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Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall

January 25, 2010, 14:56 -05 by chris
Filed Under: Rants [0] Comments

While Vivienne Westwood’s Active Resistance Manifesto, or that of the Stuckists, make for interesting and discussion-provoking reading, I’m of two minds when it comes to their common and absolutist dismissal of non-representational art.

I’m with Westwood, to a point, when it comes to the assertion that every time one chooses to “read a book instead of looking at a magazine, go to the art gallery instead of watching TV, go to the theatre instead of the cinema”, one’s defenses against “propaganda” are strengthened (and that unquestioning acceptance of anything from “you’re either with us or you’re with the terr-ists”, to blithely tuning in to American Idol under the assumption that the only choice you have regarding how to spend your evening is deciding which channel to watch, to actually reading those “what did so-and-so wear to what awards show, and who was seen with George Clooney last week” magazines with a straight face, are all part of an Idiocracy-inducing “propaganda” culture that leaves the future vulnerable to a “mob drool” that could be more dangerous than “mob rule”)…

And I’m with the Stuckists, to a point, that Modernism for its own sake (particularly when it gets to the “this glass of water is an oak tree because I say it is” or “Rocks on Blocks: Number 31 in a series of Rocks on Blocks” extreme of the continuum) is “a school of fragmentation — one aspect of art is isolated and exaggerated to detriment of the whole”.

Fully “conceptual” art (An Oak Tree being a classic and prime example – there’s nothing interesting or noteworthy about an everyday, run-of-the-mill glass of water, and no traditional skill or craft in its creation; everything ‘interesting’ about the ‘work’ is the discussion surrounding the thing, not the thing itself – to the point where the ‘work’ isn’t a ‘work’ without the accompanying ‘semiotic discussion’ text affixed to the wall beneath it, to let you know it’s a conceptual work that should be discussed, and not just a glass of water that a worker forgot whilst painting the gallery wall) is always an interesting conundrum for those of us with the luxury of worrying about more than where our next meal will come from.

And I agree that an artist’s “removing the mask of cleverness” and “allowing uncensored self-expression” can make for more affecting art with greater immediacy, emotional impact, and take-away “meaning”.

That the likes of Sir Nicolas Serota and Damien Hirst are obnoxious, pretentious wankers less than a stone’s throw from a real-life version of The Schoeners skit on Saturday Night Live, sure.

And “art that has to be in a gallery to be art isn’t art”, certainly.

Usually, anyway. If that’s agreed as an absolute truth, “An Oak Tree” isn’t art (either that, or every glass of water that’s set with the table at every restaurant you’ve ever been to in your life is A PRICELESS MAS-TER-PIECE-UH!”).

But where Active Resistance’s and the Stuckists’ manifestos make absolute and finite declarations is where they limit themselves, and ultimately fall short of any “Grand Unifying Theory of Life, The Universe, and Everything”, even if it’s this same tendency toward bold, declarative statement that makes for interesting reading (or, much like “shock jock” radio hosts’ bold, declarative statements for the sake of being bold and declarative, can’t-turn-away-like-watching-a-car-crash listening).

“Artists who don’t paint aren’t artists.” Bullshit. This is no less ridiculous than a bluegrass banjo player declaring that Kraftwerk, DJ Shadow, or Kool Keith aren’t musicians, or a painter insisting that if you don’t paint in oils on canvas you stretched yourself, you’re not a real painter. Your chosen discipline isn’t the only valid one.

“We define culture as: The exploration and cultivation of humanity through art.” That’s one part of culture. But so are food, and clothing. And architecture. If “real” art can only be representational, and only “art” is culture, what of the “set of all things that are part of culture but aren’t representational art”?

I’m sure Ms. Westwood would be more than happy to deem her own clothing “art”, in the same almost-as-self-serving-as-the-Scientologists way that her Manifesto posits that one’s “art” is the only true path to “saving the planet” (and if you’re a struggling painter down to your last pack of Ramen, or Bono, or Tom Cruise, wouldn’t you like to think so?) but my Vivienne Westwood scarf isn’t representational of anything but a scarf, and “representational” food (a pancake topped with a strip of bacon and two fried eggs, made to look like a face, perhaps?) is generally relegated to the childrens’ menu at IHOP or Denny’s. Or Cake Wrecks.

And after declaring that art must be “representational” or at least a “microcosm of a shared and universal-truth human experience” to be worthy of being deemed capital-A “Art”, Westwood goes on to cite JS Bach as an example – which is representational of what, exactly?


“Named” Bach pieces such as the Coffee Cantata can be said to be representational of something, but is The Well-Tempered Clavier, composed “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study,” any less valid because it’s not “about” something?

Backlash-to-a-backlash arguments such as the Stuckists’ or Active Resistance manifestos seem to ironically be arguing for the visual equivalent of “program music” in the hundreds-of-years-old “progam music” vs. “absolute music” debate, in which the purist stance typically argued for absolute music using many of the same arguments being made for representational art = some sort of purity or honesty today.

I’m utterly fascinated and intrigued by the likes of the Stuckists and Active Resistance, but…

Art doesn’t have to be a painting, and a painting doesn’t have to be of a human face.

That’s, hypocritically, an infinitely bigger crock than any “blank white canvas for a million pounds” such arguments rail against.

As for myself, I think An Oak Tree, Damien Hirst’s Bedazzled skulls and sharks-in-tanks, that one guy’s “Piss Christ”, and “Rocks on Blocks” are still art – they’re just bullshit “art” that I think sucks.

Art that doesn’t represent anything but what it is is still art.

Art that doesn’t exist except to provoke a discussion about what is art is still art.

I might argue that whether I like it or not, or agree with its subjective “worth” in any sense, IS “representative human nature”.

Active Resistance and the Stuckists are unashamedly and deservedly “punk” in their essence – exciting, thought-provoking, reactionary, desirous of “waking people up” or “shaking up a system”, raising more questions than they answer, and perhaps ultimately self-limiting themselves into oblivion through narrowness (or lack) of focus.

That they’re essentially “punk” arguments for classicism is a fascinating paradox, but then “punk rock” was a bit of a Moebius-strip argument for a return to classicism in rock music as a backlash against what is now ‘classic rock’, wasn’t it?

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