It wasn’t that long ago that I ran across an image of something made by Marcel Duchamp that I was completely unfamiliar with: a chess set. He had made it in 1918, during a nine-month sojourn in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That I was unfamiliar with it surprised me; I was pretty sure I’d seen every single thing he’d ever made.
Not like that’s a real feat of scholarship by the way. His output, compared to pretty much any other artist out there, could charitably be described as sporadic, and sparse. It meant that when I did actually see his chess set, designed and made by his own hand, it felt like finding something in King Tut’s tomb that had been overlooked somehow; a forgotten artifact in one of the most picked over spots in the world.
A couple of things struck me about it immediately: the first was that he was a woodworker, like me. This was such an improbable realization I laughed out loud. The image I saw in my head of Duchamp surrounded by sawdust, with cuts and calluses on his hands, seemed to upend everything I thought I knew about him. True, he probably had help with it, and true, most of the pieces looked like they were turned on a lathe, but the knights and the rooks were definitely carved, something that Duchamp was known to do in his past. The second thing though was that it was free of any kind of oppositional posturing, which is a quality that permeates virtually all of his art. The feeling I got from it instead was one of comfort, utility, and beauty, three words that I would have a hard time attaching to anything else he ever did.
It could be said, of course, that he wasn’t trying to make art with the chess set, which is why it reads so differently. But it could also be said that he didn’t really want anything he ever made to look like art - he bridled constantly at what he considered traditional art making, without ever being able to fully free himself of it. That’s because, while he might have made non-art instead of art, the negation of something is only possible if the original something exists clearly in the mind of the negator. But all of that gamesmanship (no pun intended) falls away with his handsome, carved wooden chess set, free of any kind of obfuscation, humor, or oppositional critique. It’s just…a chess set.
Something nagged at me about it though - there seemed to be a set of contradictions bundled up in there that begged to be untangled. It had always struck me as ironic that Duchamp was (and is) exhibit A when it comes to defining iconoclastic, rule-breaking artists, yet at the same time, he was slavishly devoted to a game whose rules he happily accepted, played on a mere 64 squares. The irony of that extends even further with this chess set, because it intersects with aesthetic decision-making, and actual hand-making for that matter– the stuff of traditional art. It makes clear that he had a certain posture in the art world, a certain stylistic and conceptual starting point, that simply fell away as soon as he was outside of it.
That realization quickly lead to another: if one has separate aesthetics for art and for life, then how do you make art about life? To which the answer might be – you don’t. As Duchamp himself once said: “There are two kinds of artists: the artist who deals with society; and the other artist, the completely freelance artist, who has nothing to do with it – no bonds.” It’s pretty clear which one he saw in himself. And while Duchamp was original in most things art related, his no-bonds thing was very much a product of his time. The image most of us have of the unshackled, rule-breaking bohemian artist is very much a modernist invention, and defines how we view artists even now. It’s such a cliché that we forget why it was so important for artists to be unshackled in the first place. And it was because freedom was important.
Pushing the boundaries of art defined progress, because artists saw the freedom of art as analogous to human freedom in general, and they very consciously saw themselves as being the ones tasked with enlarging its sphere. As Gordon Matta-Clark said in one of his letters: “The value of art as it services and sometimes flourishes in our system is so closely related to occidental beliefs in individual rights of free expression that one can accurately speak of the state of art as a measure of the state of freedom in our society”. The idea of artists getting into the weeds about feelings and desires, or human foibles, or just making something beautiful, wasn’t nearly as grand a vision as enlarging the human capacity to be free. Art was a noble struggle. For that reason, art wasn’t about showing life, as much as it was about being life - this the crux of the work by Jackson Pollock for example, or Mark Rothko, two artists whose work attempted a spiritual realism, while being mislabeled abstract expressionism. And while they and others like them might seem laughably romantic to us now, viewed through our suspicious postmodern haze, understanding this fundamental impulse during the modernist era is key.
Into this project stepped Duchamp. Or should I say, he stepped in for a minute, and then he stepped back out. His patience with the art world could at best be described as limited, which explains why he was in Buenos Aires in the first place; he was trying like hell to run away from it. That also explains why he was in New York, (the place he left to get to Buenos Aires) he was trying like hell to get out of Paris. Here he is sharing some of his observations about the art world to his friend Katherine Dreier: “The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get to be successful in the smallest way. This means also that all the dogs around artists are crooks. If you see the combination fakes and crooks how have you been able to keep some kind of faith (and in what?) Don’t name a few exceptions to justify a milder opinion about the whole “art game.” In the end, a painting is declared good only if it is worth “so much.” It may even be accepted by the “holy” museums. So much for posterity.” And here he is, writing to his friend Alfred Stieglitz, who asked him if a photograph can have the significance of a “Work Of Art”: “You know exactly how I feel about photography, I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.” And here is one more, in a letter to his sometimes-patron Jacques Doucet: “ All expositions of painting or sculpture make me ill.” And so on.
He may have been running away from art, but in Buenos Aires he found something he could run towards: chess. He had always liked the game, but his time in Buenos Aires made him into what he later described as a ‘Chess Maniac’. He joined a chess club, he hired a coach, he played so often, and for so long, that his girl friend left him. He made the aforementioned killer chess set. And he basically embarked on a new career.
When he came back, he said in a letter to his good friend Man Ray, “My ambition is to become a professional chess player”, which he did. At this point it’s important to note that those who think Duchamp’s incessant chess playing was some kind of performance piece, and that he was really an artist the whole time, tend to ignore not only his words, (lots and lots of words), but his actions. As Calvin Tompkins notes in his biography on Duchamp, “For about 15 years, from 1918 to 1933, Duchamp’s activities had very little to do with art.” but everything to do with chess. In time he achieved his goal and became a touring professional, he wrote a book about chess endings, (woah) and even represented France in the Chess Olympiad. Here he is describing the difference between artists and chess players: “From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” Even when he wasn’t really in the art world, he still took the time to flog artists now and again.
For decades afterwards, it’s difficult not to get the sense that Duchamp was a chess player first and foremost, who occasionally, on a strictly part time basis, and with very limited conviction, made art. That phase lasted until well into his sixties, when people like John Cage coaxed him back into the art world. Even then, as a new found fame was settling on him, he said: “Art is only one occupation among others. It’s not all my life, far from it.” To which he added this capper: “Art is a habit forming drug. That’s all it is for the artist, for the collector, for anybody connected with it. Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, as truth. People speak of it with great religious reverence, but I don’t see why it is to be so much revered. I’m afraid I’m agnostic when it comes to art. I don’t believe in it with all the mystical trimmings.” And so on and so on.
Spending a lot of time outside of the art world really allowed him to identify the invisible membrane that separates the art world, from the world world, and artists from regular civilians. He was able to see an insular aspect to the art world that simply did not occur to his peers, subsumed as they were within it, and dependent as they were upon it. His readymades in particular seem to demonstrate that anything within that membrane can plausibly be seen as art, while those same things seen outside of it, not so much. That’s how a urinal flipped on its back could be art – it was dependent on the context to make it so. The same could be said of a cheap postcard of the Mona Lisa, with a mustache and goatee hastily drawn on it. Inside the membrane, it’s a comment about authorship, appropriation, gender roles, and so on. The commentary and scholarship on that piece alone is vast. Yet outside of that membrane, it’s just visual detritus, graffiti, or a prank. And to Duchamp it actually was a prank of course; if the whole alchemical process of the art world seemed suspect, and worthy of his mistrust, well it was - in his era, and in ours.
There is an inherent irony to this observation of course. (The word just can’t be avoided with him). If art is a thing separated from life by context, and that separation seemed like it was worth pointing out, then he failed to notice that he was guilty of doing the same thing - that’s how a chess set and a readymade don’t operate in the same way. Not like Duchamp thought they should – he was into the no-bonds thing after all. But if art was about being life, and not simply showing it, then his chess set is a whole lot more convincing than a snow shovel, or a bottle rack – things he deliberately chose because he had no connection to them, aesthetically or otherwise.
Be that as it may, his shots across the bow of the art establishment, on those rare occasions when he actually made art, were exactly what it wanted, and exactly what it needed. Which is…ironic. And so is the idea that his very mistrust of the art world ended up setting the stage for his chief artistic contribution to it, which was to understand that art was a thing dependent on context rather than on aesthetic choices, much less on the vagaries of taste. The ability to understand that required having a clear view of the big picture, and seeing the big picture required distance. Duchamp did distance better than anybody.
Today, it’s very hard to resist accepting as gospel what Thierry De Duve calls the ‘Duchamp Syllogism’; that is, Duchamp is generally assumed to have said that if a urinal can be art, than anything can be art, and therefore, anyone can be an artist. Duchamp managed, in other words, to single handedly liberate art from any conceivably objective definition. That didn’t happen of course. First of all, it’s necessary to note that ‘Fountain’ wasn’t really seen by anyone until Duchamp’s retrospective in 1963. The original object was lost not long after it was created, 46 years beforehand, and had never been shown. Secondly, Duchamp wasn’t really positing artistic liberation, as De Duve further points out. He was more concerned with poking the eye of the Society Of Independent Artists. They were the group that held the show that ‘Fountain’ was submitted to, a group that Duchamp was also member of. They wanted to have a juried show based on the idea that everyone who entered it would have their work accepted. This was pure hypocrisy of course, as Duchamp made perfectly clear, by submitting something that was summarily rejected. But as we’ve seen, his concentration on critiquing art meant that art was the context that defined him - he was never fully free of it, despite repeated attempts.
While other artists in the 60’s may have garbled Duchamp’s message that anything could be art, the fact of the matter is that the membrane that separated art from life was finally breached for good, making the Duchamp Syllogism essentially true. That this happened at all was a lesson in how misreading historical precedent is every bit as effective a driver of change than actually understanding it. What people like Beuys, Kaprow, Judd, Warhol, Matta-clark (Duchamp’s godson), Smithson, Rauschenberg and Cage took from Duchamp may or may not have been what he intended, but it was definitely what they needed. Their subsequent efforts made Duchamp one of the 20th centuries most important artists, and prompted the walls separating art from life to all come tumbling down.
Today, we live in an environment that has made the idea of defining what art is, or who exactly artists are, essentially moot. There are not many people left who would say that there is a narrative structure that defines art, or a training regimen required to become an artist. (That would eliminate Duchamp by the way). So while we are generally able to agree that art is an environment free of limits, there seems to be latency in understanding what that actually means. What happens if you demand freedom and you actually get it?
