Archive for December, 2009

La Boheme and Warhol

December 27, 2009

            “Good business is the best art” changes the face of art.  The best art for the late 19th, early 20th century was that which offered an alternative to the hierarchical representation of what had been called academic art. If you were any good at that, you would be included. Later, the best art was … art that was expressionist, or non objective, or abstract, or minimal. If you were doing that, you showed. Now, good business is the best art. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t show. Ranciere writes that what becomes visible within the visual arts cannot be there unless it has already been included within the distribution of the sensible. The revolutionary aspect of the art of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, etc. only presented what was already in play because of the social/political upheavals of the 19th century. The many and various opera’s written or presented at this time exemplify this quite nicely. Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme would not have been possible without the previous Parisian upheavals and resultant communes. Much American abstract, non objective, minimalist art of the middle 20th century would not have achieved visibility if it were not for the equalizing imperative put forth by the country’s social movements of the 1930’s through the 60’s. What does this say about the best art of today and its visibility? What does this say about the artists, the makers and doers?

            In La Boheme, Rudolfo describes his poet/artist’s situation as being one of living “in cheerful poverty.” This image, or caricature, of the artist, as living in a loft, scraping to get by, continued well into the late 20th century. Vestiges of it can still be found in TV ads for “Starving Artist” sales at interstate highway motels (“nothing over $50”, the perfect venue for cheap quickies!). Living in cheerful poverty is the last thing any current aspiring artist would want to admit to, let alone be seen as. What is aspired is to be a professional, like a dentist, lawyer, doctor, or engineer. Today’s professional artist must be able to be plunked down anywhere on the planet and produce art, much as an architect or veterinarian would be able to function. The economics of such mobility implicates business acumen, for without it there is no globalization. Louis Armstrong may have been described as America’s goodwill ambassador during the cold war but this was only because, at the time, such a performance schedule wouldn’t exactly have been described as good business. Having a great paying, steady gig in Vegas, LA, or New York would have been. The difference of note between La Boheme and Warhol is not that of economic status, of poverty or wealth. Rather, it is difference itself. It is the status or place of alterity. La Boheme embodies an alternate imaginary and considers its possibilities, outcomes, consequences, sustainability, viability, value and worth. There is an “other” to what is the presumed or accepted status quo (just as Armstrong’s art provided an alternative). With Warhol, there is no alterity. All is simply subject to the studied principles of good business. “Good business is the best art.” Bad business, or no business, is no art at all.

            There is another, even more subtle undertow here. One that sheds light on the best art of today more than it does on its producers. It could be said that Rudolfo embraces an idealistic positivism. Warhol, on the other hand, embraces a pragmatic positivism. Is art just about maintaining a positive attitude? That rich or poor, it really doesn’t matter as long as the art embodies a cheerful outlook? Maintaining a positive presentation is fundamental to marketing. Such art would not be visible (as the best art) if it weren’t for the dominant omnipresence of marketing over the past half century.

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Good business is the best art.

December 20, 2009

            An acquaintance stopped in to visit. He was in the states from Tokyo where he is living, studying Japanese and traditional wood block print making.  The few prints he brought to show were gorgeous, a step up from what I had seen the last time he was by. We talked of what life in Tokyo is like. I asked about the art scene, whether he was showing anywhere. He looked at me quizzically. He couldn’t afford to show, he said. In addition to paying a hefty commission if the works sell, the individual artist must pay the gallery in order to show. Few artists can afford that, he said. Like in the states, most producing artists work at some day job. In Japan, art, as an avocation, is seen more as a “hobby” than as a calling or occupation. People produce, they just don’t show. Only the “recognized,” successful artists show. Here in the states, there is an entire population of art producers, who consider themselves artists, hidden in plain site. They show, extensively at that, from community organized events and co op galleries, small “for profit” gallery venues to larger, not for profit juried exhibitions that have corralled upscale venues like art museums and public buildings. The “recognized,” successful artists are never seen in conjunction with this shadow contingent, never shown on the same stage. Their light shines too bright.

            I suspect that all may be changing in the direction of the Japanese model. I was considering a recent “call for entries,” you know, the application that is the first step for the unrecognized to get their work “out there”. The “call” application specifies the entry fee for consideration, the commission terms of the gallery/event, as well as the criteria by which work to be included will be selected. This “call” was put out by a “not for profit” community arts organization. They have just completed building a new arts center in their upscale suburb. Now they would like to line up showings and events for this building’s main gallery and adjacent spaces. There was a new criteria for selection included that I had never seen before, at least not with a not for profit sanctioned show like this. The application wanted to know whether the prospective artist will supply marketing resources, and if so, how much and what kind.

