ESSAY // The State of Art: Culture and Performance Art in the Contemporary Context, Part I

"I Like America and America Likes Me," 1974, Joseph Beuys, Coyote.
 

 

Introduction to two-part essay:

 

There is no President of the Arts, no Monarch, and no Great Dictator, in place of one ruler of taste or market determinant or distinct ideological framework to which we might, erect and subsequently cling with some metric to rule incoming things against. What is included or ex-, what is good or bad, here or there, now or then. Like renaissance Italy was politically as well as culturally an amalgamation of disparate nation states, such is the dissolution we are experiencing in the arts, in an age of mass production, mass media, rapid growth, vast consumerism—we live on little islands, as do the dissolute elements of our culture. Art has a huge task in its endeavored connective effort, and to appeal has those gone to lengths as great as those to which its rebellion has pushed it. The Lords, Ladies, Jesters, and trumpet players of which are in fact operators in the economic system: collectors, gallerists, auctioneers—taste-makers and the makers of the products which abide b the qualifications of said taste. The latter is the art, as remorseful as it feels to think of it as product.

 

Just as any age presents certain advantages and difficulties; certain thrusts of the new; eschewing of the old or the banefully concurrent—Art, in it’s non-nationhood, could nevertheless benefit from a state of its union (i.e. the gestalt), and fair to the nature of art, it might be deliverable by a maker/receiver, in lieu of an omniscient eye or even the hope of one. That singularity is not what art appeals to, but it’s multiplicity does need to be dealt with, in order to be understood, related to. Art relies on these relations, and an address might present one avenue of navigation.

 

This essay, in two parts, first explores what art is as a form, and from there, how it has manifest and why it has progressed as such, specifically in relation to culture, and finally leading to what it is now. It is a social/theoretical history of art (albeit partial), presented to lay firm ground upon which, in part two, a more in depth theory of the current state of art. Specifically integral to the current state of art is not only a point of arrival or a complacent sustenance, but rather, the now is located in the transitions from these moments to those, just ahead—the future, where art is going. Here, performance and time-based art are of specifically integral relevance in terms of the evolution of their forms and their integration into commoditization and canonized into Institutions (Galleries and Museums).

 

Alas, Part I:

 

Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth. – Theodor W. Adorno

 

Sometimes a white lie is necessary. In operation of art, it allows magic a subversive route under the cloak of truth, from the preconscious realm of the unreal to that of the real. The latter is the context in which we live what we know, is what defines truth, and the former, that which is inside of us—the deeper layer of experience, the sub audible resonant notes, the color outside of the visible spectrum, and the things that feel real even whilst unintelligible. Art makes these things real by using real vessels; it gives the unintelligible intelligent form. It is not where it lives (a hermit crab is still a crab even whilst migrating between shells) but we are where we live (not our homes, but it is our culture which defines us). We, as humans, are inextricable from our context in a way that art is not. In this, it surpasses us, which may be the most beautiful part. It embodies the space between random objects in the pile of society’s detritus to which it is inherently antithetic. We make these transcendent things, and they go on, reflecting the projections of others back into themselves with greater breadth. It enriches experience by giving it body, by imbuing it with color. These lies replace not every truism, but rather exist amongst them in perpetual dialectic. It needs that which it isn’t to be what it is. It is the perennially visiting white stag in the Arthurian forest, unpredictable, impossible to catch, but in sight and in disappearance, it imbues the forest with its potentiality. The search for this creature epitomized the mystical and all too human hunterly quest for something more. This is the absence and presence of art—it lives in between things, like the stag in a flash of white between the trees, a flicker is enough of a promise its reality, its truth enough to maintain the hope of attainment. Art presents itself, it flashes its colors between rectilinear barricades; it snaps a twig, and leaves a footprint. It is at once as here as anything else, and inherently outside of the here that exists in between one's hands. We can’t hold what it is, but apprehending a substantive phantom of it allows us to go forth, and in this forthgoing, this Arthurian aesthetic quest, it forces us to be more here in our moments than we could possible have been with no search, or a more yieldy one. Its specific conditions, which set it apart, give us a chance to lessen our apartness; its sacrificial alienation is a chance to remedy our own.

 

This age has created itself into being with certain conditions. It is a forest whose flora and fauna grew in dense and lively accordance with each surrounding factor. This is true of any age; today, part of the conditions to which art is antithetic necessitate a lively negation--lively in a way specific to today; and for a myriad reason soon to be explored, culture needs performance, time-based—art that is living. Art has always been living, but this time needs art to live in this way. It is now finding its way through the systems already in place for its formal cousins. It doesn’t quite fit, and the growing pains show precisely the areas of the structure which are unfit to move forward. It’s resetting the mold, in both creation and reception, and it is these growing pains that need some critical examination in order to alleviate the discomfort, or at least tolerate it, respect it even, and ultimately, ideally—allow it to grow.

