Friday, January 26, 2007

Losing My Assumptions

We've been debating something in the gallery, our talented Associate Director, Max-Carlos Martinez---who just so happens to have a retrospective of his work up at the Tweed Museum of Art in Duluth, Minnesota, at the moment (Go see it, if you're in the area!)---and I. Being the stubborn loggerhead I am, I can't get myself unstuck from an assumption about the importance of intent in art. Especially intent with regard to communicating.

Taken to its logical extremes in our debate, however, this assumption has led me to conclude that the work of Henry Darger, for example, is not "Art" because (or so it's been reported) he had no intention of ever showing it to anyone, meaning it was not created with the intent of communicating anything with anyone, and that then made it something other than "Art."

Now I can look at Darger's work and feel my jaw involuntarily drop. I can marvel at the vision. I can delight at the composition and especially the color. But because I know (or think I know) these works were the result of a masturbatory effort, they don't meet my own definition of fine art, which goes beyond just intent to communicate to include what bnon called, in the thread on child prodigies yesterday, the act of "submerging [one]self in art history as well as surveying the contemporary field and carving out a niche."

I can hear your gasps and "hmpffs" from here...stay with me though.

Roberta Smith opens
her review of "outsider" artist Martín Ramírez's exhibition in The New York Times today with a rather bold declaration:

The American Folk Art Museum’s transporting exhibition of the scroll-like drawings of the Mexican artist Martín Ramírez (1895-1963) should render null and void the insider-outsider distinction. [...] Whatever ideas about art you hold dear, expect them to be healthily destabilized here.
On the heels of my debate with Max, I took this challenge personally when reading the paper today (see note above re: stubborn loggerhead). Immediately I wanted to draw a distinction. If Ramírez hadn't intended to communicate (given he made this work in a mental institution, it's difficult to say whether he did so in the fine art tradition sense) and if he hadn't submerged himself in art history (again, considering his biography, that doesn't seem probable), then he doesn't meet the central assumption I've used to define fine art, my reasoning went.

But then I looked at the images: Holy-freakin-moley, was he something. Where his gift came from is obviously irrelevant. The proof is there...he was a genius. But I'm still not ready to drop my assertion about communication.

Andrew Sullivan linked to this amazing video yesterday, in which A.M. Baggs, a brilliantly insightful thinker who happens to have autism [UPDATE: see this differing opinion here], demonstrated and then translated her own private language and discussed its relevance to notions of personhood. Like the Jonathen Lethem article in Harpers I read earlier this week, this video has radically altered how I'm looking at the world lately:

Combining the quote Lethem uses to open his Harper's Article:

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated....
---John Donne

with this real eye-opening statement in Bagg's video essay:

Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as "being in a world of my own" whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am "opening up to true interaction with the world."
I started to wonder whether or not artists who limit their exploration to submerging themseselves in art history as well as surveying the contemporary field and carving out a niche aren't missing a big chunk of the world. It did eventually dawn on me that the two are not mutually exclusive...that artists can do both (submerge themselves in art history via a process that opens up their senses to this wider world that Baggs and Donne argue is out there), but thinking of the world (as seen by mankind) as having one author and of revealing itself through all the senses if one is simply open to it goes a long way toward explaining how certain artists, living in mental institutions or keeping to themselves in their garrets, can still perceive enough to make our jaws drop without having to study the art history that the rest of us use as a sort of cultural Cliff Notes to "get it."

That's enough of my rambling for now (this has made my head hurt)...your turn.

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Blogger Deanna said...

To me, art is expression, whether it is intended for display or not. I think of Charlotte Salomon and Emily Dickinson, for example. Is their art any less meaningful if it was created only for themselves?

1/26/2007 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

But "expressions" implies an audience, no? Almost all definitions list "communication" as a synonym of "expression."

1/26/2007 10:05:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Congrads Max

1/26/2007 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

We tend to narrowly define the creative process way too much. Just think Darger didn't owe Yale $100,000 and look how well recieved his work has become. There were issues regarding his privacy, as to wether his work could be shown outside the hospital. Unfortunately many works from "outsider" artists were distroyed by hospital staff, not realizing the true value of the work. Check out the outsider art fair at the Puck Building this weekend and The American Visionary Museum, in Baltimore.
Excuse my spelling today, and everyday, GO MAX!

1/26/2007 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Deanna said...

I'm not sure if I agree that expression implies an audience. If I write poems and do sketches in my journal or diary, never intending to show them to anyone, are they not art? I may not intend them to be art, but what if someone finds them after I die and decides that they're genius? OK, now my head hurts...

1/26/2007 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If I convolute my thinking on this, I can just about reach a point where I consider "expression" possible without an audience---although I consider "God" to be a constant audience, so that perhaps chips away at that argument---but since there are things I have done that I don't necessarily want to think even God might have noticed (we'll leave what exactly to your collectively vivid imaginations), I guess I can still see certain acts of expression as intended for no other viewer...maybe...unless we consider the author a de facto viewer, in which case, we're back at square one...

