Monday, November 29, 2010

A Rebuttal Rebuttal: Pointless Puppets

Well it seems that the previous rebuttal post has ignited a flame of debate around this divisive issue as another of our dedicated readers has chimed in with his two cents about modern art. You can read the previous rebuttal here and the original post here if you missed them.

It's a fact that our judicial systems strongly factors in intent when considering sentence. The difference in sentencing can be extreme between a murder in which it is demonstrable that planning took place, and a murder that was an uncharacteristic act of passion in an otherwise docile individual and the unfortunate conjunction of circumstance leading to a fatal accident.

We place importance on the motives of the accused as it allows for an understanding of nature and character and it is upon character by which we ultimately judge them.

The technique on display on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel makes it art. We all know Michelangelo did it for a buck but by his hand and talent it transcends his motives. He wasn't even a believer.

Without technique and craft are we forced to judge art by the intent of the artist alone. Art Brut for example relies on the fact that the mentally ill, the physically disabled and the socially isolated produce outside of the game court of the art world and we therefore treat the, often infantile works produced from the outside, as being created by a purity of expression. Now there's an outsider art scene it's no doubt now become quite convoluted to work out this entirely subjective value, as when there's commerce involved questions like just how retarded is this mongo prodigy and does isolating oneself in the maze of the Internets and hiding behind the comfortable modern Minotaurs of anonymity constitute isolation or saturation?

We make the mistake of romanticizing the artist as a kind of ephemeral figure wandering the moors of societies perimeter, tracking new paths and reporting back, but just like any business most folks are either in it to prove something to the kids that made fun of them in high-school and/or, usually and, just for the money. It would be naive to think that the Tate modern with all the analytical data on offer just from their sales and acquisitions books would not then start designing artists the same way we've been designing pop stars - to be market friendly and make a buck. You and I are factored into pie charts and ven diagrams, and analyzed in board meetings to come up with what we want to see as consumers and by what "types" of drunken woolen coat wearing post-feminist rock stars will make it. As patronizing as it may seem nobody would paint celebrities, build diamond rings "as art", deface themselves in some demeaning feminist fireworks spectacle allegedly about vaginas or sculpt giant reproductions of burger joint kids toys if it wasn't what we were consistently demonstrating we wanted.

In the case of Damien Hirst, so smugly rammed up the orifice of the consumer hole and operating within the politics of the symbiosis of galleries and rich collectors, any self-expression that occurs in the work he out-sources could only be the product of random chance. Damien Hirst is judged by his intent to make money and a lot of it, and so an idealistic all art is self-expression applies here only from a very literal, don't people do just the darnedest things, positive perspective. I agree that Wall Street ethics and Pacman-consumerism on display in the countless works of celebrity faces and reproductions of comic characters sold as art is in itself an accurate reflection of our grabby globalized society and therefore achieves the function of truth in art but only if I'm really, really reaching.

Without craft, without actual technique, we are bound by the same idealism as teenagers deciding to go define themselves as a Goth, a Fundamentalist Christian, a world weary John Cussack in High Fidelity or an internet Minotaur and a desperation to believe does not make what we desire to believe in true. The techniques that painted Christ on the ceiling of the Vatican city Mac Donalds could just as easily portray Bowie, Warhol, Mickey Mouse or any of the other deity worshiping mainstays of modern art subject matter and require zero bullshit, zero make-believe and zero politics to admire. Despite thinking the subject is a bunch of bullshit.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rubbutal: Pointless Puppets

In a first for Two Bullets, we welcome an outside contributor, offering rebuttal to our previous post about declining ethics in art today, something we hope to see more of. If you disagree, and feel you have something worthy to offer please make yourself know in the comments and we'll try and get your thoughts up here as well.

Meet Bob. Bob thinks that "Modern art is a con, perpetuated by talentless, so-called artists". And meet Don. Don thinks that "One can regard modern art as by and large the history of the representation of perversion".

One of these gentlemen - let's call him Bob - is a semi-literate simpleton. Pathologically ill-suited to the critique of contemporary culture (or anything else for that matter), Bob spends his days posting smug, bile-fuelled comments on the message boards of right-wing tabloids. Watch amused as Bob flails against a world he doesn't understand; a frenzy of bad spelling, no punctuation and inappropriate capitalization. (Confession: in the above quote I corrected his grammar, and added the word "perpetuated" to imply gravitas.)

