Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Toward a New Aesthetic: Winning and Losing the Object

The advance of history is (and always has been) intertwined with technology, and as much as new developments in technology and materials have driven aesthetic consideration, the objects one finds in galleries and museums would often not seem out of place in exhibitions from another century. Even as technology has made aesthetic advances possible[1], scholarship has often ignored the material art is made of. New technologies have been slow to find acceptance, if not by artists, then by the structures that guard and perpetuate the canon. It is no small irony then that the most profound innovation in technology has removed the necessity of the object altogether. Just a few years ago it seemed that discussion of the New Aesthetic was everywhere, but whether it was art or design or engineering or history was an open question that fit into the shifting projects found in the hacking culture of digital freelancers and start-ups much more easily than it did for art. Its history[2] is a strange collection digital epiphany and tech curiosities that are difficult to reconcile into a broader aesthetic movement, but nonetheless have managed to focus ideas about the employment of digital media to create art.[3] While digital art already existed[4], the framework of the New Aesthetic is important as the first digitally based aesthetic movement to gain mainstream traction. It posits an aesthetic framework (an “ism” if you like) that goes beyond mere tools of production to aesthetics, theory, and philosophy.

My own consideration of what the digital might bring to art started over beer, and with Greg Borenstein pounding on a bar table declaring that New Aesthetic and new media “would win.”[5] As a painter I am by definition invested in one of the oldest of technologies, and with the curious case of Wade Guyton’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum[6] freshly opened at the time I was very curious as to what “winning” would mean. Left unstated was the time table for the conflict and the ultimate terms of art’s surrender, but when one considers a more nuanced approach to the consumption of media and assimilation of technology, the definition of “victory” is likely to be more glitch-gray than black and white.

For the New Aesthetic to function as an aesthetic description or foundation for the production of art, as opposed to just a broad description of the interaction between culture and technology, it must define a framework that affects human understanding and consciousness at a deep level.[7]  Quirks of technology are easily assimilated and then forgotten or ignored; too often descriptions of the New Aesthetic resorted to an engagement with novelty[8] rather than attempting to assess the primary kernel of its import. Bridle posits the possibilities of an omnipresent digital network as a scaffold on which to frame and (more importantly) construct human interactions as what is fundamentally ‘new’ in the New Aesthetic[9] and this rings true; the evolution of digital networks stands as a shift that may define the transition of one epoch of history to another.[10] It also separates genuinely new ideas from the general explosion of technological advancement[11]: the network (as posited by Bridle) allows for a near infinite speed of transmission and dissemination of data that effectively reduces distances to zero[12], but a mere glitch in a scanned photo or rendered map is not effectively new[13]; robotics and drones allow for the application of work and force by means of data transmission, but machine vision is merely a further extension of previous augmentation of human sight.[14] There will always be endeavors that overlap classifications and defy any set boundaries, but making the effort at taxonomy is a first step in placing the New Aesthetic in a historical framework.

Charting the New Aesthetic’s course from nascent network to digital aesthetic reveals a narrative that mirrors the interaction between photography and the emergence of Modernism. This may be surprising given the New Aesthetic’s emergence in the post-modern, digital era, but it has roots in the photograph’s mechanical expression of vision.[15] Photography was present at and arguably drove the birth of Modernism by assuming[16] the burden of everyday representation from painting. Likewise, the Arpanet was coming on line as the Minimalists and Conceptualists zeroed out the trajectory of the Modernist narrative. Where the Modernist artwork slowly reduced aesthetic investigation to pure form at the hands of a singular genius[17], the networked Postmodern art object grows out of a multiplicity of viewpoints and historical narratives; feminism, multiculturalism, and the histories of different geographic centers allow for the realignment of aesthetic ideas just as packets of data are switched around the network and reassembled into a useable whole. The restructuring of the pathways of interpretation away from a direct circuit is analogous to the (also Postmodern) theory that posits a shift of privilege in which the reader’s primacy in interpretation (and thus creation) of a work becomes paramount. Meaning emerges from the interconnectedness and interaction of the nodes in the network, i.e. the audience, instead of being dictated from on high by the artist. The ramifications for the artwork have been appropriately manifold, but the sea change lies in the relationship between the production of the work and how it is ultimately seen. A hallmark of digital technology in general, and the New Aesthetic specifically, is the possibility of near limitless[18] distribution via digital transmission and (one would eventually assume) production. However an object that is limitless is also by definition common, and therefore working outside the economic strictures of a unique object that propels the current art market. It would be foolish for those building fortunes within the art world to assume that their sale of a unique object will save them from digital encroachment on their business model. The limitations are essentially only of bandwidth; Hollywood movie studios should have seen the threat posed by the digital transfer of content coming as soon as it started to affect the record industry. As the underpinnings of photography’s false scarcity are challenged, the idea of an object that can be instantly copied via a suitable amount of code and an appropriately complex 3-D printer[19] has the potential to turn the concept of unique work of art into a forensic exercise rather than a matter for discerning connoisseurship. This should not be seen as a giant and unimaginable leap; artistic practice is already often turned over to assistants and fabricators, and non-unique works can easily set auction records.[20] The only question is if the change in methods of production will ultimately change the channels of distribution or if the entrenched interests of the market will assimilate new avenues proposed by advances in technology.

Historical precedent follows from art’s service as a tool of communication prior to the elevation of the status of the artist in the Renaissance. Church decorations to instruct and cow the faithful serve the same purpose as works by contemporary art, if a different master. Even as images were usurped by text and printing[21] for basic communication, art maintained a utility for conveying ideas to mass audiences. The history of church decoration gave way to traditions of mural painting, and the ingrained century’s old value of art to a mass audience evolved as the artists themselves supplied themes and direction. The Bauhaus took the evolution a step forward by incorporating industrial production as a theoretical vehicle to reach the masses; that the Bauhaus had a much more holistic view of the potential for integration of diverse media into a cultural movement set a precedent for the rise of the New Aesthetic, as does the fact that both movements feature many designers among their ranks.

