Here's the latest installment of an extended conversation I've been having via e-mail with an especially bright student of mine who's very much interested in the semiotic analysis of art. Click here and here to read parts one and two.
I'm reading some essays written by Joseph Kosuth now and wanted to share this quote with you:
"Expressionism, as an institutionalised style, by focusing on the individual artist in a generalised way has become the least expressive art of our time. It is the preferred art form for the artists who have the least to say because they count on the institution of Expressionism to do their talking for them."
We were talking about what happens when the revolutionaries take over the palace and I thought this was an interesting addition to that discussion.
You can substitute virtually any style since Impressionism in that statement and the same would be true. The real irony for the current landscape is that a dominant motive today is institutional critique. To paraphrase Kosuth, institutional critique is an institutionalized style.
At some point, another style will topple institutional critique and the process will begin again, as it always does, but this case is somewhat unique. Art that takes the questioning of art as its primary motive looks and feels particularly weird as an establishment style.
Here's a funny side note to all this:
[*This is a link to an NY Times piece about people groping the nude performers in the Marina Abramovic retrospective at MoMA.]
One more thing: Here's a short piece I wrote about this a while back:
Thanks for the diversion [the article about groping at MoMA] - that was interesting. I have come across in the course of my research reading a lot of reference to a tautological or self-reflexive art all of which hint at some sort of wall that contemporary art has hit. Also, on the limitations of semiotics and colour,* I just read an essay by Kristeva which might be of interest to you.
[*in class I had indicated that semiotics really comes up short when it comes to the analysis of color in art. There are a relatively small number of color names available to describe the enormous range of colors available to the human eye.]
That's an excellent observation, Sean; art that feels the need to continually critique itself is a lot like a hamster wheel, unable to move forward. I'd like to believe that it means something will happen soon, but it's been such a long time now. That Kosuth stuff you're reading is all from the late '60's and early '70's, yes?
What's the name of the Kristeva piece?
It was a book about his retrospective in 1993 I believe. Kosuth has this point about how placing an object within an art context makes it art and that also got me thinking about the Marina Abramovic show. There is something strange about setting up a retrospective of performance art. Kosuth's retrospective of installations was pushing at it - how he had to retake the photographs of the text in the new setting given that space had become a contextualising element. There is just something very inauthentic about a retrospective of performance art, almost like resurrecting a corpse and the sense I got was art as spectacle.
The Kristeva piece is called Giotto's Joy in her book Desire in Language.
Conceptual art, performance art, earthworks, and to a lesser extent video all at least in part typified the Marxist critique of art coming out of the '60's; the idea that art should take a form that was resistant to being collected and "museumized." Of course, all art that is endorsed by the tastemakers completely bypasses those concerns. The thing that is most surprising is the complicity of the artists; Kosuth in his retrospective, Marina Abromovic in hers. It seems a little disingenuous to me.
Interestingly, Tino Sehgal had a rhetorical way around this thorny issue in his recent conceptual/performance exhibit at the Guggenheim. He said that dematerializing art was not about avoiding museums or collectors and that an artist should be able to make a living (apparently, you can buy the privilege of staging one of his performances six times for $250,000). His concern was about the sustainability and waste of materials. By tying it into contemporary concerns he was able to take something quite old and make it seem new. He was also able to avoid the low-level hypocrisy of the afore-mentioned artists who claim to critique art institutions.