The Trope Of Meaning

            In the essay Now Man’s Bound to Fail, More (October 135), Robert Slifkin quotes Bruce Nauman from decades ago saying that they may need that some day (“and I thought they shouldn’t be so hard on him, because they’re going to need him.” “They should really hang on to Henry Moore, because he really did some good work and they might need him again sometime.” “And I also had the idea that they would need Henry sooner or later,” Pg. 61). Moore’s dominance was being assailed by the contemporary sculptors of that time. Slifkin’s claim is that Nauman’s defense revolved around the nature of figuration. In a sense, Nauman didn’t wish to toss the baby out with the bath (figuratively speaking).

            Jacques Ranciere expends considerable energy in describing/defining the nature of art over the last 200 years. This analysis even produces a unique spelling- Art (in the singular with a capital). The determinants of what becomes Art are various and facile. They are likewise political (within the Rancierean definition of the political as dissensus).  Anything can be everything and vice versa. Juxtaposition and association is not bound by any genealogy.  Whether a porcelain urinal taken out of context or a porcelain figurine of Michael Jackson with his chimp, subject matter is both fluid and not definitive. Something else is going on, something separate from the everyday but very much only found in the everyday.

            Now folks, we all know this has been going on for quite some time. By Ranciere’s account, at least for the last 200 years if not more. In a mature, practiced sense it has been going on for at least 100 (you know, once you learn the basics of a musical instrument or machine, the interaction changes and becomes more “mature”). Recently I came across a poster for an artist who works in wood. The pieces were polychrome cut outs and scraps reassembled to make them appear as though they had some specific purpose or organization. They embodied recognizable shapes, like a funnel or sphere or stringed instrument, but they were not. That is to say, what was present was shapes and colors which had to be embodied in some medium (in this case wood) but were necessarily about nothing.  The forms themselves suggested (evoked) some specific utilitarian or aesthetic history but, like the enormous flotsam left after the recent tsunami, there wasn’t any connection or necessity between the associations and juxtapositions other than that they appear to have all originated from the same source.

            It is the “necessarily about nothing” that becomes critical, and curious (and brings Seinfeld to mind). In similar situations, the artist or her advocate will stress the colors, shapes and arrangements as being something, hence not about nothing. The nature of the something or nothing is of no consequence to this investigation. That this evolution of Art has reprised the conditions of the Abstract, played out so passionately in the middle of the 20th century, is. The social, “networking” justification for the value (and validity) of the works hinges on the craftsmanship, the years of schooling, and the academic recognition. When pressed further, the artist will usually utter something like “the actual or metaphorical meaning is left to the viewer’s imagination”; in short, anything to elide the figurative in terms of conception and execution, and leave the meaning to someone else’s making or doing. This lack of commitment recalls Slifkin (Pg 50 “In his work from the 1960’s Nauman repeatedly employed figuration as a way to test the waters, to see if such apparently outdated and problematically humanist concepts as “commitment,” “expression,” and “metaphor” still had a place in a world where referential certitude, subjective sentiment, and immediate and universal communication were deemed increasingly problematic if not impossible.”).  The aesthetic justification, which can only be found with the “experience” of the work (sans artist’s statement, intent or history), turns on the conditions of abstraction laid down a half century earlier. Retro or renewal?

            It may be a generational observation, or indeed a cultural characteristic, but for many of the artists/art of the “never experienced anything but digital” crowd, meaning itself has a curious connotation. To speak of the meaning of a work may find one mouthing terms of communal and personal relativity. Many times this conversation takes on an almost quasi religious temperament. “It is of the moment. If the attentiveness to the moment produces an art(sy) experience, then the individual(s) is(are) functioning as artist(s), producing art” (so very Kaprow, and so un-Weiwei). Within this “maturity” of Art, of the Art practice, meaning itself has slipped into becoming just another element of the abstract composition. To paraphrase what was stated above, the meaning itself suggests (evokes) some specific definition or history but, like the enormous flotsam left after the recent tsunami, there isn’t any connection or necessity between the associations and juxtapositions other than that they appear to have all originated from the same source. In a sense, meaning has become a trope; not a trope of something, but the trope of meaning. “Whatever.” Well, there is some meaning to be found there but what it is, is not worth the time and effort to elucidate or commit to. That is for the viewer to imagine. Besides, it differs for everyone as well as differs temporally and with any given situation. Etc. Taking into account the descriptions of Art by Ranciere (and others), it is not difficult to imagine the trope of meaning taking its place alongside the colors and shapes of contemporary work, analogous to that of the poster artist described above (Yeah, I put some meaning in there. There’s also some blue and a pyramid). Given such a quasi religious disposition for recognizing meaning only as a trope, dissent may necessarily involve something like saying “they may need that some day.”

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