By Janet Bruesselbach
For Art After 1945: Mechanical Transcriptions of the Real
With Judith Rodenbeck
"The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"
Anything can be art, but most of it is bad art. That may be one of the only things still true about art practice, the art world, or whatever it is. Of course, opinions vary on what qualifies as good art, and that is taken for granted, too far. The kind of art that is shown in high-priced and socially acknowledged New York galleries bears the legacy of modernist self-involvement, such that anything shown there that does not recognize and thereby question its status as art can only be redeemed by premodern aesthetic principles, or a specialized branch of the society it inhabits. The art world itself is such a branch subject on the network of endeavors labeled as art, but even it cannot operate in society without an adaptation to technological change.
Nicolas Bourriaud, art critic and curator, proposes that this lingering mainstream of art in the past twenty years has moved, due partially to dissolution and then multiplication of media, toward an examination of its own cultural effects and sources, maintaining a modernist utopianism that criticizes by comparison and favors by exclusion. "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" was a group show curated by Jeffrey Uslip at The Project, a gallery isolated upstairs and outside the fortuitously clustered galleries of Soho and Chelsea, and addressed the postmodern anxiety with regards to utopian counterculture movements named after Joan Didion's 1968 essay on the collapse of counterculture, itself deriving from Yeats's modernist poem "The Second Coming". Its participants tepidly attempt to reveal the problems of teleological idealism and the impossibility of social perfection, especially by an isolation of the subversive. It acknowledges the leftist politics of much of the art world and presents the passing of sixties idealism as a problem to be solved. Both Bourriaud and curator Uslip's crowd map themselves by Socialism (Marx: Creator of the Modern Age), and the problem with socialism may always be the "social" part, the assumption that alienation is artificial . It is also necessarily a teleological movement, and Bourriaud indicates that teleology ends with modernism, which failed to bring about the end of history. Art, as definitely artificial, can therefore work as manifestation of the artificial to reveal alienation: but instead, much of art simply alienates the viewer. Perhaps the social self-examination of art exists to reveal its subversive resistance, and maybe it heralds the renunciation of subversivity, of offering a place for fantasies of autonomy. Art's center is already dissipating, and if its priorities can't re-embrace illusion , all that remains is bad art, and peripheral genius, unacknowledged by the politics of art criticism. If post-medium, social art acknowledges its Marxist historicism, its artistic legacy deflates the evolutionary possibilities of its subversive element. Relational aesthetics is an anti-subversive utopia, but as an anti-autonomous utopia it excludes asocial art practice .
We face the issue of defining the meaning of our own cultural era before history distills it through media and memorability, knowing already that the project will fail. Art's continuing obsession with inventiveness, its most exhausted gauge of value, implies that however art communicates itself to posterity, it must do so in an unprecedented way. Examining the relatively new realm of art criticism only shows that art has already addressed the matter of ephemera and irrecordability. The situation of current media allows for art to be translated and communicated beyond its physical presence, and for the most part the avant-garde has only fought this, attempting to preserve, as Benjamin would influence, its "aura".
Media proliferation has led to a redefinition of art through the gallery setting, so that specifically the viewer's time is borrowed for the artist's concept . At "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", Oscar Tuazon's Locked Room (2004) genuinely requires a release form, a copy of one's ID, and fifty cents to rent, for half an hour, his space inside the gallery space. Physically, the piece is an asymmetrical, haphazard aluminum quasi-dome, against the gallery wall, with apparently dangerous, sharp interior seams. The exterior is printed with current housing and politics magazines, the inside with some from 1971. Inside is an unadorned bed/cushion block, and readings to contemplate concerning Tuazon's father's attempt to market geodesic domes, a pursuit that drove him into bankruptcy in three years. The readings range from copies of brochures to books on 3-D geometry to the last edition of the Weathermen's official publication advocating violent revolution in the U.S. According to the curator's essay, such exemplary failed experiments by which it was inspired (that, also, of Molly Corey's The Dome Project (2004)) "punctured the romantic naiveté of a generation trying to forge a utopian community in a social vacuum." The artwork's point only appears from the entire situation in which it is shown, and that situation models itself, comparatively, on the housing business. Tuazon's effect is to create an inside and an outside, and ensure awareness of, firstly, the shoddiness of that structure and the universal contamination of inside by outside. Interestingly enough, however, apologizing that one has no change does not exclude the art viewer from taking her contemplative time in that fractured space.
