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Contemporary art by StarBoy

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									Centre for Continuing Education
Art appreciation: contemporary art and how to enjoy it
Roy Forward Art today includes more stuff (web art, mixed media, installations), is about more things (environment, diasporas), is made by more people (Chinese, Bolivians), and is more baffling than ever. Need help? Aesthetic art versus ugly art 9 August In The Republic Plato has Socrates tell ‗a story I once heard about Leontius, son of Aglaion‘:
On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, ‗There you are, curse you; feast yourselves on this lovely sight!

1.

We could use Plato‘s story to blame the ugliness in so much modern art on human nature. While we shall look mainly for social and artistic reasons, our human fascination in the repulsive may be self-inoculation, a small dose to inure us to greater awfulness in store, giving us the opportunity to practise our mastering skills before real disaster strikes. Kids love fairy stories and comics that are hair-raisingly horrible, because through them they (and adults) enjoy safely learning to cope with an often harsh reality. All the arts at some times perform this function, and therefore cannot all be sweet and lovely: anticipating and rehearsing the worst as well as the best that might befall us helps ensure our survival. The US artist Cindy Sherman said, ‗I‘m interested, like most people, in genuine images of disturbing things. What draws anybody to look at an actual dead person?…I think the reason I do what I do…is that it is almost a way to prepare myself for horrible events, the way fairy tales and horror films do.‘ 2. Art into decoration (abstraction, allover, design) 16 August

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Allover patterns are common in fabrics, floor tiles and wallpapers, are regarded as fairly mechanical in their reliance on repetition or the interplay of woof and weft, and are commonly thought of as decorative, and of interest more to designers and craftspeople than to practitioners of the fine arts. Allover patterns rely on many dots, colours or lines, may be abstract or representational, and range from geometric to floral. In China there are the allover patterns on cloisonné enamel and painted porcelain bowls and vases, the columns of characters in traditional calligraphy, and the spread of columns or rows on any page of Chinese text. In obedience to the injunction against imagery Islamic art and architecture has made particular use of them in floral designs, carpet patterns, tilework, and carved screens. William Morris was a major exponent of allover designs in Victorian England. In the United States the term ‗allover painting‘ was used in the 1940s and 50s by the critic Clement Greenberg for Jackson Pollock‘s drip paintings. By the 1990s artists such as Virgil Marti in the US and Sonia Boyce in the UK were actually designing wallpapers not for the home but for fine art installations and exhibitions. Fifty years ago a famous judge, Cyril Asquith, might write scathingly to the president of the Royal Academy and painter of racehorses, Alfred Munnings: ‗Klee‘s pictures seem to me to resemble, not pictures, but a samplebook of patterns of linoleum.‘ Today we are more likely to know that everything is capable of being grist to art‘s mill, and to look for strong links between design and the fine arts. But should we also worry that this art‘s tendency to merge into the architecture as if it were wallpaper or interior decoration dissolves a useful distinction between art and the rest of life, thereby avoiding a world of subjectivity? 3. Disappearing art object (performance, happenings, concepts) 23 August Charles Baudelaire knew how art presents us with the present and the past, with ‗the eternal and the immutable‘ along with ‗the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent‘; he expected modern artists to value the ‗transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid,‘ but urged them to extract
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from it ‗whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the ephemeral.‘ Yet he could never have anticipated that the work of art, the art object itself, would itself become transitory, fugitive, and ephemeral. What used to be clear about a work of art was that it existed, but with some kinds of modern that is not always certain. In Happenings and Performance art people feared the dissolution of art into cinema, circus, spectacle, film, theatre etc. Fluxus, for example, combined visual art with music, poetry, acting, film and video. It began in 1962 with George Maciunas (1931– 78), a Lithuanian-American artist who had moved to Germany to escape his creditors, and spread through Europe, the US, and Japan. It included Joseph Beuys, who was determined to merge art and life, and who in 1967 founded the German Student Party and in 1971 the Organization of Non-Voters. In 1972 he was dismissed from his professorship at the Düsseldorf Academy for putting his art and education ideas into practice. In line with his belief that artists have to be educators, some of his ‗actions‘ ended up consisting of Beuys, dressed as always in his hat and waistcoat, talking to an audience for twelve hours non-stop. Fluxus also included Dick Higgins, Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono. They moved from traditional ideas of professionalism in the arts to emphasise the artist as a person who has opinions and takes actions. Conceptual Art was a case of a movement that selected an aspect of art (namely, that all art has conceptual elements) and elevated it into the whole of art, thereby emphasising something about all art both old and new, and helping us to see all art in a new way. While there was always the risk of merging art with something else such as philosophy or linguistics, artists were freed from the necessity of presenting art as a physical object, of using traditional art materials, and of having their art viewed — an idea or description merely needing to be read to a ‗viewer‘ by someone else. ‗My imagination pictures things more vividly than my eyes,‘ wrote Wilbur Wright; ‗Our experience,‘ said Joseph Kosuth, ‗and the meaning of that experience, is framed by language, by information. Seeing is not as simple as looking.‘

