Not Getting It

I absolutely HATE popping off, but sometimes one can’t let things slide. Even in the midst of change the Postmoderns still don’t get it, they don’t understand that they are the problem. First was last week’s Jon Stewart v. Jim Cramer showdown in which we witnessed a cogent dialectical critique of a postmodern entertainer passing himself off as an authority figure. Jon Stewart, a comedian usually prone to silliness and ironic asides, sat face to face with a CNBC financial network’s TV show host, and laid out a critique of what that network’s responsibilities should have been to the general public over the last eight years. It was fascinating to watch. Jon discussed both the network’s stated business and the games it plays around that business. As Daniel Sinker writes, “You see, Stewart’s real critique wasn’t about Cramer, it was also only marginally about CNBC. Instead, Stewart’s real rage comes from the role the modern media has created for itself: the role of cheerleader instead of watchdog, of favoring surface over depth, of respecting authority instead of questioning it.” Critical thought will always unveil the truth.

Second is Jerry Saltz’s column in New York Magazine. Jerry understands that changes are happening, but he just can’t SEE them yet – they are not in the galleries or the art fairs or for that matter in any of the institutions that he hangs about. Instead he spends his time looking for the two point ohs, the upgrades of familiar ideas and familiar work. He likes the tweaks to the known software, and he’s perfectly at home with it’s snags and glitches.

Josh Smith’s densely hung painting show, which was at Luhring Augustine until last week, comes at you with an intense optical force that accurately replicates the psychic energy of our topsy-turvy world. His surfaces shift from handmade to printed to Xeroxed and entice, confuse, and zap the eye. His sense of design, abstraction, and figuration all come forward at once. The paintings are well-made and smart but not about being “important.” This releases all sorts of fresh air into the space around his painting, painting in general, and exhibitions. Two years ago a show like this might have seemed like a marketing ploy; now it feels like life. Whatever it was, it gave me a rush.

He is quite right. The show was packed to the gills, one painting after another. Each made with a different institutional painting strategy, each looking like something we’ve experienced before. However what Jerry is reacting to is the installation of all these works – not the works in themselves. In fact he gives very little info on the specifics of each of the paintings, what they might mean, other than the fact that he believes they are “well-made and smart.” What the fuck does that mean Jerry? What do the images in each SPECIFIC work mean, what is the artist trying to say that his gallery colleagues Christopher Wool or Albert Oehlen have not said about painting already? What is it that is well-made about the work – the way the work is painted or manufactured, the way the images are used or the images themselves? It is not the “fresh air…around the painting” that we need to be looking at. We’ve had fresh air around painting for FAR TOO LONG. We need fecund, thick air in the painting itself. We need to be panting, gasping for air, in front of the painting. AND I might add, this idea of “replicating the psychic energy of our topsy-turvy world” sounds a lot like the same bullshit used to describe Jeff Koons’ replications of Jim Rosenquist’s paintings. Finally… “Two years ago a show like this might have seemed like a marketing ploy; now it feels like life.” Are you saying that after the crash we’ve succumbed to the sophistry of marketing ploys or are you saying that there’s no difference between marketing ploys and life? Anyway you care to slice it – all you’re serving up is the same old gooey Postmodern cheese.

I do agree with Jerry about Rudolph Stingel. That show at Paula Cooper was such a vicious “fuck off” to every installationist, contextualist working the postmodern system. In Paula’s GIGANTIC, theatrical space there were 3 small paintings one on each wall. The paintings are exact copies of black and white photos of Renaissance sculptures of saints. The paintings are not special in any sense and that is part of the point. The show isn’t about the paintings, but it is about what a painting becomes in the context of a large and powerful space. Stingel shows us how that context bestows value on the work itself. The work becomes an object to venerate, just as millions venerate saints embodied through their representations. But Stingel takes it a step further, he doesn’t make a statue, he makes a painting from a photo of the statue. He removes the physical part of the making and the worship. What is missing in the veneration of work in the gallery is the stuff of life, the sweat, the effort, the history, and mostly, the love. Stingel is one of my favorite self-hating Postmodernists.

