Sunday, May 07, 2006

Semantics and Contemporary Art

Recent comments, though a long ongoing debate, concerning views and perspectives on contemporary art have made me want to open a dialogue to try and get to an understanding of some sorts. It seems most of the debates that occur in contemporary art have to do with semantics. Is it enough to be "contemporary" just because you are making art today? Or, is the term "contemporary", in the context of discussing the "Art World", mean something more? Does art have to be edgy or cutting edge to be a valid form of contemporary art? What does it mean to be edgy? Is video art edgy? Environmental installation art edgy? Can a painting still be edgy or cutting edge? Does art work have to be about contemporary global issues to be cutting edge? Is there a difference between the "Art World" (with cap's and in quotes) versus a more general use of the term, art world, as in regards to any and all forms of art from graphic design, Sunday painters, poster art, and all working artists including the elite "Art Stars"?

The problems we face, is that each of us have an idea of what these words mean to us even though we probably have never tried to clearly put our interpretations into words for others so they can better understand our position. Miscommunication.

I feel that there is a big difference between the art world and the "Art World". Typically I don't discuss the former as my interest lies in the latter use of the term. The "Art World" to me signifies a more narrow, focused, view of art. Art that is historically relevant, as well as relevant to our current culture, art that may find its way into the art museums and the more elite art institutions around the world, the world of auction houses, top galleries, art collectors, art critics, academic discussion, art publications, and art patrons. This may seem an elitist understanding or view of that world, and to an extent it is. But understanding this view/use of the term "Art World" should help in future communications.

As in the use of the word contemporary, as in "contemporary art". I feel strongly about the use of this term locally as I get the feeling that a lot of people think or feel that just because they are alive and making art today that their work is "contemporary art". In the context of this discussion I will be talking about these terms under the condition or my view of the "Art World". That said, my view of what it is that makes a work contemporary has little to do with time frame of when it is being made and to some degree setting aside whether the art is dealing with modern, classical, or postmodern issues. Rather, it has to do with whether the art is dealing with art historical and/or current issues in the Art World while trying to explore new ways of viewing or understanding the work. Art, has always been evolving and pushing to move forward, to find its' own unique place. These are the conditions in which a work must be exploring, to me, to be relevant and valid in the contemporary art world. Can you paint in a classical style and still make work that is relevant today? Yes. Can your work be dealing with Modernist issues and still be relevant today? Again, yes. But the questions here is what are you bringing to the work that is different? What makes this new?

Recent comments have been playing with the semantics with words like edgy and cutting edge. What do these words mean to their authors? What do they mean to me the reader? Often people associate terms like cutting edge and edgy with contemporary art, and with good reason. Work that many people deem cutting edge or edgy is usually something that is new and exciting, pushing the envelope forward. Does this mean the work is good? No. What does it mean to be edgy or on the cutting edge? This can be complicated. I think that often cutting edge has an implication of technology and pushing the boundaries of ordinary practice. This may in fact just be my reading of the word and my own associations but has some merit I think. Newer technologies allow for new possible experiences with art. But, there is something not addressed through technology and that has more to do with culture. Present day culture. Often a youth counter culture appeal. Work that is in some ways risky. Not expected to be liked or understood by the masses. Again, I don't think that quality contemporary art has to be cutting edge or edgy to be valid or good. Artists should first deal with making good art and then let society decide whether it is edgy or cutting edge. But don't let that stop artists from thinking and contemplating their own work. That should be a life long process, particularly if you are interested in being a part of the "Contemporary Art World".

Well, let's see where the discussion will go...

18 Responses to “Semantics and Contemporary Art”

Jeffrey Geesa said...
May 7, 2006 at 4:41 PM

This is an interesting discussion, Scott, and I think you start to get to the "answer" (quoted to reinforce semantic ambiguity, of course) at the end. It's not really of much concern anymore to be cutting edge or avant garde. In production and perhaps even more so in consumption of art and images, it's not really something that is valued, and furthermore, at least to people who think about this kind of thing, is assumed to be impossible. The idea of originality has not necessarily been replaced, and at least as an abstract concept is still important as some kind of driving force, but rather has changed form, the definition has become broader. Originality, if it was ever truly possible, is now a process of novel resynthesis. An artist has various refernce points which he or she indexes and recombines in order to form a "new" work of art. This is not a devaluing of the artist or the individual. These choices can be very personal. The new avant garde is acknowleding this new freedom, the freedom to not have to be new.

