Tuesday, May 23, 2006

It's a Meta, Meta, Meta, Meta World

As evidenced by the way blogs dominated the online debate on the recent week-long back-and-forth by art critcs on Arts Journal, Marshall McLuhan certainly earned his fame: every medium is indeed first and foremost about itself it seems. Perhaps more than anything else these days, that can be said about Art as well. Several commenters on the thread about the public's perceptions about the Art World hit on the theme that Art is no longer about real life, that it's all too incentuous, and that that turns off the public. Here are three such comments from wise and thoughtful thinkers:
Todd W:
Maybe a renewed focus on art that is relevent to everyday life would work even better. But, as I've said before, we aren't likely to get much of that since the Art World is so insular, incestuous and inwardly focused. The prevelance of grad-school trained artists is only likely to exacerbate the situation.

Bill Gursky:
Edward you bring up a point that hits hard with me: the "art world" has done nothing to make itself relevant to the rest of the world. I don't think it's entirely untrue to suggest that the influential art world players enjoy a certain degree of elitism. And I think it's a damned shame.

Steve Ruiz:
I'm going to echo a few other commenters here, and say that the reason not many non-art folks like the art work is that, from what I've experiences, a lot of the the art world doesn't like non-art folks. Its been a mark of quality to have "confrontational" or art for quite some time now. Why should anyone expect that after so much confrontation - and I'm talking on all levels from simply aesthetics to core morals - audiences wouldn't start giving art the finger?

OK, so the critique represented by those comments goes beyond Art's message being itself, but that common thread seems to be at the root of the public's antagonism toward Art, so I wanted to explore this a bit: why is so much of today's Art about "Art"?

Part of me believes it's a Warholian thing. If one accepts that we're living in a hyper-specialized world, where everyone is competing in their respective fields against cradle-to-grave-type obsessives, pressuring us to be equally obsessive, is it any wonder everything's so self-referential? If Art is your entire world (and to compete it seems it has to be), what else would consume you but Art?

As I write that though, I recall a brunch I attended with some old friends several years back. One of my dearest friends was describing something to the group and, when he looked over at me, noticed I was distracted. "Oh, that's right...we're not talking about Art any more...you're bored," he said. It stung because it was true. I had allowed myself to become so monomaniacal, I couldn't participate in a basic conversation about something that wasn't Art related. It hadn't always been that way. There was a time when I could discuss film, literature, travel, etc. at length, but I had been working so hard on getting the gallery up and going that I ate, drank, slept and breathed Art during that time. I made a decision later that day to re-enter the world and did.

However, as time has gone by, I look at the obsessives in my business and wonder what I might have accomplished that I haven't had I not spent so much time the past few years delving into politics and other things I totally enjoy, but which don't directly further my agenda. The people I most aspire to be like do indeed eat, drink, sleep and breathe Art.

So, my question: does all this focus rightly reflect itself in Art about Art? Clearly ours is not the only field in which people isolate themselves or become obsessive. If the culture at large consists of people moving toward ever-increasingly specialization, isn't Art about Art merely a product of its time?

Of course, I go back and forth on this as it applies to myself and what I'm trying to accomplish. A few threads back a commenter suggested:
get a job. don't you have artists to represent instead of being a poor man's pundit?

To which I responded:
interesting...a call for the sort of all-consuming specialization that makes people too uninteresting to appreciate, let alone participate in, the promotion of the arts...
And yes, that is the second link back to a previous thread in this post (is there any medium more meta than blogs?). But I believe that, actually: that to be able to understand and appreciate what artists are doing (even Art about Art) requires a breadth of experience and openness, so I'm caught in a loop here.

I know the easy answer is to suggest art should be about human realities, like sex and death, and love and loss, and I agree to a point, but the most consuming reality of my life (currently at least) is this tremendous pressure to work harder and longer and more efficiently and to become a better expert than anyone else in my field, and, among other things, Art about Art reflects that in a way I can recognize. It's also fascinating, but then I'm an obsessive, so....


Blogger Jordan said...


I find this post absolutely fascinating! You ask...

why is so much of today's Art about "Art"?

My answer (I believe is similar to yours) is that today's art is not per se about art but rather about passion, love, hate, desire, etc. It just so happens that the thing that most artists feel passion, love, hate, desire, etc. about is art in general, and the art they make.

A note of sadness though. One of the beauties of art is it's ability to capture humanity both succintly and purely. If a picture can speak a thousand words then art can express volumes about the human experience with an eloquence that speaks to artists and non artists alike. Shared human experiance, love, deciet, fear, triumph....you name it.

If art turns to far inward and only focuses on art...the rest of us lose one of our best descriptive tools and some of our best interpreters of history, humanity, and culture!

5/23/2006 09:27:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

I think art about art is a useless game. But I also think if you can do somethng that's never been done before within the realm of art about art, then you've really done something important. Anytime an artist opens a new line of thought, it's like seeing the Amazon or Mt. Everest for the first time. So while I think it's generally a dead end, the whole point of art is to open up new realms and new ways of seeing things.