            This just in: The celebrated art school in an adjacent city (with a century of experience) has just announced they will be offering an MFA program in the upcoming year. Part of the required curriculum is, you guessed it, courses in marketing. “Good business is the best art.”

            Warhol’s imperial grip on 21st century American visual culture can best be summarized in his oft repeated quote: “Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.” Aligned with the market centered, market driven political economy of the last 10 years, it is no wonder that BFA programs now shepherd aspiring artists in the intricacies of business management and entrepreneurship, and MFA programs are now poised to hone their marketing skills. Is it too early to speculate on Warhol’s place in art history? Could it just be possible, even probable, that Warhol will follow the same course as Social Realism did in the states of the former Soviet Union? After all, those works and that style maintained a hegemony on visual art for some 50 years primarily because of their intimate affiliation with the political economy of that time. Portraying the best art as good business promotes the same sort of social engineering agenda that portraying larger than life stereotypes as citizen worker heroes does. There is a distribution of sense in both that restricts the capacity of imagination and restrains its expression. What could post Warhol visual art be like? Dare we even imagine it?

Cultural Slippage

December 17, 2009

           OK, I admit it. I click on those little side features of MSN, Yahoo news, etc. A recent one was about Liu Bolin and his “invisible man” paintings. ABC‘s actual description of this was that the “painter hides in his own work.” That this is the work of Liu Bolin is of no concern (it is his work). That this is a painting is another matter. That he is a painter is even more questionable. That these are photographs of an environment where Liu has had himself painted, camouflaged, is unquestionable. In a reverse form of one point perspective, Liu is so masterfully painted that the marks covering his body continue the visual appearance of what his physical presence would normally conceal. Hence, only the subtlest shadowing reveals his form within the environment photographed. But there’s the rub. It is only from this singular camera lens perspective that the camouflage is so successful. From any other angle, the visual disjunction becomes more and more apparent. So describing it as a painting does an injustice to those who paint. But then again, Mr. Bolin does not paint (“Liu is so masterfully painted”). Indeed, he is the support for the painting, the human canvas, which is to say, someone else has to paint him, someone else must make the decisions necessary to pull off this trompe l’oeil. Saying that it is through Liu Bolin’s agency that the “painting” (photograph) succeeds is to elide the existence of the actual painter (and likewise not give that person credit as the artist, the painter of this illusion).

           The issue here has nothing to do with artists or painting. Rather it has to do with the abbreviated memory of Rene’ Magritte’s The Treachery Of Images. Increasingly we are describing photographs OF paintings or sculpture AS paintings or sculpture. Not just describing them as such, but treating them as such. Like the actual painter of Bolin’s work (the assistant who acted as Liu’s agent in accomplishing his “vision”), the actual paintings and sculpture photographed become elided if this slippage persists.

           Edgar Mueller and Julian Beever are sidewalk chalk artists in Europe. Among other things they create “holes” in the sidewalk; the illusion that another world opens up on the surface of the pavement, one that could be “stepped into”.  Again, the street art illusion only works from one angle, masterfully at that. The photographs of these works likewise are very compelling. Again, they need to be taken from a specific angle (though not as rigidly specific as Liu’s). However, in their use, there is never any misperception or misrepresentation of who is the artist and what was the art. The photo’s are never more than a documentation of the work (with photo’s of various viewers’ participation with, or reactions to, the chalk paintings as part of the exposition). Though virtual reality may have been only a glimmer in the eye of the roaring 20’s, Magritte’s The Treachery Of Images is worth reconsidering in the light of virtual reality’s ubiquitous hegemony.

Conclusion: Product As Medium

December 13, 2009

            My point is that the object (the product) creates the other, the separation that IS subjectivity. This object created other, this separation results in an indeterminate outcome (subjectivity). Performance (process oriented activity) relies on unmediated, direct confrontation which displaces subjectivity. By definition this rejects separation, the indeterminacy of an other (unless you want to consider all the participants of a performance as others). The derivative of confrontation is polarity. It precipitates hierarchy, the hierarchy of “this” other or “these” others (a predetermined, predefined, designated other) in relation to the performance and performers. This gives rise to, “creates” the chorus. One can either go with the flow of the performance (take one’s place within the predefined determination) or stand outside it. Because of the polarity factor, to stand outside (even if totally indifferent) creates the perception of resistance. There is no in between. As Lacan pointed out, alone, the individual discovers that there is no subject, it does not exist. It is only with a separation, with an other, that subjectivity comes into existence; the signifier becoming a SUBJECT for an OTHER signifier. Performance is an imaginary of no separation.