Anonymous said...
May 7, 2006 at 8:36 PM

I agree with the above writer and think the probelm with the idea of originality is that it became the ultimate goal of a work of art. Students are obsessed with this instead of being obsessed with making something honest or emotionally astute or beautiful. Though the idea of beauty has been discredited (ad infinitum and ad nauseum) I often wonder if beauty has something to do with newness, as well. (Don't bother arguing with me about this, I know about the sunset, I know.) Beauty is something I strive for in my work and so I wonder if originality can't just a byproduct of the quest for beauty.

Liriodendron said...
May 7, 2006 at 9:46 PM

I will have to read this about 20 times to really get it (ha!) I like 2nd anonymous's coments very much. When I think reminds me of nudity...I'm numb and uncaring because "new" and (slightly) "shocking" has been done to death, Big hairy deal. ;)
Youth or counter culture stuff is often older ideas rehashed or commercialized for a new they can often leave the previous generations bemused and empty.
Anyway, thank you for bringing up the "E" word...if you have read between the lines of some of my comments, you realize I have never got it.
Originality to my own thoughts/ideas, and beauty seem to spur me on to where I want to go. I don't want other's (including the "art world's") opinions to influence my art that much. It's a short life, not that much time to make this art that's quite important to me. :)

Anonymous said...
May 8, 2006 at 12:28 PM

Edgy for you is nudity?
Thank god for this blog to open Idnana's eyes for a dialogue.
Edgy to me is Vitto Acconci following random people on the streets on the and exploring that instant dependence of the unknown individual.
Chris Burden took a bullet in his arm, that's edgy.
Cildo Meireles silk screened on bottles of Coca Cola the line "go home yankees" and placed those bottles in circulation, living under a cruel dictatorship that was supported by the USA.
And you are talking about nudity? I mean... that was edgy maybe in the renaissance, but today...
I highly recommend you some education about conceptual artists that usually push the envelop forward.
Actually you don't have to be conceptual to push anything. Neither do you have to have technology to do so. I think "Contemporary Art" is about ideas more than a media.
There were several artists in Nazi camps that were risking their lives by making sketches that had death, beatings, suffering and starvation portrait in them. With as little as a piece of paper they could salvage and a pencil they were being very edgy to my opinion.
It's important because it was significant for the entire people, not only to them selves. It mattered because it was relevant.
Contemporary artists should honor the tradition and always push farther and farther.


Jeffrey Geesa said...
May 8, 2006 at 1:22 PM

"Edgy" is a shaped canvas with many many sides.

Liriodendron said...
May 8, 2006 at 2:26 PM

No, that's not what I meant Nano. Edgy is boring.

Anonymous said...
May 8, 2006 at 2:54 PM

So, that's weird. I would think that BY DEFINITION edgy can't be boring. I mean, then it isn't edgy. But, honestly, I can't remember when I saw a piece of art that made me think "Whoa, that's really edgy." I think it's a dumb term and kind of useless. When I see work by an artist the sole purpose of which seems to be to look edgy, I really think that the sole purpose of the work is to garner attention for the artist. Which is a young artist's trick, not a mature one. That coke bottle work sounded interesting, not because it was "edgy," but because it was honest, full of anger and really clever.

bitter ole biddy said...
May 8, 2006 at 5:41 PM

We need clear definitions of the "Art World" and of who qualifies as a "true" contemporary artist. It's helpful for those who use art to define themselves. It also helps sort out what to pay attention to and what to dismiss. This way one can have almost no real interest in artistic expression and can still participate in and even help shape the "Art World". Pretty cool, huh?

Jeffrey Geesa said...
May 8, 2006 at 8:51 PM

These categorical tendencies you express are very problematic. Clear definition of Art World? "True contemporary artist"? What to pay attention to and what to dismiss? There is no singular or definitive ontology for these kinds of things. And honestly, would you want there to be?

Liriodendron said...
May 8, 2006 at 9:19 PM

Re: edgy/nudity.....I was trying to say that "edgy" has lost it's impact, much the same as nudity has. Both been done and overdone for several decades, and now seem boring. Which is fine by me anyway, for reasons well stated in the anonymous post at 2:54.

bitter ole biddy said...
May 8, 2006 at 10:21 PM

I was maliciously mocking. It's what bitter folk do.

Jeffrey Geesa said...
May 10, 2006 at 4:27 AM

i suppose that should have been obvious.

Anonymous said...
May 10, 2006 at 7:23 AM

edgy - some opinions from grampa

edgy for the sake of being edgy is what mostly young artists do for attention. Notice I did not say MOST YOUNG ARTISTS, i said mostly young. big difference.

edgy to express political ideas or personal realities can be extremely creative and inspiring.

edgy for shock value (i.e. porn art) shows lack of imagination and usually fades very fast.

