Understanding Contemporary Art (Aristos, August 2012)

mai 18, 2015 at 08:51 (Divers)


Understanding Contemporary Art

by Michelle Marder Kamhi,  August 2012

This article is based on talks given at two art education conferences: “Assessing Creativity and Innovation in Contemporary Art: What Can We Learn from Art History and Cognitive Science?” New York State Art Teachers Association, Tarrytown, N.Y., November 18, 2011; and “Understanding Contemporary Art: Emerging Perspectives from Art History and Cognitive Science,” National Art Education Association, New York City, March 3, 2012.

Why is so much “contemporary art” difficult to understand? As I’ll argue here, both art history and cognitive science shed light on that knotty question. Much of what I’ll say challenges established beliefs on the subject, however. I therefore urge readers to beware the “Semmelweis reflex.” Few are likely to recognize that term. But medical students know it well. It’s used to caution them against the natural human tendency to reject new ideas that contradict generally accepted beliefs and practices.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a young Hungarian doctor working in Vienna in the mid-nineteenth century. While serving in the maternity ward of a leading Viennese hospital, he made an astonishingly simple life-saving discovery. He found that the high mortality due to childbed fever could be drastically reduced if doctors would follow his advice to wash their hands with a chlorine solution before examining women in labor. But because what he recommended challenged both the status and the preconceived ideas of the medical establishment, he was vilified, and years passed before his simple practice was fully instituted. As a result countless women needlessly died.

In the artworld, misguided ideas are not likely to have such dramatic consequences. Yet the decades since the 1970s have witnessed many questionable practices in the name of “art”–ranging from self-mutilation and animal cruelty to public endangerment. (1) Moreover, the broad cultural impact of such practices may be more damaging than we realize.

What’s Wrong with “Contemporary Art”?

Let me set the stage with a revealing observation about contemporary art from an article in the journal Art Education a few years ago:

Some art can seem so far removed from our everyday experience that it is hard to understand. Contemporary art and art from cultures foreign to our own can be especially difficult. (2)

Think about that. It’s not at all surprising that art from cultures foreign to ours would be difficult to understand. But why should this be true of art from our own time and place? Since we share the same broad context as the artists, why should their work be largely inaccessible to us?

Here are some typically candid answers to that question by ordinary people:

“Much modern art isn’t about art or communicating ideas,” responds one woman on Yahoo! Answers, “it’s about showing yourself to [be] ‘better’ and more ‘complicated’ than ordinary mortals who just can’t get it.”

A blogger notes: “Some artists … attempt to rationalize their work and put it into a broader societal context through writing … ‘artist statements,’ which generally turn out to be incomprehensible esoteric gibberish. The goal is to sound smart while keeping it so confusing that no one can understand it, leaving [viewers] unable to take issue with your art.”

A visitor to the New Museum (of contemporary art) in New York City a few years ago remarked: “The vast majority of the work [looked like] things that … preschoolers could accomplish while blindfolded.”

Another quipped: “We named one of the pieces: ‘Things I found in my recycling bin.’”

Are such people simply philistines or ignoramuses? Many artworld professionals seem to think so. Assuming that the problem lies with the viewers, not with the work, they argue that such people simply aren’t aware of the ideas and theories underlying “cutting-edge” art.

That argument of course implies that the ideas and theories themselves are valid. So it’s prudent to apply some critical thinking to those assumptions and judge for ourselves whether they make sense.

How the Term “Contemporary Art” Is Used

First, one needs to be clear about what the term contemporary art has come to mean. It is generally defined as referring to “work created after World War II.” As it’s used by critics, curators, and teachers, however, it really refers only to work that is considered avant-garde, or cutting-edge. In particular, it means abstract work and the various postmodernist genres, from “Pop art” to “installation” and “performance art.”

