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But It Looks Like Art!

A prominent British contemporary artist gave a seminar to my small Masters’ group at Goldsmiths a few years ago. Known for his offbeat conceptualism and ‘playful puzzles’, the artist (who will not be named) initiated the seminar by claiming without apparent reason that he “didn’t understand the point of painting because, really, painters are just filling the blank space between four corners of a canvas”. He continued, “you might as well be working in a pet-shop.” Within an art world such as London’s – one that reifies conceptualism, ambiguity, formalist trickery, interactivity and art that tries to exist outside the commercial market – this trite statement could should have been readily agreed upon by the characteristically non-traditional students at Goldsmiths. Yet at one point an image on the projector flashed before us that strangely echoed the artists’ insult to the repetitive labour of ‘working in a pet-shop’ or indeed within the four corners of a canvas-frame. He showed us an image of a wall in his own workspace, and covering this entire wall were bright A4 pages inscribed with large marker-penned words. Each of these hundred or more sheets represented an idea for an artwork yet to be made. This being a discursive seminar rather than a didactic presentation, the critic in me left the security of the page and verbalised an opposition and as the seminar progressed the artist and I became increasingly at odds. The hammer-blow to our discourse came upon a description he lent to one of his more sculptural works. He straightforwardly defended it by confirming that: “It looks like art”.

I had rather hoped that this flippancy was a conceit or a performance that put playfulness to work deliberately rather than by dint of personality. I had hoped that the wall of ideas was a considered joke rather than a trophy to be bragged about in front of struggling art students, and that his conceptual light-handedness was an artistic trope or somehow engaged in an introverted critique back upon itself. But apparently not. He took offense to my analysis, gritted his teeth in surprise and rebuffed me by insulting my spectacle frames (a cliché, apparently).

As our discussion disintegrated, what I think most angered him was my not-unfair suggestion that his work was where true Conceptual Art (with a capital C and a capital A), dies as a movement. I presented to the seminar the possibility that with this wall of ideas and the flippant assertion that an artwork looking like an artwork was apparently enough for it to be confirmed as such, he had taken the seemingly unlimited formal and conceptual strategies available to us after Duchamp and the Conceptual Artists of the 1960s and turned that openness into an equivalent of the four corners of a canvas, into which content could be simply loaded, safe in the guarantee that if arranged and staged correctly, it would “look like art”.

I will get to how this relates to ‘art in a technological age’ eventually, but for now, an examination of the statement “it looks like art” will service this essay. How can it have become a viable defence of an artwork? Such defence does not even appeal to the depths of ontological[1] enquiry opened up by artists such as Duchamp, who literally morphed the being, or thing-ness, of a mass-manufactured urinal in the case of his infamous work Fountain (1917) – turning the urinal from a functional object into an art object. Instead, in the case of this artist, the statement “it looks like art” merely rests on the visual. This is arguably where the legacy of Duchamp and the Conceptual Artists of the 1960’s does in fact die. As Conceptual Artist Joseph Kosuth argued in his canonical ‘Art after Philosophy I and II’,  (1969),

‘what art has in common with logic and mathematics is that it is a tautology; i.e., the “art idea” (or “work”) and art are the same and can be appreciated as art without going outside the context of art for verification.”[2]

In other words, an artwork can be confirmed as art simply (or not so simply), according to the logic of art itself. Art Historian Thierry De Duve picks apart the contradictions and problematics that arise from such theorisation in his wide-ranging though specific book, Kant After Duchamp, (1996) productively arguing that after Duchamp and particularly after the Conceptual Artists of the 1960’s, the Kantian idea of beauty in art, which a priori[3] acts upon us as viewing subjects, has been replaced with the idea of art itself. The Kantian statement “this is beautiful” after Duchamp becomes “this is art”.[4] In De Duve’s terms such a judgment is confirmed by what Kant termed sensus communis, which when de-philosophised basically means ‘common sense’ or based upon common intuitive agreement. This is naturally complicated – and such is the joy of aesthetics and the tricky question: “what is art?”. It is a question that reached a fascinating and productive zenith under the auspices of the Conceptual Artists who recognised Duchamp’s gesture for its (belated) impact on our understanding of art and what it could be.

My argument with this artist at Goldsmiths, and my provocation that his practice was where Conceptual Art dies was based upon some disappointment at the degradation of these complications. The fact that a collection of random odds and ends stacked together in a specific way can look like art, presents a fascinating conundrum that has been debated for decades, and intellectual laziness (perhaps even corruption), on the part of this artist turned that debate into an opportunity to not even think about it. In a sense, De Duve’s thesis could account for this artists’ work, but I doubt he would recognise this if one of us had hit him round the head with Kant after Duchamp at the seminar. Perhaps that’s OK and the work survives nevertheless, (it’s popularity would suggest as such), but perhaps it’s really not OK that we permit such flippancy and negligence in the face of that essential question, “what is art?”.

