Post from September, 2014

Art or Masturbation?

Monday, 22. September 2014 0:54

If one is to believe Susie Hodge and Jackie Higgins, authors of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained and Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained, respectively, a significant portion of “modern” art is little more than artistic masturbation. These writers certainly do not say that; what they do say on page after page is that much recent art has been produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artists and those few who are knowledgeable enough to get the joke. Additionally, that art which is not meant to be an inside joke, does little more than make an obscure comment on the contemporary art world, or the medium, or the audience. Such comments are just another form self-referencing self-pleasure.

And the comments can be mean-spirited. One artist is said to create work “to satirize…the inflated esteem for traditional materials…to mock viewers for their acceptance without questioning…to ridicule artistic conventions and snobbery.” Now all of that may need doing, but when one reads it over and over and over again, it’s not just a single artist attacking the current state of art, it’s a trend. And on top of that, many times the artist’s intent is so inwardly-directed that it has to be explained.

The artistic inside joke, and art produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artist and a close circle of like-minded friends is not new. Remember Marcel Duchamp? However, Jed Perl in his review of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective makes the point that Duchamp, the “inventor” of the readymade, meant Fountain as personal and private joke—a comment on the art world certainly, but probably not intended for exhibition. That is a very different sort of thing from the gaggle of artists producing and showing work simply to be able to pleasure themselves with a sly giggle.

And what gives them pleasure is the self-reflexive, the inside-inside joke or comment: “photography that is about photography;” paintings and sculptures which are comments on the art world wherein they exist and nothing else; plays about doing plays; movies about making movies; books about writing books.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing or painting or photographing material that is self-reflexive. There is, however, at least in my mind, a problem when the work of art does not reflect or comment on its world in a way that a potential audience of non-insiders might understand, when it serves merely to entertain the maker and those three people who “get it.”

Certainly there are artists who are commenting on things outside the art business, but sometimes it seems that the ones who are making the money are the ones who are participating in the inside jokes. Perhaps because those who support the arts with their dollars want to be in on the joke, so whether they get it or not, they buy a couple of tickets, or a painting, or a piece of sculpture, thereby proving that they’re “in the know.”

Wanting to be in on the joke is a very different thing from actually appreciating or understanding a piece of art. As Perl points out, those who hail Koons as “the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art” likely do not “know what anti-art is all about.”

It seems to me that while inside-joke art is interesting, and even apropos of the current situation of the arts, it’s cheap. It’s masturbation. It enables the maker and his/her inner circle to be privately funny and sly and ironic at the expense of everyone else. And more often than not, it is the obvious joke, the easy joke that allows the artist to avoid dealing with a broader world, doing real work, using real imagination, making real art.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

The Illusion of Simplicity

Monday, 8. September 2014 0:47

This post started with the thesis that good art is complex, which often means has many layers or many interactive parts. Some who agree with this position will talk about how much they enjoy discovering the intricacies of a piece, which increases their appreciation of the work.

Then two things happened: (1) during a conversation with an actor about the difficulties of producing the musical, The Fantasticks, the actor said, “But it has to look simple.” I said, “Yes it does.” What I thought was, “It always should; it should look effortless.” (2) At a juried art show reception that same week, I found myself looking at a stunning black-and-white land/seascape of the Galveston estuary. Another photographer was telling me, “He [the photographer who made the image on the wall] has been moving toward minimalism for a couple of years now.” Minimalism had not figured into my theory concerning complexity as a necessary characteristic of quality art. These incidents taken together caused me to rethink the whole idea, resulting in a new question: If complexity is one of the marks of quality art, then how does one explain Minimalism and similar sorts of work?

The answer came with the realization that the word complexity can have two applications in reference to art. (1) It can be apparent complexity, as in a work with many facets and/or layers and parts that interact on many different levels. This is the sort of complexity you might find in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dali, or Jackson Pollock. (2) Complex can also be used to describe the process by which art is produced. American filmmakers, for example expend great effort to hide the artifice by which their work is created, opting instead—at least in most cases—for a story that is easily digested by the audience, allowing that audience to concentrate on the characters and the plot without having to be concerned with how difficult it was to create that seamless narrative.

And this second meaning of complex applies to some things we have already mentioned. We will work very hard to make not only The Fantasticks but any play, no matter how complex, look effortless, for much the same reason as the filmmakers. This is true of nearly any performing art; all seek to hide the difficulty of the task by employing the highest levels of expertise. Both performers and those behind the scenes do what they do with an apparent ease that belies the unending planning, training, preparation, and rehearsal.

Even though we think of them differently, visual and plastic arts are much the same. The photographer who made the piece mentioned above did not do so by simply setting up his camera in the grasslands and snapping the picture. If you are familiar with photography, you realize that this image was the result of a great deal of planning, better-than-competent execution, skilled post-processing, and expert printing, all so the result would be precise, clean, and minimal.

Whether it is a Buddhist raked rock garden or Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, the creation of such apparently simple things requires enormous imagination, planning, and expertise. But, just as in Hollywood films, the artifice is hidden.

So it turns out that good minimalist art, or any art that appears effortless or visually simple may not be simple at all; nor was it produced easily. The complexity and the effort are just hidden. If you’ve ever tried to this kind of work, you already know: simplicity is an illusion.

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