skepticism

Irony and Sarcasm in Art by Chris Hall

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I recently read a couple of interesting articles in the Remodernist Review and on Salon on the use of irony in the art world, and I felt compelled to share with you some of my thoughts as well.  In the Remodernist Review, Richard Bledsoe quotes a line from Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot:  “I don't like irony. . . it indicates a small soul.”  I have to agree with this sentiment.  Irony is born out of pessimism.  It is something I can understand very well.  I have frequent bouts of pessimism in my life, and irony sometimes rears it's ugly head in my art-making.  But I believe it is something we should try to transcend.  We can do better than this.

In Bledsoe's article, he writes, “To embrace irony is to strike a pose of groundless superiority, to think social status is demonstrated by a jaded attitude.”  Bledsoe continues:

Irony is the philosophy of sour grapes.  Those who feel incapable of producing something with skill, meaning and significance like to act like they don’t want those achievements manifested in their works.  But even worse, and more treacherous, to preserve their facade they must suppress and undermine the works of others who are striving towards some higher purpose or accomplishment.  Sophisticated poseurs can tolerate no reminder of their own shortcomings. Irony is a form of passive-aggressive envy. . .  

Those are harsh accusations, but accusations that just might float.  It is true that a lot of bad contemporary art is justified by impenetrable theory and text, theory and text that is ironic and pessimistic in nature.  It just might be that the use of irony might be more than a crutch, but a purposeful obfuscation of the weakness of their argument and art. 

Irony, along with sarcasm, has infected our culture.  Not only is too readily apparent in contemporary art, it has also manifested itself in the way we interact with other people.  Going through the personals on dating websites (yes, ladies, I'm single) I frequently come upon a variation of the addendum “must like sarcasm.”  I see it so often that it has become a turn off.  To me, “must like sarcasm” is code for “I am so smart, so much smarter than you, that I can allow myself to be insulting and smug about it.”  Sarcasm is a form of detached, jaded insincerity.  It bespeaks a lack of curiosity, a closed mind, an unwillingness to learn, and a shallow personality.  Perhaps in small doses, it is OK, we all go there sometimes, but as a personality trait, I'm not interested.  Although contemporary art is filled with irony and sarcasm, I don't blame art for our culture's smug opinion of itself (today's art world is as insular and elitist as ever – not much of an influence on our cultural zeitgeist), instead I think the blame can safely be placed on the pop culture medium of television.  I also think that contemporary art, which draws from pop culture trends as much as it does from pessimistic critical theory, has followed suit.  The critical detachment of watching a train wreck and ironically discussing its aesthetic merits and flaws or political implications is not the environment with which I want to produce art work.  Remember the last two episodes of Seinfeld where the gang are jailed after watching, recording, and laughing as a man is carjacked at gunpoint in front of them?  It is a damning criticism of where I think our culture is now, the whole better you than me attitude.  Everyone laughs, and nobody stops to help.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no saint.  Sometimes I, too, can be jaded, smug, etc., but I always try to treat others with sincerity and respect.  I think my use of sarcasm and irony can be traced to my sometimes excessive sense of pride.  Pride is perhaps the strongest of my faults (that, and Anger – which often stems from my impatience and disappointment at seeing the world fail to live up to my ideals and expectations).  I try to keep my faults in check whenever they appear, and while I am more successful at keeping Pride in check, Anger, being more of an emotion than an attitude, is sometimes harder to control.  Humility is the key . . . recognizing that there have been, are presently, and will be people more talented and intelligent than you is but one step on the path toward achieving the peace that comes with wisdom.  But this is hard in the Ego driven world, where success is often measured proportionately with how much Ego you have, and how much you brag about yourself.  I have no time for Egotism in my life.  There is always so much more to work on, to make better, and to learn.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

One of the reasons Postmodern and contemporary art critics give as to why sincerity and passion is bad for art and the world is addressed in Matt Ashby's and Brendan Carroll's article in Salon.  In it they write:  

Skeptics reject sincerity because they worry blind belief can lead to such evils as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism. They think strong conviction implies vulnerability to emotional rhetoric and lack of critical awareness. But the goal of great art is the same whether one approaches it seriously or dubiously. To make something new, to transcend, one must have an honest relationship with what is: history, context, form, tradition, oneself.

