""Picasso is an old man who can still get himself young wives. Picasso is a genius. Picasso is mad. Picasso is the greatest living artist. Picasso is a multimillionaire. Picasso is a communist. Picasso's work is nonsense: a child could do better. Picasso is tricking us. If Picasso can get away with it all, good luck to him!" – John Berger
Bernini's The Rape of Proserpina
BERNINI'S The Rape of Proserpina is a large marble sculptural group made during the Baroque era that up to today would be universally accepted as a true work of art. I know of no one on Earth who would question the validity of that regard; to say that that piece is not art would likely be perceived as the height of human “ignorance of art.” Sure, in the 18th and 19th century, when Bernini’s reputation was on the decline, there were those who found fault with the piece, but these critics mostly only disparaged the sculptor’s depiction of the myth referenced by the piece, not the sculptor’s craft in it. Well, except perhaps with its adjudged one-angle view, which view-singularity was supposedly a poor achievement compared to the more rounded series of angle-views provided by the Mannerist piece by Giambologna titled The Rape of the Sabine Women.
"It is in this sense that I would dare acquiesce to the thought that perhaps Modernism 'never ever happened'."
Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Women. (Photo by Thermos)
Well, anyway, fast-forward to today, and many of us (in the US and Europe as well as here) are being stunned by large pieces of contemporary sculpture like Jeff Koons’ Play-Doh (120 x 108 x 108 inches), pieces that seem to—oh most certainly—confront and confound our existing definitions of art. Face to face with one such piece in a gallery (or a picture of the same among friends), we’re certain to be affronted by the question, “Is this art?” Well, how many of us would nod in agreement, how many would deny it their approval? Not that the question of an artwork’s art-ness is a rare accompaniment in the singing of Modernist appreciation. It has, after all, since the late 19th century been a common interrogative that followed Modernism itself and many of its products, a question that continued on into the era of modernism's kid, Postmodernism (and its own products).
Jeff Koons' Play-Doh. (Photo from whitney.org)
Remember Duchamp’s Fountain during the early 20th-century modernist explosion? Today, a question like this, asking us to iterate once more the lost definition of “art,” could be promptly countered by a mocking “haha, funny that you ask; it’s as if modernism never happened,” or some like answer that would never bother to explain. The reaction would is understandable, for boring the question is to the brain knowledgeable about the chronology of art-world affairs in that long era following the Great Divergence.
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. (Photo by Alfred Stieglitz)
But there’s a charm to this interrogative’s constancy, this constancy of popping up every now and then with it; it’s an interesting constancy that has kept itself around with the modernists, up to today, and perhaps fueled in turn modernism’s continuing reason to exist.
In fact, that charm has once more been in vogue for a time now, been lit up once more in light of the emergence of new shock-art stalwarts, stalwarts that go by the names Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and so on. The name Shock Art alone already presents a glaring question. Who are being shocked this time? Are there still people being shocked? “Haha,” giggles Filipino painter Marcel Antonio, muttering once more, “as if modernism never happened!”
David Galenson, a creativity theorist, postulated his theory about the shocked and the shocker in a 2006 paper like the one titled “You Cannot Be Serious: The Conceptual Innovator as Trickster,” among other papers. In these papers, he pushed the theory that modernist “conceptual artists” were actually born with it, this bent to bend the rules of convention or the confines of a definition. It was as if Galenson was implying the conceptualist’s ready or natural uniqueness in contrast to the majority of traditionalists born to be Traditionalists. It was as if Galenson was pushing the thesis that says, “There have always been such people in all the known periods of history, while the majority of any group has always been traditionalist.” He wouldn’t use the word “innovators” if he believed everyone was born one, would he?
Also, to Galenson (in his defense of new conceptualists like Joseph Beuys), if “conceptual artists” are tricksters—as accusers are wont to quickly tag thusly such deviants from “tradition” as Beuys—, it would not be due to their hoax (which may or may not be), it would be by their having found in irony and detachment or amusement (as in the case of Duchamp) a weapon to counter the attacks of traditionalism. In the case of Duchamp, irony, detachment and amusement shielded him from the attacks of dogma and axioms, the use of which Galenson regards as the conceptualist’s progress from Manet’s mere anger or Matisse’s somber helplessness. It was as if, for fear of being laughed at, Duchamp seized irony as a tool that would become his pre-emptive strike weapon to hurl against the traditionalist. The court-jester’s cluster bomb of spoofs and mockery upon traditional seriousness, therefore, hurled one strike at a time, enabled Duchamp to produce the artwork serious with its question/s at the same time that it preemptively poked fun at the axiom-wielder’s own seriousness. It was as if he was wordlessly saying, “If they’re going to attack your proclivity soon, might as well make an art out of our attacks on their ways, too. This way, you can continue with your projects while also aversely keeping them at a distance.”
