Monday, August 30, 2010

Judging Art: Part II

"The primary purpose of Art is the meaningful objectification of whatever is metaphysically important to man". - Ayn Rand

I offer for your contemplation the long awaited sequel to Judging Art: Almost Objectively. For you gentle reader, I would like to propose a small suggestion. Find someplace comfortable, select a beverage of your choice (I like a subtle Burgundy or a Chimay) and print this article out. This is not light reading and after a while the computer screen may strain your eyes. And I personally prefer the light reassuring sensation of paper in my hands.

For my Kitsch colleagues, please see my first article to see how and why I'm using the term "Art".

Since the publication of Part I, I have received a great number of compelling responses, both positive and critical which have lead me further down this path of inquiry than I had before expected. For this I am grateful! Though I don't propose to have solved these questions by any means, at least for me, the ideas that I will express seem to shed some light on as of late dusty and un-touched corners of philosophy and consciousness. Indeed, I think that the advances in our understanding of human consciousness play a big part in revealing the basis behind the aesthetic experience. Perhaps science will never completely explain the intricacies of human consciousness, the question of the spirit, the aesthetic experience, but it can and does bring us half-steps closer. All the while uncovering two questions for every one that it answers - a process I think quite worthwhile. In that vein, I've embarked upon a path of research, debate, testing my theories with colleagues. And so, I look upon this as a work in progress and hope that the questions which arise will help us as artists: to foster our own creative and technical process, and as individuals I hope it will result in some greater understanding of these beautiful and strange creatures we call fellow human beings.

I have lately been reading a fascinating explication of Ayn Rand's esthetic theory, entitled What Art Is. What Rand (and the brilliant authors) have illuminated for me, is that there are several levels of meaning communicated in a work of Art. As obvious as this may seem, the understanding of the nature of these levels illuminates something about the creative process, about the nature of communication, and even about the nature of consciousness. And it accounts partially for how and why each viewer can and will read so many different things from the same piece.

The first level, being closest to the individual and the most intimate and emotive form of communication, is the inherent content that a successful work communicates - what I discussed in part I. Briefly, this base-line communication derives from our shared genetic predisposition and the part of our life experiences that are universal. Yes, I've heard the standard post-modernist response to the "universal" argument enough times to know what many of you are perhaps thinking. This content is context ALSO and is not really in the work itself! Of course, objectively speaking, if you were an alien intelligence, gazing at Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring", you would not see this human meaning as inherent to the work, you would not likely feel the gentle significance of her slightly parted lips, the posture of her shoulder, the glint of light upon the pearl, the graphic contrast between her form and the impenetrable darkness around her. And so it would also be context projected upon it by humans.

But, as fascinating as this ET scenario is ... (what would such a being think of our Art?), this brings up an important point, so please bear with me for a moment while I temporarily digress.
Have you ever felt as if you were only half awake? I certainly have. And it seems like I experience "existence" more when I halt the verbal background noise that's always bounding around in my head and I simply focus upon my senses. This is one of the reasons I love painting. It is the point where communication becomes communion: the point where the moment of the artist transcends space and time and meets the moment of the individual viewer. We'll return to this eternal moment later (or perhaps we've never left?). But for now, we have to start at the beginning, for the nature of meaning in Art is directly linked to our consciousness.

Consider the question: "do I exist?"

Seriously, ask yourself this question. If your answer is "yes, of course I exist!" I will kindly ask you to prove it. Oh, don't worry, you don't have to prove it to me. You merely have to prove it to yourself. However, your most reliable method of proof is your sensory input, which under many different circumstances might not be trustworthy - especially since it's meaningless until it's interpreted by the brain. Your entire reality exists in you brain. Everything you see, smell, hear, and touch. Maybe nothing exists at all! Woah, stop there! Now, we're going down a slipper slope, one which I've ventured down before, and I must say it led me through several of Dante's circles of hell. Yet, somehow, I was able to crawl my way back out. But, if you make the necessary assumption that you do indeed exist, the next questions are: "Does the world around me exist?", "Does everyone else exist?" Ultimately, we cannot absolutely prove anything. So, we have to make a fundamental assumption based on the information we have. Yes, we all exist. Great, I'm glad we cleared that up!

