Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Proem 4571: Irony of a "Disenfranchised" (Introduction)

Below is an essay that was published as part of Parallax February 2014. Footnotes are at the end of the main body of text. For the catalogue link: http://en.calameo.com/read/0030537531d5007f1407d

The text is an introduction to a series of more detailed research we will be conducting into commercial journalistic websites and groups on the fringe of the "art world".




Proem 4571: Irony of a “Disenfranchised”


There is something about human nature that yearns for acceptance. The more exclusive the perimeters are to overcome, the more gratification it seems we have in gaining entrance.  Self-satisfaction can reign supreme as we consider those still on the outside as well as our own abilities that seemingly got us there. The more enigmatic the group, the greater the attraction it has for others. The need to belong is what influences hierarchisation and when one considers this in the “art world” we may think in a binary way. The first group is usually “The Establishment” (often defined by its relation to Government institutions, the Media and Academia). The second, and largest group, are those practising outside of this coterie. However, this may be to simplify the matter and to emphasise a present-historical narrative formed in the last century. Instead, we can look at the “art world” of the Twenty-first Century as something that is more fractured after the post-financial collapse of the first decade. In this proem, I am interested in a “group” that appears to occupy the fringe of “an Establishment”, yet also has an ambiguous relationship to those perceived as exterior. It can be thought of as a type of vassal in relation to its suzerain, formed partly through its own historical beliefs and by the suzerain’s propaganda. They are important for us because they indicate something about Art History and its myths.[1] I propose to look at two assumptions that seem to be common to this “group”. The first is the myth of the “disenfranchised artist”. The second is the assumption that art must be “contextualised”. The latter appears to determine whether an artist can be considered “relevant” in the Twenty-first Century. Before discussing these, first it would be helpful to provide some background on the philosophy of Art History as it is fundamental in these matters.

Art History and its Concepts

Before the Nineteenth Century, professional Art History did not exist.[2] There were technical manuals and biographies of artists, usually written by other artists, as well as antiquarian treatises in the eighteenth century, but nothing like the grand-historical narratives of the late-nineteenth and early- twentieth centuries. In the hands of its pioneers, Art History gradually became thought of as a science. It was the task of the Art Historian to retrospectively order and arrange the entirety of art objects. How was such a monumental task to be accomplished? Firstly, there was an assumption about art objects influenced by eighteenth-century discussions over the mind and body. Developing from these, came three influences in the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857).[3] Hegel’s theory of Geist seiner Zeit, a type of intellectual spirit of the times (zeitgeist) pervading culture, which is also part of a supersensible force of mind coming to know itself, is pivotal for understanding most nineteenth-century intellectual thought. All the pioneers of Art History came under its influence, as did Karl Marx (1818-83) and Charles Darwin (1809-82).[4] It can be detected in a sense of an evolutionary teleology of refinement. Hegel also lectured on Aesthetics. Central was his idea that art involves an original manifestation of thought and that it reflects the time of culture in which it was created. Reacting to Hegel, Schopenhauer presumed a “thing-in-itself” could be identified with Will, despite having no evidence for a “thing-in-itself” other than from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Nevertheless, his work on aesthetics and genius had a significant impact and, rather unfortunately, can still be heard today in the arts. He argued that a genius is differentiated from ordinary individuals (who are mentally inferior), in that they are capable of discerning things sub specie aeternitatis and communicating their thoughts visibly and directly to others through art. For the viewer, then, an “aesthetic experience” was cognitive. Following Plato, Schopenhauer argued that the purpose of art was to present ideas and because those ideas are hierarchised so was art. A third philosophical influence on early Art History, was Comte’s Positivism; a scientific and positive appeal to phenomena. He believed that there was a three-fold developmental stratification of the theological, metaphysical and, finally, the positive, which avoids speculation. The influence of these three thinkers can be seen clearly in the work of pioneering Art Historians, such as Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), Alois Riegl (1858-1905) and Hippolyte Taine (1828-93).[5] It is evident in Burckhardt’s use of art objects to accurately understand zeitgeists and his notion that artists (always male of course) reflected their environment. Similarly, it can be seen in Riegl’s theory of “Kunstwollen” (a Will to create) and his presumption that artistic patterns/objects can communicate the aesthetic feelings of people and how they related to the world. In Taine we see it in his theory that art creation cannot exist independently of race, environment and historical moment. He also claimed that his deterministic theory made it possible to establish laws defining the qualities and causality of art. In Taine, there was no room for artistic inspiration, yet his method of contextualisation is still apparent today.
   All three art historians assumed that it was possible for them to acquire mind-independent knowledge from works of art. They claimed that they could identify the zeitgeist that was presumed to pervade art. If this were so, then knowledge would be coherent across a number of objects binding them together. Objects could now be differentiated and their relevance to a particular zeitgeist measured. Makers that did not fit this scheme, or were difficult to reconcile, were often side-lined, ignored, or the objects explained in such a way so as to make them “fit”. It was now possible to hierarchise objects according to the knowledge that they contained about their maker and environment. However, grouping objects together, like arranging tiddlywinks into values, was not enough. There needed to be some kind of perpetual forward thrust; a concatenation or sequencing of all these objects into a causal system, like a row of colliding dominoes. In order to do this the information was plotted into a story;  a trajectory explaining human progress, conflict and emancipation. That knowledge (zeitgeist, Will etc.) might not pervade objects, or that it might be unknowable, and that the syntactical connections between “facts” could be literary devices for story telling, was rarely considered. This great schema of art objects, styles, periods, artists and philosophical narratives reached its apogee with Modernism in the mid Twentieth Century. With a common noun, “modern”, transformed into the proper noun, “Modernism”, a conceptual problem arose in the teleology. How could art continue its modern progress beyond Modernism? High Modernism, Ultra-Modernism, Supra-Modernism, Altermodernism, ReModernism and MetaModernism are terms that have been used, or are in current usage, and endeavour to maintain the trajectory. Postmodernism has become the general term at a descriptive level. But there is even talk of what succeeds this “period”, as well as a narrative suggesting that the original teleology had deviated from the correct trajectory, which is another attempt to deal with the same conceptual problem. These nineteenth-century presumptions about history, genius, context and zeitgeist have been instrumental in the thinking of contemporary artists ever since. Two myths, particularly amongst the “group” we are considering, are perhaps a mechanistic and teleological narrative that frames the world, and the idea of a deterministic “contextualisation”.

