28 December 2009
Artists Write: IDEAS DON'T MATTER: "How Literary Ideas Subvert and Vitiate Art" by John Link
Artists Write: Thinking While Making Things is the column of art theoretical writings by practicing artists, edited by Mark Staff Brandl, in Proximity magazine. This issue, Number 5, features "Ideas Don't Matter: How Literary Ideas Subvert and Vitiate Art" by John Link.
IDEAS DON'T MATTER: How Literary Ideas Subvert and Vitiate Art by John Link
The dirty little mandate of our "anything goes" art scene is that "everything" must revolve around ideas, must ultimately emulate some sort of literature. The connection between visual art and the literal can be obvious or it can be contrived or it can be plain silly, just as long as it is "there."
The literal need not be creative. Witness the great success of the Wim Delvoye's artwork Cloaca, tied not to poetry or other lofty forms of verbiage, but to the lowly documentary, though it purported to document the rather intellectual question of "bioethics."
Cloaca was exhibited in 2002 at the New Museum in NYC. The museum described it as a performative event "for bringing art and science closer together, by inviting us to examine the ways in which we think of our bodies as machines, at the same moment in our cultural evolution where the separation between real and virtual has grown tenuous ... a metaphor for a society that privileges the cerebral over the corporeal, exulting in the latter only when it can be packaged into a kind of perfection."
What form did this perfectly packaged idea take? "Cloaca was an elaborate installation of laboratory glassware, electric pumps, gauges, and plastic tubing, which must be kept running at all hours of the day and night in order to function properly ... requiring regular infusions of chemicals and enzymes to keep the digestive system functioning, as well as a constant internal temperature regulated by computer."
Not too clear about what all this bioethical stuff means? Now that everyone is obsessed with outcomes, wonder what this thing does? It shits, that's what. About 5 inches at a time. Like a potty trained baby, it delivered the expected product every day at the designated hour, from a spigot that vaguely resembled those found at Dairy Queen, to the applause of the gathered crowd if the delivery took place during days the exhibition was open. Each ceremony was terminated when a museum employee removed the artistic outcome from the exhibition area. The resultant turds sold for $1,000 each.
With all due respect to the prestige bestowed by having a show at the New Museum, an alien from Mars might say Cloaca looked like an elaborate high school science project mistaken as "new" artistic revelation. Is the New Museum too young to remember that Experiments in Art and Technology claimed this territory for "advanced" art in the middle of the last century? More to the point, what if Cloaca had been displayed as an untitled and unexplained abstract contraption? The enlightened class may be enchanted with ideas, but they still can't think for themselves; they require help from a narrative.
Serious art is seriously malicious: emerging art makes fools out of the greatest possible number of art experts. Its natural prey is found in those who form large and complacent groups secure in the belief they know what's what. Today that group is certain that ideas are the core of art.
In the late 19th century the French Academy turned out to be the vulgarians when they were finally destroyed by the best art of their time. Their domination of the art system of that day did not protect them from art's malice. Today's vulgarians hold high positions in our museums, galleries and publications, not at all unlike the members of the discredited Academy. Curiously, these powerful "taste makers" celebrate the same avant-gardism the Academy hated, as if that will protect them from the Academy's fate. But like their Academy predecessors, they have developed a high degree of comfort with mutually-held ideas and avoid the difficulties of looking for real innovation.
Genuine innovation evolves slowly and painfully, without leaving footprints that conform to commonly accepted rules, and therefore remains invisible to those who embrace such conventional wisdom. Today, that's because such academicians have tied themselves to the rule of ideas and take comfort in the certainty that satisfying this dictate can provide. However, beauty sheds rules, sheds criteria, sheds standards, sheds anything a priori to itself, including ideas and truth. It exists to be seen, felt, and absorbed, not ruminated upon. It is tied to materials, not ideas, and looks retro to those who assume (wrongly) that ideas were the essential ingredient of avant-gardist art when it was still a living force in the evolution of ambitious art.
John Link was born in 1942 and lives in Michigan. His work includes painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, sculpture, and digital media; it is included in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian Institute, Oregon State University, Golden State University, Clorox Company, Arthur Anderson & Co, California College of Arts and Crafts, Osaka University of the Arts, and Mitsubishi International Corporation. Articles about him have appeared in the Miami Herald, San Francisco Examiner, New Art Examiner, Los Angeles Times, Digital Video, Chicago Tribune, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has written for Arts, New Art Examiner, Digital Video, New Work, American Craft, and Dialogue. He taught art and art history for 39 years, starting at Southern Illinois University and continued at Virginia Tech and Western Michigan University. He was department head at the two last institutions.