The artist thrives in the unique state of being able to see things (as they truly are) and presents to the rest of us such a translation in an equally unique vision.
Art is both verb and noun. It is an act of thinking and receiving. It is a sinking-in of information which prompts us to consider our place in the much larger world. Art prompts us to recognize meaning in an artist’s object, a playwright’s dialogue, an actor’s performance, a novelist’s writing, a poet’s verse.
Art is not something which one can visit without having some sort of thought-process, some act of thinking immediately following. This is where the art happens; with the thought—the thinking-about – usually in response to [the] contradictory nature of what is observed. A contrast in size, shape, material within an environment prompts us to think in symbolic terms, and, here, we begin to venture into the realm of Art.
All of this makes me consider Melville’s description of art in his poem of the same name, for he posits just this with his lines: “A wind to melt, a flame to freeze, sad patience, joyous energies – such unlike things must meet and mate” and, also, Wilde’s “Art can make an almond tree blossom in winter, or make snow fall upon the ripe cornfield”; …. or Blake’s “Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine” or, in Berger’s sharper prose “the wooden bird is wafted by the warm air rising from the stove in the kitchen while the real birds are outside freezing to death!”
These are all effective definitions of what art is – for they all contain within them an engagement of opposites, an irony, a new angle in the way things are seen. This is art. Art jolts us out of our accepted narrative, and makes us consider the veracity of that narrative, and, then, has us question our nominal acceptance before we came to our newest point of questioning.
This is why we need the art, artists = to keep us from slipping into a world where there is no contrast, no quest, no questioning, no new view presented to us, no way to really see our world and our place within it.
Whether through Alice’s Looking-Glass prompting us to look at the society of Victorian England or Don Quixote’s Chivalric-Lens in realizing Spain’s place in the advancing modern world, both of these works, (especially) and, all works of literary fiction, works of successful art lead us to a significant and greatly-appreciated truth.
Regarding the static painted visual art piece on a wall, or, the static sculpted object on a pedestal, what are we to read beyond the object’s own “art-object-ness” in a recycled environment of reference and quotation? Can the object we now make be successful at translating our meaning given its expected reception in a now seemingly all-too familiar field? Is the gallery context itself somehow inhibiting as it moves from exclusive space visited by students of art and other artists to the David Byrne familiar with Eric Fischl painting art’s own art-going morphology?
Is it like the phenomenon of digital accessibility —- with too much equaling too ordinary and expected for us to even blink an eye no matter the possible strength of the work residing? Can the static art object give us the reading it means to in its current context of “being art in a gallery”? or, have we become too savvy an audience, too familiar with how the system works for the art object itself to move beyond the space it relies upon for its translation?
Is Visual Art stuck in its own necessary replication, unable to move beyond the “look” of what we know art on a wall to be, to move beyond the entrenched orthodoxy of this look, this paradigm? Does the gallery space by default, due to our familiarity with it – create for the artist a space impossible for understanding the actual work? Is our awareness of “looking at art” getting in the way? Has our method of looking overwhelmed the actual art (if there is any) to be found?
Not unlike a Kafka character in the face of true dilemma, the balance for both lies between the method used (gallery space = traveling circus) and, the very awareness of the method by both the artist (when placing work in such a prescribed space) and the viewer (upon experiencing that space). Both require an isolation without self-awareness, and given our method of viewing art which includes taking along our image-conscious selves, neither of these seems possible.
Apples [w/ PLU Sticker] in Pewter Bowl : ( w/r/t the history of Still Life painting) 37” x 46” – Digital – inkjet collage – 2016
A realistically drawn apple may be read as the mastering of a skill in the field of representational drawing. There are endless ways in which the drawing can be done: varying materials, altering the approach in tackling formal qualities, playing with scale to name but a few.