I do believe there are different choices made when the intent is to submit the work to an audience, and that those choices, and how well they succeed, are part of the critique of "art" that if something is made with no intent that it be seen, any subsequent viewing (with its absence of evidence of such choices) feels creepily voyeuristic to me.

1/26/2007 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane said...

This is something I have been thinking a lot about because I find that lately I am much more drawn to the work of some (not all) "outsider" artists than to the work of 'insider" artists. I can't reconcile the intent thing either, but some of the work I've seen (starting with a show at the Hammer in LA a while back of selections from the Prinzhorn collection was so amazing, so revelatory (and so much more powerful than anything I've seen in Chelsea) that it makes me question the intent criteria. Another show at the Hammer (cooincidently or not, maybe there are/were some curators there really able to hook into this intuitive scene) was on Shaker "artwork", not conceived of as art by the Shaker community, but considered messages from god, translated by individuals into visual/text form. Also pretty amazing.

I saw these two shows more than five years ago, but remember them vivdly and still go back to the catalogues and am inspired by them .

And I have to say that the "intent" of many young contemporary artists doesn't do much for me. Calling something art may make it art (a la Duchamp), but it doesn't necessarily make it good or interesting art.

By the way, since outsider art is so in now, my experience at the Outsider Art Fair in the last couple of years has been that's it mostly, with a few exceptions, schlocky stuff just trying to jump on the bandwagon. The folk art museum (where the Ramirez show is, which I haven't seen yet) is a good venue.

1/26/2007 11:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane said...

ps By the way, the Prinzhorn collection is artwork made by patients in various European mental hospitals about a hundred years ago. There are a few well illustrated books out on it. One is "Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis, works from the Prinzhorn collection", several authors.

1/26/2007 11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous bnon said...

Dep. of Clarification: I think what I described yesterday could be the definition of a recent art school grad ("submerging [one]self in art history as well as surveying the contemporary field and carving out a niche"). I intended this to make a major distinction between art done by a child that looks like art and art done intentionally to look that way. But I also believe that a good artist needs all this intelligence and context—but only as a starting point. It would be utterly empty if this were all it took. Artists need craft and technique too, but the most important thing is to have something to say.

This is what you are talking about, Ed, I think: a person reacting with mind and feelings to his or her place in the world. What enables these things to emerge as expression that other people can have a chance of understanding are the things listed above: knowing art history, craft, the contemporary field et al. But more important is a person’s apparatus for interpreting the world. This can be a person’s politics, psychology, intelligence; their honesty in assessing themselves; an open-mindedness to ideas and people and influences; a willingness to communicate and a generosity in doing so without obfuscation.

I think of this as the simple way.

But it can also be more mixed, less virtuous-sounding. A person can have a striking way of interpreting the world because of negative things: traumas, cognitive deficits, grudges, ambition, deprivation, etc. And I think what viewers of art are looking for (or maybe just me) is a striking way of looking at the world: An insight, a new way of seeing, and yes, something that fits into and expands art history (otherwise we’d be talking about philosophy or some other discipline).

Ed, I think, calls it truth. I think it’s insight, but maybe not truth. That’s because I think it’s the artist’s truth is to adhere his or her idea. The idea can be wrong—take all of religious art, im extrememly ho, as the most obvious example. But what thrills is the artist finding something new, something deeply felt, something true for them. What makes it transcend mere self-expression? The combination of context and craft, certainly. The artist’s ability to influence other artists and maybe the culture itself could be the most reliable mark of a work’s importance, less dependant on a philosophy and more dependant on observation. And beauty, whatever that is, surely has something to do with it.

So. I’m not sure I agree that intention is important in deciding what is art. People are complicated, sometimes self-deluding and self-destructive, sometimes fragmented, confused, sick, etc. None of this exempts a person from making good or great art. If a work produces all the effects of art, if it fits into art history, if it displays craft, intensity, the sense of something new revealed, a new thought or social insight, or does any of the things art can do, then I think we have to be hard-headed, damn all theories, and call it art.

End of screed: beginning of ramble.

Good lord. That A.M. Baggs video was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! I was not crazy about the personhood ideology, although I agree with it. I was more interested in seeing a new world—because the video was beautiful even without the explanation—then understanding it somewhat. What Baggs did not indicate that she realized in this video is that her wordless way of interacting with the world is shared by the rest of us, maybe just as intensely. This may account for the video’s power. It is odd that our brains sift out most of this sense-information, or at least we don’t experience it as conscious thought the way Baggs says she does. And there was something incredibly poignant about seeing someone living in a part of our own brains, so to speak, that we don’t know.

I was somewhat unmoved by the Martinez drawings, at least in the Web presentation. And I don’t know why.

PS This took me so long to compose, I haven't read any of the other comments yet. Sorry!

1/26/2007 11:14:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

"I can't get myself unstuck from an assumption about the importance of intent in art."

I’m assuming your use of the word ‘intent’ as intentionality, a willful action directed at an object. So the next question I would have is what is the ‘object’? communication, art, ??

