reality_more intimate

“Some think that so much of today’s art mirrors and thus criticizes decadence; not so. It’s just decadent, full stop. It serves no critical function. It is part of the problem. The Art World dutifully copies our money driven, celebrity obsessed, entertainment culture. The same fixation on fame, the same obedience to mass media that jostles for our attention with its noise and wow and flutter… If Art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something we’re going to have to face more and more as the years go on. That nasty question that never used to be asked because the assumption was always that it was answered long ago – What good is Art? What use is Art? What does it do? Is it worth actually doing? And Art, that is completely moneterized in the way it’s getting these days, is going to have to answer these questions, or it’s going to die.” Robert Hughes The Mona Lisa Curse

The Ecstasy of Touch

Bernini placed a golden arrow in the hands of a laughing cherub standing over a woman lost in her own ecstasy. It’s truly a perverse spectacle, incomprehensible really; a Baroque metastasis spilling into a Roman church, carved during the years when any deviation from doctrine could lead one to the stake. But at certain moments in one’s life anything and everything must be possible – even if it leads to the stake. Dave Hickey described that moment of realization best – “getting young,” he called it. Bernini was middle aged, out of favor, and looking for some grand challenge to begin an aesthetic redemption. In other words he had nothing to lose. The striking thing, even though Theresa is awash in those lovingly carved flowing robes, is the pure physical presence of her body undulating beneath. We can see her torso moving toward that spear, feel her limbs overcome by the heat of the moment, her hands and feet alive and otherworldly. It’s amazing to think that these textures of soft flesh, rough materials, flowing hair and glistening sweat, are all carved from marble – hammered, chiseled and polished. To see life, to feel it, and then translate it in this way is phenomenal. Unfortunately, this sort of vision comes from a kind of visual intimacy and fleshy passion that we don’t seem to be able to create or experience in Art any more.

In our Postmodern world we are adept at replicating convincing forms of media realism and abstraction. We understand and expect the illusions of the lens and we have grown complacent to the realities that they affirm. Look no further than our televisual world and soon you’ll believe that you too can walk 16 feet up a wall and kick a villain in the head. We have become smugly convinced that we live in this world without illusions, hard realists of binary data that we are. But in the 17th Century illusion was never the reality. Illusion could be used to screw with the idea of “reality” in such a heated way that these visionary frictions threatened to burn down the very foundations of accepted and comfortable society. For instance, when Caravaggio’s dead virgin was first shown to the Carmelites who had commissioned the painting, they were genuinely disturbed by the new “realism” that confronted them – never mind the pointed rumors made up by his jealous enemies that the model for the virgin was actually a dead prostitute. Caravaggio had succeeded in portraying a new visual reality, and the church quickly retreated. They were afraid of the implications of what Caravaggio’s reality might mean to their carefully crafted worldview. It was dangerous. This sublime painting was rejected.

For both of these artists with nothing to lose, illusion, reality and vision are connected through truly intimate, physical moments. The work is grounded by visual touch. How to explain? The eye moves over things, around things, into things, under things. Hard sight pushes into corners, it loses it’s way, it pulls back, tries again. It feels the cloth, either rough or smooth, it strokes the skin, it feels the warmth of the light, it shapes the dark. There can be immense pleasure in watching a shadow move across a form or clocking the changing light in a room; colors heat up or cool down, hues harden or melt, values ebb and flow. All of this “play” is how one sees – drawing on one’s intimate memories and experiences to involve one’s senses in the vision before one. Both of these artists understood these kinds of connections between vision and paint, the hand moving as the eye guides, memory playing through the forms, hues and values. Am I speaking of realism? Absolutely not. I am speaking of reality. The intimate connection between what one sees, what one understands, what one feels, and what one fashions. This kind of connection is raw, full, thick and alive. This is what used to be called touch.

Today, we have televisually recorded, paid-in-full, un-ironic sex with our collectors. And after you get into bed with the “money” well, the idea of visual touch is pretty much a non-issue. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are still a number of artists adamant about the idea of “touch” in their work, but it really doesn’t have quite the visual impact it used to have among artists. Touch when applied without vision is retrograde, reactionary, dissolute, and passe. It is a mannerism. In reality touch has become a euphemism for any engagement on the surface/screen of the program. It’s become part of the digitization of our senses, a marketing gimmick for products of all kind, whether on a hand held computer or the walls of a Chelsea gallery. We are quickly finding that our sensual existence is being truncated, boxed and stored – seeing into scanning, touching into tapping. We type on our keyboards, we tap the touch screens or we click the mouse to open “things,” to grab and manipulate “things.” Touch no longer moves around the surfaces of the things in our world. We don’t mold or feel or stroke or grasp things. We don’t indulge in the opulence and sensuousness of the 3rd dimension. We’ve replaced physical touch with an algorithm, an equation of approximation of what touch might be. And in doing so we have become blind to the thickness of things, we have cut the tactile connection to our physical memories. We can’t imagine how far back the darkness goes, how that warm light feels on the cool skin or how deep that golden arrow might plunge, how perverse and erotic that spasm might feel. For most Postmodernists, this sort of intimacy is always second hand. It has become impossible to stand in front of Theresa and say, “…Well, if that’s divine love, I know all about it.”

Unlike the gasping and shuddering Theresa, we refuse to directly perceive that our passionate existence is tied to a visual understanding and an ecstatic touch. As Postmoderns we don’t find pleasure in the direct experience of life. It is too messy, too unwieldy, too inconsistent, too upsetting. We prefer a mediated experience, and we have become adept at replicating the effects of things, the optics of things. We build machines and design programs to approximate the effects of fleshy intimacies. It is far easier to control the ground than to confront the subject, the other. The idea of “touch” or “sight” has been sealed into the lens/program and it’s projected on the surface of our screens. De Kooning’s scrapes and smears or Pollock’s drips and flows look unsophisticated, distant and naive when we confront them in person. They don’t have the sheen of projected light or the slickness of our touch screens. These primary things, these lived moments, these fleshy memories, no matter how we might try to re-live them as appropriations or replications, will never grip us like the first hand experience of reality. They will never transform into lived experience, never stretch us as artists. Touch, visual touch, was always specific, encompassing and real before the mannerisms and ironies. Today that very same idea of touch has been emptied out, become nothing more than a technique, a found object for use in a programmed commercial enterprise.

“We are our own Devil”

Georgina found ecstacy… not necessarily in the arms of her on screen lovers, but through the view of the lens. She was/is enflamed by her own image appearing on the screen, the otherness of her projected existence, and the “reality” of her electronic ephemerality. It excites her, it frees her, and with her absolute physical belief in this dissociative communion, she leads us directly into the Superflat reality of her ecstasy. Georgina is not experiencing otherworldly bliss like Bernini’s Theresa. She is performing it for the lens, she is channeling, broadcasting her ecstasy in order to find herself in the program. She is never, really, out of control, never quite in touch. Georgina is our Saint Theresa, pierced over and over again, not with the sharpness of a golden arrow, but through and through with the blunt all-seeing lens. I began this reality series with Georgina because she was/is “real” in ways that we all are real these days, as Theresa was in hers. Georgina is our patron saint.

