from art – with love

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Yoko Ono

I have a complicated relationship with conceptual & post-conceptual art. Just trying to define the field – CONCEPTUAL ART – is to most of us … well; nearly impossible.

  • Conceptual art is based on the notion that the essence of art is an idea, or concept, and may exist distinct from and in the absence of an object as its representation.
  • It has also been called Idea art, Post-Object art, and Dematerialized art because it often assumes the form of a proposition (i.e., a document of the artist’s thinking) or a photographic document of an event.
  • Conceptual art practices emerged at a time when the authority of the art institution and the preciousness of the unique aesthetic object were being widely challenged by artists and critics.
  • Conceptual artists interrogated the possibilities of art-as-idea or art-as-knowledge, and to those ends explored linguistic, mathematical, and process-oriented dimensions of thought and aesthetics, as well as invisible systems, structures, and processes. 
  • In some cases such texts served as the art works themselves.

My readers, when I write as a newspaper critic, tend to think that conceptual art is some kind of new-fangled invention. But the thing is, as a historical epoch, conceptualism is already a passed over stadium, outdated (even if a lot (most?) artists still make conceptual art). These facts don’t make things any easier. I think this discrepancy between the art worlds, aesthetic theory and the general public is one of the reasons why it can be so extremely difficult to write well as an art critic. Because what one actually has to do, is to try to negotiate with three kinds of, one could almost say, incompatible systems. The system of common sense and everyday life (the public), the system of highlight specified subject knowledge and praxis (the artists), and a diffuse academic world distinguished by dissention (the institution).

This no-mans-land, the zone between the specialised and the common, will be my area of study in the time to come.

Am I looking forward to it? I don’t know?! But I’m already spending my days as a critic in this uncertain territory so I might as well try to get some mapping done while I’m here – .

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Yoko Ono

Why I illustrated my post with Yoko Ono’s? Because I can think of no other conceptual artist as lovable as she!


 

Conceptual Art at the end of the 20th Century spread to become a general tendency, a resonance within art practice that became nearly ubiquitous. Thus the widespread use of the term “post-conceptual” as a prefix to painting and photography in recent times, Benjamin Buchloh in Art After Conceptual Art points out that post-conceptual art is already emerging in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the photo-based appropriation art of Martha Rosler, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Dara Birnbaum.

British philosopher and theorist of conceptual art Peter Osborne makes the point that that “post-conceptual art is not the name for a particular type of art so much as the historical-ontological condition for the production of contemporary art in general” … Osborne first noted that contemporary art is ‘post-conceptual in a public lecture delivered at the Fondazione Antonio Ratti, Villa Sucota in Como on July 9, 2010. It is a claim made at the level of the ontology of the work of art (rather than say at the descriptive level of style or movement).

 

 

 

 

if art is to matter …

Continuing yesterday’s post – here is Alain De Botton, arguing for an instrumental use of art: 

The idea that one might use art for a purpose, for “instrumental” reasons, tends to set off alarm bells. Art is not an instrument, comes the almost automatic reply. It shouldn’t be thought of as some kind of tool. It’s not a pill. It shouldn’t be asked to perform some specific function, especially something as egocentric as to cheer you up or to make you a more empathetic person. Art galleries aren’t chemists.

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Antti Laitinen © Self-portrait in the Swamp (2002)

I couldn’t disagree more, Alain de Botton continues:  If culture is to matter to us deeply, then it has to engage with our emotions and bring something to what one might call our souls. Art galleries should be apothecaries for our deeper selves.

- Alain de Botton

I’m not sure of exactly what Laitinen’s picture bring to my soul. But spending time with art is amongst the most meaningful things I do in my life, even if it’s sometimes rather difficult to explain why.

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ANTTI LAITINEN © still from:  It’s My Island, (2007)

Art pleasure might be difficult to explain, but it’s still worth investigating: Maybe I love art because it’s a consolation to see people investing all their time and creativity in the strangest of projects? Maybe I love art because it reminds me that life isn’t a cost-benefit equation. Maybe I love art because it makes my everyday world more magical, unpredictable, and beautiful?

What about you? Can you tell me what kind of function – if any – art has in your life?

… art as therapy?!

What is art for?

It’s a difficult question, a question we tend to ignore in the sphere of contemporary art and theory. We, the establishment, find it rather naïve to ask such a blunt question. We are sometimes very unsure of ourselves as artist (why am I doing this? Am I good enough?? etc.), but to question art in itself, thats really over-the-top.

Being an art critic I am definitively a part of the art establishment, the elite. It’s not a choice – it’s a fact. I have, just as my colleagues, been studying the dry theory of aesthetics for years and years. Reading Alain de Botton & John Armstrong’s common sense view on art, as presented in their new book Art as Therapy, is therefore an extremely liberating, thought provoking and refreshing change from more traditional thesis & dissertations on the subject. Here are two thinkers arguing for the meaning of art, as something that can be found outside of art. Two men daring to say that art has a purpose, and a meaning, when we all know art is primarily made for art’s sake

 … or isn’t it?

Here is how they start their new book – Art as Therapy:

This book proposes that art (a category that includes works of design, architecture and craft) is a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewer, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.

