Unrevised art notes: the ghost elephant and the troll in the gift shop

“The discovery of central perspecitve bespoke a dangerous development in Western thought. It marked a scientifically oriented preference for mechanical reproduction and geometrical constructs in place of creative imagery. William Ivins had pointed out that, by no mere coincidence, central perspective was discovered only a few years after the first woodcuts had been printed in Europe. The woodcut established for the European mind the almost completely new principle of mechanical reproduction. It is to the credit of Western artists and their public that despite the lure of mechanical reproduction, imagery has survived as a creation of the human spirit. Even in the age of photography it was imagination that engaged the service of the machine, not the machine that expelled imagination. Neverthless, the lure of mechanical faithfulness has ever since the Renaissance tempted European art, especially in the mediocre standard output for mass consumption. The old notion of “illusion” as an artistic ideal became a menace to popular taste with the beginnings of the industrial revolution.”

from Art and Visual Perception, R. Arnheim, pp.284-285

The naissance of mechanical reproduction marks indeed a steering in the public’s taste: once used to it, it is hard to go back, and in popular art the equation between photorealism and quality became an unavoidable dualism, for the “man in the street” as Arnheim calls it. Two categories escape this preconception: decoration and caricature, or satire. We might ask ourselves the reason for this: for centuries civilizations depended on highly stilyzed art (not that the central perspective is not a style), such as the European Miniature, which comes across as “badly drawn” often enough to infuriate anybody who has the slightest interest in the subject. While any art historian knows better, it is often not an easy task to explain to the layman why it is the contrary, even more so to have him appreciate it for what it is, and not for qualities that foresee what was to come in the Renaissance. The main reason, I believe, is that people are deeply tied to a narration, the intrinsic story that any picture tells. Once the means to decypher that narration are lost, the picture is as good as gone to somebody who is not a scholar. Abstract, informal paintings almost always tell a plurality of stories, but the number of people able to deduct them is limited.
The big question is then: can be the average contemporary narration tracked down to guidelines? What is the zeitgeist of the 21st century, what is our drug, our narration? Can a coscience of the public be established, is it worth considering, is it headed somewhere? It is a complex question and it can be excluded that there is any straighforward answer.
First, let us got back to the “mediocre” that Arnheim uses to define the popular taste for “photorealistic” (which is an oxymoron, considering that the concept of photorealism changes along with the times), and see what it does imply. First of all a separation between the public and the élite claims superiority in the name of Art with the capital A, an art which largely stuck with the mathematical model of perspective right until photography was invented. Once that was out of the box, the artist was freed from the menial task of draughtsmanship and turned into the realm of the impression at first, then abstraction, surreal, and so on. This however, is where academic art came at a crossroad; while the artist, absorbed in a world of shapes and ideas, was keen to renovate his ways, the man in the street really had no reason to, as the narrative in photorealism hadn’t, and hasn’t ceased to function. This is perhaps where that “mediocre” comes from, that the general public’s taste never really adjusted to the innovation.
Today artists like Picasso are widely admired and respected, but I suspect it is entirely through the intervention of museum curators and critics that it has reached such universal acclaim. Most people might hang a Picasso poster in their homes, but when asked about it, will not be able to state the reason of its presence. They have been obsessed with it to the point that they have forgotten that a painting used to be a mesmerizing experience, something that sucked you in and brought you into the world of an artist, revealing new worlds, like a poetry enticing you and revealing a quintessence that simple words fail to convey. Instead, what you get (as somebody who bought the poster without going the long mental route to understand what is going on in the picture) is a vague sense of beauty and order, a neutral canvas that fits nicely on the walls of an office and sits there, functioning as a decoration, and that is: something that sits on the background quietly, charming and tranquilizing our inconscious with a stable and acceptable pattern until we decide to bring it to attention, and slowly caress the lines with our minds. This way, the entire point of a painting is led astray, and the only way to restore it is through a museal setting.
Right there, a large issue emerges: art becomes widely recognized as a deeply istitutionalized form, something you can find between the four corners of a square frame, in a designated room, in a designated building.
This is the point where one stops and wonders: are we missing something here? Is that all there is to it? Did not art use to be a part of our lives, and why does it now seem to be utterly irreconciliable with entertainment (e.g. the creation of the term “artsy fartsy”)?
One has to think of the dangers that this view implies. There is, or there used to be, a very large divide between music, drawings, sculptures, etc. and ornament. Ornament was a part only, and a tool; it appeased, when properly employed, our innate sense of beauty, it fulfilled a function that works unconsciously on our mind; it separated the work of man from that of nature: even a simple dotted line can represent the orderly society a man lives in. It is not a coincidence that the earliest, most prominent use of decoration, appears in pottery, a gateway stage in the progress of any civilization.
On the other side, a work of art can be defined on the basis of being active: it conveys ideas, it is supposed to be a brilliant communicator; a meme fountain, as suggested by S. Blackmore, but without the human presence. Such an object does not exclude the use of the unconscious, though its main claim lies elsewhere; the ornament becomes a tool, under strict control. The very decline and subsequent abandon of ornament in modern art has its root in the bloated use which started in the Baroque, as Ruskin and the many that followed denounced; ornament had gone out of control.

It is the ideas then, the concepts that lie beneath the surface, are the elephant in the room as far as art goes; you cannot ever forget, hide them, or shield yourself behind the veil of so called tradition. Pictures of crusaders fighting Saladin echo a conflict that still has effect on the present and is far from being ever resolved, they cannot be simply acknowledged as ‘our past’. Masterpieces have become distant only through forgetfulness or ignorance, they are phantoms of values that have become the subject of myths and tales.

The result is that they too become ornament, a satisfying backdrop which does not bother the eye in the least way. They become t-shirts, mugs, fridge magnets. One is simply to stop questioning their existence, their reason to be where they are. The direction is that of a sterile aestheticism, appreciation of form in a purely material essence; the post-modern obsession with the sign, with the material. Something so neutral that it can be placed anywhere, from the top of the Eiffell Tower to the seat of your own toilet to the plastic cover of your Ipad. Don’t get me wrong; the desire to surround oneself in beauty is more than humane, and one of the pleasures of life; art in this century becomes re-mediated, it enters an entirely new dimension. In some ways, we have to learn not only respect, but also disrespect; however, it is also something that we must always do with knowledge, or the consequences will be soon evident [should get to this later, see ‘sea of trash’ + information reception and intrinsic values].
Meanwhile, it seems the art establishment has forgotten men have desires, physical as well as spiritual; that art is a cultural product, and it’s no use for it to try and camouflage itself as a cold measure of gestures and space, of self-analysis. Once we are tired of measuring space, we will realize that the only thing we can measure is ourselves, and that is all we have done for years, without scratching the surface of what is an hypothetical external world. Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Lem’s Solyaris sums it up neatly:

Dr. Snaut: We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man!

Such calculated items, then, lose value once out of context, submerged by the noise that is the neverending flux of our information society. Unless there is a distinctive pattern, the art object will die out: it will need to be able to fend for itself, without the help of institutions or the likes.
As a matter of fact, new forms are emerging already, right in front of our eyes. Though it might sound silly, internet memes, which still are in their infancy, function according to a mechanism much stronger than any we might devise on our own, which is natural selection. I will have to get into detail about this later, and try to explain why they have anything at all to do with art, and why LOLcats and shoopdawhoops are not simple laughing matters but building blocks of something much bigger.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: