Saturday, 19 December 2015

Oak Trees

In a previous post (Over My Head) I was talking about the importance of allusion and making "inter-textual" references in writing and culture-talk, and how this is becoming more difficult in a world where talking across cultures, rather than simply within them, has become the norm; a world where my cultural bedrock ("A little dab'll do ya!" – Brylcreem! ) is your baffled visit to Google.  Without a reliable stock of similes and metaphors drawn from everyday life and shared experience – sporting, culinary or whatever – we're forced either to fall back on a plain-vanilla language – sorry! a bland, lowest-common-denominator language – or to adopt the high-flown language of philosophy, precise in its meaning but incomprehensible to the uninitiated.

Weirdly, it seems that the art-speak of the visual arts has taken that second, philosophical route, but mostly without having done the necessary preliminary homework.  Artists have never been famous for their studiousness, after all.  Neither were they notoriously chatty about their processes and intentions in the past, often preferring to remain silent, or to mutter a few inarticulate sentences about liking to play with paint, and to leave all that interpretation palaver to the critics.  In comparison, today's artists can be quite the pocket philosopher, always ready with a verbose account of what they've been up to and, crucially, why.

In contemporary art-speak the idea of "reference" – whether to art history, traditions of discourse, politics, or even science – has floated free, detached by the liberal application of that universal solvent, Kwik Po-Mo™ (available in all good art schools).  As an artist, it seems you can pretty much choose (or declare) what your reference points are, and what they signify, like a programmer declaring variables.  I don't think this is what is meant by a "floating chain of signifiers", but what do I know?  You hardly ever read an artist's descriptive statement of their "practice", now, without being told quite explicitly how this or that gesture, mark, or aesthetic choice "references" this or that important issue, from complex philosophical debates and cutting-edge scientific theories to controversial matters of race, gender, and politics.  Why?  Because I say so!  How?  In the way I say!  Read the bloody manual statement!

This is not just the case in conceptual art, though it's clearly conceptual art that has set this tendency going.  If you've never done so, it's worth considering Michael Craig-Martin's influential work, An Oak Tree, from 1973.  Go on, have a read.  I'll still be here (or ... will I?).

All done?  Intriguing, no?  But, as Arte Johnson's character used to say in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, "Ve-e-ry interesting ...  But also stoopid!"  I'm not sure why and when artists decided their role was primarily to be enactors of head-hurting philosophical conundrums, but it's never been a good look.  Philosophers generally make pretty terrible paintings, too.  You can't blame such brilliantly multi-talented people for wanting to escape from their boxes, I suppose, but the day a conceptual plumber turns up at my house to fix a dripping tap carrying nothing but a six-pack – no, really, these are my tools – is the day I decide I am, after all, an oak tree.

May I ask you for a reference?

It's as if the decay of an understood, shared framework of reference has created an anxiety about being misunderstood – my intentions are good! – which in turn has created a control-freakish insistence on being understood in the right way; that is, my way.  Not so much Derrida as Lewis Carroll, then:
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
Through the Looking-Glass
Hmm, I'd forgotten about that reference to hegemony slipped in at the end there.  Nice one, Humpty.

In the end, so much contemporary art seems to aspire to do little more than illustrate the artist's statement, to colour in an already completed outline.  That detailed declaration of intent, after all, is so often the very thing that wins a commission in the first place.  In a world of competitive tendering, the safest strategy is "do what you document; document what you do", which will be a familiar nostrum to anyone who has had to grapple with the demands of modern corporate managerialism – health and safety statements, job descriptions, best-practice manuals, and all.  Though it does seem a long way from art, somehow.  By their statements shall ye know them.

What is also remarkable, however, is the parallel process by which artists have come to regard all fields of human endeavour as raw material badly in need of re-interpretation.  There can hardly be a museum or learned society that has not hosted an "artist in residence" in recent times.  I suppose it's not impossible that a potter or a sculptor might have a useful contribution to make in biological taxonomy or advanced physics, though it must always be a bit of a long shot.  The claimed symbiotic, synergetic benefits of such arrangements always seem rather one way, unless of course the lab was simply looking for something to brighten up the reception area.

Not so long ago, someone (it's not clear who) said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture"; the absurdity of the comparison was, presumably, taken to be self-evident.  Well, not any more.  Hmm, "dancing about architecture"...  You're already half-way to a decent submission for, let's say, artist-in-residence at RIBA.  The rest, obviously, will depend entirely on the quality of the accompanying statement, and whether it ticks all the right boxes.  Please pay particular attention to the boxes marked "community involvement" and "value for money".  That you can dance a bit (or paint, or photograph, or write, or whatever arty thing it is you do), well, we can take that for granted, can't we?


Zouk Delors said...

Ha! I spotted a cultural reference!

Mike C. said...

I should run a Christmas quiz (like that Radio 4 programme, The Unbelievable Truth) where I have to smuggle X allusions past m'learned readers...



Julian Behrisch Elce said...

Ka-pow! What a great piece! I think many of those artists' statements really constitute entry codes for the artists and their viewers: if you can understand the statement you get to be part of the group. Difficult entry barriers increase the desirability of being part of the group.

I'm also inclined to think that the surest way to render one's art meaningless is to make it a discussion of cultural references. In the short term it renders it "monocultural" and in the long term simply a "period piece".

I highly recommend Andrew Molitor. You would love his "workshop"! I don't need to see his pictures.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Julian. I do try not to be too cynical about these things, but people will make it so easy...


amolitor said...

Have you read the triple canopy piece on 'international art English'? If not, Google the phrase, it should be among the first hits. It's genius. It might also be satire, I'm not sure.

Anyways, I've been playing with dialectics ever since.

Mike C. said...

No, but I'll check it out. Triple canopy? Isn't that The Pope? Had no idea he blogged.


Mike C. said...

Oh, that is very acute, and only satire because the subject matter is risible -- His Holiness has really got it down. The "space" thing, and the "poorly translated French" thing, especially. I tried reading Rosalind Krauss once, and began to wonder if I was showing early signs of some degenerative brain condition ...


Martyn Cornell said...

I was working on the Telegraph this week and had to write a brief headline on a picture caption about how they don't tell the King's College choirboy who is going to sing the solo part in Once in Royal David's City until literally 10 seconds before he's on. The head I put up was .'Treble chance', but my worry was how very few people now would understand as simple a cultural regency as that now ...

Mike C. said...

"Cultural regency"? Spell-checker error, or have you taken strong drink, sir?

Happy Christmas!


Mike C. said...


Actually, it strikes me that it is those inveterate punsters, the sub-editors of the world, who determine (or at least sense) what is shared and what is not. Your hesitancy over "treble chance" is a good example.