Since the advent of postmodernism in the late 1950s, moreover, “contemporary art” has come to include virtually anything–from a pile of wrapped candies on the gallery floor, as in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Lover Boys), to Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living [more], consisting of a dead shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. As even one artworld insider has noted, the term art “has come to mean so many things that it doesn’t mean anything any more.” (3)

But the one thing “contemporary art” doesn’t mean in today’s artworld is painting and sculpture that is clearly in the broad spirit and practice of pre-modernist Western art. If you visit museums and galleries of “contemporary art,” you’ll find modernist abstract paintings such as one from Joseph Albers’s Homage to the Square series or a typical work by Mark Rothko. You’ll also find postmodernist pieces such as an installation of fluorescent lights (Untitled, 1970) by Dan Flavin or Five Plates, Two Poles, by Richard Serra. There will also be lots of “video art”–from Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture (at the Art Institute of Chicago) to Bill Viola’s series of five videos, The Passions [see “… No Kinship to Rubens,” Aristos, May 2003].

What you’re not likely to find, however, are works of accomplished realist painting such as Andrew Wyeth’s Christina Olson (1947). And you’ll certainly not see works by lesser-known contemporary artists working in traditional forms–works such as this Self Portrait (2005) by Aristos Award winner Daniel Graves or Dairy Barn, Virginia (2005) by Jacob Collins. Nor will you find a piece such as sculptor Meredith Bergmann’s 9/11 [more] (2001/2012), though it poignantly memorializes an event of momentous national significance.

You won’t even see works such as Leader of the Pride or Charging Bison by Lubomir Tomaszevski–an artist who employs unconventional materials and techniques yet achieves wonderful effects, owing to a keen grasp of expressive form.

Needless to say, these works are equally “contemporary,” for they’ve been created since World War II, most of them quite recently. When people speak about the “difficulty” of “contemporary art,” however, they are not referring to works like these, since these are not what is generally displayed in galleries and museums.

Yet if we take a long, wide view of art history, we realize that art has consisted of just such imagery for millennia. Artists have depicted the animal kingdom (as in these prehistoric examples, both painted andcarved), their fellow humans (ancient Egypt’s Queen Nefertiti [more], ca. 3300 BCE, is a wondrous example), and themselves (this mid-seventeenth-century Self-Portrait by Rembrandt is but one of many). They have also represented the world they inhabited, as in Vermeer’s luminous View of Delft (ca. 1660-61), and the divine realms they imagined, such as Heaven and Hell (from the twelfth-century Hindu temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia). The imagery was often highly stylized–ranging from such examples as this seventeenth-centuryMemorial Head from West Africa and this Indian miniature to the woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by the Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849).

As even this brief sampling suggests, the long tradition of representational painting and sculpture has included a wide range of styles and subject matter. But the images always resembled, in some degree, things in the real world. Most important, they were understandable because people were familiar with such things.

What Prompted Modernism’s Invention of “Abstract Art”?

In view of the incredibly long and rich history of visual representation we must ask, What caused some artists in the early years of the twentieth century to abandon representation entirely? Fortunately, we don’t need to guess. The three most influential early modernists–Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)–left extensive treatises expounding their views. As those documents reveal, the pioneers of abstractions were motivated by radical, if arguably mistaken, assumptions–not only about the nature of art but also about human nature. (4)

At root, these painters believed that art belongs to a higher spiritual realm that is completely detached from life. In their view, this other-worldly realm could be represented only by work in which no recognizable objects at all were depicted. Through the use of abstract shapes, color, and line alone, they aimed to represent that realm of “pure spirit”–“untainted,” as they saw it, by material reality.

Furthermore, these inventors of “nonobjective art” expected that their work would help humanity attain the higher plane of reality they imagined. Mondrian, for example, referred to his work as a completely “New Art” that would nurture a completely “New Man” with an evolved form of consciousness unlike any before. To bring this about he insisted that all subject matter “must be banished from art.” (5)

Only if the representation of physical objects were entirely eliminated, Mondrian argued, could a “pure art” develop that would express the “new consciousness” toward which humanity was evolving. (6) Malevich and others referred to this newly evolved consciousness as “beyond reason.” And they actually believed that it would not only endow them with clairvoyance but would enable them to see through solid objects!

How Do Ordinary People Regard Such Work?

Despite the abstractionists’ lofty intentions, their work is incomprehensible to the poor viewer who has not yet evolved “beyond reason.” We cannot begin to guess their intended meaning just from looking at their work. We know it only from their theoretical writing–the equivalent, in effect, of today’s artists’ statements.

