Monday, December 28, 2009

Foucalt Response

(For grad school twice a year all students congregate in Rockport to present work and be involved in a number of academic meetings. One such meeting involves an article or paper given to us in advance that we meet together and discuss. Then we are supposed to write a response to the paper and subsequent discussion. For the April '09 retreat we discussed an article by Michael Foucalt called The Order of Things and a response by Roger Kimball called The Killing of History: Why Relativism is Wrong. Here is my response to the discussion.)

“An economist is a man who states the obvious in terms of the incomprehensible.” - Alfred A. Knopf

I seem to make a habit of taking the subject of the reading and then diverging into a quasi-related train of thought for the response. I figured why mess with tradition. While reading the articles and during the discussion my mind kept wandering towards one particular thought. If my mind is wandering I might as well see where it is heading, and as tradition dictates the thought did not seem to relate to the principle point of the discussion.

The point in question is the ability or necessity to clarify an idea either in words or in artistic expression. I should probably qualify that this response will most likely sound like a soapbox rant because it probably is. It has been a frustrating question because every time I question this concept the response I receive is usually something along the lines of…”sorry if I can’t dumb it down enough for you.” I don’t want or need an excuse; I simply want to know if people are capable of clarifying their idea or are the ideas so abstract that it only makes sense when spoken from an ivory tower?

The nature of the discussion is what clarified the point for me. As always the reading starts out with mass confusion with a few varying ideas about what we had just read. People will come out with arguments about why they disagree with the reading. People will try to give analogies explaining flaws perceived in the logic under question. Then at about the one hour mark in the discussion the group would seem to have an epiphany were there was a realization that we had agreed the whole time. We just needed a translator to figure out how to put our ideas into words that all of us comprehended. It felt like we were saying the same thing but in different languages so no communication occurred.

I have always tried to approach a new idea or philosophy with a certain amount of healthy skepticism. I plan on doing the readings as open minded as possible then continue into the discussion with questions rather than answers. This time I found myself a little more opinionated. Initially I was drawn to Kimball’s arguments, not because I agreed with all of them but because he communicated them. I could not even begin to argue the legitimacy of Foucault’s arguments or insights as I spent all my time staring at the letters on the page but unable to get those letters to transport my brain anywhere but the surface of the paper.

This issue was addressed during the discussion so I do not want to address the Foucault reading specifically but instead address a related concern that I have always had with the art world in general. We as artists seek to produce something new. We want to extend the dialogue about our discipline or about issues relative to our subject. But often in our efforts we change the approach and visual language to a degree that our idea is not being communicated. An outsider could rightfully say that art is a medium in which the practitioners often elect to use ‘cryptic’ as the language of choice.

While at museums or galleries how many times have we thought, or heard from others, “I just don’t get it.” I find this frustrating, especially when the response is not from a lack of education or desire but sheer befuddlement as to what went through the artists head. When we walk into an exhibit without the emotional and intellectual stimulus that the artist had experienced and are not privy to this genesis for the work how are we supposed to be on an equal playing field? How are we supposed to get it? The clarity usually comes later after a well-spoken critic gives the artwork a meeting that the general public can embrace.

It does not matter how much I study critical or academic explanation and rational for some celebrated works of art, I can still leave feeling stupefied and resorting to rolling my eyes. This is a rhetorical question, but when this happens how much of the disconnect is the fault of the artist and how much is the fault of the viewer? How much precedence and history must an individual be required to know before they can truly understand a work of art? Should the artist clarify their vision or at least attempt to without the assistance of the critic? I don’t feel that an artist taking responsibility for his vision in any way nullifies the artistic merits of their creations.

I am not questioning the individual artist but the general direction of the art community. I do not want an artist to have to make eye candy because there is definitely a potential landmine in making artwork banal enough for mass consumption. But I also feel there is a landmine in making artwork that is so cryptic that people lose their appetite and cannot be consumed by anyone but elitists.