60 years later after the ascendence of Abstract Expressionism and “American-type Painting” we are Postmoderns one and all. Modernism and it’s legacy has been so thoroughly debased and absorbed into the popular artistic lexicon, that most all of its former aesthetic and theoretical power is now nothing more than a discredited entertainment. To put it in Greenberg’s words – Modernism, in this time, our time, is nothing but absolute Kitsch, a wasted and failed legacy. Postmodernism continues to cannibalize this debunked history, diminishing its faded meanings with each conceptual contextual permutation while creating its own legacy of decadent ersatz art. The realities of painting and vision are changing once again, and Warhol’s machine can no longer dispense a convincing reality. It is time to imagine our own Theresa, to give ourselves up to a grinning angel. Some of us are no longer able to BE Postmodernists. We can no longer paint like Postmoderns. We can no longer think like Postmoderns. WE don’t want retro thought or rear guard aesthetics – we want to see in new ways, beyond the Modern, the Postmodern, beyond the narrow confines of our art history. It has come time to risk our own visual lives, to risk the stake, just as Delacroix, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Bernini did when they faced Robert Hughes’ “nasty question.” It is time to “get young.”

This is the end of reality…

reality_image

I know, this studio photo is a bit creepy, yes? Matisse looks like a frickin’ doctor already. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a metal table with a paper cover and some elevated stirrups. I can’t imagine that this is how it was done in his studio, at least, I hope that’s not how it was done in his studio. I’m talking about his art – I think? This picture is posed after all. The easel is loaded with a finished painting. The low side table with the flowers is positioned to fill the frame behind Matisse while holding open the door for light. The whole thing just looks really uncomfortable. Basically, this photo is staged and staged for a reason. Rather than seeing the wild, color dude painting nude chicks, what we are meant to see is a photo of a staid professional clinically involved in a reasoned and reasonable interaction with a subject. There isn’t a SHRED of heat or emotion in this set up. And this “pose” is in stark contrast to the way Matisse talked about his life, his work and his reasons for making art in the first place. Our Matisse spent a lot of time denying the label of wild man (fauve.) He felt that in order to find respect he had to appear as a reasonable man. He did, after all, study to be a lawyer. But if you’ve read Hilary Spurling’s or Jack Flam’s books about his life, you know that this picture only makes sense in the way Matisse crafted his public persona. His life was far from conventional. And that “fauve” came through in his personal correspondences.

“…occassionally he [Matisse] lets down his guard, and in a letter to a friend he expresses his delight in the sheer physical presence of the women themselves. “She’s a big girl,” he wrote of one model, “a colossal woman with tits like 2 liter chianti bottles!” Matisse and Picasso by Jack Flam

So much for the staid professionalism…

Klimt

Artists present themselves in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons – to each his own. But what is the truth of these presentations and how do they form out of the studio lives that artists lead? Above are the artists Gustav Klimt and Julian Schnabel. Both were/are known for their outsized lifestyles and their nonchalant attire. Klimt wore self-designed monks’ habits in order to exist in a kind of profaned artistic religiosity. Schnabel is known for wearing designer silk pajamas; a pilgrim’s habit donned on the road to a Postmodern Luxe Internationalism. These are artists playing the parts of Dantean tour guides through the Heart of Hollywood Darkness. Both of these presentations allude to an extreme disregard for social convention. But they also portray something deeper, showing us that the creative is and must be connected to another reality. These artists live in an ecstatic world in a way that most of us could not, would not understand. They both reside somewhere in the realms of magic, somnambulism and inspiration. They are natural, decadent, unbridled, sexy, effete and in-human – like Byron in his oriental robes or Lawrence in his kaftan or Prince in his purple trench coat. These artists are ready, willing and able to engage with a heightened dream state, life lived as ecstasy, where clothing and convention become hinderances to artistic communion. To roll from the bed into the studio, unshaven, unwashed; to listen to the call of the muse at any moment; to forego the conventions of constructed time – all of these constructs are there in these photos. These men are otherworldly artists – at least that’s the presentation.

In a more contemporary view is this photo of the marvelous Cecily Brown by the fantastic David LaChappelle. Cecily’s paintings were/are presented in a very specific way. First in her work there is the idea of painterly touch and the historic connection that has been made to Willem De Kooning’s oft repeated bon mot, “flesh was the reason that oil paint was invented.” Next is the subject matter of her work which is garnered not only from art history but from pornographic photographs. Finally, there is the press that has followed her every move from the very beginning of her career; her parentage, her boyfriends, her stellar career and mostly her immediate acceptance into the top tiers of NY fashion culture. Cecily has been featured in nearly every “hot” magazine in the business. In the picture above she is presented by the fashion photographer LaChapelle – all you have to do is google to see the spectacular high-stakes world that he inhabits! In this photo all of that spectacle is evident. The artist appears in a working class neighborhood dressed in an outfit appropriate for a night of rave and trance, cigarette and cocktail in hand. Her large painting, a huge erection front and center, is at odds with the ordinary life of the Mom and child making their way down the ordinary street. In the back of the scene the words True Value underscore the artist and her work. Cecily is the artist of flesh and sex, the hot new celebrity artist connected to the streets, transcendent through her youth, beauty and art – Kiki of Montparnasse NY, heir apparent to the world of ABEX fleshiness! Now, all of this is interesting because she’s being presented in this way by a well known and highly-sought-after glamour photographer as an “advertisement” about a contemporary artist/celebrity. He has taken the basic PR story of her glamorous life and blown it up into grand proportions giving us not Cecily, but “CECILY!”

I find pictures of artists and how they present themselves fascinating. I often wonder what they’re thinking, what images they are looking to present of themselves, because it’s also speaks of their work and their lives. For me, it all comes out of the studio – the world that’s created there. Now I know a lot of artists, or I did at one time. Many of the studios I’ve been to over the years kind of look alike. Large-ish empty spaces with white walls and painted grey floors – a desk to the side (sometimes), an uncomfortable paint smeared chair to sit in, a place to store finished canvases (usually near the desk) and at least one long wall to paint on. This is a cookie cutter work convention we all learned in college. It smacks of the professional, the worker, the serious clerk. I, however, look for the tell-tale slip – the piece of material hidden near the papers, the black & white picture of a beloved or the postcard purchased at the museum shop. It opens something human in this “profession.” And it is the human part of all this Art Entertainment that has been missing. And it is the human part we should be looking to, involving in our work.

In September we will be bringing you a series of articles by and about artists and their lives in the studio. It will be Henri’s “Art Issue” if you like. Just in time for the new Art Season!

reality_absence

It had been four sleepless nights; coming to an end of things. She’d call out. I’d help her to the toilet, straighten the bed, try to make her comfortable. She laid back and smiled at me. So tired, so very tired. Morphine is bitter administered with a dropper. She had a hard time swallowing. Watching the clock. Just before dawn, she was, the only way to describe it, collapsing inward. Gently touched her forehead, brushed back her hair, kissed her cheek. And wished that it would stop. Exhausted, and raw, and totally, fucking useless. On a beautiful, sunny, spring morning after a long, dark night, finally.
Days later, returning to an unchanged reality that was no longer real, I discovered something very… old.

The black dogs come barking in the night for all of us. Reality changes in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons. We try to process these changes through the things we know, through the ways we’ve been taught. But that’s never quite enough, is it? What we are told, what we learn secondhand, never actually gets into our experience, never quite fits into our flesh. We won’t really understand how things feel until we’ve lived it. And when we’ve gone through it, we have to fit those feelings back into the “reality” that still exists around us. We have to parse those feelings, mold them and empty them out. For some of us, well, this just won’t do. The experience is much too big for what’s known. We try to express this process in our work. We try to find a direct way to communicate those thoughts and feelings so that others might come to understand as well. Or better, so that others might realize, “Yes, I’ve seen that, experienced that. I know EXACTLY how that feels.”