About career obsession. Yes you have to do it. The trick is, as you have done, Edward, to have some self-awareness and perspective. Nobody ever got anywhere without passion, but nobody who is entirely narrow can be much of a person.

5/23/2006 09:43:00 AM  
Anonymous onesock said...

Wow, so much in this post has been foremost in my mind the past year or so. I suppose you could say I have been obsessing over it myself.

But the issues of art as self-reference and art's connection with the "real" world are so appropriate to my situation and the type of work I make. I unabashedly say my art is about art. But I also recognize that it comes from a love (like Jordan states above) of art that was always there but began to find expression during graduate school (the most art-immersed time in my life). I feel that the art I make today is much more connected to who I am or my "reality".

Living in Jacksonville offers some real challenges and limitations if you want to show here and connect to "real" people. Basically to accomplish that I would have to paint pretty images of palm trees or golf courses. I am not trying to sound elitist, that is just reality- hey, 5 years from now (if my wife and I are still here)if my teaching gigs dry up and I am faced with how to financially contribute to my family- you may see some rather tropical canvas come from me!

But are those about "reality"? I suppose some guy who is passionate about golf should have a painting of a golf course. Well, MY passion for art is expressed likewise, no? Granted, if I make art out of art magazines (as I have done) that is speaking to a narrow art-nerd mentality. But by using paint rollers and watercolor sets I hope that these things offer something many peeps can relate too. It really is a fine tightrope artist walk. It is the most game-like thing I think artists are involved in- to try to make something that speaks true to yourself , has references or qualities that the experts can chew on while also giving something the non-expert can relate with. Granted, I don’t think most artists including myself are conscious of this game but if we really scrutinize it, it is there in some way.

5/23/2006 09:57:00 AM  
Anonymous William said...


Having created a body of work whose subject is the art world, I completely empathize with your questions. You know how thoroughly I've embraced art about art, but I clearly remember being in undergrad and deciding that I didn't want to create art about the self-referential, insular rules of Modernism. To me stripping everything away from each medium to find the 'essential' quality seemed absurd, and so much work that followed was based on either inverting the rules of modernism with an ironic device or making dense, theory driven critique. While I love the intellectual beauty of the latter, there often wasn't much to look at. After years of trying to infuse my own art with something 'real', I found myself increasingly drawn to the artists, politics, competition, struggle, and hierarchy of the art world I had immersed myself in as a critic and artist. It wasn't so much that I began making art about art, just that I realized that it was a way of life for me. Everything in my life is centered around the practice of art, and I made a decision to pit a version of myself against it, to make my efforts at being an artist part of the art itself. It doesn't preclude making art about other concerns, but certain works have really touched a nerve with people who know the art world, but it goes beyond that. I think the art world is a microcosm of how the world operates; class struggle, gender and racial inequity, injustice, ideological battles, politics, celebrity, gossip, success, failure, upward mobility...So when artists make art about art, it tends to make sense of the world in a managable way. Metaphorical, no?

Anyway, I'll post my own 'cartoon'

5/23/2006 10:23:00 AM  
Anonymous daniel scheffer said...

IN reading your post, I may be off the mark, but it occurred to me that there is a gulf between art and the art world that has been collapsed and we look at both those entities as totally intertwined. Viewing it that way is a choice but other choices are also available, and as a culture,
change happens....but not because we command "change". MOst of the art that is not self-referential is not found in traditional commercial galleries. The gallery/bodega/art product system is rightly touting its "product". These are businesses. This is what they do. For an artist to expect them , at their expense, to cater to his/her world view is a little assumptive. One just has to go back a few years to cavemen painting on the cave walls to understand a level of art that is not referential. And I find that people are still painting on the cave wall/apartment/studio/ city walls. Even graffiti spans the gamut of art to self-referential something or others.

5/23/2006 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

This is a very relevant post and I certainly appreciate the sincerity of it and the thoughtful comments on the subject. I agree with many points commneted on already so I'll just add something to the quote from Bill Gusky.
Without getting into the history/legacy of the Avante Garde and its positioning in contrast to general society, I would like to suggest that education is largely at fault in the divide between art and society - primarily visual art. I seems far to many programs require enormous studio hours at the expense of proper exposure to the humanities/science, etc. Art students seem less exposed to the larger discussion. Comparatively, non-art students are rarely exposed to the creativce fields - little or no indepth art history, which always seems to be unique in its ability to touch on the multiple facets of the human condition and the structures that have defined societies and social norms. Perhaps a studio class and some critical theory could help these students get in on the art conversation, both sides could benefit I think. On the practioner side, I do think artists need to think more about their civic role while immersed in their process and career. This isn't a call for everyone to be an activist, but for more of us to think about what we make and why we want it in the world.

5/23/2006 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

In general, at any particular moment in history, art seems like it gravitates towards the style which is successful or a style which counters the dominant successful style. Like any field artists learn from past examples, writers read great books, painters look at great paintings etc. What I think may be a contributing factor in the Art about Art question is the art education system.

