© Glenn Harper
(An unpublished essay, 2002--some passages overlap with essays already posted)
As the editor of a magazine called Sculpture, capital S, the artist whose name I see referred to most often by our writers is probably Marcel Duchamp—he is usually standing in for the idea that anything can be art. But the movement that is referred to most often by far by writers and artists in our pages is without any doubt Minimalism. On the one hand, Minimalism is the most sculptural of styles: Donald Judd's boxes or Carl André's bricks are above all objects, sitting there in living 3D. But on the other hand, Minimalist objects have no meaning, refer to nothing, exhibit industrial material and processes, with no reference to the hand of the artist. They are simply objects, sitting their in the space we share with them.
The constant references to Minimalism indicate two things about the art world today: the first is that Minimalism was, in some senses, the last Art Movement (later movements were conceived as marketing, as “brands”); the second is that the Minimalist object, with its plain and simple quality of being there, is still out there, as the source of everything from Rachel Whiteread's water tower in New York or her plinth on a plinth in London, to Matthew Barney’s vaseline sculpttures, to Damien Hirst's animal carcases. Robert Storr is quoted in a recent New York Times article as saying that the use of animals and other non-sculptural materials has followed a general "shift to literalism." "By the 1960's a painting was just paint and canvas. Sculpture went the same way. A steel box was a steel box. A stone was a stone."
Is the end of Art Movements, or the literalism or the object the End of Art, which is something Arthur Danto has proclaimed? And if sculpture ultimately is just whatever is put out in that name by the artist, the gallery, the museum, and the magazine, has the expanded field of sculpture grown so large that it encompasses everything and therefore signifies nothing? Is this the death of Art , or the Death of “Sculpture,” capital S, as a panel I was on recently proclaimed?
Over the years, we’ve repeatedly heard of the death of art, or the death of painting, or the death of sculpture. Mike Bidlo says that in the '70s, he saw that "the system [was] closed…Everything exciting had been done." (Reenactment/Rapprochement flyer) But, Bidlo, of course went on to make art for the next 30 years and counting, including a series of drawings of Duchamp’s readymades. A quote that keeps coming back to me when I think about art today comes from the end of Beckett’s The Unnameable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
What is more pertinent to artists today is not the death of art or the death of sculpture but the open-endedness, the lack of an end or a goal or a common sense of what we are working with or what we are talking about when we use the word art or the word sculpture. Maybe we need a new language to categorize art or even to talk about it. The only word currently in use that desribes the situation of art today is “pluralism.”
Finnish critics writing in a recent issue of Nu say that there are "No trends, no schools, nothing really to get a grip on," (Tuva Korström) and that the consequence of that is "that there is no school to [react] against, it is almost impossible to be in opposition—everything gets accepted." (Pelle Andersson) In the face of what might be seen as a "repressive tolerance," or an indifference to art on the part of society in general and even an art audience that is only left with momentary taste to base its judment on, art is granted permission but no value in the culture.
Another aspect of the problem relates to the question of Art Movements and the notion of Art History. I was recently in Houston, in the Menil Collection, and in the face of that definitive collection of Modernist art, the thought occurred to me, will it be possible for a wealthy collector to create that kind of institution out of a collection of '80s art, or '90s art. If not, what ceased to be possible after the '70s—since it is surely not that money is less important now, what has changed? In the '60s and '70s, as in earlier decades, it was possible to identify, or at least argue, who the major artists were, and collectors like the Menils reinforced that story of art by buying the work and exhibiting it, as did the museums and the commercial galleries, and the magazines and the critics. But now, do the glamor curators on the Biennial circuit, or the Saatchi collection, or shows like "Sensation" that came from the Saatchi collection create a history of art, or just a hype for the art market? When we talk about the art world today, are we in fact talking about art or the market?
