Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Easy Guide to Post Contemporary Philosophy

   As a child I loved to take things apart to figure out the marvelous mechanisms by which they functioned. I would often summer at my grandparents’ house in Alabama, and I recall being fascinated by their beautiful antique clock. One day, when my grandfather left for work, my grandmother went to run errands, and for the first time I found myself all alone with the clock! Today, I decided, would be the day that I tackle it.

"Ship of Fools" by Carl Dobsky
Hours later, there I sat with the clock disassembled - the cogs and springs scattered across the floor, and I realized that my grandmother would return any minute now, and if I didn't put it back together, I was in for big trouble! Somehow, I managed to reassemble it, and it functioned... more or less. Though my grandfather remarked with curiosity that it never quite told time as well as it had before. I never told them about this, but if I had, many years later, I don’t think they would have been too angry. In retrospect, that’s just what people do when they’re trying to understand something. Of course, now I realize I could have consulted a book, or found a less valuable clock to disassemble - perhaps one that wasn’t a family heirloom. I wasn’t the first to take a clock apart and I won’t be the last. But, there is some experiential value in finding out for yourself. Asking questions is a fundamental part of learning and learning how to ask the right question is ever more beneficial. But what happens when all we do is question without the formidable task of formulating answers?

A life of only questioning doesn't allow for the building and passing on of knowledge. Given the brevity of life, we don't have time to re-invent the wheel every single time. How would we build a chariot, a wagon, a car? It was arguably necessary to question the cultural assumptions of the aristocratic 19th century: slavery, gender prejudice, colonialism... but there were necessary values which were also thrown into the rubbish pile such as beauty, truth, skill, and a belief that humanity can better itself, that we can transcend our greed. And early modernism began in this vein, but after the atrocities of two world wars, many of the culturally influential in academia and the art world lost faith in our better selves, precipitating the relativism of Post Modernism to the market driven Contemporary Art.

In a nutshell, Contemporary Art is chiefly concerned with questioning, Post Contemporary proposes answers. Art historians define “Contemporary Art” differently than the dictionary. In art historical terms, “Modern Art" and “Contemporary Art" do not mean “art made now”.

Modern art is largely abstract art made in the first half of the 20th century. Likewise, “Contemporary art” is art made in the latter half of the 20th century and is characterized by Post Modern ideas - that is, it emphasizes the transient and often superficial issues of the present moment. Both emphasize a critique of the Classical fine art tradition and classical values such as quality, beauty, and skill.

Post Contemporary philosophy proposes that the art experience is universal to humanity, and that this experience can inspire healing, and transformation. So, what distinguished Post Contemporary art from Contemporary realism? Being a painter myself, I'll focus my analysis on what I know best, that is: painting. I'll leave other art forms to those who have more expertise in their practice.

The first painting above "Ship of Fools" by Carl Dobsky, is an example of a Post Contemporary painting. The second, entitled "The Old Fence" by John Currin, is an example of a painting that lies more in the category of Post Modern figuration.

"The Old Fence" by John Currin
"Ship of Fools" asks as many questions as it answers, yet its expression is built upon a belief in the baseline of the universal human condition. One man bails out the ship with a small bucket, while the whole craft lurches frighteningly close to sharp rocks, ornamented with the wreckage of previous ships. A reminder of the past, or a premonition of the future?
While he presents the folly of mankind's foolish pursuit of beauty and truth into treacherous waters, we can't help but see this gesture as somehow heroic. For this swarm of butterflies, cascading into the maritime nocturne is an unusual occurrence, perhaps the focus of a zoological investigation? The dramatic baroque light, the Boschian expressions of madness and passion, demand that the viewer inquire deeper than the initial impression of humor. Does this not reflect our own search, each of us, to capture the ephemeral, the rare? Pushing the limits of our understanding requires braving ever greater dangers. Though it may seem that the life of a painter cannot be compared to the intrepid explorer, the astronaut - there are unexpected dangers and sacrifice in the life of the artist, there are murky depths into which we sail, distant from the shores of the people we love, and there we can sometimes lose ourselves in our passion, in our madness.