Roughly speaking, prior to 1970, art schools (departments) primarily taught technique, how to make something and of course this relied on historical examples. What occurred in the 70's was that the idea that art could be a "career" began to emerge, prior to that it was viewed more as a "calling", an avocation.

I think part of the reason for this change in perspective was caused by the boom in the art market in the mid to late 60's, the number of galleries expanded. POP art plugged into popular culture. The number of opportunities for artists to exhibit (galleries) expanded along with the media (this period saw the birth of Artforum.) This was a clear change in attitude and of course the educational system adapted to the idea.

Over time the MFA mills became more important for young artists. The MFA is now viewed somewhat like the MBA is in business, something that one has as a pedigree, you know the ropes, how to present the work, slides or CD's, resumes, statements. Almost none of this was discussed prior to the 70's.

So in this type of "professional" environment, it is not surprising to see fledgling artists look at Art as Art, that's how you learn to develop your product to fit into the marketplace. For a young artist, it is also normal, look at Picasso's early work, right in there with Toulous Lautrec and the others. The trick is making the breakaway, finding the personal voice which sets ones work apart and I suspect the marketplace may confuse the issue. In good economic times, the marketplace needs product and if it looks like whatever the current style is, all the better. The Art about Art loop may be a result of over analysis, a focus on theory and ideas, practices which lend themselves to adoption in an academic environment.

Per se, I don't think there is anything wrong about Art about Art as a position, nor the application of critical analysis. However, neither approach, nor the idea that art is "about" something, as in "art should be about human realities" as a concept or position will ensure the creation of great art. In a given marketplace, it may be successful art, but great art creates an experience for the viewer through a process which cannot be reduced to a formula.

5/23/2006 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger carla said...

The work on your site strikes me as being an aesthetic experience. Strongly so, as in 'feel it in the gut and taste it in the mouth'.

I have have mixed and conflicting thoughts about overly self-referencial art, but it seems to become irrelevant when you have something aesthetically great happening. I'm not saying art must have an interesting aesthetic emphasis, but that when it does, it is self-validating.

5/23/2006 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...


Don't you think that part of the problem is that art sales require a certain elite status? The difference between a $800 painting and a $20,000 painting is not always based on quality - it's part of the star system that is rampant in capitalism. The easiest way to be elite is to speak a specialized language that only a small subset of the population has the leisure to know intimately.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't see art-for-art's-sake as coming just from artists. It is built into the system.

Look how the galleries which used to be in SoHo moved to Chelsea. It wasn't just rent increases - it was partially an escape from the looky-loos who mocked the work.

I don't mind art about art or the obsession with very young artists - it's the lack of balance which bothers me.

5/23/2006 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

ml: art sales require a certain elite status ... The easiest way to be elite is to speak a specialized language that only a small subset of the population has the leisure to know intimately.

OUCH! Nail meet head. Damn, ml, you rule. Not the whole story, but point taken.

E: perhaps a bit of "sour grapes" response toward expensive artwork, no? (from comment that disappeared?)

Of course there is, but I don't think that it fully explains the motivation behind ML's comment. The fact is, the U.S. art biz is pure, unregulated capitalism -- a capitalism where cultural (and perhaps intellectual) elitism conveniently creates a unique and unprecedented scarcity of luxury goods, with the division between art as culture and art as business becoming virtually non-existent. Isn't this one of the major reasons why painting was vilified by pre-80's conceptualist lefties?

Much "art about art" can be explained by an increase in art academicism (as George implies), but it's worth considering whether the economic force of capitalist-businessman-as-arbiters-of-art-culture has perhaps had a more powerful impact in shaping art history than the art-makers themselves. I'm sure the answer is somewhere in the middle, but I don't see why it would be in the interest of 'art as culture' to purposefully withdraw into an increasingly removed, self-referential system.

5/23/2006 12:12:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

The easiest way to be elite is to speak a specialized language...

I agree w/ ML on this. If too many members of the "non-art" world start liking something, the art world will find another place to play.

Of course, some amount of self-referencial dialog has always been part of the game, not only in the visual arts but also in music, literature, and film. And to a certain extent that keeps things interesting. But I think the perceived antagonism of the general public to the art world is something the art world values.

5/23/2006 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

from comment that disappeared?

Yeah, sorry about that...decided not to derail this thread with class issues until we had a chance to look at art about art a bit more on its own, but since you saw it before that dawned on me, I guess it's out there.

I think David's point is worth further analysis as well. So much of Art has seemingly always been about Art (so much more so if you consider the "Bible" stories as art too), at least since the Renaissance. What we're seeing now, though, is perhaps the sort of nanospecialization that only makes it feel more so.

5/23/2006 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Murg and Urg are standing in front of the cave wall Urg has just finished painting:

Urg: My picture memorializes our great hunt, brother Murg, See, there you are throwing the spear at the buffalo . . . that stain is the buffalo.

Murg: Yes, yes, but I just love the way you've used the shape of the rock to make the buffalo's back, and I can see the curve of your hand in the arc of the spear.

to quote the great songwriter Peter Blegvad: Youth is wasted on the young, who else would it be wasted on?

