30 November 2005

A moment of clarity in regards to the present situation

By "present situation" of course I mean the present situation of contemporary art. My guess is not many of us spend a great deal of time--if any--contemplating what is going on with art these days (to those of you who take exception to this, it only means that I did not know you were reading my 'blog). This is because contemporary art, like contemporary academia, is opaque to the layman and what is opaque usually becomes ignored. But saying that contemporary art is a rarified field was not the moment of clarity.

The moment of clarity came to me while glancing through Jim Lewis' commentary on the artist Mike Kelley. Kelley's work finds itself in the company of a slew of other artists who make art out the detritus of modern life. I suppose that because this has been ratified as a legitimate mode of artistic production since at least Picasso and Duchamp, Lewis is justified in awarding Kelley the moniker of "the last great 20th-century artist."

But when you look at Kelley's work you realize how bland and cynical the art world is today. And if Kelley is indeed the "last, great 20th-century artist," then the 20th-century was not about art's redefinition or expanding that definition but about art's self-immolation.

I would hate to say this and be labelled as an unreflective, out-of-touch philistine, one clearly outside the coterie of the art establishment (which I may be anyway, but no matter), because to say that contemporary art is bland and cynical or that it has sought the destruction of its ownself in terms of itself is not really to attack contemporary art, but to understand it in the way it wants to be understood. Blandness and cynicism are taken up by contemporary art as an apparatus, or better still, as weapons, by which it does not produce images but rather it attacks or critiques a culture in which image prodcution has been democratized to every quarter or life.

Since the artist no longer has a monopoly on the creation of images, the artist chooses instead to become a philosopher or a critic. In doing so, the artist only builds a bulwark between him or herself and the larger audience. By retreating back to where popular culture cannot follow, the artist ensures that popular culture remains an entity to be critiqued by forcing it to remain intellectually and spiritually inert. Art and artist become anti-art and anti-artist while our culture becomes more and more kitschy, cheap and self-gratifying. In this regard, if we understand contemporary art as a cultural critique, we must also view it as a failed critique because its purpose is not to transform culture but to sustain the division between art/anti-art and non-art.

Art and culture will only be able to move foward when we abandon the historical terms in which art has been situated, when there can be no more last, great artists, only artists. In such an event, it may seem curiously like moving backwards, but only to the artists.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Garland

This is your buddy JM in Georgia. I enjoyed reading your moment of clarity not just because I am also a philistine but because it gets at thinks that I have long felt to be true in a more precise and insiteful way than I am capable of. Please if you have an opportutinty I would be very interested in seeing this line of thinking expanded and fleshed out in more detail or at least I would like to discuss it with you further in the future.