Art or Consequences

April 4, 2016

Missunderstandings

Filed under: Essay — Manuel @ 2:52 am

Missunderstandings2

Misunderstandings,
knowledge and recognition of which can contribute to intensifying and improving the quality of the debate about art and artistic practice in general.

 

The sole thing the following paragraphs specifically affirm is that art is a distinct occupation, whose goals or interests are not shared by any other occupation and whose specificity is what makes it significant to many artists, theorists and the general public.

The arguments presented below, which aim to affirm art’s difference and the need to preserve it, are debatable. In fact, the purpose of this text is to contribute to encouraging their debate. Most of the messages about art endlessly broadcast by all contemporary information channels offer only a superficial analysis of the artistic practice. This is so, above all, because they don’t consider the existence of these arguments. If anyone finds these arguments obvious and lacking in value, I would ask them to please write more often in the specialized media.

 

1 Experience

When publicly speaking about “the artistic experience”, many artists, most theorists and almost the entire general public immediately assume that what is being discussed are the emotions an observer feels when viewing a work of art. The expression refers to a work of art already framed or on a plinth in a gallery, museum or the artist’s studio.

It’s surprising that almost no one thinks the expression refers to the experience within which the work has its origin. When someone refers to the artistic experience as the one the artist has at the moment it occurs, it seems necessary to justify not adopting the point of view of the viewer, given that this has become the norm.

An artistic experience is something that just happens and, unlike a sports experience in a stadium, cannot be planned to take place during a weekend visit to an exhibition. Upsetting expectations is essential to its process: the artistic experience happens when there are no expectations, and if any exist, it doesn’t happen. Thus, for better or worse, few people have artistic experiences, and those not very often.

The artistic experience is inaugural. Some people feel intense emotions when they see for the first time a work made by another person, but the commitment with reality proposed by the work in this confrontation is very tenuous if the responsibility of the person who has decided that that work should exist is kept in mind.
Most of those who speak and write about art often view works of art but rarely participate in their realization and thus their statements about art tend to refer to contemplative experiences. It’s not uncommon for artists to identify more with the writings of those who have had artistic experiences stricto sensu and talk about them, such as T.S. Eliot, than with writings by philosophers who see art as an object of study.

The fact that these experiences are confused, always in favour of the experience of the viewer, has produced a great deal of writings with complicated arguments that try to establish that the pleasure produced in someone by an artwork is different from that produced by contemplating a model in a magazine or the agility of a footballer in a match or the greatness of alpine landscapes. The difference is clear if it’s clear what one is talking about when one refers to an “artistic experience”.

The identification of the concepts “artistic experience” and “aesthetic experience” seems to further the misunderstanding. The aesthetic is one way philosophy has of questioning itself through art; it’s not a way of studying art. Anyone who wants to study philosophy (in fact, to give up “philosophical” certainties) must examine the aesthetic, how artworks affect viewers, but those who want to have a direct relation with art must consider the way in which art affects their own life.

 

2 Objects

The pre-eminence that the experience of the viewer has acquired in respect to the experience of the artist may simply be the result of the importance that objects have in the artistic phenomenon. Objects are apprehensible, they are easily assigned a function and are always available for conversation and debate: everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, has had one. They are often understood as pills for experimenting art. In fact, the debate about what is art, has mutated thanks to this quality of objects to the question of what objects are art and, more specifically, whether certain objects in particular are art or not.

Objects, however, are only a sub-product of artistic activity and not always even a legitimate result of it. The problems and confusions derived from the pre-eminence of the object over experience would largely dissipate if one kept in mind that the artistic objects of the past are not art, but rather “artistic objects of the past”, the results of artistic experiences of a finished period. If artworks have acquired this importance in determining the definition of art it is because powerful interests exist, consciously and unconsciously, among all of the agents of the artistic process for this to be so. This is probably more intensive and unconscious in artists and more extensive and conscious in the rest of the artistic system.

 

3 Merchandise

The principal motive for establishing whether objects have or don’t have artistic characteristics is to determine their worth and thus organize, according to each case, their conservation, exhibition and transformation into merchandise.

One of the sloppiest misunderstandings, and yet one that is among the most deeply rooted in the artistic debate, understands the work of the artist to be similar to that of the manufacture of goods, and values the interest of each artist by how effectively his or her objects behave in the market. The general public, consisting of people who are often manufacturers or sellers of goods in other areas, naturally assimilates its perception of art to the conceptions of the world it has acquired in daily life. Similarly, a sector of the art world that has emerged and developed a notable specialization around the commercialization of artworks can only treat artistic objects in terms of their capacity to generate economic returns, first through the impossibility of their agents of conceiving any social process differently and, secondly, because other considerations could affect the economic performance of the works and (their) artists.

