aesthetics

The Need for Aesthetics in Art by Chris Hall

Hamlet, I presume?

Hamlet, I presume?

"The problem isn't aesthetic standards, it is standard aesthetics." 

I've heard this argued before, and I can support this, but I also think it is worth mentioning that another problem is the complete disregard of aesthetics all together.  Aesthetics is the language of visual art, and without its use, there will, more often than not, be a failure to communicate.  Art can do many things and it serves many purposes, both good and bad.  But if there is one unifying prime directive, I think it can safely be summed up as a need to communicate.  Without aesthetics, the communication too often fails or falls flat.  Much of conceptual art, it seems to me, disregards the importance of aesthetics, and this is why many a lay person, and even art aficionados, will walk away in disgust.  No one likes to feel stupid in front of an artwork that they just don't get.  And most of the time it is not the spectator who is stupid, but the artist, because they have failed to properly communicate.  Aesthetics draws people into an artwork, bewilderment turns people away.  It is good to have a kick ass critical, smart idea, but it is also good to instill a sense of curiosity and wonder.  And if you manage to combine these two things, then you just might have something  . . . great.

Creating Monsters by Chris Hall

Son of Frankenstein, 1939.

Recently, in conversation with another artist, it was brought to my attention that I use a Postmodernist aesthetic in my artwork, most notably in my use of text in art, which did not really start to happen until the 1960's.  I was, admittedly, taken aback, but I had to agree with the facts.  It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetic.  Postmodernism does not believe in originality; instead it champions pastiche and cultural sampling . . . and Postmodernism has actively mined Modernist art for inspiration.  Using Post-modern pastiche techniques can make for interesting results, but I stand firm in my belief, the Modernist belief, that originality is possible.  In this regard, and in many others, I mostly subscribe to the Modernist philosophy.  But I wonder, am I making a mistake?  

Often, I am too much of a dinosaur, philosophically, to be accepted by Postmodernists, but too Postmodern in my aesthetic to be accepted by certain Re-modernists.  Just like many other aspects of my life, I find myself without a home, left roaming the swamps like a monster on the outskirts of civilization.  In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, we learn that Dr. Victor Frankenstein created his monster by merging the rational Enlightenment science of his day with the ancient, more mystical based science of the alchemists Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and others.  His creation was deemed to be a monster and he was doomed to live a life of lonely exile, unloved by all.  But Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster (abandoned at birth, he was never given a name) was not born a monster, he was made out to be a monster the society that shunned him.  The monster tried hard to be accepted by others, but after repeated rebuttals, ended up embracing his role as a scourge to mankind.  I wonder, is this to be the fate of my work?  When I attempt to make an artwork combining Modernist philosophy with Postmodern aesthetics, am I producing monsters?  Because I love my work, what I do, does this make me a monster, too?  Am I doomed to be forever an outcast?  While I might revel in the thought of making monstrous artwork that might become a holy terror among the polite circles of the bourgeois and intelligentsia, I do not revel in the lonely existence it has thus far given me.

Artwork Expiration Date by Chris Hall

“Beautiful works survive sans virtue.  Virtuous works sans beauty do not.”  Dave Hickey - The Invisible Dragon.

Contemporary art practice has come to accept art created with an expiration date – art not meant to last forever – especially when it addresses philosophical inquiries such as the nature of mutability and time.  Though I've come to respect those who make art which purposefully investigates ideas of temporality, I'm not quite prepared for that in my own practice.  I'd rather my art live forever, if possible.  I do not have kids.  My artworks are my children, my legacy.  But what about the art that is more timely than timeless?  What about the art that addresses more contemporary concerns?  I agree with Hickey in that when an artwork that has outlived its political usefulness, when an artwork's message is no longer relevant, if the art isn't beautiful, if it doesn't make use of aesthetics – that artwork will have a shelf-life; it will slowly fade from memory.  Beauty keeps a work alive once it's political impact is blunted.

If I am going to sacrifice aesthetics in my art in the name of serving some political agenda or some other “virtuous” cause, I've got to be damn sure that the cause is worth the sacrifice.  I have yet to find that cause.  And besides, it has yet to be proven by anyone that a “virtuous” art is made more effective by jettisoning aesthetics.  I fact, I firmly believe the opposite – that art is more effective, its message better communicated, when it uses aesthetics.  I see no clear reason to abandon beauty.  Artists who criticize the use of aesthetics and beauty in art may even be doing so in order to cover for their own lack of talent.  It is the barbarian's argument – the whole “I can not read, therefore all books should be burned” argument.

In the end, though, my pondering on the merits and flaws of whether a “virtuous” art is made more effective with or without the use of beauty is inconsequential, considering that so much of contemporary art, especially the art without beauty, is often sarcastic, nihilist, and generally without “virtue.”  Perhaps it is fitting that such art is temporary and fated to be forgotten.  

Politics are timely, but temporary.  Beauty is timeless and eternal.