The Myth of Disenfranchisement

A teleologico-mechanistic emplotment of objects tends to emphasise binarism. One thinks of the socialist art historian Arnold Hauser (1892 - 1978), but aspects are still prevalent today.[6] The narrative, influenced partly by Marxist hermeneutics, can be detected generally in the assumption of an artistic underclass, or artist as “outsider”, struggling to overcome exterior powers that can be economic and/or intellectual.[7] I have already mentioned something about the “art world” being fractured in the introduction to this proem. Demographically, it is diverse today, much more so than possibly even twenty years ago. Yet, we sometimes come across the thought that artists are “disenfranchised”. The general narrative comes straight out of twentieth-century nuances of nineteenth-century ideologies. But what does this phrase actually mean today and for whom? The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “disenfranchised” says “deprive of a right or privilege”. Closer analysis of the “group” we are discussing, reveals minimal reference to artists operating in developing economies, or those operating in political regimes where the rights of an artist are perceived to be, or actually are, deprived in some form. It must therefore refer to artists working in developed economies. So what does it mean to be a “disenfranchised artist” in a twenty-first century developed economy? The phrase conjures up an image of someone incapable of articulating and making known their rights. But most artists today have received a good education, and some are highly qualified with university degrees often at postgraduate level.[8] With easy access to the internet and artist groups, it seems an exaggeration to suggest that individual artists have no “voice”, or cannot think or articulate their thoughts properly and, therefore, that they need someone to speak on their behalf. Another characteristic is the suggestion that artists are disadvantaged economically. One can understand the powerful attraction of this idea given the narratives of so much Art History taught in art colleges and elsewhere. However, it betrays a particular idea of who an artist is and who constitutes the artistic community in the Twenty-first Century. Rather than trying to understand who this “group” references by the term “disenfranchised”, it might be more helpful to distinguish who cannot be represented by it in the artistic community.
   There are many artists working today who have inherited, or have married into, wealth, or who are supported by a benefactor/parent so that they do not need to financially support their practice. There are also artists who work in other industries with a degree of financial benefit, such as science, medicine, law or finance. Similarly, there are artists who run successful businesses in the arts or in other sectors. According to these initial demographics, it could be argued that most artists referenced in Art History would disqualify for the term “disenfranchised” as many were from middle- or professional-class backgrounds and/or owned businesses.[9] There are also artists working today who have successfully promoted themselves by selling work, either through the traditional dealer system, or commercial avenues, such as portrait commissions and similar contracts. Some artists teach art in a college or hold an academic contract in a Fine Art Department. As the population ages, a growing proportion of individuals are studying art-related degrees on retirement too. Most artists are employed full- or part-time and not only support their accommodation, but even rent art studios too. Even those artists supported by local or national grants/residencies are on a type of “sabbatical” in between employment. Taken as a whole, the above demographics possibly represent the majority of artists practising world-wide today in developed economies. To refer to any of the above as economically “disenfranchised” is to misplace the term. And few of the artists above would conceptualise themselves or frame their economic world in this way. There are, of course, a small minority of artists who are, at least relative to the economic indices of their developed economy, disadvantaged. Having come from what I suppose might be classed as a similar background (relative to the UK), the idea, however, that I might have been “disenfranchised” would seem an interpretation by a privileged “other”. Economically disadvantaged or not, there is a more consequential disqualification for artists than a binary myth of “disenfranchisement”. It more fundamentally impacts on their economic situation and we may suggest that it lurks hidden beneath this economic mythologising. This is where the irony emerges, because the majority of artists are “disenfranchised”, but on historico-aesthetical grounds of our making.

