Bruce Barber defined the notion of littoral as “the intermediate and shifting zone between the sea and the land”, which “characterizes works that are undertaken predominantly outside of the conventional contexts of the institutionalized art world.” One example was his project ‘Diddly Squat: Three Works about Money’, performed in Toronto in November 2002.
I’ve made littoral works myself and so I question littoral art; what happens to the experience and mastery required of conventional contexts? The etymology of the word art is implicit in ‘the art of conversation’ or ‘the art of medicine’. We have expectations of the sublime, of the skill to express your vision. You see the problem: “works that are undertaken predominantly outside of the conventional contexts” include those lacking experience, skill, or vision.
While deconstruction enabled a great freedom for art, our caveat is found in one of the Five Classics of Confucian philosophy, the I Ching, which says that unlimited possibilities are not right for us. Without limitations we dissolve in the boundless. Stravinsky writes, “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles… and the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
Also an Asian concept is Zen, a philosophy of alignment with higher forces, so that you master the art of motorcycle maintenance, or any subject you put your mind to. Bruce Barber’s been there, done that. His CV reveals an intellectual acuity that allows him to get to the heart of the matter, as in his ‘diddly squat’ Toronto performance. It was socially conscious art before that was a thing, and the artist is also formally conscious, looking after every detail from the color of a worker’s overalls to the image of this street performance. Zen means an intuitive understanding where even accidents work in your favor.
The success of Barber’s work sets standards that previously would have been awkward, and those are standards of excellence. In the last two decades a lack of skill signals a rejection of tradition, but anything done without skill is shoddy. And so we have the paradox of the tolerant society that must expel from itself those who would destroy it from within. The paradox of the creative society is no different.
In the art of cuisine, a chef with a magic touch is appreciated, in art we need the same standards of sensual good and bad, the littoral territory of aesthetic and social judgment. Barber later takes these questions one step further in a new book available online. Trans/actions: Art, Film and Death, which explores the representation of art, artists and art history in film, also questions the politics in the many representations of stereotypical mad artists.
Volume 35 no. 1 September / October 2020