Sunday, October 14, 2007

Non-declarative Art: Take Two

In response to my take on the Non-declarative Art exhibition at the Drawing Center, Anon posted an objection that made me think. My turn in the conversation:

Dear Anon,
I've not replied immediately because I was busy, and also because I was thinking, intermittently, over my reply. Replying to Anon is also not motivating, to say the least; one so wishes to be talking to a person with a name. Still, your comment has made me wish to clarify myself to myself, and to others.

There is a distinction between the art itself being "non-declarative" and what the necessary press release, curators and artists "declare" about the work. This point seems to be muddled in the statement "Which is a lot to declare about art intended to be non-declarative." To follow your logic, it would be a contradiction to talk about or discuss "silence", because silence is supposed to be about not saying anything. "Non-declarative" doesn't mean the art can't be, necessarily, descibed or talked about.

"...which is a lot to declare about art intended to be non-declarative" is not a statement of logic, but a comment on (what I perceive to be) the contradictory spirit of the exhibition. To use your analogy, while it is not illogical to talk about "silence," to go on and on about it, one must be either a theorist or a humorist, or both. There is no humor or irony in the artists' statements in the press release. In keeping with the spirit of the non-declarative exhibition, shouldn't artists and curator keep quiet, and let the works declare their open-endedness? Why circumscribe them by explaining artistic intention or process?

Your last sentence elides artists and critics. They are not the same. Critics take their task to be one of explication. Artists need not explain, and yet, in this non-declarative exhibition, the artists involved explained works supposedly made to defy easy explanations. Given this contradiction, how should I interpret the artists' statements? Conformity to the practices of contemporary exhibitions? Desire to make the work accessible at some level? Human need to communicate to others about what, essentially, is a solitary pursuit? The last explanation seems, to me, to make the idea of Non-declaration a blind alley.

You did not address my comment on the cliches used in the press statement. In using these catchphrases, the statement failed to communicate what makes this batch of works special. One easy test: can the same statement be recycled for next year's exhibition? Has the same statement been recycled from previous years' exhibitions? The press release is symbolic of some of the works I saw at the exhibition: faddish statements, but no real vision.

In addition, in dicussing the description of Gianna Commito's work you blend together "aesthetic ambition" and plain old "ambition" in your parethetical phrase, "Apparently, ambition, like formalism is a dirty word". Did you think about the term "aesthetic ambition" and what that might mean? And what kind of ambition are you referring to- artistic ambition, personal ambition or something else?

When I wrote in a parenthesis "Apparently, ambition, like formalism, is a dirty word," I was clearly referring to aesthetic ambition since I was talking about just that in my previous sentence, and not about any other kinds of ambition. It would have been odd if I had compared "personal ambition" to "formalism" in the same sentence.

It's so interesting that it was the curator's intent to exhibit work that lends itself to reveal the "aesthetic ambitions, "values" and "prejudices" of the viewer and that here in your post is an excellent example! Being non-declarative is fine with you as long as it's not "slapdash and thin". And the work you responded too was indeed the least "slapdash", the most formally considered, the most careful and in a tradtional sense the best crafted.(And personally I like each artist's work very much).

But don't all artistic works, declarative or otherwise, "reveal" the prejudices (I prefer the more neutral word, taste) of the viewer? How are non-declarative works special in this regard? I prefer Matisse to Picasso because I value the hard-earned order in the first, and dislike the show-offishness in the second. I prefer Michelangelo's heroes to Carravagio's waifs because I have a thing for jocks, but not for boys. I prefer Turner to Constable because I thrill to an epic vision of nature. These works "reveal" more clearly, and subtly, my preferences precisely because they have explicit "content." They are discriminating in their styles and attitudes towards their "content," and so compel me to be discriminating in my judgment and taste. The non-declarative art works I saw, on the other hand, wanted me to opt either for open-endedness or closed, for ambiguity or explicitness. They were as crude as their label, "Non-declarative," which posits two options: Declarative or Non.