Another piece actively interacts with popular culture and the cinema that serves as a framework for thinking about art for many leftist cultural critics, from Benjamin to Bourriaud. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's Learning from Las Vegas (2003) is explicitly displayed in the gallery as something not intended to be in a gallery: it's in a suitcase, mounted on the wall. It is also interactive and consists of a DVD player, screen, and about 40 DVDs in jewel cases labeled according to the content of the DVDs, selected from a dozen or so movies set in Las Vegas. An example would be "learning to do drugs", featuring scenes from each movie containing drugs. Another: "learning from carpet", which includes scenes in which carpet is the shared element, and, although it otherwise would not merit attention, must be included in order to include the entirety of all the movies. Learning From Las Vegas therefore mockingly shows the formulaity of modernity's popular art form, but is also an enjoyable game to identify unique elements or particular tendencies and styles of the different movies. Because it consists of cataloguing and montaging other peoples' commercially created art, and all its elements are pre-purchased and arranged, it has something of a legacy of the readymade, especially considering the importance of the title. Learning implicates art in the drive for utopia by isolating its didactic role, as emphasized by art critics searching for a concrete reason to make art and thus to write criticism and thus to get paid. And Learning isolates systemization as the means of teaching. The McCoys are operating like artistic automata , and therefore exemplify what Bourriaud observes (68) about the influence of computer science models on society even when the computer doesn't do the work, although in this case the separation of elements could not have been done without the computer.
Bourriaud, in an elitist exclusionism that demonstrates the exhausted contradiction of socialist modernism, claims that the very worst of "those who produce so-called 'computer graphic' images" create "the representation of a symbolic alienation from the computer medium, and the representation of their own alienation from methods dictated by production."(68) It's true that most attempts at self-conscious and "high" art have not turned out well, often suffering too heavily from conceptual intentions. A great many digital paintings are extraordinarily creative and skillful, considering that the limitations of medium define the skill of traditional art. There's no reason why digital art can't involve artistic skill and conceptual invention, for whatever that's worth. Nor does analyzing the impact of such works have to be organized in terms of individual pieces (here we see another communal utopia arising in the endless reproductability of bits, a utopia perhaps already dying). A particular genre of technological gallery art with some merits consists of recording (appropriating) video games and juxtaposing them with art theory, or making the characters do something contrary to the aims of the game, creating form out of such a comparison of realities. There seems to be no serious problem with computer art; Bourriaud simply seems to refuse art whose theoretical reading depends on the imagination of the viewer. Our social context of "the age of the screen", he thinks, should define "good art" (that favoring analysis) as being as screenless as possible, so that social evolution is defined by its resistors (just as Situationism could only be invented by an Anti-situationist - or culture by counter-culture): "the main effects of the computer revolution are visible today among artists who do not use computers."(68) But the extent to which Learning From Las Vegas demonstrates postmodern appropriation and Bourriaud's Guattarite definition of art "as a construction of concepts with the help of percepts and affects, aimed at a knowledge of the world" belies the inflexible recourse to meaning in the antithetical.
Bourriaud begins by asking "How are we to understand the types of artistic behavior shown in exhibitions held in the 1990s, and the lines of thinking behind them, if we do not start from the same situation as the artists?" Who is the "we", here? Bourriaud automatically excludes artists themselves from his readership, as if the artist's situation is not felt by his favored academics that presumably interact with the same cultural world, and vice versa. Also, as an artist, how is one to not think like an artist? Historical determinism is negligible. It is as if the avant-garde of art is limited to those artists who adapt in a determined way toward the postmodern crisis of newness. Bourriaud cites a "decline of ignorance" as a quality of the modern age; if so, he would find no better argument that the modern age is over. The world grew in population and shrank in communication, generating perhaps the specialized ignorance brought forth by new technologies, and the immeasurability of knowledge on a large scale. Bourriaud adds to the attempts to differentiate modern from postmodern by saying: "Art was intended to prepare and announce a future world; today it is modeling possible universes."(13). Thus he orients art, or at least his dead-horse modernist art, around the idea of utopia. American nerds would recognize the same comparison as the difference between science fiction and fantasy , although the latter description is relatively empty even for that.