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4. Postmodernism (eclecticism, appropriation, end of grand narratives) 30 August What is the name of the last art movement that you can remember? Abstract Expressionism? That was in the 1940s and 50s. Pop Art? That was 1960s. In the last forty years the successions of art movements — Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Neo-classicism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism etc — have dried up, perhaps never to return. Even Modernism has been superseded, and not by Post-modernism, which merely heralded the end of the era of art movements. What we have now is a state of anything goes, a free for all. It must not be confused with a loss of standards, for most contemporary art aims, as usual, for the highest standards of excellence. Rather, it consists in the co-existence of numerous standards, sometimes called pluralism, in which no one style dominates. And for a lot of people that is scary, because they feel they can no longer make sense of art that cannot be labelled as an ‗ism‘. They are scared because they have to cope with art by many different kinds of artists at once, in many different and new kinds of media, and from many different countries and cultures that now seem to be on a more equal footing. Hence the sub-title of this course about ‗how to enjoy it‘. 5. Digital art 6 September If you are one of those people left cold by digital technology, the electronic revolution, globalised mass media, participatory and interactive virtual worlds, immersive art, electronic sensors, two- and three-dimensional images from databases, robotics, real-time information from the internet, etc, then the bad news is that a lot of contemporary art is full of all that — but the good news is that it is full of the possibility of real good old-fashioned enjoyment. A recent book on divided up the world of digital art under seven headings: 1. Digital imaging, two-dimensional images that use things mouses and computer screens, or perhaps graphics tablets that unlike a mouse respond to hand pressure, printers and
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digital photography and software such as Adobe Photoshop. Recent developments in inkjet technology mean that instead of laser prints we now see Iris prints (made with an Iris printer), also called giclée prints, after the French word for spray or squirt, because the printer sprays in onto paper on a rotating drum; and archival papers and inks are now used. 2. Digital sculpture, which grew out of CAD/CAM, computeraided design and computer-aided manufacture as used in the aircraft and automobile industries, and which can either be subtractive, with a movable milling head controlled by CNC or computerised numerical control, or additive, in which layers of wax or powder and fluid are built up: this is also called rapid prototyping; it may also involve a haptic input device to allow the artist to touch the surface and feel the density of the virtual work. 3. Digital installation and virtual reality, which extend to participatory, interactive, and immersive experiences, using such interface devices as HMDs or head-mounted displays, data gloves, and motion-tracking vests. 4. Performance, music, and sound art, especially with the use of MIDI or musical instrument digital interface, which stores pitch, note on, note off, duration, tempo etc as data rather than sound, so that sheet music can be generated from a sound performance, rather than the reverse as was the case in the past. 5. Digital animation and video 6. Software, database, and game art 7. Net art, in which independent websites now allow the bypassing of censorship, external controls, galleries and art museums, with the artist perhaps also selling their work on eBay or Amazon.com. Art about inclusiveness (gender, ethnic, post-colonial) 13 September Until recently the mark of a civilised person was exclusiveness. We talked about ‗exclusive‘ shops and ‗exclusive‘ schools as though ‗exclusive‘ were a term of praise. Now we know that to present ourselves as morally and socially acceptable we have to be inclusive. Hence the rise of all those politically-correct terms such as Sexism (with an eye to including women), Ageism (usually with the aim of including old or young people), Racism, Specieism (used by animal rights
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6.

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campaigners), etc, urging us to be open to other religions, other cultures, and other sexual orientations. 7. Identity art (gender, ethnic, national, religious) 20 September Identity art emphasises what distinguishes and therefore can divide people one from another. Many artists are asserting the importance of their own individual identity. Perhaps they live in societies where this has not been possible in the past, and so they are exploring this new dimension to themselves, experimenting with the pros and cons of an emphasis on the self: this very much includes venturing into the previously forbidden territories or nudity and sex. There are also, perhaps distressingly, a number of artists who dwell on the glories and grievances of their own ethnic or national group, whether this is a majority ethnic group dominating a polity, or a minority ethnic group seeking selfdetermination within or separation from a larger nation. Perhaps associated with that last is an emphasis by many artists on the treasures of whatever religion they were raised in. On the other hand are people who couldn‘t care less about their identity. Daniel Barenboim was one who declared, ‗I am happiest when I can be at peace with the idea of fluidity,‘ and insisted ‗that it‘s not only possible to have multiple identities, but also, I would say, something to aspire toward. The sense of belonging to different cultures can only be enriching.‘ Edward Said valued the sense that identity is a set of currents, flowing currents, rather than a fixed place or a stable set of objects. 8. Art and the environment 27 September Suzi Gablik in her book, Conversations Before the End of Time, 1995, tried to get answers to her question as to how could art help avert an ecological crisis. She has a chapter on the artists Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds, who sold or gave away all their work and went out to live as hunter-gatherers in the US desert. Gablik also liked the artist Dominique Mazeaud, who performed a monthly ritual as an artist in collecting trash from a river. William Morris, in his nineteenth-century News
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from Nowhere, created a utopia in which people integrated art into their lives, so that people valued having a few beautiful things more than an ugly many things. More recently, Theodore Roszak saw art as a major source of an alternative vision of sensibility, of organic, earth-based values, and believed that as we became more creative the less we would consume earthdestroying mass-produced consumer goods. Suggested reading: during course) (full notes and all images handed out

Uta Grosenick & Burkhard Riemschneider, eds, Art Now: 137 Artists at the Rise of the New Millennium, Köln: Taschen, 2002 Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, London: Thames & Hudson, 1997 Bruce Wands, Art of the Digital Age, London: Thames & Hudson, 2006 Suzi Gablik, Conversations Before the End of Time, London: Thames & Hudson, 1995 Roy is a former lecturer, curatorial and research assistant at the National Gallery of Australia.

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