But we all know that artists malign each other’s efforts all the time. Filipino artists are no exception, and negative attitudes toward contemporaries domestic and foreign could loudly be heard every day everywhere. The attack on Koons as one mere lucky product of self-merchandising in today’s art culture, therefore, would be as popular here as it has been in the West all these years.
And so here we are once more. Again, it’s as if modernism never happened, and so, in the Ross Capili-instigated ArtPhilippines Facebook community that's functioned as the virtual cafe for Filipino artists to debate on the industry issues of the day, we hear Las Vegas-based Filipino artist and curator Jevijoe Vitug rising up presently to defend the new phenomenon. He does this with an iteration of the Duchampian principle or question upon art as an institutional enterprise: “if it is in an art museum, blue chip gallery or auction house declared consensually by critics, collectors, curators and artists—it is art. I think (Koons’ Play-Doh) has ‘passed the exam with distinction’. If (on the other hand) a sculpture is just sitting there in the garage or in a private living room appreciated by two to 10 people—(well, it’s) still a sculpture … such a tough, cruel art world.”
Will someone get Vitug’s tongue-in-cheek insult beamed at the obscure garage sculptor with his loyalist army of ten fans, a soft insult delivered through that “such a tough, cruel art world” sneer? Not likely, I’d wager, because the serious axiom-wielder of Tradition is too serious about his own position, too much in fact that any mockery of this seriousness would not so much work as an offensive weapon as it would as a mere defensive weapon, made more for the conceptualist’s comfort than for the traditionalist attacker’s death.
It is in this sense that I would dare acquiesce to the thought that perhaps Modernism “never ever happened.”
THE MEANING OF SHOCKING
BUT let us explore shock art further. In a book titled The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust authored by one Robert Rawdon Wilson, the writer opines: “How does Hamlet shock his audiences? The secret of Hamlet, as well as of Hamlet, is surprise. Shock shocks most when it is unexpected. . . . In Hamlet, everything happens for the first time or as if it had never happened before in the whole history of drama. This is a dramatic secret that Shakespeare understands well: if you want to shock an audience, you must make sure that they are unprepared.
". . . where or when does hypocrisy enter the picture?"
“Modern shock art,” the book continues, “has been a way of disturbing smug, complacent and hypocritical audiences either by showing them what they find offensive (but the performers do not) or by representing their own bourgeois assumptions to them in a display of physical alternatives, scenes strikingly conceived to embody the very opposite of received values or the dominating ideology of the socio-cultural elite. . . .”
The smug and the complacent towards anything new, I can understand. But where or when does hypocrisy enter the picture? Unless the smugness or complacency is towards a culture that accepts (perhaps even expects) mild rebellion but is taken aback by the sort of rebellion a mile removed from the usual sort. If that is the case, it is no wonder, then, that many of the so-called traditionalists in our present are actually practitioners of art styles that were once rebellious. That would indeed paint a picture of hypocrisy. Is rebellion welcome in our democracy as long as it is not anymore shocking, that is to say, as long as the practiced rebellion is already expected, expected because long accepted? Then it would be a matter of course that the practice of an erstwhile rebellious cubism or impressionism as accepted rebellions would become Traditional, while divergences from the accepted would be regarded as intolerable rebellion and therefore worthy only of being welcome mats!
“Shock value,” in this usage, thus becomes a conservative denigration. The Duchampian preemptive sneer meant to strike the culture at its heart meets its match in traditionalism’s quick dismissive labeling. Today, instead of feeling insulted by the Duchampian preemptive sneer at one artistic or academic traditionalist dogma or another, the conservative shields himself with sermons about attention to detail, craftsmanship over these details, mastery of the medium, the artwork’s ability to state its own message, and so on. Never mind that the “shocker” has spent so much time (years) studying the behavior of, say, polychrome aluminum to achieve what he wants. The conservative is not interested; he has counter-shielded himself from the attacks of the liberal by being simply amused in his turn, securely caged by his armor of counter-mockery. Because he is not interested, purposely deaf to any critique upon old/new tradition, the conservative misses the satire, the parody, or the poetry. He does not see the message in the “shocking” artwork. Alas, the liberal’s questioning of artistic dogma, having been labeled “merely shocking,” is reduced to crap. Duchamp’s questioning dies. Pop art’s urban or industrial poetry dies. The dogmas of a new conservatism, made of styles once regarded as rebellious, survive the punches.
