A Rant (In Two Parts)

Rant:  Part I (In Which I Think Deep Thoughts About Art, Art Ownership, and the Institution, Then Get Sidetracked)

I’ve been reading a book called Ways of Looking:  How to Experience Contemporary Art by Ossian Ward.  It is a bit of a beginner’s guide to looking at contemporary art, which I picked up with the idea that  it might be useful for teaching younger kids or non-art folk about contemporary art.  Yes.  I am that nerd that thinks about pedagogy and teaching ALL the time.  It’s a pretty basic read, but interesting.  Anyway, it dredged up a few thoughts that have been kicking around in my head for awhile and got me thinking about them again.

urs-fisher03
Urs Fischer, You, 2007 Not my image! http://thefunambulist.net/

The premise of this book, is that it breaks down contemporary art into “Art as” sections to be decoded using the author’s TABULA Rasa formula (Time, Association, Background, Understand, Look again, Assessment).  These “Art as” sections include:  Art as Entertainment, Art as Joke, Art as Message, etc.  The last two chapters are Art as Spectacle and Art as Meditation, which I was reading on the train on my way into work this morning.   Toward the end of the Art as Spectacle chapter the author discusses Urs Fischer’s You, and writes:

“Resembling a battlefield or a construction pit rather than an exhibition, Fischer’s destructive, anti-artistic statement was not only an assault on the senses—involving as it did a precipitous 8-foot drop and the risk of serious injury—but it was also an attack on the very structures that support and validate art itself (it was nevertheless sold to a foundation for excavation at a later date at some other location).

At which point I literally wanted to stand up on the train and flip a table.  It just seems so ridiculous to me that this piece was bought by a foundation to be moved from it’s context, making it even less accessible. It actually made me angry. Because let’s face it, there is a certain amount of privilege involved in being able to visit (access) a museum, gallery, foundation, or other arts institution.  But also, I really HATE the idea of ownership when it comes to art (especially when it comes to something so ephemeral and site-specific).  I want everyone to have access to art all the time.  I don’t think you should have to pay to see something that is culturally relevant, or interesting, or thought provoking, or just plain fucking beautiful (although I could personally not care less about that particular criterion). And I think art objects are stupid.  It upsets me that these are things which artists have poured themselves into, and they are hoarded away by private collectors or museums, only to see the light of day occasionally.  Art isn’t about just looking/seeing.  But I’ll get to that rant in a second.

The author continues his bit about You, referencing the writings of Robert Smithson (of Spiral Jetty fame).  Smithson was a leading figure in moving art outside of the gallery, and helped to develop the Land Art movement of the 70’s.  At one point he wrote that museums are just graveyards above ground.  And, regardless of the context in which Smithson said/wrote that, or the context in which Ward is theoretically linking it to You, I really am starting to believe it’s true in a very literal sense.  Museums are places that art goes to die.  Art no longer exists as it was originally envisioned once it’s consigned to a collection, where it is restored, or stored, or academicized.  It becomes part of a hushed atmosphere, in which you are supposed to take everything very seriously, study the beauty of the “masters” (which, fuck that noise), and learn something.  These randomly selected objects are placed onto white walls and white pedestals to be admired and revered (from a distance), because someone employed by the museum said that they should be.  Aside from the usual rhetoric over who gets to decide what is art, what isn’t, and what should be displayed/preserved, it’s a stupid, stupid system.  And sure, there are museums, or exhibitions out there that challenge this status quo, but not enough.  The majority of them do not.  The majority of them are the white cube-didactic-no-touching model.

This makes me think of the Futurist Manifesto (because really, it’s never far from my mind), and the Futurist’s desire to destroy all museums/libraries/academies etc, because they viewed them as antiquated and therefore an impediment to the progress of the future. Sometimes, I think they weren’t far from wrong (aside from their somewhat blatant misogyny and general delight at war).  We have created these repositories of things that we are told to revere.  I can easily question and challenge it because I have the theoretical knowledge and art back ground, but the average person does not.  They take it to heart.  We cling onto these things, as if they truly are the end all and be all of beauty, or whatever the hell it is that we are looking for in art.  We uphold the past, and scorn the contemporary (Thats why books like Ways of Looking are written…).  It’s almost like we want to hold ourselves back.

