Monday, July 29, 2013
More at Plural - A Reply to Henry Gould's Note Contra Conceptualism
Let's begin by saying that I don't disagree with what Henry Gould has said on his blog HG POETICS on July 26, 2013. There's an implied definition of conceptual art which I won't disagree with, since it serves as a pretextual platform for the points I want to make.
The breakdown in the traditional artistic sensibility which occurred during the years surrounding World War I produced a crisis in Western culture, the effects of which continue to be felt today. I'd like to take two obvious examples, and try to present them in terms of the birth of conceptualism, which I see as a component of Modernism.
Eliot's The Waste Land, and Duchamp's early Readymades, each signaled an armature of reaction to traditional approaches to respective crafts of artistic production.
Eliot's Waste Land "borrows" language and situations from earlier literatures and languages, and puts them "on exhibit" as peculiar manifestations of cultural data; there's a passivity about that that is masked by Eliot's considerable genius, his skill to make a collection of fragmentary "movements" or sections to produce an overall effect that is much more powerful than its parts. These fragments ape specific modes of lyrical or meditative tropes as specimens of out-moded (defunct) sensibility. As his career progressed, Eliot found more convenient forms to express his growing philosophical and religious certainties, but at the earliest stages of his artistic life, he used a kind of conceptual approach to form and subject matter which allowed him to portray feelings and actions as alien specimens of certain kinds of representation. In other words, he was able to treat his material from the outside. In the simplest sense, this constituted a sort of objectivity which permitted him to keep an ironic distance from his artistic materials.
Duchamp's abandonment of painting, and his subsequent series of transgressive assaults on official artistic canons, has traditionally been regarded as a repudiation of the materials of artistic production, and of the cliché-ridden formalities of craft and subject matter. Ostensibly, he no longer felt the urge to participate in the continuing production of framed scenes, and the framing metaphor included not just the literal wooden frame around the canvas, but the salons and galleries and museums and guilds and societies and critical milieu through which such productions were viewed and interpreted. There is a dryness, a diffident removal in Duchamp's position with respect to the history of art.
These departures were variously regarded over the intervening years as symptoms of cultural exhaustion, or of spoofing demonstrations of mischief. Surrealism, too, which developed closely on the heels of these works, depended to a large degree on just this transgressive mode of forbidden, disruptive contrariness.
Conceptual art involves, first, seeing straightforward artistic products as things, from the outside, and describes them in terms of the typical, predominant qualities or formal attributes which they exhibit--consciously or unconsciously. It treats traditional art as a worn-out, old-fashioned, amusing game, played by rules which either no longer apply, or which do not accommodate newer realities or ways of approaching the game. Indeed, the whole concept of an avant garde, is based on a progressive view of history--and of the history of art--in which successive revisions or revelations follow one upon the other in chronological order(s), each more advanced or modern than the last. One could say with some justice that a conceptual view of art, at any point in history, is a reprocessing and a criticism of existing modes. An art which purports to express anything new or challenging is almost by definition conceptual, at least in its earliest stages.
A traditional artistic endeavor involves expressing a sensibility from inside an existing tradition of form and reception. It takes as a given certain presumptions about the relationship between maker, object and audience. In this traditional sense, a lyric poet's function is to create a verbal music which expresses the author's feelings or thoughts about life, or the world, or other relationships, in such a way that it rises to a level of measurable intensity or formal perfection, which is measured against the existing aspirations which precede it. Any legitimate artist's function is to portray something in the world in such a way as to evoke feelings or reactions in the viewer that credit his skill or insight at recreating or reinterpreting phenomena; and in the case of art, to establish a value which inheres or coheres in the physical art object itself.
A poet like Jack Gilbert, or Robert Bly, or W.S. Merwin writes from within a tradition of address and syntactic occasion which is agreed-upon beforehand in the context of a given audience. Their function is to "communicate" feelings and thoughts along a predictable range of objects, or emotions, which are delivered to their readers through a given set of typical organs of exchange--journals, books, readings, recordings.
Any writer or artist who wishes to challenge the system of values or behaviors or modes of transmission upon which these modes of exchange depend, may be attempting to repudiate, or alter, or augment those existing media and presumptions.
No writer or artist exists, or produces, in a vacuum. So it may be possible to say that any work of art, no matter how disruptive or negative in its intent, is always to some degree, a mediation in history (or in the history of art or literature), or as it were, in a conversation (or dialogue) with existing modes of expression.
If some conceptual art appears to lack certain of the qualities of specific feeling and deliberate gravity which earlier modes of writing or artifacts contained, it does not follow that conceptual art is by definition less committed to the purposes of art; indeed, it may seek to redefine, or expand the possible uses and meanings of art into areas that had not been explored or considered before.
Finally, the interest afforded by certain conceptual artistic endeavors, does not in itself imply that the kinds of formalities it ignores, or differs from, are necessarily inferior, or passé. We are always on the threshold of the unknown, and no one can predict with any certainty what kinds of art or literature may alter our view of what is typical, useful, valuable, or lasting.
Does the pursuit of new, conceptual formalities discredit or tend to suppress the traditional qualities of art and literature--imaginative responses to reality; or visual, oral, tactile effects--preferring a "technical" analysis and solution to problems which should not be addressed in this way?
All art is technical. To see how others may approach the problem(s) of formal exploration, one must begin from outside the progression of history. Sensibility--the specific and eccentric combination of thought and feeling within any individual's mind and being--is not a constant quantity which can be separated from its means. No one can ever write Keats's poems again. Or Coleridge's.
Would it be possible to write a poetry or paint a picture unconsciously?--living within the dream of language or within the known colors and shapes of our reality? Possibly. But we cannot not know what we know. Conceptualism is like the riddle of the Sphinx: if we knew what the question was, we wouldn't have to ask.