A closer antecedent to the potential for the use of industrial fabrication by individual artists can be found in the work of Donald Judd and the Minimalists. Not only did they work with ‘off the shelf’ components of commonly available industrial materials and hardware[22], they were able to operate at a remove as they were able to fabricate their work via plans that could be sent by telegram or placed by simple phone call.[23] Those plans can be seen as Paleolithic versions of the code that will underlie (near) infinitely (re)producible 3-D printed artworks. The mature work of the artists associated with Minimalism brought sculpture to the same ground photography already occupied; the sculpture was no longer an object consisting of specific materials skillfully manipulated by the hand of the artist, rather it became possible to read the necessity of the object as the result of the execution of instructions, plans, or code. Born of common industrial materials, the existence as a set of basic instructions also allowed for the possibility of peculiar manipulations of time and space, with the artwork able to exist or not as needed, to be transmitted easily from place to place, or even to exist simultaneously in two places at once.[24] That the Minimalists recoiled from any of the inherent possibilities their practice opened up ties them to the terminus of Modernism and its exaltation of the singular object, and instead left it to the Conceptual artists that followed closely on their heels to inaugurate the Postmodern object within art. [25]

Where photography’s restructuring of the expectations of how what is “real” really looks is one legacy, another more subtle adjustment lies in simultaneously replacing the artist’s unique facture with a mechanical process that provides a seamless surface and infinitely repeatable image. The challenge was not only to aesthetic ideas and ideals, but to the market that distributed the images. The greater consequence of photography to the salon lay (and still lies) in the correlation of price to aesthetic value where the traditional signifiers of artistic scarcity have been removed. The technology associated with the New Aesthetic cannibalizes Modernist photography’s claims to truth and reality[26] and throws its full weight behind digital, infinitely repeatable manufacture.

In looking at photography’s past as the New Aesthetic’s prologue it is important to note that art and its markets ultimately assimilated photography, and that photography hewed closer to the conventions of painting as commodity rather than effecting a dramatic change in the sale of images.[27] Whatever aid the emergence of photography provided to the birth of modernism, that project was ultimately carried forward within art by painting and the impressionists.[28] In the meantime photography was “ghettoized” as a medium for art, struggling for its technological application as documentation to not hinder its aesthetic potential; furthermore it is debatable if its novelty as collectible object was actually responsible for aesthetic prejudices against the medium.[29] Of course the market for art did not slow down during the interim of photography’s growth and the salons evolved into the current gallery system. Even more fraught for the emergence of the New Aesthetic is that it has arrived on the scene as that system has metastasized along with current rapacious trends in capitalism into an arena where intellectual property is fiercely contested and the distribution of opportunity skews to the very top of the market. If there is a fight within art now, it is not over the aesthetics of the object, but its economics and status as commodity.

In the aftermath of the 1970’s and conceptual art this approach to the art object has only been intermittently implemented. When subsequent movements or generations of artists have engaged with the possibilities inherent in such a “limitless” Postmodern object, they have mostly done so within the gallery system established by the art market. When Felix Gonzalez Torres radically undermined the uniqueness of the object, to the point of giving it away en masse, the artwork somehow remains collectible and valuable; the artists who drastically and most successfully challenged the limits of the art object now have blue chip representation. Art has maintained production and distribution systems that have not changed markedly, even as networked digital technologies have radically altered how most other cultural productions are made and consumed.[30] Despite the theoretical shift to Postmodernism, the production of the art object has largely remained stubbornly Modern: where the modernist artwork is defined by its position as a singular material expression of the artist’s vision[31], the postmodern object decouples the static artwork from any specific material[32] and instead is (theoretically) free to be transmitted, copied, hacked, and recoded. The promise of the New Aesthetic is the marriage of the artwork with the network such that the artist’s output[33] may become as simple, widespread, and easy as everything else that happens on a computer and across the internet.

In the face of such easy facility, with the continuing promise that it will only get easier, the central question (especially as it pertains to “winning”) becomes will enough artists shift to these new materials so that the New Aesthetic becomes the dominate aesthetic? I believe that the greatest factor will be the internalization of these tools by artists, such that they are drawing with code as easily and naturally as they mark a flat surface. Where artists think in terms of process and material, they will continue to doggedly produce discrete things[34] and treat the computer in the studio as just another tool that aids in the making of paintings, photographs, and sculpture. The art market’s ability to assimilate challenges to its hegemony[35] should not be underestimated; So long as artists are producing these things, the market has something to sell. This is a benefit to the artist[36] but it also ties art into the economic structure of capitalism, and compromises the potential of digital art and the New Aesthetic by reinforcing the economic status quo.[37]

As the first draft of art history turns more and more to promotion and discussions of sales figures and auction costs rather than aesthetic discourse, the work that is seen and discussed is work that can be sold and is selling. Perhaps instead of looking at this development in thought with scorn, writers, aestheticians, and theorists should consider if this development heralds a larger coming change in how art is made and distributed. The New Aesthetic has been popularized as the infrastructure of the network has been developed to accommodate global traffic, and that development has largely been driven by capitalist enterprise[38] so it only makes sense that as the population of artists continues to increase they will look for new avenues to show and exhibit their work.[39] The question for artists and the New Aesthetic is what sort of object are they putting on the pedestal, in the window, or on the screen? The emergence of the network portends that it may not be the same as what we have all come to expect, but the inevitable change will mean how the work goes from artist to audience has been completely rethought.

[1] From the importance of tube paints to the development of Impressionism to synthetic polymers and acrylic making color field painting technically feasible, art history tends to favor aesthetic discussions of a philosophical bent.

[2] The name comes from a Tumblr started by James Bridle and blew up with Bruce Sterling’s article for Wired discussing a SXSW panel. If you start following the links you’ll find Bridle’s essay on the same panel and can work your way back through discussions by Joanne McNeil, Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope and Russel Davies that smartly dovetail the New Aesthetic with broader digital concerns in a variety of media and contexts.

[3] After 2 years since its heyday we can see Doug Aitken’s ‘Station to Station’ project linked to Bridle’s terminology, and as that project winds down the auction house Phillips de Pury has made the first foray into auctioning digital art. While the sums were small in relation to what normally constitutes the auction market, this sale represents a major step forward in digital art entering the mainstream art market.

[4] One can go back as far as Manfred Mohr’s experiments with computer generated art. More recently terms like new media art and net art have been used to describe digitally based production. All of the terms seem more descriptive in describing the medium (i.e. akin to “painting” or “photography”)  rather than descriptive of a school of thought (i.e. “Abstract Expressionism” or “Minimalism”).

[5] It is fun to think that artists can still get together and argue the way we imagine they did back in the days of the Cedar Tavern. In addition to Borenstein, the group included artists Kevin McCoy, John Powers, and William Powhida, as well as Joanne McNeil of Rhizome and Bridle himself.

[6] And seemingly caused no small amount of consternation in the digital arts community. Much of the rancor seemed to stem from the assumption that Guyton was an electronic or digital artist who was poorly representing his roots and concerns. However Guyton’s work comes out of a conceptual reaction to painting, and his relation to the technology he employs is much more akin to prior generations’ use (and abuse) of screen printing and other basic tools of mass production; his employment of digital tools is merely a matter of utility.

[7] This may be as close as I ever get to trying to pin down and define the amorphous and variable production that gets labeled as “art.” On one hand this definition feels so incredibly weighty that almost any individual work would not be able to support it, and in that regard it should be pointed out that this applies more to movements consisting of many artists working simultaneously within a single cultural context; on the other hand this definition probably applies to the ‘80s Neo-expressionist painters, so maybe it’s not such a high bar after all.

