Originally published in PLEASURE 2014
Illustration by Hendrick Hegray
When I thought "What am I gonna do for this imagination issue of Pleasure," it seemed obvious to try to articulate
Several Thoughts About Art
I think of "imagination" as occurring in the space between "intellect" and "emotion." (1)
At its best, artwork is capable of delivering "art experiences," potent vessels for inspiration.
I’m interested in the processes of having, pursuing, and understanding art experiences.
I believe that the terms and derivations of visual artwork's power are generally less considered and less intuitively understood than those of music or literature.
"Inspiration" can be thought of as a kind of "imagination-learning," distinct from an increase in knowledge or understanding.
The cornerstone of my current "art theory" is the idea that "an art practice" can be described as "a research pursuit" directed toward revealing new art experiences.
The total process of all preliminaries leading to final finished works is "research."
A practice that can not be described in these terms is not an art practice, and the work of such a practice is not artwork. (2)
Research aims to make definitive conclusions; these conclusions are finished artworks.
Testing, versioning, and presenting inchoate work is all part of attempting to reach conclusions.
In visual artwork, these conclusions are delivered as sealed accumulations of movement and mood.
The primary "value" of an artwork is derived from the ramifications of its conclusions.
Over time, artwork can be called "valuable" if it persists in delivering art experiences, and continues to inspire research for new, further art experiences.
An "art experience" is an often visceral sublime-beauty-mystery reaction to an artwork that persists as inspiration.
This is the essential communication an artwork must seek to make: the elevation of ideas, strategies and materials to sublime-beauty-mystery.
Process, which can also deliver inspiration, is not bound to this ideal pursuit: artists are free to fail and move in any direction in the pursuit of their eventual conclusions.
It is also a power of artwork to represent describable experiences in such a way that these ascend to sublime-beauty-mystery beyond standard language.
The creation of artwork is a "political" process, in that it is "of or relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group." (3)
The likelihood of a viewer’s having an art experience with work attempting to communicate some object additional to an art experience itself hinges on a) the likelihood of a viewer’s acceptance of and interest in the ideas and strategies of the artist as they pertain to the additional objects in the work, and b) the likelihood of a viewer's interest in those additional objects themselves.
These artworks are "representational."
The art experiences possible in such works are generally more accessible to persons conversant with the politics of the artist, or the groups, emotions, or experiences their work represents, if not both.
Which is to say that it’s my guess that if you’ve ever had a sublime-beauty-mystery experience of an 18th century French romantic painting of a Greek myth scene, it probably had something to do with an interest in mythology, costumes, the French, dramatic figurative representation, or some other relevant-to-the-painting thing which preexisted your viewing of the work in question itself.
And: You may not have had an art experience via that artwork without those relevant-to-the-artwork preexisting interests.
Figurative painting might be so historically popular because everyone a) can recognize b) has experience with and c) to some extent or in some manner is interested in "their own bodies," and so "figures."
I tend to think that less familiar, less obvious, and less heavily-mined areas are more exciting grounds for new research to attempt to begin its pursuit.
When new artwork feels "familiar" or "like something else," this usually means that "something else already delivered this research."
Artists interested in research should honestly consider whether their work feels "familiar."
Potentially interesting research in familiar territory (e.g., "the figure") typically begins with radical ideas, strategies, or techniques, but with care for leaving the chosen territory only to wind up in general "radical" territory, which has many distractingly "familiar" or overbearing qualities of its own.
Finding unfamiliar territory begins with perception, intuition, and surrender.
Work that does not contain fixed, literal signifiers, or which does not assume, rely on, or require a viewer’s knowledge of, interest in, or ability to read its signifiers, is "abstract."
Certain applications of ideas and strategies to materials - such as painting or drawing on flat surfaces - have been in development for thousands of years. (4)
Actively making or viewing new drawings or paintings constitutes participation in this ancient tradition of material research.
It remains possible for new paintings and drawings to contribute meaningfully to this history.
My politic for viewing artwork consists of joy and wonder at this awareness of history, a kind of urgency to detect and follow young artists whose work appears to be moving that history forward, and a belief that the most interesting new research that will occur in ancient media in my lifetime will be in abstract painting.
Object-based work in ancient media - painting, drawing, and sculpture - is more likely to induce an art experience in me than work in new media for these reasons. (5)
Representational artwork's signifiers function as fixed terms with which to orient a reaction to a piece of work, or onto which meaning can be projected.
The first thing many audiences will look for in artwork is "themselves" or "their interests."
For example, plenty of people have viewed Polaroid Kidd's photographs of a punk on a train, arriving at and reacting to these primarily on the basis of their personal relationships with punks or trains. (6)
Frequently, when work doesn’t reflect someone, their experiences, or their cultural position, you can see them rejecting or ignoring it.