Only this December 7 on the BBC News Magazine, conservative aesthete Roger Scruton decried modern art’s “desire to shock” as having finally been exhausted.
But . . . is it possible that the mockery of shock value by conservative critics like Scruton would produce a backlash and question traditionalism’s own dogmatic posturing? What will that questioning produce? Shock art’s sardonic creativity, again? Where will this war between two unyielding parties finally end?
Will the battle between the two art views kill art itself? I doubt it. Will it simply remain as the eternal stalemate in an art planet where modernism seems to never have happened even as “traditionalism” itself struggles to survive? This is definitely way more realistic. . . .
THE FUTILITY OF PEACE-SEEKING
THE earthling predisposed to peace will look for ways and means to put the two sides to an agreement, however. And one of those ways is to explore a redefinition of art that both sides can agree on. But does the word “art” really need a redefinition?
As of today, the first sentence written by the collective authors and editors of the Wikipedia wiki on “Art” seeking to define the word’s scope interestingly delimits it this way: "(it’s) a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities. In their most general form these activities include the production of works of art, the criticism of art, the study of the history of art, and the aesthetic dissemination of art."
"Or should we ask, What is the communal or majoritarian definition of art?"
If we all agree on the direction of this definition, then perhaps my dentist was wrong when he averred that art is nothing more than the display of technique. But the wiki definition above also does not require all the elements above to be present in any art to qualify itself as art. The above definition (or attempt at definition) simply says "include," which is different from saying "must include." In short, if the artness of art is in its production technique (its process), along with the difficulty of its implementation (e.g. Beatriz Milhazes’ peeling the paint she painted on a glass palette to paste onto a canvas that would then draw amazing patterns), then that art’s artness becomes valid, as qualified by someone's definition. Others will have their own definitions, culled from one or two or three of the elements in the above mother definition.
To another artist, if there’s no criticism or critique involved, that object at issue has not passed the qualifying exams if indeed art is a communal activity that demands communal validation. In short, no matter how technically amazing a bedsheet design by someone may be, if no communal criticism or critique has yet surrounded it, the bedsheet cannot be included (at least for now) in the roster of commodities signed by the communal appreciation of its artness if art is indeed a communal activity or religion led by the community's scholiasts. In short, if art is in the eye of the beholder, it cannot therefore be art while still a hidden product to behold; in short, no art is art intrinsic to itself, for art happens extrinsic to the commodity, or in the distance between the commodity and its beholders, in the beholders’ valuation upon it. In short, valuation being extrinsic to the object qua valuation (pretty obvious), the artness of artworks must rely on the community’s evaluators of value.
But having allowed two major and even conflicting definitions of art, should we now say that the artness of a thing is finally up to the definer of the word, that anything can actually be art for as long as the object in question fits into the person’s libertarian definition of what’s “art”? Are all definitions of the word correct? And if all of the definitions of this word are correct and the definitions also conflict with each other, then would all these definitions contradicting each other also all be wrong, for being wrong to each other?
Or should we ask, What is the communal or majoritarian definition of art? Is the majoritarian definition the right definition simply by its majoritarianism, i.e., by its having been approved by the majority? Or should the definition of art be democratized? Hmmm. . . . Yeah, I guess that would be okay. And I guess I wouldn’t actually care.
Yeah, I wouldn’t care. For, after all, we’re all pretty-busy beings with a lot of other things to do, and some of us would still have to cook lunch and might still have to define "food" to those supposed to eat our crème brûlée. For, otherwise, in the absence of a definition, the guests may be so inclined as to call our day’s product “not food.” . . .
A DIVIDED-WE-STAND SOLUTION
BUT the art of the artist as techne is perhaps understandable. The techne is already deep and spiritual by itself. Yet, must we be satisfied like the Japanese with the spirituality invoked by our local pottery artist and culture? Should we kowtow to virtuosity and ancestors-leaning tradition as ends in themselves? Should we regard skill and the process of manifesting this skill as the end-all and be-all of artness?
Should we send all installation artists who’ve followed the facility approved by Duchamp’s Fountain out of our city’s galleries’ doors, get them to descend the staircase naked posthaste?
"Art has become so much like God or Love."
Rachel Whitehead's installation art titled Embankment. (Photo by Fin Fahey)
Or have we become too attached to the "art" word?
