Thursday, March 18, 2010

Critical Theory 1 Response

Response to Selected Texts From Critical Theory 1

The origins of homosexuality and its relational politics in postmodern art are illustrated very clearly in Gavin Butt's “The Greatest Homosexual?” which specifically explores “camp” and the work/life of the artist Larry Rivers. Rivers, very aware of his place in the art world in the mid '40's as a heterosexual white male, understood the need to undermine that very fact and indulge in what he correctly found to be “truly bohemian” - the gay social world. It was certainly transformative in his art, but it gives rise to a few problematic notions: Did Rivers' choice qualify homosexuality as the arbiter of “better art” in that time? Can we equate Rivers to a kind of “Elvis,” co-opting homosexuality as a performative persona, just as Elvis did with blues music, which was developed and nurtured by American black culture? I suppose the latter question is covered by Butt's explanation of “camp,” yet Elvis, in his time, was not considered camp (109). Nor is Rivers' love and performance of jazz saxophone given a camp status, even though he is fully aware that he is co-opting (again) music with deep roots in black America (Butt 123, note 22).

As an introductory text, Mary Anne Staniszewski's “Believing is Seeing” serves its purpose well. The pictorial lead-in that develops the art/not art discourse is apt, if not amusing. However, though Staniszewski addresses (in the last two chapters) the relationships of art/culture in the mass media age, her de jure development of the topic conflates, rather than delineates. For instance, if postmodern art can accept a signature as “art,” (for naming gives value and power), how is this different than corporate “branding?” There is a corporate pretense at creativity, of course; marketing departments have “creative directors” and “designers,” but there is no intention for art to be made. Staniszewski parallels Madonna and Cindy Sherman (and rightly so), but asks for distinctions to no longer be determined: “Isn't it time to leave behind criteria that equate 'high' with Art and 'low' with popular culture and commerce...?” (285). Despite her plea, many of the old hierarchies hold firmly to their established places, and this fact is glaringly overlooked.

Speaking of marketing, the overall tone of Alan Kaprow's “Happenings in the New York Scene” reads a bit like an advertisement for itself. Kaprow also paints what now must be considered a classic Venn diagram of the “artistic sellout” in his desire to keep the Happenings a pure art form and not subject to the “melodrama” of fame:

Is this the first published instance of the declaration “never sell out” in postmodern art? It would be intriguing to find out, albeit a difficult task.The fact that these artists were trying so hard not to “sell out” shows the unsustainability of the Happenings – something which Kaprow admits: “The attention and pressure will probably destroy most of us, as they have nearly all the others.” (67-68). There was a certain audacity to this, but at the same time, it is rather brave, as there was no way to know that there was any real cultural value in the Happenings, given their tenuous existence. As it turns out, the spirit of the Happenings has lived on through the internet in the online vernacular of today's youth culture. Media portals such as YouTube have given voice to an absurdist, randomized stream of social commentary, where pop cultural memes are reinterpreted/repurposed through highly personalized, idiosyncratic expression.

Robert Smithson's essay, “Cultural Confinement,” reignites the old, Duchamp-ian argument that the museums and galleries (the institutions of art) represent a confinement of art as the only places “Art” can exist. The rules are made by the institutions and artists historically conform only by unfortunate necessity. Smithson, like Duchamp, seeks to break the rules but the twist here is that Smithson is approaching it from a literal “outside” point of view; he has taken art into the great outdoors. But, manicured nature is still too much for Smithson: “Parks are idealizations of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal.” (249). Yet if Smithson's “ideal” is a perfect corroboration/collaboration with nature and art, and since nature is transient, is not the art transient? Is this corroboration achieved at its highest (ideal) standard in a specific time frame/season/light/weather condition? How can the art conform to the unchartable parameters that natural forces may dictate? Or is it presupposed that every interaction, no matter what nature dishes out, is in perfect alignment with the art? That is a convenient device. Smithson's taking art out of the museum into natural worlds is indeed laudable, but there is a presumptive quality to his reasoning that is, ironically, reminiscent of a museum's pedantry.

