10 February 2007

More About Truth, or What I Saw On My Trip to Los Angeles

Let me start with a quote from Artblog Comments:

Now, if consciousness and selfhood derive not from a single coherent source such as a soul, but from many scattered sources, for me to allow my current idea of who "I" am to determine what my work will and won't be is at the very least restrictive. Better in my estimation to let the impulse to create and my responses to the results instruct me on what this "I" truly consists of, its boundaries and its true nature.

Mmmm, truth. How can such a simple idea be so slippery? I think that the problems with truth are all in where you put your perceiving organism. It's a problem of vectors, and Bill illuminates this by thinking about the source of consciousness, and his lovely assertion that the vectors moving between the creator and the creating are going the wrong way. We are accustomed in western culture to looking at consciousness as an inside-outside problem, and to think that it's a matter of getting our insides out for all the world to see.

Caspar David Friedrich, Prehistoric Tomb in the Snow, 1807, shamelessly lifted from the Getty's website

Joel and I were talking about this at the Getty, where there is currently a weird little show juxtaposing Caspar David Friedrich and Gerhard Richter. Of course, Friedrich is supporting the dominant paradigm here. His paintings are sublime because he takes what's inside and throws it outside, through his eyes, onto what he sees in the landscape. So if you were going to draw vector lines to understand the truth of a Friedrich painting, you would draw two lines going from his "soul" inside him, out his eyeballs, into the world, where they then coat everything he sees in his sense of self. In other words, each Friedrich is an outside that is full of his insides. We know this paradigm--it is a staple of expressionism. And I would argue that we have not rejected this relationship between the artist's inside and outside, but we do think that it's more ironic. After all, Friedrich's truth is not my truth, and who does he think he is to speak for me, that Dead White Motherfucker?

Kendell Carter, Hommie, 2006, shamelessly lifted from the Hammer's website

There is much contemporary art that still shadowboxes that basic inside-to-outside paradigm, but to much less thrilling effect because it's not about truth anymore--rather, it's about truth's absence. Kendell Carter's artist-as-consumer installation at the Hammer is not offering a new set of vectors as much as it's shortening the lines. He sees design, hiphop culture, breakdancing, ikea, graffitti and bling, and he is therefore a part of its commodification. So his insides still move out into the world, and they still take what is external to the artist and infect it with meaning, but the meaning isn't about truth.

And this makes sense, because we know that Friedrich and Pollock were both living a kind of arrogant lie, right? That this is not a good way to find truth, right? But I would argue that it might be more fun and more powerful to find new avenues toward truth instead of issuing an ironic statement about the lying nature of this relationship.

Carter is smart with his eyes, and he knows that looking at things gives them values that shift from context to context, from class to class. And that's what Hommie/Homey is about--it's about presenting signifiers from different kinds of people together, with a big handful of hiphop and graffitti over the whole thing. Carter's statement is loud and clear:

"I feel bad about the commodification of hiphop/graffitti/breakdancing culture, and yet I am a part of that act of commodification because here I am, self-conciously, in a museum, and I see that."

And yes. Carter is right, but it lands with a thud. What's the larger point? Where is the redemption? Why am I standing here?

I stood in Carter's installation for a long time because the obligatory video verite included some really fun breakdancing footage. And I kept thinking to myself, you know, I am a skinny little white girl from the whitest town on the planet and everything, but I can't help but think that Carter should be watching the breakdancers and ditching the design fetish. Design is part of that taking over the external world with your eyes paradigm that Friedrich represents for a few more paragraphs, and Carter obviously knows that this is a dead end. But the breakdancers are doing something else entirely. They are throwing out if-then statements about the relationship between their bodies and the sidewalk, and in doing so they are finding a thousand tiny truths about gravity and their own biology, and how they can bend and break these rules of physics and physical embodiment. What they are doing is powerful.

Like Bill Gusky, the breakdancers are switching the vectors. Instead of looking out into the world and attempting to grab and hold and own and conquer, because we know that's a dead end, they are letting the world (the floor, really) hit them and responding. And in that constant adjustment, they are finding more than what we previously thought was possible.

Um... and I would call the results from that process of infinite adjustment a large set of tiny truths that are beholden to no individual because they came from without and not from within.

Gerhard Richter, Wald (892-1), 2005, shamelessly lifted from the Getty's website

Okay, back to the Getty. The Friedrich paintings were juxtaposed with Richter paintings. And yeah. This seemed awfully random to me as well. But if you sit down and really look at the show, the vectors become quite clear. Richter, like Carter's breakdancers, is moving from the outside in. His work is consistently about these kinds of small truth, about the truth paint contains when subjected to a negotiating process, about the truth of a photograph, the truth of images. Perhaps Gusky would say that Richter is not restricting himself to talking about himself, that he would rather be a conduit through which experiments about the nature of reality pass.


Anonymous Ryan said...

I see Friedrich's work as a parallel to that of the breakdancer's. Friedrich's truth and the truth of the landscape are meeting somewhere in the middle with no majority of ownership being claimed by either. On the other hand, Carter is superimposing an arbitrary vision (maybe he believes it to be truth, or not) on elements that barely skim the surface of something that is even close to being honest and his admission towards that does nothing but tell the viewer what they already know.

Friedrich makes no claims of ownership in this view (landscape) and by doing so the viewer willing hands it over. Carter does the exact opposite, creating a disingenuous filter through which everything is viewed. Instead of reacting to a truth, I find myself suspicious of Carter's intentions.