The first thing to realize is that expecting artists to figure it out what happens next is to miss pretty much entirely what just happened. And what just happened (really over the last century or so), was an incredible effort designed to make the word ‘Art’ functionally meaningless. That in turn has meant that the people who describe themselves as ‘artists’ are essentially out of a job – who exactly are ‘artists’ without ‘art’, and what exactly do they do? At this point though, we are pinned on the horns of dilemma – there may be no more art as we formally understood it, but there is definitely a need to digest the experiences of our lives, and the need to share those experiences with others. We are beings who are aware that we are aware after all, able to contemplate the past and the future, along with the consequences of each. It turns out that the existential questions that awareness entails don’t go away even as we tinker with the semantics related to describing it. Which is why, as the dust clears, we become aware that art hasn’t completely disappeared; it just has gotten subsumed by something bigger – life.
In 1912, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote this about Duchamp: “ Perhaps it will be the task of an artist as detached from aesthetic preoccupations, and as intent on the energetic as Marcel Duchamp, to reconcile art and the people.” To which Duchamp himself responded later, “What a joke!” Forcing art and people to become friends seemed as silly to him then as it probably does to most of us now. If anything, we are more comfortable than ever with the idea that art is not suited for a general audience, a stance that Duchamp himself would have undoubtedly approved. In fact, within this vast new territory we find ourselves, it’s not surprising that a whole lot of people would prefer that the walls separating art and life were still there. Call it Basel Syndrome. Into this latency comes what I now think of as the Neo-New - a genre of activity that retains the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’, and casts both in the familiar roles of Modernist Freedom Fighter.
And yet, Appolinaire’s wish that art and the people reconcile in some ways sounds more prescient than goofy, mostly because that’s exactly what happened. Not like people in general are suddenly endorsing contemporary art right now – they aren’t. Contemporary art is a niche experience at best. But they are endorsing the need to digest the experiences of their lives through visual information, the same as they have done for what increasingly looks like millions of years. This end run around the established art world can be seen in the rise of things like the Pop Surrealist movement, glass art, the interest in websites like Etsy, Instagram, and basically the entire Internet. Feel free to scoff at the philistines who are responsible for this stuff (art people scoff the loudest), but visual culture has moved on, with or without artist’s approval, much less control.
That lack of control is in some ways the fulfillment of the modernist mission to morph art into life, though somehow that conclusion has the feel of an unintended consequence. The shock of what that actually looks like is probably analogous to what rich landowners felt like when they allowed everyone to vote. Modernism essentially allowed everyone to vote. Spurred on by Duchamp, and re-assessed, re-cast, and re considered by others, it knocked down every wall, hurdle, or barrier designed to limit what art could be. No limits means no edge, no edge means no more membrane separating art from life, and no more membrane means art dissipates like a puffy little cloud into a clear blue sky, falling as life-giving rain now and again when it’s needed. Part of a larger eco-system, rather than creating it’s own.
Today, we could see someone like Sam Maloof, the MacArthur award winning furniture maker, being an equally important figure in this conversation, as well as someone like the carver and craftsman Wharton Esherick. Neither of them was ever concerned with art as an end point. Here is a picture of a chess set Esherick made in the thirties:
The difference between Duchamp’s chess set and Esherick’s of course is that the rest of Esherick’s house looks like it, all of it designed and made by his own hand. The idea of having separate aesthetics for anything wouldn’t have occurred to him. And as for Maloof, his own 22-room house, also made by him, is now a museum. The way he lived his life is every bit as important as any piece of furniture he ever made.
These are people for whom life was the subject, and the artifact was art, rather than the other way around. In fact, maybe the word ‘artifact’ can be thought of as describing a welcome byproduct to something, almost by accident, and 'art’ is just shorthand for whatever that is. For example: if one wanted to facilitate thinking, and daydreaming, and reading, and having long conversations, it might be logical to make a chair. The artifact would be the result of that original intent. A crap chair wouldn’t do the job efficiently of course, so making a good one would be key. Artists wouldn’t call the results Art (too crafty!), and neither would Sam Maloof, but what exactly is art again? And what is it supposed to do? The repercussions of deliberately eliminating art as a description of anything specific means that trying to achieve it as a goal is functionally impossible. And as the old saying goes: if you don’t know where you’re going, all roads lead there.
Maybe the new conversation that we have, the one that starts when we have fully digested the repercussions of no longer needing to have an art world to have art, involves talking about living life as a full expression of one’s values, and then seeing what comes from that. This represents a fundamental flip in approach – the modernists made art, and the outcome defined their lives. The new approach sees making a life – and the outcome defines art. Seen through this lens, we might start talking about the time that Marcel Duchamp, the famous chess player, made a lovely chess set. He would be so relieved.
Innovative, original, fresh, new, cutting edge, formative, groundbreaking, exciting, evocative, daring…these are all words I’ve heard curators use to describe the kind of art they’re looking for today. But words like these also show up in ad copy for things like cars, or computer gadgets. Just like any other facet of the commercial world, which art is so very much a part of, newness has become a matter of course, an unspoken demand that has had the ironic effect of making newness into orthodoxy. Along the way, a million separate rebellions have somehow managed to make newness rhyme with consensus; art fairs fill up with deer heads one year, stripe paintings the next, knitted things after that, day-glo abstract paintings after that, crystal shapes after that, and clumsy ceramics after that. All seem to show up by previous unspoken agreement in amazing numbers. And while it’s not clear that relentlessly ping ponging from one thing to the next has necessarily been good for art, it has been good for business – interest in contemporary art, as well as the prices people pay for it, continues to climb.
Things might not feel brand new anymore, but they have somehow managed to feel Neo-New, as our search for the new thing has become the old thing. Back in the 80’s, when sticking the prefix ‘Neo’ on things began, (think Neo–Geo, or Neo-Expressionism, or Neo–Dada), it all seemed to point to the fact that the search for the truly new, in a modernist sense, was over. As the parade of Neo’s came to the fore, producing what the French baker Lionel Poilane calls ‘Retro-Innovation’, it was pretty much understood that the idea of pure originality – that is, something completely free of precedent - probably ended with the big bang.
Not like that seemed to matter much at the time. I was in school then, and we were taught that art could be anything an artist wanted it to be. Which made it clear we had plenty of options. But truly digesting the reality of postmodernism had a curious outcome: If a bunch of people tell you that art can be anything for long enough, than it starts to seem like it’s everything, and then pretty quickly after that, it becomes nothing at all. That’s because if art is anything, and therefore everything, the word ‘Art’ fails spectacularly to provide any kind of specific information. And rather than being a satisfying riddle that rewards deep pondering, like a Zen koan might, it stands to reason that if art can be anything, then it is, full stop, and we no longer need the word.
It’s important to note here that jettisoning one smallish word doesn’t mean we are also jettisoning the importance of digesting the experiences of our lives into imagery, words, actions, or objects - far from it. What modernism began, and postmodernism finished, was in essence a discussion about definitions, and semantics. That might sound dry and academic, but it had huge real world consequences: as the borders of art were pushed outward, and then fell away, we stumbled into the search for compelling lives instead. As Tristan Tzara wrote in 1922 “Art has not the celestial and universal value people like to attribute to it. Life is far more interesting.” And in the wake of that realization, it’s also important to note that a clear disconnect begins to appear between the art world, which constantly trolls for the next new thing, and a whole lot of artists, who are surprised that that even matters.
As we move away from asking the question “is it art?” to simply asking “Is it awesome?” we leave the confines of a place that carried on a rather specific and centuries old investigation, into one where countless investigations are happening at the same time. All of the new ‘non-traditional’ approaches to making art, therefore, invariably intersect with something else, and usually that something else comes with a very developed history. If you are using technology in your art for example, it’s worth noting that NASA, (your new colleagues), have a rover on Mars right now. That Tetris exists. That there are millions of apps for your phone. That your phone exists. And so on. You begin to realize that it’s impossible not to step into something that lots of other people haven’t thought about, researched, tinkered with, and sweated over.
Truly digesting the fact that art could be anything has made a whole lot of people retreat backwards, towards something that is more familiar. All of the preceding Neo’s were a precursor to that phenomenon, which at this point has solidified into a genre that I just think of simply as Artworld. It’s a genre that pushes an idea forward, and then removes or disables the hand (unless it’s courtesy of paid assistant), resulting in something that is really a signature style. If that sounds facile and formulaic, it often can be. But the need for something that is definable is hard to dismiss.
But hold on! Art has to be something bigger than a genre, right? Isn’t there something that it alone does especially well? It’s very possible that art hasn’t really gone away, but that a new definition is necessary. Say for example that art is something made by artists. I’ve heard that definition used more than a few times. That theory, by default, ascribes special abilities to artists that non-artists don’t have, sort of like a starting point guard in the NBA say, or a chess grandmaster. But if only some people can make art, and not others, then we might as well pretend that the last 150 years of art history never happened – when Marcel Duchamp said he was ‘Anti-retinal’, and that he ‘-unlearned to draw. I had to forget with my hand’, he was speaking as one of the most famous and influential artists of the 20th century. And when Joseph Beuys said that ‘Everyone is an artist’, he similarly echoed a sentiment that specialization in a field called art was a thing of the past. Tearing down the ‘myth of the artist’ was talked about from the minute I got to art school, and that ‘myth’ entailed certain people ciphering the cosmos in a way that other people couldn’t. Artistic training by that time had long ago jettisoned teaching traditional skills and calling the results art - it was all about ideas, not objects, and it very much remains so today.
One more try: art is something intentional. That is, if I have chickens in my back yard, and I say that they are art, that makes them art. My neighbor’s chickens, on the other hand, are just chickens. Intention in this definition magically conveys my chickens into the art world, where that particular context allows them to transform. Andy Warhol’s Brillo box is an example of this in action; a nearly exact replica of a mass-produced item, transformed into art when put into a gallery context. But what’s interesting about Warhol’s piece is that it sees the distance between art and life as an artificial one, a distance that has, in the minds of many, summarily collapsed. Warhol, maybe more than any other artist, was able to illuminate the invisible membrane that separated the World from the Art world, and deftly point towards the door. Duchamp’s urinal from 1917 pokes holes in the same imagined barrier. Everything has the potential to be art these pieces say, in the art world, though outside of it, not so much. But pretty quickly the inside/outside dichotomy really becomes untenable: can we reasonably say that things outside that membrane are not art? Examples are legion - was grafitti an art form before it was shown in galleries, or only after? Were medieval gargoyles? Or Gees Bend Quilts? Or totem poles? Intention becomes another way to slip the art world membrane around something that might exist perfectly well outside it.
