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Now here it is, for your consideration:
What has become of us and our art?
It has been evident from the time of the cave paintings that humans have been compelled to express themselves by taking that which originates from somewhere deep within their psyche and manifesting it in visual fashion. Visual art has been, but for the last 30 or 40 years, the realm of creative aesthetic expression which, if done with the utmost of concern, has provided viewers with a dimension of experience far above and beyond one’s everyday encounters. Art of merit has been the realm of the soul, which, for purposes of this discussion I will define as the instrument of one’s perception. Clearly, art has evolved from the mimetic illustration and representation of objects and events to the impressionistic rendering of same to the point where artists began to render feelings and other concepts through abstract visual compositions. With the emergence of the avant garde, artistic expression began to encompass not only that which was abstract, but found objects, performance, installation, and many other art forms.
My view is that we artists have made a significant error in logic about the field of visual expression in the last 30 or 40 years. As abstract art began to emerge, the public was clearly at a loss to comprehend what was being created. At this point third party endorsements took on a much greater significance because many in the public, while trusting the earnest intent of artists, simply had no idea what the new abstract art was about and they had no means by which they could evaluate its merits. From this point, the public became vulnerable to the purveyors of all manner of infantile visual expressions made in the name of art. This phenomenon has now expanded beyond the visual arts and has become the very substance of many areas of performing arts and literature. It has infected our entire culture.
As the public began to expand their tolerance for that which they did not understand, artists began to misinterpret their forum for acceptance and it became de rigeur to produce things that defied understanding – for better or worse. At this point many of us lost track of the horizon. It was commendable that people began to understand that something could be of merit even if they didn’t like it or understand it. At this point we could then bestow respect upon that which we thought had merit even if it didn’t meet our own tastes. We called this “appreciation” and it was admirable to have a broad sense of appreciation. Many people looked upon a sense of appreciation as a means to elevate their social class status. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with expanding one’s horizons, we subsequently failed en masse to follow through with critical evaluation and judgment because we continued to grant respect to that which did not deserve it – because we had allowed our tolerance for that which we did not understand to expand beyond reason. And art, not being entirely within the realm of reason or logic, made us vulnerable to committing this unfortunate error.
It was at this point that we began to see the immense proliferation of the banal being placed upon a pedestal, the unsightly elevated to a status it did not deserve and the wholesale absurdity of phenomenology and cognitive expression being raised to the status of “art”. We continued to consider these not-art objects to be within the realm of that which was previously reserved for art. We went so far as to even consider expressions of attitude, including contempt, to be aesthetic artistic compositions. We allowed social and political commentary devoid of any aesthetic merit, if expressed visually, to be called art. We allowed any form of linear scribble, scratching, or smearing of paint or any other substance including fat and feces to be called art. And the time honored cliché began to become a badge of honor – “we were simply trying to find the boundaries.” Problem is, we failed to follow through by asking, “the boundaries of what?” And further, we failed to consider that the merit of expanding the boundaries would cease when we came upon logical limits. Reasonable limits became anathema. They were perceived as inhibiting our creativity.
I submit that the overwhelming majority of us began to willingly share and even glorify our collective denial of the obvious facts, despite the truth that deep within, many of us recognized at some level the absurdity of what was occurring. Of course we had recently learned in the 60’s and 70’s how awful we all were because we had, up until that time, engaged in genocide, racism, violated the civil rights of others, repressed our feelings, harshly disciplined our children, severely suppressed our sexuality and failed to tolerate the differences between many disparate types of people and their practices. What had we become but the scum of civilization? What atrocious deeds were we not capable of? This seems to have precipitated a collective guilt from which we needed relief.
And so we began to purge the daemons and cleanse our moral and intellectual transgressions by elevating nearly everything in sight and nearly every human practice to the level of art. Not just art, but aesthetic art. And wasn’t it just admirable of us to collectively be so open, liberating, tolerant, forgiving, and above all, understanding? No, I must submit, it most certainly was not.
We became so accustomed to being challenged that we even considered that which challenged our sensibilities to be art. What holier grail could there be than to see the works of an artist that challenged us? If we were such despicable cretins, our only route to salvation was to be confronted with our deficiencies to the point of discomfort. Well, believe it or not, there is an even holier grail. It would place many of us in rapture these days to see an artist challenging him or her self to the extent the public has been challenged over the last 30 to 40 years.
This business about redefining aesthetics has become nothing more than pure nonsense. Simply doing something differently, for even a few decades, does not elevate us to the position of lexicographers who can edit the dictionary and change the meaning of words and concepts. The word aesthetic means something. I recently observed some art in MyArtSpace.com by Sten Are Sandbeck that I feel is not art by any means. While I would make the distinction between my criticism of Mr. Sandbeck’s art and his person, I must express my opinion that Mr. Sandbeck’s “compositions” include work that is poorly executed, sophomorically conceived, devoid of aesthetic merit and absent of anything that either inspires or moves me. To Mr. Sandbeck personally I say, you can do better! To all of us who are doing this type of work in hopes of “restructuring of the subject-field of aesthetics”, I say – please, stop this nonsense! If you consider art to be the signature of a society I would grant the last 30 or 40 years of banal expressions to be a valid mirror, however, I must ask - to what extent are we the purveyors of fine art if all we are doing is mirroring a junk culture which poisons our own citizens? Have we nothing better to say or do? Have we not come full circle back to mimetic art when we mimic the putrid substance of our banal culture. Has this not created a vicious cycle? Is this the extent of the contribution we are able to make? To what new lows will we succumb by challenging the public as opposed to challenging ourselves?
