“Communication involves other people.”
I wrote this in a comments box of a Stylus review the other day, after another impenetrable tirade of banal linguistic trickery by one of our frequent commentors, who seems to take pleasure in a mean-spirited mockery of those around him by writing in such an obtuse and high-minded style.
Last night I spent two and a half hours parsing Rosalind Krauss’ densely-written A Voyage on the North Sea, in which she explains her vision of a “post-medium condition” in art theory. It involves several things, namely semantic discord over the term “medium”: the end of “the arts” as separatist disciplines, genres and techniques and the triumph of “art” as creative expression: conceptual art as anti-commodity-commodity: conceptual art as (critical) comment on both itself and its venue: and art as revealing the process of art rather than the object of art; that is art as “affect” rather then just “effect”. For instance Michelangelo’s David is not just a marble sculpture – it is the whole ontological process of the sculpture, from commission, planning, man with hammer, chisel and block of marble, to end result. The “art” is the whole process, not just the finished artefact.
I’m not an art historian and I’m not a post-modernist (maybe I am, though – who can say?), but the ideas struck me as essentially pretty simple. Conceptual art triumphs over “the arts” because it is not limited by technique, tradition, or tools; it is not separatist and it is not reductionist; it does not see painting as typified only by “flatness” at a base level. Take Magritte’s infamous pipe that is not a pipe; here it is;
The “art” in Magritte’s pipe is not that it is a painting, which is flat, and contains paints applied to canvas in a certain pattern; it is that it reveals explicitly the process of art. The phrase written beneath the image of the pipe makes you realise that you are looking at a painting and not a real object – we know this already, but like realist cinema imitates documentary which in turn imitates real life, the point of art is often to obscure its own process via mythology, to make you feel moved by something fake by making it appear not-fake, or real: this is what culture is; a system of mythologies which make the artificial (social, planned, cultural, man-made, representative) appear natural (evolved, spontaneous, spiritual, organic, real) – by encouraging you to ponder on the nature and origin (process) of the art.
Looked at as a simple material thing, as “just” paint on canvas, Magritte’s pipe is pretty dull – it’s a lifeless painting with drab colours, the proportions are odd, the lines unrealistic – but looked at as a conceptual whole in which you consider the process and reasoning that brought it into being, it is an enlightening marvel; “this is NOT a pipe!” one’s mind exclaims the moment you “get” it, and one feels a little smarter for having realised Magritte’s schtick, or joke, or deep metaphysical point (delete as appropriate). (Sad that so much conceptual art should be so rich in concept and so poor in sensual, tactile physicality – place a more equal emphasis on the idea and the object, please! I am sure more people would be better disposed towards conceptual art if it was as pleasant to look upon as it was stimulating to think about.)
The thing is that pretty much any art reveals its process if you look closely enough – the brushstrokes in a painting; the chisel marks in a sculpture – so Krauss’ fight against the modernists, who had reduced painting’s essence to “flatness”, perhaps rushes too far in the opposite direction, over-praising the concept in order to defeat the notion of “flatness” as the essence of a painting, or any specific physical characteristics and/or tool-sets as being the “essence” of any work of art, in any medium / genre / discipline. (One might argue that some conceptual art relies too much on the concept as its essence and that this kind of conceptual essentialism is just as reductive as materialist essentialism – Emin’s bed, perhaps; on a conceptual level it is her life, her emotional structure, her sexual history, her most vulnerable, sleeping self; but it is also just a bed, and painfully mundane to look at.)
These ideas are pretty simple; we all know them and our brains automatically process them a thousand times a day as we encounter magazine covers, billboards, televisions, etcetera. We (almost) all know the ontological ramifications of the Nike swoosh – sport, achievement, commerce, style, sweatshops, more – understanding that isn’t a post-modern trick; it’s common sense and awareness.
I had considered for a long time continuing my education past undergraduate level; if one thing turned me off, it was the fact that the area I’d have continued studying – pop music, pop culture, etcetera – would have meant necessarily having to deal with people like Deleuze, with post-modernism and the unnecessary density of post-modern prose which is self-destructive because it actively discourages communication of simple-yet-important ideas by alienating anyone unwilling to parse its lengthy hall-of-mirrors passages. I hate it. I hated it when a lecturer in my final year read out a passage of Deleuze and said “there; I don’t understand it, but it’s genius.” It’s not genius; it’s smoke and mirrors, obfuscation, ivory towers, gate-keeping, exclusivity, nasty intellectual egotism. The ideas beneath “God is a lobster; or a double-pincer; or a double-bind” may be genius, but “God is a lobster” is not; it is ridiculous. I delved into Sokal & Bricmont’s work; none of my lecturers had heard of them and I walked away from academia disgusted by the social irresponsibility of the culture it encourages in undergraduates as well as by the intellectual impostures, straight into a job at a university.
I’ve taken tomorrow off to parse some more Krauss.