The following is a collection of thoughts which I was invited to present at the University Art Asscociations Conference in Montreal, Quebec October 2001.
When first asked to participate in this round table whose umbrella topic was risk, my original thoughts were to discuss my skepticism of the term in relation to abstraction. I suppose my skepticism of the visual artist or perhaps more importantly the abstract artist as risk taker stems from something of a dire institutional view or the art world. I feel that for the artist to be participating in "risky art" - what I would loosely define as an attempt to fashion change with the imminent potential of failure - the artist must be working within a context that sets the stage for risk to manifest itself. It is my position that the contextual social arena in which the artist functions is established and presently governed by corporate financial powers that have seemingly disfranchised the chance to take a chance. Exterior circumstance ultimately defines if what you do is risky on a public level - and therefore unfortunately, powerful exterior circumstances can neuter the presence of risk.
These are hardly radical observations thus far. But before you prepare yourself for a doomsaying lament on the power of the buck over art, take heart -- contextual powers are not necessarily fixed and can be shaken given the right conditions.
Before I continue I need to clarify that the context or social arena that I am dealing with is North American and not a global absolute by any means. While I'm performing some preliminary clean up of slippery terms let me clarify the term abstraction within this talk. I am not using the term in specific reference to a art movement nor do I use it to signify some stylistic trope associated to a particular medium. I use it to describe a sub genre of the arts that relies upon non literal/non representational forms which intrinsically become its' content as well. Forms embodied in a communicative medium (maybe paint, maybe sound) that functions as translations in an alternative language. Though perhaps materially tangible -- it is a type of fiction that attempts to present an alternate reality which through viewer engagement will potentially elicit a reassessment of ones reality or realities. It is the space of hidden metaphor, encoded allusions, - its often those pauses that rest in between our words and text.
The heroic mantle of the artist as societal/cultural risk taker is a captivating one but I've had increasing difficulty accepting. My jaded post modernistic educated lenses seemed to take all the romantic zeitgeist away. So I have asked myself recently where does the abstractionist - in my case the painter, fit into the notion of art operating at risk?
From the relentless reminders of artists (often those who practice within new media, some who deconstruct the "heroic" ones ) many have come to accept the "intrinsic bourgeoisie nature of painting; that it is a commodified object and something to experience by the privileged". Yes -- it is deeply embedded within an institutional system and market which stems from the gallery/museum/art magazine triad. It seems that for work to move from the studio or street or alternative exhibition space to a wider audience it is inevitably co-opted by the powers of dissemination otherwise known as marketing and distribution. So within the attempt to reach as many as possible with ones work and generate a viewer affect, the work nestles itself more firmly into a power structure. What is worth questioning here is the assumed equation for all art to be effective -- that equation being: the highest number of possible viewers = highest/best /most wanted /most cherished possible affect. Big numbers always matter in this culture. This is often considered as natural and right as rain.
None of this may be problematic unless one is attempting to deploy art that is somehow risky and must operate under the radar. The pitfall lurking here is, that the minute the work is noticed and has made the slightest bump or crease in the social fabric as "risky" -- it stands to be quickly disenfranchised and shopped out whatever its appearance or smell. Saatchi - the PT Barnum of art and his traveling carni exhibition Sensation come to mind.
" And the strategy of imagining the nastiest perversion will not create a situation which the system will not be able to sustain. I think its politically wrong and I think its doesn't work. When you look at the art system for example: perverse transgressions are directly organized by the establishment to keep the market fluctuating and alive."
Before one can peer down too smugly at the commodification of traditional high art, the supposed alternative mediums fare no better in the face of the marketing dollar. Those attempting to communicate or express through means associated to lower culture - TV , the comic - can just as easily lead to a system of celebrityism when their supposed subversive work starts to actually be regarded. Within the structures so far presented the art world and the entertainment world and fashion industry begin to conflate. This is a vital consequence and important to note because it alters what we - a viewing public -- come to expect from our artists/entertainers, alters what the assumed responsibility is of our artist/fashion designers. An artist whose communicative language is that of abstract form can exist in these environments - but his/her works efficacy will not be dependent upon its potential to be risky. This leads to an important reconsidering. To question whether effective art - work that challenges us and moves us, need be art that is taking risks, that is risky?? -- Is this another inherited equation that we come to accept as right as rain?? Is this a necessary precondition?
