For the informed viewer, curator, and art critic, a meaningful engagement with art always requires a difficult and delicate balance between being grounded in what one knows and being open to the unknown.The knowledge and understanding that frames the experience of these individuals provide them with a way of seeing, but unfortunately, these ways of seeing are often at the cost of limiting or curtailing an experience of art that they are unfamiliar with.The challenge for the informed viewer, curator, or critic, is how to properly see work that is new to them in ways that draw on what they know without blinding them to the possibly innovative qualities of the art in question.An open and critical assessment of what an artist has to say about his or her work can, if the artist is articulate, help in meeting this challenge.However, if what the artist has to say about the art is misconstrued or is overlooked; one result is that the most compelling pieces in a body of work might seem like anomalies, possibly leading to the erroneous conclusion that the work as a whole is uneven.All artists produce good and bad works, relative to their talent.But when an artist’s work is judged uneven (something often conflated with stylistic incoherence) it usually means that the work as a whole is considered undeveloped.In other words, if the underlying thrust of the work is not recognized or is misunderstood, individual pieces may suggest unevenness and come to be regarded as either better or lesser examples of an undeveloped oeuvre.The artist may not always be in the best position to judge which individual works are the strongest, but I take it as a basic tenet that none other than the artist can better determine the basic makeup of his or her art.
Artists on the margins of the art world are often out of step with the mainstream. Such independence has its advantages, particularly if the artist is free of the constraints of the art market.But if part of the point of this independence is to produce art that counters the prevailing impetus driving the contemporary art scene, then it is important that the marginal artist provide some background concerning the development of his or her art.Such information can be useful in a number of ways.First of all, it can give the art some depth by connecting it to acknowledged movements, styles, or influences that helped to bring it about.Given the peripheral status of the artist, the art world, for the most part, cannot provide this information, which is usually valued, particularly by professionals in the field of art.There are good reasons why the developmental history of the art of largely unknown artists might have value.If the art is somehow discovered and found to be intellectually, morally, or aesthetically significant and at the same time seems out of step with current developments, an understanding of how the work unfolded could point to possible changes well beyond the work of one artist.Secondly, and this has a direct bearing on the whole process of marginalization, the very act of recovering something of the artwork’s history by the artist can have a positive impact on the psyche: the process can enable a certain measure of self-validation by simply placing the work in an historical context.Even if it is only initially in the mind of the artist, the artwork then gains a foothold in the world. The following account of how my art and thinking evolved over the course of nearly forty years is condensed and incomplete.Some notable early influences on my art making have been left out of this telling in order to better outline and situate my art in an alternative to the accepted “post-Minimal” historical context.Chief among these early influences are C.G. Jung’s work (particularly, his studies of alchemy); and the writings of the groundbreaking psychologist of art, Rudolf Arnheim.More recently, the writings of philosophers, Arthur Danto, Nelson Goodman, Mark Johnson, andW.J.T. Mitchell have also had a significant impact on my art making and how I think about art.However, with the exception of Goodman, I felt that omitting mention of these authors was also necessary in order to better discuss the developmental relationship between my work, certain forms of poetry, and Conceptual art in a fresh context.All these authors have made important contributions to my understanding of poetry (or the poetic) as well as the conceptual (as both a philosophical subject and an aesthetic category).But for the sake of brevity, the work of these thinkers must remain in the background.
A Brief History:
e it a collaged image or an assemblage, much of my art is visually poetic.While the poetic is difficult if not impossible to define, art that clearly brings together image and idea with a metaphorical intent seems more likely to sustain a poetic charge than art unconcerned with these things.Of course, metaphorical intent in and of itself is not enough to ensure a poetic artwork; the particular way that the metaphor is embodied by the medium is crucial.The medium is exactly that; it becomes the vehicle that both carries and reflects the merger of image and idea.This marriage of image and idea was first articulated by the Roman poet, Horace in his doctrine of Ut pictura poesis (“as is poetry so is painting”), a belief that would eventually inspire, among other things, what came to be known as “Emblematic poetry” in the 16th century.I hasten to add that the Horatian doctrine is perhaps only completed by a modern (dialectical) sensibility which brings it full circle.Thus, “as is poetry so is painting,” but also: “as is painting so is poetry.”Inverting Horace’s famous formulation reveals Emblematic poetry (as well as shaped verse from about the same period) as an indirect result of that doctrine and a precursor of things to come.Pictorial and Concrete poetry are the descendents of Emblematic poetry, and these modern forms of visual poetry influenced the development of my art.But it was Conceptual art that had the greatest impact on my thinking.The foregrounding of ideas is the hallmark of Conceptual art proper; a practice founded on the belief that thinking (as opposed to sensory experience) could be the primary means of and ultimately the raison d’être of art.The main issue in contention was always: how thinking is manifested through art.We obviously can think in other than just linguistic, mathematical, or broadly speaking, discursive terms.So while Conceptual art was right to emphasize ideas in the making of art, thereby shifting the focus away from what had become a moribund formalism that stifled innovation, in its most rigorous incarnations this radically new attitude seemed to downplay or deny the importance or even the possibility of sensory knowledge through art.Before we can begin to appreciate the Achilles heal of Conceptual art, we need a good working description of this seminal “movement.”