The problem for artists, as it has always been, is finding a way to do just that, finding a way to express ourselves so that we are understood EXACTLY. It’s never enough to use someone else’s way of doing things no matter how we might parse the arguments. To be understood we have to change what we’ve learned, make it over in our own voice, our own style. We have to challenge what’s known, what’s been appropriated, with our own reality. And in that case, the understanding we want to share with others will never be immediate. We, all of us, have to get over what we’ve learned. The artist has to teach, leave clues in the work, give us something to hang on, something to really see. That’s just the way it’s always been, the way real understanding begins to spark in our imaginations. Think of Matisse, dressed in his tweeds, calmly and emphatically speaking about ease, pleasure and deep emotion, while the suits and his colleagues tore their hair out in front of his work. Of course Matisse knew EXACTLY what he was doing in that sense. As radical and dangerous as his work might look to everyone around him, he knew that he was building on a solid historic foundation of innovation for the future.

Today we live in the very straight world of professional practices and emotion. A defining part of our fleshy lived existence, the part that brings us to understand what is meant by EXACTLY, has to be kept in check. Emotion must be politely woven into the fabric of every social discourse – it must be presented as sentiment rather than emotion. Look, “change” in all of its forms seems to be a terrifying thing to the rank and file. And you can see this fear even in our art history – how new expressions of age old emotions makes everyone very, very nervous. Why? Because it means that one has to adjust one’s reality, one must question what one takes for granted, one may lose control.

As we all know, it’s the artists’ job to make the suits (both in and out of the art world) question their reality, but that’s never really a sure thing. In the professional world stability is what makes everyone successful, rich and correct. Stability is a good thing for all concerned. But if an artist goes off, walks away from the well worn path, then there is no guarantee of success in the world. As Dave Hickey said, “You’ll never know if you’ve got it.” Now there are a lot of cool customers in the history of art, especially in the very hot 1960s. Minimalism was the coolest of the cool and it provided an emotion free zone of pure neo-platonic idealism. Pop art, though infused with sentiment, couldn’t muster a real feeling if it wanted to. And that was the attraction. Cool ruled and it still does. In the late 70s and early 1980 there was a new generation of painters living rough in the East Village mixing Pop with Expressionism creating a kind of hyper-sentimental work – it was a time of proliferating desire. Postmodernism had begun its great institutional revision of Art’s visual history. Today this hyper-sentimental historic precedent is the grease in the great Art economy. Warhol, the machine, is beloved by all because no matter what you put in the studio end money comes out the business end.

But for a few of us visual truth comes through emotion, and the heated tango between expression and OTT failure can be excruciating for all concerned. And it’s also true that many works that flirt with the idea of going emotionally Over The Top become instantly ridiculous melodramatic failures. Risking one’s inner world can be hard on both the audience and the artist. “You never know if you’ve got it.” Why? Well, we just don’t want the “acted” emotion, we don’t want our feelings manipulated. Melodrama is control and manipulation. We would rather recognize, to see our own experience within a work. It allows us to move in close, to understand. We want to know EXACTLY how reality feels. A lot of the masters had many OTT failures, but the works that stick, the ones that truly succeed take us into new realities. And it’s through that reality, or rather a shift in our reality, that we begin to feel a very different and very old kind of emotion.

In our current 21st Century reality we live through things and on the surface of those things. We take for granted material abundance, endless desire, the dematerialized object, the painting of nothing, the empty sign, the shifting context. All of these things are subterfuges, distancing devices for physical experience and the diminishing of actual contact with the rising subject. All of these things are awash in the sentimental, the acceptable, and the expected. They keep us from our emotional selves. They keep our feelings in check. They keep us from vision.

(Modern) art managed to be a part of the accursed share, a kind of dramatic alternative to reality, by translating the rush of unreality in reality. But what could art possibly mean in a world that has already become hyperrealist, cool, transparent, marketable? What can porn mean in a world made pornographic beforehand? All it can do is make a final, paradoxical wink — the wink of reality laughing at itself in its most hyperrealist form, of sex laughing at itself in its most exhibitionist form, of art laughing at itself and at its own disappearance in its most artificial form, irony. In any case, the dictatorship of images is an ironic dictatorship. Yet this irony itself is no longer part of the accursed share. It now belongs to insider trading, the shameful and hidden complicity binding the artist who uses his or her aura of derision against the bewildered and doubtful masses. Irony is also part of the conspiracy of art.” Jean Baudrillard – The Conspiracy of Art

So what is it that we need EXACTLY? Well, for each of us it’s something different. And that difference is always what art should be about. But there have been times, and I believe this is one of them, when we’ve grown very satisfied with our realities, when we are awash in sentiment, when we prefer the mannered to the fresh. And it’s in those times that artists have redefined themselves. In our reality it’s time to be surprised by our recognition of our deeper realities, that deep emotional part of ourselves that has been absent.

reality_intimacy

“We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye…”
William Blake

I have been fascinated with Bernini’s sculptures since my first trip to Rome. Winding ’round Scipione’s old house and coming upon this vision had my heart in my throat. Truth be told, I could care less about its narrative structures, the textual histories that the figures are acting out – that stuff mostly feels like annoying background noise. I’m always looking for the HOW and the WHY things come together. Real visual moments, as many of us know, are very hard to accomplish, and when they do come together, it’s always a compelling experience. In Bernini’s work, if one engages visually and looks deeper, what one always comes to see is the moment when reason degenerates into a swell of physical passion. There’s always an onslaught of difficult and tough emotions wrapped up in the carving. Many great artists have created compelling work about this very subject, and quite frankly, many have lived it in their lives. Even the wondrous Bernini, beloved genius that he was, had his out-of-control, Gibsonish moments. Ah, but Bernini…well he was a master, No?

What I look for are the realities in a visual moment – something specific that creates a deeper visual connection and understanding of the rising subject. I want to get stuck in with the give and the blur so that I might be able to feel that physical, involving, thickness that only happens when one finally does come to actually “see” something. All the other stuff, the storyline, the text, or the narrative falls back into the ground. What let me in to this carving was the hand grasping the flesh of that thigh. The strong fingers digging into that flexing leg. They are trying to hold on to and control what is straining to get away, what doesn’t acquiesce. That’s where the meaning is focused, and to achieve that focus, one has to move in, to be close to the action. The screaming face, the flowing beard, the flying cloth, or the finely carved tears – though those things are great to look at and comment about – they’re theatrical embellishments. But with those few small, thick parts, as seen in the photo, we can understand exactly what Bernini had in mind. Over time this particular lesson on visual economy has grown larger in my memory. And it’s lead me to a different idea of what abstraction can accomplish in the 21st Century.

I want to explain again a particularly overlooked reality in our new visual culture, the idea of being in close. First of all, and I should be quite clear about this, we are not talking about the blow-up. Increasing the size of an image/object while maintaining its proportions is something we are familiar with just as we’re familiar with the fact that lenses are now ingrained into nearly every aspect of our everyday realities. With the replicating lens we can take any image, any object, and blow it up (or reduce it for that matter) into any size, into any medium, without diminishing our accepted cultural understanding of that particular image or thing. For instance, Angelina Jolie is the same in a thumbnail, as a poster girl or on a billboard. The larger than life image/object doesn’t actually change our relationship to the meaning of the image – we accept the mediated sign and regard the text or context as its meaning. What this proportioned event does do is create a sense of distance, a nebulous consumerist desire, and a sense of the surreal. Inflation is used as a contextual adjustment – the image/object as symbol can be appropriated, replicated and manipulated because it has become a program, a construct rather than a thing in itself. This particular photo is not a blow up in that sense. In this image there is something older at work. Rather than increasing the proportions of the sculpture or replicating the image/object, we viewers have moved into the action, we are a part of the action within the grouping. We are in close – our vision is intimate.