Art is about art whether we want it to be or not.

5/23/2006 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous eva said...

The post and all of the replies are fascinating. Art about art started long ago but we're now in a corner so small, it's claustrophobic. I always fought it.

.... Problem was, though, I wasn't getting anywhere as an artist until I dug my heels in.

There's got to be a way to be with all of man and womankind and be an artist too, but it's a tough act.

5/23/2006 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger DilettanteVentures said...

ML and High Low have it right.

The fuel of the "high" art world is money and protecting/promoting financial interests plays a pivotal role in who/what gets shown and where.

It is a sad fact of art education that artists learn so little about anything other than art. We have long advocated that students get undergrad degrees in something other than art - philosophy, history, sociology, etc. Imagine how much more imaginative and INFORMED work would be if artists actually had an education that gave them a perspective!

5/23/2006 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Mike @ MAO said...

Art about Art, and Art Blogs, about Art Blogs! Why Not!

I think it's normal, self criticism is healthy, not a problem. Hmmm... but maybe I'm a bit bias.

Every sub group in society has their own obsessions.. My college roommate paints his entire body Green and White to go to a Jets Game! Well... So much for an Ivy League education!

5/23/2006 12:53:00 PM  
Anonymous daniel scheffer said...

Eva said:
.... Problem was, though, I wasn't getting anywhere as an artist until I dug my heels in.
I think there is such an irrestible urge in general not to miss the boat. BUt in that process....inadvertently....one then misses the boat.
Then ONE DIGS ONE'S HEELS IN and starts to work. I think about this as an apprenticeship until one realizes that one is no longer an apprentice.
About the two cavemen...the earlier conversation ...which I love....went like this....
Hey Urg....what's that???
Murg say: MUrg...rgggg rrgggg. That was suffuicient then and when art is good, that same prophetic comment is sufficient and appropriate now.

5/23/2006 01:26:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Imagine how much more imaginative and INFORMED work would be if artists actually had an education that gave them a perspective!

I agree up to a point, but really an art degree doesn't prevent a person from reading and learning about other things. Many of the the artists I know have diverse interests and areas of knowledge.

I think that the art-about-art syndrome says more about galleries, curators and critics than it does about artists. There's plenty of art out there about things other than art. It just gets filtered out. It's like when people listen to the radio and complain that music isn't as interesting and diverse as it used to be. The problem isn't the musicians, it's the radio programming.

5/23/2006 01:28:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Why is it that Mathematics is always about numbers? Isn't that terribly self-indulgent?

By the way, where is this huge angry crowd that hates contemporary art, I was at the Rauschenburg opening on Saturday night (the more man's version) and for a while it was like a conga line to get through the show.

You don't need to please EVERYONE

5/23/2006 01:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

That was supposed to be " poor man's version "

5/23/2006 01:47:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Tim, the "more man's version" is at a museum in Utah. :-)

5/23/2006 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger serena said...

Everyone's comments above are so well-thought-through and accurate that it would be insufferable of me to re-state them in my own words. Please take the fact that I agree with you as a given.

I'd like to comment on the fact that the 'nanospecialization' and 'obsession' described so eloquently above are, by definition, unhealthy states of mind. 'Obsession,' in particular, is a symptom about which an average person might eventually consult a psychiatrist. Why, then, is the Art World so heavily invested in lauding and promoting an unhealthy lack of balance?

You hear it in everyday conversation at art openings--people trying to establish their Real Artist credentials by declaring, in the first thirty seconds of conversation, what they're Obsessed with. Usually it's something impossibly trivial, like pink, or vaseline. Usually also they're not genuinely obsessed, or they wouldn't be at the opening at all--they'd be in a basement, rubbing pink vaseline all over their bodies and breathing heavily.

Real art can have depth and value and still be a balanced, healing force in the world. And this is certainly not to say that passionate, focused, intense interest is not crucial to the creating of real art.

But this commercial Obsession with Obsession has the result, I believe, of separating art ever more dramatically from people with an instinct toward health, and as such, art needs to acknowlege its excesses or be deservedly marginalized.

5/23/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Steve Ruiz said...

To be honest, this is a hard topic to respond to in under 10,000 words; I've been knocking this around in my head and contemplating it in essays for a few years, I think. To be as brief as possible: the problem comes solely from the artists, and the process and intent involved with their contemporary art making. I should add that I include myself in that statement, and am doing the best I can with my own art to be able not to. Also, as I finish uploading everything to my new website, there should be some essays there related to these issues.

The Urg and Murg story Tim posted illustrates part of the problem, at least, through his misinterpretation of what's happening in his own parable (sorry Tim). Urg created something he believed was beautiful and significant, but he did it objectively. Murg responded to it subjectively, as is inherent to the viewer/art relationship. If this were a contemporary scene, Urg would have presupposed that his art would be subjectively contemplated, and thus would have created it with the bizarre objective subjectivity so prevalent today: a painting isn't about what it is, so much as it is about what concepts can be abstracted or extrapolated from it.