One such description of Conceptual art that has breadth and clarity is proposed by British philosopher, Matthew Kieran, in his book, Revealing Art.Kieran writes: “What makes the artistic lineage of conceptual art into a coherent story is the concern with ready-made or mundane objects, the primacy of ideas, the foregrounding of language, the use of non-conventional artistic media, reflexivity and the rejection of traditional conceptions of sensory aesthetic experience.” 1. These concerns are widely recognized aspects of Conceptual art, although, “the primacy of ideas,” is an inherent characteristic of all Conceptual art and not just one concern among others.My art over the years has employed mundane objects; it has at times foregrounded language, used non-conventional media and explored reflexivity.It has not, however, wholly rejected “traditional conceptions of sensory aesthetic experience.”Such conceptions were given renewed prominence through the advent of 20th century formalism, beginning with Russian Formalism and extending through the New Criticism of the 1940’s, culminating in the work of Clement Greenberg and others.Formalism in whatever guise always emphasized form over content.Consequently, a strong connection or association was formed between sensory aesthetic experience and formalist art; the operative assumption being that sensory aesthetic experience could have little or nothing to do with the content of art, or at least, art committed to presenting ideas in an unvarnished fashion.My contention is that art eventually overcame the anesthetizing effect of the bare bones idea and acquired its cognitive legs.In other words, art rose above the stringent edicts of “de-materialization,” a theory of art that sought, among other things, to banish sensory experience from the making and enjoyment of art.We have come to believe that ideas in art are inseparable from some measure of sensory experience and that the power of an idea often depends in part on how aesthetically rewarding the work is.A thoughtful and well-crafted object, for example, is more likely to engage a person aesthetically than an ill made one (provided that ugliness is not the intent).This engagement, in turn, can lead to the recognition of the idea embodied in the work, 2.Moreover; the sensory quality of the work can even have some conceptual bearing on the piece and therefore be inseparable from the idea that informs it.Simply put, I believe that ideas can be beautiful: they can inspire and move us and perhaps most importantly, generate new ideas.The central question in this context seems to be: how is the beauty of an idea constituted by the artwork?An exploration into what forms a traditional conception of sensory aesthetic experience, by both artists and theorists; working intuitively and thinking rationally, seems a fitting challenge for the new millennium.
The impact of Conceptual art (and to a lesser extent, Minimal art) isn’t particularly evident in my art, especially in work that utilizes traditional media, techniques, and so forth.Yet, a conceptual attitude toward art making had a profound effect on my work, something that continues to inform it in often subtle ways.It’s perhaps ironic that a conceptual attitude toward art making has contributed to the idea that art might involve or facilitate the recognition of sensory knowledge.On the other hand, maybe Conceptual art was always divided between the “purists” (those who would reduce the art experience to the presentation of ideas in the barest sense) and those who embraced sensory modes as a necessary or inevitable aspect of all art, including Conceptual art.The foregrounding of ideas remains a guiding principle in my art making, but I never accepted the stringent “purist” orientation of Conceptual art toward sensory experience and what was in the 1970’s sometimes derided as the “aesthetic preoccupation of art.”I have come to prefer the more inclusive term, cognitive, (as opposed to “conceptual”).A cognitive approach 3. to the making of art is partly the result of an early awareness of the diverse manifestations and inter-media explorations of what could be called “post-Conceptualism,” which is my alternative term for post-Minimalism.By the mid 1970’s, Conceptual art had shed its austere beginnings, giving way to a plethora of art forms and re-vitalized techniques, most of which nevertheless remained idea oriented.It seemed that Conceptual art had evolved.Sensory modes of experience came to the fore as artists began to look at conventional media in a new light.Consequently, the term, “Conceptual art,” only applies to a rather narrow historical period, roughly the decade from 1965 to 1975.For those of us who were working in the 1970’s and rode the tail end of the paradigmatic Conceptual shift (and the emergence of “post-Conceptualism”), the historical description of Conceptual art provided by Kieran is helpful in tracing the roots of much contemporary art.While this Conceptual shift is common knowledge to many artists and arts professionals, a fuller discussion of its impact on the art making of those more “idiosyncratic” artists who emerged from the 1970’s is long overdue.