On the other hand, has technology dissolved sculpture into cyberspace and virtual reality? At the sculpture conference that was the reason for my being in Houston, a large group of artists spent several days arguing that, indeed, "virtual sculpture" is the future of art. At one panel, one of the artists ecstatically proclaimed that he can now make sculpture in a computerer environment without having to worry about gravity. A woman in the audience piped up, "Well, yeah! That's called drawing." What the speakers on the panel had done, in their enthusiasm for a medium, was forget what had been done before, in other media. Alfred North Whitehead said that before you can create something new, you have to make a clearing. And you can’t just push everything out of the way, you have to make a place among what has happened before and what is happening already now. It would be better for all of us if we stepped back to look at what we are actually doing, rather than worrying about either labels or notions of dominating what can be called art or significant art or avant garde art.
Nonethelss, there are no rules, no hierarchies, no form, and no dominant style. Since Minimalist sculpture killed off the striving toward transcendence that had characterized art until modernism, in favor of simple presence or theatricality, new art isn't just made now, it's about here and now, not about transcendent ideas or forms or essences, whether aesthetic or spiritual.
And as André-Louis Paré said in the Canadian magazine Espace last summer, " It is in sculpture that art and life meet, that ethics joins with aesthetics." That is to say, even if sculpture is just what it is, sitting there in the room with us, not pretending to represent some other absent reality or transcendent truth, it forces us to deal with that space in which we live, which puts us back into the ethical, social, political world, regardless of the content or intention of the particular sculpture we are looking at. The challenge is for the artist, either in the specialized space of the art world or the social space of public art, to engage that ethical dimension, as Paré calls it, with whatever object they are putting into the world. Robertson Davies has one of his characters say that art is both carnal and intellectual, it not only comes from the action of the body as well as the mind, it is a body, a thing, an ethical reality, in Paré’s sense. Art is the One that Gilles Deleuze refers to when he says that “One is always the index of a multiplicity: an event, a singularity, a life.” (p. 30) The singular art object implies the multiplicity and the plurality of life, and it is at the same time “a life,” not a simple projection of the artist’s life or biography, but a particularity that draws attention to life in its own combination of particularity and multiplicity.
One way of characterizing how art works to rearrange the world of the viewer can be seen in Deleuze’s notion of a “being of sensation,” which John Rajchman says is best seen in art: “artworks just are sensations connected in materials in such a way as to free aesthesis [perception?] from the assumptions of ‘common sense’.” (a life, p. 9) That’s certainly the goal of art, especially in pluralism: to Make You Look, and maybe at the same time to make you look at the world again in a different way, for a moment at least. But in the current situation, such a work of art is, as Adorno says, a “bottle thrown into the sea of communication.” (life 19) In the world of communications glut and information overload, art can be just another “repressive tolerance,” a carnival to keep a segment of the population quiet. The alternative is not necessarily to make art noisier but to remember that art is “a life,” to remember the ethical dimension of sculpture in particular, and not to limit art’s scope artificially or ideologically: Juan Munoz, in a late interview, said that there are "millions of stories we have not allowed ourselves to tell during the last ten years because of our ‘suspicions,’ incredulity, etc. regarding expression or the notion that art has an expressive rather than conceptual core.”
Art enters the messy interchange of everyday life as a conversation: art isn't just the object, not even in Minimalism: it's the dialogue around the object. Otherwise, we are just decorating rich people's houses, and maybe making rich collectors’ reputations, whether it's the Menils or the Saatchis. If art is a conversation, then art is engaged in making culture, or resisting the numbing mass culture that bombards us in a one-way stream from on high—because conversation can be multi-vocal, and either widely distributed, or local. It's also ephemeral—although a more permanent object can be the instigator or the occasion, conversation requires a living response to a live statement. But a vehicle for that coversation is being shrunk—the art is losing its press: the magazines are disappearing: Art & Text, New Art Examiner, and Art Issues recently folded, Contemporanea, On View, and Stroll folded a few years ago, and a number of regional magazines have ceased publication.
