Literary Review. 2013
So far in my practice I’ve been reading heavily into the interplay between the individual or social collective with their immediate environment, this has led me to study John Locke’s (b. England 1632-1704) works on human cognitive development. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) Locke begins with the premise that an individual’s identity and understanding of the world is created directly through sensory input, with all further abstractions being created from this material foundation. Although there has been much contention over his views of nurture over nature, one theme that has carried on through much academic scrutiny is that experience through environmental immersiveness is crucial in the development of identity and thought processes. In order to achieve a contemporary understanding of these ideas I have begun researching the role of applied semiotics in a modern day context and further studying how these ideas have developed and been applied to contemporary literature and postmodern art. My aim in this is to establish a literary foundation to my practice by researching relevant authors and ideas; I hope to use this research to eventually contextualise the development of postmodernity, as well as examine where contemporary art may be heading and exploring any inherent limitations in these practices.
In order to focus my efforts primarily on the development of the visual arts, I have chosen two modern conceptual pieces that deal directly with semiotics in their application of meaning; these are, in chronological order, Rene Magritte’s (b. Belgium, 1898-1967) The Treachery of images (1929) – and Joseph Kosuth’s (b.USA,1945-) One and Three Chairs (1965). Both explore the notion that even the most trivial of objects are no longer merely physical realities through the eye of the spectator, but are rather read as symbols – the texts I will be analysing will explore the idea of material reality as symbolism and related criticisms dealing with the theme of cognitive interpretation.
In Janett Wolff’s The Social Production of Art (1993) Wolff argues that if identity is directly influenced through an immersion in one’s surroundings, then the entire act of creating, no matter how arbitrary, whether it be literary or visual, becomes a by-product of the author’s reality. Therefore the creator is not creator by definition, but rather a composer- where the author/artist acts as a catalyst - processing and reinterpreting the ideas already prevalent, even if marginalised, during its creation. She begins this premise by establishing all art as ideological through studying contemporary interpretations of Marxist views of ideology, her conclusions run parallel to Locke’s identity through causality. Wolff references various authors to draw her conclusions that all art is immediately ideological due to its time and place of creation. Regarding my own practice, Wolff refers to themes I have studied in the development of my own work, such as those of semiotics and causality, yet applies them specifically to the role of art and artist as creator, offering a much more contextualised and appropriate reading at the very core of the artistic process. Wolff goes on to explain how these socially prevalent themes become ingrained into the very foundations of our reality – leading onto post-structualist readings of phenomenology.
In W.J.T Mitchell’s (b. USA 1942-) chapter Word and Image, published in Critical terms for Art History (2003), the semiotic is broken down to its lowest denominator; using the basic principles described in the essay we can make sense of both Magritte and Kosuth’s own efforts to reveal the limitations of certain symbolic and cognitive principles. The role of signifier and signified is deconstructed and rebuilt in various forms, to the effect of establishing all visuals as symbols, with a basis in the literary- this way we identify and understand them as meanings rather than the objects they are. In Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (Fig.2), a physical chair is placed in a gallery space, a scaled photograph of this same chair is placed beside it, and a dictionary excerpt is placed on the opposite side; here, the audience is faced with three representations of the same chair, confronting the nature of material interpretation, on one side we have a visual likeness, on the other we have a literary meaning – Kosuth argues that without these two elements the chair would contain no symbolic meaning and therefore cease to exist as anything other than a physical presence without preconceived function. Both Mitchell’s and Wolff’s texts essentially build on the same theme of semiotics in art; there is a strong case for discourse between the two texts where Mitchell paraphrases Clement Greenburg’s (b. USA 1909-1994) idea that the role of modernist art is to find medium specific applications of practice, “seeking a purely optical painting and a purely verbal poetry” (Mitchell, 2003, p.54).
