As mentioned earlier, here are the pretentious and cranky notes I wrote while walking around at the Tate Modern, to keep myself from getting too annoyed at the far more pretentious art. I think the idea originally was that I could eventually work them into essay form but who needs it? I’ve worked them into sentence form – that should be plenty.
The various thoughts informing these notes, as suggested in the previous entires here, were associated, in my mind, with my memory of a picture and caption from Move Closer by John Armstrong, a little book about art that made a strong impression on me and which I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before. Yup, there it is. Well, I just looked through the book and see that my memory has conflated and altered two different pictures and their captions. One is a photograph of a door (not this one) at the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, with the caption “Teaches us what a door is, just as Cézanne or Chardin teach us what an apple is.” Then, elsewhere, he has a reproduction of this painting, and captions it “Visual contemplation involves seeing each individual object just as it is. This picture testifies to the love of that kind of looking.” Both are interesting captions as they stand, but in my memory I had mixed them, and thought that under the painting he had said something like “teaches us what it is to look.” Which false memory, in turn, was an impetus to my little thesis.
That misremembered caption seems to have been the departure point for my angry scribbles, which begin… now.
– Art teaches ways of seeing the world.
– Much of the recent work here offers only limited or non-functional ways. Modern art does not emanate from a living, active culture; it does not connect us to a way of life. Most of these works have no applicability other than escape or fantasy; fantasy with no function.
– [This is at least partially in reference to this work:] Album cover stylings: a make-believe mind. We get a rush of false experience for 20 seconds. Full-fledged sci-fi and fantasy strain to sustain this falseness as long and wide as possible. At least that is an aspiration in terms of craft: not to let the bubble burst. But this is art selling us the blatantly irrelevant.
– The curation would have it that all art is historical – the grand narrative as a justification. E.g. something like minimalism is described as a “response” to the opposite trend. But is this a philosophical response or merely a counter-ploy? What is the work attempting? What discourse can possibly be underway when the art has willfully divorced itself from human discourse, culture as it exists?
– Jorge Macchi: Incidental Music – [The work is made up of lines of text from news clippings about death, arranged so as to form sheet music, where gaps in the clippings are taken to indicate notes. The resulting (unplanned) music, a series of disconnected tones, can be heard on headphones nearby.] This is of course not a real way of thinking about the news – it is an imaginary way of thinking that does not exist. The work says “imagine if this were meaningful!” As does so much modern art.
– Earlier abstraction (say, up to 1950?) was a conscientious attempt to portray experience, abstracted. The abstractions were explorations of the nature of the brain, of experience. This is still a legitimate avenue. Kandinsky saw abstraction as a path to the spiritual in art. Brancusi said of this sculpture that he was attempting to portray the essence of a fish rather than a fish. In general, abstraction used to portray experiences or states of mind that exist, rather than states of mind that do not exist.
– As that guy said, as quoted in that piece I linked to that time, “a nonexistent point of view.” Modern art is overrun with the point of view that does not exist, that which can be built but not experienced. Or that thing I said, and I am still proud of myself for having said, in a music seminar in college, explaining what was to be resented about Philip Glass’ Einstein On the Beach: that it was easier to write than to listen to.
– Dan Flavin on his work in general: “It is what it is, and it ain’t nothin’ else… it is very easy to understand.” Uh-oh!
[The preceding stood alone in my little notebook, and it amuses me that way, but just to be clear: Uh-oh because it is in fact very important that art be somethin’ else. “Uh-oh,” rather than a real rebuttal, because I don’t buy his unfrozen-caveman-lawyer routine. Click on the art if you haven’t. It’s a fluorescent lightbulb.]
– Duchamp’s Fountain. “What Is Art?” A distracting and silly question. I addressed this very thing a couple entries ago.
– Signage… objects… all such works isolate elements of reality rather than of experience. This mistake is compounded by isolating elements of discourse: a concept is even further from experience than a thing.
– Without craft to justify the exhibitions, [can’t read my own writing!] art that aspires to highlight subtleties that actually live elsewhere in life. The white space is an affront to relevance, accessibility to humans. [Don’t know what I was talking about. Either an all-white painting, or else the notion of blank museum space, elaborated on below.]
– The idea that white is a neutral space is a romantic illusion by and about humans. (To be true to our biologically inborn sense of “neutral space” maybe we should display art in a savannah?) It’s as unrealistic as the impartiality of display in a rococo drawing room. Discrete objects – discreteness, cleanness – these sell a lie that is belied by the spirit of most art. Cataloguing, curatorial plaques, numbering systems, glass cases. This paradigm is not quite “numbing,” but it is prejudicial.
– Museum-going as a repeated, imaginary process of acclimation. [I didn’t flesh that out into a sentence because I’m not sure which of several possible things I meant. Hm.]
– The highest aspiration of so much contemporary art is not applicability but piquancy.
– In the abstract expressionist galleries: so much of the work suffers from a preoccupation with the method, rather than the object, of abstraction.
– “Playful sense of humor” my ass.
I don’t remember which plaque inspired that last; I know I was in this room. I think I might have written it in indirect response to this piece.
In general, it sums up my anger at the modern art museum as a whole: “How dare you act as though this strangeness is all part of normal human discourse! It’s very aggressively and intentionally not, and if you or any artist sincerely wants to offer something to me, you will recognize that.” That emperor who bought those invisible clothes that only smart people could see should have known they didn’t actually exist. Not because he himself couldn’t see them – everyone is fallible, after all – but because no accommodations of tact were made for the possibility that he might not be able to see them. The only reason to handle things that way is to coerce people into nervous lies. My irritation wasn’t that there was a flourescent lightbulb being displayed as art; it was that nowhere did the museum say, “Hey! Wondering why a fluorescent lightbulb on the wall is on display as a work of art? Does that seem ridiculous to you? Well, don’t worry! A lot of first-time visitors feel that way; that’s why we wrote this friendly explanation! Read this!” I think curators, because of their weird little cloistered world, might think that saying something like “Flavin’s work, both materially and experientially, challenges accepted notions of what constitutes artistic value,” addresses the issue. Far from it. The evasive, passive, implicitly laudatory, euphemistic acknowledgement that a work of art is irritating and bewildering is the proverbial unkindest cut.
I’m not saying it’s all nonsense! Let me be clear that I don’t think any of the works linked, not even the Dan Flavin, is devoid of interest or value. The question is of the scale of that value. I think the comment about “piquancy” is my central criticism here.