We often don’t even realize that sentences and words always present themselves in a particular context – most often a context of everyday routines and actions. Since everything is perceived through the associations we have encoded in our brains, the various representations of “things” – textual, aural, visual – only evoke the feeling of meaning (or “différance”, as coined by J. Derrida). In simple terms – our understanding of things will change depending on the situation.
Of course it is no different with regards to art. Culture is essentially our only available looking glass, through which we can understand the nuances of the art-work’s setting.
In the following text I would like to nurture the topic of purpose and perception of extreme conceptual art and specifically its aesthetic worth.
Perception, whether fully conscious or unconscious, directly influences and informs the immediate reaction – psychological (emotional), physiological and cognitive.
Alva Noë (2005, pp. 14-15) explains the term as “a kind of skillful activity on the part of the animal as a whole”. The implication of such a definition is that any act of perceiving, and perhaps even more so of aesthetic perception of art, intrinsically requires a thought-capable creature. Noë proposed that the claim could be supported by the fact that patients recovering from cataracts had their visual sensation restored, but not necessarily their sight: “To see one must have visual impressions that one understands.” (2005, pp. 5-6) The neuropsychological point of view here elucidates on the fact that understanding is key in perception. On the other hand Hamilton points out (2007, p. 6), the dimensions that synthesize the cognitive and the sensory reflect the nature of the aesthetic, as art is an “exercise of the intellect” and is “grounded in the human body and its movement”.
Noë argues that all perception requires understanding of sensory stimulation (2005, p. 181). He elaborates, that the process of understanding requires some conceptual knowledge, and gives a supporting example:
It couldn’t look to you as if the ballerina tripped if you didn’t know what a ballerina is, or what tripping is.
For the purpose of this essay I separate the three layers with which we could characterize our sensitivity and perception of art: a primitive response (a kind of animalistic reaction to the content), an affective response and a contextual response. The second one is triggered by the human memory (Marcus, 2008, p. 41), and is commonly known as the “association” – repeating same or similar elements, if done well, satisfies our cognitive expectations. The third one is related to our understanding of the context and meta-context around the piece, and often is the story underlying the actual piece of art.
The psychological art
So to a point I have established when the meaning of “art” is added onto an object – in context and with understandable perception. Postmodernist conceptual art made use of that very knowledge, in that objects or actions set in the “correct” context were suddenly adding a new way of understanding of that piece. The most basic example is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, where he tried to put a urinal into the gallery context.
The most forgotten thing though is that there is a meta-context to his later famed idea. Even though his work was originally rejected by the gallery in 1917, he was previously an established artist, and his disruptive conceptual piece was praised exactly through that filter. I would argue that his conceptual work would have been a failure even in the coming years, in the situation were nobody heard who Duchamp was. My point is that his idea was later acclaimed through – the fame, censorship of the gallery and the disruptiveness of such a notion at the time.
To be clearer lets define the contexts and try to imagine two situations.
Gallery is a specific place where artists and the recipients of art meet. Its highly contextual aspect is rooted in our Western culture (what’s a museum for, what’s a gallery for, what’s a culture place for?). Here, “gallery” does not have to be a gallery in the sense of a building, but more in the sense of its contextual power. And simply because we see it in the “position of an art object”, we see it and take it differently.
For one, we have Mr John Nobody. He’s idea is to take 10 random items from his house, put them into the gallery space and write some sentences about what he currently associates with them below.
On the other hand, there is Mr James Unknown – he looked at the postmodern conceptual art very carefully and decided to make some of his own. He thought about his choice of 10 items that he’s going to put in the gallery, but prudently crafts the descriptions, his goal and general idea of his exhibition. He was especially interested in designing the descriptions, so he could get the psychological effect he wanted.
Unfortunately both Mr Unknown and Mr Nobody have the disadvantage of the meta-context, not being famous or related to any paradoxical “mainstream avant-garde”. In that, our experiment is limited, but still relevant. So let’s take this one step further and make Mr Unknown – Mr Famous. Mr Famous has exhibited in the past in foreign countries, was well received for his aesthetic works of art, and perhaps even received prizes for them. As we can imagine the context in all three examples is slightly different, yet the “objects of art” themselves do not change at all.
Our mind is strongly influenced by Mr Famous’ work. We are often manipulated into ‘magical thinking’ about the origins of the piece. It is “there”, so it is “special”. And we, “the viewers”, do not know why, but magically explain to ourselves “it has a higher meaning, which is beyond my understanding” or make creative associations that are explanations for the state of being. This is all when the object itself is of no special interest “as it is”, without the burden of the viewpoint stating “this is art, so perceive it as art”.
The move to concept and only concept
Couldn’t I then argue that with “extreme conceptual art” the goal is suddenly to reach some sort of a “psychological state of art” which is not relevant to aesthetics at all?