If there’s no walled-off, specific preserve where art lives anymore, then we’re back where we started from; everything has the potential to be the building blocks of art. And yes, ‘Potential’ is different than an actual piece (rocks in a quarry aren’t St. Peter’s cathedral), but it’s now understood that those rocks could be St. Peter’s cathedral, and spending time convincing people that this is so is time wasted - a hundred or so years into this, we get to skip that part. Meanwhile, negotiating our way through the murky gray between ‘potential’, and ‘art’ is something that requires an arbiter of some kind to determine, which explains the rise of the curator (which I’ll talk more about in a bit). And despite lots of smart people and good intentions, choosing between ‘potential’ and ‘art’ has consistently been riddled with bias, blind spots, agendas, and sheer ignorance. In other words, curators are people like the rest of us. Which is why a large part of the problem in identifying art has to do with adjusting the eyes of the looker, rather than adjusting the art of the maker.
At best, it is a process undergoing constant revision. Which is good. Still, it doesn’t pass the laugh test to think that something like the Whitney Biennial has become the arbiter of what visual culture is for everyone. That's because the people who decide what art is are no longer the only arbiters out there. All the street artists, skateboarders, surfers, tattooists, instagramers, fashion designers, advertising agencies, pop surrealists, chop shops, burners, viners, video gamers, you tube channelers, et al, have made different choices about what makes something relevant, as they logically should in an environment that is so entirely free of definition. The issue is no longer what is art, but what is culture.
By now of course, most of us accept that absolutely everyone, just by breathing air, has the ability to be an artist. In fact, the word ‘ability’ here really becomes a meaningless distraction – every single person, by whatever means they so choose, can call whatever they do art. The only bar to entry in becoming an artist is simply to say you are one, and bam, the thing is done. Trying doing that to become an astronaut, or an air traffic controller. The slightly tragic irony of this is the fact that so many young people spend so much money on a brand name art education – The Neo-New sure loves those Yale kids and UCLA kids and Columbia kids, and Bard kids – apparently the lack of any clear definition of ‘good’ has meant that the pedigree itself has become in some ways a replacement part.
Meanwhile, operating within an environment free of any kind of discernable limits, at least from an artists perspective, yields some pretty obvious conclusions: looking for something like the ‘Cutting-Edge’, or ‘Originality’, are pointless tasks. What is the cutting edge of the universe? Better questions by far revolve around what is meaningful, what is useful, what matters, what’s good. And by lucky circumstance, artists today (that is… everyone), gets to ask these questions and pursue their answers however they see fit. For my money, that puts us in an era of unprecedented potential for fantastic things to be made and written and experienced. Except that not many of us take that opportunity seriously. Instead, we remain stuck in an endless loop related to specifically pleasing a niche market – the art world. And it definitely is a niche. If the word ‘art’ has exhausted itself as a way to describe anything, than what exactly does a world devoted to it mean?
Other than gold rush, of course. Though like the actual gold rush, only a few people are getting rich in it. The art world is filled with plenty of murky attributes, but one thing is crystal clear: there is a shit-ton of money there. And those willing to spend it need some sort of direction to wend their way through its mind-boggling array of choices. Luckily, there are a whole slew of consultants, dealers, museum directors, curators and critics, and websites, all available to help. Which is why the Neo-New is primarily driven by people who are not artists – it’s driven by a very layered bureaucracy, interleaved within a very successful business model. Oh, artists play a role in perpetuating it course, and certainly the most visible one. But artists are really only a small part of the art world, which at this point is a vast eco-system.
How powerful are these non-artists? In 2013, the magazine Art Review listed their ‘Power 100’, the annual list of the art world’s most powerful figures. And most of them are… collectors. That’s because, in the art world, money makes the engine run. And if you are the person making the engine run, then that means most of the time you end up in the driver’s seat as well. And by the way, congratulations Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani! In 2013 you were the number 1 most important person in contemporary art, due to the fact you spent a cool billion dollars on it… Damn, girl!
That is just how we do it in the West – for centuries we have tied art to money in a way that very few other cultures have done. (Though the factoid above means we are exporting that idea pretty successfully to other places). Our marriage of money and culture at least partially explains why we have been able to monetize every twist and turn artists have taken through modernism and beyond. Around the time that Jackson Pollock was written about in Life magazine, in 1949, a new kind of collector became involved, a new kind of art critic, and a new kind of art dealer, and finally a new kind of person to connect all of the dots: a curator. In 1967, a program to train them appeared at the Whitney museum in New York. But it really wasn’t until the late 80’s, with the appearance of a formalized degree program at the École du Magasin in Grenoble, France, that having a degree to put on a show really seemed necessary. A few years later, (1992!) a master course in curating appeared at the Royal College of Art in London. Now of course, we can’t think of a time before curators, with a thicket of degrees, just getting off a plane from somewhere. Or collector’s doing the same. But this world we take for granted is maybe 30 years old, as is the speculative contemporary art market as we know it today. Pollock himself wouldn’t recognize any of it.
But artists sure have adjusted! The increased emphasis artists place on talking about their ‘practice’, of mentioning their ‘research’, or hiring assistants rather than making stuff themselves like regular working stiffs, these are all nods towards the particular audience that runs the art world, an audience that is overwhelmingly academic, writerly, theory-centric, white collar, and often wealthy. Artists have naturally learned to talk like them, rather than the other way around, for the simple reason that these people are the gatekeepers to their careers.
Having a whole cadre of professional art lookers (which Arthur Danto called the Curitoriat) has meant the art world is in a perpetual state of discovery. New blood is constantly required as more and more people have shows in more and more places. In the midst of this ferment is the growing realization that curating itself is an art form (surprise!), and the true marker of accomplishment within that sphere, the brass ring as it were, is the uncovering of actual genius in its nascent form.
It’s worth following the rational for this, because the unintentional blowback of finding genius in real time, noble as it might sound, ended up becoming one of the founding principals of the Neo-New. First the noble part: curators saw themselves then, (and still today), disrupting a familiar modernist fable which goes something like this - artist X does something incredibly forward thinking and brilliant, but hardly anyone gets it during artist X’s lifetime - the implicit promise of the curator is that we will get it (and have it explained to us) as it happens. Of course, if you plan on finding a genius you also better plan on having lots of shows, because geniuses are really rare. But let’s say, after lots of high-concept, thematically tight shows involving artists from all over the world, our intrepid curator manages to uncover real talent. That segues into the not-so-noble part: implicit in this origin story is that now Artist X’s art is worth lots of money. So much like the origin stories in Silicon Valley, there is at root an entrepreneurial subtext to the Neo-New. Understanding the new thing is interesting, and getting there first is exciting, but the impetus towards doing both is intricately tangled with striking it rich.
If you’ve read this far, you most likely have concluded that I find the Neo-New to be driven by a fast maturing bureaucracy, smoothly running a solid business model. And that description would mostly be correct… but not totally. Like any good idea, the Neo-New is actually based on something with unimpeachable validity, which is that being current has value. For that reason I don’t want all of this stuff to leave the impression that there is no utility in the art world itself, to which lots of talented people owe their living. But I do want to point out that being Neo-New, as opposed to new, are two different things. One has to do with a hybrid form of entertainment, via an endlessly percolating now, and the other has to do with something that’s a whole lot like entertainment’s antonym.
First though, it needs to be said that the sheer utility of being in the moment really can’t be denied – doing so is in fact one of the primary tasks of art (though far from the only one). Being current might sound like a straightforward thing to do, but it is far from it; the ability to see the unadorned now requires real genius to overcome some very ingrained inhibitors towards seeing it at all. That’s because we can really only know with certainty what we’ve left behind. In a state such as this, a rational person would experience a permanent state of loss for what has already passed, as well as a sense of trepidation (ramping up to an unbridled terror) for events that haven’t happened yet. This rear-view-mirror experience of time results is a sense of cultural latency as we hurtle ever forward, accepting with difficulty the now that is rather than the now that was. For that reason, the artists that are best able to show us the present are very often taking an unsuspecting audience beyond what they know, into places that they don’t. Ironically, that place is directly where they are standing.
It's not really a news flash then that someone who accurately depicts the now, would struggle to find a sympathetic audience. Let’s look at one artist who was an excellent example of someone who saw the present with astounding accuracy, and got almost no love from his fellows, artist or otherwise. And that artist is Eduard Manet. In the image below he paints a very unusual picture of a mother and child, in the streets of Paris. The background is dominated by a cast iron fence, which in fact looks like a jail cell, from which the child looks out as if she is trying to escape. By posing the child in this way, Manet denies us a view of her (probably) adorable face, the bread and butter of the mother and child portrait genre. Instead of looking at us, the child is gazing at the marvel of that era, the train. Except that this particular train isn’t really much more than a smudge of smoke, which the child just might choke on. The mother herself looks exhausted, distracted. She appears unaware of her child. Finally, it’s worth noting the way the paint is handled- flat colors, low contrast –seems informed by photography as much if not more than the standard painterly techniques employed at the time.
Manet depicts the dawn of the industrial age with a postmodern touch – borrowed sources (photography, art history), a sly reference to other work (the model is the same one he used in ‘Olympia’, a painting of a prostitute. In this one, she is a frumpy mother). Finally, he clearly is ambivalent about progress, choosing not to make something heroic out of his depiction of modern living.
Manet did not want to be original- he just wanted to impress the painters in the French Academy, from whom he desperately wanted acceptance. But his observations about the way the world was, and his uncanny ability to capture it accurately ironically kept that prize from him. In our modernist daydream, we would like to believe that artists are all brave trailblazers, able grasp the importance of Manet’s vision quickly. But that assumption would be wrong. His vision of the world was jarring, less than beautiful, not entertaining. It’s no surprise that his ultimate goal – to be a member of the Academy- was denied him. By the time Manet died, at the age of 51, (of syphilis, ‘natch) he was unsure about his success as an artist.
Of course, Manet ultimately did find success, though he was dead and gone by the time it happened. It’s largely in response to this kind of story, that today there is an incredibly large and sophisticated industry devoted to finding our current Manets, a vast academy bigger than anything that’s come before it. Pretty much all of the members of this academy see their jobs first and foremost as championing the new – a very modernist endeavor in a postmodern world. But championing the new is a whole lot different than championing the good, much less the meaningful. Conflating that which is new with that which is culturally relevant is not exactly connecting two dots by their shortest distance – it’s a leap of faith. Especially in an era where artists realize that that’s exactly what curators are looking for, and are more than willing to give them what they want. Meanwhile, there has been latency in squaring to the fact that there really is no new, and that novelty in the arts, whenever it happens, may or may not be that significant.
Bear in mind- Manet was significant not because he made unusual art. He was significant because his unusual art underscored similar changes in the culture. Cultural changes happen for a myriad of reasons of course, and understanding why they come about can take decades or even centuries to unravel. In the meantime it should be understood that artist are never the authors of those changes - ascribing them that power is like ascribing a bend in a river to a single stone – yet the important roll they play in identifying them can’t be overstated. Modernism, or Postmodernism, are very large abstract terms used after the fact to describe paradigms that span entire cultures. Artists are able to be very specific about what those terms actually mean by showing them. In order to do that accurately means connecting to that culture – not separating from it. But that’s exactly what creating a World called Art has done.