To the ordinary viewer, a typical Mondrian “composition” conveys no meaning. It’s simply an interesting pattern, with or without color. And as such it has inspired various decorative products, from bathroom designto high-fashion clothing. Mondrian, I should add, would have been totally dismayed to see his work used in this way. Like other abstract painters, he always feared that his work would be seen as merely “decorative,” rather than as deeply meaningful.

And what can the ordinary person make of one of Malevich’s black squares on a white field? Could anyone guess that the black square was meant to represent “feeling,” while the white field was meant to be “the void beyond this feeling”? (7) Yet Malevich, like many later abstract painters, thought that he could represent emotion directly through such purely abstract shapes.

Finally, a viewer might easily enjoy the riot of color in a typical Kandinsky Composition. But who would regard it as the expression of an “awakening soul” liberated from the “nightmare of materialism”? Yet that was what Kandinsky intended it to mean. (8)

In What Respects Did These Modernists Misread the Human Mind?

Given what science has taught us in recent years about the way the mind works, it isn’t surprising that such paintings failed to communicate their makers’ intentions. We simply cannot divorce ourselves from material reality as the abstract pioneers wished. Why not? Because both our understanding of the world and our emotions depend fundamentally on our direct, sensory contact with physical reality–on what we hear, taste, smell, touch–and most of all on what we see. Sight is our most important faculty, and our entire visual system is geared toward recognizing people, places, and things that impact on our survival and well-being. Art teachers, in particular, should be mindful of these basic facts of human nature.

Ironically, the early abstractionists themselves paid unwitting tribute to this most important of human faculties. Although they professed to reject material objects (which are of course the focal point of vision), they nevertheless attempted to represent spirit in visible, and therefore material, form. In contrast, artists the world over have long understood that immaterial (and therefore invisible) things such as “spirit” can be represented visually only by embodying them in some way–that is, by showing their effect on a material (and therefore visible) being, Consider, for example, the inner spirit conveyed through facial expression in this Bust of Buddha or this figure of The Crucified Christ.

Yet modernism sought to sever the crucial connection between visual art and the everyday life experience that makes such images intelligible. This was the case even for art critics and theorists who were not mystically inspired. As early as 1914, the influential British critic Clive Bell, for example, declared that “To appreciate a work of art, we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions.” (9)

Cognitive science has proven Bell to be quite mistaken, however. Numerous studies have demonstrated that images activate the same areas of the brain as comparable real-life experiences. Our understanding and appreciation of art is inseparably linked to our life experience. Moreover, brain scans have shown that abstract, Mondrian-like patterns (in contrast with images of people, places, and recognizable things) fail to activate the “regions of the brain traditionally associated with higher cognitive functions”–in particular, the areas that manage both emotion and long-term memory. (10)

The influential mid-twentieth-century critic Clement Greenberg was no less mistaken than Bell. His views on art were equally divorced from any meaningful connection to life experience. Greenberg insisted that in the truly “advanced art” of his time–by which he meant abstract painting–both subject matter and content had become “something to be avoided like a plague.” Ironically, Greenberg completely ignored the spiritual aims of the artists who had invented abstract art in the first place. Nonetheless, he did more than perhaps anyone else to persuade the cultural establishment that the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock was a major artistic achievement. And his assumptions about the value of abstract art remain entrenched in the cultural establishment.

Significantly, both early and late modernists shared a self-servingly elitist view regarding the public. Much like the abstract pioneers, who thought that understanding their work required a newly evolved form of consciousness which only they purportedly possessed, the later advocates of abstract art thought that such work could be appreciated by only a select few like themselves. It was a counterfeit form of elitism, dependent on a mere assertion of superiority, with no objective basis to support it. They proclaimed the value of the abstract work but said little or nothing to justify it. And if you failed to see how Pollock’s drip paintings [more] could justify Greenberg’s claim that he was “one of the major painters of our time,” you’d surely be counted among thephilistines–the ultimate term of critical contempt.

How Did Postmodernists React?