Contemporary art's "plan...has just as much to do with working conditions and the conditions in which cultural objects are produced, as with the changing forms of social life, may nevertheless seem dull to minds formed in the mould of cultural Darwinism."(14). It is a fitting irony that the modernist movement might out-evolve its avant-garde by making its extra-utopian alternative appear boring. Within this same statement, of course, lies the beginning of Bourriaud's social fallacy . With modernism's development of pseudo-autonomy came the myth of the asocial artist, a fantasy that subsumed the nature of subversity into the very definition of art - or at least, we should frame it in comparison with Bourriaud, good art. Relational Aesthetics, and the new art practices it represents, maintains the exclusive glorification of art while collapsing the illusion revealed by history that the art market is determined by anything but marketing, just like anything else .
"The work of art represents a social interstice" (16), i.e. an alternative structure within the system, as counterculture was to culture at large, and has now been "recuperated", as a situationist puts it. Thus for art to perform a kind of detournement of its social situation, as postmodernism does, is to perform a kind of pointless, gyrical recursivity. "Form can only come about from a meeting between two levels of reality. For homogeneity does not produce images: it produces the visual, otherwise put, 'looped information'."(24) It's a good thing high art represents such a tiny minority of the realm of art in general, with its many definitions and ends and potential exclusion from the System. In fact, what's happening is that socially conscious art is so pushed by its socially unproductive, heavily theorized legacy that it reaches into social organizations in which the artistic is unexpected and the marketing contrasts aesthetically . "By conducting themselves inside the art world on the basis of the parameters of 'worlds" that are heterogeneous to it, these artists here introduce relational worlds governed by concepts of clientele, order or commission, and project."(76) Bourriaud applauds the anti-scientific, for reasons that might only be explained either as insistently unproductive perversity or a kind of academic competition, especially considering that science is offering more fruitful subjects for artists than old-fashioned conceptual navel-gazing. Summarizing his post-structuralist hero Guattari: "The aesthetic paradigm is called upon to contaminate every chord of discourse, and inoculate the venom of creative uncertainty and outrageous invention in every field of knowledge."(96) Art can only continue to proceed by refusing the concept of process, and breaking out of even the most nebulous definitions its theorists can propose, and that is the reason for art theory.
I'll pursue somewhat of a tangential, feminism-inspired conclusion, here, and introduce my own piece, "self-absorption" (2003), which is unique, personal, and therefore heavily represents the situation in which it was created, which includes computer science philosophy (Hofstader), internet dating, and issues of computer graphics tools.
It was in response to an open-ended assignment by a hippie utopian professor on the subject of "transparency", and leads the optics physicists' daughter on a consideration of energy absorption and transmission processes, followed by a highly involved digital painting. I set about the task of replicating the screen in front of me, so that the process of artistic production is completely transparent, and the conceptual (although not the actual) result of representing the tool of representation is recursivity. A fragment of photo haunts the repeating image. The presentation, however, transcends the mere medium consciousness: the 20 layers of consecutive recursions (after 20 layers, the raster or pixel nature of the medium makes the image negligible) were each printed out on a separate transparency and layered above the screen of the computer used to generate the image, which now displayed an image of the artist that selectively lit the layers from behind. The approach of intimate medium self-involvement was regarded as somehow anti-artistic, but successfully experimental. There is no way to market it in the context with which it worked, and because its presentation was in a school context, and it bears the "contemporary" stigma of "non-availability"(29), it seems the chance has been missed. Thus its presence in the art world is nonexistent, not necessarily because of a scarcity of theoretical issues addressed or conceptual beauty (although, of course, is the self-referential subject to decide such aesthetics? Yes.), but because it was not located in the correct social position. It's dada all over again, and Marx all over again: significant art is what is there in the right place and time to be called art, unless the subject is solipsized to self definition. Bourriaud is right that aesthetics in art can only lie in their examination of social context, because there is nothing else about art that determines its success for the artist than marketing. Not even social aesthetics can correct the exclusivity of art as a market, and the ongoing disillusionment of a utopianism that society appropriates almost as soon as it rejects the social order.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods, trans. Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002.