How about that: better versions of ourselves?!!! Marvellous idea, isn’t it? But isn’t it a bit too naïve? The authors don’t seem to think so. But they are well aware that some of us, especially the elite, will. And I’m sure they enjoy the opposition! Because when titling a book; Art as Therapy, you are sure to get a lot of predisposed readers; the expertise, the establishment, all those of us believing we work with art for art’s sake … no meaning involved whatsoever …

The most perennially popular category of art is the cheerful, pleasant and pretty kind: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on a hot summer day, pastoral landscapes, smiling children. This can be deeply troubling to people of taste and intelligence.

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Vincent Van Gogh: Almond Blossoms, 1890

History tells us Van Gogh painted the  Almond Blossoms paintings to celebrate the birth of his nephew and namesake, son of his brother Theo. Todays art establishment worries about prettiness, pretty pictures feed sentimentality. And we do not want to be sentimental, do we?!

A legitimate question is therefore: Is  Almond Blossoms a sentimental picture? Does it make us unaware of all the problems in the world? The complexities of life? The suffering? In short: Does the Almond Blossoms make us stupid? Or can it be that a painting like this rather enhances our ability to understand the complexity of the world, be aware of beauty, and of art’s possibility to capture an ever changing world in a single image – ? Art’s ability to enhance our senses?

Art as tool

The authors see art as a tool, which has the power to extend our capacities beyond those the nature has originally endowed us with. While traditional tools often are extensions of the body, art is an extension of the mind. Art, says the authors, help us with psychological frailties.

The book presents 7 areas, seven functions of art. (There are, of course, others, but these seem to be among the most common and convincing. AaT p5)

The seven functions of art are:

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Rebalancing
  5. Self-understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

To tell you more, I first have some pleasant reading to do -

… we a world of accountants

I’ve told you before, but it’s well worth repeating: Lisa Carver’s Reconsidering Yoko Ono, it’s a marvelous book. Carver’s book isn’t a traditional work of art history, or an artist monograph; it seems rather to touch upon the soul of Ono’s life-long project. Carver’s style is essayistic and free, her work a body of inspired writing. Here is what I read today, which of course could – and should – be taken as a piece of good advice to all of us;

To be accepted, to be thought nice, is Woman’s power. That is something Yoko doesn’t need.

Ono has made a career and a life out of doing exactly what she was not supposed to do, and not being what she was supposed to be. And when she does tell us what to do, it’s the undoable. Because if you cannot do that, what else might you not do? The possibilities of the impossible is endless! Let banking and engineering deal with the doable, the possible. They build our houses and put food on our tables. But if we have no impossible as well, it is all rectangles and calories and dreamless sleep …

 Lisa Carver: Reconsidering Yoko Ono (18-19)

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a deeper level of experience -

I do not know how this happened; but suddenly, in the midst of reading about Yoko Ono, I remembered something I have read years ago in the The Birth of Tragedy. It has to do with art and life.

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Edvard Munch, Friedrich Nietzsche (1906)

For Nietzsche, art is not just a form of human activity but is rather the highest expression of the human spirit.

… it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.

Nietzsche criticizes his own age (though his words apply equally to the present day) for being overly rationalistic, for assuming that it is best to treat existence and the world primarily as objects of knowledge. For Nietzsche, this stance makes life meaningless because knowledge and rationality in themselves do nothing to justify existence and the world. Life finds meaning, according to Nietzsche, only through art. Art, music, and tragedy in particular bring us to a deeper level of experience than philosophy and rationality. Existence and the world become meaningful not as objects of knowledge but as artistic experiences.  According to Nietzsche, art does not find a role in the larger context of life, but rather life takes on meaning and significance only as it is expressed in art.

But even if art as a way of living is a concern for Ono, I still feel I have taken on a strange challenge reading Ono in light of Nietzsche. They surely present themselves as a mismatched pair!

- Maybe an interesting idea, maybe not …

We have too much stuff already. It clutters our view, inward and outward.

I’m reading Lisa Carver’s Reaching Out with No Hands. Reconsidering Yoko Ono. It’s a very amusing and well written book. Carver has a strong personal tone – her text is filled with respect for Ono’s work. Here is why, according to Carver, Ono is such an important artist:

Yoko Ono is not pretty, she is not easy, her paintings aren’t recognizable, her voice is not melodious, her films are without plot, and her Happenings make no sense. One of her paintings you are told to sleep on. One of her paintings you are told to burn. One of her paintings isn’t a painting at all – it’s you climbing into an outdoor bathtub and looking at the sky. Most of her stuff is not even there. Thats why I love her. This is why we need her. We have too much stuff already. It clutters our view, inward and outward. We need more impossible in our culture.

Go out and and capture moonlight on water in a bucket, she commands. 

 

We have too much stuff already. It clutters our view, inward and outward. Isn’t this just a very good and precise observation?

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HALF-A-WIND SHOW

Yesterday I went to Denmark to see Yoko Ono’s: HALF-A-WIND SHOW at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was great, but Ono isn’t really about exhibited things and objects, her art is about relations, about the meeting between you – the viewer & her ideas and instructions.