There have been a lot of photographers through the years that have moved in close to create a kind of abstraction in their work, and it’s produced some wonderful pictures. It’s a visceral way of seeing. We also experience this type of viewing in movies, TV shows and especially pornography, because, when done well, it can create an instantaneous physical visual connection to our tactile natures. The truth is it’s a quick and easy way to emotion. The idea of moving in close, of being a part of the action is something a lot of theorists talk about when they discuss Caravaggio’s work and the radical innovation that his work proposes. Their claim is that by putting the scene into our space, by making the viewer intimate, we visually become a part of what is happening in front of us. And it’s true. It’s a kind of visual reality that we encounter in our lives. For instance when we are in an elevator we can be pretty sure that the folks around us have not only a front and back, but sides, tops and bottoms as well. We are also aware of the way they move, they way the smell, the way they exist, but mostly, our relationship to them whatever that might be. We are seeing and feeling all at once and that actively alters our perceptions. We have an instant understanding of what I call the thickness of reality. We see more fully and create a deeper, more connected kind of vision. Now this kind of thickness is a very rare occurrence in photographs, and to be honest, in a lot of painting as well. In Simon Schama’s Power of Art episode on Caravaggio he’s discussing the painting The Lute Players and he puts it like this –

Now there were lots of paintings of young boys with lutes in Baroque Rome. But never anything like this. Nothing this close up. Nothing this fleshy and close to us. It’s like this – four youths in a closet. “Excuse me. So sorry. Don’t mean to intrude. Oh No! Come on in darling, pull up a cushion. We’re just rehearsing.” The claustrophobia has a point, and it’s not erotic. What he’s doing is demolishing the safety barrier between the viewer and the painting. Carravaggio’s art crashes the safety barrier of the frame. It tears away the separation. It reaches you.”

This idea of painting “reaching you” is a very old one, and one tied up to ideas of illusion, space and time. (But we’ll save those ideas for the part II.) Modernism in all its permutations has been all about removing the safety barrier between you and the art. And just think, it all started in the 17th Century. Well, maybe even before if we really look hard. And that was Hockney’s point in Secret Knowledge – the lens, so obvious in so much of our history of painting, was used and could be used differently by painters in order to change our relationship to our own vision. We’ve used the lens to enhance, to make specific certain relationships to life and reality, to make us sharper and more economical painters. We have lied to tell the truth. And time and time again we’ve carved out reality from a flat surface. All in the attempt to convince us that what we are seeing IS real. And it’s that intimate reality that many of us struggling with abstraction are looking for. Delacroix said as much as he looked into the Modernist future from his drawing room in the early 19th century. However, here in the 21st century, the lens tool is now the reality, not the way to a reality. And that is our problem, and very few of us seem to be asking the question – How do we see?

Susan Sontag talks of the democratization of the image through photography in her book On Photography. Her essays were written at the end of a long experimental arch and the beginning of the institutionalization of that experiment. Today, the democracy is finished and we live with the fascism of the image – an optical world militarized with corporate texts, programmed contexts and the imagery of the New New. And all of it, ALL of it is done through the programmed lens.

“Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a letdown. Photographs make normative an experience of art that is mediated, second-hand, intense in a different way. (To deplore that photographs of paintings have become substitutes for the paintings for many people is not to support any mystique of “the original” that addresses the viewer without mediation. Seeing is a complex act, and no great painting communicates its value and quality without some form of preparation and instruction. Moreover, the people who have a harder time seeing the original work of art after seeing the photographic copy are generally those who would have seen very little in the original.)” Susan Sontag On Photography

So many of my friends think that I’ve gone ’round the bend with this “lens obsession.” And it’s a fair cop – I do go on. But what they don’t understand is that I love many works made with the lens, made through the machine. And why not? I was raised looking at that imagery, through that lens. I understand it. But there’s more to making a painting than transferring the image, replicating in paint what the lens has already replicated. Painters must find a way to actually SEE differently, to understand their involvement in what they are painting differently. We have a long history of painters who pushed the boundaries of HOW & WHY they made paintings, challenging the accepted versions, the institutional mandates of seeing. To do that in our age I believe that we must define again what our intimate lives are all about. Like Bernini, we must struggle with what is trying to get away from us. And for me, that seems to be where painting is – both in abstraction or realism. We don’t push our images into the lineage of our painted history or really use our visual inheritance. We are not thinking and translating our thoughts and feelings into vision. We remain cool and distant, replicating imagery just as the lens separates and flattens. Can abstract painting, any painting, give us the same visual thrill that we may have in front of the best works of Titian, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Picasso or Matisse? Can we take our flat surfaces, our processes, our mania for materials and translate that into something THICK, palpable and visceral in its way? Like Georgina we have to confront our “own devils” and we have to risk that confrontation in our paintings. We must rethink the way Caravaggio’s figures emerged not only from the darkness but from his hand, from the paint. Or we have to see the way “reality” forced its way through the mythology, the text in Bernini’s sculpture. We have to use the mechanics behind our lens saturated world and push it through our own physical visual involvement, mixing it up with our own lives. What has been missing in so much paint is not technique, not accepted standards, not professionalism or competence, but visual intimacy.

We’ll discuss this further in part II ….

reality_machine art

“After dinner they looked at the photographs which Durieu has been kind enough to send me. I persuaded them to try an experiment that I made quite by chance a couple of days ago. After examining the photographs of nude models, some of whom were poor physical specimens, with parts of the body overdeveloped – not very beautiful to look at – I showed them some engravings by Marcantonio. We felt repelled, indeed almost disgusted, by the inaccuracy, mannerism and lack of naturalness, in spite of the excellence of style. It is his only admirable quality, but we were incapable of admiring it at that particular moment. As a matter of fact, if some genius were to use dagguerrotype as it should be used he could reach untold heights. Above all, when you look at these engravings, the admitted masterpieces of the Italian School that have exhausted the admiration of every painter, you realize the truth of Poussin’s remark that ‘compared with the Antique, Raphael was an ass.’ Up to the present, this machine-made art has done us nothing but harm: it spoils the masterpieces for us, without being able to satisfy us completely.” The Journal of Eugene Delacroix

In this pleasant evening in the mid 1800s we are seeing artists discussing the difference between Mannerism and a new reality. The lens won the day. Unlike Delacroix and his friends we are not discovering photography and the power of the lens. We have lived with it in our everyday lives. EVERYTHING is filtered through it. As you stand at the cash machine, make your way through the airport, drive your car down the street, live on a block, upload into the programmed internet – EVERYTHING is being captured and replicated, categorized and indexed. We have all become data – data searching for other data. For instance if I’m doing research and I search on google for X – am I any different than a programmed spider looking for information – am I not also pulling information, classifying and categorizing as I go. My research, once posted, will also be part of that giant index. And somehow, for me, that removes a piece of my humanity. I am a program in the vast program – I’m not Mark, I’m not real and that bugs me, makes me viral. At first the promise of internet programming was that it would mirror and replicate the outside world, “bricks and mortar” as it was called. But like all machines, they can not work efficiently if they actually copy the way things work in the “real world.” They must work like machines. A car does not have legs, an airplane does not flap its wings and the internet does not actually see, think or remember. We are immersed in the ground and we adapt quickly to its “reality.” From the beginning of our Postmodern age we began to confuse the reality of our electronic extensions with the reality of our fleshy existence. Today we are not confused. We expect life to run like a program and look like a picture – Postmodern life is a program.


Dehumanization Part 1 from Kimberly Butler on Vimeo.

