The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mile 9 ...

This journey - quest - to discover my "roots" in art is nearly over. Tomorrow I'll walk the final mile, and also reflect upon what I learned from this experience. Thanks to all of you who've taken this journey with me. I can't find enough words to express the full extent of my gratitude! And, since I'm seldom at a loss for words, you can imagine how I must feel.

The informed quality of your responses to my posts demonstrates that you all have a LOT to say about the various "isms" and influences on your work. Please, do accept my invitation to write something that I can post here. If the purpose of this blog is the critical analysis of art, it requires more than just my opinion. Email your short essay to me: kcartwright@kacartwright.com and attach any images you want to use. BTW - if you feel like you're not "qualified" to do this - neither am I! It's not about qualifications, it's about an honest exploration. I know so little, and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Together, we can arrive at answers and even pose some great questions.

So, at the end of Mile 8 (or as Emenem would say "Eight Mile") I left you dangling in the world of Conceptual Art. If someone wants to write more about that, please do. As I face the last two miles, I see that the trail gradient has steepened considerably. This will be tough! But, let's tackle Postmodernism. According to Williams, the 1960's was an explosive period of artistic innovation, and also the beginning of a deeper reorientation of thought about art that continued into the 1970's and 80's. This deeper thought is Postmodernism, which is really just an extension and intensification of Modernism.

By the 1970's, there was a rejection of Greenberg's formalism and an effort, inspired by Duchamp, to structure art around the psychological, linguistic, institutional, economic, political and cultural conditions of the time. One of the real achievements of postmodernist theory, according to Williams, was to provide a more sophisticated conceptual vocabulary for the analysis of those conditions and their effects. A lot of that vocabulary came from Marxist philosophy, that placed the control of human existence in the hands of economic forces and identifies a struggle between classes for material resources.

How did this radical change in art theory impact artists? The Frankfort School is a major influence. It was founded by a group in Germany who had been part of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfort. They were later disbanded by the rise of Fascism and sought refuge in America. They wrote mainly in German, and weren't translated into English until the late 1960's, when their theories would influence the rest of the art world. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, of that School, wrote an essay entitled The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception that offers a definition for a "high art" that denies the commodity society. According to this essay, a serious artist addresses the fundamental tensions of the times even if it's an unconscious effort. Thus, art is always a political commentary and an instrument for the prevailing ideology. That means that art is implicity a "critique." According to Adorno: Art is a force of protest of the human against the pressure of domineering institutes, religious and otherwise, no less than a reflection of their objective substance. Horkheimer and Adorno made a claim to the traditional conception of high art while redefining its function as critical. Basically, one of the jobs of an artist was to remind its viewers that we've failed to achieve real social harmony.

Around the same time, in France there emerged a group inspired by Surrealism who called themselves Situationist International. Their leading theorist was Guy Debord, who believed that "illusions" produced for the masses play an increasingly necessary role in maintaining order. They were disinchanted with organized Marxism and engaged in anarchical acts of creative subversion and believed that their political activism was their art. Again, this is a breaking-down of the division between life and art.

Jean Baudrillard, the prominent French thinker of the 1960's, was also disinchanted with Marxism and extended beyond Debord's theories to declare that "reality" has been replaced by "hyperreality" in which signs have no relation at all to the things they represent. In essence, the real is becoming extinct. He felt that criticism is futile because the media act to neutralize dissent. This led to...

Pop Art. The road to this movment, according to Williams, was paved by first Rauchenberg, then Johns, Kaprow, Oldenberg, and finally, Warhol. As you all know, Warhol's works represent "commodities." When he began his work in Pop Art, Warhol was unaware of the German and French movements in art, although he became aware much later. Unlike the German and French, Warhol admired mass culture and had no problem with modern capitalism. He wrote: Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist ... making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. He went a step further to declare I want to be a machine. Everyone should be a machine. As an art student back in the 1960's and early '70's, I remember how important it was to our instructors that we see Warhol's work. They didn't exactly know what to tell us about it, but I remember being dragged off to New York City to take a look. Here's an iconic work by Warhol:











As we move along through the 1970's, 80's and '90's we find that some Conceptual artists who emerged in the years just after the rise of Pop Art dealt with social, political, and cultural themes in a more direct and pointedly critical way. To name a few:
Hanse Haacke - exposed the relation between art, museums, and money and eroded the conceptual barriers between art and politics.
Victor Burgin - insisted that abstract art had been co-opted by capitalism and was no longer useful as a critical tool.
Barbara Kruger - picked up where Warhol left off, using new theoretical tools. She made posters and billboards to address social control in general as well as the politics of gender.