So in many ways the exhibition could be understood as a documentary, or a kind of introduction to the world of Ono. A world which we all are invited to enter, and which we can enter through books, music, film, the web – and even sometimes, like at Louisiana, via gallery spaces.

As a child in Japan, I used to go to a temple and write out a wish on a piece of thin
paper and tie it around the branch of a tree. Trees in temple courtyards were always
filled with people’s wish knots, which looked like white flowers blossoming from afar.”
Yoko Ono: “All My Works Are A Form Of Wishing”.

Ono works on several long lasting projects. Seemingly much more interested in process and development than in finished “things” (art). One example is the interactive artwork WISH TREE (1996), which has been integral to many of her exhibitions around the world. Everywhere people are invited to write their personal wishes for peace and tie them to a tree branch. Ono has collected all the wishes – currently totalling over a million! They are to be housed at the site of the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER.

I brought back several books by and on Ono, and will spend the weekend going in depth with her way of conceptualism. Right now her art strikes me as a kind of transgressing rhizomatic-zen project, quite extraordinary, AND exceptionally gifted!

Apropos generic questions -

I am not an artist, I am a bad sculptor. I have explored and reached the point where I can say that I am on art’s trail and that is enough for me.

(Ivan Kožarić, 1971)

Today I went to the HAUS DER KUNST, München, were I amongst other things visited a marvelous exhibition of the work by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Kožarić. This exhibition, covering more than fifty years of Kožarić’s complex oeuvre, represents the first in depth international examination of his artistic practice outside Croatia.

Ivan Kožarić, Glava djevojčice [Mädchenkopf], 1956 © Ivan Kožarić

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Kožarić was one of the founding members of the Gorgona Group, active in Zagreb between 1959 and 1966. This informal group of avant-garde artists and art historians developed ephemeral works of “anti-art,” in which attitude takes precedence over form. I guess the notion of “attitude” could be compared to the Duchamp’ian “idea”, even if attitude seems like  a more fluid concept.

in 1971 Kožarić suddenly decided to paint everything he had made, including his own studio, golden. In this way he tried to show that everything could be made into art, and also; that the value of art always could – and should – be called into question.

IVAN KOŽARIĆ, Shape of Space and other sculptures, 1962–1987 © IVAN KOŽARIĆ

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Gold is an exclusive material, but more often than not Kožarić uses materials that are easily accessible or found material, like in this little sculpture:

IVAN KOŽARIĆ: Privremene skulpture, 2005, © Ivan Kožarić

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Kožarić work is well worth studying, especially for one interested in the origins and role of conceptual art.

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Ivan Kožarić (born 10 June 1921 in Petrinja) is a Croatian artist who works primarily with sculpture but also works in a wide variety of media, including: permanent and temporary sculptures, assemblages, proclamations, photographs, paintings and installations. He lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia.

Is it art?

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal into a readymade sculpture. He called it “Fountain”, and tried to exhibit it at the Independents Exhibition in New York. It was the largest exhibition of modern art ever mounted in America; the “Fountain” was not accepted, but even so it revolutionized the world of art.

Duchamp wanted to question the notion of what constituted a work of art. In his view academics and critics were unqualified judges of taste, so he had to come up with his own standard. This is what he landed on:

  • Something – anything – is art if an artist say so.

In Duchamp’s view the artist is the expert, but at the same time he warned against understanding the artist as someone extraordinary; artists, he said, took themselves and were taken much too seriously.

A second notion presented was:

  • The art is in the idea, not the object.

This second notion directly influenced several major movements, e.g.: Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism …

Eve Babitz and Marcel Duchamp playing chess at the Pasadena Art Museum, October 18, 1963. Photo by Julian Wasser.

According to Duchamp the artist’s role in society is akin to that of the philosopher; it doesn’t matter if he can draw or paint, his job is not to give us aesthetic pleasure (designers can do that), the artist’s role is to step back from the world and attempt to make sense or comment on it through the presentation of ideas that have no functional purpose other than themselves.

Duchamp privileged philosophy over technique. Craft was left behind as something belonging to the age of uninformed darkness. Most people working in art today like for example Will Gompertz (the BBC art director who has written an excellent book called: What are you looking at? (2012)) see the paradigmatic shift following Duchamp as a positive revolution, as true emancipation.

I’m not always so sure. (By admitting so, I know I express myself as a conventional figurative fundamentalist – who I am not). But I have several worries regarding our contemporary situation, worries both regarding beauty and philosophy. The situation – as I see it – can be described like this: A lot of art galleries and museums are filled with art not worth spending time on or with, ugly art, boring exhibitions, hermetical objects, badly made works with nothing important to say, works participating in a debate only understood by an elite (a closed society – believers).

To be a good conceptual artist (like Duchamp) you have to be a good thinker, like a clever and original philosopher. Most artists are not. It seems to me that the art world to a large degree overvalues the intellectual potential of artists. Through this naiveté I’m afraid a lot of contemporary art institutions does nothing but eradicate the role of art and artists in our society.

This is my impression (I know its rather harsh): very few artist have a talent for conceptual art, most conceptual art is not of any general interest.

I’d love to hear your view!