Jargon, What’s Art, and Recent Prizes.

I am currently taking a paper on Fine Arts Research. I have only had a few classes, but it already seems much less oppressive than our misleadingly titled “Critical Studies” papers, which I’m glad to have behind me. It is, however, raising some funny little questions, and placing me in quite a tense environment semi-regularly. Earlier this week we had to read out a paragraph towards a 500 word “Artist Statement”. I didn’t particularly want to read mine out to the class, but when nobody else on my side of the room would volunteer to read theirs I got impatient and took the plunge. I had to edit out whole portions of my paragraph as I read, knowing they would upset the lecturer. My original went along the lines of:

The great conceptual power of traditional media is its “invisibility”. Pretentious, abstruse art – the Hirsts, the Koonses, Kohs, and Warhols – it alienates and distances the working class. It scares them into believing they don’t “get” art, that art is for the elites, concealing its shallowness by baring it plain. It is the accessibility of traditional media, the way it slinks gracefully back behind its content, that allows representational art to be so much more politically radical than the formerly avant-garde who now cling to the art industry like a prudish heiress clutching her pearls.

What I read in class ended up closer to:

The great conceptual power of traditional media is its “invisibility”. Pretentious, abstruse art – the Hirsts, the Koonses, Kohs, and Warhols – it alienates and distances the working class. It is the accessibility of traditional media that allows representational art to be so much more politically radical than the formerly avant-garde.

I think, in the end, I surrendered a lot of important information from the quote in my desire not to offend. I was warned that my paragraph sounded “classist”, and that working class people use a lot of sophisticated metaphor. Behind this I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of a genuinely anti-working class argument drawn from Nietzsche – working class people should not be viewed as “deprived” so much as “different”, and that difference must be protected. A permutation of Nietzsche’s general thrust when he declared

“Whom do I hate most among the rabble of today? The socialist rabble, the chandala apostles, who undermine the instinct, the pleasure, the worker’s sense of satisfaction with his small existence–who make him envious, who teach him revenge. The source of wrong is never unequal rights but the claim of “equal” rights.”

The negative influence of Nietzsche on art theory via cultural theory can’t really be overemphasised, anyone with an ear attuned to philosophy can hear the old tyrant glowering dustily through the new-fangled phraseology of post-modernism.

One of the lecturers wanted to accuse me of saying that working class people are simply unsophisticated for not “getting” the likes of Warhol, Koons, etc. I clearly needed to clarify that it was the art world I think is unsophisticated, and I said that. The lecturer replied along the lines of “Art has a highly technical language, and not everyone can be expected to understand it, just like science has a highly technical language and not everyone can be expected to understand it.” I really wanted to protest. I wanted to point out that a highly technical language itself isn’t a sign of sophistication, that often it is a sign of obfuscation! A method for hiding one’s lack of sophistication and knowledge behind scarily obscure words. Pseudoscientists use a highly technical language as well, and yet it may have been fruitless to bring this up in the classroom because critical theorists consistently conflate science and pseudoscience as though there is no reliable way of distinguishing between them. I wanted to say that the purple and bloated language of art theory, peppered as it is with badly done undergraduate epistemology and pseudoscientific theories of psychology, serves as an excuse for art theorists to dismiss and despise the working class, to believe them generally to be a reactionary, uncultured mob, where in fact such pejoratives fit more easily upon the shoulders of the art theorist than the understandably puzzled art-viewing worker.

