s when Andy Warhol managed the Velvet Underground and conceptual artist Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles. Performance art and rock performances had been growing steadily closer. Consider: Gustav Metzger and auto destructive art and The Who’s performances where they smashed their instruments, the stadium sized displays of the Japanese art movement Gutai and stadium rock, how the record cover became a popular medium for visual arts from Peter Blake, Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton and David Hockney and how Malcolm McLaren changed the role of the rock manager into an art form.

That contemporary art and music on the same aesthetic grounds is fundamental to my understanding of art. Art not longer confined to galleries, it could be anywhere, on TV at home. That art was not a single thing but could consist of multiple things, actions, ideas and images.

Over the years I became more aware of Laurie Anderson’s background in sculpture and performance art from random articles that I would find in old art magazines and more recent articles. Was she visual artist, a writer/poet or musician (singer/songwriter); whatever combination of these things Laurie Anderson is she is very clever – and she is very funny. That’s always a good thing and learning to crafting that comedy must have come from her time with the comedian Andy Kaufman.

Anderson’s performances/songs are lyrical, they are focused on words, but so much art in the 1970s were focused on words. Anderson’s sayings and aphorisms are similar to those by the American artists, Jenny Holtzer and Barbara Kruger. Things that are said are very important that generation of artists.

As a musician working with synthesizers and other electronic music I was always impressed with Anderson’s music technology, including the ones that she invented. As an artist I wanted to record more music.

Watching Laurie Anderson dancing with William Burroughs on Home of the Brave was the start of my addiction to Burroughs (I’m getting around to writing about Burroughs as another person of influence). And finally I saw her perform live in 2007 doing Homeland at the Melbourne Concert Hall.

The soundtrack to my biopic would have to include some Laurie Anderson. On my first day on campus the doors of the lift at La Trobe University taking me up to the Philosophy Dept. closed revealing the familiar words of Laurie Anderson written in marker pen: “Paradise is like right now only much, much better.”

For a detailed analysis of O Superman read Isaac Butler’s essay “Here Come the Planes” on The Fiddleback.


Street Art Renaissance

I keep on seeing all these similarities between street art/graffiti and the Renaissance most obviously because both are painting on walls. Walking around the graffiti covered walls of Brunswick factories in the late 1990s I discovered my own Scrovegni Chapel of wall-to-wall painting divided into separate panels.

Adnate of the AWOL crew on wall in Rose St. Fitzroy

Adnate of the AWOL crew on wall in Rose St. Fitzroy (photo by Hasan Niyazi)

People have painted on walls since we lived in caves but what made the Renaissance especially similar to the street art/graffiti of today is the potential change in social status that being an artist brought with it. Unlike their ancient counterparts the Renaissance and graffiti artists can become famous across the city and intercity and to freely enjoy the change in status that this fame brings.

Collingwood graffiti 2009

Collingwood graffiti 2009

There are many ways that the practice of street art is similar to the Renaissance with people up ladders painting a wall. Only the media has changed from fresco to aerosol. Fresco was the fast art medium of the Renaissance, the plaster could only be painted on when it was still wet. The works are designed in cartoons and then enlarged on the wall. Often he patron who bought the paint and commissioned the work is represented in the piece off to one side, as in a Renaissance altarpiece. Although all of the surviving Renaissance frescos are inside but exterior walls were also painted (an elephant remains on a portico wall at Castello Sforzesco in Milan) along with other ephemeral artwork. Renaissance painters worked in the summer when the plaster could dry, in the winter they would work on their designs, like the graffers drawing in their black books.

In graffiti slang a “piece, referring to a large complete aerosol work, is short for a ‘masterpiece’. It indicates a degree of a writer’s proficiency, as in the final work of a journeyman apprentice doing throw-ups. There is less of the master and apprentice in graffing for today the organization of society is much less formal, but there is more of a culture of master and apprentice in graffiti, where skills are learnt from assisting or watching masters rather than the formal education of modern artists. Collaborations between painters are common in both graffiti and the Renaissance.

The following is an email about painting a legal wall in Richmond. I want to point out that this email it is the street art equivalent to a commission for a Renaissance fresco.

On 09/03/2013, at 10:53 PM, CDH wrote:

We’ll be painting on Monday.

Location is 53-55 Burnley st Richmond. We’re painting behind the bike shop.

Meeting at midday.

Theme is yellow. Colour palette is black, white, grey and yellow.