I remember, for instance, what Juzo Itami said in one interview. This was during the time film critics looked back on his contributions to cinema, particularly Tampopo (1985), the aesthetics of which seemed similar to but preceded Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 oeuvre Pulp Fiction. The humbled Itami, shocked perhaps by his sudden fame in the West and among professors of cinema, said something like, “my satiric films are not really art, they’re really just entertainment.” Something to that effect.
Filipino photographer, sculptor and blogger Anna Varona says: “A friend of mine … does craft and also does sculpture. He adamantly refuses to be called an artist. He can't take the responsibility.”
This is an understandable reaction. After all, Art has become so much like God or Love. The Protestant Son God has become the true Son God of Protestantism, superior to the false Christ of the Roman Catholics. The Moslem’s Allah is true and right, the Jews’ Yahweh imagined and wrong.
Should we therefore, like religion, now just divide ourselves and Art into its genres, promoting all these genres as activities unique in themselves, independent of a mother concept called Art that had been cradling them for centuries under Constantine? Would genres be better off without mother Art, each left to itself as that once-genre promoted from being mere genre? If Art has become such a dogmatic God, would we be better off divided in schisms, asking afterwards questions way better than the question “is this Art?” Perhaps, when that happens, the only comparative questions left will be questions of mere preference—"do you prefer the art of Minimalism to the art of Hyperrealism?” “Are you more into the Neo-Pop art of Koons or into the undying art of Cubism?” “Are you into the realist art of Courbet or into an undying Suprematism?" In music we rarely hear the question “Is that music?” Often we hear questions of preference, such as "do you find cool jazz to be more soothing than shoegazing rock music? What do you use in your restaurant?" In literature, we say “do you like poetry, or are you more into novels?”
With these above questions regarding preferences, there is always the assumption that all these arts mentioned by the questions are accepted arts-in-themselves, accepted in the way all the music genres are accepted as music-traditions-in-themselves, to be read therefore in their own terms.
True enough, it would be ludicrous to live in a society where all the art questions have been allowed to descend to the uncivil, thanks to the presence of mother concepts: "What? Punk rock? But punk rock is not rock. James Taylor is rock, but Ramones is not rock, they’re just about faster rhythms and mumbles." "Jazz? Those are just chords and inverted chords music, crap compared to even Schoenberg’s atonal notes, more so placed alongside Beethoven’s difficult notes and rhythms."
Sure, every now and then I can relate to some unhappiness from an experience with a newfound genre. After all, I once puked over the doom metal music of the Christian rock band Trouble. Time had to progress further before I could understand any of it. It would take years before I acquiesced to eating everything I said about doom metal, though it was really as easy as eating a spoon’s worth of crème brûlée, thanks, perhaps, to the absence of a proclivity in me to ask the ignorant mother question, “Is that music?”
True, too, there was that time in the ‘80s when Manila rock music fans would get into street rumbles with Manila hip-hop fans, obviously as intermittent warring between differing tastes with their attendant poses. But I’d still call that pre-Rage Against the Machine era of rumbles as an era of relatively mild stupidities compared to any era or time in any neighborhood that might sport the majorly intolerant, purist and ignorant question, “Is that music?”
Taking this cue further, after recognizing Neo-Pop art’s being an art unto itself, what then would be an immersion in the Neo-Pop products such as Koons’ entail? Jevijoe Vitug again offers to guide us: “Yung Play-Doh ni Jeff Koons is not made of a giant clay but made of polychromed aluminum. To create that kind of work with massive scale, it takes a high level of technical expertise. The play-doh (sculpture) was a replica of his son's work and it's about not making judgements and (about) acceptance.”
Las Vegas-based artist Matthew Couper chimes in: “The Koons work is also an act of masterful engineering. It apparently breaks down into 30-odd pieces without seams showing.”
These are heartwarming support, the kind that I could use to explain to Tom Wolfe why a conceptualist sculptor defeated his favored craftsman in the bidding for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design and construction.
But, you see, there’s the rub. Koons’ Play-Doh is an artwork still critically half-ensconced in the concept Art, still seeking some acceptance and applause within a mother concept with a lost definition, even while it can stand on its own terms as part of an independent Pop Art tradition, as independent as Poetry has long been independent of the rules of Prose. Maybe it’s time for the conceptualists to stop being conceptualists within Art, this being the post-modern era that has allowed us to build churches of our own, where instant schisms can be bought like coffee from a vending machine. Is Punk Rock rock? Is it music? Who among punk rockers care the fuck whether it is or not? Their detachment is better than Duchamp’s. It is complete. It is a detachment that solicits neither respect nor regard, simply distance and freedom, and spits a gob at its detractors.
album cover of Ramones' Ramones album
Contrast that punk freedom with this attitude (mine, earlier) that pleads:
“We must criticize the Neo-Pop art of Koons from within the standards and literature of Pop art history and its validations of the good and the bad Pop art work. To criticize a Neo-Pop display from the perspective of, say, Post-Impressionism is akin to playing the jazz man's ignorance in criticizing grunge rock for its lack of space for improvisation, thus to brag about one's ignorance of grunge rock. Have you heard of an American country and western singer scoffing at rhythm and blues' abundance of grace notes?”