Today the critical default is skepticism and pessimism.  Skepticism and pessimism in critical theory was partially born out of the use of art and aesthetics to inspire blind devotion in Nazi Germany.  Pessimistic critical theory gained further appeal with the failure of art to spark a world wide revolution in 1968.  But I believe with all my heart that we can not just lay there at the bottom of the hill, licking our wounds, laughing as others also fall down.  If optimism isn't your thing, then call it something else, like Schopenhauer's animalistic “Will” to carry on.  The only thing that matters is that we've got to get up and try again!  It is OK to aspire to great things and to stand up for your ideals.  Somebody's got to be the hero, and if its not going to be you, if you are not going to even try, then I may as well have a crack at it.  I know the odds are stacked against me, and that I may very well fail, but I know that I will at least be the better human being for having been brave enough to try.

In the Salon article, Ashby and Carroll ask some important questions:

So, to be more nuanced about what’s at stake: In the present moment, where does art rise above ironic ridicule and aspire to greatness, in terms of challenging convention and elevating the human spirit? Where does art build on the best of human creation and also open possibilities for the future? What does inspired art-making look like?

One might be tempted to look toward the recent past, towards Modernism for examples of “inspired art,” but we don't have to.  There are plenty of people working in contemporary art, exiles still working on the edges of the officially sanctioned art world institutions, waiting for their time to come.  These artists, whether they are aware of it or not, are part of a growing art movement called Remodernism.  Truly inspired artists, once scattered to the winds in the contemporary art wasteland, are now starting to find each other, banding together for strength in numbers, and they are starting to challenge the status quo and stir things up a bit.  My hope is that the movement will continue to grow and gain momentum.  Richard Bledsoe closes out his article in his blog Remodernist Review with the following:

It’s an exciting time to be an artist, and help the world move past the self-serving decadence the self-proclaimed elites cultivate.  It’s time to call the bluffs, stand up to the bullying, and put the perpetrators to the test.  Can their art survive outside the privileged cloisters they huddle in?

It is hard to know exactly what art and the world will be like in the future.  We can only speculate based on current circumstances and past examples in art history.  In art history we know that Modernism rescued art from the stale clutches of 19th century Academic art, and that there was a spiritual revival in art (Abstract Expressionism) following the comparatively more decadent period of art between the two world wars and the fascist aesthetics of the mid-1930's.  Today it seems that there are a few loud voices of dissent operating on the margins of the art world, while a large group of hard-line Postmodernists remain burrowed in the skin of our art institutions like ticks, sucking in as much blood as they can before they die off.  And they are dying off.  By far the largest group of people in the art world are the ambivalents.  They may go either way.  While some may be flat out opportunists, I feel the vast majority of these people are truly getting tired of all the irony and sarcasm.  They are just looking for something to believe in again.  They want something better.  The Postmodern parasites will, no doubt, promote successors who share a similar philosophical background.  There is not much we can do about that.  What we can do is make our voices loud and our message clear, and promote an attractive alternative agenda to replace what is currently being offered by our art institutions.  Perhaps someday our ranks will grow large enough where we can properly challenge those who now hold power in the art world institutions.  Perhaps someday it will not all be in vain.

Yayoi Kusama: Queen of Polka-dots by Chris Hall

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My first impression of Yayoi Kusama’s work was not favorable.  What I saw was phenomena art, kind of like Op Art . . . no real substance beyond just what you see.  It seemed to me that her work had a 60’s psychedelic design flavor to it.  I knew she was associated with Pop Art and had exhibited alongside both Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, both artists I do not care much for.  I also knew that she had no problem translating her art into pop culture consumer products.  She is shameless promoting her collaborative efforts with Louis Vuitton.  

Then there are the endless self portraits, photographs of her in front of her work.  I thought her art was kind of narcissistic.  Her outlandish clothing blurs into the paintings behind her, and blurs the line between fine art and fashion.  I am not one to really care about fashion and outward appearances, I’ve always been more concerned with what is deeper and inside, nor am I one to care much about cults of personalities.   I’ve always thought her self-portraits literally got in the way of the paintings behind her.

Yayoi Kusama is the Queen of Polka-dots.  Where Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are cold and pharmaceutical, Kusama’s art at least has a celebratory feel to it.  I’ll giver her credit for that.  This is a reflection from the peace and love idealism she embraced in the 60’s.  Still, I could not get past that a lot of her work was reminiscent of a fabric pattern.  

All of these negative things really colored my perspective of both her and her work.  So, it was to my surprise when I discovered that she had once identified with the abstract expressionists, this was before she changed allegiances to Pop Art in the 1960’s.  She made some really good work.  In reading about her, I found she could be really deep and psychically aware.  Here is a really good quote from her concerning one of her paintings, Flower (D.S.P.S.), 1954:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.