We at Henri think Jerry needs to take a break, a sabatical. He needs to sit out to meditate, cogitate, and not look at art for awhile. Otherwise he will never get beyond himself, never get beyond the last 20 years and he will fall away with all the rest. Hell, we all like Jerry. He’s gracious and real and fun at parties. But he has become wall-eyed through the years – one eye wandering the crowds while the other is sizing up the horse race of reknown. We hate to do this but…“If you think these paintings have that kind of mojo, you’ve either never looked at those paintings or you know nothing about painting….” Your Wildean stab about Yuskavage’s work also applies to you. We have faith in you Jerry. We don’t want you to fall back on old ways. We want you to get it!

Media – 19 SIXTY

“Perhaps the great revolution produced by photograph was in the traditional arts. The painter could no longer depict a world that had been much photographed. He turned, instead, to reveal the inner process of creativity in expressionism and in abstract art. Likewise, the novelist could no longer describe objects or happenings for readers who already knew what was happening by photo, press, film and radio. The poet and novelist turned to those inward gestures of the mind by which we achieve insight and by which we make ourselves and our world. Thus art moved from outer matching to inner making. Instead of depicting a world that matched the world we already knew, the artists turned to presenting the creative process for public participation.” Marshall McLuhan

BY the end of the 1950s Modernist painting had run its course. “American type painting,” the last modernist practice, built on the cubist and surrealist legacy and created a new form of materialistic expressionistic abstraction. But after its hard won success, ABEX quickly faded in the bright light of a new decade and a new electric generation. It quickly settled into an uncomfortable and contentious academic life. A new culture was beginning to take hold driven by the proliferation of lens based imagery and instantaneous information. Television became the new communal fire, the new town square, where stories, histories and myths would be communicated and folded into the collective psyche. Television was the new codex and transmitter of the way we would understand our culture, our history and our selves. A new form, a new type of art would have to begin to define the power structures that were taking hold, and by doing so, create a new type of art and artist.

Marshall McLuhan detailed the rise of this electronic media and how it would change the way we would understand and communicate with one another. The immediate effect of this cultural change in the Art World was heralded by the work of the new POP artists. Warhol, Lichtenstein and many others were busy grabbing hold of the techniques of reproduction and iconic assimilation and creating a different sort of art. Andy Warhol was the defacto face of POP, and his pronouncements helped define the discussion around it. We’ve posted about Andy’s machine in Overheads and Screenshots and this “machine” would rule the aesthetic discourse into our present day. Electronic lens based reproduction ended the visual age, and with it, the tradition of painting as it was known. Today we are watching the final implosions of these visual theoretics, cultural imperatives and political power structures. We are morphing into a new age driven by our media extensions, and it is once again changing the way we make and understand Art. But what will remain of this postmodern, postpop, posthistorical ground and what are we to make from what remains, what continues?

Shifting Grounds and Percolating Subjectivity

A good example of how the sliding electronic ground of instant total awareness is changing the visual world yet again is to be found in the current fiscal crisis facing the print newspaper industry. Since the inception of the online world the readership and subscribers to printed newspapers has plummeted. A new form of interactive news content has begun to proliferate our culture. Internet generated news can be immediately commented upon through blogs, pundits and the general net-surfing public. In fact this commentary is read, followed and critiqued far more than the actual event reported. News today features the opinions of the mass public about a shared event. For instance, the recent historic spectacle of the first African American president addressing congress about a bold new initiative to reorder American economic structures was quickly overtaken by the fact that many of the lawmakers in the audience were busy “twittering” their passing thoughts. The news of the event and the dialectic being proposed were quickly made redundant by the deluge of commentary that those “tweets” engendered. Additionally, there was the live broadcasting of the event, complete with other news scrolling along the bottom of the screen, digital network graphics and reaction shots of the audience turning the speech into a television program, a reality show. Immediately following the speech we were deluged by network pundits’ commentaries, email reactions from viewers and interviews with focus groups. The shifting ground of the electronic world slid from beneath the rising subject of this event. Printed newspapers can not compete with this instantaneous deluge of personal opinion, flowing entertainment and subjective commentary. The structures of printed news are designed to report events in a dispassionate dialectical manner from a distanced perspective. The print news, most usually, is “old” – at least a day away. One reads the news in order to distill the event, to reason its implications. However this means that a critical distance must be maintained, something the immediate deluge of online subjectivity can not maintain. Further, the opinions about the printed news events on the op-ed pages are separated from the reporting, and as such, they too remain distanced, systematic and visual in nature – they are never confused with the event itself. There is no audience participation in the event other than receptivity – the print reader receives news, the internet participant gets the news. Today it is the commentary that we search for rather than the unfolding dialectical nature of the event – we seek to participate in the programming around the event. Further we do not look for meaning in the event, but we use the event to identify and confirm our subjective interpretations. It is the commentary that has become the news. In electronic culture the event is merely a catalyst for the ground to rise into view. This is the Postmodern condition.