The misguided practices of non-artists, making non art, are far from expanding the subject field. Searching for the boundaries of what is acceptable is the work of infants, toddlers and immature adolescents – or heaven forbid – children grown old. I hope the practice of lowering the standards by which aesthetic compositions are evaluated will implode. The sooner the better. This is the manner in which obsolete technologies, out of date products and infantile ideologies die. It is time we draw a line and begin a new era that ends the last 30 years of the dark age in contemporary art. We can do much better!
Sten Are Sandbeck:
Response to John Garganos letter “What has become of us and our art?”:
I will go straight to what I consider to be a core problematic in Garganos text: what is art and why and how did it get there, do we want it and what’s going on. The idea Gargano puts forward that something has gone really wrong in the arts lately and specifically the claim that “redefining aesthetics has become nothing more than pure nonsense” points to some very important aspects of the processes of art.
Although I am somehow excluded by Gargano from being willing or able to make true art, I find this attempt of exclusion to be an important part of how art comes into being. It is my view that processes of exclusion and acceptance are quite necessary for the dynamics of the art discourse and for arts very existence. I do not think it is possible to agree on what art is and then we can all concentrate on making it.
In my opinion art cannot be a fixed situation of correct communication defining what can be done and what not, and subsequently who is in a position to act. On the contrary I think of art as a constant process of moving the very conditions of thought and visibility. Utterances that do not fit in the already existing idea of art are put into the world and if they are engaged, they will change the given context of visibility, the pattern of communication through which we view ourselves and the world.
All communication is based on an equality principle and the surplus of artistic expression apparent in myartspace is a consequence of the egalitarian nature of art. This equality is made out of structures of knowledge and language that also govern who can say what, what can be said,
what is visible and even what is thinkable. In its very nature, these structures cannot contain all: To make sense out of something means something else will remain or become nonsense, to render something visible means something else will remain invisible, if someone has their say, someone else will not be heard aso. Thus the equality needed to communicate is also that which suppresses what does not resemble, excluding it from having a say, of being visible, of existing.
Hence there is a need for dynamics both in art and democracy: It must not and cannot come to a standstill. It is precisely from within the ongoing processes of changing the structures of though and communication - the speakable, visible and thinkable - that art emerges. Art is therefore exactly the denouncing of a “correct” principle; it is always trying to bring into being the principle that is missing for its own existence, the principle the established does not contain.
The art-scene is where visibility as art is established. It is constantly moved and redefined by alterations and disturbances caused by artists forcing that which was not included into existence as art. This is not automatic: nothing becomes art before it has been accepted onto the scene and not rejected, it must be accepted into the discourse, the substance carrying the idea of art. But an acceptance of what is different changes the
principles of the discourse: it is altered by the new visibility it now embraces. The logic of the art-world, what makes sense and what is visible is therefore ever-changing.
The role of the art-object is to relate two systems: that of the established meaning and order, and that of the senseless and nameless. If such relations connect that is what we call art – we get a glimpse of it whenever that which did not exist suddenly exists. However it is not so much a question of what is being seen but what its visibility means or presupposes of thought.
Thus the artwork includes (among various participators) its onlooker’s thoughts, that is the changes of thought that must be made to really “see” the piece. So art can never establish itself as consensus, nor go back, as every art-incident exists only in the moment it is absorbed into the established and the established is changed (However it might be (re)discovered by anyone at any time). Due to the complexity of the art-world, this slow floating process might take considerable time, so works
of art can stay living for quite a while, being in process of moving from the excluded to the included. (Moreover I think what we normally would consider to affect works of art in this sense goes for series of works or even the whole of the artists production). Art-objects will thereafter remain as remnants of a process passed, turning into objects of history.
This way art is a kind of drama, but with aspirations to the real, a staged conflict of that which already has its place, and that which must build its own space or rather invent its own reason as it does not fit within a system of rules and regulations. From this understanding new work will and must destabilize the existing set of relations to come into visibility. And the established order of identities which is being disturbed must redefine itself to accept the previously undefined. Here the established run the risk: That which is not willing or able to go through the process of redefinition stands a chance to be excluded in the other end.
This is then what we might mean when we talk of aesthetics in art. It is not a question of the shape of the object but rather which forms and principles it takes to accept its very existence, which forms of thought it demands to put it into context. What the piece might point to as theme is then also part of this aesthetics. And this creating of an object from the formless requires a certain amount of fiction.
So existence of art is not a fact: The making of objects as pieces of art is simultaneously a break with the established logic and a reinvention of that logic; it is more making up art than making it. Art is then first and foremost a discussion about if art actually exists.
Sten Are Sandbeck