The subject of an apple, or, bowl of fruit, allows for a connection with 2-dimensional art’s tradition, its history in both the academic “learning how to draw” and the prominent genre works found in painting. This connecting to the past empowers the apple, the fruit as subject matter, referencing a linear progression comprising any true discipline or study which, in turn, genially accounts for its validity and, yes, its relevance.
Depending upon how “good” the drawn fruit is (honoring the laws of realism) will determine the level of mastering. The drawing becomes somewhat of a biographical sketch of where the artist is at the time in the advancement of a learned technical skill. Like hitting the perfect note in music, the wows of the viewer are in response to the artist’s performance, the result of a practiced skill, the visual cue to an artist’s bettering this sought-after facility. We are struck by the artist’s ongoing mastery of drawing something convincingly “real” on a 2-D surface.
In looking at a drawing of an apple or fruit Still-life made today, we might be asked to look at it not in terms of success or failure of a bench-marked realism, (our go-to assessment as viewers) but rather in terms of the choice of subject matter itself. It is in the choosing to draw an apple, fruit bowl that is now our subject matter. Not unlike our original choosing of the apple, the enactment, the act of drawing or painting is now our content.
The weight fruit carries today is not the same in origin, when introduced as subject as it was for Bruegel, Chardin, Courbet. Our supermarket-stickered fruit reads far differently than the anonymous peasant apple-carting of a Bruegel, the bourgeoisie interior sitting-room of a Chardin, or the crumbling aristocracy of a Courbet. Our fruit drawings or paintings hold all of these weighted meanings in reference and tribute which is now our subject.
In today’s world of the ease of digital rendering, and, an omnipresence of PLU- stickered fruit, the romantic notion of a fruit bowl set in golden-hued light on an elegantly arranged table seems foreign, out-of-date, remote, exotic. The only connection to this is precedence, art’s own history’s role in continuity of subject for meaning. We paint and draw fruit because we know painted and drawn fruit register as art. Still-lifes are wonderful rendering workshops and tradition gives us the proverbial nod to go right ahead and draw the apple, so to speak. Weight of subject matter is found with a nod from history and the enactment of the actual making.
The art part, if there is any to be found, might arise, for instance, from the enacted, the activity or ‘scene from a play’, [maybe Chekhov in spirit?] where the fruit bowl is set upon an old yet elegant gate-legged table, and a drawing is worked on by an actor on stage, the actual result never seen by the audience.
The fruit bowl need not be drawn or painted well, poorly, or … at all, even, for the visual prompt to our much larger subject matter is there, found in the reference to an acceptable academic art-making approach and made real by our artist’s set-up of easel and oils; and, our artist, maybe long-since disillusioned —- yet still searching for meaning in a palette of colors fully within physical reach, but, irretrievably lost to one’s failing eyesight or quickly closing memory.
“Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information. Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience co-exist in a state of active interplay.”1
1967 from”The Media is the Massage”
Speech units or phonemes are represented by sign and symbol which evolve through repetition and convention into a working tool of communication. Signs become letters, and letters, alphabets; ideas become pictures which, [in symbolic representation and combination], become words. Words, arbitrary in origin, [extended in translation through derivative root, added suffix and prefix] are then made conventional by use. Use, in response, becomes contingent upon convention.
In origin, writing systems were generated by the need to tally and record food production. Counting grain and creating seasonal calendars of planting and harvesting demanded a uniformity of mark-making in order to retain utility. From the earliest tallying of crop production to the flow of dissemination of information to the masses in reaching our contemporary state of universal literacy, writing systems have continually evolved and produced for us both the necessary invention for ultimate mass communication, and, in their respective states of physical record and object preservation, provide for an extensive anthropological and cultural/literary study.
Other than a spontaneous human utterance of fear or joy, what else can be noted in its origin, its original context that has not gone through some sort of historical transcription? 2
J. G. Herder
Every academic discipline contains a language, a patterning of elements, be they composed of number, word, letter, shape, color, symbol, image, or any repeated system of mark-making. The repetition, structuring and replication make possible the language; the physical (legible) mark-making acting as both the means (to a communication) and an end (that which is [eventually] communicated). The written shapes and letters in their manufactured pattern create as they record (in real time) and, if remaining active in communicating, continue to offer meaning within an ongoing historical context. If no longer used in the act of communicating, the language [in its (now) purely formal state] resides in residual pattern.
