This is a recap of some comments I've posted today over at First Thoughts. It began when Joe Carter quoted the following:
I’ve heard many people say of contemporary art: “my kids can do that.” I encourage them, then to try it themselves, don’t let kids have all the fun! Try to make drip paintings like Jackson Pollock. Or paint an object with encaustic, layering color upon color, like Johns. Try silk screening images like Warhol. You soon find out that in the ordinary gestures and materials, there are deceptively complicated and sublime twists. Our drips become unnatural and confined, where as Pollock’s drips dance, and form delectable edges that seem to undulate in front of our eyes. Our edges of encaustic strokes become unshapely, because If you try working with wax (as I have tried to in college,) you find out soon enough that it is unforgiving, making it very difficult to create a clean, sharp definition. The melting wax constantly oozes, and moves about, and the colors muddle,. If you are finally able to paint a stripe with bright colors, the stripes would not resonate, in ways that Johns’ Flags do.
And that is to speak only of the method of execution. Johns’ works not only collage materials, but they also synthesize concepts, culture, the zeitgeist of his day. One may be able to copy his technique, but it is impossible to mimic the complex layers of confluences that he is synthesizing as he mixes beeswax and pigments. To Jasper Johns, the medium of his art is not really encaustic, the medium of his art is Time itself.
This prompted me to respond:
If you try working with wax (as I have tried to in college,) you find out soon enough that it is unforgiving, making it very difficult to create a clean, sharp definition. The melting wax constantly oozes, and moves about, and the colors muddle…This is the reason I let professionals stain my floors and furniture. It is a skill that improves with repetition, the same way my backhand in tennis improves when I work on it (or doesn’t improve when I prefer to smash forehands all the live long day.)…is impossible to mimic the complex layers of confluences that he is synthesizing…Exactly why should anyone read something like this and NOT think “What gobbledygook.” I hate to be all pragmatic, but there is no such thing as “synthesizing confluences” except in the brains of the truly fevered. But, of course, explanation by subjective gobbledygook is what you get when the object of discussion is as semiotically empty as much of contemporary art is.
I think there is another way people mean the phrase “My kid could do that” because, in a very real way, kids DO that all the time. I think of the article in Smithsonian that pointed out that Pollock’s “Mural” was basically an excuse for hiding his signature in plain sight. It is this “Hey! Look at me!” aspect of contemporary art that people are identifying as being child like, if not childish. The difference is when a child does it it can be excused as the faltering steps of the inexperienced. When an adult artist does it, well, it can come across as little more than a narcissistic look at their favorite subject, themselves. In Pollock’s case he was simply trying to make a name for himself, literally.
This prompted an angry response from someone calling themselves ekwas:
Do you know that word, ‘zeitgeist’, ‘Rich Horton’? It’s a word from the German and it means ’spirit of the times’, which is what most everybody is thinking and feeling about life in general at a certain point in time, like right now, 2010, or a while ago, like 1967.
‘Rich Horton’, if your teacher gave you an assignment to make one picture about everything you’ve been thinking and feeling in the last year, about yourself, the economy, your friends, God, our President and Congress, people in other countries, what would you put in it? You can see right away it would take a whole lot of thinking and figuring out, wouldn’t it? How about if you didn’t even have to make a picture, you just had to write it all in 1000 words, that’s hard enough! So you can imagine that Mr. Johns works very hard, very long hours to make his famous pictures, that so many people think are very, very good.
I love the fact that my name is continually put into quotation marks by this individual. It strikes me as all the proof I need that the contemporary artistic temperament is semiotically empty. After all, a proper name is by definition a signifier of something real. However, the act of placing my name in quotation marks is a rather aggressive attempt to deny my personhood or humanity; to deny that my name signifies anything real; to demand that it too be semiotically empty.
I responded thusly:
Actually, my field is political philosophy, which has its own tradition of using nonsense terms to mask a lack of meaning (eg. “scientific Marxism,” “politics of difference”, “eternal recurrence”), so my resistence to “persuasion by subjective enthusiasm” is higher than most.
Actually, this all reminds me of the best defense of contemporary art I’ve read, Ortega y Gasset’s essay “The Dehumanization of Art.” Being Ortega, it is of course, a defense of elite privilege against the pernicious, democratic, mediocritizing influence of the masses. For Ortega, when the masses have shown the ability to recognize a beautiful painting, a stirring or lovely melody, a sonorous poem, etc., the only way for the elite to signal their non-mass status is to champion that which isn’t beautiful, stirring or sonorous. Art, in such a view, has a fundamentally political function. It is part of how an aristocracy identifies and defines itself.
Granted, when Ortega was writing he probably had in mind Debussy using discordant or atonal moments for effect in a composition, or the distortions of a cubist painting, but if art is going to be defined by its political/social function, well, then there is no distinction to be made between a Pollock painting or a “sculpture” of a crucifix submerged in urine or a “painting” of the Madonna using the medium of manure. The goal has been achieved, i.e. defining the elite who supposedly find artistic meaning in such material in opposition to the masses who do not.
Contemporary art is built almost entirely along Ortegean lines these days, and as a result it is profoundly alienating. It is sometimes amusing to see the aristocratic qualities of the champions of contemporary art clashing with their egalitarian impulses. They know that most people do not care for it (be “it” atonal music or abstract art or what have you), but the best response they can offer is “People would like it if only they were exposed to it, or weren’t so stupid.” Which is of course impossible, as its raison d’etre is to be disliked.
I've been ill all day, so this certainly cheered me up.