Addendum, Product As Medium

December 11, 2009

           This is part of a posting for the position of assistant professor- sculpture/expanded-practice:

Job Description:
The School of Art invites applications for a tenure-track appointment in Sculpture/Expanded-Practice at the level of Assistant Professor, beginning September 1. We seek an interdisciplinary artist with expertise in newly expanded interpretations of physical and virtual space, including but not limited to, Robotics, Cyber technologies, Multidisciplinary projects, Social Intervention, and Live Art. Salary is competitive and commensurate with experience and qualifications.

            Part of the accomplishment of the modernist painters at the first half of the 20th century was that these artists managed to get people to continue to view/take an interest in 2D painting while technological 2D work was prevalent and popular (movies, photography, printed graphic reproductions, television, etc.). From Picasso to Pollock and Rothko, what appeared on the canvas continued to be a signifier of art. This continues to the present with painters like Richter or Tuymans. The sculptors working during this period did not manage such an accomplishment (“The problem with sculpture is that it always has been an inconvenient object. I would say that in the twentieth century, they didn’t even know where to put sculpture. It has been so uncomfortable that it needs a special place, but it is not intriguing enough to make its own room. So I think that probably it is because sculpture was long gone that we don’t even need to say that it is now finished.” A Conversation With Gabriel Orozco October 130).

           The product of a sculptural process, the “object,” eventually gave way as secondary to the current signifier, the process. The various “newly expanded interpretations of physical and virtual space” described above are mostly processes, exemplified and determined through performance. The question swirls around space, subjectivity, and process/product. Is a process a “space” or does it act (function) to open up a space (in which case space would not be process since process would be a condition of space)? Is there subjectivity without space? Can subjectivity be defined as process? It is easy enough to scramble space, process, and subjectivity all together like a giant tossed salad but within the description of any actual process (the direct, unmediated, confrontation) subjectivity gives way to the limitations of material description- physics and chemistry. Subjectivity is never found there (in the purely empirical description). Nowhere in the realm of physics and chemistry is subjectivity to be found or described. The slippage towards the overriding significance of process, with the attendant diminishment of the relevance of product, reintroduces a bizarre form of historical materialism, where subjectivity is defined solely by what process has wrought of material, historically. The irony is that subjectivity is still linked to the material product that has been wrought, not with the process (which is ubiquitous and generic).

Product as Medium

December 7, 2009

            Echart Tolle’s Now theology, with its tenet of thinking as the source of grief, has a questionable area. To communicate what Tolle has experienced relies on the use of thought. It enters into the aspect of language dealt with by Lacan; that any signifier is the subject for another signifier. Whereas the entirety includes both the subject and the signifier of the subject (the 2 which is not a result of 1+1), so the Now includes the thought as well as what is thought of. I write all this in relation to what I see as the evolution of an art culture centered on process, where the product has dropped out, is of no signifi(er)cance. In Aura I write: “How it literally was defined as a medium, but more in the Non McLuhan sense, whereby it is what permits something to take place or be transferred (makes possible)…” With an art that is process oriented (performance priority), the product, as medium (in the old sense of the word) disappears. There is no thing that permits something to take place or be transferred, no thing that makes it possible. There is simply the occurrence of the process, the performance. All of this is tied up with medium in the McLuhan sense; the occurrence itself (as it takes place) becomes part of that new medium (such as a you tube video or cell phone image transmission), or the record of the occurrence, as historical, is documented on this technological medium. The product or object that results from any process is just considered a trace, a vestige, a ruin, an artifact of an occurrence. In this manner architecture, photography, and sculpture can create records of spectacles- artifacts and traces, ruins of something that took place (a process) but they cannot function as medium (in the old sense)- permitting or facilitating something to take place or be transferred, making it possible. What Benjamin didn’t stress (in his considerations of the aura) was that the object (that which is produced in a concrete, material sense) itself functions as the medium in the old sense of the word. He felt that the object, as the outcome of a process (and because of this process), carried a certain aura, transferred meaning. Hence the technical reproduction did not have the aura of the artistic one-off production. It transferred meaning but in a diminished capacity, not in the sense that the original did. Warhol played on this misplacement to point out that the object, whether technologically reproduced or individually crafted, transferred meaning equivocally. What I am saying is this: the object itself is the medium in the old sense of the word (creates the possibility for something to take place or be transferred). So when the object becomes insignificant, when the priority is with the process, then mediation disappears, takes on an entirely different definition. What takes place is unmediated, direct, confrontational. Art, defined historically (we’re talking about from the caves of Lascaux on), is not unmediated. It has always been once removed, not direct, but apart. By being defined so, it provided a space for subjectivity, literally acted as a medium for subjectivity by permitting something (subjectivity) to take place, making it possible. When one considers the cave paintings at Lascaux, one can’t help but entertain the experience of interaction with the represented creatures. This entertainment generates a space that allows for subjectivity, something not possible within the context of actual, “real time” interaction- the unmediated, direct confrontation with the creatures represented (within which there is no space for subjectivity). Within an unmediated, direct, confrontational occurrence, subjectivity is not possible for there is no thing that can be once removed, apart (no subject AND signifier of the subject). With the emphasis on process, does the space for subjectivity, previously opened up by the medium of the object (the product), disappear, become redefined (if so, how?), or is it simply displaced?

