Hitting the Nail on the Head (@ The Hammer): What Makes It Art?

VENTURING OUT OF THE CLOISTERED embrace of Ojai’s encircling mountains, I made my way into the seemingly infinite expanse that is Los Angeles. Though I once lived in one of its many neighborhood pockets, L.A. never gets smaller (just as Ojai never gets any bigger). The mission: to investigate Made in L.A., a, the, though, only, the Hammer Museum’s biennial exhibition showcasing (and simultaneously defining) the artistic contribution of Los Angeles in 2016. With L.A. being so diverse and all-consuming, one must immediately wonder how wide-ranging a show at one museum could possibly be. Being an artist myself, I walked into the Hammer with my own (conscious and unconscious, chosen and conditioned) list of preconceptions. Thus, I would like to include the disclaimer that what I investigate in this article is directed by my own interests and focuses. I want to blaze trails towards new ways looking at art and art-making in general, with the help of Made in L.A. I do not address every body of work or artist in the show; I focus on four installations which may appear similar in presentation but upon deeper investigation have differing artistic motives and varying levels of artistic success. Noticing the inclusion of a wide breadth of artistic disciplines and focuses within the exhibition led me to remember an all-encompassing and unavoidable prompt, one which was the title of a first year required class I attended at CalArts: What Makes It Art? Even after a four-year attendance to one of the top art schools in the world, and taking an eye-opening and intriguing class wielding that title, I still find it difficult to approach this conundrum. I would like to posit some ideas, clues and questions towards generating an understanding of what makes a work of art viable today.

Being included in Made in L.A. appoints an artist and their art as being representative of L.A.’s highest contemporary artistic output. The context of the museum (and, within that, the sub-contexts defined by curation), suggests significance, importance, and cultural relevancy, the art being immediately blanketed under an umbrella of legitimacy, recognition, and acceptance. A question, however, remains: what is being put in this context, for what reasons, and what makes it art aside from this contextualization? To be or not to be art? Can placement within a given context give a work of art agency? What makes paintings, sculptures, videos, performances, etc. things worth appreciation and study to be valued, kept, and historicized by humanity? Is it the things themselves we want, or the experiences and insights they give us? Is it the conditions surrounding a thing that keep us interested, or what remains regardless of the weather? What elements within a work of art make it lasting in its influence and significance?

Many layers constitute the totality of a work of art just as varying parts make up a living thing. Distinct but interconnected pieces integrate to create a functioning autonomous entity. Among the many layers and parts that make up an individual work of art, there are three crucial elements at play: content (what is to be communicated), form (the sensory expression of content), and context (the conditions surrounding the content/form union). If the content is the foundation of the work, the artist builds the form upon and around this, the content/form then exists within a given context, whether this be a museum, a class critique, someone’s house, or social media. This is a logical progression. But what if the primary focus of the work begins with form (which yields a focus on aesthetics), or simply on context itself (what surrounds or potentially surrounds the work in question)? We might come across an art-form that appears ‘conceptual’ by its insistence on an idea, lack of traditional artist materials, and avoidance of representation. We might find ourselves looking at a rock in a gallery paired with a lengthy description on the wall about how its placement is reconstructing our customary experiences of galleries and rocks. But how convincing can a work of art be which relies on preconceived and pre-approved aesthetics (or lack thereof)? How enlightening can a blank canvas be in a museum when it is simply there to suggest something other than itself? I propose that context alone will not give legitimacy to form, and form alone cannot compensate for a lack of content.

Content is the spirit within an art-piece. It constitutes the ideas, subjects, emotions, perceptions, and understandings which the artist intends to express, communicate, and give life to. It is immaterial until it is manifest as form. Form is the perceptual manifestation of the content; it is the vehicle by which the content is transferred to the viewer. But as with any living (and non-living) thing in the universe, the individual exists within an environment. Context is the environment within which the content-form operates. Content is bound within form (as is spirit within body), but the context is not binding. Context is subject to change, and while it shapes the reception of the content-form for the viewer, it does not initially or ultimately define it. Content, form, and context are inseparable in that they make up the total ecosystem which is the whole art piece. They are interrelated and interdependent, and thus it is beneficial to look at all three to get the whole ‘picture’ of the art-piece. However, I have found that the Post(-Post-Post) Modern paradigm of art which we are (still) a part of all too often attempts to use context and re-contextualization as a substitute for substantial content and form. Contrary to what appears to be a consensus surrounding art-making today, I posit that the significance and vitality of context is dependent upon content and form, not vice versa. Through its spiritual essence and perceptual manifestation, a viable work of art is an autonomous yet interdependent entity, traversing different contexts over time while retaining its agency.