That's a big statement, and its a hard idea to communicate, so I'll put it another way. Art-students are raised in an environment where they look at a piece of art, and then learn the story behind it. What do those apples symbolize, what was the painter saying about women, etc - we basically listen as a professor reads to us the text between the lines, so to speak. In this manner, we learn that a painting does not exist on its own content, but rather the content that can be said or written about it. Following this acceptable mechanism of art (made more appealing by the fact that some of the famous paintings rather sucked, but had a great excuse) and returning to our studios, artists set about making art that can be appreciated and interpreted through this mechanism of art appreciation.

The big (BIG) problem, of course, is that the artists who made the art that is being appreciated through that mechanism were, almost invariably, never making their art with that in mind. They were operating on a different mechanism of appreciation - the mechanism that Everyone Else (as opposed to the Art World) uses. When there's no artist's statement explaining why there are 50 chairs piled in a gallery corner, when there's no one to read between the lines to us and for an audience, and especially when that audience is unfamiliar with the mechanism of appreciation that we're operating in, people end up saying those famous words, "I don't get it."

And when almost everyone in the Art World is doing this, Everyone Else says the new famous words, "I don't care." And when Everyone Else stops paying attention, and the only people still in the room are from the Art World, then of course the art that is produced is catered to the crowd and (I hate to sound apocalyptic) the gulf widens.

As for the artists who make the "almost" necessary in that last paragraph: if you go to art fairs and see pretty pictures of flowers, or look at a Kinkade painting, what you are seeing are their (usually) terrible examples of the kind of art that is going to save the Art World. Paintings that are painted with the same cognitive approach that all (legitimate and canonical) great paintings were done in, infused with the intellect and ability that our side of the chasm possesses, basically turning up all the knobs on art-by-the-beach style paintings without losing the accessibility.

Which is, more or less, what its always been about. I hope that was under 10,000.

5/23/2006 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Steve, I think you might have the wrong take on the Urg and Murg story, there was no "Art" then, it was ritual or magic.

You might want to read this excerpt from Ellen Dissanayake's book "Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why", she makes an interesting case about this. It is available as a PDF here

Here are the Amazon search results for her three recent works on why we make art.

5/23/2006 02:37:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

infused with the intellect and ability that our side of the chasm possesses, basically turning up all the knobs on art-by-the-beach style paintings without losing the accessibility

Say wha? PLease illustrate this a bit further?

5/23/2006 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger serena said...

Steve, I have to admit that my hackles rose when you started blaming artists, and only artists, for the state of the art world today, but by the end I was converted to a fan. Your description of the process by which educated art students arrive at piles of chairs stacked in galleries is masterful.

However, I would extend the blame to include art professors, dealers, curators, and critics in the Hegemony of Shame.

5/23/2006 02:42:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The artist make the art, if it's "no good" by some definition, it is a problem for the artist, his or her responsibility. It doesn't matter who his/her teachers were or the fact it somehow entered the Artworld. Although we could possibly fault their decisions, in the end it's the artist who makes the artwork.

The fact that 50 "stacked chairs" elicits the "I don't get it" response, with or without an explanation, doesn't say anything about the quality of the art. For viewers with no "eye" a Kinkade may look great, that doesn't make it a good painting. There are no rules, no formulas for making great art, it's about the experience of the viewer. The viewer also has a responsibility to achieve some experience as a viewer. Not everyone can "read" a blueprint, or even a roadmap, it takes a bit of education.

5/23/2006 02:56:00 PM  
Anonymous daniel scheffer said...

George said...
Steve, I think you might have the wrong take on the Urg and Murg story, there was no "Art" then, it was ritual or magic.

Perhaps the art has so much more to do with magic than we dare admit. And perhaps all the dialogue that follows becomes the churchlike canon and dogma that follows and explains and is detached from the art it is talking about. For me, I decided to deal with the magic, irrelevant whether I do it well or not. For others then , a dialogue begins.

5/23/2006 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger DilettanteVentures said...

George -

"Education" isn't neutral. The notion of great art is CREATED by education NOT revealed by it.

Tim -

Mathematics is rarely about numbers, you must be thinking of arithmetic. The comparison isn't valid anyway - of course there are plenty of specialized fields of knowledge, but most don't have the public mandate that art does - (nearly every large to mid-size city has an art museum or a section of the newspaper dedicated to the arts, the same can't be said of physics or math). If we want to say screw the public, fine, but let's at least say it openly and not try to point to other fields as an excuse.

5/23/2006 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger carla said...

steve said-

"if you go to art fairs and see pretty pictures of flowers, or look at a Kinkade painting, what you are seeing are their (usually) terrible examples of the kind of art that is going to save the Art World."

No, what you are seeing is art which is symbolic of experience. The viewer knows they like this sort of work, because it reinforces a preconception of who they are as a person. It ceases to be any sort of actual real-time experience. The same thing can happen to art in the most cutting-edge realm.

Art about art tends to be about the search for novelty. When novelty is used well, it works to remind the viewer and the artist of real experience. When it's used as a personal identifier, it's the same sort of codified expression ass a Kincade.

