Essay and Fragments of and from Art (in) Theory

IN THE STYLE OF THE TIMES, I harvested a collection of quotations and passages from Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, a book I had been introduced to while at CalArts and am now revisiting (along with the other accompanying anthologies 1815-1900 and 1648-1815). I lift fragments from fragments: Art In Theory being a collection of excerpts from books, articles, essays, interviews, manifestos and more from the innards of literary art history; and from this I selected bite-sized snippets which I believe still simmer relevantly within the cauldron of artistic thought today.

By the ‘style of the times’ I mean what Walter Benjamin describes as the ‘common practice’ of allegory, which is  ‘to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal’ (p. 1028).  I lift this passage from Craig Owens‘ essay ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’ to, for one, create a meta-allegorical confession of my compilation (for which I have no specific goal–except perhaps, that of outlining an allegory of art theory for the times). I also believe that a compulsion towards compilation, montage, and accumulation are dominating agencies of art and culture today–they are key trends of the ‘postmodern condition’, which (perhaps lamentably), we are still in the grip of. Though Benjamin and Owens posit fragmentation as an ‘impulse’ of postmodernism, Jean-Francois Lyotard states in ‘What is Postmodernism?’ that “…the essay (Montaigne) is postmodern, while the fragment (The Athenaeum) is modern” (1137). As often happens in discourse around ‘what postmodernism is‘, we find ourselves back at square one questioning if postmodernism and its associated ‘condition’ exists at all. However, since ‘postmodernism’ as a distinct entity has been a hovering topic in the intellectual and artistic stratosphere for over half a century now, I conclude that it is reasonable to conclude that the ideas of postmodernism (self-contradicting they may be) more or less explain the present era.  And truthfully, (and sometimes to my dismay) you or I can’t escape our time period.

Even in willing acceptance, the ‘postmodern condition’ appears lamentable to me for several reasons (logically and intuitively); one being that it appears hypocritical and self-undermining (isn’t postmodernism a grand narrative itself?); another being that postmodernism’s influence overall has not proven good for art. I don’t believe I would have said so if it were the 1970’s (though I was not alive then), with the likes of Judy Chicago, Mike Kelley, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Smithson (to name a few), whose works I believe function as osmotic gatekeepers of the modern/postmodern continuum; whose art demonstrates (a)effective communication through well-crafted form.  However, fast forward several decades into the 90’s and we see the emergence of internationally recognized larger-than-life artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Ai Wei Wei. Hirst, Koons, and even the historically and socially justified Wei Wei have taken advantage of the postmodern questioning of authorship and authenticity, creating art which, when stripped of its glittering contemporary allure, offers little of value outside the realms of fame, media, and money. Their works are built upon the premises of advertising: shock, excess, promised significance–a seductive package built upon image; a combination of ‘wow’ factors that hypnotize viewers into a submissive experience of fabricated and implied hyperreal import. Their legacy is a demonstration of the effects of global capitalism on art, art making, and what it means to be an artist.

As Jean-Francois Lyotard and Donald Judd separately pointed out in the early 1980’s, there has been a ‘slackening’ and a ‘declining’ in new art. Decades after these sentiments were voiced the degradation and erosion of new art continues. In recent times this movement of decline has ballooned (no Koons pun intended) into a bigger and bigger art market. ‘Contemporary’ art is completely entrenched in the global capitalist economy: with institutions, industry, and elite individuals (including corporations) being the wealthy patrons and ‘curators’ (at the extreme, dictators) of what constitutes art, of what is presented to the public as art. This may be partly why, as stated by Judd in 1984, “There have been almost no first-rate artists in this time” (1140). Decades later there still are few, if any, great artists of our time (sorry, Damien).  Lamentably, there doesn’t seem to be a clear way out of this condition. As Judd plainly stated, “Commerce is nearly the only activity in this society” (1141). If this is so, then how will art and artists continue to operate in this society other than by creating commodities and being a media sensation? “Today art is only a cut above being an ordinary commodity, and close to being manipulated as any compliant commodity should be” (ibid.). This observation is the every-expanding elephant in the room, the type of oversized sculpture that no one wants to look at but that can’t be blocked out of sight. A problem with this, I believe, is that the livelihood and harmony of humanity depends upon artists to extract and create meaning out of our mortal existence–not to perpetuate a market-based system, historical or otherwise. Without art as separate from this economy-driven globalized society, culture becomes reduced to industry, production, a mere buying and selling of existence–compulsive mechanical reproduction that bleeds into the spirit and agency of humanity. Our will power as a self-aware species in this state becomes channeled for selfish and illusory gain.