Having stepped through the Conceptual looking glass in the early 1970’s, I nevertheless continue to use traditional media, but with a new attitude.In this context, philosopher, Paul Crowther raises some interesting questions regarding the nature of contemporary art.According to Crowther, artwork in what he calls the “Designation tradition” (works designated as art by the artist on the basis of some theoretical standpoint) can “stake a claim to artistic status only insofar as they adopt the presentational formats of the nodal art practices.” 4.By nodal art practices, I believe that Crowther means those culturally recognized practices like painting and sculpture that have given rise to sometimes unconventional yet related art forms.To lay claim to artistic status, however, works in the Designation tradition must do more than just embrace the presentational formats of recognized art practices.By simply presenting a vapid work in the manner of, say, a painting, will not in and of itself somehow give the work the vibrancy needed to engage people.Nevertheless, I think that Crowther is on to something when he proposes that adopting such arrangements for these works leads to an interesting possibility.Namely, it’s possible to produce a work that he calls a “connotative image,” even if it is, in his words, “comprised entirely of elements that were not actually made by the artist.”5. Borrowing elements to make art, of course, has become routine with many contemporary artists.But to what end?If this practice results in art that foregoes, in Crowther’s words, “a range of specific connotational meaning that is recognizable on the basis of shared cultural stock,” 6. then the art may not have much long term significance.And that is part of the problem.
Beyond questions about the nature of originality, it’s a problem because appropriation of elements not made by the artist for little more than the sake of novelty or to make a theoretical point, in my opinion, can undermine an appreciation of the cognitive value of art.Appropriated or not, the point is to use material in ways that engage the mind and senses imaginatively and critically.Art that does this effectively may better enable the production of a connotative image.The problem is very complex because many cultural practices today are undeniably creative and sometimes virtually indistinguishable from practices considered artistic.I think some artists, particularly those with a “sociological interest” in art, either confuse these terms (creative and artistic) or take advantage of the confusion.I am not suggesting that these practices have no value to the culture, only that their status as “art” is problematic.Crowther is suggesting, and I am basically in agreement, that there is something fundamental about an artistic experience; something essential that art offers that other cultural practices, however creative, cannot.To support his argument about the possibility of connotative images, he offers two tests that might enable us to recognize work in the Designation tradition that holds out a possibility of this experience.The tests are: “(a) a work’s having a phenomenal structure or physical presence that is engrossing in its own right, and (b) its having a specific connotative significance (or range of such significance) that is recognizable on the basis of shared cultural stock without reference to accompanying explanatory texts.”
While I empathize with Crowther’s overall aims, my view regarding “explanatory texts” is not as prohibitive as his.As a personal aside, there is nothing more irritating than a text provided by an artist or a curator to accompany the presentation of art that has little or nothing to do with the work at hand.I understand Crowther’s focus on a conceptually unmediated experience up to a point, but I hesitate to abandon the use of explanatory or descriptive texts in support of art, my own or anyone else’s, provided that the writing is clear and appropriate. After all, phenomenological reflection on artwork that aspires to what Crowther has called a “post-curatorial status”, whether presented as an explanatory text to introduce the work, or appearing in a related cultural context (such as a critical review) in support of it, could be valuable.Moreover, text is already implicated when titles and work descriptions are presented along with the art in an exhibition setting.Providing such information can, it seems to me, enhance the experience of the art and lead to a deeper appreciation of it.
The notion of art comprised of elements that the artist didn’t actually make being capable of offering a range of connotative significance “recognizable on the basis of shared cultural stock” points toward the solution of a problem endemic in the contemporary art world.This involves what Crowther terms “curatorial art,” art that often has little to say to an art viewing public unfamiliar with or uninterested in narrow curatorial agendas.Crowther’s point is that much of this art exists simply because of the curatorial and managerial demands of the contemporary art world and little more.Art that does not accede to these demands, but instead opens avenues for self-reflection and a greater understanding of the meaning and function of art in our lives will in the end trump curatorial art for no other reason than it truly speaks to people.The artist can never know conclusively whether or not his or her art truly speaks to people.If it inspires others to be more creative in their lives, or if the work enables them to think about something in a new way, or if it just makes them feel good about being human then it speaks to them on some level.I believe that the real value of art involves how it can contribute to the personal growth of people; how it can show a way toward a more meaningful life. A post-Conceptual, or more exactly, cognitive, approach to art making is potentially revolutionary, not just because it maintains or renews the sensory aspects involved in the making and experiencing of art, but revolutionary in the sense of expanding our cognitive abilities through aesthetic experience.A cognitive approach to the making and experiencing of art sets artist and audience alike free to engage the imagination on any number of fronts.The best art being made today, inside or outside the art world, offers what the best art has always offered: new ways of knowing and understanding ourselves and the world.Whether such art does or doesn’t succeed in the market is incidental to its larger purpose.Most artists who work at this level would probably agree with this.For serious artists, art is essentially a vitally important way of exploring what it means to be human.
1. Matthew Kieran, “Revealing Art.” Routledge; London and New York, 2005. p.131.
2. The work may involve more than one idea depending on how it is interpreted.The point here is a general one.
3. A good working definition of “cognitive” can be had from philosopher, Nelson Goodman: “Under ‘cognitive’ I include all aspects of knowing and understanding, from perceptual discrimination through pattern recognition and emotive insight to logical inference.”See Goodman, Of Mind And Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1984. p.84According to Goodman, “cognitive” and “conceptual” are not interchangeable terms.“Cognitive” is the overriding term here.
4. Paul Crowther, “Cultural Exclusion, Normativity, and the Definition of Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Spring 2003. p. 129