Other academies in other times have gotten things wrong as well of course. The French version, despite its member’s wisdom and experience, failed to grasp important changes in their own culture. Our own version of the Academy, far larger and far more credentialed, has had a similarly spotty record. And on this point we only waste time fooling ourselves that this isn’t so; The French Salon, despite its demonstrable myopia, frequently attracted more than 20,000 people a day, for much of the 19th century. Today, a truly epic blockbuster attracts about 6,000, and there are very few of those. Visual art intersecting with the public consciousness today at all is usually in a spirit of abuse, or of sheer financial incredulity (He paid how much for a shark?); a curiosity far from real life. This is in opposition to what Duchamp saw, or Warhol, or Matta-Clark, where the distance between art and life had collapsed. The Neo-New has made it a field for specialists instead, exclusive, and even intimidating to those outside it.
And it hasn’t been an accident. An important aspect of the Neo-New is that a general audience isn’t the goal anymore. Make it tough, don’t sell out, don’t pander, these were all-important criteria when I was in school. Broad acceptance was a sign of failure, not success. It never occurred to us that what we were actually doing was learning to make things for a particular audience, with very specific parameters. In fact the idea of a general audience for anything seems antiquated; like the Burning Man festival say, or a Star Trek convention, the goal now is to attract a core group of highly motivated, highly informed people who together create a culture. Think of Harley riders going to Sturgis North Dakota, or world leaders going to Davos Switzerland, or Insane Clown Posse fans at the Juggalo festival in Michigan. Brand identification, and loyalty to that brand, is far more important than sheer numbers, and often times emphasizing the marginalized status of a smaller group can make brand identification that much easier. We no longer live in a homogenized world, where people look all the same, or believe in the same things, so it stands to reason that we would find other ways to create a tribal identity, and through it, a shared culture.
The Basel fairs, the Biennials, Documenta, these are all the art world’s version of their own tribal gathering spots. Along the way, the maturation of the art world into a series of high-end bazaars spanning the globe, has cemented the notion of art being the luxury brand for the rich. Not that this is a completely new concept of course – the Medici’s and the Hapsburgs would recognize it as such and undoubtedly approve. But there are a couple of glaring differences that separate today from back then. The first is that the basis for what collectors and curators are looking for is still rooted in a modernist version of originality, and disruption. That’s actually been great for business, because by endlessly promoting the Neo-New, we are effectively selling a luxury brand based on the idea of freedom, and rebellion, which has a track record of working really well. Rock music tried something similar in the 50’s and rap music did as well in the 90’s. Seeing that methodology recycled once again at an art fair, where freedom and rebellion are once again for sale, is to experience the pure screech of cognitive dissonance. Institutions rush to support it, awards are given to those we think embody it. Freedom and rebellion become a pretty solid career move. So the question really becomes inevitable: If rebellion has this kind of broad institutional and monetary approval, how free and rebellious can it be?
Being able to buy a contact dose of freedom is now very much embedded into the contemporary art brand. The convergence of an anything-goes aesthetic, courtesy of postmodernism, and now the Neo-New, coupled with the creation of lots of really rich people globally, has made a very vibrant market possible. But the niche that art now inhabits really illuminates the second key difference between now and other, pre-modernist eras. Art is no longer public, but private. It’s no longer commissioned, but speculative. It’s no longer shared, but personal. As Ross King says in his book ‘The Judgment Of Paris’, “In nineteenth-century France, murals were still what they had been during the Italian Renaissance, the most exalted form of painting.” And he goes on to quotes Ingres, saying “It’s the decoration of churches, of public palaces, of halls of justice, that art must dedicate itself to.” Artists from Michelangelo to Gericault were essentially public artists, with a sideline in easel painting. That has almost completely flipped around now, with many artists never doing public commissions at all. Artists weren’t selling freedom as much as they were selling a communal voice.
The communal voice that is being sold today is really for the art world, and pretty much the art world alone. And as I’m trying to make clear, there is a certain understandable rational for that. If one goes to an art fair today, it’s hard not to notice that all of those people wandering around have certain similarities in common, a subtle consensus in terms of dress, and behavior. The tribal association extends beyond just to the art, to include each other. It stands to reason then that this art fair tribe would share a frame of reference, an aesthetic, and even a lexicon, which over time becomes like a regional accent. (Try explaining what a ‘Gallerist’ is to a civilian, or how ‘Basel’ is a place in Florida). The same could be said about people at a football game, or a NASCAR race; the tribal gathering aspect in some ways trumps the event itself. Of course, right on the heels of that realization comes the crushing sense of a world reduced, made simpler, safer, and more predictable, rather than what it actually is: big, scary, and complex. Filled with people who may not agree with you. Like I said, it’s understandable why people do this.
In the case of the art world though, shrinking the world comes with a heaping dose of irony. If showing the unadorned now is one of the main jobs for art, then facing big scary and complex things should be embraced, whereas a World for Art talking to Itself can, and does, become solipsistic pretty quickly. A whole bunch of artists can, (and do), make art about art, or even just the art world itself, and have perfectly viable careers. Meanwhile, it’s difficult for me to discount different eras and cultures that saw artists as integral to civic architecture, to the public square, to church on Sunday (or Saturday, depending on the faith). In other words, art was an inescapable presence in people’s lives.
Today, the only thing that comes close to accepting the idea of a general audience is probably television. The idea of a general audience for anything now seems foreign to most of us, and even slightly suspicious. And while it is true that most of us would rather be spectators than doers anyway - which is why the movies and television are the 20th century’s most important artistic innovation – a select few t.v. shows manage to ask something of us, to challenge us without losing the that inclusive starting point.
It’s a tough assignment to be gracious and inviting on the one hand, and challenging on the other. And most t.v. shows don’t do it of course. It’s far easier (and more profitable), to allow us watchers to sit in the dark, slack jawed, while shit blows up. But meaning and engagement happen only when it’s not just the artists that are exercising their creativity, but the art-lookers as well. It’s the basis for realizing that a story isn’t just the words that are written on a page, but a whole lot of other things that those words imply. It’s understanding that seeing a Manet painting, a few square feet of canvas, requires us to consider the whole world based on seeing this tiny bit of it. Doing that work makes art (whatever the hell that might be) come alive – not doing the work, or not being asked to, means that we are simply distracted for a moment.
The Neo-New can be, and quite often is, a distraction. If art can be anything, and can be anywhere, then finding it beyond the borders of the reservation it has been put on seems not only logical, but necessary. Which is not to say that a contemporary art fair excludes things of meaning – meaning is everywhere, including there. It’s also not to say that everything in the art world is Neo-New – that phenomenon is culture wide, and illustrating it via the art world doesn’t mean that it alone is guilty. But the Neo-New shines in stark relief there. That’s because, as a place supposedly devoted to ideas and meaning, the art world demonstrates better than anywhere the barriers we put in place to make those things harder to find.
The reason I’m an artist is not because of all of the galleries I went to as a kid, or because of all the contemporary art I saw. There was no contemporary art where I lived, much less anyone who looked at it. The reason I’m an artist is due pretty much entirely to looking at things that had no aspirations towards even being art: comic books, airplanes, models, bridges, trees, architecture, tools, clouds, the national geographic. I made forts in the woods, I built things, I dug snow caves. I read lots of books. Channeling that wonder into a set of possibilities (some might call it playing) is really the job of childhood. The job of adulthood is to assemble those parts, and anything else one can find along the way, into a meaningful life. Some, but not all, of the artifacts related to fulfilling that task might fit comfortably inside an art fair. But probably not many. Meanwhile, the Neo-New rolls on. Innovative, original, fresh, new, cutting edge, formative, groundbreaking, exciting, evocative, daring… repeat.
I make things out of many different materials, which doesn’t make me particularly unusual. What does make me unusual is that I have chosen to carve some of them, a method that virtually none of my contemporary colleagues seem to share. The result is that I am asked to explain the carving aspect of my work more often than almost anything else. And the funny thing is that the more I’m asked about it, the lousier I am at coming up with an answer. Not that I haven’t thought about it. Quite the opposite. It turns out that I’ve thought on it so much that the answer just keeps getting longer and more complicated, so long and unwieldy at this point that my answer goes mostly unsaid.
I could try sound bites of course. Mention that I think better with my hands in motion. Or that the serendipity of responding to the material in real time allows me to follow the work rather than lead it to a predetermined conclusion. Both of these responses are part of the answer anyway, and both are true enough. But that’s not the whole answer. Mostly because that’s not the whole question. “Why do you carve?” has an invariable follow-up: “How can carving be ‘conceptual’ when everyone knows that object making is about craft?” And then: “What is contemporary about this?" and then: “Couldn’t you just find fabricators?” And “Isn’t there a machine that does that?” And so on. The complexity of this ever-metastasizing question seems to require an equally complex answer. It’s not made any easier by the fact that what I have to say about it challenges many assumptions that lots of smart people still have about the way art should look, how it should be made, and what it should do.
Still, the question deserves a response. What follows is the reason, or more accurately, the reasons, that I carve. The whole answer, length be damned. So I hope you are in a comfortable chair.
The Six Things
Before art, there was carving. For twenty-five millennia at the very least, we have practiced it in every corner of the globe, in virtually every culture. The best of it seems to make the impossible not only possible, but credible, a previously unimagined reality sharing space in a room with us. Carving is to 2-D art like live theater is to CGI effects in movies: the real thing versus pleasant illusion. How can one really explain Bernini’s carving of Daphne turning into a tree for example? Antonio Corradini’s veiled girl? The wooden flowers of Grinling Gibbons? The floating angels of Tilman Riemenschneider?
In short, carving seemed badass, and I wanted to learn how to do it. I had my suspicions that it would be difficult, sure, but how hard could it be? I realize now that my high level of confidence can be explained in two short words (young, dumb), and that what was actually involved in learning such a thing had completely escaped me. Undaunted (the remarkably powerful byproduct of being young and dumb), I slowly progressed anyway due to my own sheer bumbling effort. I remember telling myself that it would start out hard, and get easier as I improved. It never did. And so today my bumbling continues, marginally more efficiently, making me the slightly tragic embodiment of the bumper sticker that says “I may be lost, but I’m making good time!” To everyone who has ever asked me what my tricks or shortcuts are, I have a most unsatisfying reply: There are none. Carving is hard. That’s all.
Another thing my young self hadn’t counted on is that expending all that effort might have been pointless anyway. There was (and is) a good dose of ambivalence about carving in the art world, which meant that—assuming I learned to carve at all—who would care? Ask any Native American carver, Eskimo carver, African carver, chainsaw carver. As a group, they are almost invisible in a contemporary gallery context.