At first glance it may appear that the way out of this whirlpool of decline is to make art immaterial so that it cannot be bought and sold. However, this is too simplistic, and this approach, consciously and intuitively attempted via conceptual art, has proven to be ineffective. Commodification is now a rule applied to everything in society, including (and especially) the immaterial realms of image regurgitation and consumption found in ‘social media’. Artists dealing with the literally immaterial, such as performance, video, or ‘Instagram art’, are dependent upon the capital games of name and fame. Marina Abramovic is no saint or savior of art, and is propped up on the same premises as Koons, Hirst, and Wei Wei. Their work becomes what can be ‘sold’ or pitched to the public as art, whether it be a giant installation of refugee life vests at a major institution claiming to be activist art, or an Instagram post stating the artists’ apologies for a politically incorrect statement. It doesn’t matter that Koons’ latest larger-than-life sculpture is yet another kitsch eyesore–its a Jeff Koons! It cost 3.8 million dollars to make and is supported by the American and French governments! Artists today are prominent via elitism and excess: with constant media coverage, sky-scraper prices, increasing industry involvement, all within being supported ‘sight unseen’ (i.e. work being literally and figuratively sold before it is made or consumed)–they can’t be denied importance.  Their work is conceptual art at is most base and lowly. For what can get more conceptual than art that doesn’t exist except through the fabrication of media and market? And since it is now virtually impossible and politically incorrect to state whether something is ‘art or not art’, the public is left to just believe what they are shown, being strung along a never-ending flow of promising commercials. When are we going to get back to the main program?

Peter Halley states in ‘Nature and Culture’ that “…new art [reflects] a transition …from a society of expanding markets to a society of stagnant growth in which wealth is more redistributed than created…a society that stressed manipulation of what already exists, be it capital or cultural signs” (1044).  When art becomes reduced to re-hashing, consumption, and media hype, it is no longer operating to increase the awareness of humankind; it becomes only an egocentric capitalist game: a self-perpetuating, vampiristic force rather than a growing, replenishing one, a repetitive slaughtering of culture avoiding possibility of rebirth.  Can artists keep pushing the envelope of what is considered to be ‘art’, keep re-appropriating and regurgitating images of the past, keep feigning social relevance via persuasion and self-proclaimed import, and still be creating anything of worth and meaning? Can the youngest generation of artists who use Instagram as their artistic platform continue to fool themselves into thinking they are making art on par with the postmodern predecessors they idolize? Is longevity in art (and thus culture) important anymore, or is it better off living as short of an existence as possible? It seems that ‘postmodernism’ is a program set to eliminate art as a potent evolutionary force. The world of art has become a fantasy which bears little relevance to the world outside its self-referential fortress. However, life experience (and CSNY) has shown me that ‘the darkest hour is just before the dawn’. Just as the moon disappears into its darkest identity, at its ‘newness’ it begins to fill and light up the night. The forces of light and dark, good and evil, are all part of the ‘grand narrative’ which this time in history tries to deny. Though we seem to be falling down the rabbit hole eternally, Alice eventually reaches real ground upon which to continue her journey seeking what she knows not.


However postmodern, frivolous, meta, or stemming from an “obsessional neuroses” (to quote Angus Fletcher quoted by Craig Owens (1028)) the act of compiling fragments like a running list of favorite inspirational quotes may be, I find it important to extract and consolidate key segments of literary art history which ring resonate today, and to make this available in the present and future to come. There is a risk, however, in this surgical procedure: the increasing fragmentation of knowledge through removal from original context can lead to a disembodiment of knowledge–if it is not integrated properly. Worst case scenario would render such fragments of wisdom incoherent and meaningless, as happens when a hipster collects and identifies with, to no end, ‘cool’ fragments from the past in an attempt to fill the void of the present. It is ironically with the hand of Benjamin’s intellectual surgeon that I hope to turn the scalpel over to the magician.