The breadth and depth of content, form, and context varies within the art included in Made in L.A. Daniel R. Small’s installation Excavation II juxtaposes murals of glamorized Egyptian scenes from the Luxor hotel with the excavated remains of the movie set from the 1923 film The Ten Commandments. This provides an interesting backdrop for postulating what constitutes authenticity vs. simulation and historical fact vs. fiction. Questions are suggested: if the original purpose of the murals was entertainment and decoration, rather than historical documentation, what meaning and significance do they have when removed from the context of the Luxor hotel? The hyper-sexualized murals of Egyptian narrative no longer exude the glamour they were painted to suggest, stripped naked of their allure by displacement. Do the excavated Hollywood remains constitute archaeological artifacts in the same way ruins of an ancient tomb would? The displaced props were created as a simulation of something authentic, a copy of history cast in faux materials and used in the contrived context of the movie set. Similarly, they were made into ruins by the film maker in a simulated fashion, being destroyed as an act of safeguarding against further use rather than through natural degradation over time. Ironically in Excavation II the ruins are appropriated and re-contextualized as art.

By positioning these ‘art-i-facts’ (as the murals and props are art, in fact) side-by-side as an art installation, we are encouraged and expected to experience it as art made by an artist. We are not supposed to see the paintings as paintings, or the movie-set remains as movie-set remains in and of themselves; we do not understand the ideas within the artist’s (Small’s) intentions by perceiving the narratives within the paintings, or by appreciating the quality of the image, or by comprehending the original uses of the props, or knowing how they were made. We are directed to look at the new context which the artist supplies—this being the art-piece (or rather, gesture?) itself. Out of a conscious desire to demonstrate a point, the artist plucks objects from their history, proposing ideas free of content or form but dependent upon a maneuver of re-contextualization. And we are left to question: if the artist is not supplying us with content or form, what is the creative faculty and function of the artist? Is it merely to harvest or ‘excavate’ already existent art-forms to the end of making conjectures about intellectually derived notions? Is it to continually re-contextualize history in order to make it up to date? (Can we take this whole spiraling complex and re-contextualize it further, please?) Is it simply a matter of juxtaposition, of 1 + 1 (in a museum) = art (by an artist)? Out of my excavation of Excavation II I am left with more questions than insights—questions, however, which the artist surely did not intend to illicit.

On a broad scope, I am left wondering what the role of the artist in today’s society is. Looking at Excavation II, it roughly appears that the artist is someone who makes conjectures about convoluted relationships, notions, and ideas by pasting together juxtapositions of found history within an art context. The artist no longer has to create a form with which to communicate—it’s all about the forum—context—to generate discussion (ring a bell? Hint: social media). Form is not needed because there is no content to be communicated. However, by virtue of it being ‘art’, something is being communicated—but what is it? Functionally (I have found) that when context is the main element the artist supplies, when context is the point of departure and the destination, the viewer must read the accompanying text on the wall to grasp the artist’s intent. Otherwise, the viewer will be lead astray by the vibrancy of the paintings, by the intricate details of the objects, by the mystery of their creation, away from the intellectual and studied suggestions of the artist. How much independence and agency does a work of art have if you need to read about it in words? Walking out of Excavation II, I found myself thinking and feeling that I would have rather experienced the Hollywood ruins in a film history museum, or the faux-historical paintings in an exhibition of orphaned murals, rather as art made circa 2016, Los Angeles, California.

Weaving my way through more of Made in L.A., I wander into yet another installation exhibiting what appear to be artifacts. In Gala Porras-Kim’s installation, we have another example of harvested objects being displayed to demonstrate a point. Derived from items at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, the ‘art-i-facts’ are displayed as a simulated historical exhibit, housed in glass display cases, labeled with post-it notes and tags denoting imagined serialization. This simulation of history-making seeks to demonstrate the idea that context/re-contextualization can define/redefine how art and history is experienced, and also point a finger at the role of the museum in this. However, the repositioning and ultimate neutralization of these objects does not effectively create any meaning or significance which can be derived from direct experience. As in Excavation II, I found the artist’s intentions and ideas to be inaccessible until I read the accompanying text on the wall laying out where the objects came from and what explicitly their installation is supposed to suggest.