To most people, carving seems retrograde historically, it intersects with craft, with skill, with brute labor, all with a whiff of romanticism attached. I certainly didn’t get a lot of encouragement to pursue it in school, and apparently nobody else did either. I can count about three carvers working in a western tradition that are of any note in the vast sea of contemporary artists today. But being so fantastically wrong about how long this was going to take to learn, as well as how it would be received by my peers, has not managed to sway me away from my choice. If anything I find myself more committed to it now than ever before. That’s because the more I carved, the more I began to notice certain traits inherent in the medium that had a depth, and even a subversive quality that kept me interested in it. I started to catalog them. And after a while I got to six.
I know, I know, six might not seem like a lot, and maybe it isn’t, but my list doesn’t pretend to be scholarly, or even comprehensive. I might find more soon. These are merely the things that have intersected with my thinking and deepened and informed my work, both the carving and the non-carving part of it, and have made me more of a fan of it than I was in the beginning.
Still, explaining these six things turns out to be a more complicated affair then it might appear at first. The six things started off kind of simple and then built on each other until they became not very simple at all. Be that as it may, what follows below is a description of each, as best I understand it, easy ones first.
The first thing is this: carving is solidly thought of as a genre of fine art, but it seems to stretch the boundaries of what a genre is in the first place. We think of carvings in art galleries and museums, but it also figures prominently in architecture, furniture, in religious ephemera, in monuments, in our very view of history itself. It has become shorthand for archaeology. It is the ruins of Egypt, of Greece, of Rome, the caves of Cappadocia in Turkey, the Venus of Willendorf, the Bamiyan Buddahs, the temples of Petra, and so on.
The second thing is equally simple. Whether or not it is intended to be in a gallery or a museum, and whether or not it actually resides in one of those receptacles of culture, it always seems to maintain its status as sculpture. The same can’t be said of painting or photography or video or any number of other media, which rely a lot more heavily on an institutional context to support them into being. Sculpture, and carving in particular, just needs a building, or a cemetery, or a lawn, or a mantelpiece to exist and be appreciated as a work of art. The reading of a carving remains remarkably constant despite the different contexts it might find itself in.
And this gets to a third unique property of carving, which is that despite its firm footing inside the art world, it maintains one foot placed equally firmly outside of it. Being outside of the art world might not seem like a big deal, but it turns out to be a very big deal indeed, especially now. In order to describe why means taking a trip in the time machine, back to the momentous year of 1964. It was then, as crazy as it sounds, that the “Art World” was invented. Before then it didn’t exist. Sure “Art” existed, and lots of it, but the idea that a “World” was necessary to contextualize “Art” was new. So totally does the Art World subsume us now that the idea of somebody inventing the term has an air of implausibility around it, like fish finally identifying water, or birds first noticing air. But somebody did invent it, and it should comes as absolutely no surprise that it took somebody outside of the art world’s all-encompassing confines to do it.
That person was a philosopher named Arthur Danto, who coined the term in a lucid essay simply called “The Artworld,” published in the Journal of Philosophy in October of that year.[i] That he was moved to write this essay was because his painter wife just so happened to take him to see a show of very unusual objects by an artist named Andy Warhol. And by Unusual, what I mean is that their very Usualness made them so Unusual as to become something extraordinary. What he saw of course were a series of extremely faithful reproductions of everyday objects, and Danto got snagged into trying to figure out why these near-replicas of Brillo boxes and such were art, while their doppelgangers in the grocery store were not. He was a clever enough guy to realize that there had to be a theory tied to this work that connected it to some larger conversation. He was also clever enough to know that the theory was probably modernism. He knew this from his study of Descartes, who with his famous dictum “I think, therefore I am,” started a conversation about how we view the world not according to any kind of bedrock truth but through the filter of our thoughts and perceptions of it. This shifted a very long philosophical conversation away from gathering “objective” information about the world and toward a conversation about how we know what we know in the first place.
Artists had followed a very similar path, spurred on by technological advances such as photography, which challenged profoundly the goal of pure verisimilitude in painting and sculpture. Suddenly mimesis was redundant, and artists found themselves instead asking questions about the nature of representation itself. Artist began to create and debate representations of representations, which meant that art had chiefly become its own subject. Danto (still standing in front of the Brillo box) further surmised that this new discussion of art talking about itself had moved at such a rapid and complex pace as to leave the general populace pretty much completely out of the picture (no pun intended), and there too he was correct. Artists had sprouted Ism after Ism, completely outstripping the understanding, or even acceptance of most people. For an artist to make work that added on to and expanded that conversation required an increasingly specialized audience and an infrastructure that could receive it. In short, it required an Art World.
Danto was on fire. And he wasn’t done. His final insight was to realize that he was staring at the end of the conversation. The Brillo box had collapsed the distance between representation of a thing and the thing itself. This one simple object had made the space between art and reality essentially nothing, thus proving that artists had total freedom to do or make anything of their choosing. In Danto’s opinion, that made the Brillo Box the final definitive act of modernist art.
It’s worth taking a little time to follow Danto’s line of thought here and clarify why a simulacra of a Brillo box had such power, so I will briefly quote him: “Conceptual art demonstrated that there need not even be a palpable visual object for something to be a work of visual art. That meant that you could no longer teach the meaning of art by example. It meant that as far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was, you had to turn from sense experience to thought. You had, in brief, to turn to philosophy.”[ii] One more quote: “Once it was determined that a philosophical definition of art entails no stylistic imperative whatever, so that anything can be a work of art, we enter into what I am terming the post-historical period”[iii]
Post historical. Most people are more comfortable with the term “postmodern” perhaps, but whatever you call it, the Art World has changed drastically from the time of modernism. Now I realize that it’s debatable whether a singular work by Andy Warhol is the thing that brought us to this point. Perhaps it was Duchamp’s ready-mades created in the late teens, or maybe it was Mike Bidlo’s paintings, or Sherrie Levine’s photographs created in the mid 1980s, or a long list of other potential candidates in between. What is not debatable is that the thing was done, and today we find ourselves in an era where we all agree that the barriers to what is acceptable within the confines of the Art World have been systematically erased. Joseph Beuys declared that everyone is an artist. (Danto points out that Beuys didn’t say that everyone could be an artist, everyone is.) Modernist artists determined that anything could be art. The borders between art and life became blurry, and then disappeared. And a place without borders is a very interesting place to be indeed.
It turns out that you can erase a narrative, but what can’t be fully erased is the need to have a narrative in the first place. In the midst of a very fractured and fundamentally directionless endeavor, art had to find some semblance of order in all of the art that people were producing (which continues to come at us like a runaway train), and the way that was found to do that was to simply decide which was the most “Contemporary.” The problem with that is that if the goal is to make the most Contemporary art possible, and if Contemporary defines “Right Now,” than it must be understood that Right Now disappears in an instant. In a state such as this, conflating art with stylistic invention is not only possible, but inevitable. Stylistic invention can be described in many ways (fashions, fads, trends), but art is quite reasonably defined in opposition to that. It’s “News that stays news,” to quote Ezra Pound, and as much as an artwork might owe to its particular moment, it can’t be anchored to it. Indeed it must translate to beyond it in order to succeed. In order to translate, it must draw on other things that have also succeeded, a progression forward using templates from the past, with what the mathematician and architect Christopher Alexander calls “A pattern language,” because nothing is made in a vacuum. The unique human ability to see the past as well as the future means that we not only draw on history to inform us of the present, but that we also are allowed to dream up things that haven’t happened yet. That’s what makes good art strange and familiar at the same time.
By physically making something, engaging in what Donald Kuspit calls “The repersonalization of work in a world of depersonalized work”[iv] issues of craft and tradition versus stylistic invention are inevitably raised. Carving in particular, which has been so universally practiced, and for so long, negates any discussion about style or originality. It has none. It must invariably be seen through the lens of familiar carvings from the past, some of which might have been in a gallery or museum context and some not, putting it well outside the realm of Contemporary ideals. Which leads me, finally, to the fourth thing that carving does, which is to leapfrog over a discussion about style by accepting carving, and therefore art, as an expression of a tradition. I’m more interested in evolution than revolution because there is nothing left to overthrow. The use of tradition really becomes the ultimate form of sampling in a postmodern sense. It uses the heretical notion (also employed by the progenitors of the Renaissance), that it’s okay to look backward to see a clear way forward, which, to the Curitoriat, trained to look for Right Now, is a very difficult proposition to swallow. As Nabokov said, “The future is obsolescence in reverse.”
This segues into the fifth thing pretty easily, which is that carving, as an obvious outsider to contemporary practice, seems to remind us that the parameters of how we judge art today remain attuned to modernism. That this is so seems somewhat surprising given the fact modernism has been dead for so long, fifty years at least. There is no question that our current era is far more easily described as postmodern rather than modern, but there is also no question that there has been a return to modernist aesthetics in art and architecture, and even literature, in the last ten years or so. Or maybe more accurately, a certain thread of it never went away, and that thread is gathering steam due to a mixture of familiarity and nostalgia. That this interest exists I think is due in no small part to a weariness induced by postmodernism’s relativism and murky uncertainty. The academic Barbara Epstein describes quite well the cautionary tale that is postmodernism, and the desire to have something else to hold onto when she says: “It is difficult to debate postmodernism because it is not a set of claims. It is a set of attitudes, the central one being the suspicion of all claims—and the concomitant effort never to make any claims, or at least, never to acknowledge them.”[v] In comparison, the appeal of modernism’s pure ocular pleasure and unshakable moral and intellectual clarity seems quite understandable. Even the goals are more understandable; art must innovate, it must transgress, it must have stylistic originality. All of these ideas are modernist inventions of course, and didn’t exist in the same way before or after the modernist era. But we happily and unquestioningly endorse them all. And so today it seems that most of us would still rather be Picasso (lothario, stylistic innovator, badass), than Robert Rauschenberg (collage guy).
As the historians Best and Kellner make clear in their excellent book The Postmodern Turn, postmodernism is not a monolithic idea that everyone all over the world subscribes to. We live with modern, and even premodern ideas that mingle with the postmodern. If we can pick and choose through everything that has ever happened, then it stands to reason that we would at least try to use a modernist yardstick to assess artistic practice, because modernism had a yardstick. But we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to recognize that we are measuring is no longer modern, even if many of our approaches to making art remain rooted there. Carving seems to defuse any kind of stock modernist critique (Is it original? Does it transgress? Is it on the cutting edge?) by making the point that all those criteria have either been undermined or eliminated in a postmodern world. Everything is fair game if anything can be considered art. Furthermore, if it’s true that art talking about art has exhausted itself, and that such a conversation existed only within a context called the Art World, then today it stands to reason that moving forward requires artists to step outside that world and change the subject. Carving seems to take that position seriously by doing both.
