“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….