[8] For instance, the aestheticization of the glitch is hardly new. Richter and Ruff’s respective smears have entered the canon, and rely only on the language of abstraction to raise it beyond a mere error in representation. The revolutionary aspect of misregistrations in digital representations of real space lies not in the error, but in the existence of the underlying system that makes digital mapping and transcription possible in the first place.

[9] One could argue that these interactions go further and facilitate the beginnings of human ‑ machine interactions, but I think that this ascribes a consciousness that is lacking in our silicon counterparts; Sterling is correct in pointing out that such descriptions are essentially fanciful, and obscure the greater focus on what emerging machine processes or “vision” might mean to human consciousness.

[10] The turn to the machine age was largely a measure of a definition of the increased capacity for work. I will leave the political implications of this to the remaining Marxists out there, and instead rely on (very) basic math to indicate the scale of the shift: where work is measured in horsepower, there is a huge transition in the amount of production, but not in the fundamental scale of the measures used. Simply put, a person riding a horse at 30 mph increased their speed tenfold, but the move to a steam locomotive only roughly doubled that (it’s just that the train is now carrying over 100 people and a whole mess of heavy things, and is traveling hundreds of miles without stopping). We’re still only looking at modest jumps in scale that human cognition can easily assimilate. The advent of digital networks shifts the definition of work to the generation and movement of information. In this regard we are seeing jumps in speed (microseconds) and mass/ volume (exabytes and beyond) that are vast orders of magnitude greater. The historical shift represented by the New Aesthetic can be compared to the difference between Galileo walking down the street in Pisa to the Space Shuttle entering orbit to fix the Hubble telescope.

[11] I would argue that this may be an effect of the New Aesthetic Tumblr being more of a search for possible ideas and observations than a tightly curated presentation of such.

[12] Consider how understanding of the recent events in the Egypt and the Middle East differ from previous, “non-networked” social and political events. Reporting is no longer filtered or shaped by media control, but is simultaneously diluted by the sheer volume of information available.

[13] Errors in transcription have been around as long as there has been writing. While these accidents may provide a sense of beauty or an uncanny alteration to how we perceive our interactions, they were supposed to be caught in whatever the contemporary equivalent of the proofing process was; I suspect the fact that we see more such glitches now is a result of the combination  of ever greater output (of course facilitated by the digital utility of the network) and lower editorial standards (of which I and every other self-publisher who lack an editor beyond the software we use are probably guilty of).

[14] Corrective lenses and telescopes having been around for a very long time.

[15] Of course the other side of the New Aesthetic coin is the proliferation and distribution of language as text. This can be traced back at least to Gutenberg, and the transmission of art via printed copies in the form of etchings can be seen as a forerunner of the photographic distribution of multiple copies of the same image.

[16] Or usurping, depending on your point of view.

[17] One that was inevitably white and male.

[18] Any description of the limitless will bump into the technical definition of infinity very quickly, and my description of the ‘limitless object’ is not suggesting anything on a universal, or even galactic magnitude.

[19] Any new technology is always subject to severe limits of engineering that are practically wished away for raw potential. If a 3-D printer is analogous to an automobile, then consider what today’s “model-T” versions will give way to within the next century.

[20] The difference between “5 unique versions” and an “edition of 5” strikes me as  a minor difference aimed at collectors rather than artistic exploration of the differences between versions.

[21] Perhaps the first ‘new aesthetic’ revolution.

[22] Which is just another version of “infinitely reproducible”, and also gives rise to the same problems that dogged photography as a medium.

[23] This had happened before, but Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s use of it was essentially only as a gimmick. Similarly Tony Smith was able to “phone in” Die, but it was really the only project that he did so (probably because the form was about as simple as possible). Judd was able to make his relation with his fabricators central to his practice but not foreground it in the art object as a concern or theme (say the way Jackson Pollock’s process became central to his drip paintings once Hans Namuth’s photographs of him working were released).

[24] See discussion of Count Gussipe Panza’s interaction with Andre and Judd in ‘The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art’ by Martha Buskirk, MIT press. This treatment of the object leads to the possibility of the complete dematerialization of the object allowed for in conceptual art.

[25] Lawerence Weiner: “Statements” (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece.

2. The piece may be fabricated.

3. The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to the condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

[26] As the ubiquity of Photoshop renders the veracity of nearly every image as suspect, the mantle of objective “reality” once claimed by photography must now commonly be recognized as false.

[27] By adopting the conventions of the limited edition, the illusion of scarcity is preserved, even though the negatives of a print usually still exist and more images could be printed. It is a common practice that when such a (usually large scale) photograph is damaged, the conservation treatment is usually to simply reprint the image and then confirm the destruction of the damaged work so that the number of prints in the edition is maintained.

[28] Which when tied to the necessity of the development of tubed paint to Impressionism, is another example of the underlying influence of technology on art.

[29] It certainly did not help that the early limits of the technology severely limited formal options for expression. In this regard the story is the same for each new medium that comes along, and we’ve seen it play out similarly with film, video, sound art, and computer and net-based art. New pioneers begin working (or often more accurately, playing) with a technology, and try to find out just what it can do or how far it can be pushed before it starts to break down and exhibit interesting fissures or glitches that are unacceptable in commercial application. They may not even think of themselves as artists, and often their work disappears from view for not being recognized, collected, and cared for. Of course the same is true of painting, it is just that over 500 years of history has obscured the difficulties of moving from being part of the wall to a portable object, and the shift from guild-era craft to high art.

[30] Consider only what iTunes, Garage Band, digital cameras, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and e-readers have done to the market for music, TV, movies, books, and newspapers and magazines.

[31] A position that is subject to reinterpretation by advances in theory, understanding, or intellectual fashion (even if such revisions do not affect the production of the artwork).

[32] Performance and time-based work being a separate case; its temporal nature can only be experienced directly, and subsequent reference is only to the artifact,  record, documentation, or memory. These may come to act as surrogates for the artwork, but bear a different indexical relationship to the common understanding of an art object that can be returned to as an unchanging entity. It is probably not a coincidence that art media where time played a central role began to fully emerge with the advent of Postmodernism.

[33] Call it work, production, practice, or transmission.

[34] Be it ever more complex productions that challenge architecture or feature films at the top of the market, or seeming small scale, ephemeral gestures that are none the less preserved at the bottom, these works still mostly fit easily into standard taxonomies of art practice.

[35] Where said hegemony used to be confined to the distribution of the artwork, it also now seems to be usurping the interpretation, criticism, and historical narrative of art. As the vast sums of money moving through the upper echelons of the “art world” have rendered interpretation irrelevant and criticism as beside the point (as such analysis does not have any effect on what is bought and sold), the market has begun to dictate what curators and museums preserve and exhibit (by virtue of the people doing the buying simultaneously pricing out said institutions and then turning around to lend or donate said works as members of the museum board), so artifact and scholarship wind up serving the market as well.