It’s also common to reject artwork on the basis of insurmountable difference; a lot of people might not be able to look at Polaroid's photos because they can only see something they can't stand: some filthy punks.
Either way, the pleasure and challenges of recognition are reserved for the representational.
For me, viewing abstract artwork is a more flexible and a more private experience with more basic potential than viewing representational artwork, in seeming conflict with the popular idea that abstract artwork is somehow "more difficult" than representational artwork to "get."
Of course, the only thing there is to "get" about an artwork is that "it’s an artwork" - that it exists due to describable processes and decisions - not from some single brief moment of arbitrary, irrational eruption.
It’s common to overhear the rejection of abstract artwork on the basis of its immediately apparent surface; this suggests a basic lack of consideration for the ideas and strategies that surface is derived from. (7)
I regularly see artwork approached with apparent contempt, via what seems like cynicism over the extent to which "contemporary art" has anything to do with "artwork," especially in the single most familiar sense of addressing classical beauty with studied technique.
By default, "contemporary art," the "art world," "modern art," and "abstract art" all seem primarily associated in broader culture with the trade of works that function as speculative commodities in rarified, money-elite circles.(8)
The inarticulate resentment-bordering-on-hatred with which many people view those circles appears to cascade down to artwork itself; this seems unconsidered, unnecessary, and unfortunate to me.
Disinterest in contemporary artwork on the basis of disgust for the profligate extremes of culture that often "own" it is like disbelieving in the continuing possibilities of music on the basis of the state of FM radio.
Conversations about commodities are not conversations about artwork, and products developed for consumption are rarely paragons of the cultural forms they mimic.
Viewing and thinking about contemporary art does not require participation or interest in the pageantry and silliness of these product-oriented conversations.
It requires consideration for the ideas and strategies present in artwork, consideration for the likelihood that an artist is pursuing research-driven (i.e., non-cynical, non-product-oriented) goals, and consideration for the persistent presence of art in culture throughout almost all of human history.
The process of viewing and attempting to understand both successful and "failed" artwork is also a form of research.
To begin doing this, just consider the ideas and strategies present in artwork in simple terms.
In a work's design politics, it's easy to pick out (at least) self-awareness, observation, seriousness, repetition, concern for beauty, worldliness.
In the application of materials - the rendering of a design plan - it's possible to pick out technical skill, selectiveness, obsession, determination, athleticism, and time (among others).
Design and application taken together create a work's "movement." (9)
There're also certain moods that I believe are readable in work; rare ones include lightness, freedom, the absence of desire, humor.
I have had many art experiences with work that has strong movement and a rare mood.
An artist sits before the same surface for however many hours, investing that surface with time and energy, researching possibilities for an art experience that might eventually exist there, through some combination of applied politics and abilities.
That time and all of the ideas and strategies applied within it are gradually flattened onto that bounded surface into a single permanent moment.
Producing artwork is not a question of just "doing the work;" it's also a question of approaching the doing of the work.
Coherent, articulate politics and careful renderings can both be toxified by bad moods.
Dishonesty, cynicism, ambition, and cold determination are common moods imprinted in the movement of artworks. (10)
You can paint a bunch of rocks by the sea in a lot of different ways; only a few paintings of rocks by the sea are gonna reconfigure somebody's reality.
These are the ones with exciting movement and a rare mood.
You have probably seen many excessively, exhaustively rendered works consisting of many small, repeated marks that don't seem to accumulate into anything other than "a large collection of marks depicting a fatalistic determination."
This kind of artwork is sometimes made by artists who have not "surrendered."
Mood is not an ability or a politic; it is a quality learned and carried by an artist.
Rare moods are often arrived at only by repeated failure and eventual surrender.
It is necessary to surrender, to stop caring, to stop trying to accomplish anything, and to proceed with only the research itself in mind. (11)
Often painfully, artwork is not realized from the desire to produce artwork, or from the desire to be an artist; it is realized from surrender, from a need to commune with materials through rigorously pursued and expanded experimentation, with no ends in mind but itself.
If you're still with me, you can probably list the few works you've seen of rocks by the sea or that consist of an extreme accumulation, which rather than fall short, explode all the way to the sky.
It's valuable to understand the terms in which a "failed" artwork relates to the few successful ones; which terms the failed work lacks, or which terms it bore to its demise.
This is the research failed artworks deliver to any viewer in broad pursuit of art experiences: they articulate an understanding of and focus the pursuit of successful work.
A novelist wrote, um, "The clouds and paths of the flies articulate the space around the eyes of the lions." (12)
Failures of design, application of materials, or technique should be followed into the future when lightness, freedom, absence of desire, and good humor are naturally demonstrated.
Sometimes these moods are enough to carry a work on their own.
Catch artists who display these early, and stay a fan: as skills and tools to render their natural inclinations accumulate, you better believe the damage they will be capable of doing is gonna balloon.