Taking a little breather here to assess these influences on my art, I find that the adage "If you remember the 60's you weren't there" is true! It's a little muddled - after all, I was too busy burning my bra, marching in rallies, and dealing with the counter-culture. My art at that time reflected that, so I guess these folks had an enormous influence on me. It wasn't until I started raising my own kids and aged to the point of mellowing that my paintings became less radical. And, my professors were radicals. They pushed us to move in the direction of social criticism and abstract expressionism. But, there was this other side of me. I truly appreciated the aesthetic, and loved studying the work of the Impressionists and all that came before them. Geez ... how did I ever arrive at broken eggshells???

OK ... so I'm dragging my feet. In a moment, you'll know why. It's because I have to travel through the Valley of the Shadow of "The Phenomenology of Signs." Oh dear ... I think I've sprained my ankle. Help! Whimper ...



Undaunted, she picks herself up and stumbles onward ...


Onward ... This is about the nature of language and its influence on the arts. Previously, the visual arts were separate from verbal art. Futurism, Dada, and Surrealsim incorporated language in the form of symbols. Conceptualism made use of language in a number of ways. The great French thinkers of the 1970's began to relate the analysis of language to the analysis of culture as a whole, and since the visual arts acted as the critic to culture at the time, this influenced art.

French thinking about this developed on the shoulders of a Swiss linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure, and the lectures he gave from 1906 - 1911. This is so complicated that I can't really do it justice. However, Saussure's idea was that in language, individual words don't have meaning apart from the system of language as a whole. And, since language is limited, it's not a perfect mirror of the world. An American philospher named Charles S. Peirce expanded Saussure's ideas to erect the science of "semiology" - the study of the life of signs within society. You may wonder what this has to do with postmodern art ... a lot! Pierce placed "signs" into three categories:
1) the icon - a sign which resembles its object (example: a recognizable object in a painting)
2) the index - a sign of some material or causal relation to its object (smoke is an index of fire)
3) the symbol - a sign of some conventional connection between it and its object (all linguistic signs)

This led to all sorts of complicated fiddling with language in the written arts. By 1967, the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004) published three books that make a strong argument for the importance of art to the human existence. His theories moved beyond the borders of France and gained momentum among artists and critics in the western world. I'm at a loss to know how to understand and describe this and hope that you can help me. However, you can see this influence in the works of artists such as Victor Burgin, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine among many. The limitations in my ability to understand art theory at this stage are showing. Aarrgh! But, why should that stop me...

And, what would art be without the theories of psychoanalysts? (sorry ... I'm being sarcastic). Jacques Lacan (1901- 81) laid claim to the notion that the visual arts assist us in protecting ourselves from the powerful objectivizing force of being looked at from all sides. He identified three stages of childhood development, which I won't describe here, to come to that conclusion. He sees art as a mirror of ourselves - a screen on which we project our fears and desires. But, this also allows us to objectify and manipulate our fears and desires. He felt that this, in itself, produced a taming and civilizing effect. So, I guess it's our role as artists to tame society (???)
Hmmmm....

Actually, Lacan's ideas were useful to feminists because of its emphasis on the "symbolic" in the formation of gender identity, which led to some sort of understanding of women's subjugation. According to Williams: the symbolic order could be said to be structured in such a way as to deny women the very possibility of any adequate self-representation and thus any hope of fulfillment. Oh ... don't get me started! Take a look at the work of Mary Kelly to understand this.

And, now that my head hurts, I think I'll lie down. Oh dear .. the fire's gone out! Someone, please throw a log on.