It is clear that Kusama is sensitive to her surroundings, a signature of a good artist.  Perhaps this sensitivity is why she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital ever since 1977.  What about the polka-dots?  They are more than just decorative elements to her.  This is what she has to say about the dots:

A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.

This might not always translate to me in her work, but I like that in her heart she still has an appreciation for symbolism (many in contemporary art do not).  I have also learned to like some of her recent installation work.  I find that it can be beautiful and even, at times, sublime.  Her work sometimes suggests to me self-obliteration, infinity, losing yourself, and dissolving the ego into the universal void.  There is some spirituality hidden in there!  This is not your average everyday Pop Art!  

It is good to be skeptical . . . just do not allow it to overwhelm your curiosity. I am glad I dug deeper into Kusama's art and gave it another chance.  I've learned to appreciate both the substance and motivation behind some of her work. Unfortunately we do have to be willing to get past work such as her video piece Manhattan Suicide Addict (2010) in order to access it.

Recovering Beuys: Artist, Activist, Shaman, Teacher by Chris Hall

Zeige Deine Wunde - Show your wound.  Joseph Beuys

And when I say: “Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development”, it is because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.  Joseph Beuys  

Image from I like America and America Likes Me, 1974

The Origin Myth

Joseph Beuys remains a controversial figure to this day, nearly 30 years since his death.  Despite being on the vanguard of conceptual and performance art, the hard-core Post-modernists don’t want him because of his enigmatic myth making and his refusal to give up and become a pessimist and skeptic.  Beuys was in line with the artist as hero rhetoric of his Modernist predecessors and since Post-modernists like Benjamin Buchloh won’t claim him, I think I will take him for one of my own team.

As a young man Beuys was fascinated by animals and studied medicine.  But soon afterwards the Second World War broke out and in 1941 Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe where he trained as a radio operator and gunner for the Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber.  But on 16 March, 1944, at the age of 22, something significant would happen that would alter the course of his life forever.  While flying a mission over the Crimea he was shot out of the sky, the plane crashing into the snow.  The pilot was instantly killed, but somehow Beuys survived.  According to Beuys, he was pulled unconscious from the wreckage by a group of nomadic Tatars, who then warmed his frozen body and cared for his wounds by wrapping him in animal fat and felt blankets.  The Tartars took him in as one of their own until Beuys was well enough to make his way back to German field hospital.  Later, returning home, Beuys fell into a deep depression.  It was in this state that Beuys begin to feel himself transformed.  He found help through making art in the form of drawings which at this time he produced in the thousands, and he began his fascination with Shamanism and healing.  Drawing would later remain a big part of his practice and teaching philosophy, even as his own work grew more conceptual and he began to make performance art.   

It is for certain that Beuys did crash in the Crimea, that is in the record, but as for the rest, his Shamanic initiation with the Tatars and the transformation through depression, that can not be substantiated.  It has led some skeptics such as Buchloh to believe that Beuys made the whole thing up in order to create a legend or myth about himself.  However, I am inclined to believe Beuys story, as I, too, have gone through a bit of a transformation myself when I was 19, when I had my first black, howling, soul shattering depression and my own Shamanic initiation dream.  But irregardless of whether it all happened as Beuys described it or not, the story still informs his art, and the subsequent art is more important than the origin story.

After recovering from his wounds and depression, Beuys saw that Germany, too, was sick and wounded, and was also in need of healing.  Beuys viewed his art as a healing tool, and viewed himself as an artist, healer, and teacher.  He sought to bring mystical truths to the people and genuinely sought to make the world a better place through art, politics, and education.  

Beuys the Activist, Beuys the Educator:  a Misunderstanding of Intent.

As a political activist he was one of the founding members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party.  Beuys would also run for a seat in Parliament, unsuccessfully.  Beuys’ merger of politics and aesthetics, plus his messianic myth making character, lead some people to distrust him and become skeptical of his intentions.  Despite Beuys democratic rhetoric, some viewed him as a totalitarian in disguise, reminiscent of Hitler.

To make people free is the aim of art.  Therefore art for me is the science of freedom.  Joseph Beuys  

Even today Beuys remains a controversial figure.  In a recent biography, Hans Peter Riegel writes, “Beuys was one of the first members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, and he spoke a great deal about democracy. Ultimately, however, the artist strove for a totalitarian society …” This assertion is made only because of Beuys willingness to be vocal about his politics through his art, and his supposed, tenuous connections with former Nazis (while this is in character for the messianic Beuys, to heal the wounded sinner, I might also argue that everyone among his peers would have been guilty, at least by association, in Post War Germany; to say otherwise would be completely naive).

