Can the Entrenched Language Found in Contemporary Art Be Political in Today’s World?

“Now listen!  Can’t you see that when the language was new – as it was with Chaucer and Homer – the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there?  And can’t you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just wornout literary words?  The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them, they were just rather stale literary words.  Now the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being; he has to get back that intensity into the language.”

Gertrude Stein

The use of painting as a vehicle for change, for social-political commentary in today’s world, or, for advancing any discussion within the more specific field of Contemporary Art is something we might want to take a look at.  We might want to figure out how the subject matter or meaning of these kinds of familiar mannered surfaces actually translate.  Is the language used an effective form?  Is the intended backdrop of political or social commentary (something artists insist exists as they battle with paint and brush on ever-enlarging surfaces) at all possible given the predisposed way in which we look at large (very large) abstract-expressive mark-filled paintings? 

The collaging of photos painted over, personal expressive paint strokes layered thickly onto surfaces, graffiti-type mark-making in an all-over approach comprise these currently successful works of art.  Julie Mehretu and Mark Bradford, [two 21st century artists of significance and note] exhibit paintings that secure both this busy-ness mannerism and its very large wall-length surface.  These two artists not only use the language of abstract and large-scale, but also aim for social-political readings to be found in their work.

The spectacle-seeking environment we live in provides us good reason for the success of these two artists.  The paintings get our attention through scale and spectacular visual.  We are all Disneyland at the American core.  [Was it not Baudrillard who gave us Disney as our true reality?] The 21st Century Art World aims the spotlight on works like these, and, in doing so, claims that yes, these paintings are relevant, and, political.  But is this meaning derived or presented as such due to the art object on the wall that we stand before, or, the artist’s own activism in the real world running alongside the actual paintings?  Can any artwork made today be political in its reading?  Moreover, if presented “as art” – can it be political? 

We no longer rely upon the artist to show us our socio-political sphere (Goya, Daumier, Courbet) for we have a far more direct means of political activism through technology and its media-covered real-time political protest.  Same-day activism, same-minute response conveyed via the Internet and social media technology makes the static art object tucked away on a gallery wall somewhat arcane, remote.  It is only with the direction of the curator, the gallery operation, the art world system do these things operate beyond a really fantastic visual presentation.  Do art works existing on such a scale and promotion instead, and, yes, maybe by default, serve capitalism’s unfettered reach? 

Large Abstract-Expressionist paintings are not only visually powerful; powerful in terms of our encultured definition of what we see as visually strong, but, to most of us now, familiar. 

“Stadia I”, 2004

http://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/03/arts/design/julie-mehretu-san-francisco-museum-of-modern-art.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

The painting (“Stadia I, 2004) and many similar in visual appeal, (with its busy-ness of brushwork all appealing to our ingrained appreciation of this manner) is Postmodernism’s answer to Modernism’s innovations – and, by default, (because we are Post-Modern) involve the use of visual language once acknowledged as avant-garde but now a quotable component used by today’s artists to echo in direct reference.  Yes, homages are possible in certain works, as are the more cynically claimed appropriations, but the artist isn’t claiming this when discussing the work. These works are being presented as heavily-loaded statements regarding our social-political environment.  

“The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the move towards emancipation, all of these social dynamics that are a part of that narrative we don’t really talk about in regards to {sic} American landscape painting. And so, what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment?” — Julie Mehretu

When we look at Mehretu’s “Stadia I”, 2004 or

“Black Venus”, 2005

Mark Bradford’s “Black Venus” 2005 – we see something gorgeously made and executed, [heavy on compositional tactics that credit Modernism’s successful visual language trials] and composed of a deliberate layering which adds to the overall reading of a dense history, relative space, and visual complexity.  All of this is wonderful in terms of the final visual created.  The only issue is that the language used offers first, (and, maybe only) that of a purely formal spectacular visual surface.  We are right back to Greenberg and Rosenberg battling it out in the seminar classes across the Modernist landscape – well over 50 years ago. 

Joan Mitchell , City Landscape, 1955

We are well into a world where we’ve become so very familiar with large abstract-expressive mark-making works that cover gallery walls and large public spaces that the language chosen by (these) artists trying to say something with their painting is no longer an effective form.  The work looks too much like every other using the same vocabulary, the same manner. We’ve grown fond of seeing these things; their scale and busy-ness of marks and colorful shapes echoing maybe, an early Joan Mitchell in appeal, a Frank Stella (color), a Cy Twombly or Mark Tobey (marks) and an Anselm Kiefer (scale) we’ve experienced decades ago when it was initially(?) introduced.