We all exist, and we are human beings. Art is made by human beings for human purposes and we have to make certain base assumptions if we are to get anywhere with the question of objectivity/subjectivity. If you remove the human content, it is no longer Art but simply a physical object: paper, scribbles (which the mind may interpret as words), paint on canvas, the motion of a body, etc... The thing that makes a material object into Art is the human gaze, the human mind, the human spirit. This is one thing that much of the Conceptual Art world understands, but what they're missing is the other necessary component. Without the act of communication, the concept is not Art.
As we move away from inherent content, things become a bit more ambiguous. Subjectivity plays an incrementally greater role. So, the second level of meaning is intermediate between inherent content and projected context. I will call it: individual context. This is meaning that draws from individual and social experiences in life that are common to all cultures, but not universal, though we all understand and respond to them in some way: family relationships, friends, hardship or privilege, loss, getting married or having a lover, parenthood, etc...

The third level of meaning, the most conceptual, is projected context. This is meaning that is projected onto the work by the viewer, based upon symbolism and iconography which are culturally specific and are learned: ideas that are absorbed from our specific kind of education (whatever form that may take), specific environment, exposure to the media and advertising, biases and views that relate to the time period in which we live, philosophical/religious/political ideologies, etc....

Related to this description of the different ways content can be communicated by a piece, I think it's important to make a distinction about the kinds of content which may be communicated. I often hear from the Conceptualist Contemporary Art faithful, something which can be summed up by a quote.

"Man is by nature a political animal". - Aristotle

Many of them take this to mean that all human action and communication is political action and communication - an idea that was championed by Marx. This assumption leads much of the contemporary Art world to believe that a work is "relevant", only if it is knowledgeable of this "fact", and addresses political concerns of the time. But, there are two major problems with this assumption. One is that Aristotle's polis, the city state, is a different and less complex form of politics than our current conception of politics (a discussion I'll leave for later). The second, and most important problem, is that only a portion of the human experience is political. Shall we say that Art shall be only for political people?

Not everything is about the struggle for power. Not every action is duplicitious. We may have friends simply because it pleases us. In fact, on a larger scale, Democracies or Republics function only as well as the people understand and communicate with each other on an individual level. Political content is only one kind of content and is often very time specific. So, if a work does not have other, inherent or human meaning, it will simply become a historical footnote. When those particular concerns have changed, as they always have and always will, the work will no longer have much of anything "relevant" to say to the viewer. If you peruse through collections of the finest art magazines and books from the first half of the 20th century, you will inevitably discover many artists who were praised at that time as among the greatest of history, far greater than the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Munch, Pollock. And yet, most of us who were not alive at that time, even with degrees in Art history, have never heard mention of them. Painters like: Bazaine, Da Silva, Bissier, Pasmore, or names that I recall coming across once or twice: Vasarely, Hartung, Soulages. The re-writing of what is important in history is ever constant.

Whether inherent or contextual meaning, there are three types of human content which are related to the levels of meaning mentioned above, that may be communicated in a work of Art: individual, social, and political. Individual content derives from our individual experiences, both subjective and those that are universal. Social content has to do with our relationships with family, friends, lovers, co-workers. Political content pertains to power structures within and between large groups, ideologies, dogmas, ... and because of this political content most often takes the form of propaganda.

From my perspective, it seems like the most successful work focuses primarily on individual content and often social content. It can include political content, but this cannot be its only meaning if it is to most effectively fulfil its purpose. Regardless of what culture, era, or part of the world you call home, and regardless of your political/religious/philosophical views; a work that speaks poetically and profoundly about our shared human experience will always speak directly to you.

Certainly, there are many learned biases, or perceptive lenses which may obscure, distort, or clarify one's ability to apprehend and experience a work. These are examples of unconscious projected context and are not uniformly bad or good. Sometimes they clarify and sometimes they simply blind us from seeing what's in front of us. Thus, it helps to be conscious of our biases and learn how to discard those we don't feel are helping, and perhaps enhance those that we feel are useful. Which is a fundamental role that education plays, and why each person should be actively engaged in their education, rather than just allowing it to be pressed upon them.