I found this wonderful series of videos by Kimberly Butler that discusses many of the issues that we’re facing and we’ve been discussing here on Henri. McLuhan comes up quite a bit in each of these discussions. Obviously, he was prescient about the effects of electronic media – and he wasn’t afraid to take the logic of his discussion as far as it would go. What I’ve found to be truly fascinating in his work was the idea of the tetrad. “The tetrad is a means of examining the effects on society of any technology/medium (put another way: a means of explaining the social processes underlying the adoption of a technology/medium) by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously.” The final stage of this process is always a reversal, usually at the point of medium over saturation. The reversal then redefines and reincorporates the old processes that were supplanted by the ascendancy of that very medium. If we use the tetrad in our own POMO art world we can see that the retrieval and reversal of Postmodern mannerism has begun to take place, and we are starting to see a swell of some new ideas on the horizon. For example – the emphasis on “reality” as seen, as experienced is part of that retrieval. It takes us away from the all-encompassing ground and takes us into the rising subject. The reexamination of certain Modernist academic techniques – like the drippy brush stroke and our reliance and surety of the primacy of Greenbergian literalness. A reconsideration of the ubiquity of Postmodern provisional painting, and a deep refutation of the mannered use of Modernist flatness, Duchampian inconsequence, Warholian replication and Neo-Surrealist nihilism. Many of us are experimenting just as Delacroix did in his day.

What we are talking about is reality, not in the program, but through the program – what comes out on the other side. How do we see after our eye has become a lens – do we understand things only through that machine, are we forever tied to that program, is that the reality? Or is there something else, something deeper that we might need to learn, to retrieve and reverse. Something that will allow us to move beyond the program, beyond Modernism and Postmodernism into the new century. I keep thinking of Georgina’s quote – “We are our own devil.” And for me that means we must question, transgress and risk.

reality will continue…

reality_broken

“What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.” Vincent Van Gogh

“Only the suspect artist starts from art; the true artist draws his material elsewhere: from himself. There’s only one thing worse than boredom — the fear of boredom — and it’s this fear I experience every time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It’s no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are those in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens — e.g., Tristram Shandy, Notes from Underground, Camus’s The Fall, Thomas Bern hard’s Correction, Duras’s The Lover, Barry Hannah’s Boomerang.”
David Shields, 611 Reality Hunger

“Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the Berlin Wall’s fall—i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar—it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in reimagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.”
Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstacy of Influence

“The lack of general historical life also means that individual life as yet has no history. The pseudo-events that vie for attention in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those who are informed about them; and in any case they are soon forgotten due to their increasingly frenetic replacement at every pulsation of the spectacular machinery. Conversely, what is really lived has no relation to the society’s official version of irreversible time, and conflicts with the pseudocyclical rhythm of that time’s consumable by-products. This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle’s false memory of the unmemorable.” Guy Debord, 157 Society of the Spectacle

“A one-hour episode of reality TV can take as long as sixteen hours to film. The shots where judges like myself give mean looks to the artists before pronouncing decisions on their work last something like three seconds onscreen, but require fifteen minutes of us all staring at one another. (The cameras have to be moved around and positioned so each person can be filmed.)”
Jerry Saltz, “Work of Art Recap: Harsh Reality”

“Now, this triumph of the idea of art over art itself, and, with the ready-made, the triumph of the idea of the object over the object itself are but an aspect of an immense feed-back, of an instant recycling of all events and images in the visual universe and to the realm of media. But also our intellectual and political life, our actions and our thoughts are affected by this automatic selfrefraction. Everywhere the process of image-feedback (“retour-image”)induces everything to focus on itself, to duplicate itself in advance, cutting short the process of representation – a phenomenon particularly noticeable in the field of photo-graphy, where very few images, be it a face, an event, a human being or a landscape, escape that image-feedback. Most of our images mask themselves with a con-text, a culture, a meaning, an idea of themselves and this leads to a kind of blindness described by Sanchez FERLOSIO (a spanish essayist): ” There is a terrible form of blindness, which allows you to look at things and not to see them. Time before, we did not look at things, we just saw them. Today all is wrapped in duplicity, no impulse is pure and direct. That is how the countryside has become a landscape, that is to say a representation of itself … Wherever I set my eyes, I see that terrible scenery that people glorify under the name of landscape ” It is our faculty of perception itself, our immediate sensibility that have been aestheticized. Sight, hearing, touch, feeling, all our senses have become aesthetic in the worst, the most banal sense of the term. And any new vision can be born only out of a radical deconstruction of this image-feedback, a resolution of this process of countertransfer that obstructs our vision, in order to reinstate the world in its radical illusion – its original state indeed, for the world itself is actually without return, without screen, without selfreflection. This process of reduplication, of cyclical confusion with our own image must be clearly distinguished from our mirror-relation, where on the contrary we take distance from our own image and enter within an open process of alienation and alterity. The mirror, the glance, the gaze, the scene open up to a tranfer, eventually to a poetic transfer, to a whole culture of the metaphor which is quite the opposite of that visual and aesthetic enclosure.”
Jean Baudrillard Integral Reality

It is as if I was to take my eye, to throw it away, and still be able to see. Video is originally a de-corporation, a disqualification of the sensorial organs which are replaced by machines…The eye and the hand are replaced by the data glove, the body is replaced by a data suit, sex is replaced by cybersex. All the qualities of the body are transferred to the machine…We haven’t adjusted yet, we are forgetting our body, we are losing it. This is an accident of the body, a de-corporation. The body is torn and disintegrated.
Paul Virilio Cyberwar, God And Television

Today, one often hears that the art of our time functions increasingly in the same way as design, and to a certain extent this is true. But the ultimate problem of design concerns not how I design the world outside, but how I design myself—or, rather, how I deal with the way in which the world designs me. Today, this has become a general, all-pervasive problem with which everyone—and not just politicians, movie stars, and celebrities—is confronted. Today, everyone is subjected to an aesthetic evaluation—everyone is required to take aesthetic responsibility for his or her appearance in the world, for his or her self-design. Where it was once a privilege and a burden for the chosen few, in our time self-design has come to be the mass cultural practice par excellence. The virtual space of the Internet is primarily an arena in which MyFace and MySpace are permanently designed and redesigned to be presented on YouTube—and vice versa. But likewise in the real—or, let’s say, analog—world, one is expected to be responsible for the image that he or she presents to the gaze of others. It could even be said that self-design is a practice that unites artist and audience alike in the most radical way: though not everyone produces artworks, everyone is an artwork. At the same time, everyone is expected to be his or her own author.
Boris Groys Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility

In my experience, you always think you know what you’re doing; you always think you can explain, but you always discover, years later, that you didn’t and you couldn’t. This leads me to suspect that the principal function of human reason is to rationalize what your lizard brain demands of you. That’s my idea. Art and writing come from somewhere down around the lizard brain. It’s a much more peculiar activity than we like to think it is. The problems arise when we try to domesticate the practice, to pretend that it’s a normal human activity and that “everybody’s creative.” They’re not.
Dave Hickey Interview

A few ideas to think about. Reality will continue….

reality_drawn further in

The other day I was reminded of the way Postmodern excess continues to hum blithely beneath the thin veneer of our everyday realities. I was standing among a group of folks waiting for the crosswalk sign to change. Another ordinary moment in the city, but in this case, there were two straggling SUVs traveling at a high rate of speed trying to beat the light. Like most impatient NYC drivers in “the box” they were determined to make it through the intersection before the people clogged the crosswalks. The “walk” signs had already lit up giving the pedestrians the all clear, and immediately, the people around me poured into the street. The two automobiles nearly mowed down at least 15 people – it was like watching a horror movie’s inevitable plot unfold. A barrage of four letter words ensued, and a lot of outraged pedestrians stomped across the street.

