Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Defining the Undefinable (in several parts)

“I am an artist”. This single sentence is possibly one of the hardest and also one of the easiest to utter. One the one hand, a person whose values and merits of art mirror those of transcendence beyond physicality or even spirituality, because creativity is neither, might actually have a hard time uttering these words, thinking himself somehow unworthy of the title in the face of his own predetermined image of the artist. On the other hand, another person whose opinion centers around the conception of absolute pluralism, where anything and everything can and therefore must be art, might have a rather easy time pronouncing these words, thinking that his identity as an artist is a given, because of the standard definition he has set upon the word.

But things may not be so easy after all. Because what is art? This is an age old question, and we have basically learned not to ask it for fear of appearing naïve, foolish, redundant, cynical, trite, old fashioned, because the contemporary concern is not whether something is or isn’t art, but the merits of the work within the context of it being art. Something becoming or being art is almost a given as in the above example, when we are talking of an age of absolute pluralism. But pluralism wouldn’t be here had we not agreed to it being here. It is precisely because we have stopped asking the question, is it art? Somehow, somewhere we have come to accept that art is and just might be whatever one chooses art to be. It is an abduction of the word to serve a more general purpose than it was ever intended. It starts with the urinal and ends with a trash bag floating in the breeze. It is a Duchampian nightmare, that not even Duchamp himself could think up. He was the first abductor. Had he known, would he have renounced his conception of the readymade? Was and is the readymade really a work of art? Had Duchamp not called himself an artist, would the resulting work still be considered art? For what is a readymade? It is a non art object, turned into an art object, through a single act of pure selection, nothing more. But the difference between a readymade and a non art object is the fact that a medium had to be present, a specific medium, one that called itself an artist, again something acquired purely by choice. The individual choice however isn’t enough to grant onto someone the title artist, because others have to accept that title and validate that person as an actual artist. This is a slippery slope to say the least, because one choice depends wholly on the other and vice versa.

So lets dig a little deeper into this problem. What is art? The good old Encyclopedia Britannica says of art that it is “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination. “ We are a bit more uncertain on Wikipedia where it states: “Though art’s definition is disputed and has changed over time, general descriptions mention an idea of human agency and creation through imaginative or technical skill.” Could it be that we have muddied the waters so much that the question what is art becomes in effect irrelevant? Let us not ask what art is, but how to make more of it and how to encompass even more within its fragile definition? But that is precisely, what is the greatest weakness of the definition of art. The zeitgeist says we live in an age of plenty, we live lives where information flows freely, we have access to almost anything we desire (provided we can pay for it). A seeming freedom occupies our thoughts. We are free to do anything, free to go anywhere, free to create anything. As this notion gets introduced, we find that increasingly the freedom to create anything directly influences how much of what can become art. And again, this is one of the greatest tragedies to have befallen us as a culture. The ever consuming notion of the more, turns into a preference of quantity at the expense of quality, the broad at the expense of deep. We should ask ourselves therefore the simple question, is it better to know a little about a lot, or a lot about a little? In our schools we generally go for the former ideal. At the modern workplace, multitasking is preferred to focusing on a single task from start to finish. On Jeopardy, the contestant must know a little bit from a broad range of subjects, typically having to do with facts. This is the contemporary zeitgeist, one that prefers vast knowledge to deep wisdom. The resulting definition of art cannot be therefore stated with a singular satisfactory answer.

Perhaps one of the most telling examples of the questionability of the definition of art is the most recent one of an 80 year old parishioner in Spain, whose attempt and subsequent botching of a restoration of a painting of Jesus. The question is not whether this was a successful or unsuccessful restoration of a work of art, but rather whether the new painting is a work of art itself? By many it Is being judged mainly on the merits of an art object and not on what the attempted restoration represented. An act of restoration is not an act of art making itself, even though it takes place in the same confines and context as that of actual art making, and yes by some accounts can be called the art of restoration. But before we can get this broad, we have to understand that there is a fundamental difference between the two acts, that of creating and that of preserving that which was created by someone else. Also, it does not follow well that the supposed work of art was restored by a non artist. What we have therefore is a non art act, plus a non artist apparently creating a work of art, incidental art at best, yet defined by at least 50% of the population of the world as an actual work of art. Had this been an act of purely conceptual nature, the notion of art would hold up to its supposed definition much more firmly than the one pinned on it by the general public. Why can a supposed work of art still hold up as a work of art despite it neither being an act of art making or the product of an artist? The elderly woman is at the best a reluctant artist. The proposition therefore must be that there is in man a special faculty which has to be present in order to produce a work of art. This faculty must therefore be wholly separate of the vague and broad definition of art as a whole. But to this later. Let’s talk of another matter which might shed a little light on this problem, one steeped in dialectics and therefore absolutely subjective. And yet, it cannot be said that even the most subjective may at one instance be totally objective and vice versa. Objectivity cannot exist without subjectivity as both take human facility and faculty to exist and to be understood. The nature of the observer is the culprit in both and that is another reason why the definition of art is so muddled. Is it purely human faculty that has the ability to express itself through art? Maybe. The mathematician might see the world and the universe as purely quantifiable, able to be expressed through complex equations and logarithms. But how does one quantify life, consciousness, beauty, and therefore art which springs forth from all the seemingly unquantifiable human faculties? If art can be expressed through mathematical equations, be reduced to simple formulas, be tested, proved to exist, then our task is simple because art can become mechanical, no human need touch another set of brushes or chisels. This has even been attempted. The mechanical production of works of art, are constantly being challenged in hopes to either destroy the concept of art or to advance it, depending on the conception of the artist. Yet we keep missing the point that it still takes an artist to put the process in motion. And the artist’s artistic faculty, the non mechanical one is at play.