Whether my compilation of fragments demonstrates an exacerbation of the postmodern trap of disembodiment through fragmentation and de-contextualization, or whether it is a (hopefully) engaging foray out of this stagnation into a deeper realm of artistic understanding, remains, like everything, up to Master Time. Like Zen koans, the fragments are contemplation in themselves and meant to be contemplated. As more and more history piles up, the more it may be necessary to pick out gems among the rock so that knowledge and insights gained and created by our intellectual and artistic ancestors can continue to illuminate us into the future.

Without further ado, below lies a small treasure trove of gems I have extracted from the fertile bedrock of literary art history (via Art In Theory) which we stand upon. (Note: the number in parentheses is the page which you can find the quoted text in Art In Theory. I have emboldened and/or italicized parts I think should be given special or extra thought; I find visual variation in text to be effective and stimulating.) Contemplate these words as you wish:


R.G. Collingwood in ‘Good Art and Bad Art’:

“Art is community’s medicine for that worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness” (p. 536)

“A work of art, therefore, may be either a good one or a bad one. And because the agent is necessarily a conscious agent, he necessarily knows which it is” (537)

“What the artist is trying to do is express a given emotion. To express it, and to express it well, are the same thing. To express it badly is not one way of expressing it…it is failing to express it. A bad work of art is an activity in which the agent tries to express a given emotion, but fails” (ibid.)

“A consciousness which fails to grasp its own emotions is a corrupt or untruthful consciousness. For its failure (like any other failure) is not a mere blankness; it is not a doing nothing; it is a misdoing something” (ibid.)

“Corruption of consciousness is the same thing as bad art” (539)

Art is not a luxury, and bad art is not a thing we can afford to tolerate” (538)


Donald Judd in ‘…not about master-pieces but why there are so few of them’:

“Despite all that’s wrong in this society, it’s the responsibility of the new artists to occurthere is also a responsibility of the older artists to uphold a high quality” (1140)

“It has been shown many times that more money or a greater audience guarantee nothing. Wide or narrow, the condition in which art is made is much more important” (ibid.)

Ever since Bernini no first-rate artist has worked for an institution” (1141)

“The opposition can’t be an institution but must be lots of diverse and educated people arguing and objecting. These people must have real knowledge and judgement and they must have an influence upon the less educated majority” (ibid.)

“Politics alone should be democratic. Art is intrinsically a matter of quality…in art and elsewhere everyone is not equal and it’s hypocrisy and confusion to pretend so” (1142)

Instant importance is a lot easier to make than real importance and far easier to sell” (1143)


Robert Smithson in ‘Cultural Confinement’:

“Cultural confinement takes place when a curator imposes his own limits on an art exhibition, rather than asking an artist to set his limits. Artists are expected to fit into fraudulent categories” (970)

Occult notions of ‘concept’ are in retreat from the physical world. Heaps of private information reduce art to hermeticism and fatuous metaphysics. Language should find itself in the physical world, and not end up locked in somebody’s head” (ibid.)

‘Could it be that certain art exhibitions have become  metaphysical junkyards? Categorical miasmas? Intellectual rubbish? Specific intervals of visual desolation?” (971)


Pierre Bourdieu in ‘Being Different’:

“One only has to think of a particular field (painting, literature or theatre) to see that the agents and institutions who clash, objectively at least, through competition and conflict, are separating in time and in terms of time. One group, situated at the vanguard, have no contemporaries with whom they exchange recognition (apart from other avant-garde producers), and therefore no audience, except in the future. The other group, commonly called the ‘conservatives’, only recognize their contemporaries from the past…the avant-garde is at every moment separated by an artistic generation” (1022)