In our era, painting, carving, weaving, all of these traditional forms, are as valid a choice for artists to pursue as any other, because there are no invalid ones. In fact, the more traditional they are, the more they seem to make the point that this is so. Conceptual art, social practice, performance art, technology based art, or any other iteration that downplays making an object are also stylistic choices, as much as curators and critics of our day would like to see them as orthodoxy. They are newer, and more fashionable perhaps, but there is no longer one way that art looks or acts. The narrative about what defines art is over.
Postmodernism introduced the idea that not only are all things valid, but that no one thing is more valid than anything else. The question that is raised almost by default in a state such as this is simple: If everything is indeed valid, then what actually matters? We live in a world described quite eloquently and convincingly by Baudrillard, Debord, and others, as a simulacra, removed from anything real. Art making has become pastiche, full of pop culture references, full of irony, full of cleverness as opposed to intelligence. As Baudrillard said, “Generally speaking, the play on quotations is boring for me. The infinite nesting of box within box, the play of second and third degree quotes, I think that is a pathological form of the end of art, a sentimental form.”[vi] The basic premise is that everything has already been done, and we are just sampling this and that and putting them back together in an endless series of mash-ups. Where contemporary theorists and artists see this state of things as cultural exhaustion, and therefore a problem, a carver realizes that there is no such thing as working without a tradition, because everything has a history, a provenance, and it is a relief. As noted above, revolution was the preeminent modernist endeavor, while evolution is the postmodern one. To see postmodernism as an endless play of mash-ups and pastiche is to lose sight of how this process is itself traditional. Building upon what has come before is the building blocks of art, while originality (as a means of defining the limits of art itself) is merely the building blocks of modernism. In this sense, the angst that Baudrillard, Debord, and others felt was the result of expecting modernist goals to be met in a postmodern world. The disappointment that resulted is understandable, but preordained. Holding on to the idea of paradigm shifting disruption is not especially tenable for a postmodernist, not just because it’s unlikely, but also because it’s not even that useful. Art’s long foray into self-definition and reflection is over.
Modernists wanted to define the outer limits of what art could be, but postmodernists realize that there are no limits. It is an amazing mis-read of our moment to storm the battlements as an artist when there are no battlements left, no hurdles to clear, no walls to breach. What we have before us is a far more interesting assignment than that however: reaccessing agency, redefining effectiveness, rediscovering relevance.
This leads to the final thing that carving does (at least, until I notice another one), which is to demonstrate the machinations of agency itself. We think of art as something powerless, maybe even useless. But what kind of nihilist nutcase would spend their lives pursuing something devoid of use, and, maybe even more confounding, why would anyone care? The question raised above about what matters forms the backdrop to what many artists are grappling with right now. Certainly they aren’t grappling with technical issues, or trying to redefine art. The modernists did us the favor of tabling that discussion. Now that we know what art is (anything an artist says it is), we get to ask what art can do in a way that no other era has been able to. The angst of self-definition has fallen away.
Carving engages these very basic concerns about agency because agency permeates it; how can we manipulate a material that will strongly resist such manipulation? Offshoots of the various answers we have come up with have become architecture, furniture, weaponry, art. As we drift away from a tangible relationship to the world around us, it’s useful to remember how long-standing that connection has been, and how it continues to be necessary.
It’s an exciting time to be an artist. Responding to the world, rather than the Art World, seems expansive and freeing, and for my money the six traits I’ve described above about carving make it an excellent vehicle for doing so. Changing the subject, and critiquing the conversation that got us here, is accomplished by carving with remarkable directness. The more I do it, the more convinced of that I become. Some might say that in times such as these, some grand gesture is needed perhaps, something quick and theatrical, not something slow and plodding like carving. But there is something that a carving does by demonstrating competence at an understandable level that seems exactly right, the opposite of theater in a world built on artifice. It’s not the shattered view of modernism, with its puffed-up intellectual and moral superiority, or the wry ambivalence of postmodernism, with its ability to make all choices and its inability to say which ones are good. It’s a response, created with effort and skill, with a kind of credulity that seems like the antidote to all that.
The great furniture maker George Nakashima faced his own version of a dystopian world most profoundly when he was interned by his own government during World War II. His response to this indefensible indignity was not what one might expect, but was equal parts grace and pragmatism nonetheless. He learned to be a wood worker. At that time, he had been all over the world, living in Paris, Japan, and India. He had thought that he wanted to be an artist, but Paris in the ’20s had disabused him of that notion. He said then, “It was time to move on, and I would leave the whole modern art movement with its egotism and lack of beauty”[vii] (1988, p. 7). Which he did, and never looked back.
In the camps he met a Japanese carpenter, who taught him skills in a traditional way. He describes this man simply, but powerfully: “He had the discipline resulting from long years of experience in which each step was learned with consummate perfection” (p. 23). Nakashima himself learned those skills, and with them he connected himself to wood, to trees, to the landscape, and to the beauty of the world. In so doing, he triumphed over the ugliness that had put him there in the first place.
I will never be George Nakashima, but I too want to learn each step with consummate perfection, and I too want to find a way of making something beautiful. The steps I have taken so far are few, with a baby’s wobbling determination, but I will keep going, egged onward by the firmly footed examples of those that came before me.
— D. W.
[i] Arthur C. Danto, “The Artworld,” in Journal of Philosophy 71(19), 1964: 571‒584.
[ii] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Pres, 1997), 46‒47.
[iii] Arthur C. Danto, Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays and Aesthetic Meditations (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994), 13.
[iv] Donald Kuspit, Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries (New York: Allworth Press, 2000), 166.
[v] Barbara Epstein, “The Postmodernism Debate,” Z Magazine (October 1996); cited in Stephen Best and Douglas Turner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford, 1997), 22.
[vi] In Stephen Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford, 1997), 178.
[vii] George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker’s Reflections (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1988), 23.
Like probably every artist out there, my intention is simply to make the stuff that I would most like to see. For me that means making objects most of the time, because making objects strikes me as badass. Furthermore, it means carving a lot of those objects, because carving strikes me as being extra badass.
And that really about does it for any kind of artist statement. This is where I scroll down to Save File As… and get up to do other things. Except I can’t quite. My own impulse to make work seems clear enough, but talking about it always makes me wonder: Where are the other carvers? Try counting up carvers in a contemporary context- after about five it gets tough. Heroic googling will get you to around ten. This, despite the fact that there are an incredible amount of artists out there, making an incredible amount of stuff. It was never my intention to get out of the way of pretty much everything else happening in the art world, but the practical result of being a carver does exactly that. So it was with a mixture of curiosity, and trepidation, that I began asking myself more specifically why I have made the choices that I have made. And why (maybe), other people haven’t. Which leads me to what follows below, the addendum, the footnote, the epilogue, or something or other.
Before I go further I should probably define my terms here. Carving itself is very much a living thing, in almost every cultural tradition, except for the one that I primarily draw from. That would be the one that started in Greece thousands of years ago, and came to define Western civilization. To be sure, no form of carving is especially well represented in the contemporary art world, (sorry Native American carvers, Asian carvers, African carvers, chainsaw carvers, Aboriginal carvers, Eskimo carvers, etc. you are all awesome) but the style that I’m talking about, the one that included practitioners like Praxiteles, Michelangelo, Riemenshneider, and others in an unbroken chain that lasted for centuries, is especially and conspicuously dead. It died, swiftly and totally, at the end of the Beaux Arts movement. How swift, and how total? Look at the tops of the four columns at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Raw blocks of stone lay in piles atop the carved columns. The four carvings that Robert Morris Hunt had intended Karl Bitters to do sit unfinished- he was run over by a car and killed in 1915. No one was found to replace him, and to this day the stone remains untouched.
The Beaux-Arts movement limped on from there, alive but slowly losing steam. The Lincoln Memorial was built in 1922, Riverside church was dedicated in 1930, and Mount Rushmore in 1941. But in 1945, the Piccarelli brothers, carvers of not only Lincoln’s Memorial, (from 28 pieces of white Georgia marble, weighing 159 tons), as well as the lions in front of the New York Public Library, the frieze on the New York Stock Exchange, the figures on the arch in Union square, quietly closed their doors for good. Really at that point, it was all over.
That didn’t exactly kill off sculpture, much less art in general. In fact the rise of the modernist era cranked up virtually every other artistic activity imaginable. The art world today is inclusive of everything, everywhere, all at once, a profusion of art coming at us from every corner of the globe. How curious then that there are a few traits that link so many of these disparate activities together- that in an incredible defiance of the odds and the numbers, most artists have signed on to just a few starting points for their work that are nearly universal. How curious also that carving in one way or another undermines or even defies them.
How exactly does all the art of today relate to each other? The first link is that it is overwhelmingly conceptually based. That is, driven by ideas, over any particular medium or method. This point logically leads to the next; if a medium or method is not really primary to an art object, then most artists will understandably reject the idea of becoming technically proficient in any one of them. In other words- an art object (or experience) should be just facile enough to get the idea across, and no more. It should never ever be confused with craft.
The description above has become the default way to think of contemporary art, essentially moving past fetishizing mute handsome objects. Meanwhile, the modernist creed to “Make It New’ envelops us totally, so totally that rarely do we notice that it is, well, old. For a century at least, we have been acclimated to look for, and indeed are most comfortable with, art that raise doubts about whether or not it even is art. Along the way a particular philosophical framework- that the idea comes first, and the hand is removed- has become the foundation of a new tradition. Conversely, artists making things at a high level of tactile mastery (minus the army of fabricators), and following the work in a way that is unconcerned with self-expression or even particular ideas, represents an older one. But no matter how you slice it, in the postmodern world it has become impossible for artists today to work without a tradition.
Most of what I see in galleries and museums exhibits a nod towards both an idea, and a studied lack of craft, as well as a third trait I’ll get to in a minute. So much so that now the overwhelming majority of things I see have come to define what I would call Traditional Contemporary Art. In this definition, people like Elliot Hundley, or Rachel Harrison, or Urs Fisher, or Harrell Fletcher, or Jeff Koons are really representing the norm, rather than the fringe. A quick peek at their long resumes, blue chip gallery affiliations, and high auction prices will attest to that. Furthermore, they and many artists like them, are doing their particular gig so well that any desire I might have to try add to that genre is pointless. Kudos to them! I love a lot of that work. But I’m interested in making the things I’m not seeing, not adding to the things I am. And I’m seeing an awful lot of what they are doing.
Despite the above description, it’s a highly ironic fact that the definition of orthodoxy within the art world still stubbornly sticks to something like carving. But the reality is that carved things haven’t come close to being in the mainstream of contemporary art for at least a century, especially if they are technically proficient. The definition of orthodoxy has flipped.