When I finally had crossed the street I was feeling a bit on edge, and I began to really think about what had just occurred. It seemed to me that both the drivers and pedestrians paid more attention to the “reality” of the signs than to the reality of the situation and the surroundings. For the drivers the visual world outside the window is easily ignored in the womb/cocoon of the automobile cockpit. Let’s face it, these days, a car interior may as well be a Vegas Lounge – touch screen monitors, programs, onstar, cel phone service, climate control, speed control, blind spot video monitors, entertainment panels, HD-LCD touch screens, GPS systems, electronic comfort adjustment, etc – the only thing missing is a stripper pole. And to top that off, drivers develop a weird disconnect between the personal spaces of their car interiors and the public spaces of the potentially violent machine itself. Pedestrians are hardly any better. Those people in the crosswalks were mesmerized by the media light show on display in Times Square. Many of them were chatting on phones or texting on blackberrys. Not one of them paid attention to the fact that a couple of tons of speeding metal was headed straight toward them. But what really seemed to irk this crowd most was that the “reality” implied by the “walk sign” had, suddenly and emphatically, been called into question. In our world of untethered electronic consciousness mediated signs have come to define and direct our experience of reality, and as such, we expect the physical world to adhere to these signs. We believe the reality of the text, the ubiquity and certainty of the sign over physical visual experience. In layman’s terms our beliefs are stronger than our eyes.

In a recent post on Japanese art we briefly discussed the fact that most contemporary artists have settled into a kind of academic somnambulism in their approach to drawing. I thought I’d concentrate a bit on this topic, because radical visual exploration through drawing has always been the first foundation of great painting. But today, our drawing remains mired in the academic practices of the 20th Century.

It’s been my experience that many artists today “see” no further back than the 1950s. If we look to anything “older” we immediately go blind. Sure, we pay lip service to the geezers Matisse and Picasso, but we act as if their accomplishments are set in stone, their art an exception and indifferent to our times. If we go back to the once radical Impressionists we see them as bourgeois makers of Kitchen Calendar schlock (I beg to differ – check out the compositions in Monet’s late work!) If we go further back, we tend to treat the Venetian painters as if they were mere decorators of a quaint and expensive tourist destination. We are so self absorbed and myopic that we can not for the life of us find anything “real” in what these artists might have to offer – nor can we find a way to use their legacies to make anything truly NEW. Our references are brittle and insular, our appropriations are narrow and shallow.

For example, I was speaking with a painter the other day that claimed that Matisse could not draw. Bald-faced. Unrepentant. Granted, this artist is a realist using lens-based programs to make his work, but c’mon man, what the fuck? You can’t be serious? His contention was that it didn’t look like reality. I pointed out to him that “reality” as he saw it, came through a lens and his computer – Matisse didn’t need a prophylactic to define “reality” – he worked it bareback so-to-speak. (OK, it got a bit heated.) I prefer my encounters with “reality” to be unprotected visions. Another artist I know has been to Venice three times without seeing the work in the Scuola di San Rocco. No curiosity at all. But for now let’s just concentrate on abstraction and drawing.

Modernism emphasized the way an artwork was made – process and materials. From the first half of the 20th Century – Matisse all the way through the AbEx painters – the ground and the process became the focus of any interaction and declaration. “The resulting work often emphasizes the physical act of painting itself as an essential aspect of the finished work or concern of its artist.” It was a way around, a way under the vast wall of Western visual history. American artists, especially, found that by rephrasing the question about what painting could be, they could ignore the weight of visual history and begin again. This is a very American thing to do – we’re good at ignoring consequences while we take a bow for figuring out how to slice the Gordian Knot. We constantly “cheat” the “real world” in just this way – steroids in sports, financial statements on Wall Street, environmental disaster estimations, military incursions, government regulations and Presidential elections. We are great at shifting the ground beneath your feet. Which brings us to “American type” painting at the end of Modernism, and with it, we began the first truly American theoretical art movement – Postmodernism.

Since the 1960s Postmodernism has institutionalized and fetishized the processes and practices of Modernism. And this institutionalization is defined, mostly, through the manipulation of context – the constantly shifting ground that quickly submerges any rising visual subject. In this regard POMO is all about references and revisionism – interpretation of an appropriation. But before I get lost once again in these larger issues, let’s get back to drawing. There are a couple of styles of drawing that seem to predominate in POMO, but I’ll concentrate on the one that I learned and the one I continue to see a lot of. It is also a style of drawing that I put aside in favor of something different. That style is based on the working of the drawing – lots of smearing, erasing and re-drawing. This is by now an academic feature in universities the world over. For example:

Now in this drawing Matisse was still engaging the rising subject, the thing in itself. The model posed before him and he would draw, redraw, erase, and smear, trying to get at an emotional connection to the subject through his vision. Matisse was trying to process the connection between hand and eye in order to come to understand and abstract the rising subject. He searches for a line, pushing and pulling it back and forth, until finally, he has worn a path around the reality he is engaging. He is looking for a composition, for a truth in what he sees and what he draws. He wants the eye to move over the subject, engage with it understand that it is separate and real. Matisse and the early Modernists were hanging on to the idea that the drawing process is connected to the rising subject, the visual world outside of themselves. Or as I discovered the other day on that corner – the world of speeding cars, sweating bodies and awkward moments.

Later this process would become the focus of the AbEx painters, and I’ve chosen DeKooning’s work to make the point. Here the rising subject is already an abstraction, a totem. It is not a specific woman in the world, seen and made into an abstraction, but it is an idea of a woman made material through process. This idea was revelatory for American painters and offered a way out, hemmed in as they were, by the visual dictates of the Scylla and Charybdis of Modernist painting – Matisse and Picasso. Painters found that they could not challenge them directly, there was no room to maneuver past their experimentations. Instead they had to up the ante, move away from the visual world. Painting and drawing became more about process – the ground. The arena won out as the visual world slipped away. Matisse’s tentative lines and fearless reformations of outward visual reality are now, in DeKooning’s work, shot through with a persuasive belief in materials, physicality and process.

Postmodernism doesn’t engage in the physical world in the same way. We accept the uploaded image, the media image as our totemic reality. In our “reality” Shrek is as real to us as the Venus of Villandorf was to a Paleolithic crotch grabber. The rising subject doesn’t interest us, but the constant flow of information does. We exist in the ground, in the processes of abstraction. We look no further than the surface of things because everything we know is always already known – we live in a Corporate World of Signs. We no longer process our images as DeKooning did, we aesthetisize them – we “treat” them. We add “finish” value to the media image. We inflate its worth in just this way. We are beyond engaging with the image itself or finding a new meaning in or for the image. We know what it means. We merely provide a more desirable context in which to present it. We alter the ground. We focus the process. For instance in Joyce Pensato’s image we have a banal cartoon character removed from its media/graphic presentation and given the Postmodernist contextual treatment.

“Cartoons depend so much on their own plastic surface, and this is something Pensato vigorously takes on, using the eraser as a tool in its own right to transform any semblance of plasticity or sheen. Her palette of pastels and charcoal is limited, another push against the full fluorescent spectrum of cartoons. The figures are reduced down to what could be thought of as their “essence,” if cartoons had essence, and then pushed outward again by Pensato’s strong hand: Homer ’08 has the eyes, bald pate, and mouth recognizable to watchers of The Simpsons, but the texture and surface of the piece is all about painting and its visual engagement.”

Once again this process is about adding value, customizing a graphic image through physical engagement, mark making and burnishing the ground – trying to bring about reality through the sign and the system. This is not about vision, or visual interaction, but about the fetishization of Modernist processes through Postmodernist contextualization – the assertion of self through an avatar, a sign. In this Postmodern action the subject and the ground are treated as the same thing, folded one into the other. The drive of the piece is to enhance and exemplify its physical embellishments – the paper, the materials, the process. The context of the image is changed from Pop culture meta-character to Fine Art critique. But nowhere in this transformation is there an outward engagement with other, with the world outside the various Modernist theoretical/material techniques and the abstract sign.

