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Conceptual Art or Intellectual Exercise?

Sunday, 2. July 2017 23:58

On June 21, the New York Times reported that Jeff Koonswould donate a monumental sculpture, a hand holding a bouquet of balloon tulips, to the City of Paris to honor victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks.” It turns out, however, that “Mr. Koons donated the concept, not the construction,” and that the city needed to raise $3.9 million to make and install the 30-ton work.

The whole notion of conceptual art is controversial and has been since its inception. An internet slide show about it defines conceptual art as “art that is intended to convey an idea or concept to the perceiver and need not involve the creation of appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting of sculpture. (Dictionary)”

Some say that all art is conceptual, at least all good art. Such work has something to say and says it with greater or lesser measures of success. “Conceptual art,” as a movement, simply values “the ideas over the formal or visual components of art works.

Implicit in any definition or discussion of conceptual art is the idea that there must be a physical manifestation of the concept. Even some of the more extreme examples, such as the text work of Lawrence Weiner has physical manifestation, albeit lettering on a wall (here, for example).

While no one is challenging the value of a great idea, whether artistic or technical, the question becomes whether it is legitimate to call such an idea art. A concept is no more than a theory or idea. It must be realized to become art. Anyone who works as an artist knows that there are many ideas or concepts that die in the attempted realization. This fact has driven a number of artists to adopt new media to their service—because the need to realize the idea was so strong.

Even with that, some concepts seemingly defy adequate expression: an idea just doesn’t work as a stage or screen play once you try to express it in dialogue. The thought cannot be realized fully in two-dimensional space. The concept cannot find proper expression in any plastic medium.

Whatever the reason, an unrealized concept is just that—unrealized. It’s an idea, a vision, and nothing more. And attempting to pass off an unrealized idea as art turns that art into an intellectual exercise, or, at worst, an art-world in-joke which is really about cleverness and ego rather than anything that could reasonable be called art.

What Koons attempted to “donate” was the idea of a sculpture, not the sculpture itself. He wanted to give Paris an idea. This is not completely unprecedented; Sol LeWittsold wall drawings that buyers then executed on their own.

Although opinion is divided about the Koon’s “gift,” the majority seem to fall into the negative column. These responses may be best summed up by Isabel Pasquier, an art critic at one of France’s leading radio stations: “Whether you appreciate his art or not, Jeff Koons is a businessman, and we quickly understood that he was offering Paris to himself as a present.”

Good art must, I think, communicate with the perceiver. Conceptual artists would argue that what is communicated is an idea, a concept. While that view is certainly valid, it is also valid that art might communicate an emotion, a feeling and be just as successful. The one thing that is certain—at least in my mind—is that whatever art communicates, that art must be realized in the physical world, no matter how ephemeral that realization might be. Otherwise it’s not art; it’s a dream.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication, Presentation | Comment (0) | Autor:

Art in Motion, Part 3

Monday, 21. September 2015 0:52

Moving art is not really a new thing. Even moving electronic art is not really a new thing. If you look back into the archives, you will find that there are at least two previous posts about moving art: “Want Art? The Gallery Will Come to You” and “The Medium is Not the Message…But It’s a Big Chunk of the Experience.” These articles discuss installation art, the Cinemagraph, a term which has now been trademarked, s[edition], an on-line gallery of high-profile artists that will “sell” you limited edition moving electronic art, and some others as well.

Most online moving art is in GIF format, although some, notably the pieces on s[edition], are in MP4 format. Within these two formats we find that the moving art world divides into genres, or types, based on visual treatment. The range is amazing; it includes the Cinemagraph, a still photograph with subtle motion in certain specific areas of the images to full animations lasting up to a minute. All of these images are looped so they run continuously and seamlessly.

Among the animated genres, one of the most innovative is the Cinemagraph (described above) but there are many others. There are geometrics that morph into other geometrics; there is animation of Escher images and Escher-like images; there are images that change colors; there are short cartoons. Whether subtle, isolated movement or full motion, there are levels of sophistication. Some are very sophisticated; others are not. And some artists manage to combine simplicity and sophistication and produce works that are elegant (in all of the meanings of that word).

Some moving art tells a story, sometimes “in [only] one second;” other pieces are attempts to convey a feeling or a way of seeing. For example, legally blind artist George Redhawk, whose work has become so influential that there is now a technique of GIF animation called “the Redhawk effect” says that he was, at first, attempting to communicate the confusion he experiences with his vision loss: “not enough data getting sent to the brain, and it tries to fill in the blanks with false information, so you can’t trust what your eyes or brain are telling you.” Some make a statement or provide commentary, such as Michael Green’s “Balloon Dog Deflated” based on Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog.”

In the last couple of years, moving electronic art in all types and formats has seen a huge surge in popularity. There are now numerous web sites devoted exclusively to moving electronic art. Some embrace all sorts of animated art; others specialize in one genre or another. A Google search for “gif art” or “cinemagraph” will result in millions of hits and allow the searcher to discover the range and depth of this blossoming area of digital arts. Not only are there numerous web sides, there are even contests for animated art, such as the recent Motion Photography Prize co-sponsored by Google and Saatchi Gallery.

Also in the last couple of years, new tools have been developed making it easier for artists to create moving art. Some of them specific to types of moving art, for example there is software designed specifically to create Cinemagraphs. Some are improved GIF editors, both in web-based versions and stand-alone programs. Some are MP4 editors. And some designed for other uses have been repurposed. George Redhawk uses software designed to morph one image into another both for morphing and for adding unusual motion to his surreal and fantasy images.

The inevitable next step, attempting to monetize moving art, has already begun.

