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  The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them, they were just rather stale literary words.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? 

10/20

 

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

today’s realism and bowls of fruit drawn, painted

 

Apples with PLU - entry 1

  • 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 precedent, 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.

 

May  2018

Language and its Evolution in the Advancing of a Digital Technology

“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

Marshall McLuhan

1967 from”The Media is the Massage”

 

detail-from-mapping-arts-genome
detail from “mapping art’s genome”

 

 

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.

 

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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.

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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

 

nbynw
detail from “a shifting of variables”

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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might
“might ( possible)”

 

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.

 

2/2017

 

 

  1.  Marshall McLuhan/Quentin Fiore  “The Medium is the Massage”.  copyright 1967
  2. J. G. Herder – from “On the Origin of Language” – copyright 1966