From the point of view of the institutionalized notion of art, a work of art is one that was produced by an artist, meaning someone with the necessary education and background and in most instances in possession of a degree conferred onto him by an art institution. This is the basic concept of the institutionalized artist and it holds up for the most part on the merit that there exists a body which has the power to deem something a work of art and somebody an artist. This would also mean that anybody outside of the institution cannot ever be called an artist or produce a genuine work of art. But we know better than that. The institutionalization of art is only the simplest of measures of any given artwork or artist. A degree doesn’t guarantee a quality work or a quality artist. It is simply a benchmark, but one that should be recognized in the context of the definition of art.

When the institution of art works at its best, it has the capacity to lift up the reputation of the artist by his association with the institution. This can also be easily turned the other way. When an institution is failing, so do the people associated with it. The institution of art of the Renaissance for instance was a very beneficial one for both the artist, the public and the institution themselves. The artist by his reputation was able to lift up the institution and vice versa. To be an artist was to stand above the crowd and artists were highly esteemed. There was a consensus that to create a work of art was beyond the means of the average folk, one because of the education one must undertake (the long apprenticeships and grueling work that art making truly is), two because of the time commitment art making requires, and three because artistic creativity seems to lie within some individuals and not within others. Creativity is one of those human faculties that is as hard to define as art. It is something beyond the scope of the materially oriented, logic driven western society. It cannot be quantified, measured, tested. By all accounts it is but a projection of some other human faculty, but this would be a circular argument. We will return to creativity later, but to keep the point on institutionalization, we have seen that an institution may to some extent be a good measure of what is or isn’t art. Fast forward to modern times. Today, the artist is probably one of the least esteemed of all the institutionalized occupations. Thousands upon thousands of students of art get degrees conferred on them by universities, while more and more universities open their own art schools that will accept an ever greater number of students, resulting in even more graduations (a simple formula increasing the bottom line, but little else). The inflation on the part of the art degree, like money is that the more you print the less valuable they become. The institution has failed to keep the artist in esteem and therefore done so to itself by association. Add to this the swelling number of the outsider and non-traditional artists and one gets to see how we have ended up in this age of extreme super pluralism. With an institution unwilling to protect its investment in art and artists they have loaned out the title “artist” permanently to the public. Nobody without a proper education would call himself an entomologist or a physicist, yet the occupation that the title artist signifies is so weak that it can be attached to anybody with a modicum of talent and no degree at all.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Pat Passlof at WCU's Fine Art Museum and Black Mountain Collge Museum


The world is a hard complex place to navigate. In this respect, the art world is as impenetrable to some, as the Amazon rainforest. Moods and tastes are changing on a seasonal basis, celebrity and spectacle are the ever consuming product churned out by media savvy oligarchs and recycled as yesterdays pop culture by thousands of artists. The word art has been redefined so many times, so as to encompass virtually anything and everything the mind can provide with a reasonable amount of substance. Damien Hirst was heard saying that his medium today is money, a line that would make Warhol blush, and as such he retooled the moral impetus of art and artists everywhere yet again. The art market is the biggest totally unregulated market in the world right now and it shares a spot in the sunlight with student loan debt as being the biggest bubble about to burst any day now, the way it did in the 1980’s. It’s a vicious cycle, one that seems to have no end. But all things must come to an end sometime, even good things.

This is the backdrop against which we must understand the present Pat Passlof exhibition, a joint venture between the Fine Art Museum in Cullowhee and Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville. Nothing can be more clichéd and untrue as sounding out nostalgic odes to the “simpler” past and yet it is a psychological tactic that keeps the mind anchored within a comfortable vantage point from which it can survey its surroundings. And so it is with this exhibition. What we are looking at, are paintings, plain and simple. Before delving into aesthetic specifics, it’s probably a good idea to understand that the concept of painting has several implications.

