Friday, June 24, 2011

What Does "Larger Than Oneself" Mean? | Open Thread

Roberta Smith gives Ryan Trecartin's exhibition at PS1MoMA the sort of review that legends are made of in today's New York Times. Since we launched Moving Image, more and more people have asked me who is an interesting new talent in video, and always at at the top of my list has been Ryan. He is an absolutely phenomenal artist, and although I have yet to catch his PS1 show, I knew first time I saw his work that I was watching something I would not soon forget.

The final thoughts in Roberta's review just happened to touch on something I've been mulling over since Jerry Saltz wrote an equally thought-provoking take on contemporary art in New York Magazine. I'll get back to Jerry's piece in a moment, but here's the last paragraph of Roberta's:
At the heart of Mr. Trecartin’s elaborate worldview is an aspirational faith in the potential of uninhibited self-expression, both individual and collective, as an active agent against the mounting materialism of everyday life. This is in a sense the story of his own hypertalented overexistence, now aided and abetted by a fluctuating crew of co-conspirators with gifts, charisma and minds of their own. What he has unleashed is larger than himself, which is why both his sudden appearance and continuing evolution are such cause for hope. [emphasis mine]
It would be easy to misinterpret that bolded statement as simply surrendering to the hyperkinetic, seeming word-salad-spewing intensity of the characters in Trecartin's work. After all, if you can't take it all in in one sitting, it's surely larger than your capacity to appreciate it. But I'll go out on a limb and suggest Roberta is very clear in what she sees here. (OK, so she hinted strongly at it earlier in the review):
This exhibition shreds the false dichotomies and mutually demonizing oppositions that have plagued the art world for decades — between the political and the aesthetic, the conceptual and the formal, high and low, art and entertainment, outsider and insider, irony and sincerity, gay and straight.
It's been becoming clearer and clearer to me (in no small part due to the dialog on this blog) that the dichotomy between conceptual and formal are false, and, well, PostModernism has pretty much demonstrated the truth of that statement for the other pairings in the list, but shredding them is only the first part of what Ryan's work does. The second part, as Roberta notes, is to offer hope.

Now we've just been through a firsthand lesson in how Hope is much harder to hang onto than it is to sell to people, and that has convinced me that its value lies not so much in being some destination as a loosening of the old ways of thinking, even if only to come back to them through a fresh point of view. The hope I take away from Ryan's work is that art can restore wonder, inspiration, and perhaps even some understanding of who we are here and now.

All of which brings me back to Jerry's article, "Generation Blank," in which he accurately (to my mind) diagnoses what ails so much of the other artwork out there:
There’s always conformity in art—fashions come in and out—but such obsessive devotion to a previous generation’s ideals and ideas is very wrong. It suggests these artists are too much in thrall to their elders, excessively satisfied with an insider’s game of art, not really making their own work. That they are becoming a Lost Generation.

Our culture now wonderfully, ­alchemically transforms images and history into artistic material. The possibilities seem endless and wide open. Yet these artists draw their histories and images only from a super-attenuated gene pool. It’s all-parsing, all the time. Their art turns in on itself, becoming nothing more than coded language. It empties their work of content, becoming a way to avoid interior chaos. It’s also a kind of addiction and, by now, a new orthodoxy, one supported by institutions and loved by curators who also can’t let go of the same glory days. [emphasis mine]

Here again, why Ryan's work is so amazing is the way it embraces interior chaos...exposes it and perhaps attempts to conquer it. To rule it, one must face it.

OK, so I am going to go out on a slimmer limb and indict myself in the process here, but I suspect that what has led to so many of today's artists drawing their histories and images form the super-attenuated gene pool is their mistaken assumption that the single most important part of what's "larger than themselves" is art history itself. After all, art history/theory/critique is the inescapable focus of the art schools most of our artists, with eyes on careers, feel compelled to attend. And in that, the crushing weight of what's come before is what all contemporary efforts are measured against. How can you do "that"? Don't you know your history? You're ingornig the chronology, the steady stream of paradoxically backward-looking innovations, the imposing majesty of the work collected in museums...and *gasp* the Canon.

And while I personally don't want to see a generation of young artists propping urinals up on pedestals and declaring it "new" (i.e., basic art history is still important to have a handle on), I am beginning to see how obsessing over it has possibly derailed a generation from making what more of simply observing their actual world, their actual contemporary circumstances, might have led them to.

