Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Abyss of the Personal

I sought great men, but all I found were the apes of their ideals.

Friedrich Nietzsche

An artist friend recently directed me towards some remarks in which his works were roundly criticized. They were criticized, in part, because their existense was symptomatic of an approach to the creation, criticism and consumption of art that was at odds with the aesthetic preferences of the writer.

In many ways, this is entirely the conundrum that presents itself in contemporary art today. In an era in which even subjectivity is regarded as reactionary, it is as if there is no space to actually engage in a discourse about contemporary art.

Clearly, there is little value to be had when one reduces the experiences of art to merely their descriptive titles, as when one pronounces, “well, I’m not particularly partial to realist painting,” or, “it’s a little conceptual for my liking.” What emerges with these types of overarching statements is a failure of understanding. For an appreciation of the fine arts isn’t necessarily driven entirely by subjective questions. The capacity to wield a pen, or pencil, or brush, and make a square be proportionally and perspectivally correct, really isn’t a subjective question. At the same time, its ability to evoke a response precisely is. This is why a technically proficient Sunday painter may produce works that are far less evocative than those created by a self-taught artist.

But criticism doesn’t usually fall along these lines. Instead, we all too often confuse the capacity to express with the facility to depict, and our assessments of each work that presents itself is somehow caught up in our inability to distinguish. As a result, a work becomes ‘too conceptual’. Wouldn’t a more revealing response involve the artist’s ability, or lack thereof, to convincingly construct the visual equivalent to the idea that motivated the works? Think, perhaps, of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, or On Kawara’s Date Paintings, or any of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings. Their capacity to reduce, refine and depict means that there is only a short conceptual distance to traverse.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is either ‘good’, or ‘bad’, as if either of these terms had critical value. It also is meaningless in determining the level of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ one might have to these objects. But the key question that should motivate our responses should center upon whether or not the idea is embodied in the outcome. For it is here, and only here, that the actual questions of value can be weighed. Works like Three Standard Stoppages, with their variations, or In Advance of a Broken Arm, both by Marcel Duchamp, may require complicity by the viewer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has been duped.

I want to believe that art exists in a visual environment in which understanding isn’t necessarily duplicity – an environment in which artists aren’t motivated by Sartreian bad faith or simple laissez faire – but instead is analysis. It isn’t enough today to make value judgments merely on the basis of one’s like or dislike for an object. That does the entire practice of criticism a disservice. Yes, everyone has opinions, but rather than cling to one’s own for the sheer pleasure of being ‘right’, perhaps we should approach artworks with the sheer expectation of understanding. For even if we can’t, perhaps someone can, and this might move us away from the abyss of the personal towards something that borders on a legitimate consideration of the object that’s right in front of us…whether we like it or not.