There is nothing wrong with the peace-seeking tone in that plea within Art. What’s wrong with it is in the assumption that it will be heard within Art. What’s wrong with it is in its assuming that Modernism has already happened when the truth of the matter is that Modernism has yet to complete itself, if it even will, if it ever can. Punk rock’s independence from “rock” or “music” definitions is peace-skeptical. Its complete awareness of itself simply ended its peace-seeking with traditional pop genres and their critics, doing all this without declaring war, or otherwise by bringing war to others without the respect of any declaration. The punk rock band Blondie once declared that the band is not really in the business of making music, it’s just in the business of making money. Conservatives will scoff, “there you go,” and miss the stupid point.
Traditionalism or conservatism will always dismiss the plethora of Pop art products as negative elements of this world, a feeling derived perhaps from taking offense in their ironies. Ironically, the convincing way to denigrate the whole gamut of Pop art predilections is to simply criticize it from a true knowledge of what it is about, not from a lack of knowledge of what it is about. That’s where one can actually topple the logic or reasoning of some Pop art products. But then again, a true knowledge of anything will stop one’s conservatism, and it is never conservatism’s desire to defeat itself with any further knowledge of its criticism’s targets.
Often we tell someone with a different political perspective, "I respect your opinion." The assumption is that our respect derived from our having heard the opinion, not from not having heard it (or known it). Pop art liberalism has yet to learn that conservatism respects no opinion other than its own and can only pretend to listen and respect when in fact it cannot. . . .
THE AGGRESSION TOWARDS DEFINITION
BUT wait. If all the genres of art are to agree to become independent of Art, each going their own way as jazz and heavy metal music went their own ways, what guarantees do we have that some of these genres are not going to go back to the mother ship and invade it as their collective territory? What guarantee do we have that, say, traditionalism won’t conquer the Art territory and expel all else from its “defining rule”?
I say that would be welcome news, for that would be the day when Modernism would finally happen again.
But Modernism has already happened. The problem, really, is that the so-called traditionalism of several factions in Art and Art Criticism actually involves sons and daughters of Modernism itself who’ve now established themselves as the new tradition. In their minds, at least.
Impressionism, for instance, was part of Modernism, one of the early revolutions/rebellions against academic painting. Some would even point to J.M.W. Turner as the first Modernist, and the members of the Nazarene movement as well as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as the first groups of Modernists, at least for their being retro and rebellious at the same time. Just to clear the matter about what's Modernist and what's "traditional."
"Would this be akin to social liberals' winning the majority in a Parliament to be enabled to establish a new conservatism?"
Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
This is the point, isn't it? What so many of us have been referring to as "conservative" and “traditional” painting has actually been part of Modernism. Impressionist painting is conservative? C'mon. Tell that to Louis Leroy.
In the conservative’s celebration of the old/traditional and disgust towards the new/progressive, what is forgotten is that all old/traditional things were once new/progressive. The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough would be deemed an old/traditional sort of painting today. But back in 1770, The Blue Boy was a product of someone’s rebellion from the know-it-all dictates of his rival Joshua Reynolds, who said the color blue as well as grey must remain minor colors in portraits and that warm colors must be the stars of the portraitist’s composition. . . . All old/traditional things were once new/progressive.
Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy
But if Impressionism has made this transition through one century or more, from being once a revolution to become today’s new conservative Tradition, is this what we mean by a faction of Modernists conscripting the mother-ship to become the new tradition and ruler of definitions? Would this be akin to social liberals’ winning the majority in a Parliament to be enabled to establish a new conservatism? Would this be akin to a faction of anti-royalists deposing and defenestrating a monarchy, only to crown themselves once established in the Royal Hall?
Again, is there a movement in Art or a tendency in Art, whether past or present, that did not derive from even a tiny bit of rebellion? If there is none, then what is Traditionalism really all about? Is it about cultural greed, a product of blind utopianism? Or sheer cultural myopia? Or both? Is it the product of a desire to be the winner, so that its harsh criticisms of the marketing ploys of the present are really only criticisms against the other side’s continuous winning in that game and not really about the marketing ploys themselves? Is it akin to a contestant’s questioning urge towards the rules that make him lose, a questioning urge he would restrain if the rules suddenly make him win?