If a person brings something into existence, makes something that wasn’t there before, it creates new information where there was none before. Is this a form of communication, the transfer of information from one person to another via an intermediate symbolic array (the object in this case)? If so, then is not the ‘making’ itself sufficient for intentionality of communication?

1/26/2007 11:16:00 AM  
Blogger George said...


You might find this paper interesting.

"Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind." Nicholas Humphrey

1/26/2007 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger heidilolatheayatollah said...

I'm riffing off of you a bit here Oriane - but a pet peeve of mine is all the "nods" to outsider art these days by very over educated art school cognoscenti.

An awareness that art fostered in an ambitious hot house environment is leading to many attempts to appear naive and in step with the natural genius. What is natural and spontaneous about a very well thought out schooling and planned art career pedigree?????

Artists all over are hungering for the genius label whilst trying to appear as effortless as possible. A contradiction of sorts, yes?

1/26/2007 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I was somewhat unmoved by the Martinez drawings, at least in the Web presentation.

The jpegs don't do them justice. They're paintings, quite impasto in places, and miraculously exhilarating in real life. Roberta Smith called them "impressive" not too long ago...not that you should go with her take when you have mine. :-)

If so, then is not the ‘making’ itself sufficient for intentionality of communication?

Of something, sure, but not necessarily within the realm of what I consider "art."

1/26/2007 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

BTW...thanks for that paper George. I'll read it later tonight.

1/26/2007 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

Ed, I agree that intent influences the choices the maker makes, and therefore the critique of the work, but I keep going back to the incredible visceral gut feeling I get from some of these works, something that takes it out of the intellectual realm (where all this talk of intent, critique, etc. comes from) and back into the intense experiential realm. I try for a combination of both (intellectual and experiential/visceral) in my own work, but am occasionally blown away by the work of people whose intent we can't really know. Sometimes they give us a glimpse into a completely created world (for example A. Woolfli) and sometimes they deliver insights into our own world. If this isn't "art", it sort of doesn't matter because it's better than a lot of art.

Heidi: I agree. I'm uncomfortable with the attempts at "de-insidering" by some art school graduates. It feels very forced and disingenuous.

Sorry for the multiple postings, but this subject does fire me up a bit.

1/26/2007 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous juryduty said...

Ed, I love that you are intellectual flexible (and honest) enough to include within one week posts that extol the genius of artists at both ends of the social spectrum.

ie: not only the "I AM THE GREATEST!!!" socially self-assured crew, but also the "UMMM ..." instititutionalized socially inept.

There's hope for us all.


1/26/2007 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

the act of "submerging [one]self in art history as well as surveying the contemporary field and carving out a niche

Edward, this sounds more like a career strategy than a definition of what constitutes art.

1/26/2007 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Edward, this sounds more like a career strategy than a definition of what constitutes art.

Agreed. It does. My "unified theory of everything art is or isn't" is a bit more complicated than just that one path toward creating it, yes, but that worked as a nice shorthand for my general belief that awareness of what's come before you is an important element of "art" making.

1/26/2007 12:33:00 PM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

When a person calls herself an artist, it means, in part, that she must consider what the role of the artist is in this world. It's part of the job. And, I think it is the artist's role to stake a position among others, to show what an artist can do, to take the micro to the macro level, to push definitions outward - whether "right" or "wrong."

So, another way to discuss the all-important "intent" is perhaps through a consideration of "self-conscious role."

1/26/2007 12:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Noddy Turnell said...

Thanks for discussing this stuff and showing me how to be open minded.

Being of the unschooled variety myself I find myself pulled toward a process of placing my art with what has come before me and especially what's happening now. I'm wary of it's effect on my art but I don't fight it.

For the first 40 years i was insulated from the art world. I spent my time as a union sheet metal worker making signs in NYC. My art followed the medium most available. Part of my job involved fabricating art work for Stephen Antonakos and Bruce Nauman. Mr. Antonakos saw what i was doing when the boss wasn't looking and suggested I could be an artist.

I was always making stuff for someone to see. My mother, my wife, myself. Coming in to the studio in the morning I'm often surprised and pleased with what i see. Looking back 10 years I am amazed at some old work.

A visual medium is made to be looked at. Darger looked at his work he was the audience. I'm sure he was pleased. Whether I make the work to please me or a collector, or a jury is a personal decision. I happen to believe it'll be shit if i do it for anyone but me but then again i'm not exactly rolling in dough. i did better as a sheet metal worker.

i gotta say i enjoy exploring these ideas. The guys in my shop didn't talk about stuff like this. i'm so pleased to find this blog and others like it.

1/26/2007 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger George said...


"[communication] ….but not necessarily within the realm of what I consider "art. ""

OK, so we could assume that the viewer has some criteria for what they ‘think is art’. I’ll bet almost everyone here has a slightly different interpretation for what they think is art. Moreover, this interpretation seems to be highly colored by cultural preferences of the moment.

So, I think it’s great that one can have a set of ‘criteria’ for what is ‘art’ and later discover artworks like those of Darger’s or Ramírez's which challenge the boundaries of the original assumptions.