In art practices a similar cultural change regarding commentary and participation has taken place. In Matthew Collings’ recent column in Modern Painters states that conceptual art is the art of today, “We want art to be alert to change, tuned in to how we live now. The whole conceptual tradition, including Pierre Huyghe, offers exactly that. It’s not that Matisse and Gorky, etc., can tell us only about 1917 or 1939. They offer magnificent lookatability, not just beauty but beauty full of mind and feeling — emotion that transcends its own moment. But we are frankly baffled by the tradition of aestheticism that Matisse represents. At least, we can only appreciate it from a distance. We can’t join in. We can’t do it anymore. Society just isn’t set up in the same way. In terms of immediate everydayness, such heights of art have become meaningless. Conceptual art hits the spot instead. (There’s something sad about it. It’s about new freedom, but it’s also basically about giving credence to impotence.) We have this itch for the present that conceptual art answers. It doesn’t have anything worth looking at. Plus its “think-about-it” content isn’t worth thinking about for long.” The in-depth participation of electronic culture has attuned us to the way conceptual practice immerses the audience in an art of immediate accessibility and audience responsiveness. This idea of in-depth participation translates throughout the art world no matter which art form one practices. Concepts are far more user-friendly than the actual physical embodiment of those concepts. The art object is no longer the focus of either the artist’s or audience’s attention, it’s no longer a thing-in-itself but a thing-for-others. That is what we, as both participants and audience, experience in electronic reality – a simulated world of personalized data, information and context – the flow of integral subjective concepts.

Conceptual art was designed for the realm of unfettered consciousness, the Platonic world of Anamnesis and perfect forms. “What one perceives to be learning, then, is actually the recovery of what one has forgotten. (Once it has been brought back it is true belief, to be turned into genuine knowledge by understanding.) And thus Socrates (and Plato) sees himself, not as a teacher, but as a midwife, aiding with the birth of knowledge that was already there in the student.” The photograph, the collage, the combine, the photoshopped image, the painted photograph, the found object, the manufactured incident, the video setup are all aftereffects of the conceptual interrogatory and the reclamation of memory. This is a Socratic form of art that wants to reveal some perfected “truth.” Allan Kaprow’s states in his 1966 Manifesto, “Now as art becomes less art, it takes on philosophy’s early role as critique of life. Even if its beauty can be refuted, it remains astonishingly thoughtful. Precisely because art can be confused with life, it forces attention upon the aim of its ambiguities, to “reveal” experience.” This confusion between art and life and the critique it engenders is where nostalgia for Art emerges, the memory of what Art was. The interrogatory is a way for the audience to remember, to re-connect with the idea of Art. Instead of an encounter with the visual, the conceptual practice unfolds the already understood, the remembered history or the renegotiated memory. For instance, Bruce Nauman posed a question about studio life in Mapping the Studio in 2001, letting his cameras roll through the night. He then projected on the walls of galleries the outcome – a night in the studio space spent documenting the nocturnal life of small animals, a hunting cat, insects and time. What is interesting is not the “live” events in the studio, but the idea of the surveillance that the video of the event engenders. Is it art without the artist? Is it art without framing? Is it art without editing, without choice? Are the images produced interesting in themselves or is it the idea of passing images that is interesting? There are many questions surrounding the nature of the event, the “life” it critiques, and how the work is presented rather than what meaning we might attribute to the images themselves. Again we don’t interact with the images, we interact with the interrogatory, we comment, we conceive. The “piece” is the tool to retrieve the memory of Art. To the Conceptual midwife we are all Anamnesiacs.

