I’ve started reading art books. I have a nice (smallish but growing rapidly) library of art books which I use for inspiration and reference when I’m working on projects. I flip through the pages, scanning the images, looking for something that catches my imagination with a connection to my aims for a project. But now I’ve started reading them too. And by reading I mean actually paying attention to the words on the page and not just the pretty pretty pictures in these beautiful books. It turns out there’s lots of great stuff buried in those words. Showing how an artist developed, putting little weird/random illustrations/photographs in context, explaining how pieces came to be.
Below are a couple of books that I’ve spent time with this month, with the text that got pinned with a pink sticky note.
Andrew was writing about political art recently on twitter asking whether it was possible to create (I believe he said) “quiet” political art. This struck a chord:
Kentridge’s work in inherently political, for it intimately reflects the conditions of his locale: Johannesburg, the South African state, and Africa in general. The son of a politically minded family, Kentridge was raised on the political ideals of earlier utopian societies. Yet, though his work engages with that of past artists who were deeply involved with political themes, he has moved beyond what is traditionally considered political art. His is an art that does not seek to present (or re-present) tragedies or express outrage, as was the case with Picasso’s Guernica (1937). Rather, he introduces he perspective of the perceiver-ego. In effect, he is said that the macrocosm offers only unspeakable horror, whereas the microcosm—the individual—offers possibilities for art.
“This ‘responsible’ attempt to keep certainty at bay implies a negative dialectic, and also a suspicion of the possibility of a direct, positive communication of meaning. For the philosopher Theodor Adorno, that which is immediately (and unmediatedly) understandable is essentially false, and the truth of artworks lies in their ability to avoid it:
‘The truth of discursive knowledge is enshrouded, and thus discursive knowledge does not have it; the knowledge that is art, has truth, but is something incommensurable with art… The enigma of artworks is their fracturedness…. [Art] achieves meaning by forming its emphatic absence of meaning.’
The politics of art thus lie in the awareness and consequences of the fact that the direct embodiment of meaning opens the way for the culture industry to absorb art as yet another object of production and consumption, making it a space of closure rather than emancipation. Kentridge’s sense of the political is similar, and also by necessity indirect. ‘I am interested in a political art,’ he has stated, ‘that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings.’”
The strategy of making political art that speaks rather than yelling by coming to the topic through the thick filter of our personal experience makes sense, feels right. I’m not sure this is because I an writing this in 2014 and my own small view out my own two eyes is the only one left, or because it is the way successful art has always been made. At a recent performance I asked Andrea Assaf https://alternateroots.org/tour/artists/andrea_assaf how to make good political art. Her reply was to use a conversation rather than a megaphone, to include multiple voices, and to listen well. I liked her answer, and it makes sense for the community-connected work she produces. Kentridge uses more megaphones than any artist I know (of course in more layered ways than any artist I know, too), and speaks from and about a singular point of view (though one of the most nuanced visions I know) and we are compelled to listen, and more importantly, to think.
On a recurring Feral theme of the role (or non-role, or shifting, multiple roles) of art:
quoted from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory:
“The sea of the formerly inconceivable, on which around 1920 revolutionary art movements set out, did not bestow the promised happiness of adventure. Instead, the process that was unleashed consumed the categories in the name of that for which it was undertaken…For absolute freedom in art, always limited to a particular, comes into contradiction with the perennial unfreedom of the whole. In it the place of art became uncertain. The autonomy it achieved, after having freed itself from cultic function and its images, has nourished by the idea of humanity. As society became every less a human one, this autonomy was shattered. Drawn from the idea of humanity, art’s constituent elements withered by art’s own law of movement. Yet art’s autonomy remains irrevocable. All efforts to restore art by giving it a social function—of which art is itself uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty—art doomed….Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus become uncertain of itself right in its innermost fiber.”
Kentridge’s work, at home in every major art museum and selling well at auctions can’t be seen as outside the art industry. But its uncertainty feels (maybe it’s because it still feels new?) like it has something to express, that the millions of dollars exchanged for his work hasn’t muted the original intent. Has he found a way to make work that is immune to the art world’s power-sap? Probably not, though I like to think that by heading out in his own personal direction, by staying (physically) outside the middle of the art world, he has kept his vision and message clear, at least for a little while.
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
Large Scale Projects
The book is an overview into the processes that resulted in several large-scale projects (with several great photos, including areal context shots, of each one).