Now I bring this up, yet again, because lately, there have been a number of articles discussing the end of Postmodernism. I find this all a bit hip and specious mainly because THERE HAS BEEN NO DIRECT AND SUSTAINED CRITIQUE IN OUR ART WORLD ABOUT HOW POSTMODERNISM WORKS AND WHAT IT DOES. Nor has there been any NEW theoretical advancement either in opposition to Modernism (outside of the POMO critique) or Postmodernism itself. A lot of folks seem content to point out that we have new technologies – computers, internet 2.0 and interactivity – and make the claim that these new technologies have moved us into a new type of theoretical critique. The problem for me is that even with the new technologies we remain tied to a way of thinking, a way of “not seeing” that doesn’t allow us to use these new technologies in a different way, to “think different.” And again I have to make the case for vision, for the way we use our eyes and the way we interpret what we see. We must look beyond the world of signs and define our reality outside of the lens programs.

In this video I was intrigued by the line – “…drawing laid the foundation for a new world of art.” The rebirth of drawing and painting began with a different kind of visual engagement. For centuries religion, a system, a program, had limited the scope and practice of how artists saw and experienced their work. Their works served the dictates of the church until Giotto began to fill those abstractions with the life of his time. Faces began to become more “real,” spaces began to flow in time and light moved across the surfaces of things. We started to see the world around us instead of the systems in front of us. The floodgates were opened for new expressivity, new ideas and a new reality, and an old way of seeing life began to take shape in a new way. And for this crew, it all began with the intimacy of drawing, of moving the hand along with the eye. Reality is what wakes us up, breaks our view of the signs guiding our interpretations, and it reminds us, that we are indeed, alive! To make an end to this long and looping post I’ll leave you with one of my favorite movie quotes of all time from Blade Runner – “I want more life…fucker!”

MOMA has an excellent resource of drawings online. Check out the link and study the Postmodern age!

reality_further in

I’ve been following the Shepard Fairey case through the last few months. I find this case interesting because the issues that are being litigated touch on so many current cultural/theoretical problems facing artists in the Postmodern art world. The first is the technique of appropriation, which is always POMO’s first salvo against Modernism. However, this critique has been supplanted by a further cultural one connected to use – free use of culture as a found object. This has been going on in visual art for hundreds of years. Titian and Giorgione, Tintoretto and Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael, every Mannerist known to art history, the Pre-Raphaelites, well you get the idea. Strong artists steal from other strong artists. It boils down to a kind of ongoing dialog with the past, precedent and innovation – art about art.

There are a deeper issues today since our tools of appropriation allow us to replicate images exactly, and now, the idea is that we must try to determine when an image has been transformed just enough to make it into something not duplicated. But unlike the old masters struggling with precedent our cut and paste studio technologies aren’t designed to transform the past, they customize it. Replication exists before transformation and use is “originality.” Artists no longer feel that they have to make up their own images, they simply retread the found imagery that has been ingested through all of our electronic outlets. For artists this has created a conceptual endgame aimed at re-contextualizing this found culture – making “context” far more important than the replication – ground over subject. Originality is now determined by how one manages the ground rather than how one uses the subject. There is a further element to this endgame practice in that most all of our “culture” is now copyrighted. With everything institutionalized in this way we no longer have to overcome precedent – the “agon” described by Harold Bloom is not the anxiety that drives the next generation of artists. Today cultural production’s anxiety is about business and the proliferation of that business throughout the media – who owns it, who uses it and who gets paid for it. Originality, transformation are not the point – customization and accessibility are. As culture of all type, high, middle and low, has merged with business, style and theoretical change has all but disappeared. We are content with upgrades, reformulations and revivals of existing software – we have come to believe that this is the only kind of change that matters.

Appropriation

The Fairey case brings up many these same philosophical issues for artists – economic, political, cultural, theoretical, moral and ethical. How do we use these images – what does it mean to use these images – how do we change them – if we create our own images can they be used by others in this same way – where does money begin to play into the equation – does this change the aspect of the use of these images? Do images still carry power – how do they service power? The questions are endless.

Unfortunately for Shepard, he has become the poster-boy for many of these issues. His Obama poster was an iconic image during the last campaign, and it helped to define a new political reality for the United States. (This too may be part of his legal problems, there are many who did not want power to shift hands.) Fairey has always acknowledged the fact that he used copyrighted images, that isn’t necessarily a problem under the concept of fair use. In this instance his work’s use of the copyrighted image had changed the original enough for this new work to be considered “original” in the legal sense. I’m sure he would have had no problems in court – it was a fairly straight-forward fair use case. But that’s not how this whole affair has played out. We found, as the case has gone on, that evidence had been destroyed, and that he had purposely mislead the court about which photo was used to make this now-famous image. In the blink of eye so many other factors about how and why artists appropriate imagery have come into play. There is now a criminal case pending even as the civil case continues. None of this bodes well for Fairey or for the artists that will have to appear in courts to defend their use of copyrighted culture. Surprisingly for Postmodernists everywhere, it turns out that making Art may very well have moral, ethical and philosophical considerations after all.

Artists can’t simply slough off questions about what we do and how we do it any longer. To continue to hide behind the Postmodern monolith does not bode well for the future of “appropriation.” Which brings us to the questions we might begin to ask ourselves in our own studios. Should we create our own styles, our own images or do we continue to use what we know, what we understand? What should we question, what should we accept, what should we create? Do we customize or innovate? Again these questions are endless. They are the shifting realities we create in our studios, and that may begin to count for something in our quest for innovation and style change. Paraphrasing Dave Hickey from his speech at SVA in the fall – if you follow the rules your art disappears, it becomes just another thing on the wall. As we continue to look into reality, it is that thing on the wall that will become our focus, not the ground that supports it. We will turn away from context and look closely at how we might change the reality of the thing in itself.

reality_precedent addendum

A friend sent me this link to a fantastic article entitled “How Tudorphilia rescued Delaroche.” The article is about a forgotten history painter and his once “sensational” painting. In what is one of the great critical renderings of all time – “…the revolutionary poet Théophile Gautier delivered one of art history’s more damning reviews: “I hated Paul Delaroche, whom I had never seen, with a savage and aesthetic hatred,” he declared. “I could have eaten him, and thought him good eating, as the young Redskin thought the Bishop of Quebec.” The article takes us even further into the critique: “He was subsequently and universally characterised as a bourgeois dead end at the birth of the radical lineage of modernism that went from Delacroix through Manet to Cézanne and on to Picasso. “Delaroche was not born a painter,” Gautier wrote. “He belonged to the middle classes. He tried to be interesting, which is a matter absolutely secondary in art.””

This is part of the social problem we painters are experiencing today. So many of us expect to be part of the middle class as we spend copious amounts of time trying to be interesting. All of this stems from the way we use precedent, the way we have come to define reality. We don’t question precedent – we contextualize it – especially through our Pop Culture.
“Accompanied by inevitable screenings of The Private Life of Henry VIII and Elizabeth as well as lectures on the “nine days’ queen”, Delaroche’s painting feeds an appetite that takes in, on the one hand, the US Showtime/BBC soap The Tudors (now in its fourth season: “Henry’s tumultuous relationships with his last two wives, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr, and his final descent into madness . . .”) and, on the other, Hilary Mantel’s mesmerising Booker-winning novel, Wolf Hall, told through the life of Thomas Cromwell.” And unfortunately for us most of our “advanced” Art has become little more than an adjunct of Popular Culture a career path in the entertainment industry.