A different idea of visual participation is something that visual art, particularly painting, is going to have to redesign in order to grow with the new culture. Don’t get me wrong there are a number of conceptual painters steeped in the idea of audience participation at work today, but their work barely exists as painting. Those paintings are designed to be encountered as things with paint on them. The painting has to mind its manners, and act like yet another thing in our world, like a sculpture, an object or that annoying person driving the Subaru in front of us. We will not give up our commentary, our control or our sureness about what we understand and encounter. We’ve lost our capacity to see, to enjoy how we see and to indulge in that vision. I think Collings gets it right when he says that we can’t join in. We just don’t understand how Matisse’s mind works, how he uses his eyes, because we don’t see in that manner any longer. McLuhan discussed this in depth as well. He detailed how tribal societies could not distinguish what was in a picture – they had no way to understand a one point perspective. Their vision was more inclusive, less specialized. And McLuhan gets it right as well when he says that we have become more like the tribal man through our electronic extensions. But for some of us it’s not enough to continually drown in pools of connectivity or the contexts of installations. We want something more visually exciting and challenging.

to be continued….

Sign O’ The Times

As the art markets are deflating it seems that our critique is being paralleled by other writers! Maybe there’s something in the air? I think a lot of us are trying to discover a way out and a way through to something new. Jonathan Jones hits the nail on the head, “In post-modern capitalism, secondary markets created a counter-reality that was unfettered by production. The economy was run like a theme park. It’s obvious how deeply involved in that daydream was the art of the last 20 years, which so gleefully rejected anything that might tie it to the slow, patient, tedious stuff of real creativity.”

Ships of Theseus – Style VS Brand

“The Ship of Theseus paradox, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object.”

(the video below is important to the critique. youtube has disabled the embedding. you can view it here or you can click into the black area of the video.)A couple of years ago we all participated in the controversy that dogged Damien’s shark. Saatchi had sold the decaying corpse to an American hedge fund billionaire who then had rehired Hirst to repair the damaged piece. Hirst purchased a new shark, and using updated preservative techniques, replaced the old remains with a new corpse. The usual questions ensued – Is it the same piece? Did he destroy the original? The common fallback position for experts and the press was to state that the piece was illustrative of a concept rather than an actual sculpture. This fallback was also Hirst’s, and it neatly tied up any arguments about the physical, the actual and the real in one big red Platonic bow. The shark tank then wound up in the Metropolitan galleries, around the corner from a glass of water by Matisse. Hirst’s idea weighs about a ton, Matisse’s idea just a few ounces. In September Hirst resold that “idea” along with a few of his others in various sizes. In the art world this has become known as working in series, in the marketing world this is known as merchandising a brand. “In marketing, one of the definitions of merchandising is the practice in which the brand or image from one product or service is used to sell another.” The advertising popularity of Hirst’s shark spawned the spins, the cabinets, the diamond skulls and the color dots – each idea then being recombined with recent art history creating a few recognizable lines of product. Each always already familiar, each understood immediately as art, each connoting a specific type of existence, comfort and desirability. But the thing built into all of the works, in their presentation, in their marketing was the one thing that guaranteed their ultimate success as sellable luxury products – nostalgia.

Throughout the history of art artists have tried to portray life in all its forms, creating new styles of art to express their times, their ideas and their lives. In fact this need to “make it new” had been the basic drive underlying western art creating an atmosphere of experimentation, progression and innovation. Until just a few years ago art was a continuing dialectic, testing first principles, new ideas and new visions. However that all changed when the avant garde declared that history no longer existed. In one fell swoop of theoretical smugness intellectuals declared that life was now outside the processes of fleshy existences. Abstraction had swamped the boat of history by encasing the physical figurative in brackets. Many critics began to focus on the institutionalization of avant garde practices and the new postculture that was taking hold. Harold Rosenberg declared that the concept of a revolutionary avant garde was being institutionalized, and in the academies, advanced art had become “…a profession one of whose aspects is the pretense of overthrowing it.” In other words by professionalizing rebellion we remove its transgressive nature. Critics also understood that reproduction and repetition, the twin barrels of the postmodern practice, now placed the artist in a parasitic relationship with the past. The institutional artist would no longer be born of art, but would instead, feed from it.