5/23/2006 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger carla said...

as a Kincade.

5/23/2006 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"Art about art tends to be about the search for novelty."

or the search for an identity.

5/23/2006 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Hey, who's screwing whom. Like I said. There is no angry mob at the museum door. Quite the contrary.

The point of the Urg and Murg story is that as soon as there is something to 'look' at, one begins to judge it on formal grounds. It is ineveitable. Art is, in fact, that area of human endeavor dedicated to this principle.

Of course there is that huge mystery at the center of all of it when everything clicks and you learn something new about the world, people , yourself, but I submit that this is an essentially formal experience and a recognition of all the parts working together, a formal principle.

Comedy works the same way, sorry, but its true

5/23/2006 03:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Steve Ruiz said...

George, while that PDF prints (looks promising, by the way, and thanks), let me respond to your last comment:

The issue here is the marginalization of contemporary fine art world due to its apparent obsession with itself. Though viewer ignorance is a legitimate factor, I feel that the problem these days is less on the viewer's end and more on the artist; the artist's expectation of how "informed" their audience needs to be (to understand or appreciate a piece of their art) is so high that the only people who can appreciate them are fellow citizens of the Art World. Everyone else is disregarded because, in order to do the kind of artwork that an artist might want to do, they have to be.

Furthermore, and I am hesitant to say this, but I do actually believe that there are some rules (more of guidelines) for making art, though the goal is always of course to improve the experience of the viewer according to how you want or intend it to be.

For example, the 50 stacked chairs scenario (for some reason I always use the chairs for the hypothetical "out-there" conceptual artwork role) might actually have a strong and powerful message, might really be a solid and important piece of artwork, but in order to appreciate that a viewer would have to sooner or later forget that he's looking at 50 chairs, and also decide that contemplating 50 chairs is a worthy investment of his time. Now for us art-folk, that seems like a no-brainer, but have you ever had to convince a non-art friend that not only is it sane and rational to stare at a bunch of chairs (or whatever) in order to extrapolate a deep human truth from them, but that you're not insane?

Now the same could be said for painting (i.e. "You expect me to just look at all this colored pigment distributed via an oil-based medium onto linen stretched over a wooden frame?") or sculpture or any of the other more traditional artforms too; but, whether because of the illusionistic qualities of traditional work or just society's common acceptance of those forms as "Art" and therefore worth looking at, its much easier to get by the materials and into the meaning.

In any case, I've considered it a charge to the contemporary generation of artists to figure out how to make art more accessible and public without dumbing it down. Its a worthy cause and, hey, there's nothing else left to do. :)

5/23/2006 03:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this great quote from Leo Steinberg's seminal work "Other Criteria" is relevant to the topic at hand:

"All important art at least since the Trecento, is preoccupied with self-criticism. Whatever else it may be about, all art is about art. All original art searches its limits, and the difference between the old and the modernist is not in the fact of self-definition but in the direction which this self-definition takes. This direction being part of the content."

Eric Gelber

5/23/2006 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

What do these words mean?


5/23/2006 03:58:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I was in a public art competition, judged by a jury of art and non-art people.

The piece that won was a stack of fifty chairs

Why did it win?

Because it was funny!

5/23/2006 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

L.S. sez: "Whatever else it may be about, all art is about art ... This direction being part of the content."

Steinberg is right. Even the shittiest paintings are about painting -- there's a built-in subject matter that's inescapable. But notice that he also said, "whatever else it may be about" and "part of the content." Only an academic graduate student would self-consciously take up the practice of painting just to make paintings soley about making paintings.

Of course, if the artwork somehow manages to brilliantly transcend this goal, all is forgiven.

Insider references are a coded way of demonstrating membership to an elite social club (among other things). But, I doubt many artists actually take such a cynical approach to artmaking (outside of John Currin, maybe; I can almost see the smirk on his face right now, as he adds another Bronzino hand, calculating the number of words it will spawn). Or, I could be wrong.

5/23/2006 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Tim, basically I agree with your comment. My take on the Urg and Murg story is that we may look at it based on "formal grounds" but Urg and Murg probably didn't, or at least had a very different set of "formal grounds", like "did we kill the bison?" "Ug" good or bad depending on the results.

When we view the cave paintings, or another historical painter like Fra Angelico, we come to the works with a different cultural condition. The Fra Angelico show at the Met was crowded with visitors, many artists, and was favorably received even though most viewers probably don't have a clue to the more historical, cultural or religious references in the paintings. They were responding to the excellence of the work itself, in essence its formal achievements.

In retrospect, these formal achievements are a part of what makes for excellence in an artwork, yet I do not think that they can be codified in such a way that would guarantee great art, otherwise we wouldn't see a lot of inferior works in the galleries. While I might be persuaded by Steve's notion that there are some guidelines for making good art, I don't believe there are any rules, I think "rules" are governed by taste and if you proclaim one as inviolate, someone will come along and prove you wrong. The 50 stacked chairs being "funny" could be a case in point.