The other gentleman - let's call him Donald Kuspit - is Distinguished Professor of Art History and Philosophy at State University of New York (Stony Brook), and one of the most highly-esteemed art critics working today. Naturally, his words require neither linguistic nor grammatical correction.

Bob and Don aren't necessarily making the same argument, and they are certainly coming at the subject from entirely different perspectives. However, what both quotes illustrate is the ease in dismissing modern art as decadent, elitist, narcissistic and lacking moral and/or artistic value. Even a cursory online trawl throws up manifold criticism from a spectrum of sources. Diphtheria, opera, Obergruppenfuehrer Richard Heydrich - all generate bad press, yet for some strange reason modern art gets under people's skin far more frequently.

Kuspit is by no means the only art historian to have an intellectualized issue with modern art, and criticism from within (what can broadly be called) the art community has clearly defined boundaries, analysing the validity of artists, movements, and vogues within both historical and cultural frameworks. When (for example) respected critic Hilton Kramer complains that "the basis of our established culture" has been overwhelmed in our post-modern era by "a carnival of rubbish", he writes from a specific perspective. His views may be gibberish, but it's well-informed, logically-argued gibberish from a vested party with a far greater knowledge on the subject than, say, me.

Sadly, the vast majority of modern art criticism doesn't have this context. Instead, it's ill-informed, anti-intellectual and focused upon the flawed Emperor's New Clothes model: the failure to understand art on the objective level, extrapolated from a subjective failure to appreciate.

It is this failure to contextualize that makes such criticism ridiculous. Modern art itself is a meaningless concept. It doesn't exist beyond hazy, subjective definitions, and yet this very generic of beasts is challenged as if it's a cohesive entirety. When modern art is mentioned, is the reference to everything post-Cubist? Post-Pollock? Post-Damien Hirst? Is the reference restricted to the contemporary, something defined by a period of time but little else? Or is it specific strata that are being referred to? Conceptual art? Installation art? Ideas that are designed to challenge the individual on a range of levels?

No, such criticism is blanket. It may use specific, bete-noir examples, but it remains pinioned to our ill-informed, inane notions of categorization. Only a simpleton would perceive modern music, or film, or literature as a single movement worthy of generic comment.

And only a simpleton would fail to see that the key to evaluation is the application of time. Just as irrelevant, sub-standard art from the 1930's or the 1540's has been forgotten, so a plethora of current exhibits will, in future, be worthless curios. It's how a society's cultural heritage is underpinned; creativity - and the evolution of that creativity - are what makes us human, what grants perspective to our surroundings. You're not a simpleton if Exhibit A fails to float your flotilla, but you are a fucking idiot in dismissing that self-expression as in any way invalid.

This isn't to let contemporary art off the hook. As our new friend Bob will tell you (in-between ranting about immigration and picking at his belly button fluff), elements of the modern art world are cringe-worthy in their elitist, self-obsessed, vogue-led buffoonery (and my own, Marxist-slanted analysis will have to wait for another day). Yet, just as art history has the scenesters as a footnote, one day even Bob might stumble upon a sculpture, or triptych, or exhibition that triggers a resonance deep within his cranial vacuum. And who knows - maybe then even Mike might learn to put his trousers on all by himself.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pointless Puppets: A Downward Spiral Of Ethics In Art Today

When was the last time you went to a gallery opening for the art rather than the free booze? I'm sure that for most of you the number doesn't extend beyond three, and that most likely only because a friend of yours was exhibiting. I know that's the case with me at least. Let's face it though, considering the amount of tripe on display these days if you have been excited more than thrice you must have almost no taste.

What happened to art? I went to see the European Masters in Melbourne earlier this year and the sheer amount of skill, dedication and just work that went in to those pieces was staggering. Standing before them you feel dwarfed by talent, and while not every piece was too my liking, almost all of them displayed a sense of craft that is nearly impossible to find in modern art today. The closest I've seen in years are the penny an hour artists working in South East Asia recreating the work of the bygone master of western art.

By contrast I went to a gallery opening the other month, to meet some friends and grab a few free drinks, and what I was confronted with was videos of the faces of three women left on loop, their faces showing subtle signs of inner turmoil. That or they needed to take a shit.