And edgy is really something that only matters (for the most part) to artists, critics and other "Art World" mavens. The great unwashed masses could really care less.


this is a VERY old debate. it depends on the viewers/thinkers/debaters viewpoint, history, inspirations and aspirations.

i'd like to think that it covers both a look AND a time frame. it's a word you hear used mostly by decorators and other interior ilk. (if it sounds like gramps is using ilk as a bad word, he is.)

What is somehow sickening is that a boring watercolor done by a "sunday painter" can be considered contemporary as well as a nearly indecipherable puzzle by ol' Lois Main T.

so it's obvious the term is overused and abused.

gramps is contemporary because he's still alive and painting AND he tries to do something different and new when possible (albeit a synthesis of older ideas since Geesa is absolutely right on this point.)

it's tough being an artist today with all the accumulated art piling up, making it nearly impossible to be unique. but don't let that stop you.

Prepare to be compared. Gramps is all the time. Consider it flattery.



PS: Gramps feels bad for knocking Herron. He even went there in the stone age. (so knocking herron can come from an ol' herron grad too, kids.) Apologies all around.

Anonymous said...
May 10, 2006 at 12:51 PM

Who cares about the masses?
I care about museums, collectors.
The masses can go fuck themselves.
You please the masses, while I become an original. Nothing to do with age.

Lisa Hunter said...
May 10, 2006 at 8:02 PM

Excellent post, but I'm not troubled by the semantics issue. All art is inherently subjective. Why shouldn't the phrase "contemporary art" be subjective too?

Scott said...
May 11, 2006 at 3:24 AM

Hello Lisa,

Thanks for your continued participation on the blog.

I understand that to many people the whole semantics issue is possibly irrelevant, and perhaps as an art viewer it should be. Should the phrase "contemporary art" be subjective, I don't think it should even though it currently is. Everyone has a different view of what that means. I think the issue, for me at least, is that as an artist (speaking from my perspective) you need to be aware of these semantics because the "Art World" is not subjective. As an artist, if that is the world you are creating art for, then knowing that worlds language is going to be important. If the "Art World" was subjective then we might see Thomas Kinkade or such in places like the Whitney, MOMA, Art Basel... And you know what, someone will probably end up doing that. Perhaps they will adorn the other walls with all those 70's owl paintings left over at the Goodwill store. hehe.

Anonymous said...
May 11, 2006 at 9:17 AM

Everybody forgets the role of the postmodernism in contemporary art. To me personally the expression "contemporary art" means something that fits in the postmodernism category. So I believe style plays huge role in it. Unless you have a pretty good point to make, painting in an impressionism manner does not include you in the contemporary art category. Unless you are recycling to make a point of sorts, painting like Pollock or De Kooning Falls in the same category. Unless you have a pretty good point to make, Contemporary in art Differs (couldn't find the symbol) from dictionary definition of "from our time" just raw understanding like that. Contemporary in art = innovative, different, "edgy" (even if edgy means something completely backwards like painting like Monet which if done right can be post modern again falling in the contemporary category again) in summary “definitely from our time”. By that I don’t mean age but a collective innovative thinking of our time that can be produced by a 19 year old or a 60 year old. Too confusing for you? Now let's just wait for the condescending and "what the heck did this kid just said?" comments of Grampa


Anonymous said...
May 12, 2006 at 8:27 AM

for me, postmodernism technically is over because it's been played out ad nauseum and with varying degrees of success (how ever you define that).

in order for a movement (is postmodern a movement?) to really still live, the world has to recognize that it's living. i'm sure the "Art World" does, but how about the World?

it's very hard to decipher what is genre vs. what is style these days, which in my mind is more about intent. but then in order to decipher intent you get bogged down in a lot of extrapolation and pontificating and start to lose sight of what's really important (at least in my mind):

does the piece "work" on it's own merits?

does it really matter in the end what the genre/style/era is?

does it really matter if it's simulacra when it ultimately solves the creator's problem and, as a byproduct, pleases the viewer?

does it really matter if it deconstructs narrative/large themes or fragments reality and uses it's own visual language if it's hanging in someone's bathroom?

how important is this stuff, really, when in the end art is simply a constructed "reality" that puts forth an idea or mood, decorates or trys to do none-of-the-above in an attempt to be "different" or edgy.

i'm not sure many care about this stuff these days unless you live and die by the pages of ArtNews which seems worlds away from our sleepy little burg and somehow just so much hubris when compared to the realities of reaching for success.

it's more interesting (for me) to simply create the work for the sake of creating the work and let the critics worry about where it falls.

i'm too busy to worry about it too awful much anymore. when i do, it makes me want to take long naps.


PS: isn't my downplaying the importance of all this stuff postmodern? methinks it is.

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