Arguing Artby Dennis Kardon
Words have won? If only. Better that than the gnawing assumption gaining traction in everyone’s mind right now, which is that money has won. But what does “winning” mean and what exactly is being contested?
Artworks acquire their power and value through a social process that is representational in nature. Regardless of whether it employs pictorial representation, to be Art, an artwork must come to stand for something that is valued by the people who interact with it.
Munch’s pastel, “The Scream,” at MoMA, may be a mediocre artwork, and may only have been intended by Munch as a depiction of his own feelings, but it has come to represent the existential anxiety of an entire culture. This representation has resulted in tremendous monetary value and embodies a social process. But this is a process in constant flux and the value of different representations is continuously contested. That is where the words and money come in. Words elucidate the argument and money defines how much is at stake.
To have an end to disputation, representations would have to become stable. Everyone would have to agree that x object is art and y object is not, for fixed reasons. Fortunately, that’s never going to happen. Nevertheless, some objects and some people will always be excluded, though not necessarily permanently. That is what makes it interesting and fun because it means that not anything and everything is art and not everyone is an artist, despite the misguided popular idea to the contrary. The whole point of making and being involved with art is to participate in defining what it represents and excluding what it doesn’t. The inherent difference between making art and writing about it has to do with this process of defining what a work represents.
When I paint I am making a series of complex conscious and unconscious decisions ranging from formal (size, kind of supports, primed surface, instruments of application, color, thickness, and opacity of the paint) to the way I move my body, to what I want the marks I make to refer to, to the relationship of this painting to all the paintings that have been painted before. No one, including the artist, can be aware of all these decisions at any one moment. Thus, even a good forgery usually becomes evident after about 10 years because a forger can discern only a small number of the decisions and the reasons for those decisions that the actual artist has made. So in trying to duplicate the work of art the forger only duplicates the decisions that were culturally relevant at the time. After 10 years there will be a shift in which decisions the culture has now decided are important, and therefore visible. I find this information comforting.
When I write about art, on the other hand, what I am trying to do is redefine the way people can think about what the art represents. I call attention to certain decisions an artist has made that, because of currently reigning ideologies, might not be visible to a viewer. I point out what those ideologies are and how and why the artist is challenging them. Shifting the cultural focus to representations I consider more important can expose the dogma that empowers certain representations and excludes others (my own, for example).
The contribution of the interconnectivity of the global community has been simply to shorten our attention spans. When it comes to art today, we all have ADD. Art that comes to represent spontaneity and embodies a simple, direct, commodifiable meaning—rather than complex decision-making, perception, and thought—has acquired new value, because it expedites the mechanisms of the web. I simply reject this as unnecessary. No beef with spontaneity here; it is an important part of the art-making process. But there is a difference between the pictorial construction of spontaneity, like in a Matisse, and simple extemporaneous expression like a Josh Smith. I prefer the former because it is more self-reflexive.
Just because we now process a lot of images and information and weigh in with our every opinion doesn’t mean all of those images and information and opinions are all equal in value. I can tell the difference between writing that changes the way I think, and writing that merely confirms what I already believe. I can post a comment on Facebook that it has taken me an hour, or five minutes, to formulate, and no one will know how long it took to write it. If a painting becomes memorable does it matter how long its genesis is?
Even if it seems the whole world is moving at warp speed, it doesn’t mean we all have to move that fast in order to keep up.