Molly brings up an interesting point when she suggests we might discuss "intent" is perhaps through a consideration of "self-conscious role."

The purpose of any communication is to create an empathy between the mind of the receiver(the viewer) , her consciousness, and the consciousness of the sender (the artist). The artist creates an artwork with the intent to expose or transfer some aspect of their consciousness to the viewer. The viewer can never directly know what is in the mind of the artist, this is a private realm which not accessible to the viewer. The artwork, or any other form of communication, becomes an intermediate form which, ideally, carries in an encoded form, the thoughts and intent of the artist. The success or failure of an artwork will rest on the degree that the viewer is able to become empathetic with the artwork, to recreate empathetically a mirror of what is being communicated in their own mind. When this occurs we might say ‘we get it’ or that we are ‘moved emotionally’, when it doesn’t we are left just with the perception of another object in the world of objects.

So when Ed upon seeing Ramírez's work, says he has to reconsider his thoughts about what is art, it suggests that the artist’s work has successfully created an empathic response within Ed’s consciousness. I think this is at the core of what art should do. All the other criteria we may speak about, only catalogue past art. which the viewer or the culture suggests should or has produced this experience. It does not say anything about how to produce the experience.

1/26/2007 01:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If art is a timeless excorcise then aren't we communicationg with an eternal audience? Does an artist from Baffin island live in the same artistic oblivion that darger or ramirez do? we all have hummanity in common and I think that should be enough. The fine art context is narrowly defined by money and class. The high prices cull out a certain segment, much like a gentrified bar in a poor niehberhood uses the price of beer to keep the locals away.

1/26/2007 01:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

anon1:52 -

well said. which, slightly off topic, reminds me that there was an article a few days ago in the Times about the famiy members of Martin Ramirez coming to the show at the museum. Even though some of his work now sells for 100,000 or so, the grandkids are hoping to drum up enough money to buy one. It doesn't mention how they feel about not benefiting at all financially from his posthumous success.

1/26/2007 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

The idea can be wrong—take all of religious art, im extrememly ho

In your extremely humble opinion? NOT. Back up that humble opinion with some verifiable data and unimpeachable reasoning and then we'll talk.

Sorry dears, but this sort of casual arrogance and unthinking bigotry rather irks me.

we might discuss "intent" is perhaps through a consideration of "self-conscious role."

Without being redundant, I would like to second everything Oriane has said, about the visceral response being what affects her, regardless of the artist's 'intent.' A lot of times, having a conscious intent can get in the way of fully articulating a vision, experience or simple compulsion.

This conversation reminds me of the quintessential circular discussion that constantly arose in art school, 'Who are you talking to? Who's your audience? What are you trying to Say?'

In my own practice, these questions are largely irrelevant. I'm talking to whoever's interested; sometimes the self-selected audience surprises me.

I often notice that art which is deliberately constructed to convey a 'message' to a certain pre-selected audience frequently comes across as patronizing and thin. In contrast, when a person throws their heart and soul into a work just from the sheer need to get it out of them, the results sometimes blast you out of your shoes, as Oriane points out.

1/26/2007 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

P.S. That video brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

1/26/2007 02:58:00 PM  
Anonymous bnon said...


you want me to give you data and reasoning to support atheism? i can't do that. I apologize for my gratuitous and glib swipe at religion.

However, I don't think it's bigotry to voice the opinion that religion is in error about its basic presumption.


1/26/2007 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

re: Pretty Lady's comment of : "the quintessential circular discussion that constantly arose in art school, 'Who are you talking to? Who's your audience? What are you trying to Say?'"

I think in one sentence she just summed up the biggest problem with contemporary art today.

This also goes back to many of your other discussions, Ed-- to the "Republicans in art," outsider art, and even the value of the younger artist threads.

In many ways the biggest problem with today's artists is the fact they are so insular within their own realm.

Part of the problem of becoming an expert in a field in general is you surround yourself ONLY with those of that field.

One example I've witnessed firsthand is fellow artists, writers and musicians who immerse themselves so totally in their that they're lacking the one thing that makes a true artist unique-- the ability to observe, transfer, and become a commentator on the world outside of your comfort zone.

What's the point of being a band who only has fellow musicians in their audience?

How many people will "relate" to your work if your songs are only "gotten" by a few?

The same holds true with art.

It seems artists are thinking too much of what their instructors told them is "art," what their friends are doing, or what their idols are doing rather than what a hedge fund manager would like to see hanging in their hallway.

Survival is necessary-- and knowing how to sell yourself is a skill that never seems to be taught in art school, or looked down upon in general.

This doesn't mean to sell out, but maybe to push yourself into areas you normally wouldn't go.

Perhaps this is where the cultural elitism comments come from.

Art for beauty's sake or for thoughtful contemplation has taken a back road to "shock value," "one-upmanship," "cultural relevancy," or "political commentary."

I never think it's a bad thing to market yourself to a certain area, but "intent" can be perceived as extremely problematic and redundant when your aim is only for impressing those who already "get it."