Now I'm sure there is some great concept behind all this, they looked vaguely Aboriginal so it probably had something to do with that, but where is the craft in it. All that is at play there is some 'artist' using the emotions and conflict of others to portray themselves as creative. Maybe the 'artist' directed them to feel that way, but even then it strikes me as nothing more than pretentious wankery with no inherent meaning, playing off the fact that most people today are so easily impressionable that anything put up in a gallery can pass for art, just because some fuckwit says it is.

Another 'art' show that took place recently consisted of nothing more than hot girls dressed up as Indians playing in cubby houses in some pathetic and shallow evocation of childhood. That is not art, that is nothing but the idle fancy of someone who yearns to be creative while lacking any sense of vision or ethics in their work. I read a quote for the artist in question once where he said that it was because of his and his contemporaries lack of education in their field that they were able to be artistic, that because they lack knowledge they have to courage to make art and that if they knew more about art they probably wouldn't do it. This sums up the problem. If ignorance is what makes you creative you really need to be reevaluating your creativity.

We now live in an age where people who want to be creative think they can be creative just by saying that they're creative. This is art that is essentially hubristic, it's arrogant, it says this is art because I say it is and I don't need to know the craft of art to make it. Artists like Damian Hirst and Tracy Emin trade in disposable bullshit that is only considered art because it is sold to those who have no idea what should go into making art, and who are more concerned with the culture surrounding art and the price tags on the work than the art itself.

We've become a culture that seems to elevate consumer choices to the level of art. That because you've got diverse and interesting influences you're an artist. An artist should be able to explain why their art is art, and not just in the throwaway manner a uni student might use shallow terminology in an attempt to give something empty weight. Art after all stems from the term artisan, and it implies the altering of something into something else or the creation of something that expresses an idea, notion or feeling. Any art that is explained as being art for art's sake, or because the artist likes it is naive and lacking depth. An artist should be able to explain why what they've done, how what techniques they've used work to achieve a goal or express an idea. Meeting the question 'why is this art,' with an answer like 'why isn't this art,' shows nothing more than a lack of respect for art and it's craft.

Not to delve into common knowledge but Andy Warhol is responsible for this. His genius was not in his art but in his startlingly accurate and low estimation of the art world. He saw that people were more interested in being associated with art and artistic endeavors rather than truly engaging with art as an artform. We've become a culture of Andy Warhol disciples, made all the more absurd by the fact that he was taking the piss, so in the end the joke is really on us.

Now I'm not saying that all art today should be on the level of Vermeer or Rembrandt, that would be impossible, and simple art doesn't necessarily have any less worth than complex art if it's ideas are well expressed and worthy, but we now live in a society that almost exclusively produces art at the venal end of the spectrum. Art will always reflect culture as much as culture reflects art, and this current monotonous mediocrity only exists because we allow it to.

Where once upon a time those people who appreciated art knew it's mechanics and craft, art has now become something we put on our walls to impress our friends with how chic we are. We have become consumers rather than enthusiasts or collectors, and like most consumers we are swayed by the persona based advertising of the profiteers more often that we resonate with the personal and honest offerings of those who dedicate themselves to their art.

This sort of cult of personality has been around for a long time, I'll admit, but it was usually associated more with their art than with their lifestyle and who they hung out with. Think about it, we don't know shit about who Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci hung out with or who they fucked but we know more about Andy Warhol's circle of friends than we do about his work. This is a trend that extends well beyond art itself and it reflects our increasingly consumer based culture where people want to consume art, rather than understand it and appreciate it. We demand work that doesn't make demands on us. We want portraits of fucking Mickey Mouse dressed up to be vaguely artistic. Apathy has so infected the populace that something shallow resonates more with us than something that explores the depths of our experience and emotions, mainly because people today are unfamiliar with them because we've been conditioned not to be concerned with them.

As I said before art reflects culture as much as culture reflects art, and it seems to me like we're caught in some vicious feedback loop of declining artistic ethics and the proliferation of craftless indulgence rather than valid expression. There is only one solution. Education.

If you are an artist, in any discipline, educate yourself, learn your craft and become the best artist that you can be rather than settling to be just another blind duck sitting calm on a fetid pond while your legs frantically pedal to keep you moving forward. Our society is already too clogged with pointless puppets hungry for fame and not willing to work hard at what they do.