Art as Commentary
There's a common discussion going on all the time, regarding the definition and purpose of art, in whatever form available. Naturally, given the scope and endurance of the topic, it would seem that there can not be an easy answer, or even no answer at all, and probably, the possible answer arrived at would be highly personal, highly subjective, and highly irrelevant to the general discourse, unless you feed into the necessity of human interest stories and intend to buy into the cult of the author-genius that should, by now, have been forgotten, but as all of us know, isn't. Sa(i)d cult, however, could even render subjective remarks as belonging to a higher level, also, the discourse bears every single utterance and everything feeds on and returns to the discourse anyway, so subjectivity may not be that bad at all. Objectivity, however, has been proven impossible time and again since the declared death of essentialism and the likes; so now it seems, an answer, suddenly, can be possible again; subjective, self-reflexive (though hopefully not too narcissistic) and, beware, deconstructed.
What is art, what does art do, who does it, why is it done, how is it done, where does it begin, where does it end, what can you expect from it, what not? I try to tone down the volume a bit. Some questions will be answered by others. Of course, art is done by whoever does it, in whatever way it is done, by whatever definition. Art can be self-defined as well as attributed by others. Art can be a qualitative label (commonly, something is labeled as "artistic" when it is "good"), as much as an excuse for doing something outrageous under some protective cover (just enter the pornography discussion here). Art can be a professional occupation as opposed to the layperson approach (so that as long as you aren't featured media- or art-community-wise, you're not recognized and considered irrelevant).
Maybe art is an abstract thing, some kind of a function manifesting itself in various forms. From a Platonic perspective, art would be an idea, some unattainable yet constantly strived for essence that translates its attributes into any form possible. Art can be temporary, it may just exist for a brief moment of time, just when somebody enters a room in a very specific and uniquely artful way, but it can also try to outlive that single moment of apprehension and fight mortality by solidifying itself into something like a poem, a photograph, a painting, or whatever else. The commonality then would lie in some common element within the idea of art itself.
Of course, such an approach is problematic, for it would then demand for some kind of asking for the intentions behind each piece of art. Eventually, you may even ask for the auctorial intention, once again making the producer of the piece the authority and claiming something impossible for them, as well as taking away any kind of authority on the receiving end. Of course, an artist may want to tell you what they wanted to achieve with their work, I surely do. Yet that's just one piece of the story. Art doesn't stop with the producer, authorship is more complex, not just since Roland Barthes.
Maybe we could then attempt to compare various pieces of art in order to arrive at some kinds of commonalities. We would fail, probably, depending, of course, on the scope of our definition of art. Some kid smearing a graffito on a perfectly clean wall, could that be art? Some rapper mixing Barber with talk-overs? Some guy painting a soup can? Some performer wrapping up a famous building? We've seen the definition of art outgrowing any proportions throughout the previous century, so how could we possibly try to restrict it again? Who'd have the authority to do it? There's just a very, very small base of comparison. Art is undertaken by someone within the discourse. The subject of art is in some way related to that discourse. It's a specific relation, one that will vary from time, not everything that is considered art now will have been considered art in the past, or will be considered art in the future, neither will there be consent amongst the contemporaries. Big deal. We see the definition slide away from us the more we intend to approach it. But maybe not.
Let's just say, art is a specific way of looking at the discourse. Maybe you could call it a commentary function that's performed on what's going on at the moment of conception, so to speak. Art comments on something that is deemed important to the person doing it, who in turn would be influenced by the way things are seen in the surrounding society and culture. Art will always be conditioned by the momentary discourse, the on-going discussion and brain pool and think tank and stream of consciousness. Even if it wants to resist the common interpretations of how things should be, it still stays within the restrictions and understandings of such commonalities. Christianity creates the criticism of Christianity, Capitalism creates the criticism of Capitalism, Imperialism creates the criticism of Imperialism, technology creates the criticism of technology, &c. Agnosticism, Atheism, Nihilism, Socialism, Communism, Grass-root-ism, Ecologism, all of those are the logical consequences of its antitheses, one creates the other, they belong together. Nietzsche cannot escape the confines of the church, though he tries, knowingly, by referring back to Zarathustra.
Art comments on what it sees, and it can be read as such a commentary. You may, of course, read it differently, depending on your specific point of view at a specific juncture of time, within a specific context, in relation to a specific discussion. You could read Andy Warhol's depictions of Marilyn Monroe as a wholesale reverence for that actress, for her stamina, physical attraction, historical relation to JFK, as an icon for an era, as a celebration of media-related achievements; just as you could read it as a devastating critique of an ubiquitous reproducibility of a representative image within an over-hyped media culture. You can see Leni Riefenstahl as a willful aide to Nazi propaganda, subjecting herself to an ideology of unrestricted power and strength without morality; as well as you could appreciate a unique style and vision, and a cult of the perfect body, that still continues to survive within today's media. The object contains an entire universe of possible meanings, it is, in itself, indefinite. The reader resp. observer is lost in relation to the object, the context has to be created, or found, which is virtually the same.
Therein now may result the necessity of contextualization. The object may not care. But the discourse may, and the artist definitely should care. Art, as it is so closely related to the discourse, is always political. There is no such thing as privacy in the arts. Art is related to the polis, the society, as it comments upon it, as it comments upon the undercurrent and subsuming discourse. Therefrom now results a responsibility of the artist as well as the reader/observer: As the object itself may elude definition, the context it is placed into does matter. Art can not be properly "explained" or interpreted, but the perception of it can be guided and influenced. Still, there will remain an infinite freedom to think of it differently. But art needs to be looked at, needs to be perceived, needs to be discussed. The commentary needs a commentary itself.
Art cannot, in no sane way, be expected to "speak for itself". Neither can it be expected to be understood fully. Yet that doesn't remove the necessity of relating it to the discourse; for that's what the purpose of a commentary is: It's feedback. It's an invitation to consider the things around you. It's an invitation for contemplation as much as action, eventually.
Art, if left alone, is meaningless, void. Even beauty needs a context. Rubens' portraits of women, nowadays, have to be explained to an audience conditioned by a Riefenstahlesque imagery found everywhere in advertising, the visual media and glossy magazines. An image of perfect wilderness looks different to a real estate agent than to an ecologist. Artifacts created by an indigenous culture may be seen as art by an educated global citizen, and as items fostering heresy and savagery by fundamentalist imperialists. Taken out of context, you may very well use a ceremonial dagger as a letter opener. Though art cannot be explained exhaustively or authoritatively, both artist and reader remain situated within the polis. The artist, as a politician, should worry about the contextualization of their artwork as art is never just discussed and perceived in an artistic context. Though an artist's comments upon their art may not matter to the object itself, they may matter to situating its "intended" "message".
From a certain standpoint, art has no function, and it is innocent. I strongly resent that. Most people who consume art do it for the purposes of entertainment, out of sheer boredom, or because they feel obliged to do so in some way. They may not want to think about specific art-related aspects. Unless you offer some attempts at contextualization, analysis or even interpretation, the art behind the object, as well as the political relevance, may get lost; or, even worse, the political statement intended (sic) by the author (sic) may not be read in relation to the auctorial intention (sic). Even more so, the artistic meaning (I'll now skip the "sic" reminders of such atrocious essentialism) may be obscured if you're not an acknowledged professional but still a "layman" to the field of art, or if your field is commonly not perceived as art in the strictest sense by those high-brow establishment guys. If art isn't supposed to be a failure, the commentary needs to be communicated in order to work, and it remains the joint responsibility of the artist and the art critic to contextualize an object that eludes capture.
January 27th, 2003. (also posted on philjohn.com)