With regard to Sol Lewitt's “Paragraphs on Conceptual art,” the author humbly suggests that there may be inconsistencies in his writing: “Even when writing these Ideas, there seemed to be obvious inconsistencies...” (184). An instance where this becomes evident as an arguable point is his implication that concept alone makes a stronger artistic statement than a finished product: “The idea itself, even if not made visible, is as much a work of art as any finished product.” (182). This is not quantifiable by any objective means. Metaphorically, the artist is keeping the idea under a rock. How can quality, impact (and/or reaction), and success (however measurable) be determined? It might be reasoned that, with the limitations of physicality versus the infinite iterations of thought, the purity of an idea is in greater danger of corruption in the mind of the creator than if it were to be presented in a physical form.

The feminist texts: “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting” by Carol Duncan; “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity” by Griselda Pollock; “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Linda Nochlin; and “Excerpts from The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago; do well to illuminate the role of women in art historically as it pertains to the contemporary. It is clear that the province of art and art history has been (like history itself), dominantly phallocentric. The very truths of that formally accepted matrix are exposed and, in some instances, rendered into mere opinion in the face of these feminist critiques. It is a harsh and necessary light that is shed upon such an exclusionary facade. However, though it was (and still is to an extent) completely necessary to denounce the male-dominated art construct, it does not seem prudent to insist that every male artist's intention in depicting the female form is to denigrate it, which is what Carol Duncan intimates throughout her entire essay. Specifically, Duncan's treatment of Matisse's Carmelina shows her pointed agenda has no boundaries: “(Matisse) blazes forth in brilliant red... The artist, if not the man, masters the situation...” (300). Why is his use of red a device of subjugation? Could it be that he was merely wearing red? Or, knowing the cleverness of the artist as a colorist, perhaps the use of red directs you to his image in the work because of his artistic ego, and not his male libido? Does not conflating those things exacerbate the issue?

Judy Chicago's piece is a wonderful construction of a new feminist history through art, symbolism and biographical presentation. The feminist movement did indeed gain huge momentum in the thirty years since then, and it initiated change on a massive scale. Granted, it is not global, nor has equality been achieved in even the most progressive of cultures. Nevertheless, there is surely a success story here, as it cannot be argued that women now operate in seats of power and importance as never before. In ever-increasing numbers, women are occupying public offices of great political influence, as well as private offices of corporations wielding substantial financial power. Of course, these seats were historically occupied by men, and the culture of conquest engendered therein is still safely harbored in these institutions because of such a history. However, rather than seeking to change things from their positions of power, women in these seats have seemingly co-opted the culture. It is hard to argue that they have not accepted the inherent corporate and political will to dominate to at least a professional degree. This goes against Chicago's demonstration that women achieved great things (for women and for culture as a whole) by fighting against these entrenched male frameworks, not by aligning themselves with such things. Chicago has shown how women have made progress by tearing down walls of oppression from without – and in doing so, there is now the opportunity to do it from within. One would hope that women will capitalize on this favorable moment in history.

List of works cited:

Butt, Gavin “The Greatest Homosexual? Camp pleasure and the performative body of Larry Rivers.” Performing the Body/Performing the Text. Ed. Amelia Jones, Andrew Stevenson. London: Routledge, 1999. 107-124. Print.

Chicago, Judy “Excerpts from The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (1979).” Artists, Critics, Context – Readings in and around American Art since 1945. Ed. Paul F. Fabozzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002. 318-330. Print.

Duncan, Carol “Virility and Domination in Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting.” Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany. Ed. Norma Broude, Mary Garrard. Boulder: Westview, 1982. 293-313. Print

Kaprow, Allan “Happenings In the New York Scene (1961).” Fabozzi 60-68.

Lewitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967).” Fabozzi 180-184.

Nochlin, Linda “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ArtNews January, 1971: 145-176. Print

Pollock, Griselda Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art. London: Routledge, 1988. 50-91. Print

Smithson, Robert. “Cutural Confinement (1972).” Fabozzi 247-249.

Staniszewski, Mary Anne. Believing is Seeing – Creating the Culture of Art. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print

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