Porras-Kim’s installation gives the viewer referential markers, signposts directing us to ideas which harvest already existent form, eschews original content, tautologically relying on simulated context to make conjectures about context. The focus on context creates the necessitation for explanation beyond what is being presented. The problem is that sometimes what a work of art says it does, (or even further removed, what is says it says it does) is not actually what it does. The illusive, unspoken catch is that we are expected to believe whatever the words on the wall say, or at least to take it in faith that what the artist says it is, it is. It feels unacceptable to have a subjective experience of the art; (and if your understanding of the art is incongruent with what the artist says, then you just don’t get it, do you?). There appears to be an imbalance of power which favors the artist’s (or institution’s) proclamations about the work over the successful execution and communication of the work itself. The public is conditioned to take it in faith that the artist and the museum know best. However, contextual and purely conceptual crutches can only prop up a work of art so long before the viewer is left wondering: what of value or relevance am I receiving from this exposition? And I am left wondering: how much longer can we remain interested in studying the working mechanisms of context before we get bored of finger pointing? It is like looking at a blueprint of the building you are standing in. Though this can be interesting, fixating on the blueprint yields a very narrow understanding which is aside from or our subjective, individual, sensory experience of the building.

How we experience a work of art is mediated by context, whether it is physical, conceptual, virtual, unavoidable or contrived. This applies heavily to the mass of circulating images provided by a multiplicity of media sources which we are continually confronted with. Arthur Jafa’s exhibition of magazine clippings (image ‘art-i-facts’) collected from 1990 to 2007 reads like a Google image search in physical form, the query being ‘what is the black aesthetic?’ His artistic practice involved placing the found images in 8.5” x 11 plastic sheet protectors in three-ring binders, often several seemingly related or unrelated images filling one page. This collage-over-time provides an interesting documentation of image representation hand-picked by the artist while doubly being a documentation of an artistic practice. As in Excavation II and Porras-Kim’s installation, Jafa’s art-form involves the harvesting (appropriation) of already existent images with minimal alteration or integration by the artist. We see the juxtapositions of image after image after image, each one successively rehashing the intent of the artist. The curation of the exhibition has us view the binders in long, white, glass-covered coffin-like cases (the same ones used in Small’s and Porras-Kim’s installations). With each binder being statically open to one page and sealed behind glass, the viewer is unable to see the bulk of the images, being left to ‘get the idea’ of the whole and move on. And since the content (evidence of ‘the black aesthetic’) comes from the ready-made images themselves, and the form is minimally suggestive of content (as binders), and further more inhibited by their curation (display), it is hard to pin down what substance has been generated by the artist and what as viewers we come away with.

What could (and perhaps should) be an interactive piece in which the viewer subjectively flips through the images is limited to distanced glances at segments of the compilation. But even if we were to see every page the artist collaged, we might be left to question again: what is the role of the artist? With the mass proliferation of instantly accessible images integrated into and defining our every day existence, does the artist function as an image pack rat displaying their larder as art? This would indeed resonate with contemporary trends in communication, most first-world individuals hoarding innumerable masses of digital images in their pockets, to be deployed instantaneously for consumption at the touch of a screen. In this day and age, we are all image pack rats; we all have our own massive store of images which reflect our interests, focuses, and understandings of reality. But do we experience appropriated images as art the same way we experience an original image as art?

It can be eye-opening and intriguing to see the documentation of an artistic practice, whether it is the artist’s personal collection of images or the revealing of objects from a particular project. But this is spread thin when the exposition of such is the art piece itself, rather than this providing a sampling of a greater creative practice the artist has engaged with and developed. The exhibition of Wadada Leo Smith’s art may appear through its presentation similar to other installations in Made in L.A., but upon deeper investigation there is a more complex equation than 1 + 1 x context = art generating the work. As in the installations by Small, Porras-Kim, and Jafa, ‘art-i-facts’ are presented in long, white, glass-covered coffin-like display cases. It is yet another mini-retrospective of one artist’s endeavors in a particular field of interest, another collection of historicized art items spanning many years. And here too there is something to be gained from reading about it. Functional and curatorial similarities aside, however, the experience of Smith’s work differs in significant but subtle ways due to the artist’s input of content and form.