Consider the conservative’s constant celebration of the godly word Art as a vague spiritual cosmic utopia and enigma beyond definition. This celebration would protest the critic’s bookkeeping armed with labels. It’s interesting how conservatives protest against critical categorizations (“removed from feeling,” they’d say, as if the categories don’t have emotional meanings) as well as against the methods of commerce. This, at the same time that they 1) either stop protesting when they become beneficiaries of those critical and marketing habits or 2) clamor for criticality and clever commerce when the art trade slows down.
One poet actually commented that the reason why poetry has gone extinct in the literary industry is precisely because almost nobody wants to talk about it anymore and sellers are not marketing it anymore. Forget about the purity of poetry and its aversion to commerce. Forget about the poet’s aversion to the critic’s comparative bookkeeping.
And speaking of bookkeeping, why are categorizations important to our present issue? Well, categorizations are actually identifications. While it is wrong to deny differences among the elements of a category, or wrong to categorize something wrongly, it is equally wrong to deny the world of someone’s identification. Identification solicits an explanation of motive and purpose (even the absence of purpose as its own purpose or anti-purpose), not to mention knowledge of where one came from. The identification of motive and purpose makes the elements of this world transparent to the morality of integrity. Is a rebel being a rebel only to others and not being a rebel also to himself? What is the motive behind his rebellion? Why is he denying the virtue of a purpose to others while hiding the presence of this supposedly evil purpose in himself?
Categorizations, in as much as they help delineate differences of aesthetic concerns, also expose illogics and ethical contradictions. It is also with categorization and labeling that the conservative’s claims to purity is seen to contradict with his wariness towards marketing ploys, marketing ploys he would likewise plead to for better inclusion.
It’s also interesting that in the conservative’s denigration of the artist’s lack of taste, he excuses the buyer from the same accusation, often calling the latter a mere victim. The conservative won’t bother to ask the buyers why they buy Koons products, a buying activity that is precisely what is nudging the blamed marketers to sell on. The conservative would always excuse the buyer from the discussion and discourse, fearing not only that the buyer will take offense from the denigration of what he bought leading to the buyer’s regard of the artist-critic as an enemy, but also fearing the fact that the buyer may actually turn out to be a competent critic. . . .
POPULISMS . . .
IF there’s an anti-contemporary art critic today who makes more sense to me, it is Julian Spalding, who’d specifically complain about real resultants of contemporary art’s character: art that “rejoices in being incomprehensible to all but a few insiders” or “appeal to a self-congratulatory in-group.” Spalding clearly hates the likes of Hirst and Koons, is anti-avant garde, but only so because he’s strongly pro-public. That’s why he’d support Beryl Cook or L.S. Lowry anytime, English naïve painters well-loved by the British public but nonetheless hated by the British avant-garde. This pro-public sentiment is also precisely what launches Spalding into a series of sermons against public spending on art miles removed from the comprehension of that public. (I am not yet sure, though, if he is against—as I am against—publicly subsidizing art creation as a whole when he says, “No government money should be spent on trying to influence the creation of art.”)
Avant-gardism doesn’t have to be esoteric or intellectually elitist, although some are purposely so. Even abstract expressionism was forever frustrated by the larger public’s incomprehension, despite the flurry of explications sent the public’s way during its time, a frustration demonstrating only too well a desire for convergence on a point of understanding.
I suppose Spalding is more wary of the elitism (or “intellectual snobbism”) in the acquisition and dissemination of art, and in the resulting esotericism from that elitist attitude, not so much in the products themselves. He has nothing against the opera’s obscurity, for example, and in fact lauded the Metropolitan Opera House of New York for bringing its productions to movie screens worldwide.
So, anti-contemporary art attitudes are not necessarily conservative. They may be, as in Spalding’s case, merely populist. It’s with this same manner of reasoning that I’ve been pronouncing my belief that anti-art subsidy for artists using public money is not necessarily conservative and anti-social liberal, that it in fact should be the social liberal position, if we are to understand state patronage as a mere take-away from the arts production of the past that leaned on royal or feudal patronage. Public support of art creation is not social liberal, contrary to liberal claims, it is statist and reeks of the manner of dictatorships.
But we digress. . . .
"To say contemporary art is a sham is to say art is a sham. Because what is in the attitude of contemporary art that is not in 'Art'?"