Just as the history of modernist abstract art sheds light on why such work is difficult to understand, the history of postmodernism is equally revealing. As I’ve stressed, the pioneers and advocates of abstract work did not really expect it to be understood by ordinary people. Not surprisingly, postmodernists reacted against that view. But in rejecting it they went to another extreme, equally wrong-headed in my view.

Leading early postmodernists such as Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) produced work in which there was nothing to understand, because they didn’t intend it to mean anything. With respect to almost every aspect of modernist theory and practice, in fact, postmodernists adopted a diametrically opposite approach–regardless of how little sense the alternatives made. Moreover, the first postmodernists even doubted whether what they produced should be called art at all.

Since modernism dealt with artists’ lofty but inaccessible intentions and their claims to profound emotions, postmodernists began by virtually dispensing with personal intention and emotion altogether. Since modernism was concerned with the personal styles of artists who had dispensed with imagery, for example, postmodernists embraced imagery–but in a highly impersonal, largely mechanical manner, with little concern for style or meaning, and no emotional connection.

Warhol, for instance, once explained that the reason why he didn’t create paintings was because he didn’t “love roses or bottles or anything like that enough to want to sit down and paint them lovingly and patiently.” On another occasion he said that the reason why he used mechanical methods in his work was that he wanted “to be a machine.” Needless to say, machines have neither intentions nor emotions.

Instead of creating images themselves, as artists had always done, Rauschenberg and other postmodernists “appropriated” existing images in their entirety, from photographs, advertisements, and previous art works–as in a typical Rauschenberg silkscreen such as Persimmon(1964). Warhol used the same impersonal, mechanical approach to represent not only banal commercial objects such as Campbell’s Soup cans (1962) and Brillo Soap Pads Boxes [more] but also world personalities, ranging from Marilyn Monroe [photo] to Mao Tse-Tung.

Found Objects and “Anti-Art”: The Duchamp Myth

In addition to employing borrowed images, postmodernists also used “found objects,” simply arranging them in “assemblages” or “installation art” [more]. Typical examples are Rauschenberg’s “mixed-media” pieces, or “combines” (Monogram, Bed). Critics and curators have tried to find meaning in Rauschenberg’s odd juxtapositions of objects and images, but he made clear that no meaning was intended. When a curator attempted to find one in his silkscreens, for example, he remarked: “You mean I had a direction? It’s a damned good thing I didn’t know that before I did [them]. When I know what I’m doing, I don’t do it.” (11) As for whether his work should be considered art, Rauschenberg once declared: “I don’t think of myself as making things that will turn into art.” (12)

Much the same admission applies to Marcel Duchamp’s earlier “readymades,” such as Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Fountain (1917). As noted by the Grove Dictionary of Art, the readymades are generally regarded as having “decisively altered our understanding” of what constitutes a work of art. That view ignores what Duchamp (1887-1968) himself said about these pieces, however. When asked why he had chosen “a mass-produced object” to make a work of art he replied:

“Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it… . [W]hen I put a bicycle wheel on a stool, the fork down, there was no idea of a ‘readymade,’ or anything else. It was just a distraction.” (13)

So much for the work that has “redefined” what the artworld regards as art.

Postmodernist work has been more aptly referred to as anti-art, even by critics who praise it. (14) Its anti-art nature is especially evident in the recurring emphasis on blurring the very boundary between art and life. The influential early postmodernist Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) wrote whole essays on that subject. He also invented “Happenings”–the precursors for installation and performance “art.”

Those kookily staged events involved spectators in a series of incoherent actions in odd settings. Kaprow aimed to create pieces “as open and fluid as … everyday experience.” In so doing, he was not making art, however. Blurring the distinction between art and life in effect does away with art altogether. In fact, Kaprow himself admitted that he was “not so sure” whether what he was doing was “art” or, as he put it, “something not quite art.” (15)

Similar doubts were expressed by Henry Flynt (b. 1940), the postmodernist who first wrote about “concept art,” later termedconceptual art. He claimed that “concept art is a [new] kind of art of which the material is language.” Yet he observed that his notion of such a new form in the realm of visual art was rather contradictory. He even suggested that it might be better to recognize such work as “an independent, new activity, irrelevant to art.” (16) (What he failed to note was that an art form employing language had long existed. It’s calledliterature.) In truth, so-called conceptual art–later defined as forms “in which the idea for a work is considered more important than the finished product, if any”–eliminates art altogether. What matters in genuine art is precisely the finished product.