1. With regard to this hypothetical spectrum, artwork to the left of visual arts - toward "emotion" - can probably be thought of as "music." Artwork to the right of visual arts - toward "intellect" - can probably be thought of as "literature." I don't know very much about "formal music" or "art music" or whatever but I can imagine being drunk arguing that "improvisations" are "music" while strict compositions are better thought of as "literature," while pointing out that it's commonly argued that a lot of poetry is commonly described as or in terms of "music." I might also try to float the idea that any piece of music blue-shifted enough becomes literature, and at one point on that journey, will appear to be neither music nor literature, but an image.
You see paintings about poems; is this synthesis of an emotional-lyrical work into a single viewable moment not a red-shift of music toward literature, stopping at image? Likewise you hear music based on or written to accompany fiction; is literal semantic language content transposed into tone not a blueshift?
Of course, literature and music are both time-based media, whereas visual art is not. The flatness in time of visual art is its most distinctive and difficult quality. Visual art offers its total self immediately, but it does not go on to offer anything more.
This flatness is also what enables it to sit so perfectly on the fulcrum between intellect and emotion, belonging to neither camp and both: Visual art is a tension resulting from a set of intellectual, technical actions enacted through emotional compulsions, passionate actions enacted within defined constraints, and so on. This tension is why great paintings often appears to vibrate, hover, or levitate.
2. It's possible to have experiences that are similar to art experiences in reaction to non-artworks. For example, I experience inspiration when I hear a pile driver hammering away in the morning on the riverfront while riding my bike into work.
However, the "art experience" quality of non-artworks is extremely incidental. A pile driver’s "success" is determined only by its success in driving piles, and has nothing to do with the quality of the sound it makes in doing so. While I believe it is of obvious importance to be open to inspiration from incidental sources and to take it as it comes, I also believe it's important to be realistic about what conversations you're having and where.
I'm interested in music, drawing, painting, sculpture, and fiction in no particular order. While my experience of this one pile driver is inspirational, I'm not having a conversation about pile drivers, and I'm not looking for art experiences in construction sites; the pile driver is not an artwork. Defining "artwork" as having to do with "research" clarifies & narrows the scope of what I’m talking about, and where I should be looking.
Scoping artwork is recommended: It’s obvious and non-descriptive to say that "everything is everything" and "everything can be artwork," especially when you understand for yourself that this isn’t strictly true when it comes to the kinds of experiences or uses that some things make possible that others don’t. If all experiences are equal to you, fine, everything can be artwork. To me, certain images, texts, and music are inspirational beyond and distinctly from the sound of a pile driver; these require their own word.
I don’t think of this scoping as needing to occur in any kind of chauvinistic way: I truly don’t believe that "artwork" in these terms is in any way "better" "more important" etc. than any other similar pursuit, such as running a small business or engaging in a personal therapeutic ritual; I merely find the distinction functional, so I can have art conversations with what I think of as art, business conversations with what I think of as businesses, and so on. Of course, goals, benchmarks, critical interests, and manners of addressing a subject vary between disciplines.
If you’re reading this and are like, "I don’t agree, I think what I’m doing is making art," and I think what you’re doing is running a business, it’s no skin off either of our asses; mine is just one possible set of terms to consider using or thinking about; naturally you should feel free to continue using and thinking in yours.
3. This definition is from the Mac OS 10.9.1 "Dictionary." I use "ideas and strategies" interchangeably with "politics" throughout this text, though I think "ideas and strategies" tends to be an inward-facing description of this concept, and "politics" tends to be an outward one. On the surface, I find that abstract artwork often shows "ideas and strategies" where representational artwork shows "a politic." (Of course, both often do both.) The "group" this definition refers to is almost always "the artist" in the case of abstract artwork; it is often "the artist and the artist's relationship with the things represented" in the case of representational work.
4. And a lot of people's lives through a lot of ages have been totally reconfigured by various artworks developed in these formats. The long-term development of ideas in these formats and the history of inspiration sourcing from them is a thread of "art history" I’m interested in following both forward and back.
A short-sighted diminutive cliche you may have heard is "painting is dead." This cliche is better understood to mean "painting’s time as a value commodity has passed" than "the history of painting is complete."
The history of painting, of course, is endless. The potential for a new painting to be a value-carrying commodity is as uninteresting and fully irrelevant to me as the likelihood with which a new song may enter the "classic rock" canon. Nobody says "music is dead" because "classic rock" is sealed, other than Don McLean, who is himself already a part of classic rock.
5. I get that this is a pretty conservative, traditional-looking perspective and that the apparent opposite - "new media is more exciting than painting because it’s totally NEW" - is basically valid. There’s a lot of ground to break and stuff to consider in new media; I appreciate that frontier-y aspect; I think most of my favorite art commentators/thinkers can be called "new media artists;" I love participating in conversations about contemporary culture, and abstract painting has very little to do with contemporary culture; etc.
