Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Modern Art Running Out of ideas?

An interesting article from The Independent (UK) on the state of modern art.

Is art running out of ideas? Artists forced to explain modern art

From the Tate to Trafalgar Square, new works often seem to come with an explanation for the viewer. Please, says Tom Lubbock, let us make up our own minds

Monday, 14 July 2008

A major change to the urban environment over the last generation is the explosion of running. Once, you could walk down a street and not have people continually rushing by, practically knocking you over, and behaving – what's more – as if they had the right to practically knock you over. Now you can't. To run is an act of virtue. It's almost a sacred rite.

Indoor public spaces, though, are still exempt from the cult of running. If you break into a sprint in a library or a church or an art gallery, somebody will probably try to stop you. So coming across Martin Creed's Work No. 850 at Tate Britain, your first response is, naturally, surprise, with a slight added frisson of danger. You're in a museum. This means a social rule is being broken.

As you may have heard, the Turner Prize-winning artist has arranged for relays of young runners, male and female, to pelt every 30 seconds, one at a time, as fast as possible, from one end of the central Duveen Gallery to the other, while avoiding visitors. Since the stretch is only 87 metres, there's a pause before the next sprinter appears. And, on weekdays, when there aren't many visitors, they have a straight-ish run.

If this was happening on a track or in a park, you probably wouldn't give it much refection. But it's happening in an art gallery, and so – beyond being surprised – it's right to apply some artistic considerations, and see if they're rewarded.

For example, you can pay attention to the work's structure. You can notice that Work No. 850 involves fixed start- and end-points, and fixed time intervals, and maximum speed – but also a variable path between these points (depending on interposing visitors) and variable pauses between each run (depending on individual speeds). And, if you're critically inclined, you can wonder whether this is a satisfying structure. Do the 30-second intervals set up a good rhythm? Would it be improved by slower speeds? Would a marked-out visitor-free path be better? How about just a single runner? Or, even if the arrangement is as good as it can be, does this very minimally shaped experience amount to all that much?

Perhaps you feel that, just by itself, it doesn't. But don't walk away yet. Try another artistic gambit. Go for the big one. Try asking: what does it mean? What's it about? Ah, now we're talking.
So, that's art, eh? If I were trying to view actual art in the gallery, I'd be annoyed. But then I would apparently be missing the meaning (you'll have to read the article to see what this "art" is about).

I'm more interested, as is the author of the article, in what this means about modern art, and this is what he concludes:
What we're up against here are two of contemporary art's guiding imperatives. Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it's about. Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is "about" anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it's concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you're in its grip.

It's weird how people can't resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it's about. And then note how it is isn't really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself.
He concludes the article with a pertinent quote from Susan Sontag:
"Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us."
I'm intrigued by the question of whether or not meaning can come before the work of art. I think this idea dates back to the Dadaists.

As a writer, I can see how many other writers begin with an idea of what they want to say, then create the format and content that conveys that meaning. That isn't how I write, but most other writers find my methods a little weird.

But what about painters? Or musicians? Do those of you who create in these mediums have an idea -- a meaning -- you want to convey when you compose? Or how photographers? I take photos, hoping to find the "art" hidden in something by the way I frame it. But I am not doing so with "meaning" already predetermined.

Going all the way back to Nietzsche, he talked about the Apollonian and Dionysian artists -- one (Apollonian) who shapes the work through intellect and the other (Dionysian) who allows the work to emerge from the unconscious. Of course, he didn't use such terms, and his ideas were much more complex than that, but that serves as a useful shorthand.

Seems to me the Apollonian works from the meaning into the art, while the Dionysian works from the inspiration toward the meaning. Anyone have any thoughts on this topic?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you have it backwards. Traditional Western Apollonian art is where the meaning of a work resides in the work itself. It's just like reading a sentence - it conveys a single meaning that the writer or artist intended. But post-modernism deconstructs meaning, and reverses that linear relationship where meaning proceeds from the art to viewer, and says that meaning is imposed arbitrarily by the viewer(s), so a work of art is really an empty container that people fill with their interpretations. This disconnecting of signified from the signifier destabilizes our conventional sense of meaning, which is how we order our world.

Nietzsche is kind of the proto-postmodernist, so post-modern art is really Dionysian art. The way you are doing art is Apollonian, where you reveal a hidden or unconscious meaning.