I saw photos of Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Track for the first time in Art History 102 my Sophomore year in college. I remember loving the sad vinyl lipstick and the idea of political art that worked through humor. I remember learning that it was a Vietnam War protest.
The book argues otherwise:
Samuel Callaway, a Yale Architecture student and project supporter, writing about Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Track:
“The mood of the piece, the aftereffects, were created by the Vietnam War; but the facts initiating the project were not. If anything, the issue was a rather local one; the architecture students, who were generally more radical than the rest of the campus, were trying to protest university abuses: lack of money and the dearth of student financial support and of internal organization and coherence in the School itself.”
Apparently it was one of a number of protests the Architecture students staged against school policies. (I wonder what the art students were doing.)
I learned in the book that Philip Johnson was a professor at Yale then, was a financial supporter of the project, and a big fan of Oldenburg’s work. And suddenly his AT&T building, with its Chippendale pediment, made sense, had context. I wonder whether it’s possible that the lecturer didn’t know this connection. Talking about architects and landscape architects about different projects, I’ve been struck by how insulated the disciplines can be. Landscape Architects will claim a large project for their profession that I know by the name of the sculptor that collaborated on it. Johnson is certainly an exception, known for his art collection, but I wonder how much under-the-radar cross-pollination happens that is missed.
Also of note: Yale didn’t admit women when the piece was first installed. Why this wasn’t mentioned at a women’s college baffles me. (Though the idea that I would have missed details in that sleepy dark slide lecture does not).
A special issue of the student publication Novum Organum No.7, “Colossal Monument” (which was beyond my search powers to find online) was published and included a deed of gift of the piece from the Colossal Keepsake Corporation (named by Oldenburg) to Yale University.
From the Deed of Gift:
“Know ye, all men, by these presents that the Colossal Keepsake Corporation, a Connecticut corporation, for itself, its successors and assigns, hereby gives, conveys and transfers unto Yale University, a specially chartered Connecticut corporation, all its right title and interest in the monumental sculpture by Claes Oldenberg entitled “Lipstick Ascending on Caterpillar Tracks” (hereinafter the “Monument”) so long as at the Monument shall remain on that certain portion of Beincke Plaza… In the event of a violation of the condition an preservation that the Monument remain on that certain portion of Beinecke Plaza herein described, and upon breach of said condition, the Monument and all right, title, and interest therein, shall revert to the grantor, its successors or assigns; provided, however, that the Monument may be temporarily removed from the herein described portion of Beinecke Plaza for a period not to exceed seventy-two hours twice in each calendar year”
…which is such a wonderful (and explicit) way of compelling Yale to be part of the piece, of labeling response and non-response by the school as both prescribed actions. It’s hard for me to imagine that the piece of paper changed how Yale responded, but I love the way it (at least conceptually) created a situation where the student group an evenly-matched context for dialogue with the school. A very trickster move, and a tool to remember.
The book covers another gift piece by Oldenburg and van Bruggen, a steel horseshoe monument to the last US Cavalry horse in Marfa, TX.
Donald Judd writing about monuments and Oldenburg:
“There are no believable new monuments. The reality of social conformity is still present but the admission of it is contrary to its democratic mythology. Therefore the United States Government cannot make believable monuments, either the academic, representational one or the soldiers of Iwo Jima or the academic abstract one for the dead soldiers of Vietnam. Claes’s monuments are believable unbelievable monuments, perhaps about the pretension to a public endeavor, or about public endeavors misplaced, and about private desire in public, which may be a private desire that all share, as that for ice cream cones. Careful with that baseball bat. What is small in private may be Gargantuan in public, or the reverse, or both. I assume there are two spellings of satirical, also satyrical.”
That’s an odd argument to make in the context of the Marfa piece, which has nothing to do with private desire and everything to do with governments and armies and death and memory. And it works very well in all those ways. It wasn’t built (or funded) by the government, it was a private gesture replacing a crumbling concrete marker.
He’s probably right about what governments can do. But maybe a monument is not what the Vietnam Memorial is. Do people understand the piece as a product of the government in the same way they understand the statue to Iwo Jima or the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, or is it understood as a private gesture (I mean emotionally understood, not practically)? Or rather than a gesture (the realm of art) maybe it functions more as landscape: a realm for (directed) activity? Would this bring it out of the realm of what Judd considers monument (or art)? And would it change his view on its success?
p.s. Of course Donald Judd wouldn’t like the Vietnam Memorial. What’s the opposite of horror vacui?