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Art Criticism On A Bed Of Witticism

Vision is socially conditioned: in art we see what we are told to expect.


Back in 2005 these comments were thought incredible but ten years later a sea change in contemporary art suggests they may now make sense and resonate. The most shocking thing herein is the idea that the art world can be criticized without rising through the ranks, using the inspeak of the overlords, or subscribing to a common outlook imposed by theory or marketplace. In fact, these notes challenge how the market controls the definition and production of art.

I read Albert Einstein’s definition of time and space when I was 14 years old, blown away by a few simple words; “Time is what we measure with a clock, space is what we measure with a ruler”. Complex subjects so clearly and easily explained yet providing food for thought to both a child and a physicist. And so I believed that if I saw the obvious when others were blinded by loyalties or encumbered by market values… I could perhaps still get their critical attention with criticism on a bed of witticism.

Sociologist Howard Bloom wrote in Global Brain of psychologist Solomon Ash’s 1951 experiments (now standard first year psychology experience repeated in every school to awestruck students) where peer pressure influenced people to see blue as green. A student would be asked to join an experiment then led to a room with 9 other students, but these were primed to say that blue was green. A white card with a large blue dot was handed to the first one who said the color was green, as did the other eight. About 80% of the test subjects said the card was green and when asked to stare at the card for a minute then look at a white wall, they saw the complementary of green and not of blue. Which tells us that the information of our sense is altered to fit the common belief system before it reaches consciousness. As Bloom notes, reality is a shared agreement of influence and getting with the program.

This should lead to some serious reconsideration on the part of those whose career is based on judging art, questioning their every decision so far… yet enhancing one’s future professional capability through this expansion of self-consciousness.

We cheer athletes for pushing the limits of what’s humanly possible, not only for themselves but all humanity. Until 1954 it was assumed the four-minute mile was impossible till Roger Bannister broke the record; since then many others followed and it’s now the standard. Social science has noted that a breakthrough by one individual in any field often makes it possible for others to accomplish what was previously impossible for all. What is accomplished through individual effort becomes our common heritage.

Obviously the same applies to the arts. Originally the arts, as in “the culinary arts”, meant more than just a stir-fry. And yet it seems the current belief systems rewards the least effort, often leading to absurdities similar to hiring an Olympic runner to win a medal in your name.

And so I had an impending feeling of “jamais vu” walking into the Geoffrey Farmer / Joelle Tuerlinckx show at the Powerplant back in 2005. Similar to “déja vu”, jamais vu is the strong feeling you’re about “not-to-see” something no one else has seen, or ever will.

Tuerlinckx’s room covered in white sheets of paper; um… seriously, I did that for a midterm show at Concordia 20 years ago. Farmer’s room full of old wood office furniture… Oh… every day, pieces are burned in the fireplace, using political text as kindling… The sheer genius! How does he manage to stay awake while thinking these thoughts?

A parallel struck me, between this show and the majority of writing on art; the wrong issues addressed with intelligence and clarity… resulting in a shell of words, a ghostly stage, the fathom of experience. Was there a link between the art reviews I’ve been subjected to (excellent writers and reviews are rare) and the vacuous exhibitions I’ve seen in recent years? Over two decades these writers could have moved to curatorial posts along with their baggage. In 2014 for the first time we read complaints that exhibitions are boring. Which? The famous artists everyone praises, then months later admits were not that great. What is this process called?

I will never know the ecstasy of a 250 lb. linebacker flying through the air towards the touchdown zone. It won’t enter my narrative from lack of contact, nor experience; as it doesn’t touch my life I lack the reference, knowledge or even interest to go there. And so it is with those whose primary experience of art is a written environment shaped through text. There’s a disconnection between thought and actual event, a partition between reality-check and intellectual discourse.

The exhibition notes make reference to a poem whose “foreword, commentary and extensive index… has little to do with the work itself, telling another story entirely”. We’re told that the installation “… focuses on the formal properties of gallery space, the role of public art galleries, and the relationship between visual art institutions and the viewing public.”

The curatorial notes are informed, descriptive, sensible and engaging, and I agree the installation before me fulfills the description given. But fails to go further.

When I look at this show I see a curatorial narrative, a discourse based on text, fulfilled in illustrating text, the work’s primary function is supporting the mindset that works from theory. This exhibition illustrates the exhibition proposal, framed in an intelligent language but loses its mandate since it’s an illustration to text and consequently lacks that spark of imagination, speaking neither to feelings nor emotions nor to that sense of intellectual wonder at the new.

In the dim memory of prehistoric time when a distant ancestor drew a line in the sand for the first time, all present shared awe and wonder at seeing that line serve as a symbol… perhaps a dawning intuition of the representation, letters, numbers, writing, mathematics. That line in the sand had acquired meaning… which over millennia has been elaborated to the point where just a line is no longer exciting, just not good enough. Been there, done that, “five minutes ago”. Then what’s exciting? Tracey Emin, because the shock value of her work makes a curator stand out on an international stage. Where Emin uses sex for shock value, Farmer’s brand is wasting money. Geoffrey Farmer’s expensive productions certify the value of his work which is obviously meaningful if so much money is spent on it.

This writer’s paranoid conspiracy theory; I wonder if the purpose of the work, telling another story altogether, was to confirm, validate, and perpetuate a curatorial and academic control of the system; these people obviously have jobs they depend on. And perhaps unconsciously playing a cruel game on the public, like the piper in Hans Andersen, leading away from passion and excitement to a dull world of the repetitive and commonplace, where the banal is enshrined as enriching and fulfilling whereas actually it is not.

It may be a paranoid view to see a possibly hidden, unknown, unconscious agenda; where the real story is of an intellectual perversion of power that corrupts, (even while one is unaware of this process like a fish barely knowing water, having known nothing else thus lacking perspective).

For the structure of art is such that there are no checks or balances, no conscience to curatorial positions, and the (low-key) madness resulting from unchecked power is part of that power itself, fulfilling the form but lacking spirit, substituting chaff for wheat, and the true game being that subtle expression of perverted power which is able to persuade the world that chaff is wheat, with a feline Cheshire smile fading in the background. The power is in getting away with the crime of cultural blindness, like that fish, swimming in the dark, who only knows water in a limited context.

For what it’s worth, it really seems like the art world went off the rails 30-40 years ago, while Cassandras like Susan Sontag in ‘Against Interpretation’ and Robert C. Morgan’s ‘After the Deluge’ predicted the current sad state of affairs. We’re lucky to actually see a major transition in the history of art, as complaints about the shallowness of contemporary art / art theory are forcing an inevitable change.

We read that Duchamp despised optical art yet would be surprised if Stravinsky hated melody. No longer should the gallery experience be one of going to a symphony where the conductor hands the audience a sheet explaining how the music would sound if musicians were actually playing it.


Author: Miklos Legrady

Published by Life As A Human

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