Other agents closer to the artistic experience, while critical of the commercialization of art, also let themselves be swept up by a theoretical trend that sees the evolution of art in parallel to the evolution of the process of commercialization of art, or as the result of the resistance to that phenomenon, which, to a certain extent, is the same thing given that it implies that art in its entirety can be defined exclusively in economic terms.

While the treatment, positively or negatively, of art as merchandise may at one point have been prominent in the artistic debate, it generally collaborates very little in elucidating artistic inquiries and the specific relationship of art with society.

 

4 Quality

Because almost no debate exists about what art is except to determine which objects can or cannot be considered artistic, the general trend in the specialized media is to immediately accept as “art” anything that bears that label. Specialists can later pass judgement separating “good art” from “bad art” over the enormous quantity of objects, attitudes, skills and individuals termed to be “artistic”.

If examined more carefully, however, it is easy to discard from among the “artistic” activities many that in reality belong to the interests and goals of design, advertising, marketing or crafts. Many of the objects exhibited in museums and galleries have been created with interests, objectives and methodologies that aren’t artistic (that don’t aspire to produce artistic experiences). A purge, no matter how light, would leave many spaces, resources and energies available for the use for which they have supposedly been meant.

On the other hand, the concepts of “good” and “bad” art lose their meaning once the artistic experience is considered as something that happens in the subjective realm of the artist. No objective criteria exist to measure the intensity of that experience. This idea unsettles many theoreticians and viewers because it closes their access to that realm. Such conditions make this misunderstanding difficult to resolve and for this reason it deserves even more effort and attention.

 

5 Beauty

Some discourses on art make no mention of beauty, but those that include it in their speculations, as many do, take it for granted that objects are art (the result of artistic experiences) only if they are beautiful. Those that mention beauty to speak about the value of repulsive or indifferent works (such as Duchamp) are special cases of the same thing. The misunderstanding derived from this notion consists of thinking that the artist’s aim is to produce beautiful objects or make beautiful actions (or repulsive or indifferent ones).

However, beauty and the techniques by which something beautiful is produced and (re)presented, far from being goals to achieve, are for artists exhausting impositions from which they cannot free themselves except by executing them. Technical skills have to be developed to the point of becoming dysfunctional. An artist doesn’t find the intensity of the artistic experience in that aspect of his or her work that he or she performs skilfully, almost routinely, but rather in that which is still unknown and which, in most cases, is resolved in a clumsy and first-time way in the art object. An artist needs skill to later betray it. Beauty is a residual quality, what remains after insistent efforts to resolve an enigma that won’t let itself be resolved.

If this misunderstanding were cleared up, artistic values would cease to be confused with the attributes of beauty that flowers, landscapes or human bodies may have. Hegel, for example, at the start of his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, poorly resolves certain problems because he has not given sufficient thought to this subject.
The above doesn’t stop “creators” from existing who search for the beautiful because they are not interested in the artistic experience. Normally, however, the general media expresses itself in ideas that don’t differentiate between artists and those who solely search for the beautiful.

 

6 Emotion

Works of art occasionally spark emotion in some of the people who view them. The artistic experience always occurs in a place of found passions and, unquestionably, emotion is one of the notable results of the encounter with the terrible angel who disdains to destroy us. The decision, however, to place emotion at the centre of the artistic experience leads to all kinds of confusion, the principal one arising from the idea that the work of the artist is to create objects with the purpose of producing emotions in others. If the artist’s aspiration is to produce emotion, at any rate, it should be in the artist himself or herself.

In a secondary way to this misunderstanding, another mistaken idea has taken hold, namely the notion that viewers feel emotion without thinking, given that art appeals to their sensibility, rather than to their intellect. It is, however, more clarifying and more respectful to the public to consider art, its execution and contemplation as a form of intellectual endeavour, which is directed to thought and which provokes a mental activity that, in the best of cases, awakens an emotion. This point of view untangles the difficulties theoreticians face in finding a continuity between classical and contemporary art, or a dividing line between art and Hollywood films.

 

7 Creation

One of the errors most firmly established in artistic discourse – because it impregnates both everyday and specialized language and, above all, because it extends in this way to the most intimate thoughts of many artists – is the idea that art is essentially a creative activity.

