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

Or, that all-over scribbly mark-making of the oft-quoted abstract-expressionists and today’s contemporary artist’s continued use of it

“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  The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them, they were just rather stale literary words.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 artists who have made a name for themselves in 21st Century Art] 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 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

.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, (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 to echo in direct reference when used today.  Homages are possible in certain works, as are the more cynically claimed appropriations. 

“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. 

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.

If we are honest about this, and, if the art world itself could somehow be honest, we might find that the success story of the artist, or, the artwork’s market value is the thing that we end up with in meaning.  Today’s political-statement abstract-expressive paintings are more about the artists making them.  It is about the biography of the artist, the kinds of music the artist listens to while in the studio, (we all love a good biopic), the artist’s economic status, ethnicity, or gender.  In an age of identity politics, we have no choice but to respond in accordance with the current cultural environment.  Art that addresses identity has trouble succeeding if using a hackneyed language, an art-world mannerism which will only and more loudly speak about itself.  The social-political meaning or message made by the artist will remain buried in appended notecards. 

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 the struggles of the middle-class, our unsavory past, or the consequences of climate change, but the language itself, the Visual Language of abstract expressionist mark-making doesn’t quite get us there.

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?

“Untitled”, Lithograph, 1983

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, (an artist telling us what the work is about in an interview on Public Radio, or, in a written artist statement found in a catalogue or brochure provided at a gallery’s entrance) we have quite a different picture. If the content matters to the artist, if the meaning each artist contends is “somewhere in there” but we as an audience can only reach the spectacular, why continue with its use?  Why paint in this manner?

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? 

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