Whether composed of letters, words, mathematical symbol, numerical notation, etc., all written language systems rely upon a conventionalized patterning (structure) for their survival. In order for the individual voice to be heard, it must conform to an existing convention. Here lies one of the many paradoxes of language regarding its utility and unique reception.
“The more alive a language is, the less one has thought of reducing it to letters, the more spontaneous it rises to the full unsorted sounds of nature, the less, too, is it writeable…” J. G. Herder
If the overall goal of language is communication, the formal language with which the artist ‘speaks’ is contingent upon the language of the society it intends to speak both to and about. The artist who breaks with the traditional language of its discipline in creating a new form of communication (i.e.: Courbet, Millet, Van Gogh) is initially rejected due to this change in form. Eventually, within the context of history, the society catches up with the new form, [the artist is then identified as being one “ahead of his time”] and the discipline itself is altered, and cannot return to its “time before”.
Language too, moves in this linear fashion, and is as mutable as the society which uses it. The paradox of language is shown here, with the unique voice of the artist “the less, too, is it writeable” having to submit to the conventional in order to be heard. The proverbial misunderstood artist with his “illegible handwriting” is often misread (or, unread?), only to be deciphered much later by the privileged spectators of history.
The way in which we communicate is no doubt being altered by 21st century digital technology with its pace, immediacy, and accessibility. Information is transmitted and made available all of the time, and foremost, is generated in “real time”. This poses all sorts of changes made in how we write, read, gather and assess, streamline and interpret, and, ultimately, make changes to our existing language. The form is inseparable from the content, thus, our language can only reflect our existing medium.
If the medium for writing changes from handwritten correspondence to instant messaging, the language in turn, follows suit. The limited time and space of the text message and the tweet makes no room for the contemplative lengthy passage, the periodic sentence. The abbreviated word in the rising use of acronym is just one of the changes taking place in the field of digital communication. The phonetic translation of these acronyms could certainly find their way (back?) to the logogram. A three word expression taking the form of three letters in acronym could eventually turn into a furthered shorthand symbol. The new shape is no longer phonetic, but logographic. Our written language is changing.
The earlier theories of Johann Herder realign themselves with the current flow of our digital language. Noting Herder’s claim that words are rooted in verb form seems to make perfect sense today, with our activity demanding a new word to be formed to not only identify it, but (actively) participate in its identity. In order to understand the world around us, we naturally, by our given nature, give things names. ‘To blog”, ‘to Google’ and ‘to tweet’ are infinitive forms of verbs which have successfully risen out of the necessarily mutable nature of language and its newest placement in the medium of electronic communication. Conventional use mixes with historical change and gives to language its life. Without both components operating, (and, both seemingly contradictory) [a] language would cease to exist as a language, and would become instead, an historical record of a once-used (but now antiquated) pattern.
In the field of Linguistics, Benjamin Whorf claimed that the content of a language is directly related to the content of a culture and the structure of a language is directly related to the structure of a culture. If this is true, the culture of the tweet, text, and blog (the form) alongside the globalizing power of the Internet (the context of influence) will invariably alter our existing language, or, evolve into a completely new system of sign and symbol all of its own.
Our earliest use of the computer gave to us the Word Processor, a tool further advancing our facility (of writing) while distancing ourselves from the uniqueness of a personal penmanship. The term “word processing” itself gives us a reading of [a] manufactured item being distributed large-scale and to the masses [in the same manner as did Warhol’s images, with the ‘making of’ image through the mechanism of factory-built process, and then, engaging both marketing strategy (the selling of image) and the mass assembling (in the gallery exhibition) of its parts. Image was the subject; mass production (and, mirrored manipulation), the content.