What seems new, and is perhaps a harbinger of the future in art, is an exuberant multiplicity, a polymorphous plurality. The steady timeline of art from representation to abstraction and from hand tools to industrial methods was shattered in the late 1960s. By the end of the century, it was obvious that notions of a linear progress or an increasing rationalization of form had faded out in a haze of the perpetual present, a permissive environment in which everything is available to artists, and nothing is privileged—steel is not a "higher" or "nobler" material than sheetrock or cardboard. Iron or marble or wood share the sculptural field with a vast array of possible choices that confronts any sculptor every time he or she crosses the threshhold of the studio. The future of art: the encounter with the everyday, the reengagement of both viewer and artist in the ephemera as well as the solidities of life, virtual as well as tangible reality.
Art can no longer be passive, since no one can any longer claim a universal language which should (with all the moral and hierarchical implications that have been attached to that "should") be understandable by everyone. The sculpture of today and the future starts from the ground up, speaking to viewers on their own turf. The artists bring the history of sculpture into the dialogue, but without assuming the viewer's foreknowledge—the resulting conversation carries that history, as well as the immediate concerns of the individual artists and works of art, into the future.
In a recent book, Hal Foster begins his discussion of contemporary art by telling a story: “Not long ago I stood with a friend next to an art work made of four wood beams laid in a long rectangle, with a mirror set behind each corner so as to reflect the others. My friend, a conceptual artist, and I talked about the minimalist basis of such work: its reception by critics then, its elaboration by artists later, its significance for practitioners today...we hardly noticed his little girl as she played on the beams...we looked up to see her pass through the looking glass. Into the hall of mirrors...she moved farther and farther from us...Yet suddenly there she was right behind us: all she had done was skip along the beams around the room. And there we were, a critic and an artist informed in contemporary art, taken to school by a six-year-old, our theory no match for her practice.” Foster’s story is the reverse of the cliché that “my six-year-old granddaughter could do that.” Neither Foster’s story nor the glib put-down quite capture the reality of contemporary art and its audience, but that six-year-old is clearly onto something that we need to consider. If art isn’t lived, both by the artist and the audience, it isn’t fully part of our shared experience, our life-world.
Arthur Danto commented, a propos of the most recent Whitney Biennial, that "Not knowing what we are looking at is the artistic counterpart of not altogether knowing who we are." Danto may not have been intending to praise the art on view, but his comment nonetheless points out that art is not about reassuring us falsely that we do know who we are. Art is not about reassurance, it’s about challenging about who we are.
However, Art in the hypersaturated visual environment must rely on something other than shared symbols, which would have been the basis of a common culture in earlier civilizations, to establish a relation to the public. The relation of art to a public today requires something you could call education but more often resembles publicity—something that has been investigated in 2 interesting books. The first is Beatriz Colomina’s “Privacy and Publicity,” which examines the discovery of architecture’s true field as publicity rather than buildings. That discovery is based on architects’ realization that most of their projects are never built, they circulate instead in the journals. We can see an exaggerated example of what she’s talking about in the Gehry-mania around the world, and in the drive by museums to get signature buildings from famous architects. In art, Vito Acconci’s unbuilt projects and unsuccesful competition entries are as important for his reputation as the actual works visible in the civic realm or the gallery. Going back to the ‘80s, Publicity was directly engaged as art by the famous ads that Robert Morris and Lynda Benglis ran in Artforum. More recently, the entire career of Jeff Koons revolves around publicity. But publicity is a problem for artists and arts administrators with smaller budgets than Frank Gehry can command and with more difficult problems of public space than the erection of a tourist attraction-museum.