So, this brings us full circle. What is it that makes a work "better" than another? Is it skill? Is it emotion? Is it a new or compelling idea? As I said before, yes and no. It is all of these things.
On intuitive meaning vs. cognitive meaning

"Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were precepts"

- Ayn Rand

In order for the work to communicate most effectively, it must do so on an intuitive level so that, as Rand explains above, the work can be immediately grasped, pre-verbally, before any cognition has taken place, as if it was perceived and sensed. This sensing, this understanding takes place in the right brain and is akin to the sense of "being" that many spiritual leaders describe during prayer or meditation.
Indeed, Art is of a dual nature. (Or even further, Art is of a pluralist nature). It is not entirely objective, nor is it entirely subjective. Great beauty requires a bit of the sublime. And the truly sublime requires a bit of beauty. Beauty is not just physical, and the sublime is not purely conceptual or even "non-material" in the transcendental right brain sense. This is why I choose to use different terminology: because of how much baggage is associated with the "sublime". Because of Kant, whether or not he intended it, it has become associated with only the "concept" or Plato's "form" within the Art world. But, as you and I know, originally the definition was more about the absence of language, concept... this higher, transcendental state. But, for this reason, the word "sublime" confuses people.

I prefer to analyze this in terms of emotional and conceptual content. (See Judging Art Part I)Emotional and Conceptual: this necessitates creativity and skill - I use the term "skill" in a more open minded definition than most realists, and I use the term "creativity" in more open minded sense than the abstract or modern artists. As I've said before, great Art requires three things: intelligence, passion, and skill. What I mean by that is, emotional content, conceptual content, a sufficient skill to communicate the two, and a poetic and creative combination of all three. The great thing is that each artist combines them in different proportions. But, the natural result of the effective combination of these three elements will necessarily be: both the transcendent experience (sorry, I won't call it sublime) that we've been talking about, as well as beauty. This beauty can and is defined in many ways, but I think this transcendent "being" or presence is largely the same in every person because it rests upon our universal humanity. Though some are more practiced at achieving this state than others, as one who meditates is more practiced at achieving a trance -this absense of thought is the frame of mind one must have when first viewing the work, or one will not understand the primary point. One can, of course, venture into all forms of context and this is not a fruitless act, but it is additional and not fundamental to the core meaning. This accounts for both the immediate and shared universal response as well as the additional knowledge or experience collected in our unconscious and intuitive mind.

I have long wondered why Art often takes the place of religion for some, and now I understand why. It offers a path to the deepest connection to ourselves, to each other. It gives ghostly form to our hopes, dreams, passions, and fears. It is profoundly intertwined with our very consciousness and embodies the manifestation of our most spiritual moments. The greatest work transports us to the moment of its creation, to peer out from beneath the opalescent layers of paint and oil to catch a wavering glimpse of its creator, as if through a dark foggy glass. His moment of creation becomes our own and for a small space, time stands still, it melts away. We meet this soul and feel "this is my brother, my sister, my father or mother... this is me". All of the tragedies and joys that have graced his life, I too share. And what greater means can we have to address the grave problems ahead of us than this bottomless and shared, individual understanding?

Thanks to my friend Michael Guilmet for sharing with me this very pertinent quote:

"The revelation of art is not ethics, nor a judgment, nor even humanity as one generally thinks of it. Rather, the revelation is a marveling recognition of the radiant Form of forms that shines through all things. In the simplest terms, I think we might say that when a situation or phenomenon evokes in us a sense of existence (instead of some reference to the possibility of an assurance of meaning) we have had an experience of this kind. The sense of existence evoked may be shallow or profound, more or less intense, according to our capacity or readiness; but even a brief shock (say for example, when discovering the moon over the city roofs or hearing a sharp bird cry at night) can yield an experience of the order of no-mind: that is to say, the poetical order, the order of art. When this occurs, our own reality-beyond-meaning is awakened (or perhaps better: we are awakened to our own reality beyond meaning) and we experience an affect that is neither thought nor feeling but an interior impact. The phenomenon, disengaged from cosmic references, has disengaged ourselves, by the principle, well known to magic by which like conjures like. In fact both magic of art and the art of magic derive from and are addressed to experiences of this order. Hence the power of the meaningless syllables, the mumbo jumbo of magic and the meaningless verbalizations of metaphysics, lyric poetry and art interpretation function evocatively, not referentially; like the beat of the shaman’s drum, not like a formula of Einstein. One moment later and we have classified the experience and may be having utterable feelings that are in the public domain and they will be either sentimental or profound, according to our education. But according to our life, we have had, for an instant, a sense of existence: a moment of unevaluated, unimpeded, lyric life, antecedent to both thought and feeling; such can never be communicated by means of empirically verifiable propositions, but only suggested by art."