The Meaning/Interpretation chapter in Critical Terms for Art History (2003) by Stephen Bann (b. England 1942-) discusses the way symbols are used in well-known paintings, but does little to explore the idea further than the properties of certain formalist works, so I don’t find his essays as useful in my own studies. For this I prefer Gillian Rose’s (b. England 1947-1995) chapter on Semiotics in Visual Methodologies (2006), where she applies the themes discussed in the previous books as an applied function outside the realm of the visual arts, when read parallel to Jonathan Harris’ Semiotics chapter in Art history: the key concepts (2006) we find that not only is everything material read as a semiotic phenomenon, but that these are consciously used as psychological triggers to create, manipulate or empower ideologies. Rose looks into Judith Williamson’s (b.1978-) notion that “one of the most influential ideological forms in contemporary societies is advertising” (Rose, 2006, p.76) and on this premise she begins exploring various critical debates on the visual exploitation of semiotics. Rose uses Williamson to form the basis of her argument, with Bal and Bryson (b. Scotland 1949-) used to explore the reinterpretation of ideas not covered in Williamson’s theory, Rose often references influential authors to achieve a well-rounded discussion of subject related contemporary themes. This proves helpful in that it provides references for further reading, although in reading Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements (1994) I found it to be too specialised and that Rose’s chapter on semiotics in advertisements provides a much more encompassing account of these same views. When applying the themes discussed in Visual Methodologies with those in The Social Production of art, we can form a discourse already present in many post-modernist studies; that of the eventual self-propagation of dominant, prescribed ideas, as explored in Jean Baudrillard’s (b.France 1929-2007) Simulacra and simulation (1981 trans. 1994) Approaching this from a semiological perspective will allow us to better understand how this is applicable in a visual context.
In his critical essay Towards a New Laocoon (1940), American art historian and critic Clement Greenberg discusses an emerging trend in contemporaneous art; he describes the visual arts being traditionally a subservient art form, where the essence of the medium is ‘perverted and distorted’ by the dominant expressive form of the period; the art of literature. In Mitchell’s Word and Image we read that all visuals are imbued with symbolic meaning, Greenberg echoes this view by arguing that representational art is primarily a literary device. A prevailing trait of modern art, in Greenberg’s theory, is a gradual shift from direct visual representation, to visual experiences as direct signifiers – in this way he argues art can supersede the quantitative limitations of language and create a medium specific practice. In Modernist Painting (1961), Greenberg describes the essence of the contemporary avant-garde as being rooted in “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself” (Greenberg, 1961,p.1); he discusses self-awareness as a crucial aspect of a contemporary art practice. While Greenberg’s essays can be seen as being in direct opposition to visuals as symbols described in the other researched texts, his discourse simply removes the word as an intermediate signifier, the resulting abstraction remains based in the material, informed by previous literary dominance. This creates an interesting dialectic between these authors, where a symbol is no longer readily recognisable as such; and with this, we move closer towards Baudrillard’s post-stuctualist idea of the Simulacrum.
This critical self-awareness discussed in Greenberg’s later essays can be attributed to a Kantian understanding of experience and structure discussed in Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant’s (b.Prussia 1724-1804) Critique of Pure Reason (1781), this publication draws on the works of John Locke and uses similar academic language to critique the very faculties of human understanding. Both Locke and Kant can be regarded as foundation thinkers, they represent a turning point in the development of critical and academic discussion that can be traced back at least to the ancient Greek philosophers, revealing a clear genealogy towards the more contemporary theories discussed in this review. Greenberg states that the Enlightenments efforts to criticise from the outside is mirrored through Modernisms capacity to criticise from the inside, using the established structure to subvert its own faculties in an attempt to find a pure form of the medium. This self-awareness is again discussed in ArtHistory: The Key Concepts’ chapters on post-modernism and post-structuralism, where it is described as a “central characteristic of postmodernist thinking” (Harris, 2006, p.286) and reveals this scepticism of past establishments as an on-going theoretical debate. This is perhaps best shown by exploring the relationship between traditional structuralism and post-structualist theories, where, using the very premise established by structuralism, contemporaneous thinkers criticised their counterparts– this is often read as echoing Karl Marx (b.Prussia 1818-1883); noting that any establishment considered above criticism will inevitably enforce a hierarchical dominance, leading to revolt. I find Art In Theory to be incredibly resourceful in understanding principles where specific specialised knowledge is not required, it acts as a succinct introduction to various authors and references supporting texts for further reading in more particular areas. The compilation of authors presented in Art In Theory are all well regarded writers and thinkers in their fields, providing the opportunity to cross reference ideas throughout various disciplines - the post-structualist reading list recommends Barthes (b.France 1915-1980) and Foucault (b.France 1926-1984) as being of particular interest. As these authors have been referenced throughout many of the books in this review, at some point in my discourse they could merit further discussion, but upon reading summaries of these prescribed texts I believe I have already gathered their relevant points through other authors paraphrasing their key concepts.
Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (Fig.1) echoes both the semiological traits of visual cues and this trend for self-criticism present in modern philosophy and academic discourse. Although the properties of this work remain similar to Kosuth’s One and Three Chair, it provides a direct interaction with the audience, while at the same time distancing them from the underlying semiotic concept. Now while this may seem like a contradiction, rather than present the viewer with the visual conundrum that Kosuths chairs do, Margitte challenges the audience by confronting them with seemingly paradoxical information; the image of a smoking pipe, and the accompanying text ‘this is not a pipe’, this forces the audience to view the matter introspectively, immersing them into the dialogue, making their own views both subjective and objective in the work. In Jean Baudrillard’s essay Simularca and Simulation (1981) he examines the notion that all objects have become symbols of themselves, he studies various cultural phenomena and concludes that any true material existence is forever lost, he resigns our comprehensible reality as being a mere representation of material reality, the hyper-real, a simulation. According to his theory nothing we can understand is real, and that our perceived reality is an abstraction of symbolic representation. There is a succinct overview of many of Baudrillard’s key concepts in Jae Emerling’s book Theory for Art Historians (2005), which I find more helpful than Baudrillard’s original text, in Emerling’s book Baudrillard’s points are handled directly rather than overdrawn with a lot of unnecessary rhetoric. In essence Baudrillard establishes the representation of an object to be its reality, Magritte uses this same principle presenting the audience with an image of a pipe, this representation becomes reality to the extent that the audience must be reminded that it ‘is not a pipe’- the potency of this work remains in its capacity to promote awareness of the simulation or the constructs influence.
In Postmodernism and consumer society (1984), Frederic Jameson (b.USA 1934-) briefly discusses how postmodern art has come to continually criticize and surpass itself; he states that each post-modern style is a revolt against its modernist counterparts and notes an increasing trend towards breaking down the barriers between high and low art. As the art of the 20th century veered further towards theoretic academia and vice versa, there have been various attempts by authors to identify postmodern themes and recurring trends, these studies usually take the form of a psychoanalytical discourse with a basis in a wider social construct– I hope to explore this notion further in my work through identity influenced by an immersion or exposure to particular surroundings or triggers. The continuous dialectic brought on by contemporary art conflicts itself at every stage, but in doing so it clears the arena for all ideas, permitting at least the simulation of a democratic form of practice, echoing this Marxist concept of no true creator discussed in Barthe’s Death of the author (1967) and Janet Wolff’s Chapter of the same name. Jameson’s essay provides a direct introduction to certain key post-modern trends under a critical discourse engaging past authors and ideas; I found it a helpful piece in understand how one might go about examining post-modern art under this academically critical method.