Contextualising the Disenfranchised

As we have seen,  in the Nineteenth Century there was an assumption that objects could be distinguished, and often hierarchised, according to the degree of “contextualisation”. What does this mean for the artist working today? It means that art objects are categorised according to the degree that they are considered relevant. In what way is this relevance measured? The exact process is rarely articulated, but it involves a similar assumption that an object must somehow “embody” its environment, as well as the maker’s thoughts and even their feelings. There are interesting parallels with ancestor worship. The Sumerians decorated and buried skulls in their dwellings believing, it is thought, that the cranium “embodied” the spiritual presence of the deceased relative. At an existential level, Art History (and criticism) function in a similar way. As Andy Warhol once explained, quite contradictorily, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, there I am. There’s nothing behind it”. But Warhol’s presence, of course, does not actually pervade the objects or their surface. There is nothing of the deceased artist there existentially. Yet the historical language and logic we use seems to imply an opposite assumption, which for many, reinforces a belief that it is a fact. The degree and kind of presence that pervades an object is important for measuring relevance. There is a presumption that it can be discovered by another (usually an expert of some kind) through careful analysis. As we saw earlier, this was of central importance in the development of Art History and an assumption that was rarely questioned. The first art historians confused a metaphor for something actual, and this appears to be a continuing case in descriptive language about art.[10] As we saw, objects were classified into a great schema according to the zeitgeist that pervaded them. If the environment of an artist can be distinguished then it is possible to compare and contrast, and, eventually, quantify the correlation between the zeitgeist and its objects. The wider that degree, the less “representative” or “superior” is the object. This confusion is manifested today in such terms as “critically-engaged” or “contextualised”, but the pattern of thinking is similar. There are even artists (and not a few critics and museum curators) who think objects can be “experimental” or “groundbreaking” when the conceptualisation has actually been conditioned by an arbitrary art-historical teleology.
   One of the central ideas taught to art students is that their job is to “contextualise” their thinking by immersing themselves in journals and exhibitions or in “culture” more generally. Having “absorbed” the “context” they are now able to posit relevant questions and to produce an object in response. However, this assumes (in Schopenhauerian guise) that an artist presumably can “insert” or “extract” knowledge from objects and, secondly, that they can actually know the context and the relevant questions of their time in order to communicate sub specie aeternitatis and the “thing-in-itself”. Perhaps what we need to remind ourselves of is that the first Art Historians created their histories and conceptualisations ex post facto. Historical creation is essentially a retrospective act. It is something done in the present. It is therefore, according to this logic, “influenced” by the present context through the creative act. It does not take long to recognise a logical fallacy: if we claim to recognise the “contextualisation” of an earlier period through objects, how do we know that it is not the “contextualisation” of our own time and creation that we are identifying? It is through our lens so to speak. But how are we to even know the difference? And accordingly, can there be such a thing as the “contextualisation” of our own time if individuals in the future will recognise their “contextualisation” as ours? This also brings the problem of determinism because if the context defines what artists create then that leaves little room for creative inspiration.
