Sunday, July 25, 2010

AHHHHHHHHHHT (Or, Why Modern Art is Important)

The other day, I read a blog post over at BlagHag (by Jen McCreight -- lovely blog, and I recommend reading some of the other stuff too) regarding modern art. What the post says is more-or-less a repetition of a really old criticism of modern / contemporary art, and the more broad l'avantgardisme -- that it really doesn't mean anything, or that the artists / art critics / random people are writing obtuse descriptions of pieces of art that don't relate to anything at all, or that the artist didn't really mean that. It's a really tempting argument to make, and Science knows I wasn't very good about understanding art for a very long time, so I understand the impulse. Nevertheless it's not a friendly criticism, and it's a criticism that sort of misses the point of avant-garde.

The argument rests on an unstated, but pernicious, assumption: that avant-garde work either doesn't qualify as "good art", or even "art" at all, and therefore when people treat it as such, their interpretations are meaningless tripe trying to say something profound about something that isn't profound at all. This assumption is strong, but it might be well-founded -- well, if that assumption wasn't exactly what avant-garde argues against in the first place. Let's think about this with a particular piece, this one referenced in the above-linked blog post.

Untitled (1976), Robert Morris 

The AIC describes this piece as "industrial felt", Jen used the word "oversized car mat" to describe it. My initial impressions were based somewhat on the car mat idea, but I think it holds nonetheless. In day-to-day existence, car mats are one of the least noticeable parts of a car, and are by function permanently underfoot (speaking from experience commuting on the 101 for my internship this summer, this is very true), and is therefore generally unconsidered as an object in an of itself, unless something goes wrong -- the material gives me allergies, or it gets stuck under the seat and gets a lump that bothers the position of my feet, or whatever (this conception I originally heard from my professor for Intro to Theory of Literature last semester, who made the same point, but with a bike -- you never notice the actual mechanics of the bike while you're riding it unless it starts to jam or breaks and you get thrown off). 

What Untitled is doing is a general subversion of that principle. It takes the idea of the car mat , removes it from its permanently trampled place in contemporary society, and puts it up on a wall in the middle of a museum with a title and description and space all its own to consider for its own sake, to be celebrated and contemplated. The mere fact that we're able to contemplate it at all means that the work, as far as I interpret it, succeeds. What this piece and other pieces of found art ask is what exactly we mean when we use the word "art". Does it have to be something that's beautiful? Well, we don't agree on what's beautiful, and our conceptions of beauty have this nasty habit of reinforcing the views and opinions of those that are dominant or in power in our culture. So, how about things that have "artistic merit"? This runs into the same problem as "beauty" (to the point where women back in the 18th and 19th centuries, in a number of noticeable cases, either published anonymously or published under male pen names so that their work would actually be considered). Well, how about anything that's put in a museum -- we can trust the artistically-minded curators to be careful about making sure some non-dominant culture's "good art" gets in, right? Well, this would be where found art comes in. It's in a museum, it has its own space, you're not supposed to touch it. If this doesn't qualify as art, how exactly can you frame your views of what is "good" and "bad" art, or even "art" at all, as anything but your own subjective criteria? It's a brilliant deconstructive practice. We value art museums as centers of worthy artistic expression, excluding all that fails to meet the standard, but that label is something we attach to it, not something intrinsic to art museums. The only option we have left is to realize that absolutely everything can be treated as art.

My own intellectual development in this arena has a lot to to with Roland Barthes' Mythologies (Amazon link), especially "Myth Today", the last chapter. Over the course of the book, Barthes does literary analyses of a bunch of different phenomena, from pro wrestling to detergent marketing to car design, and then in the last chapter, he gives a theoretical framework for all of it -- that mythology exists as an influence that serves to normalize certain cultural practices, such to maintain both the preexisting hierarchy of society and in the case of France when he wrote the book, colonialism and imperialism. From Barthes:
We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. We now understand why, in the eyes of the myth consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter: what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural; it is not read as a motive, but as a reason. If I read the Negro-saluting as symbol pure and simple of imperiality, I must renounce the reality of the picture, it discredits itself in my eyes when it becomes an instrument. Conversely, if I decipher the Negro's salute as an alibi of coloniality, I shatter the myth even more surely by the obviousness of its motivation. But for the myth-reader, the outcome is quite different: everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified: the myth exists from the precise moment when French imperiality achieves the natural state: myth is speech justified in excess.
 The "good art" argument works pretty much the same way -- it's a historical contingency, that is, the artistic preferences of white Europeans, usually men, transmuting into a natural and immortal idea, here, beauty. So while the people who make the objection to modern art probably aren't doing this consciously, it's still reinforcing standards of artistic worth and beauty that are, in context, hegemonic. The way to fight this, again from Barthes, is to fight it with revolutionary, political language:
There is therefore one language which is not mythical, it is the language of man as a producer: wherever man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image, wherever he links his language to the making of things, metalanguage is referred to a language-object, and myth is impossible. This is why revolutionary language proper cannot be mythical. Revolution is defined as a cathartic act meant to reveal the political load of the world: it makes the world; and its language, all of it, is functionally absorbed in this making. It is because it generates speech which is fully, that is to say initially and finally, political, and not, like myth, speech which is initially political and finally natural, that Revolution excludes myth. Just as bourgeois ex-nomination characterizes at once bourgeois ideology and myth itself, revolutionary denomination identifies revolution and the absence of myth. The bourgeoisie hides the fact that it is the bourgeoisie and thereby produces myth; revolution announces itself openly as revolution and thereby abolishes myth.
 Of course this was a few years in advance of Derrida, deconstruction, and the Tel Quels, but it's a similar sort of idea -- we fight convention through subversion, or in this case by subverting our conceptions of "good art" with carefully-placed car mats and Brillo boxes.