My ponderings on art ownership, objects, and destroying museums also started me thinking about the other forms of art that we accumulate and store.  For instance, why am I OK with collecting outrageous numbers of books, of which many are works of fiction, and therefore art?  I LOVE books.  I learn things from them, I escape every day life with them, they are magical objects to me, and are tied into happy childhood memories.  But still, they are art.  So why can I support ownership of those and not works of visual art?  Is there any difference?  Perhaps it bothers me less because there are often thousands, if not millions of the same copy of my book floating around?  Because anyone can go to the library, find that book, and read it for free (Unrestricted access)?  And libraries are depositories of ALL books, not just some.  I realize not every library will have every book, but they don’t actively seek to curate their patron’s visit by limiting their selection, to say the 200s (Religion) in the Dewy Decimal System.  Or perhaps they do, and I am just unawares.

And what about music?  I’ve never been one to obsessively collect albums.  I’m perfectly content to turn on Spotify/Pandora/insert-other-internet-radio-here and listen.  I don’t need to own it.  But there are some who make it a priority in their lives.  And in some weird, conceptual way I find it more acceptable to collect that form of art.  Again, perhaps it’s because theoretically anyone has access to this art form, and there are millions of copies laying around.  Perhaps because someone else could then learn that piece of music and play it for themselves (or others), whether it be in a replication of the original, or in a new interpretation.  Its tough.  And I’m not sure I can justify my ability to accept owning those art forms but not others… Maybe I just need to give up my book collection.  *insert wide eyed emoji here*

Rant:  Part 2 (In Which I Get Back on Track, and Rage at the Consumption of Art)

 

final.louvre.infographic.jpg
I don’t think I really need to caption this very obvious wealth of information.

 

The other side of the issue of owning art and locking it away, is that we also treat it like a commodity to be consumed.  We pack large rooms and entire buildings with vast collections of “precious” art objects for people to pay to see.  Often times these collections are so enormous, it could take you days if not weeks to view just what was on display.  For instance, according to CNN, it would take you SIXTY-FOUR DAYS to see everything in the Louvre if you only looked at everything for SIXTY SECONDS.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Sixty-four entire days, looking at roughly 35,000 works of art for exactly sixty seconds each.  Forget actually studying, appreciating, or processing a work.  And that is only what they have on display at any given time.  Their entire permanent collection is around 460,000 objects (You do the math on that one).  So it’s no wonder that with museums like MOMA in New York charging upwards of $25 or more for an individual admission to just the permanent collection, people are going to want to get their money’s worth.  They are going to rush through, trying to take in as much as possible (which is the  worst possible way to view art), making it  into a sort of scavenger hunt to find the most famous, or popular works of art.  All so that they don’t feel gypped, so that they can say they saw the Mona Lisa, and of course, so that they can snap a selfie.  What. The. Fuck. World?  It’s so angering.

Art is not meant to be consumed like that.  It’s meant to be experienced.  It’s meant to leave us thinking, in awe, or some how impacted.  The final chapter of Ward’s book is Art as Meditation, which address works of art that require time for reflection and processing.  He writes that some artworks need contemplation and a sort of extended digestion.  I would argue that this is every work of art, because art can change in meaning over time for you, depending on any number of variables… Circumstances, experiences, knowledge, relationships.  All of which are dynamic, and subject to change in and of themselves.  Ward continues this line of thought, saying:

These shifts in perception or changes of heart require time.  They need time to reveal themselves, to create an atmosphere, to warp the here and now, and –maybe– to formulate a new universe… This kind of contemplative situation, or ‘Art as Meditation,’ as I’ve called it, is not about conceptual art, or anything necessarily related to the 1960’s Conceptual art movement (with a capital C).  Nor is it about seeing something that isn’t there or posing more thoughts that can only live in your head.  It relates to the ability to better appreciate or more deeply engage with a work of art without succumbing to the bite-sized nibbles of culture offered elsewhere or having our heads turned this way or that by any number of other tempting distractions.”