We may arrive at the jaw-dropping nature of the endeavor, the “wow of the making”, (yes, specifically because it has become so very large!- one need only compare one of Picasso’s seminal works and our response when we see it (how small) on a museum wall) or, the championing of the artist’s story:  the artist’s geography, economic background, occupation, age, etc.  The artist may insist the painting is about economic inequality, issues of race, or the consequences of climate change, but the language itself, the Visual Language of abstract mark-making is so spectacular to look at (esp. with these two artists who are so mesmerizingly good at creating these rich surfaces) that there might be this unavoidable compromise in the reception of it.

At one time abstract expressive marks made on a canvas along with the random outpouring of paint spilled, smudged and dripped were political – the Abstract Expressionists in America’s 1940’s defying illusive pictorial space by disrupting the previous manner of representation, having the process of painting itself become the subject.  Random chance, automatism, bio-morphism, and physical gesture become significant elements of the new subject of process.  The action painting was new, as counter-cultural as it could have possibly been at the time, and, responded in kind to the social-political events of that time. 

There had been Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Nihilism, the expansion of industrialization, advances made in Psychology, Theatre, Existentialism, Freudian analysis, and the pivotal reckoning of two World Wars which served as echoing prompts to this radical change in form, this radical change in subject matter, this new language entering into the discipline of painting.  The language was alive, new, and worked because it was new, (not anything seen before within the discipline) another key component to art.

It is no different today.  We have our own social- political landscape to confront.  It is this very issue where I find the language artists using to be antiquated, out-of-touch with the otherwise successful modes of communication used by all of us, for better or worse.  It is the effectiveness of the form, the language, the tools available, the form we use that defines us, and, in the end, matters.  This is at the heart of this discussion.  If the social-political reading is lost to the gorgeous mark-making of a marketable object, how can this method of approach succeed?

Our language today is found in the icon and the soundbite via social media connections; the using of an abbreviated visual cue to mean something in sign, an immediacy in both form and reading.  The less visual mark-making used, the more communicative.  Memes are our new alphabet.  Our ability to read dense passages of text, or, visual compositions that demand some time to take in are no longer viable. Not only has brevity claimed the soul of wit, brevity has moved us to pure visual utterance.  Smiley face tells us everything.  A Like’s thumb’s-up is more than enough for us. 

The use of an obsolete language in art echoes the overall contemporary art world’s stagnation within its own exclusive arena.  The political and social change occurring in our society at record pace due to our digital platform of communication stands in ironic contrast with the art world and its snail-pace change.  The only thing that seems to change at an equal pace is the market value of biopic’d stardom-making marketable paintings. 

Let’s consider an artist who did allow form to communicate meaning – the artist Nick Cave, with his sound suits.  A Nick Cave Sound Suit, for example, work that uses a language (form) that is (was?) truly effective in its initial arrival in the art world ends up losing its political meaning while allowing the art market to co-opt the work for its own marketing purposes. 

“The highest price to date was $150,000 for a 2008 Soundsuit that Sotheby’s offered in its contemporary day sale this past November (estimate: $80–100,000). Another example, from 2007, sold for $118,750, also at Sotheby’s, in November 2013, on an $80–120,000 estimate.”

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-nick-caves-soundsuits-made-him-an-art-world-rock-star_n_57277dcde4b0b49df6abd1c4

Do we no longer read the political in Cave’s artwork?  Is it no longer possible to do given its art-world elevated price-tag?  Which meaning do we end up within the discourse of Art History?  Is marketability, brand, signature, style, fame, luxury our true meaning for us today?  Is anything we artists make today unable to be read as anything but fodder for yet another spectacular purchase by our continually protracted ridiculously-priced art market which, in its own way, points to nothing other than a perfect mirroring of what currently defines the debate we need to have in our political landscape > the further securing of wealth concentration at the top?  Is this failing then, as a political statement by default, and, as disservice to the meaning (intent) of the artwork?

The language of expressive mark-making in an overall field of something we all agree to be gorgeously composed is something we can appreciate for its visual splendor, as we have been conditioned to do by virtue of familiarity.  But, with this, the message stops. If the visual is stuck in communicating only itself, its formal properties with only chance allusion to something other, something we might read into if prompted by a completely separate language, (notecard, brochure, artist statement) we have quite a different picture.