The jargon of post-modern art theory tends heavily towards obfuscation rather than information. Art theoretical language has much more in common with pseudoscience than with science, and this hurts artists as much as it confuses the alienated art-going public. A lot of people seem to be upset with Deanna Dowling’s winning piece in the NZ Contemporary Art AwardsTell Someone if Something Happens. I do not blame them, but nor do I blame Dowling for following the general direction that young artists are pushed today, where exceedingly vague and uncommunicative interactions of form and word association are treated as exceedingly exciting. The idea seems to be that if the artist bothers to communicate only the barest minimum, it leaves the floor open to the imagination of the viewer to run wild. That can be fun, the viewer’s freedom to interpret matters, but the extremes to which art theory has pushed Roland Barthes’ idea that the viewer is the primary vessel of meaning has only disempowered artists and art. Many in the art world seem to view art that is didactic as fundamentally illustrative, clumsy, or bad, and art that is vague and lazy as especially good. Modern art has become such a conceptual and intellectual cop-out, each piece a vehicle for investment, for money, for one’s career, and not for investigating the world and challenging the status quo. Abstruse post-modernist art has become the status quo, now stuffier and more pompous than modernism ever was, and without any of modernism’s intellectual rigour or political radicalism. Dowling’s piece, whether it alienates and angers the art-going public or not, whether it manages to communicate anything elegantly and clearly about the world or not, earned Dowling $15,000. Comments on the article suggest people are genuinely upset by all this. I can’t help but recall the late Robert Hughes’ words, that the art world has become “a kind of bad but useful business.” Dowling’s piece is certainly art, “art” is a very expansive field. Is it bad art? I don’t feel I’ve given the piece enough time to say for myself, but I am currently struggling to see how it is interesting or exciting. This is all the harder to say because I have met Dowling, and I like her, and she is clearly intelligent and curious.

This same week, another young artist, Douglas Stitchbury, won the Parkin Prize, a drawing award founded in 2013 by businessman Chris Parkin, who intends to grow a collection out of the award over several decades. While I’m ambivalent about Dowling’s work, I think Stitchbury’s work, Observer, is unambiguously good. Quite aside from being skillfully rendered, the drawing itches the viewer with legible, specific, and emotive content. The image seems mysterious, challenging, and tethered to history in an interesting way. Refreshingly, it does not seem explicitly hostile to the early 1900s technology it portrays, and it does not betray any echoes of Nietzsche or Heidegger’s cynical and blood-caked anti-humanism. The papers have made a fuss about Stitchbury appropriating his imagery from a famous photograph of Hubble peering into his telescope at the Mt Wilson observatory, but Stitchbury has obviously taken pains to reinterpret the image, reframing the figure and rendering him universal – the main difference between the original photograph and Stitchbury’s drawing seems to be that Hubble’s face has been obscured behind machinery. One could read the drawing as celebrating the emancipatory potential of empiricism – of striving to understand the world. One could also give it more reactionary readings of the machinery consuming the humane element of the figure, rendering him faceless and mute. However regressive that kind of anti-technological reading might be, it has a sort of power in the age of drone warfare.

I don’t know how I will ever fit into this world, if I ever manage to produce any worthwhile art. Who is there in the art world I won’t offend if I’m simply honest? I helped one artist, Michael Graeve, install work recently at Massey’s The Engine Room gallery, where I’m an intern. I did not offend him by disagreeing with him, and it was a nice feeling. He was very open to discussion, very tolerant and filled with humility, and we disagreed in quite a friendly way. He was, in a word, cool. Totally not the kind of conservative ideologue I’ve come to fear, even if I thought his views on the world were very sad – that the world was all too much to take in and understand, that the world was overwhelming and discombobulated. I hope that as I move out from the shadow of Massey, one day in the future, I find more working artists more like Graeve – tolerant ones, who only have a loose investment in art theory. Two of my lecturers thankfully seem to fit this mold, but all kinds of professional and generational barriers prevent me relating to them, too much has to go unspoken and unchallenged.

Anyway, I have to write this damned 500 word artist statement, and instead I’ve written a messy, confused 1470 word blog post. I don’t know how I will ever be an artist. I don’t know how I will ever find a space that accepts me, and I don’t know that I will ever find a soil that allows me to learn as much as I would like. Massey sometimes feels like a painful lesson in self-tutoring and self-flagellation, not a tertiary level course, but I can’t go anywhere else, and at least I like my art tutors as people.

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4 Responses to Jargon, What’s Art, and Recent Prizes.

  1. Laura says:

    You know, this could be your 500 words if you chopped it down. Just saying…

  2. Laura says:

    I just read this and thought of you:

    “And I went on and on and then one day after I had written a thousand pages, this was in 1908 I just did not go on any more.” (Gertrude Stein, ‘The Gradual Making Of The Making of Americans’).

    • oilymud says:

      Oh god! Have you ever tried to read an essay by Stein? Probably the only modernist that’s harder and more unrewarding to read than a post-modernist!

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