There's something to be said in championing in the grey areas of creativity.

Lamgelina's 2 cents....

1/26/2007 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/26/2007 04:09:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Sorry if this is out of sequence in the thread now -- but just in reply to your initial post, Edward:

AM Baggs' responses to the world are indistinguishable from those of artists, for my money. They might only seem different because they're stripped of intent, ego-sense and even of any mark of consciousness of a social context.

I see it as expression at ground zero.

1/26/2007 04:10:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

It seems artists are thinking too much of what their instructors told them is "art," what their friends are doing, or what their idols are doing rather than what a hedge fund manager would like to see hanging in their hallway.

On the contrary, much of what's going on in the artworld right now seems to be driven by a desire to appeal to hedgefund managers, though they're less likely looking for art to hang in the hallways than to add to their investment portfolios. The work of emerging artists hangs between junk bonds and penny stocks.

I don't think it's bigotry to voice the opinion that religion is in error about its basic presumption.

I agree. It would be bigotry to discriminate against people who believe in God, but it's not bigotry to disagree with them. If one requires "verifiable data and unimpeachable reasoning" to be able to say they don't believe in God, then it seems the same should be required of people who do. I doubt either side can present much in the way of acceptable evidence.

1/26/2007 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger John Holdway said...

This latest incarnation of the outsider artist was created by gallery directors and curators.( Van Gough is a version of the outsider artist with the mystique of poverty, insanity and misunderstanding) Curators can take on the role of discoverer, archaeologist, sociologist, etc. So does the artist remain "artist" if he/she has unintended meaning attached to the work?

I say yes the nature of art to be interpreted by the viewer and new meaning added.

Artists who do appropriate an outsider aesthetic run the risk of their work seeming unauthentic. The power of Darger's work is fascinating intricate world but much of the mystique comes from the fact that he was indeed a social deviant with at least a keen interest in pedophilia.

An artist who cultivates mystique to gain notoriety above the work itself is not making art. An artist should work to be authentic with the work.

Definitions on authenticity?

1/26/2007 04:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It did eventually dawn on me that the two are not mutually exclusive...that artists can do both (submerge themselves in art history via a process that opens up their senses to this wider world that Baggs and Donne argue is out there), but thinking of the world (as seen by mankind) as having one author and of revealing itself through all the senses if one is simply open to it goes a long way toward explaining how certain artists, living in mental institutions or keeping to themselves in their garrets, can still perceive enough to make our jaws drop without having to study the art history that the rest of us use as a sort of cultural Cliff Notes to "get it."

Ed, this is one sentence. No wonder your head hurts.

Art is not communication. Art can communicate, but that's not its inherent function. Art's inherent function is to serve as a repository for visual quality. Artists are going to make work in a manner that relates to their priorities. The artists might have fairly normal psychic makeups, or fairly deranged ones; this will affect their priorities and otherwise doesn't much matter. If certain outsiders have privileged knowledge about the universe, it's not knowledge I would rank above or below that of synaesthetics, tetrachromats, or even people who have become adept at drawing by dint of practice. It's all experience, and like the kids say, it's all good.

Bandler and Grinder had a list of assumptions about their psychological work, one of which is "One cannot not communicate." The idea was that even a null response is still a response. ("Hi! I'm comatose!") That was useful for their work, and maybe it will prove useful for you too, since trying to figure out what is or isn't communication troubles you so. But the whole concern looks like a side issue.

1/26/2007 05:24:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

"Hi! I'm comatose!"

Great bumpersticker, Franklin :)

1/26/2007 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

Hear, Hear on the "visual quality."

That's the best definition I've heard as to what art is in a long time.

1/26/2007 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ed, this is one sentence. No wonder your head hurts.

What can I say...I used to translate scientific text from German to English...that sentence is relatively short, IMO.

trying to figure out what is or isn't communication troubles you so

Actually it doesn't. I have a degree in Communcations and a pretty solid idea of what "communication" is. Where I tend to be less sure in my thinking is how important the intent of communicating (or the clarity of that message) is to the artmaking process.

Moreover, I disagree that art is "not communication," as you note, but then essentially dispute by your example, IMO. (Unless you're separating the "art object" from the "artmaking" to arrive at that, which I don't think you rightly can in this context, given we are generally describing what makes someone's produce "art" based on their intent). Of course, putting an object out there into the world is communication. Although doing so doesn't always communicate anything as interesting as "Hi! I'm Comatose."

Art has no inherent function, though. Of that I'm more certain than I am that I know what communication is. :-)

1/26/2007 06:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I stand that it is generally an important attribute of art to be communicative but that the equation art = communication is philosophically wrong. I talked about this in many threads here already so I won't go on... Or maybe I will.

The fact that people are amazed by outsider art only goes in hand with the fact they are amazed by design and artefacts non attributable to art. We are simply putting the aesthetic agenda upfront after decades of it being subjugated to intellectual agenda.