The Gender of Paintings by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall,  General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection , c 2009

Christopher Hall, General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection, c 2009

In his book The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey writes an essay on the perceived gender shift of art (most especially paintings), from Renaissance to Modern times, and then again in our contemporary times.  To do this, Hickey sets up two aesthetics, “masculine” and “feminine,” and assigns them attributes appropriately (though perhaps using “aggressive” and “passive” in place of “masculine” or “feminine” may have been more appropriate).  Critical language is important when setting up gender aesthetics in art.  Hickey writes that “The demotic of Vasari's time invested work with attributes traditionally characterized as “feminine”:  beauty, harmony, generosity.  Modern critical language validates works on the basis of their “masculine” characteristics:  strength, singularity, autonomy.”  Hickey explains later that the illusionistic painting of Renaissance times is more receptive to the viewer's gaze.  When looking into a painting with illusionistic space, the viewer's eyes penetrates the picture plane, which is generously offered, shared, and ceded by the artist.  In this regard, paintings with illusionistic space do have “feminine” qualities.  According to Hickey, beginning in Baroque times, paining began a march toward a more “masculine” aesthetic, gradually encroaching on the viewer's space.  With the rise of Modern Art, the “masculine” aesthetic of flatness began to dominate, with paintings seeking to reclaim the illusionistic space, at times even seeking to penetrate outside the picture plane, and overwhelm the viewer.  Modern painting, then, can be said to have an aggressive aesthetic.  

About 50 years ago, beginning with the so called “Death of Paining,” masculinity and Modern Art aesthetics have come under fire.  Postmodern critics have disparaged painting, instead favoring conceptual, photographic, three-dimensional, installation, and time based practices.  This criticism of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World was, perhaps, made with the best of intentions.  Yes, there were a few assholes among the Modern artists and Modern Art supporters, and yes, it was a bit of a patriarchy – but it doesn't follow that the Modernist, “masculine” aesthetic is sexist and patriarchal.  If we follow Hickey's logic of assigning gender attributes to illusionistic depth - or the lack of it as the aesthetic goes in Modern Art - couldn't we also assign gender attributes to color theory?  Red (and warm colors) are aggressive and advance in space, while blue (and other cool colors) are passive and recede into space.  Surely it would be madness to suggest that a painting dominated by the color red is an affront to sensitive eyes and thus an example of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World, but sadly that is where this logic carries us.

So I have to ask, what is exactly is wrong with the “masculine” aesthetic, with celebrating masculinity?  What harm does it do?  Why is it so damned?  Sometimes it seems to me that art with so called “masculine” attributes is too quickly dismissed and damned by critics, dispatched without much investigation.  If a work of art has “masculine” attributes, it is sometimes assumed that author is an insensitive pig and on the wrong side of history.  Even Hickey, a man who is himself sometimes accused of being a chauvinist, compares Modern Art aesthetics to a “dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the biblical patriarch.”  But just because a work has a “masculine” aesthetic, it shouldn't follow that the artist is a neanderthal male chauvinist pig.  Sadly, though, that is the impression I sometimes get from critics, as if a Modern Art painting is capable eye raping their grandmother and leaving her corpse in a ditch.  The last time I check, neither Van Gogh nor his Starry Night, has ever raped anyone.  Someone should take the time to remind Sherrie Levine of this.

Surely we can each have our own tastes and opinions concerning what we may find beautiful or useful, whether it be “masculine” or “feminine” aesthetics, and Hickey sets up his argument in this way, sharing with us his preference for painting with a “feminine” aesthetic, that is paintings with illusionistic space.  While there are many gender politic issues that still need to be addressed, (pay inequality, for example), Modern Art aesthetics is not one of them.  I fear, though, that by assigning gender roles to art and aesthetics, we are only giving more ammunition to the deconstructionists who already look for any excuse to dismiss Modern At aesthetics based on gender politics.

I have been thinking about the subject of masculinity in art quite a bit recently, as I submitted a short statement along with images of my work for a future show entitled #Masculinity at the Low Museum in Atlanta.  I was excited about the prospect of participating, as I think the time is now ripe to re-examine our positions, and re-open an honest dialogue on what exactly it means to be masculine in our contemporary culture.  I think we will find that it may be safe to once again celebrate and reclaim some aspects of masculinity while at the same time also being careful and critical of some of its more ridiculous and, perhaps, more harmful aspects.  My proposal was turned down, which was kind of hurtful, considering how important the subject is to me and my work (I offered them 60 drawings directly related to the subject -  it is hard to believe they couldn't find at least one drawing that would have worked).  But you can't always win.  It would make for a pissed off Chris, though, if all the art in the show ends up being dismissive and critical of masculinity and masculine aesthetics in art, which considering today's critical climate, is a distinct possibility.  

On Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Lack of it in Conceptual Art. by Chris Hall

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art),  Fountaine , 1917

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art), Fountaine, 1917

“For more than four centuries, the idea of “making it beautiful” has been the keystone of our cultural vernacular - the lover's machine gun and the prisoner's joy – the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route, without a detour through church and state, from the image to the individual.  Now that lost generosity, like Banquo's ghost, is doomed to haunt our discourse about contemporary art – no longer required to recommend images to our attention or to insinuate them into vernacular memory, no longer welcome even to try.”  Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon.

