What follows is a long exchange that took place on Facebook during my NYC gallery/museum crawl. It all started with my status: "J.T. is we clearly took a step backward with Johns and Rauschenburg." It was posted as I was working my way through MoMA. The participants here are Chris Rywalt, Mark Cameron Boyd, Jeffry Cudlin and me. This transcript is posted with the authors' permission. Feel free to join in!
J.T. is we clearly took a step backward with Johns and Rauschenburg.
Mark Cameron Boyd - This you are correct on: Pop, being anti-Greenbergian, is clearly suspect in the critical hierarchy...not that I believed everything Clem wrote.
Jeffry Cudlin - Wait...is today opposite day? ;)
J.T. - Not sure about opposite day, but going from the AbEx rooms to the Pop rooms certainly leaves me feeling deflated.
JC - Maybe it depends which abexers you're talking about...but I'll take a combine or a target over a zip painting any day.
J.T. - Not this guy! Give me Rothko, pollock, Newman, etc, any day of the week.
JC - I don't know...I guess I have a thing for anti-painterly painting.
J.T. - Wait a sec, what YOUR painting? :)
CR - MCB, I'm surprised at your misreading of the critical hierarchy. Hasn't Greenberg on the outs for forty years?
I felt exactly the way you did, JT, when I followed that same path. It's like watching the death of sincerity in painting.
JC - I would have to say I'm a recovering painter. And I'm not particularly interested in sincerity, either.
CR - Sincerity all by itself doesn't count for much. But it's better than irony, which I am sick to death of.
J.T. - Fair 'nuf
JC - Okay, as for irony, I definitely don't need art to wink at me knowingly, either. ;) I want art to create some kind of condition of transparency, which isn't the same thing as sincerity. If that makes any sense.
I think this conversation needs to happen somewhere other than a fb comment thread.
J.T. - No!! It's like you guys are with me walking the galleries. It's a lot of fun on my end. Though I am by myself...
J.T. - What's more transpararent than an art work that is simply what it is and no more? Wall texts don't equal transparancy, do they?
CR - I'm not sure what a condition of transparency is, either.
Sincerity doesn't mean sad clowns or those big-eyed kids. It's like JT said, just something that is what it is.
JC - Transparency has more to do with creating a space in the world (through art) where hierarchies are either suspended or at least re-ordered; the sacred and the profane duke it out; and we hopefully come away convinced that we know something we didn't before we encountered the work. Don't know if that helps. Also: the idea that modern artworks simply are what they are is really problematic, I think.
CR - I think you're loading too much onto a work of visual art with your idea of transparency. It seems like the kind of thing that might be good, if it were to happen (maybe), but not the kind of thing one could really aim for. You sound a little like another artist friend of mine who considers herself very spiritual. She picks on me for limiting art to the strictly visual.
I personally think all that art can really honestly aim for is visual quality. That's what it's for, it's what it does best. Anything else is secondary. Part of that is sincerity: Simply being. Art for its own sake. Honesty and openness and a lack of pretension; also a lack of distancing mechanisms. When it comes entirely from you it's hard (if not impossible) to be ironic; irony comes when you quote others, comment on others.
JC - I am many things...but I definitely ain't spiritual.
I'm just saying that this whole limiting art to the visual, art-for-art's-sake shtick is essentially a period piece. People seriously thought about art that way for a hot minute a few decades ago, but not anymore, not for a very long time. In regrading art this way, you have to shut down a lot of what's being done in the work of art, how the artist is consciously positioning her or himself historically, what arguments the artist is essentially making about the ideal relationship between the viewer and the work in all of the formal decisions made; claims the institution and/or curator are making in presenting a particular piece in a particular place in a particular way, etc. etc. An artwork's a big old can of worms, and you can stare affectionately at the lid of it for as long as you like...but there's a whole lot wriggling inside of there.