Photograph from a performance at the Technical College Aachen, in 1964.  The performance was part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.  The performance was interrupted by a group of students, one of whom attacked Beuys, punching him in the face. 

As an educator he taught at the university, where he was very popular with is students, but when the university fired him because of his unorthodox teachings, he founded his own university.   Despite being a conceptualist and a practitioner of performance art, Beuys was deeply invested in the power of aesthetics and would require that his students take drawing classes.  Beuys was often outspoken about his criticism of Duchamp for removing aesthetics from art.  Unfortunately for Beuys, who was politically active, the connection between aesthetics and politics was one of the major defining characteristics of Fascism.  This, of course, led many people to distrust him and misunderstand his intentions.

The esthetic conservatism of Beuys is logically complemented by his politically retrograde, not to say reactionary, attitudes. Both are inscribed into a seemingly progressive and radical humanitarian program of esthetic and social evolution. The abstract universality of Beuys’ vision has its equivalent in the privatistic and deepy subjective nature of his actual work. Any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism. The roots of Beuys’ dilemma lie in the misconception that politics could become a matter of esthetics …  Benjamin Buchloh  

So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.  Joseph Beuys

To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.  The rest is a waste product, a demonstration.
Joseph Beuys

Beuys the Artist, Beuys the Healer:  Two Significant Performances

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965.  

It was made “when he was almost entirely unknown. Visitors could view Beuys through a window, where they found him sitting and cradling a dead hare in his arms. The artist’s face was covered in the symbolic substances of honey and gold leaf, and his boot was weighed down with an iron slab. He mumbled barely audible noises into the ear of the inert animal, as well as explanations of his drawings hanging behind them. This action, both strangely hilarious and moving, puts us in mind of the impossibility of teaching, the skepticism of listeners, indeed the deaf ears of most of those we ask to listen. It speaks to the difficulty of making one’s work known in the world and the possibility of an unexpected transcendence of these limits.”  (Italicize mine, from Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. 


For this performance Beuys flew to New York City and was taken to a room in a gallery on West Broadway. He “was transported by ambulance, lying on a stretcher and wrapped in felt. For three days, the artist shared the room with a wild coyote. Some of the time he stood leaning on a shepherd’s staff, swathed in his felt blanket. Other times he lay on a bed of straw and watched the coyote. The coyote watched him, circled him, and shredded his blanket to pieces. The artist did things like striking a large triangle, drawing lines on the floor, and other mysterious gestures . . . After three days, the coyote had grown quite tolerant of Beuys. The artist hugged him and returned to the airport in an ambulance, leaving without having set foot on American soil . . . A bit of context to remember is that the Vietnam War was in its last year when this piece was made, President Nixon was on the verge of resigning the presidency, and the international community had been looking askance at the United States for quite some time . . . In both works, Beuys is acting on our behalf both humorously—mocking our attempts to interact with the world—and shamanically—conjuring hidden languages with which to cross the boundaries of death, species, language, and cultural divides.”  (From Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

Coda:


This is what Beuys tries to do: only through showing the wound – the pain and suffering caused by the past – and through repeatedly reliving these traumatic events can some form of coping take place and can one leave the past behind. Beuys pushes where it hurts and shows in which ways one can cope with a problematic past.  From Joseph Beuys and the German Trauma by Lisa VanHaeren.

Beuys fought against skepticism and doubt.  Through his art he sought to do well by both people and the environment, healing the rift between mankind and nature (in 1982 with the help of volunteers he planted 7,000 Oak trees in Kassel, Germany).  And yet many of his critics remained skeptical, if not suspicious of his work.  His ardor and artistic and political idealism tended to turn off and frighten people.  Beuys critics fall into two camps:  one group, represented by critic Stefan Germer, believed that art did not have the power to initiate political change; they were filled with skepticism and doubt, and viewed Beuys as a deluded fool.  The other group, represented  by critics such as Benjamin Buchloh, believed (in light of Fascism) that art and politics were a dangerous combination, and that aesthetics should not serve as a vehicle to effect political change; Buchloh and others were suspicious of Beuys and sought out ulterior motives in his politics.  Despite the harsh criticism, Beuys did not give up, he continued his work; he truly believed in his mission and in the power of art to change things for the better.  Beuys’ artistic altruism, his generosity, his dedication to his mission as an artist, his championing of artistic and political idealism, and most of all, his refusal to give up, these are all worthy and admirable qualities.  There should be more artists like Joseph Beuys.  

Drawings by Joseph Beuys