From The Archives: Making The Signifier

            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.

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