When I say that the early postmodernists dispensed with intention in their work, I mean that they didn’t intend to do what artists had always done–that is, to express something meaningful relevant to human life. They did have one intention, however. It was to challenge and undermine the status of art as defined by the modernists.

But in reacting against modernism–in particular, against Abstract Expressionism–the inventors of postmodernism seemed to ignore that art had had a long and rich tradition before the abstract movement, and had produced countless works that were truly meaningful. It’s one thing to challenge the status of abstract paintings such as Franz Kline’s Chief(1950) [more] or Agnes Martin’s Untitled (1963). It’s quite another to imply that works such as these have no value: Thomas Eakins’s Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1897), or Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath(1893); or in a very different vein, Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais(1889) or, from an earlier age, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (ca. 1511).

Today’s Postmodernists

As observed by Thomas McEvilley in The Triumph of Anti-Art, countless works in the “conceptual” and “performance” genres over the years have been made to “render foolish” attempts at interpretation and to defy normal understanding. In his words, much of it has been deliberately “unaccountable”–that is, inexplicable and unintelligible. Many recent practitioners in these categories, however, aspire to make work that is meaningful. But by their very nature, these anti-art genres obscure their makers’ intentions.

The shock value of such work as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism has long since worn off. Why, then, do so many of today’s would-be artists continue to employ its anti-art forms, and even invent new ones in a never-ending proliferation? It cannot be because these are the most effective means to convey their ideas. As indicated above, public reaction testifies to the contrary. At least in part, it’s because they are what the artworld accepts as truly “contemporary.” Creating traditional painting and sculpture would mean being ignored by the art establishment. Equally likely, these postmodernists were never adequately trained in the demanding disciplines of drawing, painting, or sculpture on which traditional work depends.

On that point, consider the case of artworld superstar Damien Hirst. At the height of his fame and wealth for creating installations of pickled animals such as Away from the Flock (1994) and the infamous shark cited above, he made a remarkable confession. He declared that he’d really like to be able to “represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface,” but he had tried it and he just “couldn’t do it.” (17)

Truly astonishing. Here was a man who had pursued an undergraduate program at London’s prestigious Goldsmiths College and who had earned a fortune as an “artist.” Yet he had never learned to draw–though drawing is the foundational skill of the visual arts. Nonetheless, Hirst did try his hand at figurative painting a few years ago. The results were so amateurish (see, for example, Skull with Ashtray and Lemon [more]) that he has now resumed the production of his commercially successful but utterly undemanding “spot paintings” [more], executed entirely by assistants and requiring no artistic skill on his part–only his considerable skill at marketing.

An entire generation of would-be artists like Hirst have graduated from art schools here and abroad with little or no real art instruction. Contemporary museums and galleries are filled with their videos, photography, and installation pieces, while ignoring the work of contemporary artists who adhere to the traditional media of painting and sculpture and who have attained the skills needed to achieve value in those forms.

The Cognitive Challenge of Postmodernist Work

Since neither “installation” nor “performance art” originated in a desire to create intelligible work, it is clear why contemporary pieces created in these postmodernist genres seem pointless to artworld outsiders. Nonetheless, such work was highlighted in sessions at the 2012 convention of the National Art Education Association–not to bury it but to praise it. Examples are therefore worth considering here.

First, convention attendees were invited to a “Special Educator Opening” of the Whitney Museum’s 2012 Biennial Exhibition at which they could speak with “performance artist” Dawn Kasper (b. 1977). Kasper is noted for immersing herself in live dioramas simulating her death “in disturbingly and sometimes absurdly gory ways” (to borrow one writer’s words (18))–as in this enactment (untitled) of a fatal motorcycle accident.