As always, anyone and everyone is welcome. Hit me up if you’re

interested. Should be a good day for it: 34 deg.

Cheers,

Chris.

CDH

www.CDH-Art.com

Unlike the open invitation in CDH’s email a Renaissance commission was a longer legal document specifying a particular artist and a payment. Like CDH’s email it might specify the colour palette but this generally concerned with the weight of blue lapis lazuli and other expensive pigments.

There are, of course, many differences. The monetary value of the art produced is the biggest difference. Capping in the Renaissance was out of the question because fresco belonged to someone who was rich and powerful; the Medici would not have tolerated anyone damaging their property. But the insult of choice for both Renaissance painters and street artists are homophobic; the street artists will call the work of others “gay” whereas the Renaissance painter will denounce others as “sodomites”.

AWOL in Fitzroy 2012

AWOL in Fitzroy 2012

Various crews have replaced the painters’ guilds, but even the most hardcore crew can’t compare to the murderous Cabal of Naples who controlled their territory with brutality and fear and no one else was allowed to paint in Naples. The Cabal of Naples are early Baroque rather than Renaissance painters, but they are a classy example. Melbourne’s graffers and street artists, in comparison are a passive lot and we live in a much less violent time.

(I want to thank Brain Ward of Fitzroyalty and especially Hasan Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem for their thoughts on the subject that has greatly improved this tenuous idea.)


Class & Culture

I’ll say it again – I thought that debate was over high culture and popular culture was over. I don’t know why I thought this, maybe it was the way that I was educated steeped in English liberal philosophy that I thought that education and culture to have replaced class. It was Matthew Arnold’s idea that culture can replace class and Arnold was the philosopher who described the various English classes as barbarians (upper), philistines (middle) and populus. Now consider Jean Michael Basquiat’s mother taking him to the public museums and art galleries in New York when he was a child.

Bang bang shooting down the high art cannon has become such a sport of class warfare. To avoid the issue people have been using phrases like ‘highbrow’ or ‘serious culture’? Really? Serious stuff? ‘Serious culture’ as a description is obviously absurd; seriously, are you going to call Dada, Duchamp and Warhol serious? What about R U Sirius? Is he serious? The swap between ‘high’ and ‘serious culture’ is just repackaging ‘creationism’ as ‘intelligent design’.

Consider Juxtapoz – Art & Culture Magazine edited by self-described “lowbrow” artist Robert Williams. The articles range a wide cultural field from skateboard, graffiti and other “lowbrow” art, to Australian aboriginal art, Balinese art, Egon Schiele, and the in between, like John Waters, David Lynch and Pixar animation.

But I’m just raving now, off in a mad tangent.

The first thing to get straight in this discussion is that class is not a culture. There is no ‘working class culture’ as a cultural is the set of all the activities involving the participation of all the people. Currently and historically artists (the cultural producers) often belong to a different class to their patron (the cultural consumers).

Instead of thinking about ways to divide a culture along class lines consider the influence of class on culture. For reasons of court protocol royalty needs art be defined so that the performances are repeatable. Consider the refined and defined actions of the royal drummers of Burundi or classical ballet that developed in the French royal court. Religious courts will also similarly want to define their culture for ritual repetition. Rural folk, although just as inherently conservative as royals, do not require the same degree of repeatability. There is consequently less of a need for the developing the codification necessary for repeatable performances.

Nor should we ignore the street subcultures, the cultural influence from what Marx called “the lumpen proletariat”. Marx despised the lumpen proletariat as parasites but consider how many bohemian and avant-garde artists would fall into that class.

What is called “popular culture” is distinctly different from what is known as “folk culture”. Popular culture is more ephemeral than folk culture because changes in fashion make money.  Popular culture is a recent development and at its most popular classless; it transcends class for it is after all it is after a commercial venture. And old popular culture can end up in the literary, musical or artistic cannon of today; Shakespeare, Mozart and John Everett Millet were all popular artists marketing their art to a mass audience.

But back to the topic at hand – why I thought this high art and pop art thing is so last century? Do I have to remind the reader of breakdown of class and racial divides are a major part of the history of the last two centuries. And that this was increasing expressed in avant-garde art in the 19th and 20th centuries with the breakdown between high art and popular art materials, techniques and themes. And that by the late 20th Century the previously excluded or marginalized ‘others’ were increasingly being recognized in participating in the creation of avant-garde art. And we are back to Jean Michael Basquiat.


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