While I sincerely enjoy Currin's painting, I find it very much locked into the perceived zeitgeist of the time in which it was created. Currin's figures, with their fleshy rendering somewhere between a Cranach and a cartoon are painted with a modicum of skill - yet they are suggestive of playfully grotesque fashion models of the late 90's. His use of classical painting techniques and a hint of grace and beauty might make this work Post Contemporary, save for the fact that their use is rather tongue in cheek, which you can read in the expressions of the figures, the discord between the murky face of the woman on the left and the rest of the painting, and by observing the rest of Currin's work. His use of the European Fine Art Tradition is ironic, he has assembled this construction only to shoot holes in it and bombast the frivolity of art. This work is meant to be read through a post modern, linguistic lens, the technique and the figures are signifiers of an outside context, rather than expressing their meaning through the visual language of painting, mark making, and composition itself - what Vincent Desiderio calls "The Technical Narrative".

"Twilight in Arcadia" by Adam Miller
Dobsky's, and Adam Miller's work "Twilight in Arcadia" are excellent examples of a Post Contemporary use of this technical narrative to convey meaning that transcends the time in which they were created. They speak to us today, not because they present figures dressed in clothing we are familiar with, but because they aspire to speak to every human being about eternal human conditions across every era and every culture. While Currin's work requires a textual analysis to communicate its deeper meaning, "Ship of Fools" and "Twilight" are self evident. They do not beat you over the head with their message, yet they are more and more intelligible the more time one spends before them in contemplation.

(Below is a rough sketch of the Post Contemporary compass, I've put together, to illustrate that these labels aren't black and white, but rather a gray scale. Sometimes the same artist may produce different paintings that fall in the Contemporary and the Post Contemporary categories. You may disagree with the specific placement of each artist, or who I've included or omitted, but I encourage you to make your own if you like.)

"The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy" by Graydon Parrish
Instead of trying to change the minds of Art historians to include our work in the museums that house Contemporary Art, Post Contemporary offers an alternative form where classical values are acceptable, one need not reflect one’s time to be relevant, and quality is more important than novelty. That isn't to say that one mustn't reflect one's time, nor that novelty has no value in Post Contemporary philosophy. PoCo does not view art history as a single line of progress, as Contemporary art views it, but a branching path, where many different approaches can co-exist in a pluralist art culture.

Artists still make modern art today. Artists will still make contemporary art tomorrow. But now there is a place for artists who make work that expresses coherent ideas through a visual language, rather than through a text. Questioning is valuable and will always be an integral part of what the artist is here to do. And I would argue, to the chagrin of some of my dear colleagues, that Duchamp's urinal, which inquired into the very definition of art itself, was an excellent line of inquiry. However, the same interrogation has been repeated for nearly a hundred years now, and questioning alone forces us into a feedback loop, which the Italian poet Primo Levi describes as "the unstoppable and cyclical rebirth of the 'modernist' rhetoric".

In the course of a day, most of us don't have much time to reflect upon the deeper reasons why we do what we do. We act and react to countless events, and relying upon our instincts is often the most expedient way of getting through the day. But there are times when what we're doing isn't yielding the results we desire. If the goal of art is to have a positive impact on culture, such is the state of the market driven Contemporary Art world. We have asked a century worth of questions... some productive, some not. We have questioned our assumptions and the very foundations of our reality. But what has not been embraced thus far in the art world, is the attempt to formulate new answers.

Now we have the opportunity to move forward, to blaze new territories, but in order to succeed, we must abandon the century old battle between the classical tradition and the contemporary art world... between the questions and the answers. Why not embrace what each of us do best and build a dialogue between the two worlds? We have learned the mysterious inner workings of the clock, now let us embark together to build a better one. Together we might learn to ask better questions, and perhaps we might find a few answers.

Post Contemporary is not owned or originated by any one individual. Though, I am to blame for introducing the term to the world of painting, I do not propose to be the founder. I am merely trying to describe what I see already developing around me. PoCo emphasizes empathy for all, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or creed. PoCo is  not a movement, but an aesthetic philosophy within which many movements may take place - like modernism and post-modernism before it. PoCo values are not only expressed through the work of painters, but also in sculpture, architecture, literature, and film.