The artists’ statement “it looks like art” would have been better qualified by the word “contemporary”. What he really meant to say was “it looks like contemporary art”, and here my discussion will branch off in two inter-related directions, tying this essay to the question of ‘art in a technological age’, and then of ‘Pakistani art in a technological age’. Generally when we ask the question “what is contemporary art?”, we receive the answer, “art made now”, but really this is not the case. If we were to place Duchamp’s bicycle wheel beside a ‘traditional’ landscape painting made very recently, and asked an audience to point to the more ‘contemporary’ artwork, inevitably Duchamp’s wheel would be chosen, despite it’s being made more than a century ago before. ‘Contemporary art’ utilises a certain set of devices – conceptual, formal, material – that allow us to make such a distinction. There is a certain brand to contemporary art that enables one piece of art to look more like contemporary art than the next, limiting our ability to think of contemporary art purely in relation to time and the present.

If we are to think in such relation to time, ‘art in a technological age’ could be all art made over the last two or three decades, as if the ‘technological age’ were a recent period that absorbs all practice and all people. In a recent book by philosopher Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, (2013), the problem of contemporary art is at one point discussed and in relation to an age of technology. Osborne suggests that:

‘the social actuality of ‘generational’ change no longer just corresponds to human generations, but equally, possibly predominantly, to ‘generations’ of technologies, to which all human generations are subjected, albeit unequally. And these generations are of shorter and shorter duration. The fiction of the contemporary is thus becoming, in this respect at least, progressively contracted. The present of the contemporary is becoming shorter and shorter.’[5]

Whether we like it or not, we all currently exist within a ‘technological age’ (or a successive series of digital and technological ages). Yet art that utilises the technologies of the present would more readily fall under the aforementioned category of contemporary art, at least (and perhaps unfortunately), more readily than a canvas painting would. As writer and curator Tanya Leighton states in her introduction to Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader (2008),

‘in terms of visibility in large-scale exhibitions such as documenta or the Venice Biennale, one may go so far as to say that large-scale cinematic modes of projection have quantitatively surpassed traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture – a situation that would have been unimaginable forty years ago’.[6]

Over the last decade Pakistani artists have been making regular appearances at such events, joining the company of ‘contemporary artists’ regularly picked for these spectacular global exhibitions. While the political problematics of a recent popularity of Pakistani contemporary art is regularly debated, and issues of tradition versus (globalised) homogeneity discussed, the issue of “what contemporary art looks like”, or indeed is coerced into looking like, comes into play. Virginia Whiles’ book on the neominiature movement in Pakistan testifies to this conflict, capturing the polemical shifts that pulled the miniature painting away from ‘tradition’ into a more contemporary and post-modern approach to the medium.

This conflict has repercussions across artistic media, particularly those recently-popularised and institutionalised mediums characteristic of ‘the contemporary’ in art – film, digital photography, digital media, etc. The potential consequence at a level of practice in a context such as Pakistan (in which these mediums are relatively rare), is the issue of ‘dabbling’, or of artists crossing into materially unfamiliar territory without sufficient thought for the conceptual or formal implications of these mediums. Despite their being relatively recent additions to art practice at large, these mediums are nevertheless heavily loaded with theory, history, politics and formal implications. Yet a flippant dabbling is often permitted on the part of artists. Unfortunately, much of this work often seems to survive only by dint of it ‘looking like contemporary art’.

Arguably the openness and expansiveness of art in a digital age – video, moving images, digital media and photography, etc. – offers artists similar traps to those our artist leading a seminar at Goldsmiths had fallen into. The seemingly endless possibilities of images to be captured has been expanded exponentially by the widening accessibility of moving image technologies and digital editing software. Yet at the level of viewership, criticism and even academia in Pakistan at least, it seems too easy to forgive a flippancy of approach to these mediums. While artistic practice is holistic and essentially involves a fair amount of dabbling and risk-taking in pursuit of new directions (characterised by the process of undertaking a residency, for example), when these experiments find the light of day, are we critical enough of their formal, conceptual, historical and even political insufficiencies? Or, are we led to simply congratulate a ‘contemporary’ form of approach, safe in the guarantee that when arranged and staged correctly, it “looks like art”? (Read, ‘Western’ contemporary art). Rasheed Araeen in his provocative ‘Open Letter to Artists in Pakistan’ asserts that we are in fact too forgiving. [7]

A potential answer to this problem is a return to the idea of ‘vernacular language’, something that as Virginia Whiles and other writers have suggested, has allowed miniature painting to maintain its connection to classical form while pushing formal boundaries.[8] As we move through successive (short) technological ages, it is useful then, to ask what technological and digital art in the particular geographical and political context of Pakistan can emerge from aesthetically, conceptually and technically. Rather than such practices conforming to the aesthetics of contemporary art established in another place and another time, (and in debasing those aesthetics by abusing their apparent openness as our artist at Goldsmiths has), the task is to generate a digital language of the present place and time, in this case within Pakistan.