First it proposes that one need to paint and only paint to provide a message to an audience, an idea noble and authentic and flawed and feeble at the same time.

Second, it presents paintings in a specific context, the museum space. Again the above must be repeated because our understanding of a work of art doesn’t necessarily depend on its placement. A work of art functions as well in a park, a living room, a sprawling desert, on a mountaintop or inside someone’s mind. Painting in this respect takes a position of a vanguard of this specific context of a museum setting. It is truly the only place where such a work can be enjoyed by everyone, or at least by those that came to see it.

Third, a painting’s function is in its immediacy, an object to be consumed but also an object to change a space and by this virtue to change our perception of that space.

Fourth, it espouses tradition. Through historical analysis a painting is suggestive of a set of guidelines which can either be followed or dismissed. When and where is a painting a painting? Does it need to stay within the confines of a canvas? I will leave such questions for a different conversation entirely. But I do feel that addressing or at least asking them can turn them into prudent qualifiers for Ms. Passlof’s work. Beauty and design can be put aside entirely and yet we can see that her work functions on all levels mentioned above.

Passloff was one of the last Abstract Expressionist painters, and although she might take issue with that title, it is more than apparent that her paintings have all the vestiges of Abstract Expressionist paintings. The exhibition is a veritable stroll down memory lane in which we can see, decade by decade Passlof’s influences from which she worked. Paintings like Escalator, 1949 and Yardstick, 1949 bear resemblance to the work of early AbEx painters like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Muted tones in shades of gray and amorphous linear compositions also play on surrealist techniques.


Woman, 1949 bears witness to both the style of early AbEx painting and is an obvious homage to Passlof’s biggest influence Willem DeKooning. It was the meeting with DeKooning that marked Passlosf’s turning point toward broad brushed abstraction of layered thickly applied paint. In her paintings the convention is similar to DeKooning’s, but she opted to remain purely abstract, to leave out all remains of figuration and chose colors that marked her own sensibilities. The shining examples from this era are the exquisitely sumptuous What is Rome,1960 and Sky Pasture, 1961. Though wonderful paintings, they are still not detached from the overbearing influence of action painting.

The 1970’s and 1980’s are represented by 5 paintings in the exhibit and are much too muddied by Passlof’s desire to break from her earlier work and influence. These are also the least successful paintings. These decades must have found Passlof working hard on understanding her position and creating a voice within an art world dominated by the cold ruminations of minimalism, expansive sublimations of environmental art and bumbling arbitrariness of emerging graffiti and street art.


The 1990’s finally brought Passlof to an era of unprecedented creativity as if she finally shed the skin of Abstract Expressionism, all except the heroic scale, bringing her up to par with her contemporaries. Beside the Rothenberg-like horse paintings, the last two decades of Passlof’s life resulted in some wonderful pictures, a language which would turn her into an influence as opposed to the influenced.


Of note is the fact that Passlof never turned to political commentary, something which she adamantly denounced in her Manifesto. Ironically her stance on politics and desire to keeping art clean of any vestiges of conceptual and political forms, make it into a political one nonetheless. What can be more political than a manifesto? One can say that a total denial of something is just as much an affirmation of it, and so it is with Passlof’s work. When looking at her paintings, grouped together, keeping in mind her position as a woman artist surrounded by a cadre of male painters, one cannot but come away with a feeling that her work is somehow politicizing or at least has been politicized by these facts.

Beauty comes to mind before anything else however. It is really hard to think of anything else when confronted by a ten foot canvas with lush strokes of blues, purples and reds. However there must be some distinction between the beauty conveyed by the plastic beauty of the paint and natural beauty. Passlof is not very concerned with translating anything other than the beauty inherent in the pigment of her paint. All reference to natural objects seems to be eliminated, giving space rather to unconsciously driven ephemera that are painted in with vivid strokes of color. It is a world In which color and paint take precedence over representation and yet we are still reminded of skies, landscapes, forests and meadows. As far as the mind is concerned, a symbol is the most powerful conveyor of information. And color, can be one of simplest and yet most complex of symbols. Just think of the color red and the imagery that come flooding in once the mind focuses on the symbolism associated with it.

With Passlof gone, an era definitely ended. Action painting and concern with accidental revelations, discovery of the self through the outpouring of paint on a canvas, brought to a conclusion. This two part show however, is a grand gesture, a high note with which to go out.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Movie About Robert Wilson

I recently watched this awesome documentary about Robert Wilson.  This is a must see for every artist young and old, contemporary or traditional, kitsch or avant-garde.  Also if you are a fan of Philip Glass, and I most certainly am this movie is for you.  It is a great look at the life and work of one of the premier avant-garde artists of our time and I can only hope that it will inspire others to make some great art.  In these trying times, god only knows we need the inspiration.