- Joseph Campbell

I hope I've left you with more questions than answers.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Anarchic Choreography

Michael Clark at Tate Modern.

I thought dance entailed "dancers" and a larger range of motion.... it looks to me like they're lying down on a massive communal yoga mat. Isn't that kind of like playing the piano with one finger while rolling around in someone else's sweaty bacteria?

Well, at least they'll have washboard abs by the end of this, if not unidentifiable skin rashes.

I came across a great response in a discussion pertaining to this article in the The Guardian.

Sounds kind of cool doesn't it? What a reputation to have - "anarchic choreographer" - wow, how trendy! In a few years, if anarchic choreography takes off, there will be undergraduate degrees in 'anarchic choreography' - throwing out all those stale old rules of choreography - maan. In fact, with time, anything that might resemble old fashioned 'dance'. Over time, in order to earn the reputation 'anarchic choreographer', choreographers will have to become more and more 'anarchic', discarding more and more of the things that ever made dance popular. They'll lose public support somewhere down the road of course, but it won't matter, because before too long, anarchic choreographers will no longer be judged according to the standards of old, conservative, stuckist, choreographers. Anarchic Choreography will be self-referrential, self-regarding, self-contained and self-justifying in terms of its anarchic forward-lookingness; they'll claim that there's great value in avant-garde, (controlled / contained) anarchy to the advancement of society. And anarchic choreographers will keep pushing and pushing those assumed benefits in the belief that one day, everyone will have forgotten what dance used to be about, and instead, appreciate new, 'anarchic' dance.

Hell, it might even decide that that's not anarchic enough and in order to be truly anarchic, choreographers will have to vow to destroy dance itself!

There'll be a band of people yelling "but this isn't dance is it?" Who will be sneered at by the media, the dancy - arty intelligencia and the generations of 5,000 or more "BA(hons) Anarchic Choreography" students who graduate each year from formerly hallowed places of learning to dance and to choreograph dance moves.

Sound like a familiar story? :-)

Lee Woods,

Well said.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Odd and the Crazy

"You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegan's Wake and Picasso." - Philip Larkin

When I first came across the work of the Norwegian master Odd Nerdrum, I was in my studio during the summer following my first year at NYAA. I had just recovered from the culture shock of moving from rural Georgia to New York, never even having visited the city before. I had grown up in a trailer park, had experienced poverty and struggle, and had finally paid my way through college between three jobs and scholarships. I had escaped, though I never thought I would end up in New York. I had never in my life had access to museums such as the Met, and for the first time I could see the Old Masters in person. It was indeed a life altering experience. The incredible technical and theoretical training I was getting at the Academy gave me a newfound ability to understand these masterpieces from many different perspectives. In my mind, I had already achieved success.

I had joined Ted Schmidt in copying at the Met, and was working on a copy of a Rembrandt in my studio when he stopped by with a heavy book under his arm. It was a large tome of Odd’s work and I was so taken by these bizarre and haunting paintings that Ted suggested I should study with him. I laughed. I didn’t think it was possible, but then again, I also never imagined I would be copying a Rembrandt in oils at the Met. I was a long way from Georgia, and eventually, I would be farther still.

I bought both of his large books and memorized every detail. I went to see his exhibition at Forum Gallery and started experimenting with his heavy herringbone linen, but I just couldn’t seem to crack the code. People told me horror stories about his vast temper and cult like students, stories of them wearing nothing but animal skins and living some kind of crazy ascetic lifestyle on the Norwegian coast. So I just forgot about the whole thing and concentrated on my immediate situation. I was graduating soon, with the burden of student loans on my back, an overpriced apartment in Brooklyn, and I was in desperate need of a job.

