thumbnail52efkuxToday the avant-garde – which wanted to release all the creative energies bound up in specialized art and let them loose into everyday life – is a huge institution, with prizes for young artists, awards, museum shows everywhere, catalogs, books and journals by the shelf full, ubiquitous panels, lectures and symposia, residencies and sites of community activism. It’s now taken as given that art should be a practice of social change, and every group show has a political theme or a socially critical subtext. From east to west, from north to south, in every city and every country there are interventions, manifestations, and art that “deals with issues,” all announced on e-flux. Anyone who follows the art world’s bulletin board for a week could be forgiven for thinking that the tidal wave of social practice has swept traditional art away. Of course this is not the case, but with all the clamor, it is easy to miss how naive and charming such idealistic earnestness and good intentions actually are. Of course one is shocked and saddened by what goes on in the world; of course one gets into rage at injustice, and a worse one at the sheer lying stupidity of politics; and of course as an intelligent, aware individual one can see clearly how things should be arranged. But no matter how compelling or politically important the topic, neither of those traits can give guarantees to art. Meanwhile, authority is imposing, consensus is intimidating, and critical programs are persuasive, but artists are just as muddle headed, driven by desire, and subject to fall into idealizing fantasy as anyone – as are critics, curators, and every other art world professional for that matter, not to mention viewers. It would be unwise to take the current avant-gardist rhetoric too much at face value. Proposals for new forms of social interaction remain in the domain of art, so at bottom are not so much of a break from abstract paintings or any other ordinary art. Yet there is an important difference – an abstract work of art is a new real thing in the world, and in comparison socially engaged conceptualism seems unreal, speculative, very much a case of “what if?” rather than an action on what is, asking and getting from its viewers a bit too large a benefit of the doubt.

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8 Responses to Consensus

  1. Claude van Lingen says:

    Art is, and always has been a reflection of the philosophies and zeitgeist of the times in which it was created. This is true of the Greeks, the Renaissance, Impressionism, Cubism, Abstraction, Dada, Surrealism., Abstract Expressionism, whatever. They each had their time in which “prizes for young artists, awards, museum shows everywhere, catalogs, books and journals by the shelf full, ubiquitous panels, lectures and symposia, residencies and sites of community activism” were the norm.

    The art of today is extremely varied. Page through leading contemporary magazines such as Artforum and Art in America to see how varied they are, much abstract and figurative art included. Particularly see prizes given for all sorts of situations in the December issue of Art in America.

    There is little difference between the way in which art movements of the past—after general acceptance—were treated and that of contemporary movements.

    Artists who adhere to a previous style/approach have always complained about new directions that have come to the fore. The Academies and the Impressionists, Impressionists and Cubism, Cubism and abstraction, Minimalism and pop against Abstract Expressionism, the list goes on.

    We are living in highly troubled times and many artists are responding to this zeitgeist. This spirit of the times is, in many cases, being interpreted in the medium most appropriate to communicating an idea, no matter what—paint, performance, digital, army tanks, blood, etc., etc. Sociopolitical issues have been a subject for centuries.

    The only constant in life and art is change and innovative artists will look for ways in which to express the zeitgeist of their times.

    This is the issue that is at the heart of the book I am writing and an excerpt may be read on my blog

    • Claude, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I wish my template was better suited to comments so other people would see it and reply. As it is, the comments are kind of hidden away – not my choice.

      Just want to make one brief response – I don’t belong to an earlier moment and I am not resisting the new. The neo avant-garde is my generation, I’ve had enough of it and I want to move on. The institutionalized avant-garde is the conservative position. My position is an organic growth from my studio work, and no one could be more surprised by it than me.

      Also, if things are just the same today as they’ve always been, with movement succeeding movement, then what is there to say anyway? I don’t know how you can venture to say anything if you don’t believe that this moment is unique.

      Looking forward to investigating your book.

      • Claude van Lingen says:

        Thanks for your reply Robert.
        As I see it there there is no new movement today. It has evolved to a point where “thinking” artists are finding something to say or do and using or developing the means most appropriate to communicating their idea/s—no matter what.
        You will see this in the work of my former student, Trevor Gould, who made a very realistic sculpture of a man in a white coat and an abstract sculpture and placed it in the orangutan cage in the Toronto zoo and video taped their reactions. Trevor teaches at Concordia University in Montreal.
        If the idea calls for painting, then paint.

        • Fair enough. That’s why my position is not to work from ideas. It’s not a new one, but in today’s context it seems fresh, or has a shock value. Not shockingly original but gives a shock to habitual ways of thinking. I don’t believe in having something to say – except when I write of course!