“…discourse about a work is not a mere accompaniment, intended to assist its perception and appreciation, but a stage in the production of the work, of its meaning and value” (1024)

“…the work is indeed made not twice, but a hundred times, by all those who are interested in it, who find a material or symbolic reading in it, classifying it, deciphering it, commenting on it, combating it, knowing it, possessing it” (1025)


Jean-Francois Lyotard in ‘What is Postmodernism?’:

“A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism as its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant” (1136)


Craig Owens in ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’:

“Appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization–these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors. They also form a whole when seen in relation to allegory, suggesting that postmodernist art may in fact be identified by a single, coherent impulse, and that criticism will remain incapable of accounting for that impulse as long as it continues to think of allegory as aesthetic error” (1029)


Ian Burn in ‘The Art Market: Affluence and Degradation’:

“While it may once have seemed an exaggeration of economic determinism to regard works of art as ‘merely’ commodities in an economic exchange, it is now pretty plain that our entire lives have become so extensively constituted in these terms that we cannot any longer pretend otherwise. Not only do works of art end up as commodities, but there is also an overwhelming sense in which works of art start off as commodities” (935)

“What we have seen more recently is the power of market values to distort all other values, so even the concept of what is and is not acceptable as ‘work’ is defined first and fundamentally by the market and only secondly by ‘creative urges'” (ibid.)

What can you expect to challenge in the real world with ‘colour’, ‘edge’, ‘process’, systems, modules, etc. as your arguments? Can you be any more than a manipulated puppet if these are your professional arguments? Moreover, when you add to this picture thousands upon thousands of artists in all corners of the modern art empire tackling American formalism in the belief that it is the one ‘true art’–that’s when it is possible to see how preposterous and finally downright degrading it has become!” (936)


Peter Halley in ‘Nature and Culture’:

“…new art [reflects] a transition…from a society of expanding markets to a society of stagnant growth in which wealth is more redistributed than created…a society that stressed manipulation of what already exists, be it capital or cultural signs” (1044)

“Advertising’s recent appropriation of the vocabularies of nature and post-war modernism makes apparent the extent of…a triumph of the market over nature. That beer, detergent, and makeup are now called ‘natural’ is significant” (1045)

“Why then, at the end of the 70’s, did this transcendentalist, phenomenologically-oriented approach which had been dominant for thirty years abruptly disappear to be replaced by a new practice that looks exclusively to the mass media for its repertory of images, that rejects the phenomenology of art-making as pretentious and mandarin, that interprets language as a closed set without reference to extra-human reality? Why did a new practice emerge, that substitutes for phenomenological study a fascination with sociological and political reality, that rejects the positivism of both the physical and social sciences, and replaces the cult of originality with myriad variations on the theme of repetition?” (1044)


Jurgen Habermas in ‘Modernity–An Incomplete Project’:

“But all those attempts to level art and life, fiction and praxis, appearance and reality to one plane; the attempts to remove the distinction between artifact and object of use, between conscious staging and spontaneous excitement; the attempts to declare everything to be art and everyone to be an artist, to retract all criteria and to equate aesthetic judgement with the expression of subjective experiences–all these undertakings have proved themselves to be sort of nonsense experiments” (1128)

“When the containers of an autonomously developed cultural sphere are shattered, the contents get dispersed. Nothing remains from a desubliminated meaning or a destructured form; an emancipatory effect does not follow” (ibid)


Jose Ortega y Gasset in ‘The Dehumanization of Art’:

“It is in art and pure science, precisely because they are the freest activities and least dependent on social conditions, that the first signs of any changes of collective sensibility become noticeable. A fundamental revision of man’s attitude towards life is apt to find its first expression in artistic creation and scientific theory” (329)

“To assail all previous art, what else can it mean than to turn against Art itself? For what is art, concretely speaking, if no such art has been made up to now?” (330)

“Is it conceivable that modern Western man bears a rankling grudge against his own historical essence?” (ibid.)


Salvador Dali in ‘The Stinking Ass’:

“We shall be idealists subscribing to no ideal” (489)


FINfor now…