So, being non-declarative is not fine with me. I'm glad we agree that the exhibited work I like "was indeed the least "slapdash", the most formally considered, the most careful and in a tradtional sense the best crafted." I value these virtues in art because, so often, works with such virtues move me tremendously. I don't reify technique, as should be clear in my appreciation for Diaz's basic lines, but I want form and content to communicate an individual vision. And I don't expect myself to like every artist's work.

Everyone, has the right of course to be bored for any reason. And your form of boredom seems to have been a very active one. A more passive and a truly mindnumbing kind of boredom is quickly forgotten. Who thinks about being bored waiting at the DMV three minutes after leaving? It's certainly nothing somebody would post on their blog!

Essentially, boredom is a form of frustration. Perhaps the boredom you felt, being different from the boredom felt waiting at the DMV, came from unmet expecations, being denied "clear content" where you thought it should go or simply too much slapdashery that you've seen all before.

Every viewer has the right to be bored, but no artist has the right to be boring. There's no need to speculate on the reasons for my boredom. My original post made the reason clear. My boredom was not caused by "being denied "clear content" where you thought it should go." If it was so, I would have been bored by Tittman, Rosenthal and Diaz too. I was bored by, as you put it, too much slapdashery that I've seen before.

The press release doesn't "claim" that obscuring clear and obvious readings will, by itself, empower the viewer. Here again this is what you read into it. If you were to read the curators statement in the beginning of the Drawing Papers catalog you will see a series of QUESTIONS(yes, rhetorical!) posed. It is not, no matter how much you'd like it to be, some kind of manifesto. They are questions without easy answers provided. Or any answers for that matter. They are questions that the work itself seeks to ASK. The answers are left to the viewer to ANSWER. If they so choose to be listening.

The press release says, "By obscuring clear and obvious readings, these works allow for open-ended interpretation, empowering the viewer and activating the viewing experience." How usefully vague, how intellectually forgiving, how morally lenient is that verb "allow"! In like manner, you wrote that the artistic work does not reveal but "lends itself to reveal" the viewer's prejudices. In the first example, "allow" allows the writer to make a claim from which he can retreat, protesting his innocence, when attacked. The second example lends itself to scoring a hit while disclaiming responsibility for the blow. No claims are ever made, only questions are ASKED. No punches are ever launched since the fists are borrowed. I did not read the Drawing Papers catalog, but if the questions there are rhetorical, they are not real questions but are statements, i.e. claims. Suffused with cliches, your last paragraph tries so hard to justify the curators and the exhibition, that I cannot help but suspect that you, dear Anonymous, is the curator, or an exhibitor, or a friend of either. My bet is on the first.

Let me approach your last paragraph from another direction. This viewer, a non art specialist, your average member of the educated public, on a saturday afternoon when he could have walked in the park, or watched a movie, or lazed about the house to recover from a hard work week, detached himself from his friends wandering about the Chelsea art galleries, took the A train down to Wooster Street, walked the couple of crowded blocks to a place he had never visited before, in order to see some drawings by emerging artists, walked round the gallery twice, returning yet again to the three artists he liked, outstaying any of the other visitors who dropped in while he was there. Sure, he went there to see a friend's work, but there was also the lure of seeing significant art. Imagine, if you will, how such a person will feel when he is told that he would have "got" the art "if [he] so choose[s] to be listening."


Harry said...

I don't have anything to add, but an interesting two posts.

Rui said...

This is really interesting, and a good example of what the internet can do, at its best. Your blog gives me mind food. Thankee! :)

But then again, hmmm... if not for the internet, i'd probably either be

1) out there desperately making things happen instead of vicariously feeding on the ideas of pple a continent and an ocean away; or

2) a 'quitter' flipping burgers in London.

Not that i'm blaming the non-occurence of these 2 possibilities on you, of course. :)

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Harry and Rui, for reading. I only wish the discussion is more substantial.