I’m doing some research into the avant-garde after viewing an exhibition called BigMinis here in Bordeaux at the contemporary art museum, CAPC, and my head is spinning with questions.

One of the really interesting things about BigMinis was the juxtaposition of work from the early twentieth century with contemporary works from the twenty first century. All of them arguably works of the avant-garde. I make that qualification because as my research is showing me the definition of the avant-garde has changed and with it, art production.

One of the defining factors for art to have been considered avant-garde was its relationship to the art market – basically art produced for no financial gain (it is a bit more involved than that, but for simplicity’s sake…) was considered avant-garde. It also had an element of critique; social, political, moral etc. This took art production out of the service of the state or the church and placed it squarely within the artistic intentions of the artist – art became art for art’s sake.

And that’s where we were with modernism; artists had to be philosophers, designers, critics, inventors, commentators, political activist, social observers etc. No longer were artists specialized craftspeople who were given the subject of their work by their patrons. It meant that the emphasis on technical skill in medium was no longer the main area of interest for artists because they suddenly had so many other areas they could explore.

However, soon the market subsumed the avant-garde and social critique became the norm for art production. So where are we now with the avant-garde? I think it is a question a lot of people are trying to answer. We have de-skilled, dissolved and disappeared medium, removed aesthetics – obliterated the visual all together. Where do we go from here?

I’m baffled by bottles of brand named mineral water filled with opaque flesh-colored silicone, Pamela Rosenkranz, Firm Bodies (2009), one of the pieces in BigMinis. What is Des Hughes asking us to consider with his group of Pea Cubes (1999-2001), rolled latex balls stacked into irregular and sometimes squashed cube forms. These works might have been called avant-garde once but can they be called that now because they came to BigMinis via the galleries who represent these artists. If I dig deep and try really hard to make associations I might be able to come up with some sort of social commentary by the artist, but even trying my best to do this (and I did) I don’t see any particular or poignant comment on anything. So what are these works and others like them? Where are we when we no longer have a haven of classification in which to set our mind at ease? Are these works of art? Do we still need an avant-garde? Have we reached the point that anything an artist ‘touches’ becomes art by the very fact of coming from an ‘artist’? This reaches beyond Duchamp’s statement that an artist’s idea for something is as important as an object created by an artist, because if we readily accept something from an artist as art, it makes little difference what the artist’s idea is, we’ve already accepted it as art. If we are at that point aren’t we strutting behind the emperor in his new clothes?

Frankly, I can see no other way of calling the spade anything but a spade.


Part 1

Can a work of art really be connected to the artist when the artist hasn’t made it or perhaps even touched it? The answer to that is of course, yes as Rob Turner, Nicola Dale and David Riley and David Minton have generously pointed out in their comments to my last post. The obtuse nature of that question was intentional because it has become common for artists to not be involved in the making process and I think we must question it at times. What I’m getting at here really is intent.

I’m questioning the validity of an artist’s intent when work is produced, whether that artist made the work or not. I’ll use two examples, Jeff Koons and Richard Serra, both superstar artists who have work produced by others. (This relates to the discourse with Nicola in the comments of my last post, #37.)

Personally, I will never trust Jeff Koons as an artist because his original intent in making art was to take the piss and make lots of money – sorry Nicola. To be fair, Jeff Koons has done an important thing (even though I think it was in spite of himself and through no real intent of his own) in art. He has shown the shallowness and crassness of it all. That anyone would take his work seriously – sorry Nicola – shows the absurdity of the whole art world. His position is like the court jester or the clown in Native American cultures – they were there to point out the absurdities in their societies, not that I think Jeff Koons had the intelligence to know that or the seriousness to position himself that way – sorry, Nicola, mea culpa, mea culpa. However, now Jeff Koons is accepted as an artist and nobody will be changing that opinion. The question of whether he made his work I think is important because his intentions were not to make art which explored any issues or raised any questions – even though the art machine has explored issues and raised questions for him. He had no art education and as far as I can tell no particular interest in art, there was no and continues to be no artistic progression. He’s got nothing behind him except all the collectors who collect his work and a bundle of dough in the bank.