These are things I’ve been trying to get at in my own work for a few years now.  I want my audience/participants/viewers to have an experience rather than simply look/see/consume what I have to share.  I want their lives to be impacted, for them to think about what they saw for years to come, and for that experience of the work to evolve as they themselves change and grow.  Otherwise, what was the point of making the work in the first place?  Sure, it fulfilled a selfish need of my own to create and express myself, but it doesn’t mean anything until someone else enters into the picture.  Otherwise, why look at art at all?  If you’re only going to spend sixty seconds staring at it, only to move on to the next piece immediately, and instantly forget what you saw just moments before.  Everything then becomes a blur, and nothing sticks.  Nothing makes an impression.  And I’ll have done all this hard work for nothing…

Advertisements

Ubu Roi

It’s been a crazy busy two weeks.  School is now in full swing, as are research and art making.  I’ve got loads to share about all of that, but first I thought I’d share some thoughts about a play I’ve just read for a class, Ubu Roiby Alfred Jarry.  It prompted a lot of thought and a little bit of research on my part, and hopefully it will do the same for you.  The translation I am using is from 1961, with a short preface or forward by Barbara Wright, and accompanied by two essays by Jarry.  It was published by New Directions Publishing Corporation, and is the “Twenty-Seventh Printing.”

Image from Wikipedia, Originally a woodcut done by Alfred Jarry of Ubu Roi.

 

Until about a year or so ago, I had never even heard of Ubu Roi, which the more I think about it, the stranger it seems, as I’ve taken at least 3 art history courses that covered the time period in which it was first performed.  The first time I came across Ubu Roi was reading Roselee Goldberg’s Performance Art from Futurism to the Present.  I remember being intrigued by what was described, as well as the cultural/historical events surrounding it.  I felt that I should probably read Ubu Roi, but I was wary of doing so.  For whatever reason, the way it was described in Goldberg’s book reminded me of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.   Several years ago, I made a valiant attempt to read Catch-22 and found it’s bureaucratic absurdity so painfully difficult that I couldn’t even finish the book (an extreme rarity for me).  It left a really bad taste in my mouth that made me hesitant to read Ubu, which come to find out was completely unnecessary.  I really enjoyed reading Ubu Roi, and found a number of parallels to our current social, cultural, and political ideas/events.

 
In the forward/preface to the play, Barbara Wright mentions the comparisons to Shakespeare that Ubu has faced.  Even with this forewarning I did not expect it to so obviously and blatantly follow the plot of MacBeth.  It’s been an incredibly long time since I’ve read that play, but the prodding and abuse of Père Ubu by Mere Ubu in Act I, Scene I, instantly reminded me of the portion of MacBeth, where Lady MacBeth urges her husband to “screw your courage to the sticking place” and do what needs to be done.  At that point MacBeth has essentially thought himself to a standstill in regards to the prophesy delivered by the three witches.  Lady MacBeth’s assaults imply that her husband is too weak of will and clearly not manly enough to advance in the world. As Ubu Roi opens, we see Père Ubu, too stupid to see the possibilities that Mère Ubu has clearly already considered, thus the verbal attacks, once again rousing the spouse into action.  Reading Ubu Roi reminded me of what a dark, violent play MacBeth is, and how it really reflects the inherent evilness of man kind, in much the way Ubu demonstrates the crass commonness of humans.  We always want what others have, we can never be satisfied with what has already been achieved or earned.  I think given Jarry’s aims in creating Ubu, a better choice could not have been made, especially in light of what he writes in Of the Futility of the “Theatrical” in the Theatre.   In this essay, Jarry asserts that there are two things that can be done in order to make the theater more accessible to the audience.  Firstly, that they are provided with characters who think like them and are relatable/understandable.  Secondly, that the audience is given a “commonplace sort of plot.”  In other words, people, places, things, events, with which they are familiar.  In using, nearly word for word, the plot from MacBeth, as well as placing Père and Mere Ubu in the roles of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth, Jarry provided a ready known, familiar plot line.

