Looking Beyond the Contemporary Artist
Country lane hedges, cut and hewn by flailing machines, are ignorantly denuded of their rich habitat. A mis-managed rationalization carved through the remnants of nature. We disregard the natural abundance that is given without financial remuneration? What are we afraid of? Is it that we want a more convenient society that in smoothing (h)edges allows our limited thinking to be sustained in a manicured environment? In just such a weak form of society we allow rampant investment in and for wealth to eat its way through independent ideas leading and leaving to images only conducive to comfort and leisure and profit. Capitalism has ensured that when the economic machine cuts through life as cruelly as it does hedges, artists, not sold on constraining the mind or controlling nature purely for profit, are alone, and left searching for a creative existence, resisting the seductions of this mindless economics.
No amount of scholarship, interpretation, investigation, philosophy or theorising about art can bring one to an idea of the deep ‘knowingness’ that blossoms through a life in art. Pitting Theorising Man’ against ‘Economic Man’ leaves the artist and their ideas stumbling against the mainstream. Yet, we cannot surrender.
Nietzsche, ironically, found in Greek tragedy the intellectual means to explain how a meaningless world can give birth to optimism. He describes Apollo and Dionysus as opposites. Apollo gives order to objects even making illusions in the form of dreams, a reality; while Dionysus brings disorder to objects through the intoxication of art as the artist invests everything in nature.
He sums it up in The Birth of Tragedy 1872; “Only so far as the genius in the act of artistic creation coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he know anything of the eternal essence of art; for in this state he is, in a marvellous manner, like the weird image of the fairy tale which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is once subject and object, at once poet, actor and spectator.”
It appears to be at once, a dream, an intoxication, an illusion, a contradiction, a lie which transform into reality because ideas, feelings and thoughts, exist Extraordinary, bewitching forces, swimming in and out of one’s vision. The will is as necessary to art as the artist’s creative passion. Unifying the artist with the hidden symbolisms of the art object. A thrust in and of itself, fundamentally, to the otherness of art beyond, and prior to, all phenomena. In the emerging image this gives us of the human will, we become aware of the relationship of the will to nature; the will as encompassing and involving the artist out of reach, out of depth, floundering, footless, bodiless, timeless, beyond touching the frailties of life and yet possessing and imparting a powerful sense of wonder and astonishment.
Art saves one from the absurdity of life’s horror and nausea. We need the veils of illusion to inhabit those notions of what one can live with, but what we need to live with is the reality to be found within this illusion, That is, by surrendering individuality and entering the profoundest depths of feelings of the ‘other’.
Contemporary art is wedded to the idea that individualism is to stand alone on one’s own two feet analogous to the individualism of capitalism. How can we surrender that if it is fundamental to our ideas of freedom? We can, because the totality of oneself is beyond any perceptions of the body. We need, as creative beings, to be able to look at ourselves as objects in nature. We are in a state of becoming; as incomplete beings we have to turn away from the traditional, limited sense of self to the fullest idea of self, seeing ourselves as the subject and object of nature. We can surrender individuality through the negation of seeing ourselves as we have been taught; enclosed, cut off, independent and instead become intensely perceptive. We are not islands, we are galaxies.
However, who’s to say where to look and in looking, who’s to say, what it is we are seeing? In being told what we are and our place in the world, we have become neatly trimmed hedges. We have become comfortable.
Thinking without guidance can produce nothing. We can be lost in the impenetrable, impervious dilemma of not being able to identity a reality from an illusion. Our action, gesture, utterance, real or illusionary, is what we intend to say. Where do these intentions come from? What grounding, what background, what purpose, what value; where do we find the spring of action in life, the necessity, the urgency, the well-being of being, the fullness of desire, a wish even from the depths of feeling where the cry of utterance first called a name naming itself in full consciousness of an ‘I’ as existing, as part of a totality in the environment of larger forces, the history, the future, the present, of demonstrating instant intuition?
In this reality of cause and effect, how truly do we stand; alone? coupled? thronged?