As for image, the computer software program Adobe Photoshop also gives us change in the way in which we take photographs. We no longer take photographs, we “make photographs”. Again, facility and ease of doing this run alongside the distancing of the personal; all images can be manufactured with this software tool, and, the tool, made available to anyone with a computer and the purchasing of the software. The “Photo-Shopping” of image denies any such vestigial concept of “original” or “authentic”.
The shattering of aura (of an art object) with the advent of mechanical reproduction [unveiled for us by Walter Benjamin in 1935] (and made real by Warhol) can now be compared to the advent of the blog, twitter, and text in terms of its own altering of established academically ruled fields. Journalism seems the most affected, along with that of publishing and the copyright. As for language itself, its rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling along with the formal nature of [its] written translation is transforming as rapidly as is the technology we use to communicate.
On another level, the digital transcription and then storage of texts in electronic form [without the need of any actual physical written record, any tangible piece of paper, or reel of microfilm, [or, furthered – any clay tablet, carved vessel or hidden scroll] is the current stage set for the recording of a culture’s history. Electronic blips of translated shapes of 1’s and 0’s house the “history” we now make. The tactile objects of the past will remain just that, (becoming even more of a museum treasure) while the scanning and processing of literature turns what used to be individual books and references into one large electronic ball of page-less citation. If we are lucky, the works existing in their secured digital form will not be lost to technical whimsy, or, political nightmare.
After years of creating odes to writing’s formal cadence and aesthetic script, there is now the revolutionary text message, hypertext translation and abbreviated use of an existing alphabet. I am trying to concentrate my own work in this direction, with the idea of writing and its grammatical form and physical translation of history losing itself in this same stream of advancing technology; both out-running society’s own comprehension of its quickly changing form.
Marshall McLuhan/Quentin Fiore “The Medium is the Massage”. copyright 1967
J. G. Herder – from “On the Origin of Language” – copyright 1966
Maybe another question we might ask would be – “Why are we artists painting in a manner (loosely termed abstraction) which seems to say ‘I’m abstract’ more than it advances any other sort of dialogue or reading?Why are we still choosing a language that is more subjective than objective in an age of where the issues we face in our current politics, (those that rely upon objective fact and science to discuss ) are now requiring a social-activism of sorts, a championing of, serving as topics of social justice and taking to the political streets in protest? In an age where we are having to defend science and truth and facts (an inversion of Renaissance thinking) how does painting something that looks like yet another abstract painting relate to our demand for objective analysis at such a dire point in our political landscape?There must be something that this approach is providing us with in the face of our current reality.
Looking at the history of abstraction in Western Art painting, we see the approach tackled in its infancy with an Arthur Dove foghorn through the Josef Albers square to the eulogizing canvases of Ryman and Martin.Painting moved from objects recognizable to those no longer until we met our final fringe of the material canvas itself.
And, now, here we are, in the 21st century still tackling the canvas but with our intentions very different.We’re no longer advancing a theory, but are engaged in the act of painting in an emotive sense, as therapeutic release, where the artist chooses “inner journey” over outer reality.The common theme is one’s interest in taking that ‘inner journey’ in a self-conscious remove from the outside world, away from the fragmented commercial CMYK landscape and indulge in a “meditative, intimate, individual, excavating of self.”
With our current surroundings being filled 24/7 with images on screens, fashion and advertising in HD, moving billboards as we drive, television screens everywhere and in every direction we look, abbreviated symbols, emojis, and thumbs up or thumbs down, the fact that artists working today are choosing to use a non-image approach, a nonobjective one in order to ‘say something’ with their paintings is symptomatic maybe, of the current flux mentioned by one of the artists here —- and that is, in an effort to survive it.
Maybe we are still painting in the abstract manner to comment upon our current world of image-saturation.Maybe making and then looking at nonobjective swirls of paint are what we need to survive as our current image-making landscape becomes sharper and sharper and more inclined to dictate our behavior (lead us away from our meditative self) rather than supply us with something supplementary to look at on any given day.