If we look at the origins of art, after it was conceptualized (meaning here – the term was coined) we can see how big of a change we have reached with the postmodern conceptual art.
As Martha Nassbaum states:
“For the ancient Greeks . . . Poetry, visual art and music were all taken to have an ethical role . . . and a citizen’s interest in them was understood to be an interest in pursuing questions about how best to live”.
Andy Hamilton expands on the ways of understanding of the aesthetic notions of that time, pointing out that ancient Greeks did not even have a very clear separation of aesthetics and moral values. One of the explanations he presents implies that the words themselves had ambiguous meanings – such as the Greek word kalon meaning both beautiful and morally good.
“[They] were neither able nor eager to detach [their] aesthetic quality . . . from their intellectual, moral, religious and practical functioning or context”.
— from “Aesthetics and Music”, 2007, p. 29
In essence, we moved from art being practical, ethical and aesthetic, to art that exists as a psychological impression with no need for worth in all of the above mentioned.
Many people seem to be arguing the “what is art” question, but I think from what has humanity reached so far it is clear, that “art” is all we perceive as that. It is a concept of its own, personally contextual. A more interesting question, at least from my point of view, is what art should be, or what do we want art to be. Should art be challenging us, our ideas of how the world is, just like philosophy? Maybe we should not so quickly dismiss the idea that art needs aesthetic worth, in some shape or form?
For me, the strongest pieces of art are the ones which preserve their identity even when they find themselves furthest away from their original context; when the piece of art influences people on multiple levels (which I have mentioned in the beginning) – when it can be perceived, understood (to some degree) and appreciated by people across different educational levels, societies, from different places and different cultures.
I argue that this can be only achieved when the work is at least on some level aesthetic or practical. This means it influences our brains in a not dissimilar, primal way, and it extends on our reactions which were not so much “learned”, but are biological, evolutionary dependencies. And we can reach this reaction with composition (rhythm, patterns, shapes, associations, colors), not with concepts.
On the other hand, since conceptual art is supposed to entertain us with new ideas, perhaps it should stay in the form of an idea, or be developed as an art piece, combined with an aesthetic or practical point of view? After all, all art is in some way conceptual, as it is impossible to make uncontextual art, or separate the “context” from the “work”: eg. the painting from the painter, from the time, from the display, from the environment, from the history of the form, from the language, etc., just like we cannot separate the text from its language.
In my opinion, conceptual art was a very intriguing and exciting trend in the 20th century, but now I would compare it to an old microwaved pancake. Let me say, in the light of seemingly blooming conceptual art era, I deem it dead as a stone. Not all conceptual art, of course – we still entertain traditional painters or players of classical music, even though they’re long gone. What I mean is, idea-patenting has begun in the realm of conceptual art, and all of them seem as different as they are the same. Idea-patenting, as in, calling new things art for the sake of saying “I was first”.
The parallel in postmodern philosophy
Postmodern philosophy has a parallel in that very often its conceptual thoughts are inapplicable, unimaginable – to the point of not being understandable. Doesn’t that beat the point of philosophy? Let me refer to the “Sokal affair”:
In 1996 Alan Sokal published a now famous article: Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity in the postmodern journal Social Text. Immediately afterwards he revealed the paper to be an elaborate hoax engineered to expose the bankruptcy of postmodernist discourse about science. In Sokal’s own words, it was designed to demonstrate that “a leading North American journal of cultural studies . . . would publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if
(a) it contained the right buzzwords and
(b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”
Of course, the experiment was criticized by Jacques Derrida, among many others, but it was later repeated in a much more rigorous way by the sociologist Robb Willer who still managed to prove the point that an unintelligible text can be evaluated as something significantly better, by the circle of people which have the right mind-set. In other words, the content was not at all important, but the context – oh, the context… In this case, there was a circle of philosophers who adored their line of thought so much, that even if they hear or read “bullshit” – a totally ridiculous text with the right choice and complexity of words, they are happy to support it. My feeling is that nowadays this is often happening to art in a similar way – since there are groups of people that support themselves and their aesthetically, practically, philosophically and sociologically irrelevant works – they essentially lobby on how great these works are, bringing more people into the context and into the unfortunate circle of adoration of the state of being.
That unfortunate reality is a good argument for keeping things simple, or at least telling them simple, whether in philosophy or art. Of course, we might say the contextual jokes are one of the best we’ve ever heard; it is easy to lose one’s head about our own contexts, and project on ourselves the idea that ours is somehow better than theirs. So when we find ourselves emerging in an alien environment, slowly starting to make it our own, we lose the ability to see things as they are. And I think that’s a grave danger, both for philosophy and art…
So why is this essay not a dance? Well… Let me leave you with one thought:
…in the right context.