MCB - Finally at a real keyboard...don't have much more to add except I mentioned Greenberg b/c part of the problem is that he IS "on the outs" & perhaps due for a "re-ordering." "Visual quality," Chris? Leave that to Ikea! I can't believe you drug out the old "Art for art's sake" argument which is so "on the outs" it doesn't even stand up to decent criticism. I think what Jeffry's getting at is that art's got no "usefulness" so it had better at least have some transparency about it's use within visuality, i.e., as documentation of a concept (and I know it's on another thread but conceptual art indeed does state facts which more than you can say for most painting done in the last 60 years). (Like the green hair, Chris.)
CR - More than one person has tried this argument on me but it just don't wash, sorry. All that other stuff may be interesting to think about after you've perceived a work of art, but ultimately art begins and ends with the visual. Because art isn't about this moment in time. Art is about the perpetual NOW, whenever that NOW happens to be. 500 years from now it'll still be NOW, and the people there will be LOOKING at your art. They won't know where you were trying to position yourself historically, what arguments you're making about whatever, they won't know who curated your work or anything. They might not even know your name. In other words, the worms will all be dead and gone without a trace inside the can. The can is all that endures.
CR - What visual art has that nothing else has is this: All you need is eyes. You can go crouch in front of 30,000-year-old cave paintings or look at the Venus of Willendorf from 22,000 years ago and see the same thing seen by the creator of the work and by everyone since.
CR - I keep trotting out the now-unfashionable "visual quality" argument, Mark, because, while you say it doesn't stand up to decent criticism, I have yet to hear -- from you or anyone else -- a cogent argument against it.
Art certainly has no usefulness, but it's also certain humans value it. And they don't value it as documentation of a concept.
CR - (Oh, thanks about the hair. My real hair is leaving, so I'm going to go Chia.)
JC - Mmm. The problem with this thought--that you're painting for a future human race that will be unfamiliar with whatever you might be alluding to, where your tastes and tendencies in the studio came from, etc.--is that it's basically the same argument postwar painters were making, as they made their paintings ever-more inaccessible to viewers. They were projecting an IDEAL viewer who didn't exist yet, presumably hadn't been born yet. Art doesn't work this way. It is inherently relational; artworks depend on other artworks for their meaning, they have no meaning by themselves. The act of picking a rectangular canvas to work on is loaded, specific to a particular culture, in a particular moment in time. No artist is without precedents, borrowings, allusions, motivations of the moment. Trying to will all of that away isn't possible.
MCB - A cogent argument? This from someone who INSISTS that "500 years from now it'll still be NOW?" I've news for you, Chris, it's impossible to know WHAT anyone felt in the past when they looked at Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" & it's even more ridi=ulous to assume that it STILL can "mean" the same thing to youngsters now (especially since good old Marcel muddied the waters with "L.H.O.O.Q") - without the contextaulity of one's era (social, cultural, economic, political conditions at the time) this kind of BLIND FAITH in the belief of LOOKING is truly archaic & just sad.
MCB - Yes, Jeffry, yes! "Artworks depend on other artworks for their meaning, they have no meaning by themselves." Reminds me of something I wrote a few years back: "Art is a cultural system of signification. Its essence derives from cultural understanding and a discursive understanding. Since the meaning that exists within a sentence is only defined by the definitions of its individual elements, the meaning of art is defined by the system. Meaning is in the system." (from http://www.markcameronboyd.com/)
JC - Mark...this is why people think we are no fun at parties.
CR - I don't know if either of you are any fun at parties but you're both dead wrong.
Mark: I never claimed it was possible to know what anyone felt when looking at La Gioconda. And I didn't say a thing about what it means. The fact that what it means is contextual is the clue that that's not important. That's not why the painting was ever valued. It's valued now, and it was valued, and it'll be valued in the future, because of how it looks. Because how it looks is invariant. As long as humans have eyes, that painting will appeal to them. The same way we can appreciate charcoal on a wall from 30,000 years ago without even knowing what the proto-Duchamps of the time were doing to kill everyone's buzz.
Both of you are talking about the meaning of art -- "Artworks depend on other artworks for their meaning, they have no meaning by themselves." -- as if meaning is necessary or sufficient for art. It's not. It's superfluous.
CR - I still don't hear a cogent argument. Saying that I'm archaic isn't a cogent argument. Explain to me how, if the meaning is contextual, if art is a cultural system of signification, and the meaning is in the system, if all that is true, explain to me how my son and I enjoyed the experience of the Assyrian sphinxes at the Met, given that the context, the system of signification, of those sphinxes has been dead for over four thousand years.