Whitechapel’s Participation (2006) opening chapter provides a brief overview of participation as an art form, it states that there has been a natural trend towards participation art since the early days of the 20th century, but these works have been overshadowed by the more tangible, and perhaps commoditized interactive and performance arts. Participation art as the text refers to it examines “appropriate social forms as a way to bring art closer to everyday life” (Bishop,2006,p.10), which would seem the inevitable direction predicted by this Marxist reading discussed in the previous texts and further elaborated in Walter Benjamin’s (b. German 1892-1940) The Work of Art in the age of its mechanical Reproduction (1935). At this point the ‘pure’ form of art championed by Greenberg (1961,p.1) no longer exists as anything more than a pastiche in the post-modern world. Participation art does, however, provide the chance for the artistic process to stem beyond itself and directly influence a material reality; although this doesn’t offer any solutions to Baudrillard’s simulation of reality, where our very perception of the modern world is essentially false, it does challenge the artist to consider these external influences when producing works of art. Whitechapel’s Participation offers a concise overview of the influences and key concepts regarding the development of participation as an art form, it also provides a collection of relevant texts by psychoanalysts, artists, historians and critics, providing an unbiased compilation of notable authors and sources for further reading.
So far this reading list has brought together various ideas, spanning beyond just the visual elements of an artwork and beyond the art world itself, with this I’ve established a workable theoretical foundation to my own practice. Throughout these books there have been key recurring themes that will merit further research, the underlying Marxist connotations being a major one, but this idea in itself questions the role of the individual in a consumerist society. This was a theme discussed from Greenberg to Wolff and when these sociological ideas are brought into discussion parallel to the psychoanalytical and visual, it provides an interesting opportunity for discourse regarding the individual’s reality in a commodity driven, economically dominated social construct. As for art itself, the studied authors widely take the stance that this focus on a true aesthetic is obsolete and that the art world is not self-contained, that it is liable to influence as all other human endeavours are. Upon synthesising the various views put forth by these authors one can further understand the various incarnations of postmodernism, even offering predictions as to where certain trends will eventuate. With further reading a practicing artist may use these contemporary critical studies in their own work to join the applied investigation to the theoretical and social phenomena described within. This continuing dialectic discourse ensures that new concepts are not accepted without further investigation; this almost sceptical questioning of the established structures, particularly those which claim superiority, has become as various authors have stated, the art of our times and the primary concern of all practicing contemporary artists.
Bann, S. (2003) Critical Terms for Art History, London: University of Chicago Press
Barthes, R. (1967) Death of the Author. Available at: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf (Accessed: 9 May 2013)
Baudrillard, J. (1981 trans. 1994) Simulacra and Simulation. Available at: https://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/baudrillard-simulacra_and_simulation.pdf (Accessed: 18 Jan 2013)
Benjamin, W. (1935) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Available at: http://www.berk-edu.com/VisualStudies/readingList/06b_benjamin-work%20of%20art%20in%20the%20age%20of%20mechanical%20reproduction.pdf (Accessed: 9 May 2013)
Bishop, C. (2006) Participation, London: Whitechapel Gallery, MIT Press
Emerling, J. (2005) Theory for Art Historians, London, New York: Routledge
Greenburg, C. (1940) Towards a New Laocoon. Available at: http://www.marginalutility.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/machete-reading-20FEBb.pdf (Accessed: 2 May 2013)
Greenburg, C. (1961) Modernist Painting. Available at: http://cas.uchicago.edu/workshops/wittgenstein/files/2007/10/Greenbergmodpaint.pdf (Accessed: 4 Apr 2013)
Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts, London, New York: Routledge
Harrison, C. & Wood, P. (2003) Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, USA: Blackwell Publishing
Jameson, F. (1984) Postmodernism and Consumerist Society. Available at: http://art.ucsc.edu/sites/default/files/Jameson_Postmodernism_and_Consumer_Society.pdf (Accessed: 9 Apr 2013)
Kant, I. (1781) Critique of Pure Reason. Available at: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/kant/Critique-Pure-Reason.pdf (Accessed: 19 Feb 2013)
Locke, J. (1689) Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Available at: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/locke/humanund.pdf (Accessed: 29 Apr 2013)
Mitchell, W. (2003) Critical Terms for Art History, London: University of Chicago Press
Rose, G. (2006) Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (2nd Edn), London: Sage
Williamson, J. (1994) Decoding Advertisements. Available at: http://archive.org/details/decodingadvertis00will (Accessed: 18 Jan 2013)
Wolff, J. (1993) The Social Production of Art, London: Palgrave Macmillan