[36] Contrary to the romanticization of abject poverty, I have yet to meet an artist who prefers to go to a day job rather than being able to go to their studio.

[37] An artist I know produced an edition of three large scale digital prints of computer rendered imagery for an exhibition, and the gallery asked if she could paint or draw on each print, turning each into unique work. This would have completely compromised the aesthetic intent, removing the viewer’s sense of engaging real life through a mediating electronic screen, and questioning the identities that we present both on-line and in the flesh. The seamless and un/hyper-real crispness of focus on the surface of the paper would’ve been completely disrupted by the addition of pencil or paint (and would have interacted poorly with the imagery in any case, likely looking just slapped on over the top), but the works would then have been unique, and more saleable at a higher price. I am happy to report those prints were shown unaltered, and unhappy to report that they are still rolled in the artist’s studio.

[38] Think of the transition from Napster to  iTunes, the expansion of into all facets of retail, or Hulu challenging network and cable television distribution.

[39] From Artsy to Amazon and Saatchi, and to smaller digital platforms like Paddle 8 or Artsicle, the network provides a much greater breadth of economic possibilities. Many of these players are working on lower rungs of the market, but this offers more possibilities to new or emerging artists. It also offers a greater ease of entry into the market for new collectors, which is a way to grow the audience for art outside of just the outsized ticket line for the next museum blockbuster.

Written by Brian Dupont

October 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Why Make it Pretty.

As developed nations actually produce and manufacture less and less, the aggressive expansion of intellectual property should come as no surprise. Defunct companies that produce nothing are bought and sold for fantastic sums for only the patents they hold, so that one mega corporation may sue another or compromise their markets or limit their competition. We are in the business of producing plans and ideas, and thus any notion set to paper may have economic value. Scholarship is not above the fray, and it is more than a little sad to see areas of intellectual pursuit that depended on community interaction and spirited discourse limited by an economic bottom line. As I have discussed in the past[1] , fair use should provide a mechanism for intellectual and cultural advancement within the framework of copyright, yet the mechanism and enforcement of the principal in the law is sorely lacking.

This brings us to the utter ridiculousness of the estate of David Smith and the rights management organization VAGA seeking to impose limitations on the works of Lauren Clay. Clay has made miniature, brightly colored papier-mâché works that reference (or copy) Smith’s Cubi sculptures, and when VAGA executive director Robert Panzer told that “The importance of a work of art can lose its value when people reproduce it without permission. There’s ethical questions, legal questions here.” he’s right, only that he’s completely wrong. The ethical and legal questions raised are concerned with free expression, not any hypothetical loss of value to David Smith’s estate. When he states that Clay is not “familiar with the relevant legal issues.” he’s essentially assuming his own interpretation of fair use to be law:

“What she did was make them look just like the original,” he said. “Are you transforming it to make a new idea? We don’t think it’s transformative enough. She didn’t make enough of a comment. She just changed the medium. She said, ‘Look, I’m going to make it colorful and pretty.’”

So a female artist has taken sculptures from the cannon of art history that are steeped in overt masculinity and stripped them of their bombastic scale and aggressive materiality by rendering them on an intimate scale in common craft materials? This is essentially the art world’s version of satire, which is clearly protected as fair use. In “making them pretty” Clay has taken a specific form and reversed its meaning by simply manipulating material, color, and scale; if that is not transformative I don’t know what is.

Clay’s is not a deep statement[2], but it doesn’t have to be to be protected; satire tends to have a limited shelf life after all.[3] The more troubling issue is that nearly any morphology can be owned[4] and any form or geometry can quickly become off limits. It was easy for many to side against Richard Prince as a wealthy artist poaching from a less known photographer and using his work to sell paintings for millions of dollars; but Patrick Cariou’s case of the little guy was ever only going to be the exception. Here we can see the easy abuse of power that will be the common application of limiting fair use. Appropriation may never result in an artwork that is popularly loved, but is a process and principle ever more important to defend for just that reason.


[1] See ‘What Appropriation Means to Me and Mine’ and ‘On Copyright Parts One, Two, and Three.’

[2] It plays ‘Hot Shots’ to Smith’s ‘Top Gun.’ (David, not Tony.)

[3] When one yells that the emperor has no clothes on, once he goes and gets dressed it’s on to the next issue. However as far as the inequality of gender in the art world goes, it’s probably safe to say that the whole business is not likely to be putting a robe on any time soon.

[4] Which should probably not be a surprise when gene sequences (i.e. life) can be owned as intellectual property.

Written by Brian Dupont

October 6, 2013 at 10:35 pm

What 101 Spring Street Means to Me

My essay on the reopening of Donald Judd’s studio after extensive renovations was published in the journal Big Red & Shiny (volume 2, issue 9) originally published on May 20, 2013. You can read it here.

On Lower Manhattan’s Memory Lane

Walking into Cheim and Read feels like visiting a gathering of old friends. Raphael Rubinstein has laid out a thesis for an alternate narrative of painting in the 1980’s that is not unknown, but is still not as recognized as it could (or should) be.[i] The artists he has pulled together all sought a way forward for the medium once the project of modernism collapsed into the late Sixties singularity of Minimalism and Conceptualism and threatened to obliterate it.[ii] The primary historical narrative has painting starting to find its way back with the new image painters, but only managing to reclaim the stage with the emergence of the bad boy neo-expressionists, who seemed to get by on brash youth and an injection of wall street capital that also (not coincidentally) supercharged the market.[iii] But to a man[iv] they were ultimately much less influential to the practice of painters going forward; if there is a hopeful lesson to be found here, it may point to the superficiality of immediate market success, so frustrating to watch from the outside, may ultimately be very limited in its long term historical affect. By contrast the painters of Reinventing Abstraction have had a much deeper and far reaching influence. They were known as painters’ painters[v] even as they were emerging, and as Postmodernism became less of novelty and was assimilated into historical perspective they had more influence as younger artists who found the personal language they employed provided a much more expansive arena in which to operate and find their own way forward.[vi] A certain part of this may lie in the versatility and depth of abstraction as a new[vii] visual idiom, or it may be as simple as the right group of artists intersecting in the right time and place and they just happened to embrace the currents of recent practice. That critical discourse or the market did not immediately embrace them should not disguise the breadth of their accomplishments.