Kasper explains that such work explores the idea of death, of her own death in particular. But what would the viewer gain from such “exploration”? My guess is that most people outside the artworld would spontaneously recoil from it, not pause to reflect on it as an “exploration” or meditation on death. Further, knowing that Kasper herself was enacting the bloodied corpse would, I believe, prompt some (like myself) to wonder about her motivation, perhaps even to question her soundness of mind–all the more so regarding performance pieces in which she has actually inflicted bodily harm on herself, with lasting scars. Such actions are simply beyond the normal bounds of behavior and expression. Unlike a comparable scene in a play or a film–where the story line would shed light on what led to the accident portrayed and on what its consequences might be–Kasper’s piece, like other “performance art,” presents no such meaningful context.

The piece by Kasper featured in the Biennial (entitled This Could Be Something If I Let It) was even more meaningless. She simply moved all of her worldly possessions to the third floor of the Whitney Museum and lived there for the exhibition’s three-month run. (19) According to heraudio guide account, she aimed to spend much of her time there “people watching … and learning from [her] environment and adapting.” For artworld insiders, it was “the ultimate ‘process’ piece.” For ordinary art lovers, however, interest ultimately lies in the product resulting from the process. And there was no such product in the inartistic flux of Kasper’s “living sculpture” (to borrow the Whitney’s absurd term)–which was more akin to reality TV than to the art of sculpture.

Another “contemporary artist” featured at the 2012 NAEA convention was Janine Antoni–who achieved artworld notoriety in 1992 with such pieces as Loving Care and Gnaw. In Loving Care Antoni dipped her long dark tresses in a pail of black hair dye and mopped the gallery floor with them on her hands and knees. Gnaw [more] was created, in part, by her chewing into humongous blocks of lard and chocolate (now displayed at the Brooklyn Museum). In addition to major sessions at the 2012 NAEA convention, Antoni was also a featured speaker at a 2010 Guggenheim Museum education conference entitled “Thinking Like an Artist: Creativity and Problem Solving in the Classroom.” (20)

A piece that Antoni discussed at both conferences was this photographof herself suspended in midair by means of a harness and ropes tied to the ceiling and furniture of a child’s bedroom. Adding to the bizarre aspect of the scene, her lower torso and legs pass through the ceiling and rooms of a doll’s house. I suspect that most viewers coming upon such an image without outside input would be either baffled or amused by it. My own immediate response was to wonder if it were showing some sort of eccentric costume, perhaps for Halloween. On noting Antoni’s serious expression, however, and the strange way in which she was suspended in midair, I could not help wondering if she might be a bit “touched.” I certainly never guessed that her strange get-up was inspired (as she has explained) by Italian Renaissance images of the Virgin of Mercy, although I’m familiar with such images. Still less did I guess that she intended it to reflect “the complex reality of motherhood.”

Few if any persons beyond the narrow precincts of today’s artworld, I dare say, would regard such an image as an entirely sane means of expression. Without speculating on Antoni’s own mental state or doubting her sincerity (she in fact seems quite earnest), one can surely question the collective sanity of an artworld that encourages such expressions by devoting serious attention to them and according them high honors.

How Should Contemporary Art Be Taught?

Since the argument presented here was first outlined at art education conferences, the question of how contemporary art should be dealt with by K-12 teachers and museum art educators was an important one to attempt to answer. From my critical and art historical perspective, I cannot offer detailed recommendations. But I can suggest a few basic principles.

First, and most important, the existence of traditional contemporary work should be recognized by those involved in art education. For K-12 instruction, this means including such work in the curriculum, as part of an art historical continuum with exemplary works from the past. But what can education departments in museums do? They have no control over the collections they must deal with, and those collections systematically exclude recent traditional work. Nonetheless, awareness of this institutional bias might at least deter museum art educators from referring to nontraditional work as if it were the only “contemporary art.”

Second, those who teach about art at any level should bear in mind why abstract and postmodernist work is difficult to understand: the problem lies in the very nature of the work, not in the supposed ignorance of the viewer. Ideally, that awareness would encourage them to maintain a critical attitude toward such work, as well as toward the artworld claims made about it.