Maybe the art on the walls in galleries should be distanced and removed from the real world in terms of its delivery, discussion, and deal with large open swaths of generalized concepts like spirit, balance, harmony and nature, allowing for the connections to be made by sense and feeling rather than study and cultural relevance —- for that is how we may have come to define art anyway.
Artists were once our sole image-makers. Their work, (whether political cartoon, lampoon, editorial illustration, architectural design, photograph, painting, sculpture, carving on clay) assumed a role of communication via a select few. Artists of guilds, patron-hired painters of renown and reputation, professional orators and writers, critics and draftspersons were the ones who gave to our mass audience its cultural signifiers, its innovations within disciplines, and the communication of thoughts, information, and ideas. The circle of influence was small and exclusive; its contributors, for better or worse, employed by patronage, power and privilege.
Today, with our media platforms allowing us a far wider range of respective contributors, we have universal image-making running alongside the artist’s. In addition, we have Visual Art’s seemingly tenuous relationship to its once-inseparable theory; (Greenberg’s Modernist Theory which both promoted painting as it simultaneously, and, accordingly, penned its eulogy); the artist working well within an established discipline pushing tenable Modernist’s boundaries.
Today’s Visual Art seemingly floats without a discipline, and its Modernist Theory, in retrospect, [a discipline criticized itself for its elitism and reduced scope during its time] seems now a welcomed breath of intellectual discourse sorely missed.
A language without a discipline in which to speak it (advance it) is where we seem to find ourselves: wanting our cake (the mooring of Visual Art to a valid language no longer found in theory and scholarship but by virtue of the exhibiting and marketing of the art itself) and, eating it, too – asserting that anything found in these spaces is art, regardless of its challenge to the form, its historical progression, (technical development or any advancement in form) made within the language itself.
So, we have a language that needs to be understood in order for the art to exist, and, the space for that language to exist needs to be open-ended and understood. If either of these fail in communicating, what do we have?
For the most part, the contemporary art gallery exists in its own subset of isolationism by insisting that the language used here in this space is a mystery, is supposed to be one not quite understood, arcane, and, at its furthest, incommunicable. It is a place to go to be inspired, awed, moved by the art objects we see before us. We are there to look at and experience (almost meditatively) objects before us that are presented as art, no matter the success in translation of the language being used.
Elizabethan audiences understood the language of pun and aside, nuanced allusion, political and religious satire. They understood the role of theater, the language of the stage. I’m not sure we can carry this over to today’s gallery-going experience. The deck is stacked against the innocent viewer wanting to get something out of the work displayed. In the open-armedness of the inclusive-minded 21st century – we have an improved increased interest in Visual Art – but many of the museum-like cordons [prompting us to maintain a performance of awed silence] remain firmly in place.
For Visual Art today- the language is not only arcane and mysterious, but gratuitous and random. It seems to consist of an ‘anything goes’ — as long as it “looks like art”, the kind of art that we’ve come to know and trust. The Copernicuses of art-making have had to become Geo-centrists by market-success default. Revolutions are for flipping paradigms on their heads, and the market-controlled Gallery-to-Gala-to-Big Art Fair wants nothing to do with this. It cannot, for its own survival.
So, to look at this whole established system — to look at “looking at art”with some sort of silver-lining – maybe where today’s art is to be found is in the gallery space — but in the gallery-goer’s own sentient experience of ‘going to a gallery and looking at art’. Maybe it is the activity that is the important thing, the social interaction and the community participation and not the “getting anything” from the art, or, what the artist has tried to say with the art object. Maybe it is the diversion itself; the contemporary gallery space really well-designed in successfully generating the collective sigh, gasp, or reflex and, maybe this is what we truly need.
Maybe our art today is to be found in the ‘experiencing of ‘ it — in all of its intangible, abstract and ineffable nuanced state.