My model can explain why the same building houses paintings by Rousseau and five-thousand-year-old pieces of painted papyrus. Does yours?
MCB - Heck, Chris, I can "enjoy" a stain on the wall, too. Does that make it "art?" So you "look" at something for enjoyment & that's great. But "art" has moved on from the superficial, the surface, the "aesthetic." Everything changes & art now encompasses more than retinal stimulation of the eye, romantic musings, contemplative trance-like numbness brought on by hypnotic "compositions" of color. This is where meaning comes in b/c you do indeed believe it "means" something that you & your boy "enjoyed" the Assyrian sphinxes. But would you not have had a better, more "knowing" experience if you had been able to explain the meaning behind the idols, told your son why they made these things (this is where text comes in, JT - you're still there aren't you?) And it's not true that La Gioconda is "invariant,"as any physicist will tell you, she's changed, pigments have shifted & dried as numerous faulty restorations have dimmed her once lovely "flesh." Il mio povero amore guasto!
MCB - I just cut & pasted this thread & it runs 12 pages! Also, Fb must be monitoring us now b/c they've turned on some kind of limit on the character strokes for comments - my last thoughts were cut short...but we've begun to circle the wagons here anyway...this is beginning to need a forum.
MCB - And the last time I "partyed" w Mr. Cudlin was in NYC in '06 or '07 & it's true: we stayed pretty much by ourselves (w Rex Weil) talking boatloads of theory fueled by a lot of ale, as I recall.
CR - There's always a limit on length of comments on status lines. You just never hit it before. I hit it all the time.
Art hasn't moved on, Mark. Art's the same as it ever was. Your thinking about it may be different from mine, but that doesn't mean art itself has gone anywhere. You think what you think, and maybe there are some contemporary scholars who agree with you (or you with them, whichever), but all the world's art is still what it is.
It's clear to me when you write something like "contemplative trance-like numbness brought on by hypnotic "compositions" of color" that you, like so many people who want "meaning" in art, who resort to wall texts and jargon, have not had an orgasm. What I mean to say is, you're trying to tell me that "sex" has moved on from the superficial and so on. You can say that because you haven't had sex.
CR - Not literally of course, any more than I literally meant the Mona Lisa was absolutely static. I was going to qualify that and then I thought, oh, they'll know what I mean. Apparently not. Apparently we're going to nitpick like Talmudic scholars. About what I'd expect from someone for whom the visual requires a textual basis -- it's all about the literal word, isn't it?
MCB - Oh, the text is just foreplay, Mr. Rywalt!
CR - The pleasure to be had from art is more than "retinal stimulation of the eye". Trying to explain this to you is like trying to explain orgasms to someone who is convinced shaking hands is the same as sex. You keep saying, "But I've shaken hands!"
The enjoyment we had looking at (and wanting to touch really, really badly) those sphinxes was not one that would have been deepened -- or affected at all, really -- by knowing anything about them. The pleasure was non-verbal, not related to words at all, indescribable in words, and completely unrelated to anything that could be expressed in words. They were the beautiful work of human hands and we stood in relation to them the same as their creators, and all of that was communicated in an instant, a moment that cannot be circumscribed by pedantry or terminology.
MCB - Tsk, tsk...such a romantic!
Good jousting w you, Crywalt. It's been awhile since we've tangled & I'm genuinely appalled to see that you're as stubborn as I am when it comes to "art." Pleasant dreams to all!
CR - To use another metaphor, you sound as if you believe if you could describe the chemical actions of arsenic in the human body, you could take some without its affecting you. No matter how much you've read about arsenic and what it does, it's going to do the same thing to you. The effect of arsenic is invariant the way the effect of the Mona Lisa is invariant. There's a range of responses, but pretty much most humans will react in much the same way. The range of responses to art is wider than the responses to arsenic, but that's quibbling.
Read all you want about orgasms and sex and what coitus means and all of that, and none of it matters while you're coming.
CR - Grr. It's not romance.