For being an autist myself, of a very slight degree, I have always been quite conscious of the strong aesthetical appeal of the outside world (heck, even when I enter a gallery I must concentrate on the art otherwise I look at every details of the space itself), and thus a proponent to the idea that "intention" of seeing art is as much in the viewers' mind and AS VALUABLE as artist intention.

I completely abide that art is first and foremost an experiential phenomenon before anything from it can clearly be defined intellectually (hence why I refuse to term art as communication, because they are ways to trigger the experiential in ways that juggles out cognition). So finding art in pieces that may or may not have been considered art by their makers (some people can be numbed enough to not be able to make such an intellectual distinction as "art") simply follow from that frame. We put it in museum simply because a certain consensus accepted that such artefacts are art, but I am telling you that as individual you do not need that consensus or Duchamp(s) to trigger your own art perspective on everything you see, everyday. Voila. "You" decide. "You" put the meaning.

Finally, I am an artist who does his stuff mostly from himself. That's probably momentary, probably not. Time will tell, but there are many reasons why it's like that: lazyness, health issues, means (my projects are costly), and misanthropy (I need a forum I can trust and I don't trust the artworld). I mean, success is the least of my concerns right now, but that doesn't mean I don't have an idea of what's good or not. To me art is mostly a form of pleasure so I sort of pleasure myself, which I find is nothing any more wrong than masturbation.


Cedric Caspesyan

1/26/2007 08:07:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"Art is not communication."
I believe this to be false. Art’s inherent function is communication.
I think the difficulty arises when one thinks of art in the same context as language, as a symbolic method of conveying meaning. Language, is a serial process, one word follows another and the plastic arts are parallel processes (more than one dimensional). For example, think about the word ‘circle’ and a picture of a circle. Both will suffice to impart the idea of ‘circleness’, assuming you know the English word ‘circle’, but a picture of a circle would suffice in any language.

‘Suffice in any language’ implies a cultural context, and all art is imbedded in the stream of cultural context. What one might look for as ‘communication’ others might call ‘meaning’ but regardless what it is called, it exists within a cultural context. The question occurs to me "what happens when the cultural context is lost or obscured?" Does the ‘communication’ cease to exist? I think not. What may be at the core of the communication is not specifically the ‘cultural subject’ but the effectiveness of its presentation by the artist. For example, Fra Angelico made undoubtedly great ‘religious art’ and in an era where one might suggest its original religious meaning has been obscured by time we can still be moved by his paintings. This would imply that ‘what they are about’ is more than their apparent religious subject, that what is being communicated, is something about the person Fra Angelico himself. Something that in the present historical moment we can still respond to.

"Art's inherent function is to serve as a repository for visual quality."
I also believe this to be false. ‘Art’ as a category, may be a repository of all the efforts, made over time, to symbolically represent the world outside of us. We culturally select, within a temporal sense, what we think is important and what is not, at a specific point in time, the present. We develop a history which includes past observations of what was thought to be important and this history is constantly being reevaluated in the present moment. What we might perceive as ‘quality’ at any given moment is a moving target subject to cultural prejudices of the moment. These cultural prejudices can be reflexive and result in the reconsideration of previous attributions of quality.

I understand what Franklin is inferring when he speaks of ‘quality’, and to some extent I don’t disagree. On the other hand I cannot dismiss the cultural component, Ed’s ‘communication’ as being any less important. Nor can I dismiss, that elusive quality that great art has to create empathy in the viewer, a willingness to engage with the artwork in ones own mind regardless of the context.

For an interesting series of articles which explore the mind, including synesthesia and its relationship to creativity see the 2003 BBC Reith lectures by the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran Lecture 3 makes some interesting observations on art from a cognitive perspective.

1/26/2007 08:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

You're assuming that I wish to communicate "circleness".

You base art understanding on consensual interpretations and grounds. This is the problem when throat inuit singing was accepted as art by the west when the inuits
first refused to call it art, as it was a game for them, not an expression of anything.

It is because of the exception that I am careful with designating art as communication. Have you ever thought about doing art that is non-communicative, and all about experiential? Colored smokes? I did. I'm interested by that avenue. But maybe the problematic here is the definition of communication itself, wrether you mean it implies the intelligible versus the non-intelligible.

I mean, if someone "intentionally"
"means" to make unintelligible art, do you still call it communication? That's where I have a problem. I believe art is aesthetic before context, though it can hardly live without it.

Ironically here in this thread is presented an autist trying to communicate. Many people don't know that autism often has nothing to do with affecting intelligence, it only affects the means of communications, the same way schizophrenia affect perception.

Some autist will never know what it means to communicate. I am not certain they are even aware of what is going on when they draw, so much their perceptual senses are numbed. Their intelligence exist somewhere but it's all bubbled up. What are they doing exactly if they are drawing? Communicating? Or is it, to borrow your example, something more synaesthetic, almost like an automatic response triggered by pure aesthetics. Like...a computer design program.

I'm interested in art that occurs not in the makers mind but in the takers, and how that jinx the standards of communications.

Also, are aesthetics a form of communication? What are they trying to say?