I haven't done this topic nearly as much justice as it deserves, but it's at least part of a start, I hope. We need to get to a point socially where we can consider literature and art with room for more of a work(wo)manlike understanding and not just worry about the aesthetics. We could learn a lot.


Annelise said...

Did you just use "Science" instead of "God?" oh Marsh...

But more to the point, your definition of art draws me perilously close to the lack-of-meaning-in-a-truly-relativistic-system blackhole. Attempts to escape:

I would define art as something with its value primarily in its meaning and/or aesthetic appeal. Something like Warhol's soup can has meaning if not appealing to our sense of beauty. Roman statues are aesthetically pleasing if not deep in meaning. (I admit that the car floor is sort of interesting to look at.) However, as a society there is a certain limit to most of our definitions of meaning and aesthetic appeal.

Thus, once you go far enough, you alienate a large part of your population. You lose the definition and idea of the term "art." Personally, I draw the line at the poorly-drawn geometric shapes on lined paper that I found in...maybe the Getty? Maybe to the extremely trained eye there is a disruption of modern art guidelines that provoke the mind, but to the normal viewer, it looks like I handed a 5-year-old paper and pencils. I feel like telling the general audience that this is "art" undermines its value by its lack of/outlandish explanation. Past a certain point it degenerates into a meaningless term.

Also, is there not a difference we can make between "pure bs" and "realistic interpretation?" Even though we're all into relativistic "well to ME this means..." aren't there some interpretations that you're skeptical about?

Rebuttals? I think you taught my brother to shoot his opponents down.

Stephen Marsh said...

Welcome to the hole, it's lovely down here. :)

But seriously, when we're dealing with something like art that's expressly humanistic and doesn't have any verifiable and testable ground-rules (like science would have), then it gets really messy to suggest that broad frameworks can be wrong, and not just inconsistent.

So, I'd ask you why specifically "as a society there is a certain limit to most of our definitions of meaning and aesthetic appeal"? Perhaps there is -- but is the one we have justifiable, normal, or acceptable? I'd submit to you that perhaps it's not. That's what I was trying to get at when I talked about standards of artistic merit and beauty that are based off of hegemony and social dominance -- from the parts of Foucault's Madness and Civilization that I've read, it's a similar argument in that what has qualified as "insane" or "mad" historically have been marginalized viewpoints or ways of being in Western society, and the language of medical literature / what's classified reflects that (if I'm remembering his broad argument correctly, and certainly I'm not doing appropriate justice to it here, but if you get a chance to look at old copies of the DSM and subsequent revisions, it reflects this). I suspect the same principle moves through to art -- that what's considered beautiful or worthy or meaningful on a broad social level does end up being a paradigm asserted by a dominant group (for Western society, read: white Western European-ancestral men), and other things are excluded as "not meaningful", "not art", "bad art", or "unaesthetic".

So yeah, perhaps we do lose to some extent our conventional and present definition of "art", and maybe we do "alienate a large portion of the population", but is that necessarily a bad thing? Our first impressions do tend to leave out a lot, and subversive, transgressive, or non-standard discourses require more work on the part of people that take "common sense" for granted (so for example, I'm still not well-attuned to notice troubling assumptions about women or people of color in literature unless I'm consciously doing it -- something I'm trying to get better at).

So I think it's difficult for me to say that someone else's emotive experience and reaction to art is "pure bs" or a "realistic interpretation", especially as a white cisgendered straight male and especially because of the sheer number of meanings that can be derived from a text if looked at a certain way (if you haven't read it, Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author" explains well). I think what we can say is that someone's analysis is inconsistent, or that it lacks evidentiary support given the framework the person is working under -- so a person that says, say, Toni Morrison's /Beloved/ is about why slavery is awesome or that it's about space travel aren't going to have backup to support what they're saying.

Hopefully that makes some sense maybe? :P