I would like to state that I do not believe that the artist has laid down his gloves to fight for ideals or concerns. I am not reprimanding the artist here. My contention is that within a democratic plurality of permissible views laced with an underlying cultural belief that everything worth its weight should be making you a dime, the art/entertainment/fashion world leaves risk impotent and artistic purpose less clear -- so less romantically pigeonholed as the visionary artist as a cultural Dan Quixote charging at lazy bourgeoisie windmills.
It is hardly easy now for artists to discern any type of responsibility to a society that most often demands they entertain and decorate. Under this light the abstractionist is perceived as one who at worst supplies us with eye candy, and at best a challenging aesthetic diversion. And ironically -- those few who openly demand racier - riskier material from the arts, tend to be more privileged and educated-- and it is often those about whom the artist is most ambivalent. It begs the question whether art can be risky if it is demanded as such by the consumer?? If I want to be offended - how offended can I be? And therefore where is the risk? I see this as more the satiation of a perverse hunger than sticking ones neck out.
What I am attempting to do in a quick and limited time frame is to present a context in which the governing powers' grasp upon the art/entertainment market is so powerful that the potential of it loosening its hold, ( or at least altering its grip ) inevitably bears testimony to the sheer enormity of the social blow that must cause such a dislodging. If the governing institutions of power - corporate and political - that shape the context under which art operates can neuter the potential of risky art - an art that may elicit an unpredictable change in the way we regard supposed normalcy, truths -- then by logic, -- the governing powers can relinquish control if the conditions of change are there. I believe that these conditions of alteration can manifest suddenly from an unexpected cultural/political blow that violently rips at a societies sense of identity and basic fundamental reality across levels of economy, class race and gender. This is very extreme - monumental in fact - but I believe this may have occurred in the US in September and has now placed the arts and its relationship to its audience and power structure at a critical point. -- in the act of collectively recoiling and reassessing priorities, new doors my be opened for the arts to explore, while others may be briskly shut for fear of exploration. I believe the abstract artist stands critically at this crossroads.
The greater the shock to the body politic the greater the need for triage, for an immediate remedy. Within the hurried want of a calming reaffirming medicine it may seem likely that what my be expected from the arts is a reminder of a lost innocence suffered by the culture. A sort of Norman Rockwellian homage to good days that will return if we all accept these images as true. A type of peter pan magic that hinges on shared faith in simple beliefs.
This is the presentation of nostalgia without memory.
It may seem premature and utterly over dramatic to suggest that the creative exploration of pluralism and its inherent structure of contradictions is in jeopardy. But these premature overly dramatic words have been historically echoed before. And if the cultural embracement of a collective mentality is deemed paramount by shaken powers, then I would hazard to guess that the progressive artist now finds him and herself in a field where risk is suddenly actual and necessary. But this places the abstract artist in a dislocating space. If neither social public art realist nor dogmatic literal political artist - what is to become of shifting metaphor, whispered subtexts and indescribable eneffable forms that oscillate between reason and nonsense - what becomes of from/content that usually despises the application of direct meaning?
Working in this ephemeral world may be the riskiest of all.
It seems to me that the weakness and strength of abstract painting lies in that it is not intended for a large audience directly -- and more importantly it does not position itself as a simulated reality - a highly used term which many self politicized works aspire to be for the sake of what is felt to be transparent execution. Abstraction is a fictional realm to be intellectually and emotionally played in. This demands effort from its viewer. Not the type of effort needed to stomach the speedy consumption of blatant messages but an effort to accept the dislocating psychological affects of abstract engagement. It is this capacity of estrangement that may either place abstraction in a renewed forlight. Current political context may appear to necessitate the presence of abstractions elusive middle greys as a relief from the predictable scripts of propaganda. But it may further push it into the corner bound by terms such as 'utopic' 'romantic' and 'subjectively irrelevant'. Now may be the most appropriate time for complex multidimensional work to spark the imagination of something obscure and other - that which cannot be pinned or easily located. Under such conditions abstraction is less a tangible commodified object as it is a psychological location of free negotiation with ones personal realities.