Are you sure I didn't mean a square by that circle?


Cedric Caspesyan

1/26/2007 09:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Oly, David - Cheers!

Art has no inherent function, though. Of that I'm more certain than I am that I know what communication is. :-)

Ed, I used to agree with that assertion, but Opie, one of my regular commenters, pointed out that if it had absolutely no function whatsoever there would be no reason for humans to keep making it. We want it to exist for some reason, and I think that reason is to manifest visual quality. Doing so meets a cross-cultural and pan-historical need of some kind.

Art’s inherent function is communication. ... ‘Art’ as a category, may be a repository of all the efforts, made over time, to symbolically represent the world outside of us. ... What we might perceive as ‘quality’ at any given moment is a moving target subject to cultural prejudices of the moment.

These three ideas relate. Another one of Bandler and Grinder's assumptions was that the meaning of the communication is decided by the receiver. (Again, their context is talk therapy.) That correlates to George's "moving target." And communication itself is largely concerned with the transfer of experience between sentient beings, hence the symbolic representations of the outside world.

If one cannot not communicate, then art is communication, along with all other human actions. That brings up the question of what distinguishes art from other kinds of communication, and the answer is the effort that goes into form-making as an end in itself. Form-making is a distinguishing marker, while communication is not. So to what extent can effective communication drop away from the form-making project without harming it? Quite a bit, as it turns out - abstract art can come out very well, figures like Darger can gratify their sensibilities with no audience, and Veronese can retitle a Last Supper as Feast in the House of Levi with no harm to the picture itself, as he did once to avoid problems with some priggish church officials. So the point must be the form-making.

Contemporary interpretation hinges on George's troika, by the way. If quality is subject to cultural preferences and the point of art is communication, then interpretation of the message becomes an act of establishing quality. This is what you get when you read your average art magazine. But I disagree: Quality is as real as gravity, communication is a side issue, and getting what art has to offer requires not interpretation, but taste.

1/27/2007 12:35:00 AM  
Blogger George said...


"You're assuming that I wish to communicate "circleness"."
Yes, but I was only using it as an example for making a distinction between a serial and two dimensional form of communication. I wasn’t interested in ‘circleness’ per se, only in the differences in how the concept might be delivered.

Re smoke etc. I suspect the problem with the word ‘communication’ may be due to its cultural baggage. I am not suggesting that one makes an artwork in order to necessarily and intentionally communicate something. I am suggesting that communication is a result of the process of creation itself. That the result of the act of creation, be it a solid object or ephemeral smoke, can become a form of communication. Communication does not have to take a conceptual form, it can be, as you indicated, experiential. What is required is that the observer receives and processes the information.

"I mean, if someone "intentionally" "means" to make unintelligible art, do you still call it communication?"
No, I would call it postmodernism :-) Joking aside, and rephrasing your point, the concept ‘to intentionally make’ implies a decision to disorder information which is the act that could be communicated. Snow on a TV set, appears to be nothing more than a random switching off of bits on the screen, in fact it is a mediated representation of the background radiation from the big bang. Is it, or can it be, effective communication? Perhaps and perhaps not and ‘effective’ may be the key word here.

I am going to dodge your question on art made by people with brain dysfunction other than to say the term ‘aesthetics’ is probably not an applicable word. It appears that whatever is occurring is probably better described as a more direct response to sensations (sensory input, colors sound shapes etc) I’m not an expert, it’s just a hunch.

I think the issue seems to revolve around how people tend to view what they consider communication. The meaning I would ascribe to the concept of communication is that information is passed from one person to another and that this can occur by the use of an intermediary object.

The next question I would address is what is being communicated? At one level, since an artwork is imbedded in a cultural moment, it will reflect that moment. What I mean by this, is that today, we are talking about ‘outsider art’ and this idea is linked to the current cultural moment, which includes the notion that at this particular time, we might be interested in outsider art for some personal reason.

In the 15th century, European art was commissioned by the church and that cultural moment was heavily influenced by religion. Now suppose, that the church lost its influence over the cultural moment, what would happen? Better, suppose that at any moment in cultural history, an intellectual idea fad, or style fell in disfavor, what would happen?

Some of the art which linked itself strongly to the old cultural moment would lose an audience accustomed to the artworks particular form of communication. In other words, if we are no longer interested in the subtleties of religious iconography, and of religious mythologies, what happens to the religious paintings?

Since as a culture, we still seem to be interested in these works, something else must be being communicated other than just what we might loosely define as their ‘original’ content.

So what else might be communicated by these culturally orphaned artworks?
One obvious answer would be their aesthetic quality, their beauty achieved through a mastery of the intricacies of the craft. Additionally, I would suggest that something of the artist herself is communicated. By this I do not necessarily mean the artists personality, but rather the results of her willful intent to make something special, of her inspiration and depth of insight into the human condition. It is my contention that these qualities are communicated, even if only indirectly, in a great work of art.

Singing is thought to have preceded speech.
‘Art’ is a fairly recent categorization.

1/27/2007 12:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

George the Italians thought that. Germans thought otherwise, Right?

