22 May 2011

No Accounting for Taste

Via a recent edition of the e-flux journal, Boris Groys on "Art and Money," and the notion that certain kinds of the former exist due to the support of an "elite"...

"Our contemporary world, though, is primarily an artificially produced world—in other words, it is produced primarily by human work. However, even if today’s wider populations produce artworks, they do not investigate, analyze, and demonstrate the technical means by which they produce them—let alone the economic, social, and political conditions under which images are produced and distributed. Professional art, on the other hand, does precisely that—it creates spaces in which a critical investigation of contemporary mass image production can be effectuated and manifested. This is why such a critical, analytical art should be supported in the first place: if it is not supported, it will be not only hidden and discarded, but, as I have already suggested, it would simply not come into being. And this support should be discussed and offered beyond any notion of taste and aesthetic consideration. What is at stake is not an aesthetic, but a technical, or, if you like, poetic, dimension of art."

Groys navigates his argument by way of (perversely enough) two noted essays by Clement Greenberg -- specifically "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" and "The Plight of Culture." Admittedly, the piece meanders and gets a bit knotty at times, yet Groys manages to stay fairly on-point in terms of unpacking and demystifying certain misconception about how the artworld supposedly "works." Ultimately, his thesis is has it that it isn't so much monied, bourgeoisie, institutional elites that keep foster or bolster certain types of seemingly esoteric art modes and practices, but rather the judgement and support of the "productivist" elites of artists themselves.1

This, of course, raises all sorts of theoretical considerations. What interests me more is the more at the issues that fall more squarely in the domain of aesthetics. Specially, the matter of how a given work or art engages an audience, how it expresses or communicates something to someone, and how the canon shapes up in relation to these considerations.

There are "artist's artists," just as there are "musician's musicians," "writer's writers," and so on. Anyone who devotes their time of energy invested in any given area of artistic activity knows this. How a given artist/writer/whatever achieves this status varies, but it often hinges on a specialized knowledge of the matters of craftmanship -- a critique or appreciation based in technical or formalistic considerations.2

For the past 3-4 decades, formalism has taken a consistent bashing, having long since become a dirty (or, at the very least, dismissive) term in critical circles. But I'd argue that any artists that's worth their weight in salt is ultimately a formalist -- whether consciously or innately. They're geared to think in terms of things like color, composition, texture, materials, physical properties, scale, etc. (Effectively, the syntax by which a work communicates with the viewer/audience.) If they're not, then they've pretty much got it all ass-backwards and the likelihood is very high that they're making lousy work -- work that fails to engage or impart anything to the viewer.

Critics factor into this too, naturally. And they're also considered (rather naively) viewed as constituting some sort of powerful "elite" of their own in all of this. But the role of the critic in much of what Groys is addressing is a little more peripheral. There is, I believe, also a fundamental disconnect or a major degree of removal that spereates the judgement of critics from those of producers. Critics and art historians most often tend to think in linear or compartmentalizing terms -- to imposing or applying those types of narratives in terms of situating a work or artist into some context or another. On the other hand, artists (the good ones, anyway) generally have a much more oblique or diffuse way of making connections across a broad range of artworks and cultural artifacts -- connection that are not only visual, but also thematic, materialistic, and critical in nature.

Joseph Bueys stating to an audience that the work of Jackson Pollock was one of the century's greatest artistic achievements; and that if you don't get that, then you don't understand art. Richard Prince responding to an interviewer that if there was one piece of art he'd like to own, it'd be a DeKooning. Gerhard Richter getting all huffy with Benjamin Buchloh when the latter asserted that Richter's smeared abstract paining were ironic postmod corruptions of the authorial gestures of Ab Ex. If you do much reading in the history of contemporary art, you occasionally runs into this sort of scenario. And it never fails to amuse when you encounter them, because they demonstrate the disconnect I mentioned above -- an instance of a critic or historian projecting an aesthetic position on an particular artist, basing their assumption on a readymade or commonly accepted reading of the artist's work. But it's seldomly as simple or limited as that.3

image: Christopher Wool, Untitled, 1990

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1. I know, nothing so murky as bring the term/idea of an "elite" (or "elitism") into a discussion. I long ago dropped the term from my own vocab due to its rhetorical bankruptcy. And employing the term "avant-garde" in this day and age is as equally embarrassing and problematic. But since those are the terms Groys uses (if only for the sake of notional shorthand), we'll let them stand for the time being.

2. I realize that this hardly makes for a finalizing, airtight thesis. For instance, over the years I've known more than a few musicians that I thought had (sometimes) lousy taste in music. Reason being that their technical knowledge and ability sometimes drove them to appreciate something merely for technical reasons -- i.e. to bravura and "virtuosity" for its own sake, thus occasionally being taken in by what some would call "vulgar showmanship." Yes, Al Di Meola can play "really fast." Yeah, Maynard Ferguson can play really loudly. And yes, Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is really complex. And...?

3. As far as the matter of canon-shaping and art practices are concerned, and I also found that the Groys essay touches on topics that turn up (in varying degrees) in this and this item which've crossed by path recently.

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