HOWEVER, above all of that, if you think I’m being conservative, whatever: From a personal experiences perspective nothing touches the brain-depth of ancient activities. Baking bread, farming, brewing beer, cooking, and walking in the woods are all more historically/anthropologically rich activities (unto the point I’d say of being more metaphysically rich activities) than anything happening in "new media." Painting (and baking bread, etc.) is total "what does it mean to be human" Joseph Campbell shit, whereas new media art is basically stand-up comedy.
But again, I love doing shit on a computer, and I love laughing at funny jokes, and I’m super thankful for both!
6. And plenty of people have read and evaluated Sade on the basis of their preexisting interests in or politics toward "sexuality," "perversion," or other obvious top-level "Sade"-topics, and plenty of people have enjoyed partying on the occasion of a friend playing a set, etc.
I don’t object to any of these, though I can only assume that my interest in or distaste for certain signifiers has interfered with my having more vivid art experiences in the past. I feel like it’s important to unlearn your own self and basic interests when interacting with artwork, and to read Polaroid Kidd, Sade (or whatever), and your friend’s set all more directly, looking for what’s expansive about "what they’re saying," versus just "what they’re saying that applies to you." For example, while I get that Polaroid's are beautiful photos of vivid, extreme moments, I also can't help petulantly feeling like they impinge on and somehow undermine my own understanding and experience of punks and trains. I am certain that I will be mega bummed that I didn't go see his show when I last had the chance to once I inevitably get over this!
Releasing the need to "understand" artwork in familiar terms or as a function of your own belief systems and experiences is a kind of surrender; artwork itself often comes from surrender. I’m proposing "mutual surrender" as the shared experience artists and audiences should be having.
7. And fair enough: it’s not super obvious to everyone that you should even be trying to do so, especially since so much stuff in visual culture does its level best to hide its seams and present itself surface-only as a smooth, anonymous, "always complete" thing. "Heineken Experiment: Miami" definitely doesn’t suggest (and would not benefit from) a viewer considering the teams, meetings, emails, and many hands working in all aspects of production leading up to its 30 second spot before a given youtube vid circa January 2014. Relatedly, the ad is no less skippable via consideration of whoever slouched through however many hours of Final Cut to birth it. But artworks fully desire consideration in terms of the work, hours, and processes they contain or demonstrate; these are often as much the work’s content (or if you prefer, "meaning") as the visible surface they produced is itself.
8. Interestingly, the ambition with which some arts businesses attempt to craft "speculative commodities" from their brands appears to be related most strongly to the principal operator’s performance of "being an artist" in a culturally recognizable, intriguing way. This may explain why almost all artists are generally unknown or are regarded with cynicism and disdain by culture: They are viewed as trying to create arbitrarily invested products.
The best-known art-personalities arrive in rare cases where their performances of "being artists" win culture over, by winning over private elite markets so extremely excessively and extremely cheesily that they can no longer be contained by them. I won't insult the reader by invoking the many obvious examples of such successful brands here - I'm sure you can think of a few!
Anyway, everyone knows a reptilian who makes ridiculous work, performs a crazy character, and gets decently paid - if not in art, then elsewhere. I have no hate for this - a lot of people in a lot of fields make their careers by "being" something for other people, versus by "doing" something with an inherently unclear value. And while "being a character" is sometimes interesting on a human interest/tabloid basis, even in art, it's rarely an area where true art experiences are located.
9. I'd say that no basically healthy adult is capable of making "zero design" "pure application" artwork. Even totally non-self aware work begins with choosing materials, getting set up, and deciding to try to make a drawing or a painting or etc.; these very rudimentary preliminaries are a part of that work's pretty meager design plan. The hypothesis being tested here ("can I apply these materials to a surface?") is a pretty small-fry hypothesis, and the movement in the work is gonna be basically nil. Compare with e.g. Andrew Wyeth, who famously busted out something like 300 drawings and process paintings in and around the zone where he eventually arrived at the tremendously evocative figurative painting he titled "Christina's World." Like that one or not, that's research man!
10. If I was to restate much of this text as an imperative, it would be "Learn to make earnest, completely invested artwork that is honest to yourself and to your ideas."
11. If you're lucky enough to know an artist you like, ask them when they felt their work "arrived"; it seems likely that they'll be able to describe the moments in or processes by which they reached surrender, or their relationships with their continued struggle to reach or maintain surrender.
12. It was Coetzee in Youth sorta; I’m paraphrasing terribly. Of course, I don't actually see things this negatively (one man's lion is another man's fly; neither a lion nor a fly is human; humans, lions, and flies are all equal space dust in the end), but I've always thought it's a good scale metaphor for "what matters to you" and "what doesn’t."