Rubenstein sees a precedent for Reinventing Abstraction and its careful (re)examination of history in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 — 1975. A show for which David Reed served as an advisor[viii], it showed the breadth of painting practice that flourished in the lofts of lower Manhattan in the wake of minimalism and the ascendance of conceptual art. The artists in lower Manhattan continued to paint and explore ideas opened up by the color field and minimalist painters that were their neighbors, spraying the paint or starting to take its material supports apart to explore the underlying sense of shape. What was conspicuously absent from High Times, Hard Times was an integration drawing as method of creating a subjective psychological space within the painted field. Where the artists of High Times, Hard Times experimented with the possibilities inherent in the varied syntax of the painting as an object[ix], the artists of Reinventing Abstraction let individual facture of the hand reintroduce drawing into their work.[x] Any two marks set beside each other begin to create space and therefore a degree of illusionism and reference; from there it is a short step to the reintroduction of personal forms and subjective symbolism within painting, and the complete rejection of the purity that seemed to be the endgame of modernism. Stuff was back in advanced abstract painting in a way it hadn’t been since the heydays of de Kooning and Guston.

The entire first, smaller room at Cheim and Read brings the reliance on drawing inherent within each work into sharp focus. The works of Terry Winters, Carroll Dunham and Bill Jensen of the time all made use of biomorphic and natural forms[xi] that emerged from a seeming collision scientific imagery with a rediscovery of the pleasures of paint. The combination of painterly process and forms derived from a subtle examination of nature became something of a trend itself within the early Eighties; these three works form a starting point to trends that branch out and carry through the exhibition as a whole.

Winters’ project has always relied very heavily on drawing, and the composition of Point is recognizable as a single piece of paper that fits multiple studies writ large. The scale of his paintings sometimes disguise the affinities they share with the scientist’s notebook.[xii] Leonardo left codices filled with similar drawings that mapped his thought process across the paper, and a number of more recent examples of such studies are currently on view in the WMAA’s show of Edward Hopper’s drawings. The primary forms are not rendered so much as built out of strokes of paint. In some areas Winters employs a heavy black line that reads almost as charcoal drawn over the paint; other areas are scrubbed and washed away in a veil of pale color; it is a testament to his technical understanding of the complexities of his material that the picture is in such immaculate condition after more than 30 years, with little cracking or unintended surface incident that usually comes with pushing the limits of paint to such extremes. Winters’ building up of his forms echoes Stanley Whitney’s gestural brush marks of paint weaving into shapes that oscillate across the surface. It is tempting to see these loose knit forms as being slowly subjected to increasing gravity and further coalescing and refining themselves into the careful grids of colored blocks he is now known for.

Dunham’s composition is roughly determined by his plywood support. The disparate elements are connected and reconciled through a sort of doodling exquisite corpse; tubers and root forms extend from knots and shift in volumetric space as they cross flat bands of color dictated by the veneer grain. The flat demarcations of color carry through in the next room in David Reed’s transparent overlays across enlargements of swirling gesture. The precision of design via demarcation carries through in Jonathon Lasker’s deadpan arrangement of shapes and Jack Whitten’s inscribed geometry and flat rectangles of color.

In The Tempest Jensen’s spore like form floats in a similar space to Winters’ but he takes the primacy of his material further, troweling his paint onto the canvas and unifying the surface under a heavy impasto. Where Winters’ orchestration of surface variation plays to an analytic construction of the image’s components and mostly respects the distinction between figure and ground, the directness of Jensen’s masonry approach reveals a greater emotional subjectivity. Drawing from earlier symbolist artists such as Ryder, Hartley, and Dove, Jensen builds a space that not only holds the form, but shifts around it and seemingly moves through it; figure and ground oscillate according to shifting perceptions with only the drawing of the erstwhile subject to keep the delineation in check.

This tension between material process and drawn subject continues through Reinventing Abstraction: Joan Snyder both renders a landscape and builds it out of furrows of paint. In Beanfield with Music the landscape imagery reinforces the physical sensation conveyed by material presence. Whitten juxtaposes a painterly field of tar-thick acrylic combed through to expose underlying areas of electric hue.[xiii]  His frenetic scribbling, scratching marks stand in sharp contrast to the precision of his geometric constructs. The emotional resonance of his subject grows out of the tension between the opposing aesthetic modes in his employ. Louise Fishman’s calligraphic swirl is as concrete as anything in the exhibition; her glyph-like form loops around and against the limits of her canvas, positive and negative space laboring against mutual gravity. Where Fishman concentrates her material into a small tightly controlled space, Pat Steir thins and spreads hers in liquid loops of expansive gesture across the largest canvas in the exhibition. Her color is tough and solid, reminiscent of stone and rust, but her thinned pigment sprays from her brush in layers according to the force and direction of her whole body. In all of these works the artist’s gesture is yoked to description of a form or shape that sits within a specific space.

When Rubinstein investigates abstraction, it is inevitable that the discussion will turn to the current trend he named as Provisional Painting, but this is not an exhibition dedicated to genealogy. Despite the reach of his idea, either to young artists working today, or much further back through historical precedent, the artists in this show would almost unilaterally disavow that their work aimed to be anything less than a complete, coherent statement.[xiv] In parsing abstraction’s contribution to painting one finds the roots of Provisionalism run deep, but that depends on how much mark making and material, brush stroke and painterly gesture read as specifically “provisional” rather than inherent elements of the medium that a particular painter may choose to employ. Does the exposed support or thin materiality of color field painting (or before that Rothko and Newman) mark their work as provisional?[xv] Likewise de Kooning’s avoidance of resolution?[xvi]

Gary Stephan’s painting employs one of his signature template forms, but sets it hovering in a nocturnal, sfumato atmosphere. The template itself is built out of thickly glazed layers of paint, and merges with a deep space rendered in transparent washes. The surface eschews excessive brush strokes in favor of a straightforward approach that is nothing if not traditionally finished. Nozokowski’s forms are reminiscent of Stephan’s (so much so that I was momentarily confused that this might be Stephan’s contribution), but again the forms have crisp edges and the layers of shape and color attest to a complete and contained pictorial logic. David Reed takes the limiting of facture even further; his painting evidences the meticulous and labor intensive process his work is known for, with layers of paint repeatedly sanded smooth as the image of a gestural Rococo brushstroke is transformed and reinterpreted in a manner such that the artist’s hand is turned into a method of mechanical reproduction. The surface of the painting is a tromp l’oeil simulacrum of its source material; the subject of the act of painting is set at a reserved original distance.

