In 1996 Stuart Servetar wrote a N.Y.Press article titled The Inspeak of the Overlords; “Robert Storr (artist, critic, author and curator in the Dept. of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA) spoke of a language created by a class of critics and artists, a class that lost all sight of the common reader and created a cult of difficulty based on jargon – the words used like pieces in an erector set to reference their own theories to other theories rather than to works of art.” A language designed to elevate the high priests above the common clown. Wilde wrote of “the violence of the literary man. It seems to bear no reference to facts, for it is never kept in check by action. It is simply a question of adjectives and rhetoric, of exaggeration and over-emphasis.”
For many the frustration of today’s art theory is that it does not talk about art, it but pretends to and the absence of substance is heartfelt. It seems a technical language driven by and designed for semiotic theory. As explained further down, applying semiotic thought to visual art is like working on the engine of a Corvette GTE while referring to the veterinarian manual for dissecting a smelly octopus; analytic reductivism fails to consider the creative spirit as anything other than an idea, a thought. Rob Storr agrees; in a March 24, 2015 interview with Yale University Radio he said that he doesn’t think the American version of French theory or a Frankfurt school in contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody. We read in psychology that intellectual thought is a subliminal function, not located in the conscious mind, and that even consciousness of our own thoughts is secondary, after the fact. This leads to a controversial conclusion that meaning is hard wired and not something we impose on the sign (as stated by Peirce), rather the sign is the concrete form of meaning shaped and altered by events through history. If meaning is not an interpretation then consciousness may be an impediment that keeps art from being sublime.
Derrida’s method of deconstruction was to look past the irony and ambiguity to the layer that genuinely threatens to collapse that system. He would have loved the notion that to be successful today an artist must be avant-garde or even post-avant-garde. It follows that where there’s a territory there must be a script, a look, model, style; an orthodoxy that subverts, negates and contradicts being avant-garde (pre or post). Most fine arts producers graduate from similar schools and share the same values, which are reflected in their association, their production, and the systems created thereby… surely a cultural blindness results from such group judgments. In school we’re told the avant-garde took risks, the best had to make room for the better. Looks like taking risks needs reflection and practice before you get really good at it.
I remember friends who produced fascinating original work before they left for graduate school at which time they passed under the cookie cutters. They’re now showing in museums but their work is sadly trite and boring… and when they’d ask “howzit?” I would flash a big smile. Their originality was gone, their aesthetic and personal contribution had vanished, in its place we see found objects or images shot by others printed mural size to make it nice and contemporary. Yesterday’s cultural producers are committed to an intellectual art grounded in thought. This cultural definition is complex and complete, so well defined and clearly understood that few people notice how art theory bears little relation to the creative process as it occurs in the field.
A metaphor would look instead at 17th century European medical students in a dissection room where the barber surgeon cuts the corpse while a learned professor read from Galen, [approx. 100 C.E., a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman empire, who only dissected pigs and those animals sport a rather different physiology]. The barber surgeon would pull out a liver while the professor read from Galen that here we have lungs, and the students would take studious notes. A person’s research should exceed their grasp, else what’s a meta for?
Critical Art Ensemble (Electronic Disturbance, Autonomedia) wrote that “Duchamp’s use of the inverted urinal as a ready-made suggests that the distinguished art object draws its power from an historical legitimization process firmly rooted in the institutions of western culture, and not from being an unalterable conduit to transcendental realms”. Mary Ann Staniszewski in Believing Is Seeing added: “when an artist creates a work of Art it has no intrinsic use or value; but when the artwork circulates within the systems of art (galleries, art histories, art publications, museums, and so on) it acquires a depth of meaning, a breath of importance, and an increase in value that is greater proportionately than perhaps anything else in the modern world.” In plain English, the art’s worthless unless confirmed by a peer review of learned professors counting angels on the head of a pin. Beneficiaries include art critics who weave the new clothes while a brightly cheering public discretely ignores the emperor’s privates on public display.
While Critical Art Ensemble denies that art is an unalterable conduit to transcendental realms, we could point out that Pharaonic art hasn’t changed in two thousand years and as the Sphinx barely moved during that time some art at least has proved ‘unalterable’. Wiki says ‘transcendental’ is climbing or going beyond some philosophical concept or limit. We surpass concepts and limits daily, therefore transcendental realms obviously exist. The institutions of western culture can help or hinder the flow of ideas but they do not legitimize the work, often they haven’t a clue… change the slide to Damien Hirst please.
Art rides roughshod over art theory when an image engages the mind in a powerful grip. Van Gogh or Immendorf’s paintings rise above what you can say of them. Ideas have a life of their own, a legitimacy grounded in a collective consciousness and a collective unconscious, a legitimacy inherent in their power to move us; some ideas have changed the world. That is the strength of art. Masterly art objects will resonate, awaken deep feelings, activate archetypes embedded in the aesthetics of art. If it’s good art it ages well and speaks for itself even when at times it whispers or shouts, each glimpse is like a thousand words.