A second thing which crossed my mind while pondering this connection to MacBeth, is that Jarry had created a piece of art that was postmodern long before anyone could grasp the concept of postmodern.  He appropriated, with out apology, material from Shakespeare’s work, twisting it and adding to it, serving his own purposes.  Part of this “borrowing” pushed his ideas about making the theater more accessible, as I stated previously, but I think it also stood as a sign of things to come, whether or not Jarry intended for it to do so.  The idea of Ubu Roi being before it’s time is hinted at in both the forward/preface and the essay Questions of the Theatre.   In that essay Jarry uses a really lovely metaphor for the idea of time and the evolution of ideas, writing:  “Light is active and shade is passive, and light is not detached from shade, but, given sufficient time, penetrates it.”  He goes on to discuss the idea that people who have lived a long time have lived among a specific group of works and concepts.  Essentially stating that what these elders are familiar with, is what becomes the accepted, and therefor normal, mode of thought and artistic creation.  He notes, however,  that one day “We too shall become solemn, fat and Ubu-like and shall publish extremely classical books…And a lot of other young people will appear, and consider us completely out of date…and there is no reasons why this should ever end.”  I take these two quotes to mean that something, such as Ubu Roi, may be put forward, but it may not be understood until it has experienced the test of time, so to speak.  It brings to mind a sort of wave of understanding.  However, these works will eventually be pushed aside the same new understandings and continually advancing tide that brought about it’s initial understanding.  It’s my opinion that humans in general seek that which is familiar and comfortable to them.  When something comes along, as Ubu did, and challenges or mocks the known, all thrown in to disarray, which is something I think is a very prominent goal in postmodernism.  This is underscored by Wright in the forward/preface, when she reports:  “It caused an uproar, was violently booed and violently applauded; it was compared with the work of Shakespeare and Rabelais, or dismissed as insipid nonsense; it was called the inspiration of modern youth, or dismissed as a rather poor joke.”

The idea that Ubu Roi was dismissed as a poor joke also brought to mind for me Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop.  I watched that movie about six months ago, and still find myself wondering exactly what it was meant to convey.  Was it a farce?  Was it a documentary?  Was it only a joke?  Is Banksy making fun of the sudden popularity and profusion of street art?  Is he questioning the value of the artist and art in our current society?  Is he challenging the art market and collectors yet again?  Is it all of the above or none?  I sincerely wonder.  Exit Through the Gift Shop is alternately described as all of the above, depending on who you ask and their personal experience of it.  I feel as though this is much the way Ubu Roi would have been received, at least by those in the world of the arts.  In the same way Exit Through the Gift Shop is so unbelievable unlikely and absurd, so too was Ubu in it’s time.  You are left unsure of whether or not to take it seriously, and it causes to to really question your perceptions of the surrounding ideas, events, and even the culture.  While frustrating, and I’m sure confusing for those who experienced the first appearance of Père Ubu in 1896, I feel the lingering questions are a positive thing.  It continues to force you to think, long after your initial experience of the thing.  While Ubu Roi (as seen through the lens of modern culture) is not as shocking or offensive as it was once considered to be, it is clearly the first of its kind.  It asked its audience to view itself with out a filter, and therefore reconsider themselves.

Finally, as I was reading, I saw an incredibly strong parallel between Père Ubu’s behavior and that of today’s culture and politics.   Père Ubu is a selfish and immature person, acting with out thought for consequence to himself or others.  For him the ultimate goal is self gratification at any and all costs.  It doesn’t matter if he has to kill hundreds of nobles, or refuse advancement to those who aided him, he will have what he wants.  Ubu Roi examined the entirely too commonplace occurrence of those with power and money to wind up abusing that power and money in the quest for their own success.  I think this is still true of American politics.  Politicians lobby for, and enact legislation that benefits themselves, forgetting their duty to their constituents.  Often times, laws are passed in knee jerk reactions to specific events or situations with no thought of how they might affect future generations.    Politicians work to better their own situations, to make more money both privately and for their reelection campaigns, saying whatever it is they need to say along the way.  This short sightedness is also a very common theme in today’s popular culture.  We want everything, and we want it now, we have become a culture of instant gratification. We continue to talk on the phone and text while driving, even though we have been warned that it may result in fatal car accidents.  Our iPhones are much more important than common sense or safety.  Americans currently find themselves in financial crisis because they borrowed money with out a true thought as to how we would pay it back.  The prominent thing in our minds was the McMansion, the giant flat screen TV, or the giant SUV that we really had no need of.  Much like Père Ubu, we are too ignorant to even take responsibility for our behaviors, instead we point fingers every which way, blaming others for our misfortune.  We blame the banks for bad business, the economy for high unemployment, and the government for spending too much, but we never stop to examine our own behaviors or think for ourselves, something we have in common with Père Ubu.