For the installation of Smith’s oeuvre, we are given the artist’s traditionally written scores, visual scores (created by his original notation system called ‘Ankhrashmation’), philosophical texts, and recordings (listened to via headphones) of compositions and improvisational performances, all the result of decades-long explorations into musical and visual expression. The colorful and detailed visual scores appear as alien hieroglyphs, hyper-precise diagrams of abstract visual communication. Each drawing is unique to what is being expressed (as, we can imagine, each musical piece would be). Some drawings appear as grids dotted with shapes similar to traditional music notation, while others completely abandon the mechanical linearity we normally ascribe to time-based material in favor of a more spatially descriptive vision, utilizing circles, twisting lines, chaotic dots, and even painterly markings. By integrating visual and musical content and form an unusual, unique, and multilayered dimension of experience is made available. The works are original ‘art-i-facts’ being presented as such, representing and defining their own history (a history which, I might add, is directly connected to the arts within Los Angeles, Smith being an active contributor to the music and artistic community over the past several decades).
Smith dubs his music “creative music”, a title which puts emphasis on the generative aspects of art and its ability to function independently of any context which might be surrounding it, whether it is within the genre of jazz or the authority of the art museum. His music is accepted within the canon of free improvisation, yet the outcome of this “creative music” is distinct from his contemporaries because of his unique personal visions of musical notation, extended technique, and improvisation. In the visual work, there are resonances with Kandinsky and Klee, yet Smith’s visual scores stand apart from other expressions of visual music in that they are specific to his own interpretations and practice, (in addition to them being both an independent art-form and functionally referential to another art-form—music). They communicate via the basic building blocks of the visually perceptible—color, line, form, movement, composition—rather than through external references, re-contextualizations of historical objects, or juxtapositions of images. It is art built through composition, an alchemical process in which something formless is given form of expression, working from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. With Smith’s work, we are able to experience the building without having to see the blueprint first.

I admit that I am biased towards Smith’s work due to my own interest and practice in music and improvisation, and I imagine that his visual scores may be less approachable for non-musicians. However, I argue that the visual beauty and specificity of the drawings allow the viewer to come to his/her own comprehension and perception of what they are expressing, regardless of academic knowledge or musical training. One cannot know upon immediate viewing exactly what the music would sound like, yet positively this imparts an element of exploration and imagination which extends beyond an “oh, I get it” conclusive understanding. This allows for a subjective improvisational comprehension to unfold which more didactic and referential modals in art do not allow for. Being original art-forms coming forth from study, practice, and exploration, and by the creation of accessible form to contain substantial content, Smith’s works have the agency needed to make them viable, living works of art that stand the test of time.

There are many questions and answers that go into constructing and deconstructing the conundrum of ‘what makes it art?’ Exhibiting a work of art in a museum positions the work as being a participant in the ever-spiraling (and perhaps ingrown) continuum of art history. This is a viable context within which to experience art. But it is a support system—a viewing platform—not a means to create art. Is it really a useful exercise to be moving things in and out of contexts to see what they might mean? Contextualization alone—whether through the simple act of juxtaposition within in a museum, or pointing a finger at context itself as a means to an end—cannot make up for a lack of original, individually composed content within form. Just as an environment serves no purpose if there is nothing to exist within it, context empty of form empty of content is no living ecosystem. Art becomes the act of pointing at the air surrounding an empty yet intricately woven shell. It is a map that defines a territory which is actually non-existent—directions which lead you nowhere.

But when original content and form are composed by the artist, the work of art has a certain kind of autonomy which allows it to have agency in multiple contexts. This type of work is created outside of contemporary trends, outside of any particular paradigm, outside of any linear understanding of the evolution of art. It escapes the trap of trying to exist as ‘new’—what is ‘new’ being based on a rudimentary understanding of progress being a step-by-step, linear movement away from what has already been ‘done’ (is history history–yet?). The context of history can only be beneficial if the art being historicized communicates in universal human terms, speaking to the intellect, body, emotions, and spirit.

Now that the mechanics of art and art-making have been exposed, the innards unraveled string by string to reveal the workings of the machine, what are we going to do with all these parts?