   You may well be economically challenged, but if your work is not “critically engaged” you and your objects, according to this outlook that we are discussing, are irrelevant in the scheme of things. What does this look like in practice? Let us say you enjoy producing figure paintings of studio models (but it equally could be abstraction). Firstly, you may be deemed “uncontextualised” because you are making paintings. You may think that you are posing interesting questions, but it is through the spatial language of the Renaissance, or the scientism of the Impressionists, or through the philosophies of the early Modernists. The questions you have formulated have already been answered. The styles and artistic methods you are using are considered solutions or critical questions posed by artists before you. However, you may try to draw attention to this problem, let us say by exaggerating the physical appearance of the painted surface, or generating visual contradictions between what the viewer assumes they see and what is actually there, or even generating a contradiction, or emphasis, between the visual and textual. What you are indicating is your awareness of these historical issues (or stories at least) concerning the problem of painting as a mode of expressing “contextualisation”. But now, it could be argued, you are doing no more than posing questions first asked in the late Twentieth Century. Perhaps you consider embracing a different medium, something more technological and/or emphasising your personal history, which also references “cutting edge” ideas in philosophy, social-psychology, anthropology, science or history. The problem here is that you are not a full-time academic, so your work can appear banal and even amateurish in relation to the professional academic debate. You cannot be “relevant” or “contextualised” by the standards of the academic field if you are not contributing new knowledge.[11] Academic debates can date quickly with the production of new knowledge. How is an artist to keep abreast of all this cultural and intellectual “context”?
   The result of Art History on contemporary art production is a belief that artists and their objects can be measured according to “objective” criteria (which is really a set of historical and conceptual assumptions). Contemporary objects are scrutinised and hierarchised, and artists are judged according to the degree of “contextualisation”. Inevitably, one meets with a sliding scale of objectivity; a superficial adherence to a politically-correct anxiety over tolerance, whilst, by sleight of hand, a sifting, selecting and hierarchising according to “objective” criteria that is often explained away. The “begging question” is rarely followed through: if we know that the methodology has unresolved problems, then why do it without qualifications? When one considers this, it is disturbing at how long it has persisted in the industry and we may posit that a conceptual overhaul is long overdue. An artist may be at the top of the “contextualised” hierarchy, but it may well be a pantomime of make believe. The story of the Emperor’s new clothes was, and perhaps still is, one of the clich├ęs of conservative denunciations of Modernism. But now it takes on a different analogical connection. Because we can imagine that none of the characters in the story are confident of who is naked and who is not. If it is questionable to “select” and “correlate” based on reified metaphors, it also problematises art curation, a type of shamanism where objects, fetish-like, are even thought capable of improving society and making us “better” individuals. How do we “curate” without the assumption that it is possible to discern “contextualisation” pervading objects? It also assumes that we can avoid contaminating our examination with self-contextualisation. If a curator, artist, critic or art conservator claims to sense or discern knowledge pervading objects, however construed, then we should be sceptical. Such claims have a semblance of enthusiasm. This was once a politico-religious label for false prophets who claimed to have “seen” or “heard” visions. They were considered volatile because of their potential for manipulating and abusing individuals. So which is better? A selection and hierarchy of artists based on a questionable and historically discernible set of presumptions about objects and meaning, or one based on economic factors? Which is the most “scientific”, “factual” and “empirically measureable”? Which has the most “reality” about it? Which is the most “honest” in regard to “objectivity” and even “ethics” in this respect? To some extent, they are similar. They both reify metaphors and depend on the assumption that objects have privileged meaning and value. The preference for one or the other is often based on ethical grounds and/or a politics of display, but they are both problematical human constructions. A choice between them is to consider mere content rather than dealing with the root problem. 