Elizabeth Murray and Lasker both provide paintings that might appear provisional, but require a greater amount of planning than such a label suggests. Both work from a plan and preparatory drawings rather than just recklessly diving into a painting. Despite the cartoonish simplicity of Murray’s composition in Sentimental Education, her shaped supports require precise and labor intensive construction. With the foundation of her picture being so specific idiosyncratic shape it is a testament to her skill as a painter that the work appears so fresh; the scumbled surface, hazy light, high-key colors and jigsaw shapes could easily come off as the mere scaled up production of smaller statement, but instead read as an improvisation of the highest order. On the other hand, that Lasker’s Double Play looks like a production diagram executed deadpan is precisely the point. Every element is as carefully orchestrated as politician’s speech, with even the thick, expressively painted shape coming off as rehearsed instead of spontaneous. His practice casts a critical eye on the work of his peers, but such assessment indicates careful consideration, not any sort of “lack of finish,” “self-defeating strategies,” or “dandyish nonchalance.”[xvii]

On the other hand Stephen Mueller and Mary Heilmann both engaged with concerns we now call “provisional.” In Delphic Hymn Mueller arrays each element casually across the canvas; where Lasker follows a strict design, Mueller gives the impression of arranging things he just happened to stumble across. Drips, overspray and tossed off daubs commingle with areas of hard edge geometry. However his work continued to evolve, and Delphic Hymn now looks like a transitional painting to his mature work. It points to how he would continue to approach the organization his compositions, but doesn’t give away how his forms would tighten into striated symmetry and his paint would combine hard edges and electric atmosphere. Heilmann’s Rio Nido certainly seems more provisional than the other fourteen paintings in the show, yet the label is hardly a slight. There is a playful simplicity in the painting that is emblematic of her mature practice. Blocks of bright, brushy color are overlaid with a dynamic black shape that is “punched” through with holes so that the original colors shine through. Whatever polemic it might subsequently be tied to does not alter its status as a strong statement by individual artist pursuing her own concerns first and foremost. The same can ultimately be said for each painting on view.

The exhibition itself strains at the limits of a single work per artist and the confines of the gallery. There is enough depth to the subject for a deeper museum survey, but that would require a different venue; as one moves through the spacious hanging in the front galleries, the large paintings by Whitney, Whitten, and Snyder feel constricted in the rear spaces. It is hard not to see the art world’s hierarchies coming into play, with the bigger names associated with prestigious retrospectives accorded more breathing room. At the same time I wouldn’t want to see a single painting cut, and the pairings and unexpected sightlines of the hanging serve to reveal unexpected relations between works. These are paintings that I’ve (and I suspect many others) have spent years looking at, and if they don’t all quite fit quietly and seamlessly together, that only makes the party that much warmer and more inviting.

[i] As stated in the catalog essay The Lure of the Impure.

[ii] But not really; artists never stopped painting so the various recurrences of “the death of painting” are always more a matter of critical or theoretical contrivance than artistic practice. This is certainly held up by the perverse practice on the part of artists to find any small corner of art history that has been debased or ignored and start gleefully playing around with supposed retrograde concepts.

[iii] Rubenstein’s historical discourse includes some frank discussion on the influence of the market in shaping critical reception.

[iv] And they do seem to be entirely men. Their seems to be much more diversity among groups of artists and movements not awash in money.

[v] I don’t think anyone every looked to Schnable or Salle for virtuoso performances in pigment, and the critical discourse that surrounded their work seemed to focus on pastiche and theory rather than formal analysis (the deficiencies of which needed to be explained away more than anything).

[vi] My experience was that as I became committed to abstraction, painters like Winters and Jensen provided touchstones that applied to my own sensibility and interests where people interested in employing figuration found deeper sources from which to work. The repercussions of such influence is that it spawns legions of pale imitations, and I certainly made my own fair share of watered-down Terry Winters paintings. Artists can’t be blamed for this aspect of success, but the hope must be that eventually that influence grows farther from the source to become its own thing, a different practice. The lessons of the Neo-Expressionists don’t run nearly as deep, and little wears thin more quickly than an art school enfant terrible.

[vii] At least relatively speaking when compared to the vast history of representation in western art.

[viii] The cross-pollination between High Times, Hard Times and Reinventing Abstraction is extensive; aside from Reed, Fishman, Heilman, Murray, Snyder, Whitten, and Steir were included in Katy Siegel’s exhibition. This is probably another point of evidence to just how much smaller the art world in New York was three decades ago. My own suspicion is that the amount of money circulating through art world helps determine its size, and before the wall street boom of the 1980s resources were much more scant.

[ix] Robert Ryman turned such experiments into the subject of his entire practice, but the artists focused on in High Times, Hard Times were not nearly so programmatic.

[x] Walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking back to Bernice Rose’s group exhibitions that focused on drawing, Drawing Now and Allegories of Modernism. I was very surprised to learn that only Winters and Steir were included in the later show; it goes to show that no matter how obvious Rubinstein’s thesis may seem now, the attention paid these artists has changed substantially in the intervening decades.

[xi] The introduction of this subject matter brought “nature” back into the discourse of painting without succumbing to either the saccharine conventions of Sunday plein air painting or any need to resort to ironic reserve in order to be taken seriously. It continued the trend where serious art needed to evidence a “rigor” of approach while opening up the possibilities of what might be deemed “appropriate” subject matter by maintaining a universal scope of subject.

[xii] These similarities are more evident in his drawings and prints, which are much closer in scale to such sources.

[xiii] These subtleties are difficult to capture up in reproduction; they barely register in the catalog illustration where they read as the white of the canvas priming. That photographs only provide close approximations of a painting’s surface reality is a problem that afflicts many of the works in Reinventing Abstraction. I am beginning to suspect that this is a trait shared by most of the more interesting paintings that are made where the medium is so important to the formation of the image and the varied possibilities of paint are fully exploited.

[xiv] Rubinstein admits as much, declaring that the stated (and decidedly non-provisional) intentions of the artists shaped his approach to the exhibition.

[xv] One could see the potential for a division between the otherwise very similar art of East Coast abstractionists and the “Finish Fetish” artists of the West Coast.

[xvi] He famously struggled with any resolution to a picture, and the spaces his women inhabit after the late ‘40s are largely indeterminate vehicles for painterly gesture as much as descriptions of place.

[xvii] As described in The Lure of the Impure.

A Provisional Explanation.

To declare one’s self a painter, and one committed to abstraction at that, is to stake out a space for one’s artistic practice that would seem to be essentially limitless. When faced with near infinite possibilities, the first thing one often does is to set some boundaries so as to establish a direction. Within the cannon of modernism that direction was a tied to a narrative of a manifest expansion of art, but with the ascendency of a post-modern condition the very idea of progress has become suspect. When painting was declared dead, abstraction was the only idiom in play, but since that fall it has been playing for smaller stakes when compared to the greater concerns of culture. When painting has been seen to be at the forefront of artistic production, it is usually for a re-entrenchment allied with a surge in the market.[i] So what is there to say when so much contemporary production in a given medium seems to shift in a certain direction?