 

Long ago, a crude drawing on a cave wall embodied an immense otherness. Experience in the world then was much simpler: there was the running Buffalo; and then there was the drawn buffalo, symbolic of the hunt, of livelihood. It runs as the light casts shadows over its drawn legs, tongues of light casting flickered shadows across jagged walls.

 

As time progressed and with it grew complexity of life, more industry, variations in culture, in class, and furthermore in the structure of society, in the development of high and low culture as opposed to the sheer presence or absence of it. Concurrently, art too grew more complex as society's complement. The longer the poem, the more gaps between words, the more lines to draw emptiness between; regardless of kerning, there will always be space. The variation is in the characterization of the gaps.

 

How this manifests in art today in the effusiveness of Post-Postmodernism is a negative magnetism. Art lives in the realm of its enemies in order to effectively be what it can't be. Magic. In practical terms, art today appears rather averse to commercialism, and irrefutably so to capitalism (whose game it must play, but always through the back door—it subverts its intentions by accessing the normative through the besmudged frosted-glass half window between the garden peonies and the downstairs den: ontology slipped through wood-paneled walls, seeping through tiled floors in necessarily sneaky ascension). It is allergic to dependence and thusly manifests in a fortuitous manifestation of compulsive autonomy.

"Bag Exchange," 1965, Larry Miller. Instructions to an action that could be performed or not. 

 

The early days of performance inclusively and celebratory encompassed all of the then-loosely termed “arts.” With the new (20th) century, however, came a new form whose root of otherness hearkened certain aliveness. Not an imitation of life, or a story about, or picture of life, but art that is living, simultaneously becoming in the moment that it presents itself as something that already is. It develops as it is received, leaving no room for the illusion of punctuated or truncated reality. In contrast, early performance was a reaction to World War I. It was silly, apolitical, and grew into various branches of absurdism. Nonsense poetry was read, geometric costumes worn, scenes acted or danced in a spatial movement narrative of art story hood as opposed to serving the will of another tale. It was not a vessel for another story, it was its own. Each element was intrinsic to the characteristically inclusive form. Other concurrent forms more closely resembled plays, though usually sans theatrical narrativization and representation; it was, rather, a presentation. The pregnant potentiality of that which is implicit, and absence charged by a presence with which it necessarily coexists is manifest precisely in the absence of the word “of” in the prior sentence: “Presentation of” doesn’t matter what follows of, because it is the “of”, in this case, that matters. Art is not the thing that is presented but the “of.” As a preposition, all standards it can no exist alone, and this fortify it by nice nouns and verbs that give us the concrete promise of meaning and presence. The latter are the truth, the cloaks, and the former, the little articles and prepositions and even the space between words, is where the magic lies.

 

Over time, of course, the radical ceases to shock as the new assuages into old news. The reaction becomes accepted, and then it becomes the norm. The spaces between things, once realized, can no longer be invisible, thus becoming positive, even pop. Radicalism is relational, and must therefore transform or escalate, in order to reestablish itself. This is perhaps a function of humanity’s immense adaptability—we are built of the traits that have proven most capable of survival, and in such we manifest at the height of culture, a fortitude amongst malleability to meet the unpredictable demands of our environs.

Opening of "Yard," 1961, Happening by Allan Kaprow.

 

There was a time when the Beatles were considered vulgar; Manet’s unwavering female gaze in “Olympia” (1863) immensely uncouth; Duchamp’s urinal (“Fountain” (1917)) hearkening of an equally forced rejection as it that which it carried in its own departure from established notions of art. The ephemeral newness as something prioritized engenders a market for other opportunities similarly ephemeral, well adopted in transitional moments. To invent and execute newness constantly might not be sustainable, but as it is integral to life, one might let life happen, and utilize the transitional moments as a signifier of rapid change. It is utterly inextricable from experience, elusive, and therefore magical when its semblance is attained, and in so much as it is permitted an opportunity to evolve organically, it feels true.

 

A moment is never a thing in so much as it lives between a memory and anticipation. The world progresses and art progresses between, around, and in opposition to it. They do not share space, that which is and that which isn’t art, but they do define each other. Invariably.

 

The progression of the 20th Century saw the development of the new folded into the two-dimensional arts via the inclusion of the act of creation of the work, first in Action Painting, which coincided with the Abstract Expressionism movement (late ’40s  - early ’60s): Jackson Pollock dripped, rolled, and drizzled paint and cigarette butts into his work, literally imbuing it with direct marks of his corporeal movement as well as remnants of his human experience (i.e. cigarette butts, etc.). Yves Klein hired models not to be painted as subject but to be covered in paint and used to create an image—paint with models rather than paint them.