This makes me think of The Guerilla Girls appearing on the Stephen Colbert Show several years ago, when asked the obvious (and, obvious only to those outside of the art world) by Mr. Colbert  – “if you’ve been at this for over 30 years, your art as your method of political commentary – and it has left you in virtually the same place – why use this method if it hasn’t worked over all this time?”  The Guerilla Girls simply answer – “because we’re artists.” Thirty years of “making their art” and there are still only a tiny percentage of women artists represented in the establishment museum collections they wished to challenge and change. 

It seems we artists are blind to the barriers we’ve created and get caught up in the routine and acceptance of what we do, the language we’ve decided to stick with, regardless of its steady and long-since-reached ineffectiveness.  

The only thing we can do if we continue using such a manner will be to attempt even larger works, go beyond the Basquiats and Kiefers to our currently EVEN LARGER Bradfords and Mehretus,* and make bigger and bigger paintings until maybe we somehow regain the language, express ourselves in a manner that just might give us our message and allow our chosen medium to succeed.  Making something bigger seems a great way to convince us of [a thing’s] physical presence.  Can this also, then, be translated into a social relevance? 

10/20

*Adam Pendleton Is Rethinking the Museum – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Since the publication of this post – several examples have been afforded me w/r/t the dilemma of contemporary art and its continued use of an obsolete language, but, the work of Adam Pendleton (cited in the above link from the New York Times dated Sept. 10, 2021 by Siddhartha Mitter) is uncannily direct in pointing out just where we artists are and where we may invariably remain. ?

 

that venue for showing art

caa show announcement

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 caught in truest 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.

Sept.  2018

Subject: digital & the making of images

We live in a world where digital transmissions of images and ideas are only eclipsed in quickness by the changing of the very technology itself and its effects on our society.  We seem momentarily remiss of a cumulative history while we capture with a digital ferocity every current changing element of our own very-now life.  Thousands of digital photographs live and breathe on our tiny hand-held cameras. Thousands.  And thousands which will never see the form as “printed photograph” in which to record history.  It is all a digital blur which will change the next time we “load our cameras”. 

ben tree

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The quickness of a ten year old’s hand and mind as he moves the mouse to edit a photo that he took of a tree against the sky from his own backyard is the subject.  The photo, in origin, having the tree a bit out of focus, transforms itself from an “okay” photograph taken by a child to an exposition of technical facility by this very same child who downloads it and edits it and crops it and saves it to his file.  This action changes everything. 

All of a sudden the idea of a “good photo” precedes documentation of both tree and sky, trial and error, and the focus shifts to the child’s ability to use the computer skills he has mysteriously acquired in order to “technically adjust” his photo.  The photo then begins to talk about the incredible facility this ten year old has already assumed in his role as “photographer”, as seer, as observer, as “maker of images” , and most amazingly, as technician:  a child responding to the availability of a digital world before him.  

The actual (original) photo of the sky, or the tree, may never see the light of day again, but that’s okay.  The art is not in the printed photo, but in the observation of, and extension of this newfound facility. 

In looking at a child’s activity of photographing a tree against the sky — what is the significance of [our] attempts to capture something with our cameras and then somehow [given technology] be able to then ‘fix it’ later ?   The photo as documentation of the actual world becomes secondary to the activity of manipulating it to a preconceived liking. 

Where does this process of alteration come from, and where does the actual tree fall in all of this, and why, in the end, [upon reflection of both the ‘tangible’ digital picture and method of technical facility ] did we stop to take a photo of [a] tree to begin with?  Do we applaud the visual given us (in the form of a photo of a tree against a sky) or do we applaud the facility which got us there?  What is it that we are actually taking a picture of ?

April  2016

Made in America: Gratefully, another Coen Brothers movie

[Leave it to the Coen Bros. to give us a search for human redemption by posing it in the light of Corporate Production Image-Making Hollywood and extolling [its] sincerest virtues while admitting its ultimate power over us.]

 

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We may not make things anymore in America — but there is one group that still does –  artists.  Artists are the ones still making things.

And, what is it that makes [something] art?  Mix irony with a reflection of the times, reference the past while pushing a progression of form and ….hold the mirror …..steadily.  Cervantes accomplishes this with “Don Quixote” and the Coen Brothers with their latest film “Hail, Caesar!”