I grew up thinking that the magic of the artist resides in their ability to see things that others could not and then show what previously the viewer was incapable of seeing. The magic was in the clarifying power of the artist. I was also mystified by the magic of their craft. There was an incredible amount of skill and dedication to learning and perfecting their medium that allowed them to produce something that endured through time. The quest for perfection in others is something that always mystifies me and gives me a craving to improve my own endeavors and not settle for the status quo. Now that I am older I am disheartened by how much of contemporary art seems geared to do the opposite of this.

There are many artists that if I had seen their work, without the years of study that I have put in and sincerely wanting to understand why the work is appreciated, that I would have summarily rejected. (There are still some that fit into this category for me despite my efforts.) What inherent good is there in a work of art that is so didactic and enigmatic that it takes a lifetime of research to grasp, let alone appreciate? If there is a discovered truth or insight that is so worthwhile that you would create something to demonstrate what you found than why cloud your discovery in obscurity? I’m not asking people to dumb down their speech but to make an earnest attempt to clarify what they have to say.

At the university at which I teach we have a janitor with a learning disability. One evening I had to spend a while convincing him not to throw away a students project that one instructor had praised and then put out for display. The project consisted of a lot of cardboard and lith film held together with duct tape and lit up from inside; it was loosely put together, the imagery did not connect with the presentation and was barely discernable as imagery as it was. The janitor was baffled that the object was an art project. He argued that he throws things away all the time that looked worse than this object. No matter what I said to him I could not convince him that it was art and that it was ok to leave it alone. Eventually he decided that if I said it was ok then he would leave it. Who is to say that the janitor is not right? Perhaps because of the learning disability he was able to see clearly because he was not filtering his vision through layer upon layer of “knowledge” that clouded his ability to see.

“I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.” - Michel de Montaigne

I was raised on the mindset of, “If a job is worth doing than it is worth doing well.” or “If you don’t have the time to do a job right then when will you have the time to do it again?” I found these mindsets to be very pragmatic and productive. If I am going to exert the energy and effort to understand or comment on an obscure concept than I want to do my best. (Not do it right mind you, but do it the best I can.) If I am more confused after the effort than before than I consider the whole attempt a failure. The way I see it, if the concept is already obscure and if I leave it obscure then I have done nothing. If I find clarity and cannot communicate this newfound clarity than I also consider the attempt a failure because if an idea dies with me than it has been proved to be of little benefit.

The world of art is weird in the sense that art is considered finished only as long as you don’t finish it. The artist often leaves the art ambiguous so that the viewer has something to do when they look at it. If the artist answers all of the questions within the image then the viewing experience is one of sheer boredom. Viewing should not be a passive exercise. Most non-artists are already passive viewers and that is why they are not artists. It is the artist’s job to enable the viewer in a way that they are capable of seeing more than they would have or could have on their own. But when do we take this to far?
Nikola Tesla said, “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.” Obviously I use the terms “reality” and “truth” loosely after the shellacking they received during the discussion but do we also do this in art? Is art made in such a way that it no longer has any relation to reality?

When art is created to challenge, comment on, or further the discussion of art rather than bring insight into a specific human condition we narrow our audience considerably. If we create art only to discuss art then the ancillary knowledge needed to participate in the experience is prohibitive.

There are many attitudes and philosophies within the art community that I adamantly disagree with for my own art but find myself defending and using them as points of discussion when trying to expand someone’s vision. I have always held to the notion that if a good percentage of a population believes something then there must be some merit to the notion and will assume that perhaps it is my head that needs some adjustments.

“Everybody believes in something and everybody, by virtue of the fact that they believe in something, use that something to support their own existence.” - Frank Zappa

I know my opinion is probably in the minority on this particular subject but it is what makes my artwork my artwork. I do not need my artwork to resonate with current agendas within the art world. I find the complement of a stranger that stumbled upon my images as flattering as one from a museum director. If I can help someone find clarity in life then I feel I accomplished my objective.


Brandon said...

Wonderful article, it seems you have a gift of writing.

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