In the meantime, tradition has become inescapable. Finding a creative act that is without precedent is not only impossible, but searching for it in the first place seems retrograde, a modernist task in a postmodern world. Congratulations and all that in the unlikely event that you find it, (a creative act without precedent), but it’s not like it’s the main task of art to look for it anymore. Art has no main task. Precedent for everything means ‘Tradition’ is something that is impossible to operate apart from. And that’s good. But ‘Tradition’ is used as a pejorative in the contemporary art world so often that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it simply refers to something that is readable in a communal way. In order for traditions to have any meaning at all, they must rely on the context of community. In fact, traditions are one of the ways communities show their contextual boundaries; they are a display of the very binds that tie them together.
The opposite of tradition is ‘Freedom’, which is the unraveling of those communal bonds in order to gain autonomy. Taken to its logical conclusion, there is a relationship between freedom and alienation, due to the fact that fully unraveling those bonds means being unreadable by anyone at all. Being totally bound is no more preferable than being totally free of course, so it would seem logical to chart a course that moves in a nuanced way between both poles. Which is why art at its best it seems to be both strange and strangely familiar, allowing for discovery, and connection simultaneously. The ability for art to operate in this way might at first seem like a paradox, but only if one discounts the fact that new things come out of old things rearranged and reconfigured. This is why traditions are therefore alive: they reflect their moment, while acknowledging the steps taken to get there.
Acknowledging tradition is to acknowledge that for many centuries, people made things with a high level of skill. Despite that fact, craft and skill in any pre-modernist form didn’t come up much when I was in school, other than as a historical artifact. And while I really didn’t think about it much at the time, its very absence was instructive. It was really only after I left school that an observation about my experience within it began to creep up on me, which is simply this: crafting an object takes the attention away from the artist, and puts it on the object. Conceptualizing an object (or a performance, video, intervention, social practice, soundscape, etc.), on the other hand takes the attention away from the object, and puts it on the artist. The first was deemed bad. The second was deemed good.
How can conceptualizing an object put the attention on the artist rather than the idea? Because a conceptual artist at some point needs to be present to explicate what the idea is in the first place. Thus, even though the Concept of the art supposedly shines through more clearly minus the hand of the artist, their face and voice and personality appear instead, due to the fact that some form of salesmanship is required for that particular thing to be understood. Which leads to the third major trait I see in work today- the way that the ‘concept’ can be elastic enough to encompass merely the flavor of a personality. This is Conceptual 2.0, where it is enough that the concept is a compelling story or entertaining explanation. This is why ours is the era of the Art Opening, and the Artist Talk – how many artist talks do you suppose Picasso did, or Manet, or even Duchamp? This is how we’ve come to focus our attention on artists talking about ideas rather than simply on objects that embody them. Objects have receded to the background, as artists have come to the fore, and that flip has come to define most art in a contemporary context.
This reality elides over a very important question though: are artists and ideas really the most important elements of art? If so, then art has moved into an area that seems to be a hybrid of philosophy and show business. Which actually sounds kind of interesting. But to accept this state of affairs means assuming that the intellect is the most valuable part of us, the most reliable part, the part that we should elevate above anything else. The best art (in this calculation) will always be the smartest art, which leaves out art made with joy, or sadness, or anger, or boredom. It leaves out intuitive art, or beautiful art, or ugly art, or process art, or tactile art, or interactive art, or crafted art, or outsider art, and so on. In other words, all the stuff that starts without a heaping dose of the intellect.
Starting without it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t pick some of it up along the way of course. In fact, it invariably takes on a more unpredictable side of it. So rather than illustrating ideas that are already conceived in the mind of the artist, starting without them allows room for discovery, for challenging assumptions, for serendipity and surprise. It allows for following a path that isn’t really clear. It allows in other words, for exploration.
Starting without fixed ideas means starting without the mind isolated from the rest of us- it accepts the body, the hands, and the senses, as equal partners. Including them brings back the possibility of making things. In fact, it almost demands it. And as the artist begins the process of making something, a human activity with at least a two million year history, a further observation is easy to make: if the body and the hands act as the guide, then they better be capable. The sheer discipline of making something becomes an avenue of discovery, a way of creating something the mind can’t exactly plan, or explain. That comes in after, the explanations, the questions, the criticism. And when it does, the physical and mental work together again to refine whatever was made, iteration after iteration, creating something greater than each one alone would be capable of.
The argument against working like that of course is that the hands can take over. And it is true that becoming highly skilled at something and leaving it at that does have some real problems attached, problems that require some understanding on the part of the artist to avoid. Simply put, it’s that craft in and of itself isn’t really much of anything. Learning it, like a writer learning the rules of grammar, is a good thing. But learning it and then thinking you’re a great writer is a creepily misguided thing. Many of us have met artists who can’t tell the difference, and have understandably decided to run in the other direction.
The problem is exacerbated when it’s noted, with perfect historical accuracy, that we are now able to pick and chose our influences and call whatever we do art. I noted as much two paragraphs ago. But while we are all subsumed in a postmodern world, there are clearly cracks in its description of reality. For example: we can borrow all we want, but we only get to describe our own experience, and really no other. Arthur Danto described this conundrum quite well when he talked about how artists in the postmodern era are able to pick and choose styles from other eras, true enough, but are forever unable to live the contexts that gave rise to them in the first place. This means that artists who try like hell to paint like John Singer Sergeant, or sculpt like Rodin, are not making art, they are making eerie monuments to the dead. Being influenced by them is one thing; becoming them is quite another. Until someone invents a time machine, artists are really only allowed to ask what Right Now looks like, and what is relevant to a description of that experience.
While a suspicion of craft for craft’s sake is legit, a suspicion of craft itself is usually how that suspicion plays out. Which I’m taking some pains to point out is nuts. Understand: denying craft to make a point is perfectly fine. I can see denying the sensual in a sensual experience in order to do that. Also fair is to expand on the idea of what sensual is in the first place. Still good. What is totally crazy is to banish sensuality forever.
But there is a further hurdle for craft to clear, and it’s probably the highest: nobody really wants to become highly skilled at anything anymore. Doing so could take years, and maybe even a lifetime to achieve. Who wants to spend a lifetime doing anything? Our culture is described quite well by the researcher Linda Stone, who identified a mental state she described as Constant Partial Attention. In other words, skimming lightly over everything, and sinking deeply into nothing. Constant distractions, and shorter attention spans, mark the mental state of most of us.
The problem is that tangible skills are still relevant. For example: whatever life choices you have made for yourself, thank a farmer for growing the food for you to pursue it. Somebody, probably an immigrant, stuck their hands in the dirt to make sure you had something to eat. Just as somebody made you a house to live in, a bed to sleep on, shoes to wear, and so on and so on. Our distance from most of this stuff doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, it just means we’re rich enough to ignore it. Should we care? You get to answer that for yourself of course, but for me, as most of us disappear into constant partial attention, my answer is yes.
The personal is political, and one’s art is one of the most personal, and therefore political things of all. Hands-on skills for the most part are in decline, and I think it is a political act to re-engage with them, a political act that seems relevant to our disassociated postmodern present. It’s unfortunate to me that artists in particular get really touchy around anyone technically proficient, like furniture makers, or fabricators, or welders, or machinists or even the occasional sculptor. They tell each other that their ideas make them better than mere craftsmen, but most of the time, they struggle to articulate what their ideas actually are. To paraphrase David Hockney, they think they’re poets, but nobody taught them how to spell.
I hope my own work can reclaim some of the agency that I’m not sure I really have anymore. Can I overcome my own Constant Partial Attention? Can I find a level of competence in myself, when I’m not really sure that I know how to do anything well? Can I make something beautiful, rather than say something clever? Can beautiful and smart be the same thing? Can art feel necessary? I want to make the things that ask those questions, and so far I’m not sure I’ve managed to articulate clear answers of my own. But what I do know now, years into all of this, is that thinking about what the answers might be is every bit as rewarding as the making, and that the making led to the thinking. Both form a continuum, always being added to and refined, never becoming definitive, and never finished. And on that note, I have some carving to do.
“The hand is the blade of the mind” ---Jacob Bronowski
The five digits on the ends of our arms are more complex than any other paw or flipper or hoof or fin or tentacle out there in the natural world. Even the hands of other primates don’t compare, which is what allows us to play Bach fugues on the guitar, or to cut the complicated joinery required to make a Shinto Temple. It’s no overstatement to say that because of our fantastically dexterous hands we have managed to not only survive as a species, but to thrive. Over the course of many thousands of years we have been able to use our hands to make things such as weapons and shelters, which successfully kept far stronger and faster animals at bay. Realizing we were on to a good thing (and with our survival somewhat assured), we began to make countless other things that stagger with their complexity, beauty, and utility.
Of course, our brains are telling our hands what to do. So isn’t the evolution of our brain a more important point? And the answer is, surprisingly, probably not. It turns out that clever brains and hands are inextricably mixed, and you can’t have one without the other. Anthropologists such as Sherwood Washburn have written that the modern human brain might have evolved because of tool use, rather than tool use appearing because of our brains. As he says: “From the evolutionary point of view, behavior and structure form an interacting complex, with each change in one affecting the other. Man began when populations of apes, about a million years ago, started the bipedal, tool using way of life.” The structure of the arm and hand of the Australopithecus species in particular (from which Lucy sprang), allowed for gripping and holding things that until that time was completely unique. That meant that eventually, our big brains could write those fugues for the guitar, but only because of the possibilities represented by, and as a direct outcome from, our hands manipulating whatever was in their reach. That helped push the development of the brain that sits nestled in our heads today.
Making things is how we got here. It was our evolutionary good fortune, a lucky adaptation that ultimately stamped our ticket to the pinnacle of the food chain. As we evolved, our ability to make things evolved with us. Behavior and structure form an interacting complex after all. Now we have really clever hands being directed by really clever brains. We make dams across raging rivers, we link continents with interstate highways, we travel under the seas with submarines, above the clouds with airplanes, and even enter outer space now and again with spaceships. But while we are able to make these things, less and less of our population are directly involved in the process. In fact, today we live in a world that most of the time no longer requires us to make anything. We are free of the bondage of physical labor in the contemporary world, (except if you are a Mexican living in the U.S., as a visit to any farm, restaurant, or construction site will show), and for the most part we’re pretty happy about that. Making things is hard after all, and when we became smart enough to invent machines to do it, we jumped at the chance.