Metaphors and Relativism

This leads us to a brief discussion of relativism. This is the idea that there is no objective truth (either full or in part) that we can appeal to, and that truth is always subjective and circumstantial. The idea is prevalent where it is normative to hold contradictory views on life and thought, sometimes unknowingly. Propositions are justified according to relative factors that happen to be apparent. Historically speaking, such ideas can be found in ancient Indian and pre-Socratic writings, as well as the vast literature on the subject of the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. Postmodernism is often confused with relativism by its detractors and mimics alike. However, we can also consider Postmodernism as an intensification and hyperconsciousness of modern rationalism, where the language medium is an object for analysis. In this respect, relativism has problems and can be thought of as a by-product of Modernism and not an inflection of Postmodernism. How is relativism supposed to function exterior to itself? If two individuals claim that their particular views of data are equally true, and we call that relativism, it then brings up an absolute. We agree that relativism means relativism and represents different points of view (a parallax). But this can hardly be applied to what relativism means itself. That is what we mean by the problem of relativism. Perhaps its connotation is that it metaphorises an incapability to express what we mean.
   This metaphorical aspect is peculiar to art production too. Perhaps the role of the artist is to generate metaphors. If an artist fabricates an art object in reference to the cultural sphere that they believe is communicable, they have in actual fact produced a metaphor. It is not that the object in some existential way is their thoughts on a subject, it is more that we, or another authority, declare that the metaphor is literal. We have long been obsessed with reifying metaphors, rather than appreciating the reflexive metaphor as a work of art made by an artist. We are not talking here about fleeting symbols or the “play” of images, a visual concatenation of intersecting patterns of cultural information. That is the antithesis. It is as much to miss the metaphor in art production. It is not what the maker, or the viewers, happen to believe about knowledge and objects, nor how they rejectcome to believe in something more than what it seems to be and how the fabricated metaphor shifts from view. It may well be that the appreciation of how artists have created metaphors (and the degree to which they reify them) is a possible method of evaluating art production according to a different mode. It would still be an artificial system, of course, but it may at least help to create an alternative to the myths that augment the industry and its educational system. But most of all it may help us to appreciate the art-historical frameworks and encourage us to challenge them, as well as those who seek to reify them, thus possibly liberating the artistic community from its history of aesthetics.  


[1] It is partly being exploited by commercial-journalistic websites. A common theme is a claim to represent “the disenfranchised artist” (a undefined demographic) whilst marketing purchasable literature to them. It is more prevalent in the USA, but detectable in the UK as a growing business model. However, I am referring to those outside of this practice.  
[2] For a detailed evolution, see Donald Preziosi, “Question of Art History”, Critical Inquiry, 18:2 (Winter 1992), pp. 363 – 386. See also, Brain of the Earth's Body: Museums & the Fabrication of Modernity (1999); Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (1989).
[3] For Hegel, Phenomonology of the Spirit (1807); Lectures on Aesthetics (1817); Lectures on Art (1823-29); Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1830-31); for Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (1818; 1844); On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (pub. 1847); for Comte, Course on Positive Philosophy (6 vols. 1830-1842); System of Positive Polity, or Treatise on Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity, (4 vols, 1851-1854).   
[4] For an analysis of Marx and Darwin as representative of a specific modality of historical consciousness, see Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) pp. 278-283. See also Stephen Pepper, World Hypotheses: a study in evidence on “root-metaphor theory” (1961).
[5] For Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great (1852); The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860); The History of the Renaissance in Italy (1867); Reflections on History (1905); for Riegl, Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament (1893); for Taine, The Philosophy of Art (2 vols, 1880).
[6] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art (1951). Clement Greenberg (1909 - 1994) and Meyer Schapiro (1904 - 1996) employed a similar ideological narrative. Ernst Gombrich accused Hauser of a fantasy world that caught one in the “mousetrap of dialectical materialism.” See Jacques Derrida’s Truth in Painting (1986) for an important deconstruction of Schapiro’s "The Still Life as a Personal Object - A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh" (1968).
[7] See footnote 4.
[8] I refer to the traditional route of university art college education as a first degree. However, I do not think this is exclusive to the “art world” today or that it represents the majority of practitioners. The demography of the “art world” includes artists from different educational and career backgrounds. 
[9] To give a few well-known examples, Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) and Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) came from “middle-class” backgrounds and were supported by family members. The father of Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973) was a Professor and a museum curator. Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) had been a financial broker. Wassily Kandinsky (1866 - 1944) came from a family of merchants and had been a lawyer (turning down a professorship in Roman Law). It is well known that J. M. W. Turner (1775 - 1851) owned an ale and boarding house and Thomas Gainsborough (1727 - 1788) even part-owned a laundry business.  
[10] A metaphor is a figure of speech. It is something that is applied to another thing to which it is not literally applicable. A portrait of a woman with the title “Mary Jones” is not the actual person Mary Jones, but a metaphor. However, a metaphor is also reflexive as it is itself a metaphor.
[11] However, it must be noted that there are artists whose main occupation is in a specialist industry, such as science, and they, to some extent, are in a position to contribute to the academic debate in that field. But these artists would not even be considered “professional artists” by the “group” we are analysing.