Last but by no means least, hands-on lessons and activities should focus on teaching the traditional skills of drawing, painting, and sculpture–not on the creation of “abstract art” or on projects involving postmodernist genres such as “installation,” “performance,” or “conceptual art.”


1. Examples of self-mutilation as “performance art” range from pieces such as Shoot (1971) and Transfixed (1974) by the American postmodernist Chris Burden to the French “carnal artist” Orlan’s ongoing surgical manipulations of her own anatomy. Animal cruelty as “art” became a topic of heated controversy when the public learned ofShot Dog Film (1977), an early work by Tom Otterness, a postmodernist who has received major public art commissions in recent years. “Environmental artist” Christo Yavacheff’s 1991 Umbrellas project killed a woman when one of the huge umbrellas came loose from its mooring and crushed her. In 2010, ceramic dust raised by visitors trampling on an interactive piece by political activist and “installation artist” Ai Weiwei prompted London’s Tate Gallery to bar such interaction out of fears that the dust would endanger the public (see Mark Brown, “Tate stops visitors trampling on Sunflower Seeds,” The Guardian, October 15, 2010). More recently, an art school student triggered a terror alert in central London after leaving a bomb-like backpack, fitted with trailing wires, on a college campus (see “What was she thinking? …,” Mail Online, 12 July 2012. These are but a few of many disturbing examples that could be cited.

2. Laura Lopez et al., “The Individual Video Experience (iVE): The iPod as an Educational Tool in the Museum,” Art Education, January 2008.

3. Ironically, that observation is attributed to the “installation artist” Robert Irwin, from a lecture he gave entitled “On the Nature of Abstraction” at Rice University, March 23, 2000; quoted by Cynthia Freeland, But is it Art? An Introduction to Art Theory (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 2006.

4. The ideas behind the invention of “abstract art” are discussed more fully, with citation of the original sources, in Chapter 8 of Torres & Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Chicago: Open Court, 2000), pp. 134-46 and the corresponding notes.

5. Piet Mondrian, letter to the architect J. J. P. Oud (1925), quoted in Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, eds., The New Art–The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986), p. 198 (emphasis in original); and “Purely Abstract Art” (1929), ibid., p. 200.

6. Mondrian, “Neo-Plasticism” (1923), in Holtzman and James, pp. 176-77; “Pure Abstract Art,” ibid., pp. 223-25; and “Art without Subject Matter”(1938), ibid., pp. 303.

7. Kazimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World (1927), trans. Howard Dearstyne (Chicago: Paul Theolbold, 1959), p. 76.

8. Vassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), trans. M.T.H. Sadler (New York: Dover, 1977), p. 2.

9. Clive Bell, “The Aesthetic Hypothesis” (1912), in Art, rev. ed. (New York: Capricorn, 1958), p. 27,

10. See Semir Zeki and Ludovica Marini, “Three Cortical Stages of Colour Processing in the Human Brain,” Brain: A Journal of Neurology, vol. 121 (1998), pp. 1676, 1678 and 1681.

11. Robert Rauschenberg, quoted by Grace Glueck, “ART; Rauschenberg at 65, With All Due Immodesty,” New York Times, December 16, 1990.

12. Rauschenberg, quoted by Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (New York: Penguin, 1981), p. 183.

13. Marcel Duchamp, in Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, tran. Ron Padgett (New York, Viking, 1971), p. 47.

14. Thomas McEvilley, The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism (Kingston, NY: McPherson, 2005).

15. Allan Kaprow, “Happenings in the New York Scene” (1961), inEssays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 21.

16. Henry Flynt, “Concept Art” (1961), in Richard Kostelanetz, ed.,Esthetics Contemporary, rev. ed. (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1989), p. 431.

17. “A Conversation with Damien Hirst,” Charlie Rose Show, February 20, 2002.

18. Holly Meyers, “Performance artist Dawn Kasper ‘always swirling,’"Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2010.

19. Carmen Winant, ”What to See (and Not to See) at the 2012 Whitney Biennial,“ WNYC.org, March 1, 2012.

20. Antoni’s talk at the 2010 Guggenheim conference can be viewed in its entirety.

Understanding Contemporary Art (Aristos, August 2012)


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