I saw the puppy at the Guggenheim in Bilbao several years ago and it was cute – well perhaps cute isn’t the word because it was too massive to be cute. Honestly, I was impressed by the topiary of it and I thought of the skilled topiary artists who created and maintained it, not of Jeff Koons.

That brings up another point of consideration, what is happening when an artist’s work makes us think of those involved in producing the work rather than the artists themselves? Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds made me think of the craftspeople that made those seeds, not only the ocean of humanity symbolized by those seeds. It’s a curious thing and I wonder if an artist like Ai Wei Wei makes a conscious effort to highlight the work/presence of others through a work with his name on it? That would be a novel approach, making art to spotlight someone who is anonymous as maker/artist rather than yourself. Of course, artists like Sherry Levine and others who appropriated art did that, but they were using works of already famous artists so it wasn’t quite the same thing.

My second example is Richard Serra, one of my favorite artists. I respect his work immensely. He couldn’t possibly make his massive steel sculptures, but it doesn’t matter because I trust his intentions. I know he has worked with many media and I know he is serious in his intent. His artistic exploration is evident and shows mature progression. There is no question in my mind that Richard Serra is behind and involved with every aspect of the production, directing, planning of the work. The question of whether Serra’s hands ever touched the work is moot because the intent and artistic vision is evident.


Part 2

In response to your comments:

Rob – Hi Jane, Interesting that you point out that thought is not art until something transforms it or manifests itself in another form. If this form is produced by industrially, or folk with other skills that’s OK isn’t it? I have had things manufactured and installed without my hands ever touching them. I thought about the ideas for them, drew them out with specifications so other people could make them. I made decisions and modifications to them and worried about them along the way. No less art for that process.

Absolutely. Not only are your intentions to make art for the right reasons, but the process of producing community based art means you are being commissioned for your artistic talents and abilities in creative planning. The fact that you have had works produced by others simply underscores the cooperative nature of what you are engaged in. Nowhere near to Jeff Koons – sorry Nicola.

The question of thought not being art until something transforms it or it manifests itself is a bigger issue – and I’m thinking here of the conceptual artists like Kosuth, Bergin etc. The idea that thinking, experiencing, perceiving can be an end result is a compelling idea. I have been fascinated by my own interaction with my senses and thoughts my whole life but I am the only one who can know what I’ve experienced. So is that art if I alone am moved by what I’ve experienced? In no way am I saying it isn’t valid, but I question where the boundaries are placed between communication and unique perception, art and experience, the very experience of being alive; is it receptive or is it emanation or is it per force, both?

The point I’m trying to illustrate is not the particular questions arising around any given concept, but rather, the importance of asking questions and not just following along because an idea may be popular.

David Riley – Is recording an ‘attempt to communicate’? I explore. I record a highly individual impression of what I find. I review the recording and use what I find to select what to do next. Quite often I am surprised by what I have recorded. Surprising myself keeps the research fresh and encourages further exploration. I record what I find for me, less I forget. Am I attempting to communicate with myself? Probably……

And this: ‘Can a work of art really be connected to the artist when the artist hasn’t made it or perhaps even touched it?’….. Absolutely….. As a simple example, no maker can a ever touch a movie (not in the sense meant in this statement) and yet no one would ever consider saying a movie is unconnected with its makers (technicians, actors, director, producer, etc.)…….. I declare a vested interest. More and more I become a virtual artist. My work is physically untouched by any hand, let alone my own. But, it is very much of my mind and made manifest through the virtual-world….. Occasionally a piece will be transposed from the virtual-world for presentation in the physical-world, where it becomes a different work with a life of its own.

I agree completely. When I work with digital photography I deal with the same issues. An artist that creates a film has made that film. A process which is by nature a non-hands process is not really in question. Again, I trust your intention as an artist because your engagement/progress/exploration is evident.

David Minton – Art is a product of mind, There is no duality of mind and body, There is no disconnect between maker and object, There are different kinds of object?

True, but then art must be a product of mind and body if there is no duality of mind and body. The very question of that ‘disconnect’, perhaps ‘ownership’ or ‘authorship’ is more to the point, was explored through appropriated works. It is a poignant question and one whose boundaries are not clear. Can copies/appropriations have two makers? Is one maker as valid as the other? Is originality necessary anymore for the creation of art? The questions are endless…