The rise of so-called provisional strategies in abstraction was first identified by the critic Raphael Rubinstein[ii] and has subsequently been expanded by other curators and writers[iii] who have enlarged his basic taxonomy into an ever widening ecosystem of artists who seemingly eschew craft, finish, precision, virtuosity, and even ambition. The central problem is that the discourse surrounding provisional strategies does not rise above identification. The label is trend-spotting or cool hunting for the newest fashion, but since the provisional is not an organized movement, school, or even well defined set of tendencies it can easily be applied to almost any art or artist. Rubinstein linked them to some of the most heralded names in contemporary painting, which helps cement the idea within our visual vocabulary, but the underlying biology has gone largely unaddressed. Fleshing out of the connections to the practice of younger artists and scenes other than at the pinnacle of the art market points to not just how diverse and vibrantly varied these strategies have become, but also how they have diffused throughout recent history and are used without any reliance on a central dogma.

The unfinished nature of “Provisionalism”[iv] was encoded into the DNA of modernism with Manet’s vacant, scumbled spaces and the en plein air canvases of the Impressionists. From there historical precedent is rife with a churn of examples: it is found in the chance compositional strategies of the Dadaists and Surrealists[v], in the struggle with resolution of the action painters of the New York School, in the inclusion of commonplace objects and physical detritus in Johns and Rauschenberg, in the destruction of the painted surface in Klein or Fontana or Burri[vi], or in the sculptural accumulations of Arte Povera or the performative remains of the Gutai group.[vii] Fertile ground was found where a direct gesture was (or is) left unmediated or where painting intersects with sculpture and its nature as object. The legacy of both process based abstraction and Post-minimalism[viii] is that painters have been able to fundamentally reassess notions of composition, failure, and finish. With the contemporary ground for art so open as to appear strip mined and barren, the question becomes why artists are increasingly drawn to methods of working that embrace the casual, the provisional?

An obvious place to start is with the germination of an artist’s practice and the influences exerted at the beginning on the structures where art is made. As any organism evolves, adapts and grows into the geography it occupies, young artists working in major metropolitan areas face increasing pressures of limited space and economic constraints on their time. The urgency to make work trumps fetishistic perfectionism or the unifying, grand statement. As big things come from small beginnings, the work is seen as something that can incubate and expand as circumstances and successes dictate, or constrict during hard times. As their practice develops and their career progresses they may move on to more finished modes or not, but that early experience remains.[ix] In this regard Rubinstein’s focus on artists who are much more established is telling as he is pointing to how the trends have been tested and utilized successfully; that there may be a host of failures[x] speaks to the vitality of the underlying idea.[xi]

Likewise, craft has been downplayed within the current art world[xii], and the extra time[xiii] it takes is seen as something that can be outsourced to specialists, assistants, and fabricators. The singular artist as a true craftsperson has become increasingly rare.[xiv] While a provisional approach need not scorn craft and careful construction, the tenacious expenditure of time and labor required to fully employ that knowledge and experience sits at the opposite end of the production spectrum. Any spectrum will tend towards concentrations now and then, and then adjust and change over time. When I first moved to New York it seemed as if the galleries were filled with clean paintings that must have required miles and miles of masking tape to produce, and as I was enthralled with my new (but very worn) surroundings, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why young artists weren’t mirroring the scuffed, scratched, and beaten surfaces around them. These surfaces spoke to a deep history and a different kind of beauty and it was only a matter of time before there was a shift back (or back to) a handmade art that embraced a patina of habitation and use.

The greatest threat to the continued relevance of abstract painting is the possibility of its ossifying into a new academy. All too often, the guides that are laid out when a journey begins harden into not only a map for individual practice but an expectation that others will follow it as gospel. Examples of dedication to the tenets of modernist abstraction can be found as bad décor and the unironic and uninterested embrace of banal geometry.[xv] Advances in the formal structure of painting are usually of a specific time and do not easily translate through generations. Dealing with the fractured visual space of today’s culture via a retreat to cubism would read as quaint; to wrestle with one’s personal struggle to express a personally authentic gesture on a blank canvas in the vein of the abstract expressionists would seem histrionic and unseemly. This is not to say that these (or any other) references are unavailable, but only that to effectively function in the present[xvi] they must be approached and utilized within a contemporary framework lest they be mere exercises in nostalgia.[xvii] Academies are about perpetuating their own ideas and ideals, of achieving stasis rather than growth through challenge and evolution. The latter is a function of unseemly mutation, of embracing rather than rejecting the aesthetic other. In this regard Provisionalist trends over the last century serve as an antipode to any strict formalisms, geometries, or theories that may infest the medium.

The current proliferation of provisional abstraction should not just be analyzed as a swing of the art historical pendulum or knee jerk rebellion against stuffy elders. It does any artist a disservice to suggest that they merely respond to their history and environment to the exclusion of finding something deeply affecting at the core of what they make. Artists today[xviii] are confronting an increasingly ramshackle future where aesthetic, political, economic, and ecological promises have been revealed as failures. If they are seeing a future where issues of scarcity become more urgent, materials must be recycled or scavenged from surplus[xix], and long-held political standards become increasingly irrelevant, it would seem natural to see trends in painting (re) emerge that question formal equivalents of these standards. The long-term success of painting can be attributed to its ability to colonize and assimilate outside ideas and approaches, stretching form and content to the breaking point so that the project of the medium is ultimately made stronger. If a provisional vocabulary can provide a timely reinvigoration of the expression of individual concerns, that should be all the ambition anyone needs in a painting.

[i] Think of the circumstances of the Neo-expressionists, the allies of Dave Hickey’s crusade for beauty, the rise of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bilds.

[ii] First for Art in America, and subsequently in an exhibition for Stuart Shave/ Modern Art in London, and finally a follow up article (again in Art in America).

[iii] See Sharon Butler’s New Casualists essay for the Brooklyn Rail, as well as further essays by Sam Cornish on Abstract Critical, Lane Relyea on Wow Huh and an anonymously penned feature on The Painted Wrd. (And this list is by no means comprehensive.)

[iv] You can only dance around the language for so long before just breaking down and labeling it as an “ism.” The problem is that the tendencies, strategies, methods, and concerns that would make up “Provisionalism” do not have the same unifying focus that bound together more familiar “isms” of art history.

[v] See Inventing Abstraction at MoMA

[vi] See Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void at MOCA.

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Specifically how aesthetic concerns interact with an art object that has been reduced to a remnant of an action.

[ix] It may be coincidental that Provisionalism has emerged as the competitiveness (and expense) of M.F.A. programs has turned the emerging artist towards a more professional track, but it also cannot be ignored that it seems that young artists with more limited time make up the broad base of provisional work.

[x] Of which there will necessarily be exponentially more of, but in appealing to an evolutionary context I hope that the broader process of integrating different ideas points to the number of failures proving the project’s success.

[xi] Imitation still being not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also indication of influence.

[xii] To say nothing of our broader culture and the world in general.