The detractors of this type of work have and will more so in the near future serve up the same arguments. Its form - visual language is cryptic, alien and too difficult to warrant a place of potency in the public sphere of engagement. The counter to this is to once again reassess the standards by which we measure success or potency. Perhaps a few hearts and minds touched, may be more vital than a cacophony of heads bobbing in agreement. Maybe this does not and should not come down once again to numbers. Other arguments may spike abstraction with the utopic label previously mentioned - an attempt to wheel it back to high modernism and all the grunge that collects there. A possible retort to this is that if utopic exists it is only as a rhetorical adjective attempting to describe the sensation of ones imagination creating a relationship between an abstract fiction and the present reality for the sake of bringing new understandings. It is not the literal laid out promise of an Avalon or the attainment of some paragon of sensory height. We all know this by now, There is no need to jump through those same tired academic hoops. We have moved on.
I have so far touched upon the roles and obstacles abstraction my face from the influence of political motives. At this point it is important to stress that the directions that the visual arts will take, conceptual directions that may seem adversarial to abstraction and its concerns will not only be in response to external conditions but be directed by artists themselves. In a time when the arts and the conformist right are jockeying for the eye and ear of the public --abstraction may well fall under refute from its own community based on unexpected criteria. This may seem ludicrous to predict as it is hardly shocking news that abstraction my become the whipping boy of the progressive art community - no more shocking than the notion that god is dead - so might as well throw abstract painting on that pile. This bell has been rung before -- but its rebuke here may be on -- moral grounds.
The atmosphere of expectation of artists to somehow deal with a state of social flux whose nerves are raw and open will likely be generated by artists/writers/curators who feel that the importance of art is to serve a social function - and this becomes a core moral issue. It is not far fetched nor paranoid to predict the alienation of work that does not prescribe to what is deemed -- the pressing issues of society at that time by the arbiters of culture and taste. I believe the reasoning here is founded upon that the concerns/forms/language of abstraction become to remote and to obscure to touch the daily life of the common person - and therefore is something of an insult. This is ripe for rebuttal as the generalization of who constitutes common and the generalization of daily life display an obvious need for loose categorizations to justify the admonishment of abstraction as irrelevant. The fact that abstraction is not overtly literal or political (its name would suggest this) yet capable of infiltrating the imagination and performing its own type of covert double cross) marks it as risky in so much that it is unclear how it will resonate. Within a current state where reality has been described as "realer than ever" (post September 11th) yet shaky at best, where people are apt to polar binaries and catch phrases -- the practice of disrupting what one considers the bedrock of their beliefs (what is just, natural, permanent, meant to be) through an undefinable visual language may register as nothing less than cultural sacrilege to many in power. Interesting that only months ago it most likely would have only been considered only a cultural nuisance by the same detractors.
Thus far this discussion concerning risk, abstraction and its place in a reshuffled public psyche has been on a ... abstract level. A place of theoretical projection. I will leave with a brief telling example concerning the architect Frank Gehry - an artist whose manipulation of form as content locates him as an abstractionist - and considering his work and its abutment to the mass - a risk taker. His manipulation of what we consider a building to be, to look like, to feel like has enabled him to ignite the imagination of those to think - and please excuse the pun - outside the box and consider the potency of alternate forms and alternate contents. His building design for the Guggenheim headquarters is lower Manhattan has received some admonishing critiques in the wake of the World Trade Towers collapsing. Public criticism has been that the design looks like the towers collapsing and should not be built. This is not a shocking revelation or display by a public opinion.
It seems the public will consistently attempt to literalize the abstract when confused, and in times of heightened insecurity fashion blunt symbolism out of poetic metaphor. The poignancy of this was not in the critique -- it was in Gehry's defeatist response - a mumbled resignation of despair that his design DOES look like the towers falling. The sad poignancy was in the abstract artists incapability for he --- himself -- to imagine anything else but rubble.
A response such as this is harrowing because it suggests that the artist may feel they have to simplify their effect by translating their innovative forms of expression - to commit a type of creative dilution.
From crisis of vision comes crisis of purpose and here in may lie the greatest risk - creativity as casualty.
This is a time of risk now. The want for an aesthetic diversion is real and the public anxiety that can proliferate seems to call for psychic bandages - quick visual remedies which a collective mind can all agree upon. In an accelerated rush for clarity, the time necessary for abstractions pondering contemplation to register a new understanding -- may seem to take far longer than ever now, but given the current state of conflicting realities and bludgeoning one dimensional truths that bombard us, perhaps never has it been worth such the wait.