Luckily, a friend of mine was working as a painter for Jeff Koons and set up an interview for me. When I got the job I was thrilled, but after a year and a half of long hours and overtime I found that I was no longer painting for myself and was just making ends meet. I learned much (mostly about the Art market), but all my energy went in to Jeff’s work. Though it was a good stepping stone, I could not see myself working there for years, so I finally decided to take the risk and I sent Odd a letter. When, a few months later, I learned that I was accepted, I had a feeling of both elation and trepidation. I was elated because I knew many people had been rejected, but still I had no money saved up and I had student loans to pay off. This was not a practical decision. Of course, that hadn’t held me back before. The feeling only slightly lifted when I finally arrived in a cold, desolate land, jet-lagged and bleary on March 1st , to find three feet of snow on the ground and even more swiftly falling. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of my face, but through the eddies I could barely distinguish a car waiting for me, and standing beside it, a tall, imposing figure wearing a long double breasted black coat and a shock of hair - writhing in the wind and white as the snow. This must be Odd Nerdrum.

As soon as I entered the car, he began to drill me with questions, the first of which was "Why do you wish to study with me?" In my exhaustion I somehow managed to answer him coherently, then I collapsed on the bed as soon as soon as I got to my room. My first thought upon waking the next day was, what have I gotten myself into?

It turns out that what I had gotten myself into was one of the best choices I have ever made in my life. I soon discovered that Odd was not only a masterful painter, but also a very kind man with a quick wit and an enigmatic personality. He holds a vast knowledge of art history, philosophy, literature, and technique, all just as bottomless as his sense of humor. And yes, he is very eccentric, but quite open-minded. (During my first week there, he called me into his studio and asked me to tell him what was wrong with his painting. Then he actually did what I suggested!) I was not required to wear animal skins and paint post-apocalyptic scenes. I didn’t have to slave away as a studio assistant, grinding pigments by hand, stretching canvases, and modeling. Yes, I did have to do these things sometimes, but most of my time was available for painting and learning. After six weeks, Odd invited me to study with him for a year in Paris: an invitation I couldn’t refuse. My wife and I moved out of our apartment, put our things in storage and ventured onto the plane. In Paris for the first time, I went to the Louvre, Le Petit Palais, the Rodin Museum, and many galleries with Odd; all the while debating everything we saw. I recall fondly the time we were kicked out of a Scandinavian run gallery in the 4th arrondissement. The owner chased us out screaming something about "Nazi-Kunst". Apparently, they take Clement Greenberg very seriously in Finland.

Watching other students struggle to understand what he was trying to teach them, it dawned on me how many invaluable lessons I had learned at the Academy. Everything from aesthetic theory, anatomy, to historical techniques quickly sprang to memory and enabled me to grasp what he was demonstrating. Without this education, without these tools of analysis, I would perhaps have missed the deeper relevance and might have ended up going no further than a failed mimicry of his techniques.

Odd once told me how, when he was about my age, he met a great American painter: a mentor. Odd felt that this man was one of the greatest artists to have lived and esteemed him along with the Old Masters. One day, he was leaving an exhibition in Philadelphia to find a limousine waiting for him outside. The driver informed him that the car had been sent by this artist and inquired if Odd would like to meet him. Odd accepted with surprise, and when he arrived on the farm, Andrew Wyeth and his wife were there waiting for him with glasses of champagne. They talked long through the night and there began a deep friendship, carried by letters and infrequent visits across the decades. Wyeth had just died when I met Odd, and it was very hard on him. He spoke of all the wealth the world lost when Wyeth passed on. And sitting there with Odd Nerdrum, before his paintings, thinking of his friendship with Andrew Wyeth, I felt a deep loss. I imagined myself at Odd’s age, mourning on the day when he will sadly, and inevitably pass. But I also felt a stirring hope. In this connection there was something. There was a taut string extending from me to Odd, from Odd to Wyeth, and connecting me through them back into the vanishing past. I sensed the similar connections I had made while studying with Steven Assael and Ted Schmidt, still vibrating within my chest. And in the accumulated vibrations of all those thin strings stretching across the ages, it seemed I could almost hear the distant voice of Rembrandt himself, as if whispering into a paper cup at the other end. They may have died, but their voices live on: faintly, but eternally.