[xiii] And therefor expense.

[xiv] I’m thinking of painters like Terry Winters or Bill Jensen, or sculptors like Martin Puryear, who even though they have assistants, are deeply engaged with the craft associated with their materials and are not turning the production of their work over to fabricators or an atelier system.

[xv] If extended into the sculpture, the tendency becomes ever more pronounced in the monumental, blocky stone carvings and welded metal assemblages that barricade office plazas and concourses.

[xvi] And thus present them to and communicate with contemporaneous audiences.

[xvii] At this point Impressionism is the province of Sunday painters and naturalists with a flair for color.

[xviii] Young and old alike; the historical context shows that the trends encompassed by Provisionalism are neither a new phenomenon nor only the province of the young.

[xix] Perhaps this is where painting finds common ground with the so-called new aesthetic, as the rise of the digital is built on rapidly obsolete and repurposed technologies.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 13, 2013 at 1:19 am

In Conversation with an Artist & Her Mother

My interview with artist Juliette Losq and her mother is live on Idiom. Click here to read it. Juliette Losq: Lucaria,  an exhibition of her drawings is up at Theodore Art in Bushwick, Brooklyn through December 16th.

Written by Brian Dupont

December 2, 2012 at 10:27 am

Posted in Interview

Tagged with , , , , , ,

More Questions: On Criticism and Political Art

In the wake of underwhelming critical response to Creative Time’s fourth summit on artistic activism, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert released an open letter to critics writing about political art on their Center for Artistic Activism website. While I begrudge them neither the use of art to maximize the effect of their social activism or their appeal to political consciousness to aid them in finding an audience for their art, I think they oversimplify the intersection of art and activism, how art is seen, and how it is understood. The “art world” is too varied to define so broadly[i]; the interests at play from the various sites are too different. This variety extends to the interactions between criticism, activism, artists, and the body politic. The danger with rendering such simplistic generalizations is that if they ultimately undermine art as a tool to affect the change they seek.[ii]

Creative Time sees the artist as telling truth to power, and there is a long, laudable tradition of such statement within the arts, but such actions do not require inclusion within the bounds of artistic practice. After all many, many artists have participated in political actions[iii] or made work that engage with and challenge social issues[iv], and critics have not found any of this work impossible to address. One may certainly ask if they approached the issues with the same interest and understanding that originated with their aesthetic concern, and that in turn may make it more difficult to assess if the ideas raised have merit.[v] But that then begs the question as to why seek the attention of art critics, instead of more general media coverage that would go farther in promoting their agenda? If their goal (or the goal of any artist – activist) is to effect change, and the form of the work must be promiscuous in order to facilitate that goal, why is it necessary to be art? In laying out their premise it seems that despite Duncombe and Lambert’s claims to the contrary, efficacy becomes a central issue. How do the causes supported by activism benefit from the intervention of an artistic practice? If the “art” is not adding something to the message, it both demeans the art and artist[vi] and obfuscates and lessens the political point.[vii]

A fundamental issue is that if artists are going to entertain the notion that art can address any sort of discourse with the broader world, then the critics who write and think about art must be accorded a separate expression. Work by journalists, poets, philosophers, ethnographers, and even artists may be grouped under the rubric of ‘criticism.’ The term can be taken as any thinking about art and the understanding of its structure, but my reading of Duncombe and Lambert and their desire to make the critic (at least partly) responsible to the work’s social efficacy[viii] reduces such thinkers to mere cheerleaders. It would be a separate matter if they were calling for better or more thoughtful criticism.[ix] I think they would have a hard time finding anyone ready to defend the broad state of current art writing and its interaction with the market as the pinnacle of critical thought, but that does not excuse a call to press criticism into blind service to the goals of the artwork.[x]

The critic is only necessary if the work in question is to be treated as art, rather than activism; the latter finds its apotheosis by its ratification or rejection within the political system, but the former is a set of ideas and relations forever in flux. Whether working for short or long term social gain, activism has a specific and visible political end. On the other hand the point of art is a continual engagement and dialog about the work and the structures around it. Criticism is necessary to further a substantial dialog, but is much less useful within the political organization necessary for successful activism. The revision, doubt, constant examination at the heart of artistic discourse is at odds with political action.[xi]

The new critical tradition they call for would take the “art” out of the discussion of the work of “artist – activists” in favor of a pragmatism more amenable to politics. What is lost with the “art” is the disparate individual interest that drives people to become artists[xii], and for critics to interact with them and their work. Just as it is important to allow for art that embraces the political, space must also be defended for work that does not. Ultimately in asking for an “art that intends to change the very way we see, act and make sense of our world” Duncombe and Lambert have articulated the goal of (nearly) every artist, whether they work politically or not. Similarly, what is needed is not new standards, language, and traditions for critics and thinkers, but only a more careful application of the ones they already have; if the discussion is bigger than art, it’s probably not really a discussion about art.

[i] See my essay Site Specificity: Art & the Mainstream Part 2 for a discussion of the intermingling of various sites within the art world.

[ii] Starting with their assertion that the audience for most art is critics, and through the discussion on tradition, medium, and mastery, the stereotypes and generalizations run thick without any corresponding real world examples. If critics are the audience, then doesn’t the blame ultimately lie with artists for making that work?

[iii] For example, consider everyone who contributed to the Peace Tower, despite its genesis in a period where vanguard art rejected any outward reference beyond pure aesthetic experience.

[iv] Think of the work of Goya, the Mexican muralists, Guston, Golloub, Spero, Chicago, Keinholz, Kruger, Holzer, Wojnarowicz, Weems, Hammons, Steinbach, Saul, the Gorilla Girls, the Art Guys, Gonzalez-Torres…

[v] Another implicit argument is that the political goals and beliefs they espouse are the ones to be championed. Especially in an election year, that seems obviously wrong.

[vi] As they are reduced to the attention grabbing schtick of good advertising.

[vii] As the confused viewer is more concerned about figuring out what they just saw, rather than why it was important.

[viii] One cannot state that questions are good, but then qualify as to the purpose, or speak to the need to aid political art without implicitly drafting critics into their own political ranks.

[ix] After all, who ever really wants to defend critics?

[x] It would be just as unthinkable as forbidding comment or criticism on certain work, and ultimately no different than a state dictating the terms of discussion. In calling for “a world in which artists work collectively in an embedded engagement with society.” Duncombe and Lambert are effectively asking art and criticism to support societal engineering on the scale appropriate to Gandhi or Goebbels.

[xi] Which may be why the Occupy movement had trouble gaining traction with a political procedures based on artistic process.

[xii] Instead of teachers, community activists, or social workers. Just because the interests or job titles overlap is not a reason to collapse them all together into a single pile.

Written by Brian Dupont

November 1, 2012 at 6:55 am