The Daily Mail photograph of Julian Spalding in front of a Damien Hirst installation
How elitist is a Jeff Koons? The Jeff Koons idea is elitist or esoteric? Oh, so there it is, it’s not really the Koons product, then, is it?—it’s the lost idea behind the product, or the idea lost on us.
This is getting clearer. After all, the likes of Koons are all about ideas, in the same manner perhaps that architects are all about ideas.
In a fair review of the book Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, cultural critic Stephen Bayley wrote: “Koons has very little technical skill: his work is made by production-line assistants. He stands back from the process and the product. Duchamp? Warhol? Oh yes, we have been here before. The great Robert Hughes said that, so far as a sculptor’s skills were concerned, Koons would have difficulty carving his name on a tree.”
Bayley adds: “But he has talent and genius in abundance. The sheer nerve of seeing through such a vast amount of derivative tosh is in itself a source of admiration and fascination. Early on, he was a tribute-groupie of the first generation of Pop Artists. Then he evolved into a very clever impresario of re-manufactured tat. Is it kitsch to reproduce kitsch? That was a recurrent question as, suppressing the gag reflex, I leafed through this book.”
Assistants for his idea, eh? How horrifying!
Anna Varona says: “It's not the craft that makes it art. It's how successfully you use a craft to articulate the message you have in your mind. . . . Art doesn't start with how good you paint. It starts with an idea. . . . I don't like (Koons the man) but I accept that I will sit down in front of his ‘ideas’ and let them draw me in.”
Artists understand this. The good ones also understand that the idea must be about the product, its plasticity, not about the claimed aura that would supposedly surround the product’s plasticity.
This issue about the idea and this one about the presence of assistants are actually one.
In reference to Spalding’s pronouncement that the crop of current contemporary art are but “rarefied delights, shams, glittering ornaments of an amusement-arcade culture,” Jevijoe Vitug says: “To say that contemporary art is a sham is to say that the whole Western civilization (since the Renaissance) is a sham. . . . Modernism ended after the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviets. Communist countries like China, Russia and Cuba are now entering the global capitalist arena, which is all about the market, service economy and consumption. Art is just a reflection of society. Noong Renaissance, puro Jesu Kristo ang tema dahil ang mga makapangyarihang patron ay ang Santo Papa at mga relihiyoso; sa panahon ngayon ang mga makapangyarihan ay mga negosyante—mga American moguls, Chinese businessmen, Russian oligarchs na mas interesado sa global market. Yung shark ni Damien Hirst is the quintessential work of this time—yung shark na kinuha sa Australia, ginawa ng assistant sa Britanya, at binili sa Amerika, shark na ‘universal’ din at walang partikular na ‘national identity’.”
Jevijoe’s right. To say contemporary art is a sham is to say art is a sham. Because what is in the attitude of contemporary art that is not in "Art"?
Sure, the concept "art" in the Middle Ages referred to people whose skills surpassed the average artisan’s. If you were still an artisan in the Middle Ages, you weren’t an artist yet. When you improve, watch out, you could just be on your way to being called an artist.
But when Leon Battista Alberti’s De Re Aedeficatoria came out, there started the new division separating "major art" from "minor art." The more intellectual art were regarded as "major art." Things went worse for many artisans when, in the 16th century, a new wall was built separating the fine arts from the applied arts.
But genealogically, it really depends on the culture you’re in. The above only refers to developments in “Western culture.”
But today in our urban parts, the word “art” is still being used to refer to products of "high culture," as it were, as against the products of "entertainment," "crafts," and so on. Yet, there is also that part of our culture that insists the word “art” should also, if not primarily, refer to skill in one’s craft, qua techne, seemingly to echo the definition of the word “art” from the Middle Ages.
As for modernism, I don’t know that it’s already dead. Robert Hughes the Australian critic is, but I am with him on the view that postmodernism is but an extension of modernism. Still contentious, this one, among art historians, if only because modernism to some is primarily an attitude that postmodernism fits snugly into. But it’s true that there have been developments in the market; it shifted, after Napoleon, from the hold of monarchist and religio-monarchial patronage into the embrace of mercantilist and capitalist ones. Up to today, the powerbrokers and kingmakers in art still derive from the capitalist market, developed further by economies of scale into what is now called the "global market." Do these powerbrokers and kingmakers have direct access to the ideas of the artists of the artworks they have haughtily purchased or invested on? I believe so, yes, if only because they have the option--as art consumers--to listen.