The second book on publicity is Alexander Alberro’s “Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity,” which draws attention to the dual nature of a dematerialized, conceptual art--the drive to bring art to the public and the need to find a way to sell art that has been deprived of the art object. Again, publicity is the key--both to getting the word out and in providing a kind of authenticity that a collector may be willing to buy, when a certificate of ownership may be the only physical object that is delivered at the end of the financial transaction. Although conceptual art was a creature of a particular time, its resonance is still tangible in the art world, not least in the importance that publicity has for art. In a sense, as Colomina noted for architecture, the conceptual art “object” exists as publicity, and the exhibition of these works approaches the vanishing point of art. The completion of Roden Crater has been in the news lately, but how many people have actually seen it? Much less Spiral Jetty by Smithson or Lightning Field by Walter De Maria. And more recently, a lot of the most interesting public art, including Mel Chin’s Revival Field and other new genre projects, either operate outside the view of all but a few people who are either working on the project or attending temporary events. Some of the new genre projects raise Walter Benjamin’s question of the \withering away of the “artistic function,” which is a crisis in aesthetics and in the language with which we may even talk about art. And the area where this crisis may be seen most acutely is in public art.
A couple of years ago, Jeffrey Kastner sent out some survey questions that he proposed to use as the basis for an issue of Public Art Review. He never used the responses, whether because of the nature of the responses or the laziness of his respondents in honoring the deadline, but these were his first two questions: "What is the most significant trend or aspect of public art that will influence the future of the field? What is the single most critical issue facing artists working in the public art field today, and what will it likely be in the next century?" To the first of those questions, I responded then with a negative rather than a positive comment, that too often, public art projects subordinate the artist to a program that seeks either to symbolize a bland civic image of an actual (or even imaginary) community, or or reduce the art to architectural decoration. There have been laments that public art programs in art schools around the country are producing a generation of artists attuned to dealing with bureaucracies to get commissions, rather than doing art that challenges or surpasses a commission. The challenge for the future is to seek tougher art, better audience education, and more adventurous commissioning bodies.
I have been on a couple of panels for the Public Art Network, mostly attended by public art administrators. On the one hand, the discussion always revolves around publicity (how can we get the newspapers to cover public art when it’s NOT controversial), and on the other, the audience often responds much more positively to discussion of projects that ingratiate themselves into public space nearly invisibly, as lighting fixtures or fountains or design elements, and they respond much less positively to projects that thrust the “art” out into the face of the “public” in a blatant or obstreperous manner.
While the reality of the public sphere demonstrates little clarity and little of its ideological, "democratic" character of a forum for debate or political contest or social interaction, "art" is certifiably a contested territory, a forum for often vituperative debate. In fact, art may be standing in for a public forum that doesn't exist outside of art, which could be one explanation of why the debate about and within art, such as the furor over the "Sensation" exhibition, has been so intense. Why, for example, has the right wing been so intent on killing the NEA, once the source of ideas and money for public art? The agency itself seems hardly to warrant the uproar, based on budget, the vast majority of grants awarded, or the content of the art once rewarded with the individual artists' fellowships that the Congress purged. If the intensity of the debate over art gives rise to the idea that there is genuinely something at stake in contemporary art, an exciting idea, there is also a danger of reducing public art to a Roman arena rather than a public forum—to a site where proxy battles are fought before a passive public.
What is public space, anyway: a good deal of what we publish in Sculpture magazine as public art is actually funded by private interests and placed within private spaces, like corporate headquarters buildings or shopping malls that may imitate "public space" but do not permit some of the rights of a democratic public sphere: free speech, free access, and so on. Malcolm Miles refers to these sites as "spaces under surveillance." Even within space that is publicly owned, the artist creating public art is often restricted in terms of freedom of expression, by means of the layers of bureaucracy involved in the programs, the commissioning, the approval, and the construction of public art. That denial of free expression is based on a distrust of individual artistic creativity, and is the symptom of the restrictive definition of "public" and "public space" that we refer to when we use "public" as in opposition to "art." There are, of course, notions of the public and public space that may not be so easily placed in opposition to art, and we will look at some of those as we go along. But, using the narrower sense of the terms, in all aspects of the field, the public and the art are in some sense in opposition, and in a constantly shifting balance.
