Post #1080 • October 30, 2007, 11:40 AM • 173 Comments
Probably very few people make art for purely formal reasons. I even get that sense from Ad Reinhardt, who seemed to work with an idea of formal purity rather than formal purity itself, and a parochial idea at that. Certainly anyone using recognizable form has poetic associations with those images or there would be no reason to put them in. Art has long been inspired by stories and histories, to the enormous pleasure of people who enjoy it.
The problem is only trying to use those non-formal impulses to make the art function well. Without the idea, you might never make the thing. But once made, it is good or not based on form, and the idea becomes a side issue. Interpretation may yield intellectual riches but this is not worth doing on an object that lacks visual ones, unless, of course, you believe that art is primarily an intellectual and not a visual activity.
Writers typically process the world as narratives and ideas. What we have in the institutionalized art world is essentially a triumph of the writers. Something like Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth - the crack - plays to a writer's strengths: interpretation, philosophizing, mental associations, meanings, communication. But actually seeing the thing is not a literary activity. Good art doesn't function because of these literary properties, but alongside them.
The sad irony is that visual art handles literary and philosophical ideas in such a vague manner that if you base the success of art on them, it cannot fail. The mind can find order and meaning in anything, by association if nothing else. You cannot disprove Salcedo's claim that the work represents racial hatred, not because of its powerful and clear representation of racial hatred, but because of its lack of specificity as a symbol. Rather, it has enough specificity to evoke associations but not so much specificity as to warrant some more than others. Salcedo's verbalized intentions become required reading in this case because the piece on its own could suggest anything with a division or two sides. Again, the writer triumphs, although here, it is the artist herself. (I've already suggested that visual art that tries to accomplish literary functions bears comparison to other literary works. Would anyone like to put Doris Salcedo up against Alex Haley?)
Efforts that can't fail can't succeed either, not in any meaningful way. In an art world in which formal success is more or less off the table and conceptual success can't be established, few markers are available to distinguish a work from surrounding examples of visual and philosophical insipidness. One of the stronger markers is audacity. So it becomes necessary to extend the crack through the entire floor of Turbine Hall, cover the skull with a fortune of diamonds, dedicate the whole fair booth to a machine that drags around an empty pack of cigarettes on a length of monofilament, to cover the wall with surreal, silhouetted racial and gender stereotypes madly coupling, to print the photograph eighteen feet wide, to present ever more obvious examples of non-art as art. The old saw used to say that if you couldn't make it good, make it big and red. Now it might as well say that if you can't make it good, make it audacious and expensive. Of course, this encourages the hypercommercialization of the art world and its subsidiary projects: artists "commenting" on the art market, art writers commenting on the art market, and art writers commenting on art writers commenting on the art market.
Economists observe that when you remove competitive mechanisms, competitors find unrestricted parameters and start competing based on them instead. In Taiwan, all gas pumps are full serve, and you get an armful of gifts with every topped-off tank. This isn't because the Taiwanese are especially civilized, but because the price of gas is regulated by the state, so gas station owners compete with better service and freebies. Something similar happens with audacity in the art world. If formal considerations are regarded as inconsequential and conceptual ones don't lend themselves to valuation, audacity is a good freebie because it carries some visceral excitement. It is about as hard to make something audacious as it is to make it expensive, and in some cases the two are the same problem.
But audacity correlates to quality as much as anything else does - not at all - so writers are needed to retrofit things that look like quality onto them. This is a somewhat separate problem, because writers are needed to prop up bad art in general. Audacious objects, however, supply things that look like quality in larger quantitites, so the accompanying retrofitting goes on more widely and with greater lengths of philosophical baling wire. And not just among self-identified art writers, but also de facto art writers like curators and even artists to the extent that their work depends on explication. The following properties may look like quality, but are not: scale, implications, salaciousness, challenges, newness, associations, assertions, narratives, communications, non-art-ness, meanings, complexity, layers. Good art may have these things. Bad art too. They are not the goodness itself. They are freebies. Freebies are fun and may add value to the experience. But just as you wouldn't accept an armful of freebies and a tankful of corn syrup, you ought to insist on quality with traits, not traits alone. That quality is ineffable, personal, and felt makes it hard to write about, but not less real or less important. The goodness itself can only be detected through sight and feeling.
Writing has a place in this, to use the power of language to describe those perceptions. All mediums have a negative innate tendency. Pastels want to be chalky. Watercolors want to be pale. Oils want to turn to mud. Clay wants to turn into a lump. Marble wants to shatter. Making these mediums do what you want them to do instead takes great skill. Writing's negative innate tendency is to mistake ideas for reality. To describe reality, the world underneath the ideas about it, even to say something completely true, takes great skill. No art writer succeeds at doing so all the time, but not enough are trying, and too many actual and de facto art writers are settling for something innate to writing but not innate to art.