Communication, but why?
There is only experience.

I personally don't think art's job is to communicate. It's there! Sometimes the best art, or art out of its time silences, breaks with communication of the kind we have been having. The analogy I can use: When a bunch of people are all communicating quite well about something, it may be art, another voice enters, and there is silence. The new voice does not fit the dialog unless it fits, which then would provide further communication and chatter.
When chatter ceases, does communication also quit?

I like art that is able to severe communication, silence the collective, and stills the mind long enough to allow experience, something that is one with one, totally personal.
Then enters the word communication, in art: It's an experience by any other name.

1/27/2007 04:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I use to have a hard time with "the medium is the message" because I thought people wre projecting the messages themselves unto the medium.

I think I've said in a recent thread here that to me art is more a "tool" for comunication than communication itself, simply because, like in very bad telephone game, you can easily receive something quite different through the art object than what was going on in the mind of the maker.

The issue here is that art "triggers" that propension to receive a message from it, and therefore should be called communication, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that even these letters here I am writting on the blog are a TOOL but not the communication itself, and I might as well write
dfghdrst rtydjrtdyjtdyjty
just for the sake of it to prove that I am able to explore the medium with no intention to communicate and so with art, and I surely hope art is one domain where I'm welcomed to do that, I can do the same if I want.

But Edward said himself that he has a hard time defining what communication is, and so that's why I think it's dangerous to make official all-embracing statements like "art is communication", when we actually know the limits of what is art but we remain ambivalent about the limits of what is communication or not.

But yes, separating the TOOL to communicate with the actual ACT of communication was the first problem I ever had with that concept.

As I said, I still think art is mostly about communication. I am interested in the angular stone that demantibulate that assumption simply because somewhere I wish art to be something else if it wants to.

The surrealists who used to do automatic paintings in the dark, for example. You could argue that the whole activity is triggered by the brain. But there was also an aim to let the body freely affect matter without intervention from the brain. To make an art that is fully sensorial, physical.

The autist in the video would call that "communicating with the environment". Maybe that is what it is. The event itself. But I'm interested here in the result, and in the need to watch that result (an autist doesn't need to see it, the result is never as fun as reality itself). And wrether that result is communication itself or an artefact, a tool, that help people project communication.

And indeed if you send that artefact to Mars, the whole original concept is loss, and that tool trigger a whole different set of communication, but I'd like to believe that thinking beings are not surbordinated to artefacts, that on the contrary the thinking happens inside of us and that the artefact is merely subject to it, in some context as on Mars, barely inflecting thought.

And so that desire to "know" the object would precede whatever the object is filled with. It would be a confrontation with a thinking being's will to input meaning on aesthetics, per see, but though that intention is occuring on both sides (makers and receivers), somewhere in the middle it got numbed, and like Ondine in the theatre play, got lost in total oblivion and pure aesthetics.

The autist talks about a language, but I'm telling you (for sort of having submerged from that world myself), you can NOT get what it is like by watching a hand touching
water. You cannot grasp how complex that relation with water can be. What you are missing is the brain that goes with it, and how the senses are exponentially augmented. So the language itself is not triggered by the medium (the environment), but by the ability of the receiver.

I think someone can communicate with an autist only under very hard drugs (ecstacy?), but even there that is doubtful, because autists keep their minds clear and analytical where drugs tend to numb people out.

Mind is communication. The rest is what it has to deal with.


Cedric Caspesyan

1/27/2007 06:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Cedric,

I have 50% trouble communicating with a person I can't agree with. The 1/2 we do agree on is language. The half we don't is what is being conveyed through that language.
With this in mind I decided to forget the language and focus on the things that were getting in the road of communication. I tried that. I then realized it was the opinions based on whatever particular premise they had and I had was the problem.
The time after I decided to forget what was still getting in the road. I then sliced 99% off the remaining 50%, to focus on what is left--no language, no idea, no premise, 1% of 50%.
It isn't a lot to work with, I can assure you, however, you know, the next interlope was a hit!

1/28/2007 12:34:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

Instead of using the term communication which implies narrative and linear development, why not think of art as problem solving? The work of outsiders seems honest because they are trying with some desperation to find the answer, the order. Most contemporary art very earnestly talks about issues but the desire to find an answer visually isn't there. This way of viewing art is flawed because medieval artists weren't trying to solve a problem, they were trying to appease god through glorification. Art does serve different functions in different eras, so maybe what makes it universal is the desire for meaning, whether as communication or problem solving or appeasement.

1/28/2007 11:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Samual said...

Is there a possible list, at least worth creating, for the contemporary, ways of experiencing/communicating? They all interlink, but a simple list at first?

1. Issues

2. Rectitude

3. Glorification

4. Obfuscate

5. diddle-dally

6. Historicism

7. Self immortalization
(closely linked to glorification)

8. Sexualization

9. Politicalize

10. Polarization

11. Imagism

... must be billions more.

Someone shouted out Disco, oh, oh oK. More?

1/28/2007 06:36:00 PM  

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