From The Archives: Making The Signifier

December 3, 2009

            I met the art professor in the bank over summer break. Small talk is not my forte so I let him speak about what he is up to (he appeared very excited though it also could have been described as nervous). He is off to Jordan. It is a conference of Iraqi bookmakers that he has been in contact with. He is learning Arabic. The plane ticket will be on his own dime! He wore these things as a badge of honor, a distinction of his commitment to the process. At the same time there was a hint of unease in the conversation (dis- ease). This was a high cost to impress, and both of us knew that the trip, et al would mostly look great on a resume. Though I didn’t let it show, the word fashionista immediately sprang to mind; this week it is Iraq and Arabic, next week it may be Iran and Farsi, perhaps the following week it may be Columbia and Spanish or North Korea and Korean. Then I thought of it more as this is what he is doing to make art. This IS his art. What a curious thought.

            In a Critical Inquiry essay (The Idle Idol, or Why Abstract Art Ended Up Looking Like A Chinese Room) Robert Morris stumbles along, page after page considering theoretical explanations for the state of abstract art today (Morris has taken to making outdoor labyrinths). The last two pages are memorable. Here he dispenses with theory (though he knows that what he writes is still theory). He describes what he considers to be the current art scene in the NYC area where he resides (the real reason for the state of abstract art today). My own interpretation of his description would be that the scene is a group ethos without the “idol” of authorship. The individuals contribute to what is taking place within the group, with the entire group participating as well as experiencing (celebrating) the outcome ( the outcome being the participation or rather, the act of participating). Morris describes it as singing. Artists sometimes are curators or show organizers, and curators are considered as artists. There is a fluidity, a constant exchange and interaction with an emphasis on the connectivity of networking. It is curiously analogous to the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy (if you can stretch your imagination enough). It “sings” its art, its message, its ideas, etc. But there is no claim to individual ownership or origin. It is in a communal sense (much as the chorus embodies the community within Greek tragedy) with a heavy emphasis on networking and belonging (which can only be done by actively singing; singing along with everyone else, not counter, questioning or critiquing, but going with the flow). To sing with the chorus is to go with the flow, one way only. The chorus is univocal though it may be polyglot. 

            Recently I returned to the mundane process of casting with all the mold making, etc. that it entails. Making the original to be reproduced was an adventure in itself, with its anguish of materializing something that doesn’t exist to the intense concentration (almost meditative) on the refinement of surface and detail for the final outcome. Then came the mold making and casting, etc. Here the term process really made itself apparent- its association with learning, experimentation, research, discipline, commitment, etc. It became very clear why the emphasis on process is such an integral part of American studio art pedagogy.

            I think Morris makes some accurate insights. The emphasis on process within studio art pedagogy over multiple generations has created a slippage into a disappearance of product. There is no longer any need for the idol. The art professor was quite correct in trusting his intuition with regard to continuing his art practice down this corridor of the labyrinth. He was likewise quite justified in his dis-ease. Saying the process is the art (and what is produced is totally superfluous) dispenses with any distinction between art and non art (he does, after all, earn his living as a “professor” of art). A process, any process, is generic and ubiquitous. Historically, it has been the outcome of a process (the effect) which has helped determine its character, its significance. This outcome is now considered of no import. Taking part in the process (singing as part of the chorus) is what makes the signifier. As Morris points out, the signifier is not if it is not continuously made. What a curious thought.