We often forget to notice that words and sentences 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 (“différance”, as coined by J. Derrida). Our understanding of things changes depending on the situation.
Art is no different. Culture is our only looking glass, through which we can understand the nuances of the art-work’s setting.
In the following text I will be discussing the purpose and perception of purely conceptual art, and its relation to 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, including in our case perception of art, intrinsically requires a thought-capable creature. Noë proposed that this 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) This neuropsychological point of view points to the fact that understanding is key in perception.
Noë goes on to argue that all perception requires understanding of sensory stimulation (2005, p. 181). He elaborates, that the process of understanding requires at least 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.
Hamilton (2007, p. 6) goes further by pointing out that 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”.
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 (primal, autonomus reaction to the content)
- an affective response
- a contextual response
The second one is triggered by the human memory (Marcus, 2008, p. 41), through association – whereby repetition of same or similar stimuli, 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.
Art. It’s all in your head.
At this point we have established how the meaning of “art” is added onto an object – in context and with stimuli that our brains can process and conceptualize. Postmodernist conceptual art makes use of this fact, in that objects or actions set in the proper context were suddenly adding a new way of understanding of that piece. One of the most famous examples of this is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” — a urinal put into the gallery context, which suddenly gave it new meaning.
What is not cited with the example often enough is that there was 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. His idea was later acclaimed through the lens of his fame, the story of gallery’s censorship of the piece, and its disruptiveness at the time.
Let’s define these contexts and 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 place of culture for?). Here, “gallery” does not have to be “a gallery” meaning – a building, but that what is stands for – its contextual power. Simply because we see an object in the “position of an art object”, we perceive it differently.
Let’s take 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”. Our thought experiment just hit a wall, so let’s take it one step further and turn Mr Unknown into 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 thinking about the origins of the piece in a magical way. It is there, so it is special. And we, the viewers, automatically explain the reasoning to ourselves: “it has a higher meaning, which is beyond my understanding”. Alternatively, we make creative associations that are explanations for the state of being. This is all when the object itself is of no special interest “as is”, without the burden of the viewpoint stating “this is art, so perceive it as art”.
Once upon a time, art was practical
Couldn’t we then argue that purely conceptual art’s goal is for the perceiver to reach some sort of a “psychological state of art”, where aesthetics are not relevant at all?
After art was conceptualized and the term “art” was coined, we could slowly observe context gaining significance in artworks, piquing with the introduction of purely conceptual postmodernist art.
To cite Martha Nassbaum:
“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”.
—Andy Hamilton in “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 aforementioned.
The move to concept and only concept
Many seem to be arguing the “what is art?” question, but what we had established makes it clear that art is all we perceive as art. It is a concept that’s personally contextual, and no objective observation can be made to determine “art” labelability of any creation. A more interesting question, at least from the point of view of this essay, is what art should be, or what would we like art to be? Should art be challenging us, our ideas of how the world is, just like philosophy? Or perhaps 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. It affects our brains in a not dissimilar, primal way, and drives our reactions, ideally not through the learned brain-circuitry, but through automatic, instinctual pathways. We can reach these reactions only through composition: rhythm, patterns, shapes, colors, timbre; not with concepts.
On the other hand, if conceptual art, like philosophy, is supposed to entertain us with new ideas, perhaps it could be as powerful in its embryo stage: unrealized, a living idea? Or better yet, developed into an art piece that combines an aesthetic or practical point of view with the conceptual? After all, all art is in some way conceptual, as it is impossible to make anything devoid of all context, or even to separate the context from its work: e.g. 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 equally cannot separate the text from its language.
In my opinion, purely conceptual art was a very intriguing and exciting trend in the 20th century, but somehow, somewhere, it became a stale, microwaved pancake.
In the light of seemingly blooming era of conceptual art, I let it Rest In Peace. Not all conceptual art is dead of course – just as we can to this day appreciate painters of the renaissance, and composers of classical music, even though they’re long gone. But the 21st century’s conceptual art is mostly an experiment in idea patenting, as in, calling new things art for the sake of saying “I was first”. Which makes all of these pieces seem as different to one another, as they are the same.
Is that really a good use of our time?
The parallel in postmodern philosophy
There’s a strong parallel in postmodern philosophy, whose conceptual thoughts are often inapplicable, unimaginable – to the point of not being understandable. Is that philosophy? The infamous “Sokal affair” is a perfect example of how things went too far:
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.”
While the original experiment was criticized by the postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida, its results were later reproduced in a much more rigorous setup by the sociologist Robb Willer, in which he proved that an unintelligible text can be evaluated as something significantly better, if read by the circle of people which have the right mindset. In other words, the content was not at all important, but the context was everything. In this case, there was a circle of philosophers who adored their line of thought so much, that even if they hear or read literal bullshit – a totally ridiculous text with the right choice and complexity of words, they were happy to support it.
It is my impression that plenty of recently created conceptual art is just like these gibberish publications. Because there are groups of people that support themselves and their aesthetically, practically, philosophically and sociologically irrelevant works – they essentially hype up 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. One might argue that on the flip side, 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. 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, plain and simple, devoid of complex context. And I think that’s a grave danger, both for the future of philosophy and art.
To answer the title question: why is this essay not a dance? Well… Let me leave you with a thought:
…in the right context.