On a more personal basis, I believe we all have some "rules" which we use to guide us. However, two different artists, or the same artist at different points in his/her life, will have different "rules" they use as a guide and may vehemently disagree about how well something works. Ultimately this may be just a matter of taste.

As far as art being about art, it may be a question of context. As an artist, when you make an artwork, it enters a cultural context where it is situated with other artworks. It becomes a part of the cultural dialog about art. Where this can become problematic is when the cultural context is limited, either by quality (say all student works) or by time (just what's hot today)

5/23/2006 04:33:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

All important art at least since the Trecento, is preoccupied with self-criticism. Whatever else it may be about, all art is about art

Anon, the Steinberg quote is interesting. But I think it's also worth pointing out that the audience for all that Trecento art was not limited to a tiny group of art-insiders. Sure, there were things being explored by the artists and theoreticians that the average viewer was unaware of. Especially in the next century, w/ Alberti, etc., but I doubt the average viewer back then just looked at those paintings and sculptures and shrugged in bewilderment. Seems to me that phenomenon started in maybe the late 19th century, and has become more and more the norm since then. (I notice since I started writing this that Art Soldier has also weighed in on the same subject, above - he's a faster writer than I am).

ass a Kincade
Carla, there's often a level of truth in typos :)

5/23/2006 04:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Heather Lowe said...

The question is: Does art surpass "art?"

Yes, it does.
But only in a great work of art.
That is, and I am sure many of you artists know this, when you do something GREAT, you may as well have hit a home run, or climbed Mount Everest, or cured a disease. It is that powerful and transcends academia. Even Duchamp knew this through his ingenius invention
of thought. Virginia Woolf remarked upon this in her lecture, A Room of One's Own.
So of course all of life holds great interest to one who is involved---immersed in art.

5/23/2006 10:29:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock markie said...

At this late hour, I just wnna pipe in and say what insightful comments to be found here.
Also after giving it some thought and perusing my favorite list of artist and gallery sites I have to say that very little of it is ABOUT art- it my reference it a little from time to time, but ,as Heather points out above, the goal of most artists is to make something that transcends itself.

Another point I want to make is that the definition of the "avant-garde" artist, in a Baudelairian and Peter Bergian sense, is one who attempts to break down the barriers between art and life. The institutional critque artists and pop artists of the 60s and 70s were also centered around this idea, the irony being that (except for the pop artists) they are blamed for the elitism that apparently alienates the masses.

Anyway ,my point is the failure of the avant-garde (as pointed out by Berger) in disolving the art-life barrier is in spite of the trying and testing of those barriers by generations of artists ( so no go blamin no artists here:) Certainly the discursive arena of Art has been shaped and molded by commercial and acedemic institutions, but what a vast flexible frame that is, perhaps the MOST flexible.

Anyway, Ed, I dont know why but I would like to see a discussion of "boringness" in art. In thinking about the interests of artists and veiwers/sellers/buyers, etc. I was wondering where intellectual boredom comes into play. Is art fatigue a factor?, visual overload?, too much education? not enough? Does anyone else think about boring vs non boring art? "Boring" seems ever present in most experts minds but never really expressed ( at least not bluntly)It is a subjective thing but it must be a symptom of some factors and experiences and backgrounds. Isnt the basic goal of an artist to not make something boring? I guess this question popped into my mind when I asked myself what are the determining factors in shaping my favorites list of artists. The word "boring" (the avoidance of)came to mind. Or maybe such a disussion would be ...boring?

5/24/2006 12:06:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I think this is ultimately a conversation about generosity, especially now that Onesock has called for a boring art conversation.

Everybody has already said what I would say, but I would like a crack at the "art is always about art" argument. It is true, and is a knife that cuts both ways--toward and away from a generous relationship with the viewer.

Matthew Barney just had a great show at Gladstone that contrasts his truly horrid movie because it is "about art". The sculpture was about sculpture--a meditation on how things are made, explosion management, the coaxing of material...

...in other words, he may have been driven by really narcissistic thoughts about his love for Bjork, but he pushed all that selfish thought through a theory (sculpture) that made it relevant to folks in general. DR9 failed because it was not "about art". It was about Barney and Bjork, and so collapsed into goofy-sandalled star-vehicle tedium.

On the other hand, Gedi Sibony is making quite ungenerous work about sculpture. Referencing the Smithson show at the whi-bi was a feat of instant insider nostalgia. It was a lame move because it signified nothing outside the Whitney walls at all, and for that matter was impossible to even see without explanation.

This winds up pandering to the inside-track, and fits nicely with the rest of Sibony's M.O. I often like what he does visually, and I like that his work is often close to invisible. But I don't think he has to be so ungenerous to his viewers.

Robert Irwin's nearly- invisible, obsessively formal work strikes me as much more generous. It is after a shared experience, and Irwin positions himself as a caretaker of that experience. Sibony's position is more like gatekeeper, either because he's narrowly focused or because he's quite clever, and that leaves a bad taste.