“In deconstructing the sister notions of origin and originality, postmodernism establishes a schism between itself and the conceptual domain of the avant-garde, looking back at it from across a gulf that in turn establishes a historical divide. The historical period that the avant-garde shared with modernism is over.” Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths

Suddenly there was nothing that could be new, but everything could be “new.” Our yearning for a golden time of art making, the urgency of the early modernists, the insouciant strangeness of the Surrealists, the mythic years of the AbEx painters, the iconoclasm of the Popsters, the intellectual rigor of the Minimalists, the fury of the Expressionists – all of it would return on the carousel of nostalgia in turn after turn of the New New. We continued to take Theseus’ ship apart and rebuilt it until we weren’t sure what was original and what wasn’t. It no longer mattered – we had become entranced by the thought that we were making art rather than actually creating Art. The ship of our history had attained Platonic perfection.

…To A Place Where We Know We Are Loved

Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for really sending that myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell. One. He couldn’t give them away. Almost no one could bear his work, even among the most modern of his colleagues… everybody hated them. We’re so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for van Gogh’s neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh. And yet looking at art history we see that these other guys were pros. They started when they were kids. They sold their work. They worked on commission. There is no great artist in all art history who was as ignored as van Gogh, yet people are still afraid of missing the Van Gogh Boat.” Rene Ricard

Style is a dangerous thing. To develop one’s own style is to set one’s self apart from others’ expectations. However, this is only the outer part of the process, the inner one is far more dangerous. One must be willing to push against the grain, to consciously court failure and discomfort. One must be willing to step off the carousel. Those that have style live in the conviction of that style, and that usually leads to a confrontation – true style is always a challenge. One can get lost in the world that one creates, one can lose sight of the wheel as it turns and wind up crushed beneath it. There are many morality tales of those who flaunt the rules by developing their own style and becoming prisoners of it. Jackson Pollock drank, Van Gogh went mad, and Oscar was imprisoned.

“The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a FLANEUR, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.” Oscar Wilde De Profundis

The success of style can be one’s undoing. But there is something else going on in Oscar’s declaration as well – “I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation.” Style demands something further of an artist. Style demands passion. And for Oscar, as for many others, the idea of passion means that one may not be in control leading one to perversity, malady, madness. Style is born of one’s passions, it comes from one’s lower instincts. Style erupts through one’s being. Donald Judd who pared everything down to angles and surfaces had a style as vicious and unrelenting as Oscar’s florid quotes and quips. Whether expressionistic or sedate style emerges from one’s passions. We are undone when the passion is lost, when the style is no longer original, when we have refurbished it, reworked it and sanitized it in order to appeal to the crowd. We want them to remember, to see us at our best, our youngest, our most passionate. Success in one of its definitions means obsolescence. And achieving success means that one must court one’s obsolescence. An obsolete style no longer engages the crowds. One’s style and one’s passion are no longer fueled by the real, but have become artifacts, corpses in glass houses. We must replay that story, that history over and over for us to wind back at the beginning. We are back on the carousel, traveling through time, forward and back, to wind up at a place where we know we are loved.

But Damien is correct. His declaration that art is nothing more than an idea is where our culture has taken us. Style is too local, too specific, too physical, too personal for a global art world. Brand, however, can encompass style, history and production without demanding something deeper or more physical from the artist. A concept is all that is needed. Damien realized that making art was nothing more than developing Memento Mori out of art’s past. Death permeates his work, and as an artist, his work memorializes a different attitude towards art itself. He wants art to shock, to make one think, to challenge the status quo. But his work does none of that. It mourns. He tarts up the corpse, animates its pieces, he super-inflates its production hoping that somehow life is still there in the bits and pieces. But being an institutional artist he’s clever enough to spin his macabre nostalgia into a recognizable brand of conceptual undertaking. He does not risk style, he risks reputation. And that is the difference or differance. Style would mean the death of Damien Hirst, brand means DH Incorporated will live forever – as a conceptual artist he knows this idea is “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.” And he is by no means alone in this attitude. Artists, designers, fashionistas, architects all are busy trying to conceptualize brands in the graveyards of history. But what of style? What of the personal, passionate, living embodiment of rebellion?

“I am a born antinomian. I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws. But while I see that there is nothing wrong in what one does, I see that there is something wrong in what one becomes. It is well to have learned that.” Oscar Wilde

to be continued…