          • Claude van Lingen says:

            So, if not from ideas or something to say, what do you work from Robert?

          • There are always ideas bouncing around in the work, but the question is where do they come from? My work comes out of itself, it’s self generating, and it produces ideas as an effect – the ideas don’t come from me.

          • Claude van Lingen says:

            Enjoyed reading your essay on your website Robert. Very good and erudite.

            To get more feedback I suggest you join the Abstract Painting group on LinkedIn.

            Your “position,” (intention?) as you say of working without an idea, is actually an idea. And, as you say, it is not a new approach (idea). You know the history, Dada’s idea of using chance, stream of consciousness, Pollock, et al. “it seems fresh.” I go to exhibitions, read magazines, and practically half the work is abstract. Your work is very good and fresh, but after seeing and making abstract work myself for many years, sorry, I cannot see how it can be a shock.

            Abstraction in many situations calls for intuitive “moves” on color, texture shape, etc., and sometimes requires a split second conscious decision. It is a dialog between the artists and the work, like a chess game, where one move calls for another. You make a move and the painting talks back to you. These are and always have been part of the creative process in any art form. e.g. Should I put this figure here? Would the direction this arm is pointing in be better? Would this tree add to the balance of the composition? Would this word be better than that, etc. etc.

            Been there done that and still doing that in my conceptually driven work.

            Very few abstract artists know about how Theosophy shaped the ideas of artists such as Mondrian Kandinsky and the Russian Constructivists or how the changing concepts of time and space at the turn of the 20th century shaped the zeitgeist within which the ideas of Cubism came to be, or for that matter, the ideas of St. Francis of
            Assisi and the troubadours, in the development of the Renaissance. The list goes on.

            The art of today is shaped by the development of the primacy of the individual by Democracy that originated in the ideas postulated by the Greeks and reintroduced by American and French Revolutions.

            Ideas have been the basis of all art forms since the beginning, It was the idea of sfumato and chiaroscuro and his use of oil paint that made it possible for da Vinci to paint the atmospheric effects in his work. The idea that “It is as difficult for a rich man to get into heaven as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle—actually a the name of a narrow gate in Jerusalem—that was the source for Vanitas paintings in the Netherlands.

            “I don’t know how you can venture to say anything if you don’t believe that this moment is unique.”
            This is exactly what the premise of my teaching and the book is about, which is—To work within the zeitgeist of the times, find something to say, (communicate visually, not verbally), and find or develop the means most appropriate to communicating your idea, no matter what. If this entails using paint, then go ahead and paint.

            To each his/her own is the motto of the day.

  2. emitt kyle says:

    I am far from qualified to make comment on your discussion gentlemen, yet here I am typing away.
    I find myself sighing heavily once those discussions start about ‘what’ my painting ‘means’ or is ‘about’. Almost an overwhelming sadness takes hold when I am advised to have a concept or a statement to make; a story to tell.
    What is going on in the world has become too overwhelming for me to make comment. Besides, I came to art as a child through my parents, who were interested in , in their opinion, well painted, aesthetically pleasing work; some of which was conceptual some of which was not.
    For me art was a a world to escape into, a hope for the future, but as a child I was hopelessly naive and believed in a utopian future.
    My point? Well, I am with Mr Linsley. I do not want to paint with something to say, an ‘idea’ of what my work means, my greatest joys in my own studio practice are those that evolve out of the work during the process of working not so much the initial thoughts before I started the painting.
    There are people in the world much more qualified than me to comment on the world, society and where we are as humanity, and I can talk and talk about these things, discuss it, argue about it; but when I paint I want to be somewhere else, I want to make things that give a viewer a moment of somewhere else, and those are the paintings I enjoy by other artists.
    When I was a teenager I would catch a train into London and go to gallerias, I did not care much what was on show, for me it was like walking into a kind of cathedral. I could leave the horrors of the world by the door and spend a few hours in the quiet of a gallery looking at the outpourings of humanity through art that gave me hope for a better future.
    I like abstraction, and yes I am aware of its failings, and I am aware that it needs to do something new but to me it still holds possibility, it still fascinates me.
    If I had a concept I would probably not make abstract art.
    Besides, what is wrong with art without concept, most people seem to like art because of what it looks like, how it appeals to them before the ‘what it is about’.
    Why do we buy the CD, Vinyl record, download the album; because we liked the tune, the melody, the harmony, the words of what it is about ( if there are words ) we discover later.

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