Maxim learned from teaching art appreciation to non-majors:

If you can't figure out a way to explain a work so that it doesn't sound like a shitty inside joke... it's probably just a shitty inside joke.

5/24/2006 07:27:00 AM  
Blogger brent hallard said...

I hate to use my name to this but..

The base is:
A) The thing we call bed which we return to when we're all tied out!
B) reconnoissance

5/24/2006 09:14:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Yes, there is a lot of work these days that makes very self-conscious overt references to other artist's work. This is a sad trend and the result, in my opinion, of turning what works once into a hard rule. I have heard artist lectures that were nothing more than a list of references, I look for the irony, but it isn' there. What is learned in school becomes the standard by which things are judged. It is a false economy, that creates value from thin air.

But what is wrong with all this work is that it fails to recognize that there are real laws in art, like physical laws, and if you don't attend to those laws you will fail, your structure will collapse, be it physical, visual or conceptual.

One of these laws goes something like: art is about wielding personal power, the audience is looking for virtuosity here first. The biggest thrill comes from the virtuoso display of power.

A corollary of this is: insecurity is ugly.

The self-conscious reference to other artists and art history almost always comes off as insecurity.

It comes down to finesse, it always comes down to finesse. What that means is what we are looking for in art is the skillful handling of the task at hand, not the content, not the intention, not the politics. Those things are just the medium by which this virtuosity is displayed. The introduction of the term 'conceptual art' signaled that the arena had shifted but the basic interest remained the same. Virtuosity, chops.

It's about it

5/24/2006 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim, you should give some examples of this insecure art. I don't know you are talking about.

5/24/2006 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

insecurity is ugly

Woody Allen and Charlie Kaufmann might disagree, but then they are virtuosos of insecurity :)

5/24/2006 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

"Woody Allen and Charlie Kaufmann might disagree, but then they are virtuosos of insecurity :)"

That is my point. Of course they are both very good at what they do

5/24/2006 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I know this is long winded but I did a lot of thinking about elitism and this is what I came up with. I posted on my own blog titled
Why I left art long ago:

As a young medical student, the bane of your existence is the opthalmascope. The opthalmascope is a small, expensive tool, that uses light and lenses to help physicians visualize the inner eye. In the experienced hand, this tool allows us to identify the optic nerve, the blood vessels in the eye, and other countless structures.I was introduced to the opthalmascope as a first year medical student.The first thing a new user realizes is that while using this tool, you get undeniably close to your subject. By the time you have honed in on the patient’s eye you are almost kissing them. After you get over this realization, the next thing you learn is that it is an incredibley hard skill to learn.

Throughout the first few years of medical school I spent and inordinate amount of time trying to learn the opthalmascope. I would force my wife, family memebers, and other medical students to sit patiently for what must have seemed like hours while I nearly blinded them.

As time went on my frustration grew. Although I knew what I was supposed to see for each disease state I just couldn’t get it. Either I couldn’t locate the optic nerve, or I couldn’t see the vessels, or I just wouldn’t see anything for that matter! In the beginning, my fellow students seemed to have the same problem…they werent seeing anything either. But as time went on something started to change. All of the sudden my peers were getting it too. They and my instructors would examine the patient and agree on everything. “there were the vessels….and there is the AV nicking that goes with high blood pressure” and on and on.

I could feel my level of panic rising. Wasn’t I just as good as my fellow students? Wasn’t I just as smart? After all I considered myself an intellectual….why couldn’t I grasp this? I started to doubt my ability to become a doctor. If I couldn’t grasp this skill what else wouldn’t I be able to do! This cut to the core of who I was. Although it sounds silly…I really started to question all that I held as certain. if I was not good enough to be a doctor (which I assumed since I was a child) then who was I?

After years of not getting it I finally built up the courage to really ask my peers about their experiences. I, ofcourse, softened them up with a little alcahol first. What they said shocked me! They never really got it either! In fact, they had taken the habit of pretending they understood to avoid embarrassment. All those conversations at the bedside with instructors were made up. You see…they often new what they were supposed to see. They said a few keywords, embellished a little, and for all intents and purposes became experts! And there it was…

I was embarrased, and hurt, and most of all confused. Were all medical students bluffing their way through understanding this? But then I realized. I had shadowed a number of practicing physicians over the years and not a single one of them had ever used their opthalmascope. My God…….none of them got it!

So one day, the battery ran out on my opthalmascope and I packed it away for good. I learned to practice without out it. I learned to improvise with other pieces of information to get the job done well.

The truth of the matter is, over time, I have realized that there are people who use the opthalmascope for its given purpose. They are called opthalmologists and spend years in the sole pursuit of studying the eye. They do this most of the day, every day, throughout their career. They even occasionally dilate they eye to get a better look.

While I will never be as good as an opthalmologist I can definitely learn something from them. If I keep at it…..put in my time (years)….and not give up when the going gets tough, I can be a better person and a better doctor.

I have begun using the opthalmascope again and I am starting to see a little more clearly

And so it is with art……..

5/25/2006 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Whoops.....wrong post...I apologize!

5/25/2006 11:24:00 AM  

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