Why should we be concerned about this new art form? Just for that reason: it’s a new art form, and from what I’ve seen it is definitely worth knowing about. The big reason, of course, is now that we know about it, some of us—particularly those already working digitally—may want to try out some of the newer software and bring our own ideas to this new means of expression.

Category:Creativity, Originality, Presentation | Comment (0) | Autor:

Gaming the System, Part 2

Monday, 20. April 2015 1:00

Last year I posted and article called “Gaming the System” which began with the notion that if one studied a given juried show sufficiently, one might be able to develop a recipe for acceptance. So I decided to try it, and found that it might not be as easy to do as to say. In the past I have done somewhat similar things such as picking pieces for juried shows based on knowledge of the juror. This time it didn’t work. However, my lack of success taught me several lessons:

  1. Hubris never goes unpunished. This is something I should have known from reading the Greek tragedies or just from living, but it is a lesson that we often forget, particularly when things are going well, and we have a string of successes. We think we have it all figured out. We don’t. And is well to be reminded of this from time to time.
  2. There are always variables that we do not take into consideration. In this case, one (and maybe two) of the jurors was different from the years prior. This means that the flavor and focus of the show became unpredictable. Not everything can be anticipated.
  3. Likewise, there are always details that we miss or misinterpret; sometimes those little things matter more than we know.
  4. Risking failure is good for us, and if there are no occasional failures, there is no real risk. And this was, at least by my standards, a spectacular failure. There was a significant investment of both time and money, and while, in my estimation, the resultant images were very good, they do not really fit with the rest of my portfolio, so I am not really sure what, if anything, I might do with them. So, yes, this project could definitely be considered a failure.
  5. The biggest lesson that I learned, however, was that even if I know the parameters required, I cannot make art that does not at least try to match my personal aesthetic. It became apparent as early as the planning stage for this project that I am not able to create art to satisfy requirements completely outside myself. Even knowing the recipe, I had to make the pieces my own, had to make the say what I really thought. Probably this is something I should have known about myself before, but I did not, and least consciously. Then I had to reconcile my new learning concerning my aesthetic and the fact that I often direct plays that are aimed at a particular type of audience or prepared for a particular venue. The difference is that once the play is selected for whatever reason, what I do with it during the rehearsal process is to shape it in accordance with my own personal aesthetic. Again, this is something that should have been obvious, but, for some reason, was not.
  6. Evidently, I do not have what it takes to game the system in the way that Dan Colen, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst seem to. This may not be a terrible thing.

So my grand experiment in gaming the system resulted in six valuable lessons. Even though the project was a failure, these lessons make it—to my mind—a worthwhile endeavor, an endeavor worth writing about. As a result of this experience, I will do exactly what I have encouraged other artists to do: continue to risk, sometimes fail, learn from the failure, move on.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Originality | Comment (0) | Autor:

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) | Autor:

Gaming the System

Sunday, 1. June 2014 23:21

A friend of mine, a photographer/sculptor, and I recently attended an annual international art show, a fairly prestigious one, that we have been to several times. One of the things we noticed was that there was a great similarity among a number of pieces in the show as well as among the pieces in this show and last year’s show—and the one before that.

Afterward, we were discussing the show and the noticeable (to us) similarity among the pieces being shown, and about how an artist could, if he/she really wanted to, could come to a couple of shows and figure out the recipe for securing a place in that show. Then the artist could make a piece to fit the show. If one’s skill were sufficient, having a piece in the show should be no real problem. The task would be even easier if the jurors or curators were the same from show to show or if the show were held at regular intervals.

He went even further, saying, “If you wanted to write a recipe book on how to make art that would fit the bill—for any show, that show could serve as your guide. Wonder what would happen if someone would do a book like that?”

My guess would be that such a book would be ignored, or at best marginalized. It’s something that no one wants to hear, but it’s something that anyone who has been involved with the art world for more than a year and is sufficiently analytical knows. It’s a system, and like any system, it can be played and rigged. Everybody knows it, and many capitalize on it. Much of what is produced is created exclusively to be shown and/or sold in particular places; it’s about success in the art world—and money, of course.

John Seed, writing on The Huffington Post said, “I sometimes feel like the art market is a ship that has been taken over by dollar-waving pirates: the same ones who brought us junk bonds and the mortgage meltdown.” There is no indication of which specific artists he thinks are catering to these dollar-wavers except that he is talking about Dan Colen and unnamed others.

My friend does name other artists: “That’s exactly what Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have done—game the system. They looked around, figured out how it worked, and made things that would fit the recipe.”

Seed acknowledges the motivation for such art production by quoting Colen: “It’s such a paradox. You come from this place where you want fame; you don’t want to be bourgeois, but you want to be successful. You want to be accepted, but you also want to be going against the grain. You want to be on the outside, but you want to be on the inside.”

Seed adds, “The way I understand Colen’s ‘success’ is that it is a social phenomenon, not an aesthetic one.” And there you have it. This approach, cynical as it is, is not about the artist’s message or philosophy; rather, it is about achieving success in the art market. And, as Seed points out, many critics (Jerry Saltz excpted), as well as others in the art market, support such efforts.

The question for the artist is then: if you can figure out what will allow you to show your work in this or that show or venue, what will allow you to sell, what will make you successful, why wouldn’t you do that? And there is no correct answer. You certainly can do that; others have and have bought houses in the country with the proceeds. Some have taken a different path, and produced the work that they wanted to, work that said what they wanted to say, work that they were able to pour themselves into, work that, to them, was necessary. Sometimes it sells, sometimes not.

Each artist has to decide for him/herself. Choose well.

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