Take for example the various video works in Rashid Rana’s impressive and ambitious retrospective at the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi, (2013-14). The single and split-screen videos are arguably some of the weakest works in the exhibition, their technical flaws deeply contrasting with the highly-considered and superlatively well-made sculptural and photographic works elsewhere on display. It is only in the sublime Everything and Nothing, Series #3 (2011-12), a matrix of pixelated moving images comprising of CCTV footage mixed with fictional videos that appear at a distance to be a reproduction of Caravaggio’s gloriously fierce Judith Beheading Holfernes (1598-99), that Rana’s take on the moving image succeeds. When Rana’s seriously considered and lengthily-established digital/photographic language meets video, it is put to work successfully and with great sophistication and impact, unlike other moving image works in the exhibition that appear to ‘dabble’ at the periphery of his practice.

Another example would be Yaminay Nasir Chaudri’s long-duration collaborative project Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema, produced under the umbrella of the ‘Tentative Collective’. At the core of the project is a retrofitted rickshaw with projection capabilities that in various sites around Karachi screens videos submitted to the project by a wide general public. These submissions are often produced on cell-phones and the democratisation of digital media thanks to its ever-widening availability becomes part of the collaborative poetic of the project. Any formal issues, technical glitches, shaky hands, etc., are ingested into the project as considered and inevitable contributors to its mechanics, rather than issues to be brushed over or ‘forgiven’. Here are examples of two works (and there are many more) that meet the age of technology with a success derived from considering both the language of medium and of situated practice. These works reference external precedents cautiously and critically, pushing beyond the four corners of what this form of practice can simply look like.


[1]‘Ontology as a branch of philosophy is the science of what is, of the kinds and structures of objects, properties, events, processes and relations in every area of reality.’ For more information see, Barry Smith, ‘Ontology’, Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/articles/ontology_pic.pdf [Last accessed 9th July 2013].

[2] Conceptual art reader – 166. For full text available online: http://www.intermediamfa.org/imd501/media/1236865544.pdf [Last accessed 9th July, 2013].

[3] An a priori statement is derived from reason, as opposed to an a postiori statement, which cannot be derived from reason alone as it requires supplementary (often factual) information.

[4]‘The faculty of taste is the faculty of judging the beautiful, whether in nature or in art. This faculty is a sensus communis, that is, a feeling necessarily assumed to be common to all men and women. Now, what if, as suggested, we read “art” wherever Kant wrote “the beautiful”, and simply draw the consequences of this substitution, refraining from all interpretation? The presumed sensus communis then becomes a faculty of judging art by dint of feeling common to all men and women.’ Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp, October and MIT Press: Cambridge and London, 1996. p312.

[5] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso: London and New York, 2013. p24.

[6] Tanya Leighton, ‘Introduction’,  Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, Afterall Books: London, 2008. p7.

[7]“First, does the claimant understand why he or she is an artist and what constitutes a responsibility in this respect? I’m not invoking here one’s social or political responsibility, but a responsibility to art itself. Art demands a serious responsibility, dedication and commitment within its own discourse…. irst of all, we must recognise that art is not just about making (pretty) pictures, sculpture (which doesn’t exist in Pakistan), or what is now fashionable — performance, video or installation art — but a discipline. In order to understand the seriousness of the word ‘discipline’, let us turn to other disciplines, such as various braches of science, and see if we can learn something from this comparison. No serious scientist would ever say: ‘Look, this what I do. This comes from inside me…’, and so on. If someone were to say this, he or she would be dismissed as an idiot.’ Rasheed Araeen, ‘An Open Letter to Artists in Pakistan’, Art Asia Archive [Online], April 2008. http://www.aaa.org.hk/Diaaalogue/Details/458, [Last accessed 10 July 2013].

[8]‘Their [contemporary miniaturists] interest in re-playing a traditional form is richly paradoxical: at once an act of homage and an act of impiety. Both are acts of ritual exercised by the artists sensing a pressing need in Pakistan to re-think tradition in terms of social and cultural changes’, Virginia Whiles, Art and Polemic in Pakistan: Cultural Politics and Tradition in Contemporary Miniature, IB. Tauris: London and New York, 2010. p227

 

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