Consider this an open thread on what "larger than oneself" means in the context of making contemporary art.

Labels: art viewing, contemporary art


Anonymous Saskia said...

Yes, Please!
More thinking "and/both" instead of "either/or" seems like a good way to "shreds the false dichotomies and mutually demonizing oppositions that have plagued the art world for decades", and get to something "larger than oneself." And I don't think that is in any way limited to art, though it's not a bad place to start... "And/both" is connective and expansive, and can certainly lead to some very fresh points of view.

"Either/or" can be a useful tool to help define things, but it seems like it often also misguides or prematurely limits the subject at hand. Yet somehow it seems to be really difficult to get out of "either/or" thinking. I could add a many more false dichotomies and "mutually demonizing oppositions" to Smith's list, just from this citations in this post alone: In "Generation Blank," Saltz says, "It is art about understanding, not about experience." Smith opposes, "uninhibited self-expression, ...against the mounting materialism of everyday life." Saltz says, "Instead of enlarging our view of being human, it contains safe rehashing of received ideas." (Can not looking to the past enlarge our view of being human? why “either/or”?) And all this talk about art history: chronology, progress and the avant-garde vs regressive feedback loops. Is time and history linear or circular? (It's “and/both”, please...) Or how about the idea on this blog earlier this week that we're either engaged in basic survival or filling empty hours. I say, "Why, either/or?” to all of it and more...

I tend to agree with Kyle Chayka's assessment that, "If these older critics aren’t finding anything that doesn’t look like it was mass-produced out of some prestigious MFA program (which can, and often do, become echo chambers), then they’re not doing their job. One only has to take a step outside the pre-approved, pre-commercialized art scene to see stuff that might not be great, but is certainly different."
Art’s young lions are just that – young … and perhaps a bit easily influenced. That can be both good and bad, but they have time yet to grow, we all have time yet.

Actually it is this part in Saltz's article that concerns me more than the state of young artists today: "It’s also a kind of addiction and, by now, a new orthodoxy, one supported by institutions and loved by curators who also can’t let go of the same glory days." ..."Art schools are partly the villain here." "...ready-made for critics who also love parsing out the isms of their elders." (emphasis mine) If what he says is true, that seems like a bigger hurdle to overcome, and one that is being pushed onto youth rather than stemming from them.

6/24/2011 02:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

After reading Jerry's piece, I think he has succumbed to his own fears. His idea that today's art "... is art about understanding, not about experience." underlies this. If ever there is a description of the modern aesthetic it likely is the experience of experience.

Great art seems to always have been about a relationship with the art. Simply seeing the art has never been enough, your "larger then oneself" is the moving beyond this stream of experience to an engaged relationship with the art,(projected or real) contradictory, give and receive, something you return to again and again discovering as much about yourself as you do about the art. Good art in my opinion, allows one to enter into this relationship building with the artwork. That's why people "get" art. It isn't just about concepts, it isn't just about experience, it's a dialogue of sorts, relationship building, where art and aficionado both have to bring themselves to the table. Obliging the viewer to simply experience an experience or come to terms and get the logic of an idea new or old just smacks of propaganda and totalitarianism. Jerry as a critic goes through this relationship building for every piece he sees. That he recognizes he is usually the only one at the table and decries the art and artists for letting down their side of the bargain and hiding behind masks of former stylism is refreshing. That he then turns these same artists towards experience without acknowledging experience in and of itself is another cul de sac, seems so much of the modernist genre that he shoots his concern in the foot.

Not to knock Jerry, this call of alarm is long overdue , but we in an epoch of data streams, definitely need to rise beyond the flux of experience and grasp the differences between cinema, theater and life. To become 'larger than oneself" is to put life in perspective, is to be vulnerable, opening the possibility of so much more then only experiencing experience, although it definitely moves through that phase.

i really do run on - sorry for the meanderings.

6/25/2011 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I'd like to better understand how uninhibited self-expression can be opposed to mounting materialism - however that is defined. Maybe if I saw the actual work rather than photos I'd understand?

6/25/2011 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger Bird Monk Party said...