Next, and last leg of this journey - the "Future Present" and what
this journey means to me.

12 comments:

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

Thanks Kathy, I've not studied the Post Modern theories enough to shed any light. But, speaking of light, thank you for illuminating the subject for me! I love the probing questions about art, what it is, what it isn't and how it changes with society! Love your cartoons too!

The Artist Within Us said...

I simple had a glance and I feel like the last illustration in your post. I shall be home in two days to recover from the trip.

It is then when I shall return to your posts and read them all over so your journey makes sense to me, then just the bits and pieces I have gathered.

See you soon . . .
Egmont

Kathy said...

Hi Peggy - Postmodernism was a tough one for me; I thought my head would explode! How do people think up this stuff? I guess I'm not very sophisticated. Thanks for reading through it all!

Hi Egmont - safe travels home. I look forward to your comments!

Mark Sheeky said...

You said:

"Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004) published three books that make a strong argument for the importance of art to the human existence. His theories moved beyond the borders of France and gained momentum among artists and critics in the western world. I'm at a loss to know how to understand and describe this and hope that you can help me."

Was he saying a picture says a thousand words? :D

I liked the bits about language. I'm too rushed to consider or absorb this now. Thanks again for this great history lesson!

Kathy said...

Funny, Mark!!

-Don said...

Thanks a lot Kathy! My head just exploded all over my computer screen!!!

-Don

-Don said...

OK. So, I've cleaned my screen, packed as much of the goo as possible back into my skull and duct taped it all back together. Let's see if I can make some sense out of all this now...

Basically, what I get out of this is that art is - or should be - a reflection of and/or a reaction to the times in which we live. Meanwhile, what comes before must be rejected - at least until it comes back around, at which point it must be embraced.

My favorite nugget out of all this is Jean Baudrillard's notion that "criticism is futile because the media act to neutralize dissent". You really don't want to get me started on the media - suffice it to say after working in television for several years I have some pretty strong notions...

I can really relate to two things you said today, one in your blog, the other in one of your comments: "And, what would art be without the theories of psychoanalysts? (sorry ... I'm being sarcastic)" and "I guess I'm not very sophisticated." I'm right there with you sister...

I don't know if my head can take another mile... Oh well... Bring it on!

hwfarber said...

Well, I've printed this blog to study.

I don't want to miss the opportunity to say thank you for marching and burning your bra. I was at home in the suburbs with two small children but I was with you in spirit. My husband actually made contributions to the cause (one of my duties has always been to handle the checkbook). Lots of young women have no idea what the "Mad Men" era was really like.

Kathy said...

Yikees, Don! We'll have to call the paramedics - so sorry :-). I guess I'm an art theory terrorist wreaking mahem in cyberspace. I think your analysis of reflection and rejection is what I've been getting at. Thanks for putting it more succinctly. Now ... off to my psychoanalyst!

Thanks, Hallie. Actually, I had to go out and buy more bras later. Geez ... I burned some pretty nice ones, too! All for the "cause," sister.

Casey Klahn said...

Glad you took on postmodernism, Kathy. I have some strong opinions on PM - and my comments here include your mile 10 post, as well.

I see a bigger distinction between PM and modernism than your author (it seems). My thoughts are that PM mainly rejects narratives from the past, and is a negative movement. OTOH, the modernists were painting in the hopes of a positive era. True, they did find it necessary to overcome academic art, but if you look closely, the modernist artists are rooted (VVG, Matisse, etc.) in solid art history.
I want to also say that the modernists and the abstract expressionists, especially, were mostly apolitical.
My own feeling is that politics demeans art, as politics is a separate discourse from art, and rather a mean one. Art has held a high office in mankind's time, and I wish it to stay somewhere higher than marxism versus capitalism.
What a fine discussion we have had, and I am happy to be part of it.

Casey Klahn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathy said...

Casey - thank you for sharing your ideas about Modernism and Postmodernism. I think it is important to see the other side of the coin, and realize that Williams, in writing his thesis, is biased toward his point of view. Therefore, your insights are an important balance and generously add to my understanding of this time. Thank you so much!!