There is no doubt that new objects, ideas and attitudes appear in the world as a result of artistic practice. These creations, however, can be seen as a form of “rebound effect”, in virtue of the destructive force of art that, when it successfully manages to destroy the dominant reality, leaves behind a vacuum that other instances rush to fill.

If art is no longer understood as a creative activity, all of the discussions about its fusion with crafts, on the one hand, and with industry on the other, become meaningless.

 

8 Knowledge

The concept of art as a producer of knowledge is only a more subtle, contemporary and specialized aspect of the unfortunate image of art as a fundamentally creative activity. This notion has been developed at a time in history when the production of objects, while still being the vehicle of all of art’s intellectual, social and commercial activity, has lost the popular attraction it enjoyed for centuries.

The procedures used by artists when tackling problems and the attitudes they have regarding established rules possess characteristics that have acquired increasing value in areas of academic, scientific and industrial production because they help to combat the predisposition toward stagnation of these activities. Just as those who develop their lives between one commercial transaction and another cannot understand art other than as merchandise, so too professionals whose aim is to improve production processes tend to understand art as if it were only one among other methods in the service of the investigative impetus toward innovation.

That innovation isn’t among art’s goals becomes clear when it is compared with other activities in which innovation is essential, such as technology, industry and, in a specific and intense way, weapons technology and the weapons industry.

 

9 Utility

Motives exist for thinking the confusion produced and reproduced in respect to art and its relationship with creation and knowledge is not unintentional. It might almost be termed a “strategic error”: by assigning meaning and utility to art its activity is instrumentally regulated with the aim of recovering it for the world of production. The slogan of the media of the legitimisation of reality is that art must be creative so that it can integrate itself into the operations of industry and the self-preservation mechanisms of the species and individuals.

The phenomenon could even be understood in the following way: it isn’t that production is necessary and that art can be useful to make production more efficient, but rather that uses are invented for the skills developed by artists in order to give art a utility that makes it lose its specificity.

The exactness of artworks, their formal precision, arises from a need to maximize the unproductive effort, the useless squandering. The artist doesn’t attempt to make the works function well, for them to serve a purpose, but rather he or she attempts to achieve a supplementary output that ruins all construction.

 

10 Equality

Art is often associated with democratic tasks and goals because the temper and talent needed to become an artist don’t depend on social extraction, wealth or class, but rather on the individual’s disposition toward life and death. Also because leftist ideals, on which democracy is apparently founded, tend to question themselves, an attribute that can be considered essential to the artistic practice.

These conditions have given rise to the mistaken idea that all human beings are able or must be able to effortlessly access the key that makes artworks meaningful.
Art offers equal opportunities to all to strive, to be rejected, to grow weak, to make decisions that go against their own interests, and to bite the hand that feeds them… Its attitudes are available to those who want to adopt them. Apart from this, neither artistic practice nor artistic contemplation offers much of a sense of community, because the path of art leads toward solitude.

 

11 Transformation

Art seems to have a social responsibility that could be said to be the result of the capacity of transformation of the political conditions attributed to it, of the media appeal and respect it enjoys in society. This is demanded by sectors of the population that view as an absurd waste the fact that art has a power it doesn’t use. Nonetheless, art only has power when it doesn’t exercise it because as soon as it uses it, it ceases to be art. When art has the possibility, however limited, to act in the world, it becomes propaganda. The clarification of this misunderstanding would demolish the basis on which the legitimacy of all political and social art rests.

 

12 Coda

The origin of all of the misunderstandings I have presented in this text lie for the most part in the absence of a definition of that which is discussed when dealing with matters related to art. Only rarely is what is referred to in statements specified and delimited, whether it be the concept of “art”, the artistic impulse, the artistic experience, the artwork in abstract or concrete terms, or the art world and art market.

Those who detest art for being what it has turned into, aren’t talking about what “art” has become, but rather about what are now “the structures of distribution of artistic objects”. They fight with the best of intentions against the power of the spectacle in art but in doing so they legitimize it as art. When someone states that “a pear is a bad apple”, what they are affirming is that “a pear is an apple”; the statement is disguised as a moral judgement that only affects the person who pronounces it.

 

 

The purpose for seeking a clarification of these elemental misunderstandings is to enrich the debate a bit. It’s not a question of arriving at any certainties, but rather to contribute to reducing the number of half-truths.

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