Dear Sir:
Appropriation seems to be a villain here. It seems to me that appropriating the "correct" images as opposed to "incorrect" images helps to explain the incursion of the art historical into art and art making. What if Manet hadn't painted or Picasso hadn't seen the Manet Luncheon painting?( please forgive the short hand here.)

Art as business is also associated with the notion of putting art historical knowledge on a pedestal. I don't remember there being an "art critic" sitting on the shoulders of creators of work in their studios. It could be that some artists are allowing this phenomenon to take place in their own work. Hopefully they will work through it.

6/25/2011 12:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you need to be very careful with words Legendary and "larger than oneself". Larger than oneself for me would be A Russian Soldier at the Battle of Stalingrad , Jimi Hendrix ,Albert Einstein. Dropping a sugar cube imbued with pure LSD 25 . The Tunisian Man that lit himself on fire.

I consider Ryan Trecartin's work Paintings . And I like them.

6/25/2011 01:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Alex Novak said...

I occasionally stop in here, and when I do, I always find an interesting conversation taking place. This is no exception.

While I think Jerry is not the first to make such observations, I am glad he's joined a growing chorus of discontent with the status quo of the contemporary art scene.

Repetition and its wordy curatorial support has had most artists and the art world stuck in a vicious cycle. The causes are many: academia that breeds repetition (but in the past this "educational" indoctrination was overcome later in their career by most artists); the art world's financial predilection for riding a dead horse into the ground; the lack of true critical thought (from critics, curators, dealers, artist and collectors) based on the philosophical premise of post-modernism; and, finally, the curatorial need not to color outside the lines unless you are willing to face and suffer criticism from colleagues and administrators for simply doing something new, unproven, as opposed to something "already" judged "acceptable" (or at least monetarily valued).

Add in the artist (and curator) as "celebrity" and you have a perfect storm of mediocrity and sameness.

I do indeed hope that things are finally changing.

6/25/2011 08:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me Trecartins work is more about existence. Which is like the "other" to today's idea obsessed art. Its about being "something" and the record of that. Like music, it feels like relief against the critical soup of thoughts we have to confront when we see alot of art. Its a new sense of the real that makes alot of other stuff look fake. Good art does that I think.

6/26/2011 06:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Ries said...

What if you just cant sit still for video?
I mean, I understand why people think this is good, but I am just unable to get excited by this type of MTV style art.
I like stuff I can hold in my hand, real things made by real people.
I am sure that he is great, and funny, and perceptive. But its still TV.
And TV is what I watch on the couch, with a beer, when I am too tired to focus.

6/28/2011 01:02:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm shocked they have TVs where you live, Ries. Would have thought the horse-powered granary mills wouldn't generate enough energy electricity to let you watch one. :-P

6/28/2011 08:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I interpret Trecartins intentions with his work as a sense of making "fake" appear real. Like a goof on the other stuff.

I had a somewhat difficult time viewing it. It was over-stimulation. Nonstop paraphernalia and chatter. In this, you never remain with a feeling, and with nothing else: with hate, or with that feeling of beauty (I would rather this experience in art).

Try to remain with a feeling, and see what happens. You will find it amazingly difficult.

6/28/2011 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

I thought Roberta just meant there was a collaborative element to Trecartin’s work – ‘larger than oneself’ = works with others. For the last few years now most of Ryan’s stuff has been available on You Tube and to me it always looks most at home there. I don’t think it really gains anything in installations. They just look like hokey VM. I like the videos, but in five minute bursts. Trying to watch anything longer is like spending a day watching music videos. So I can see what people mean by the MTV influence. The other influence that leaps out at me is South Park – the chipmunk voices and infantile regression. I think this is some of what Jerry gets at – a sort of cutesy, coziness. Ryan’s editing kind of saves that side of it for me, but the more I think about his stuff the more it belongs to art movies (South Park meets Warhol or Jack Smith) rather than fine art.

6/28/2011 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I thought Roberta just meant there was a collaborative element to Trecartin’s work

Yeah, I re-read it after posting this and had the same thought, but upon reading it again in context, with the rest of what she wrote, I'm leaning toward my first interpretation.

6/28/2011 11:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like every drag show I've ever attended. Why aren't Heklina or Peaches Christ bigger stars?

6/28/2011 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Creates hope? or Creates hope for art? Either way, how? Is it expressionist video to match the painting going on?

6/28/2011 03:47:00 PM  

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