"Spiral Jetty," 1970, Robert Smithson. Salt Lake, Utah.

 

Performative painting bridged the gap from objecthood to non-objecthood, leaving paint—if not dead (as it has been declared, and here is not the form to discuss the form’s mortality)—not necessary. In its wake, Fluxus moved in (1960s)—characterized more ideationally than materially—its matter, as it were, was its negation, considered a sort of “anti-art,” but via an “act of flowing” (The title itself is a Latin word, meaning “flow”—becoming, as a stream, always present, but never the same.) in its manifesto touting a valorization of “purging ... bourgeois sickness.” The goal, among other things, certainly, was for the piece to have some form outside of itself, even if only in the mind of the beholder. Mimesis here lives miles from its original verisimilitude.

 

Art began to be dissatisfied to mimic nature optically, and thus approached it from other angles. It can mimic time by embodying it, as performance is inherently durational. It entertains something of the act promised as a potential reality (appealing to anticipation be hearkening experience and memory enough to feel real inside). That’s all one ultimately has—what is carried within the self, whether somatically or psychically, and all that art does is plunge its delicate hand into the inner coils of our minds, rearranging internal experience.

 

The ’60s called for something real in a different sense than the periods directly preceding it. The time needed something concrete, something physical. Here, especially in environmental and more significantly—political—backlash, Earth Art (also termed as “Land Art” and “Earthworks”) emerged, punctuated in 1968 by Robert Smithson and involving also Oppenheim Dennis, Michael Heizes, and Carl Andre among others no less worthy of mention. This primed the scene for the overwhelmingly conceptual art of the 1970s. The Happenings (Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman, among others) and artist collectives like New York’s Group Material (1979 – 1996), embraced the prioritization of the movement in a purist sense—largely unheard, roughly planned, and decontextualized (not in the sense of context strictly but rather in refutation of a previously-necessitated “art” one. Happenings merged “art” and “life” in a new way, asserting that it need not a white cube to punctuate and instance of art; rather, walls were removed, and art sought to prove itself anywhere, anytime, in any medium. It needed only autonomy, an actualized state of realness—raw, brazen, and utterly experiential—as not a note of one’s experience or a presentation of an aspect of it, but an engendered experience itself, to be had as it will be.

"Imponderabilia," 1977, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Bologna.

 

Its otherness was rawness, nowness, and that which it rebelled against in the early gestation of that which haunts art to this day. Though it has inherently evolved in conflict, retaliation, and resolution cycles through the course of the past several decades, it did so in a specific embodiment of each negation. The allergen, in part, is the culture industry built around products, commencing with the post-war (II) boom of industry, jobs, idealism, and celebration of livelihood via materialism whose objects serve a large part in American class system. We are what we have. This is a dangerous time for art objects, but ripe as hell. Televisions project seizures of pulsating images, advertisements lull us on our commutes—on the subway, looming just above the heads of those whose gaze we avoid in a last attempt at a mutually complicit expansion of the personal sphere with the suspension of the inevitable gaze—an illusion of privacy.

 

On the highway, on billboards, on the way between the road to which we must cast our eyes and the sky, where our eyes are always drawn. Disposable coffee sleeves, bench backs, radio voices—tell us what to buy, where, when, why. Everything is gauged to appeal to a craving for the new. In an age of vast desensitization, culture promises itself as an epitome, an ideal. Even toothpaste might tout a promise encroaching upon the sublime. Now, the grey is not a chasm between the allusion of what will happen “after these short messages” in the annals of sitcom-land.  

 

Sponsorships for athletes forge positive associations with products whose placement in movies similarly subliminally inundate the unconscious, so that a trip to the grocery store ensures the purchase of Twinning’s over Lipton tea, because it’s what Sherlock drinks, and certainly one has internalized a positive association in which: if Sherlock signifies entertainment, which is favorable, he is by proxy himself representative of goodness, which is association with positive, extending one small step beyond to morality. It them comes and issue of rightness—he (the character) is right because of what he represents at the pinnacle of a series of internal associations built after cumulative projections and internalizations of that which he abstractly represents.  He is trustworthy to solve mysteries and pick out the right tea. The connection is formed, and when one drinks the tea, one thinks of the enjoyment of entertainment. This is exploited and in many ways inescapable, spare utter hermitage, but this mass hypnosis is in some sense also a pervasive awareness. This associative power is exploited ad infinitum in the net of society, and art, the anti delusion, must untangle the web using the same power to a different end all together.

The second part of this essay will be published shortly--please stay tuned, and explore Conectom.

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