As for the question concerning assistants, this has been going on since olden times. Did Michelangelo conscript assistants? During the time of the guilds in Italy, even the masters would co-opt assistants given instructions on the master artist’s preferred brushstrokes. We might remember that Giovanni Maria Galli da Bibiena became an assistant to the painter Francesco Albani precisely because he was adept at depicting water scenes. This fact didn’t seem to diminish the critical value of Albanis. Albani himself was formerly an apprentice to Annibale Carracci, working on frescoes designed by Carracci. And since then up to today, many sculptors have been consulting engineers and hiring assistants. This I suppose is one fruit of Alberti’s definition of the "artist" as he who is "more intellectual than the artisan or craftsman." By Alberti’s definition, to one who considers himself an artist it is not important that he implements his work, what’s most important is he has the imprint of the thinker upon the implementation of his work. Again, we have long since accepted this in the relationship between the architect and the carpenter. Some have trouble accepting this in the field of painting or even sculpture, as if from a refusal to bow to the primacy of ideas. . . .
. . . AND MARX'S FREE MARKET
JEVIJOE Vitug reminds us of something Filipino critic Alice Guillermo once wrote, about the difference between modernism and modernity, that even Fernando Amorsolo had modernity, that modernism was a particular movement in Philippine art such as that with Victorio C. Edades and his Thirteen Moderns.
Some say modernity started with the end of the medieval period. Then there are those who declare that the modernity in modernism or the modern era or period is an entirely different attitude, a more social or/and political attitude of modernity quite distinct from, say, the Renaissance attitude. And this is the reason why the Nazarene movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are sometimes included in the roster of acts within the start of modernism or the modern period, if only for their retro rebelliousness.
So, if modernist art, and modernity art after Alberti, are all about ideas over and above the spirit of techne, then perhaps it’s not the modernity and modernist and late modernist and contemporary age that’s the sham, it’s some artists in it.
But, thanks to structuralism, another offshoot of modernist thinking, it’s now hard to tackle the question about who’s the sham one and who’s not. In the structuralist and post-structuralist era of criticism, the critic (and perhaps some in the audience) is more interested in his view of the object than in the intended view of the artist. Here resides a radical development in the definition of the concept "artist" from Alberti’s. Today, the artist does not have to be the "intellectual artisan," he only needs to be lucky with products that may have extractable intellectual juices in them, regardless of whether the artist of these products is indeed an intellectual or not. The artist may even be stupid, for all structuralism cares.
And so now we have the art commodity that is no different from the can of sardines being sold on the shelf—both the artwork and the can of sardines are commodities in the capitalist market open to the hype of advertising and marketing. As they say on American Idol, "it's not this guy's iffy talent that's important, because they’re all talented, what's more important is he's marketable." If there are those who allow themselves to be duped by the can of mackerel’s being sold as sardine, then there will be those duped by the supposed diamond value of something no more than gold. But, as we said, who is to say an artwork is mere gold and another diamond in the age of structuralist and post-structuralist hermeneutics and semiotics?
Today, the final value of the artwork is handed down by today’s democratic culture to the user, neither to the dealer of the tool nor to the manufacturer; to the duped consumer made happy with his purchase, not the duper. In short, it does not matter if you sold someone a banana peel; if that consumer has a high value for the banana peel that the seller does not share, then the hermeneutic question would be if the seller didn’t end up being the duped one in the end. But value is always relative in our age, a reflection perhaps of our free market and democratic ethos.
"Some say modernity started with the end of the medieval period. Then there are those who declare that the modernity in modernism or the modern era or period is an entirely different attitude, a more social or/and political attitude of modernity quite distinct from, say, the Renaissance attitude."
Karl Marx. (Photo source: International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands)
But wait, aren’t structuralism and post-structuralism and postmodernism products of Marxist thought, born from Marxist criticism’s examinations of valuations as well as of factors external to the art object and the art activity? Well, yes, but we must also remember that there are two sides to Marxism, the Marxism of questions and the Marxism of solutions. Unforeseen perhaps by the early structuralists, the Marxism of solutions would always implode face to face with the Marxism of questions when the questions are aimed at the various forms of Marxism, as it is at all forms of thinking in our modern age. It seems that the Marxism of postmodernism and postructuralism has served democracy and the free market well, ironically perhaps, a fact that offends those who want to dictate their own (medieval) utopia upon the concept Art, continually harping on values that would make Modernism appear it never ever happened. [d]
Jojo Soria de Veyra is the editor of diskurso.com
© 2014 Vicente Ignacio Soria de Veyra
© 2014-2016 diskurso art magazine online. all rights reserved.
diskurso is an independent, Philippines-based online magazine on art aiming to veer away from a present mental landscape replete with the customary peacock and weasel words that continue to service the art industry.