Communication is everywhere. We speak across the world’s surface, talking, gesturing, dancing, painting, writing, many languages, tongues and translations, networking, interesting. A stratosphere of information speeding through digital media to exchange ideas. Yet, strangely perhaps, again in the hands of nature the dream still exists, the illusions remain even as we expand our art and craft. That is, the techné (as in ancient Greece) of nature in its ‘technology’ may perhaps make something of and for ourselves in this vast self-made reality.
The artist has at hand the ability to sense paths that steer close to all origins, where all known worldly structures become targets for intellectual deconstruction, all known systems of order transform into systems of disorder, or into fragments of inner necessities; of fractured connections between people; of isolation; of the now humiliated individualism with its impoverished ideas, worn out clichés, humdrum platitudes, downright lies, disregarded promises and defunct not-so-democratic, freedom. The de-freezing of another kind of network, of another kind that cuts down communication like rain forests, blocks interconnections of consciousness which, through the media, obscures sense of the real, sense in daily life and builds characterless tower blocks of culture (state funding bodies, etc.), making nonsense of the nature of art because its origins are lost and its intuitive paths corroded. The artist has power at hand, with the mind and eye, to combat these anti-democratic tendencies, cultural diversions of distorted communications and information that bring harm to humanity through a proliferation of distorted messages through the misuse of the inherent power of the image. The artist has a responsibility to stand firm in the face of this enemy within culture’s status quo and present ideology, by replying, from their own inimitable territory of the image with a reconstruction of ideas. A reality that explores the realities in contemporary life; what is now? what is political? what is value? what is globally destructive to humanity? Do we have to rely on an avant-garde or modernity itself when the merging of fine art and kitsch is steam rolling its effect over miles and miles of canvases and installations? Contemporary art is paralysed by commercial values and has become anti-art.
Artists have at hand the means to express realities by accepting the historicity of the image. Or in the name of progress they can deny the horizontal approach or affirm that the vertical is paramount. So be it. Ideologically, the direction the world is steering is horizontal in essence, and many artists appear to follow in its wake. Maybe this relates to artists responding to the realities of contemporary life, as in some quarters we are disposed to do. But there is more to it than recording empirically, looking is more than observation because we are verifying more than what we see. In my view, an acrobatic manoeuvre between the vertical and horizontal has to be performed. Both are required. Both are necessary to authentic images, as these images spring from the artist’s intuitive knowledge in the process of making.
Of the modern period Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “Less is more”, Robert Venturi’s answer was, “Less is a bore”. Minimalism versus postmodern goes some way to set out the problem of the avant-garde versus modernity, for both are suspect in the singularity of form and the grand narrative of progress. Artists are advised to step beyond such definitions if they are to express, through ideas and images on a level of intuitive knowledge, the notion of humanity as it is today – set towards the destruction of the planet and its peoples. Avant-garde Modernism is past. Corrupt and decadent Postmodern is past. Anti-art is passed. They failed because they limit thinking while pretending to liberate thinking.
This brings me back to the Nietzschean idea of “the affirmation of life against history”. I see this historicity of events as a nonsense in that we constantly evaluate the past in a continuous narrative of related human activity, when the arts are, in the main, countering such notions, or, when following too closely, as one thing leads to the next and the next, humans simply bluster and fall by the wayside.
Let us be astonished by our actions and not chained to building a coherency of form and sense!
1 thought on “Looking Beyond the Contemporary Artist”
Personally Ken, I don’t feel like one of your “neatly trimmed hedges”, but a scruffy little tree growing in this ever-growing wilderness of environmental poverty. By fighting addiction to power, oil, war, superiority, entitlement and, not to mention the visible drug and alcohol addictions of our inter-connected society, I often am bewildered and confused with the constant bombardment of messages from the environmentally conscious. I have had enough of this and though I don’t consume any animal products, live in a tiny space, take one shower a week, make my own paints from natural ingredients and my canvases from used fabric, I am at a loss about what to paint, so I am painting light. My scruffy little tree needs light and a liberation from the doom that is supposedly looming over us, but is it really?