There's a lot about the "phantom public" in writing on public art and public space, and obviously the public in public art is often a phantom or a bureaucratically defined population. Some new genre public art seeks to confront or define an actual public, in small groups or communities, but we also need to address the urban mass public, in the context of contemporary public space, in order to get a grasp on the possibilities of public art. Science Fiction writer David Brin recently suggested, on the PBS program Beyond Human, that there will be a time when we will all wear glasses with a small monitor in the corner that will display information from a computer that will scan the faces of people we pass and read out their names personal data on them. That seemed to me a horrible vision of public space, and of the interrelations of the people in it, in the future, but it was proposed as a good thing, a utopian, high tech public sphere. Brin's idea reminded me of a description of the beginnings of modern life and modern public space in the development of the city and the crowd, inBatteries of Life, by Christof Asendorf. (Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity, tr. Don Reneau, Univ. of California Press, p.92) He suggests that public space is visual: that we shifted to seeing rather than hearing people in public life because we simply cannot cope with the burden of information that hearing or overhearing the members of the crowd would provide. That overload, raised to a high-tech intensity, is what makes Brin's vision horrifying to me, possibly because it exemplifies the fact that the visual overload is now at least as insistent as the auditory. How does that overload of information and pure sight and sound impact public art now and in the future. Public art is of course primarily visual, and so should be well placed to take advantage of the visuality of public life, even in competition with frenetic commercial demands on our vision.
In the early 90s, there was a lot of talk about a “crisis…[of] the loss of convictions that once governed the practice of art and the interpretive enterprise associated with it.” John Gilmour, one of the people announcing the crisis, said that “We no longer feel sure of how to distinguish art from non-art, good from bad art, nor even how to identify what makes a work distinctively modern. Moreover, we hve doubts about whether the idea of the modern matters any longer in a culture championing, inthe broadest ways, the cult of the new. We discern artists and critics alike practicing their professions in an atmosphere of uncertainty about the directon the history of art is taking, and we seem forced to describe the dominant ethos as pluralistic.” (Fire on the Earth: Anselm Kiefer and the Postmodern World, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1990) The key element in this “crisis” tends to be seen as the “pluralism” of the era, something bemoaned by many other writers and something that has puzzled me—I’ve found myself asking, what’s wrong with pluralism? Though perhaps there is a better term to explore the current situation. I’ve also recently heard a lot about the need for a new critical language in the field of public art, a language to describe what’s going on or analyze the logistics or judge the particular objects being presented. I think there is such a need, but I think the problem is more general. We need a new language to talk about art today. The old rhetoric of the shock of the new, or of creativity, novelty, and mastery doesn’t really apply very well to the art of today. We are in an age of multiplicities and particularities, each artist and each work of art struggling for space in a crowded, unfocused, and noisy arena. And that cluttered space isn’t a way-station between clear, well-lighted spaces labelled Modernism and something as yet to be labelled, it’s the space where we live, it’s our condition. Calling it Postmodernism, which was the vogue in the 90s isn’t very helpful, at least not any more.
In the 1980s, the perceived need for a new language of art prompted a revival of the rhetoric of the sublime, as well as new maps of the artistic territory like Rosalind Krauss’s “expanded field” of sculpture. The landrush to stake theoretical claims in that new territory was one of the most characteristic aspects of the art world of the 80s and early 90s, but the attempt to use theory as a whip to dominate art has subsided or at least become fragmented. Just as there is no dominant trend in art, there is no dominant theoretical perspective, not even the competing theories of the 80s, such as deconstruction, abjection, and so forth. And, in fact, the skeptical nature of these theories may have retarded our awareness of our situation rather than clarified it:
- Glenn Harper
- Washington, DC, United States
- I have been, among other things, a bookshop owner, counterintelligence agent, writer, art critic, and grad student (literature and art). One of my blogs includes some examples of my art writing, from the past decade, with some new pieces forthcoming. But my most frequent new posts are to my crime fiction blog, International Noir Fiction.