When all is said and done there is very little practical visual theoretical difference between this painting and this painting – they both arrive in our line of sight from the same overwrought Pop culture sensibility. But today painting can do better things than this. We may have to accept Postmodernism’s legacy of picture making, but we can alter it, change it, invigorate it with our own visual histories. We don’t have to run the program or upgrade it. We can hack it, enrich it with our forgotten visual legacy and turn it into something of our own.

In a sharp essay in the Times Roberta Smith makes a play for painting. “FEW modern myths about art have been as persistent or as annoying as the so-called death of painting. Unless, of course, it is the belief that abstract and representational painting are oil and water, never to meet as one. The two notions are related. The Modernist insistence on the separation of representation and abstraction robbed painting of essential vitality. Both notions have their well-known advocates. And both, in my mind seem, well, very 20th century” And in a defense of painting as a viable, advanced theoretical activity she declares, “…what really is questionable, and passé, is the implied ranking of art mediums and the leaving of some of them for dead. None of them ever really, ultimately have much of a monopoly on quality. And something else greatly reduces the chances of the death of painting: too many people — most obviously women — are just beginning to make their mark with the medium and are becoming active in its public dialogue. “

reality will continue…

reality_precedent

John LennonI came across an article online about the new ad campaign by Citroen;

“[John] Lennon and [Marilyn] Monroe each appear in a 30-second spot, both encouraging viewers to use their creativity for influencing everyday life, rather than seeking inspiration in the past.” Both ads extolling the virtues of originality, innovation and change. “Once a things been done it’s been done, so why all this nostalgia? I mean, for the 60’s and 70’s, you know, looking backwards for inspiration, copying the past,” Lennon is pictured asking. “How’s that rock and roll? Do something of your own. Start something new. Live your life now.”

Then we see the Citroen car – and I will leave you to judge the “originality” of that particular auto design.

It’s disconcerting seeing the digitally altered images with the not-quite-synched lip movements. Lennon’s image looks as if it was taken from a 70’s interview – making the discussion of “nostalgia” perverse. This image, an image removed from its time and re-presented and reconfigured in ours, is declaring the need to do away with nostalgia. The Marilyn ad is not much better. The moving image has been altered in the same manner. The text is: “You should create your own icons and way of life, because nostalgia isn’t glamorous. If I had one thing to say it would be, live your life now.” The amalgamation of sound and image is even more annoying than the previous one. Everything we see and experience in these videos is manufactured with lens-based programs. This is a past that never existed – interviews that never took place. The ideas expressed were probably scripted by the ad agency, and the voice overs were probably done using an actor’s impression or from cut and pasted voice snippets captured and looped from various recorded interviews. Not quite Avatar-like, but give them time. Fairly soon these programs will be able to animate any face convincingly, and then the pantheon of the famous will live forever in the program, appearing in every context, every possibility. Finally, the tag line for these ads is the ultimate in Postmodern solipsism – “live your life now” – encouragement imparted to us in “real time” by those who are no longer living in real time, so that we might describe ourselves as being “new,” “iconic,” “original” or “rock and roll” when we purchase this particular product.

The truth is that the company selling us the car is not handing us a new innovation, a new way of travel (say, a car that runs perpetually on gyroscopes, clean air hydrogen based fuel and hovers silently at twenty feet.) No, the “innovation” that will set us on the path to iconic individuality is that this car will look like a spiffier SUV, it’s innovation is cosmetic, nevermind that it uses the same sort of internal combustion engine originally installed in a Model T Ford. There is nothing really new going on – we’ve just experienced the customization of the program. But what is different is that we’ve altered the precedent, the past, to make the present reality seem “new.” This new slant on our current “reality” is provided to us with something that we Postmoderns proudly call “context.” Now context can be a good thing – it can provide a broader understanding of precedent and of the realities of the past. But this form of contextual difference is not the same as the POMO term différence. This sort of “context” cheats our current reality by altering that past to conform to our present conditions. We experience this all the time in our entertainment culture – movies based on a true story or recreations of “real” events or, like in the movie Forrest Gump, media captured moments of “reality” inserted into a fictional story. All of these kinds of media manipulations restructure our relationship to the past by actually changing the foundations of precedent. In our art world the continual reappraisal and redefinition of Warhol’s endless legacy is a good case in point.

Now at one time precedent was changed by innovation. I mean this in the sense that a different understanding of the past was created by a new innovation, a new idea. And with that change we began to see the past in a different way, from a different perspective. Picasso and Matisse took on the history of painting – how we saw painting, how we experienced its meanings. They used history as a foundation for the radical visual changes that they were proposing. They weren’t interested in contextualizing that precedent, changing our understanding of Velazquez or Manet. No, they were interested in taking the best parts of those things and incorporating them into their own ideas of what a painting could accomplish. To paraphrase Picasso, “Artists steal.” They took what they needed and built their own innovations, and it was those innovations that changed our relationships to our past. We began to see Velazquez or Manet in a different way because, the innovation, the new idea, used the precedent in a different way. The change of “context” happened after the fact, after the innovation, not before. But the important thing, the use of precedent to innovate, DEMANDED that these artists actually change their work, their ideas and their vision, not change the past.

Matthew Collings makes a similar point in his recent discussion of the Turner Prize in Modern Painters. “Older art, either modern or premodern, isn’t in the picture. Instead the picture is distorted so you don’t notice the weird exclusion.” He is writing about the way art writers and artists now alter precedent not through innovation but through context – particularly the context of the 1960’s – “…a compressed version of the three main isms of the 1960s: Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.” And it’s that compression that has limited the way we use precedent.

Postmodern artists don’t particularly care about change through innovation. They are more worried about promoting context along with something the art/business world calls “positioning” – identifying a market niche for a brand, product or service utilizing traditional marketing placement strategies (i.e. price, promotion, distribution, packaging, and competition.) They use precedent not as a springboard for change, but as a way to sell a product – they use it to promote acceptance. As we’ve discussed already, Postmodernism is a menu driven kind of existence, where one can choose from a variety of sources to create one’s own customized art without actually creating anything that challenges the substance of the system that generates those choices. When we engage in customization we achieve a kind of professionalism, like lawyers or businessmen. We follow the rulings and successes without actually challenging the precepts that created that precedent. To take “Nauman” to the “next level” is not the same thing as challenging what “Nauman’s” work proposes, how he makes it. And that in a nutshell defines a large part of the fear that we Postmoderns refuse to engage and why we are obsessed with refining precedent. If we are not as “strong” as “Nauman” then we fail, we are beaten. If we can not overcome the precedent, if we can not find a new way to express an old thing, then we are, for lack of a better word, fucked. This is the idea in Harold Bloom’s discussion of precedent“A new poet becomes inspired to write because he has read and admired the poetry of previous poets; but this admiration turns into resentment when the new poet discovers that these poets whom he idolized have already said everything he wishes to say. The poet becomes disappointed because he “cannot be Adam early in the morning. There have been too many Adams, and they have named everything.””

Finally, in a recent post at Clancco, one of my favorite art law blogs, they neatly sum up our current studio “reality” –
“The prevailing perception now is that “everything has been done before,” therefore there is no need to even attempt to construe one’s own idea, much less develop a significant and intelligent body of work stemming from years of research and studio-time. Under this rubric, one can only be creative by copying or arrogantly assuming that one can do better than, or make the same statement as, a previous artist in a much better “way.” There’s not much policing of this unfortunate production system, particularly because the population toward which this type of work is being targeted to is of the same mentality and of similar low-expectations. This has nothing to do with education. Professionals and intellectuals of all kinds help to reinforce this Pez dispenser mentality by encouraging the perpetuation and reproduction of popular and immediately accessible art (aka- eye candy).”

reality will continue…