We have moved away from the brute labor that marked the industrial revolution, and moved towards a service-based economy that for most people has banished a physical interaction with the world. A version of the same thing has happened with our ability to creatively influence our surroundings. As more things are made for us, the more we have become accustomed to plain old buying rather than making. As Marx said, we have gone from ‘Being into having’, as we transition from seeing ourselves as ‘producers’ in a modernist sense, to ‘consumers’ in a postmodern one.
As we lose the notions of how things are made, we also lose the ability to engage in the complex conversation it took to make those things in the first place. We are cut off more and more from the world not only physically, but creatively.
Now I know what you’re thinking: We can still be creative outside of the physical world. Think of all the software writing, and the game making, the website designing, and the 3-d modeling going on. Aren’t computers actually expanding on the idea of what creativity is in the first place? And the answer is: Yes! And that’s good. But this observation misses the point. I’m talking about a creativity that exists in what my code writing friends call ‘the meat space’, or ‘the blue room’: the physical world. This distinction is important because tangible skills are important. Try living in a virtual house, or eating virtual food, or wearing virtual clothes. All of these virtual things, I’m sorry to say, are unnecessary. The real versions of food and shelter however, are non-negotiable. Not having a clue about the basics of that non-negotiable reality is what I’m talking about.
If we agree that we are cut off from the physical world, the irony is that from an artist’s perspective this shift has meant a certain kind of freedom. Art making has shed its physical skin to become ‘conceptual’, which means it’s an activity that creatively interacts with ideas rather than the making of objects. It stands to reason that art would follow the same arc as everything else did in the transition from ‘Being into having’ that Marx describes, and get itself out from under the drudgery of production, and away from objects in general.
Art historians might interject at this point with a more descriptive explanation about how the visual arts became modern. How the Impressionists saw mimesis as redundant in the era of photography say, or how a new awareness of art from other places like Japan and Africa was an influence as well. The story is indeed intriguing, and long. However, the granular details of the modernist turn in art fails to explain the over-arching modernist narrative that also affected science, medicine, the military, the economy, literature, and so on. In each field the transition was slightly different, and at a slightly different time. But modernism was the paradigm that covered them all. For that reason it’s important to see art as part of a larger cultural progression in which it was merely a facet. And in that progression, art very much followed a modernist arc rather than led it, away from the handmade towards the industrial, away from the mimetic towards the abstract.
But we no longer live in a modernist era. Another shift, and a new paradigm has replaced it. No longer do we share the modernist’s faith in a logical progression forward, replaced instead with the confusing set of possible paths of postmodernism. It’s important therefore to describe the shift away from a modernist perspective, towards a postmodern one, because postmodernism provides a more complete portrait of who we are now, whether we like it or not.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of ultimate truth, or of objective knowledge, then you are postmodernism. If you understand and laugh at ‘South Park’, because they make fun of everyone, and never chose a side, then you are postmodern. (Basically, if you watch and enjoy television you are postmodern). If you see creativity as bricolage rather than the search for pure originality, you are postmodern. If you see the world retreating into enclaves of people promoting their own versions of truth, because there seems to be ‘proof’ of any position imaginable, then you are postmodern. If you are uncomfortable seeing yourself as postmodern, because you don’t really believe in labels, you are postmodern.
In stark contrast to that, modernists had no problem at all with labels. The visual artists of that era enjoyed nothing more that coming up with definitive versions of art, and engaging in the resulting blood-sport of defending them. "Modernism, overall, was the age of manifestos", as Arthur Danto writes, and each new movement set out to quash the others that came before it. The historian Phyllis Freeman has counted as many as five hundred such manifestos, some of which, like the surrealist and futurist, are “Nearly as well known as the works themselves”, again, quoting Danto. Pretty much all of them defined themselves in opposition to what came before, and pretty much all of them described themselves as the real essence of art, and all others to be false.
Danto one more time: “ In 1913, Malevich assured Matiushin that “the only meaningful direction for painting was Cubo-Futurism.” In 1922, the Berlin Dadaists celebrated the end of all art except the machinekunst of Tatlin, and the same year the artists of Moscow declared that easel painting as such, abstract or figurative, belonged to an historically superseded society. "True art like true life takes a single road" Piet Mondrian wrote in 1937. Mondrian saw himself on that road in life as in art, in life because in art.”
It should be noted that Mondrian severed his relationship with his friend and collaborator Theo van Doesburg, because van Doesburg believed that diagonal lines were valid in abstract art, an idea totally unacceptable to Mondrian. Definitions as rigid as that are nearly incomprehensible to artists today, because art can be anything an artist says it is, an open-ended definition that has only existed in the minds of postmodernists. Which is to say, us.
If modernism springs from the Enlightenment, than our current take on things springs instead from Existentialism. This flies in the face of what had come before it, which was a belief in a steady progression towards better things. We are unsure of that idea today, to say the least, and it’s easy to see that profound change in perspective all around us. A few examples: Isaac Newton described a universe that was run on immutable laws. And then Einstein came along and said that everything was relative. Heisenberg identified the Uncertainty Principal. Now scientists look for Dark Matter, which can’t be seen, and debate String Theory, which can’t be observed (much less proved) because much of it happens in other dimensions.
Global finance used to be run by central government banks that pegged their currency to gold. Now currency is literally an abstraction, beautiful etchings on paper, whose worth is based on fiat. Wealth is run through corporations trading complicated financial instruments made up by math majors. People used to make money by providing tangible things, and now they sell Futures, or Derivatives. Wealth often times is in the form of stocks, whose worth is pegged to the vagaries of an ever-shifting consensus.
Societies used to take for granted their own regional versions of architecture, food, and language. Now the effects of colonization, war, technology, and global immigration have created a massive diaspora that has re-shuffled formally homogeneous societies in to something far less so. That has led to a re-thinking, or even re-definition of social hierarchies, beliefs, and traditions. Regional food and architecture are the stuff of theme parks and chain restaurants now. Even the roles people play within these new societies are in flux. It’s not just new languages and food we are accommodating, it’s new versions of parenting, gender roles, work relationships, and communication itself. The fracturing of recognizable things into their less clear parts is not merely a trope of postmodern art, it is a reflection of almost everything around us.
Along with that fractured and unraveled feeling is something even more unsettling, which is this: we have it within our grasp to fuck everything up for good. This ability is derived not only from our technological know-how, but the way we wield that know-how to extract, kill, mow down, dredge up, emit, burn, use, and otherwise run roughshod over the things in our way. We live in an era described as the ‘6th great extinction’, with massive loss of animal and plant species. The other five great extinctions were caused by things like ice ages, asteroids, and volcanic eruptions. The 6th is being caused by us.
Maybe most strikingly, we have ‘Real’ problems that need addressing, and so assessing what ‘The Best’ solutions to them are would obviously be in our interest. But absolutes like ‘Real’ and ‘Best’ have been compromised. Objective truth is just not what we do anymore. In fact truth itself has been re-defined along postmodern lines, along with everything else mentioned above, to the point that ‘Truth’ with a capitol ‘T’ now holds less sway than a murky kind of relativism.
In a postmodern world, debating one possible solution over the merits of another ushers us into a hall of mirrors rather than a clear path. Facts and truth and sincerity are suspect most of all, because we are familiar with them as strategies used in ads to sell us stuff. That means that despite the dystopian future many people believe we face, we have an inability to speak rationally about any of it, because facts and truth and sincerity themselves are compromised. They seem like relics of modernism, back when we actually believed that reason would get us through this stuff. We don’t feel that way anymore. Reason itself as a path towards a better future is exactly the thing that postmodernism rose up to challenge.
If the above seems like it undermines the basis for critical thought itself, you’re right. It’s easy to see why the philosophers who initially set out to identify postmodernism did so with a palpable sense of sorrow. In the case of Guy Debord, he actually tried to come up with a strategy to get us beyond it, via the Situationists. He didn’t get that far. In 1994, Guy Debord committed suicide.
Today we are accustomed to living a life accommodating the conflicting feelings of crises and helplessness, which together form a jittery kind of apathy. And jittery apathy describes the contours of postmodernism itself. Nobody is saying that the days before modernism were great of course, (though the thought does occur that they might have gotten a bad rap), but life in the 20th and 21st centuries clearly have some not-so-small problems attached. We managed to fight two world wars in the first half of the 20th century for example, and spent the rest under the pall of nuclear Armageddon. The irony is that many of our mistakes were brought on as the unintended consequence of trying to make things better, the genesis of the modernist impulse. The retort to that impulse writes itself. It’s easy to see how the rise of postmodernism, which sees the idea of pure reason as a panacea to our ills as a delusional fantasy, was a virtual guarantee. And so it is that we have traded the feeling of a having a single and rigidly proscribed direction forward, for the freedom of having no clear path at all.
Life today embodies a kind of mental and spiritual abstraction, with definitions of individual values and goals being up for grabs. As we settled into this postmodern state, consciously or not, we moved beyond Marx’s observation of ‘Being into having’, into what Guy Debord identified as ‘Having into appearing’. As we accommodated a world where our role is to consume, the value system shifted to what we consume.
Debord called this state of affairs, no surprise, the ‘Society of Spectacle’, which is where we find ourselves today. In a world that understands imagery as a kind of true Esperanto, it would seem to me especially important for artists to understand what Debord described. It’s their job to make images after all. But contemporary art can often be less a critique of this state, or a method of revealing it, then just another example of it in a very pure sense. Artists today become brands, and their very actions result in creating value that is often free of an object, or even any kind of tangible use. So it is that many artists have become willing participants in all of this, as any trip to an art fair, biennial, or auction will attest. It’s not crazy to see the contemporary art world as the culmination of what Debord was talking about, the true distillation of the Society Of Spectacle. The transgressive, libertine model of artist behavior, courtesy of the modernists, has turned into a postmodern brand that is reliably marketable. For that reason the idea of trying to poke holes through the spectacle wouldn’t occur to many artists today. Postmodernism has been great for business.
If Debord is correct, than the ‘prestige and ultimate function’ of anything, art included, is an abstraction twice removed from objective reality. While the truth of that assertion is worthy of debate, it certainly is correct that the idea of making anything at all has an anachronistic air about it these days, which supports at least a part of Debord’s theory. In our day, the maturation of the modernist idea of removing the hand is easy to see. And while lots of big name artists rely heavily on fabricators to make things for them at a very high level of craft, most wouldn’t have a clue about how to do much of it themselves. That lack of knowledge is orthodoxy, not only in the art world, but in the culture at large. That’s because the spectacle is designed to make sure you don’t know how to do much of anything other than to consume. To make sure you don’t creatively interact, but passively receive. And as the spectacle has gathered steam, which it still appears to be doing, our ability to make things has for most of us been willingly set aside in order to participate fully in the spectacle. Those who persist in making objects tend to be seen as mere craftsman, rather than artists following a certain traditional historical thread. But getting out of the way of the spectacle is the thread.