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The film has irony play lead – it’s all over the place, and, so too, is the very fabric of our American culture.  The film’s subtitle (A Tale of the Christ) alludes to every other Hollywood production regarding the story of Christ and the lasting power of its image-making.  To depict Christ through a Hollywood lens is the ironic task which is, in itself, impossible, unless we allow the Coen Bros. to give it a try.  From George Clooney’s  Caesar-like Roman centurion to Scarlett Johansson’s Mary Magdalene to Channing Tatum’s Judas Iscariot, the Coen Bros. end up presenting us a full cast of redemptive characters.  Alluding to the power and production of Hollywood filmmaking and flipping everything on its head, the film ends up portraying not only the perfect Christ figure in the lead role played by Josh Brolin, but the glorious high craft to be found in a Hollywood production itself, [capitalist money-making machine and all] – in the most wonderful (so-grateful-for) movie-making light.
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As for the film’s topical stance, free-market capitalism has been second-guessed lately in our politics, and, religion, as always, is in constant battle to maintain a palatable image in spite of itself.  We have a more socialist agenda offered our political conversation, an ongoing iconoclasm with religious ideology and an ever-growing understanding of differing faiths due to such media depictions, and, the current economic crisis of inequality and whisperings of a re-distribution of wealth.  Socio-economics, politics of religion, and the power of Hollywood image-making (our American culture) all end up as grist for the film’s mirror-holding mill.

“Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Luke: 20:24

As history admits, there are no things of Caesar apart from God –; it is always economics that determines the path taken, and, this film unfolds as giant parable with Clooney (as film star Baird Whitlock) giving us both a Roman officer with heartfelt compassion for the dying Christ and an unlikely prospect for preaching Marxist theory.

Allusions and irony continue with Josh Brolin as our Christ figure, taking the lead role not by faith alone, but by deed. Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, in his search for his own redemption – ends up revealing that he is our true redeemer, all in the sacrifice of self [missing hours of sleep, spending time with his wife, watching his son play ball], and the saving (actor’s job, star’s reputation) of others.  It is the action taken (the deed so often left out in the practicing Christian; we love to quote the New Testament but we rarely follow in deed) and not simply the words “in the script” given us that matters.  (Only when Clooney acts on the lines given him do we become moved, awed, and rendered [as with all great art] speechless.)

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And the Coen Brothers don’t miss anything with their N. T. allusions: Mannix’s 40 days in the wilderness temptation played out in a Chinese restaurant with the devil as Lockheed representative waving an employment contract; (a Scriptural three times) – ( the choice to create or destroy mankind – yet another layer of irony with the Hollywood film industry always taking a hit for “destroying culture” by its making); his agony in Gethsemane unfolding in the confessional – unveiling doubts and seeking help from the Father.  And, Mannix , (again, our Christ) calling in a board of experts from all religious angles to see if his depiction will stand up to the pillars of all the faiths.   And what do the Coen Bros. give us when asked if there is any problem with the film’s portrayal of Christ?  Orthodox Christianity ends up questioning the technical magic of the editing in the film’s chariot scene in asking “how can he jump from one to the other so quickly?” — [and, this, from one who believes that Jesus walked on water?] and, our  Hebrew scholar, after countering with his own belief structure ends up with the apt and comically delivered “I’ve no opinion”.

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“Hail, Caesar!” is a brilliant work of art – for it does what all art is capable of doing – allowing us to see ourselves in it, in the sharpest light, with irony as one of its strongest tools.

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As with all of the Coen Brothers’s films, the angles used to approach are always comic-tragic.  In “H., C.!” the dark passage in our history of the blacklisting of Hollywood writers is, too, twisted sharply : – an injustice shown not with due sympathy, but rather, in double-edged irony with a roomful of bickering self-interested writers [standing in for the pillars of Marxist –Socialist ideal] extolling communism’s virtues of brotherhood and looking out for the little guy while seemingly not even able to tolerate each other in the same room.  At the same time, such socialist virtues of camaraderie and loyalty are shown to us in the character of the Hollywood Industry instead.  “I’ll do whatever it takes to say that line right, Mr. Lau-rentz” – says Hobey Doyle. “I want to do it for the picture.” The picture is what matters. We’re all in this together.

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Our human flaws, failed theories, all our faults lie not in the stars, but in our inability to see them in ourselves.

Nothing is ever clear-cut, black and white –no theory good on paper (just the lines written on a page (script or Scripture) can do much until it is put into practice — until acted upon – in deed.  Then we can see if the picture works, the words come alive, the economic theory applies, the illusion succeeds.

And, as for artists being the only ones making things these days while our economic portrait gets painted elsewhere, “Hail, Caesar!” pays homage not only to our Hollywood Pictures, but ensures us that any other country taking on the once-Made-in-the-USA manufacturing of goods will not be able to make for us our creative culture.  We’re stuck with it –our Hollywood, and according to the lens the Coen Bros. give us, it’s not a bad deal:  the art that we get in return is more than worth it.

Feb. 8, 2016