For many years, while in my youth, I denied the importance of beauty when making a work of art, slightly favoring content over form.  It was a mistake on my part, as I tended to conflate notions of conventional beauty (think 19th century academic art) with generalized aesthetics.  But I've since learned that beauty, even conventional beauty, can be a useful tool (like humor) to smuggle in controversial/problematic ideas to an audience who may not be willing to receive a "message" willingly.  Aesthetics puts the sugar in the cough syrup, essentially.  More than just a tool for art for art's sake beauty (which indeed, does serve a purpose – healing the wounded psyche, so often marred by modern life, is a noble use for beauty and for art), aesthetics is a useful communication tool; it is useful in that it can attract and advertise ideas (as opposed to products).  Aesthetics can attract a viewer toward an artwork, and if properly deployed, its nuances can help convey a message, a feeling, an idea – communicate.  If art could be said to have a prime directive, then it might be the need to effectively communicate to others.

Joseph Kosuth,  One and Three Chairs , 1965.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

Again, I am not limiting myself to just notions of conventional beauty (what I may find beautiful, others may not, and visa versa) , but to aesthetics as a whole.  Beauty is guided (though not governed) by aesthetics – the kinds of things you learn about in foundations classes (color, contrast, repetition, etc).  Aesthetics, when learned and used, can be an effective tool in communication.  Increasingly, however, art (most especially contemporary conceptual art) is divorcing itself all together from aesthetics.  Without aesthetics, however, there is nothing to draw a viewer in, and nothing to help clarify meaning and message.

Maurizio Bolognini,  Programmed Machines,  1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Maurizio Bolognini, Programmed Machines, 1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Perhaps we can partly forgive a conceptual work if the message or proposed idea is worth examining and to our benefit, but post-modern skepticism and pessimism often denies us this, giving us instead a smug, nihilist perspective, self-congratulatory stuff, and stuff too reliant on being cool and clever.  On a good day we might get art with a simple, pat, feel good message, but that kind of art will only get you so far.  Rarely do I see any contemporary conceptual art that actually challenges or inspires.   Instead we get theses and investigations.  All of this, of course, assumes that the conceptual art effectively communicates its message, and too often, it does not.  Too often these works rely on a supporting artist's or critic's text in order to explain the intent (and without the use of aesthetics to draw a person in, the viewer's curiosity to even want to investigate those texts is voided).  But let us suppose that viewer's curiosity is piqued, and they choose to seek out and read the supporting text – what might they expect to get in return?   They can expect to be rebuffed by a wall of vague, cryptic, elitist International Art English jargon.  The ability to effectively communicate in art is important if one hopes to have any kind positive effect on the world.  More often than not, though, contemporary conceptual art fails to meet even this very basic requirement.   Supporters of contemporary conceptual art practices tend to be academic elitist cognoscenti,  left brain types who distrust poetry, more statisticians than artists, they are those who can dispense with beauty, who choose to speak the puffed up jargon filled International Art English gibberish as a means to impress their peers rather than to clarify their argument, and they are not willing to condescend themselves to speak in a language everyone can understand, perhaps for fear that their argument might be exposed as a fraud.  Their world view is head heavy and lacks a visceral life body, and for all their pluralist rhetoric, they think nothing of openly mocking art that doesn't fit into their world view (no-no buzzwords include:  universal, heroic, individualism, catharsis, beauty, originality, self-discovery . . . incidentally, all things championed by Modernism).  It is an exclusive rather than an inclusive practice.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from  The Crap Show , 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from The Crap Show, 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

I realize I am being very judgmental here and making sweeping generalizations, so I would like to point out that unlike my many other conceptual art detractors (notably my Stuckist brothers and sisters), I am not completely anti-conceptual art (many Stuckists will go so far as to even condemn abstract painting).  I am, however, against the failure of art to properly communicate  – and the nihilist, skeptical, pessimistic (or pat) messages often contained within them.  Beauty and aesthetics are equally as important as content and message; ideally, good art must have a balance of head, heart, and body.  I do believe that it is possible for conceptual art (with the aid of aesthetics) to communicate more effectively to an audience beyond elitists in the know, and to do so with challenging and inspiring content.  Sadly, in my experience at least, those instances are few, and far in-between.

The Politics of a Flower by Chris Hall

I’ve written a lot lately of the intersection of politics, philosophy, and art.  I am a little tired of it.  

A flower by nature is not political or philosophical, it just is.  It exists only to be beautiful.  I like that.  

So it must be with art and artists.  I try to use theory only to justify and support my work after the fact, not to determine its course or control its creation.  I believe most artists are the same way:  art before theory and not theory before art.  

If you are a caring and decent human being with a sense of social justice, the art and the message will come naturally, no need to force it.

Just be, just create.  That might be enough for now.  The rest will come later.

“Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to birds.”  Barnett Newman

Christopher Hall, Blue Splendor, 2001