12 February, 2007 00:20  
Blogger Ashes77 said...

yah, finding some sublime god in nature with nowhere a figure in sight seems a far greater leap forward to understanding painting than throwing a bunch of shit together in a room is a step toward understanding "commentary." The truth of alienation from god in enlightenment thinking and romantic painting is truer today than it was then, while I'm afraid Carter's alienation is just from being able to do something and be man and soul enough to ignore the outward impulses that dictate this kind of work. A simple drawing could have said it all much better, and as you suggest, imitated the breakdancers' true art much more closely.

12 February, 2007 03:11  
Blogger carla said...

I was ready to argue that the 'breakdancing' type of interchange CAN happen with painting. Then you show the excellent example of this in the Richter painting.

I'd say, though, that being open to the ongoing, moment-by-moment process of painting serves to filter (or purify?) even overtly self-expressive tendencies. Pollock may have considered his actions to be that of inward-to-outward expression, and history certainly regards his work this way, but I find it difficult to believe he wasn't doing a breakdance as well. That's just what happens with process painting.

Responding to, and within, the ongoing process of making something usurps its maker’s intentions. It doesn’t necessarily eliminate them, and the resulting work may be loaded with all sorts of auxiliary personal spewance, or cage-y artistic intentions…one must consciously step outside the process to squelch their own expressive needs. (One must insert oneself in order to excise oneself.) The breakdancer would need to stop and calculate to prevent personal expression....or become a different species.

When art is made through the process of reactive interplay, it ceases to be about personal expression. The Richter painting is a clear example of this, but I think the Friedrich was also painted with some degree of mystery-sourcing. I don't understand the oppressive take on this sort of work. It seems wag-the-doggish, where a theory can organize our perceptions in such a meaningful way, that we accept distortion at the premise level.

12 February, 2007 12:19  
Anonymous Matt O. said...

Hi Deb, hi everyone. I’ve been really enjoying these conversations for awhile now but this is the first time I’ve managed to speak up. I love it Deb that you are exploring alternatives to romanticism, trying to figure out a way to make art that isn’t simply expressive, or critical of the faults of expressionism, or eulogizing the loss of enchantment in the world because, as you put it so well, everything around is infected with meaning that isn’t truth. I'm so with you.

It strikes me the outside-in model of making art you describe, the outside-in breakdance-Richter model, is a kind of like the scientific method. A sort of fast and miniaturized scientific method. Scientists try to build truthful (reliable, consistent, non-arbitrary) representations of the world by observing something specific, proposing a hypothesis that could explain it, designing a series of experiments to test, and then either accepting or modifying the hypothesis in response to the experimental data. And, finally, when a certain level of confidence is reached, communicating results to the rest of the community. (Apologies to scientists out there for my very imperfect understanding of this). Also, repeatability is important. If you can’t get it to work many times, and if lots of people all over the world can’t get it to work, then it won’t be considered true. (Hello Richter!) That this has been a powerful world changing method for thinking is obvious. Also, these days, it’s often lumbering, people-intensive, money-intensive. Great resources for incremental advances.

Maybe what you’re describing (“throwing out if-then statements about the relationship between their bodies and the sidewalk, and in doing so … finding a thousand tiny truths”) is science on speed. Observation, hypothesis, experiment, analysis, observation, hypothesis, experiment, analysis over and over, many times a second, while the art-making or performance is happening. A flash of energy and joy, a virtuosic display of empirical thinking. This would be awesome.

I have some doubts, though, too. What’s the point of the art-object in this scheme? Simply a report on the making-performing process? A thing to raise funds for the next art-making-performance? Or is the object supposed to somehow re-activate that flash of creative energy in someone looking at it? (and doesn’t this kind of spin the arrow back towards the romantic direction, the inside the viewer projecting out towards the dead object direction?) You’d expect a trade-off in reliability and consistency (and non-arbitrariness too I guess, though I’m less sure what that would mean) by making the scientific process crazy in this way, but what do you gain? Speed? Cost-effectiveness? Poetry?

12 February, 2007 14:01  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Wow, responses!

Ryan wrote:

Friedrich's truth and the truth of the landscape are meeting somewhere in the middle with no majority of ownership being claimed by either.

I want to believe this, because it would make things so much easier, but I can't figure out how it actually works. How does the landscape's truth reach out to Friedrich's truth? Where in the middle do they meet?

Friedrich's the one with the agency to start any meaning-creation here... pardon my french, but the landscape couldn't give a fuck. And when the actual landscape isn't doing any work (it can't, it's just there), and Friedrich is doing a lot of work (perceiving, emoting, and pushing that emotional perception back out via paint), then I don't see how it can be about anything *but* ownership. Isn't the whole point that it's Friedrich's landscape and not anyone else's?

Can you clarify your argument on this one?

Because right now I still see Carter and Friedrich doing the exact same thing. I like your description--I would build on it and say that they are using their perceiving organism to make a filter through which everything is viewed.

12 February, 2007 18:07  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Next point I feel like I need to make:

This isn't about bashing Carter for me. My point is that I understand why this is widely considered "smart" work--it's riffing on an artist-subject relationship that has been playing itself out for hundreds of years.

Carter, IMO, is a stand-in for a lot of work that keeps that relationship between the artist and the subject moving *from the artist to the subject.* I wrote about that installation because it wound up sparking a serious debate about other possible relationships that don't depend upon the artist's "genius" or "smarts" or "ownership" or even "obsession with coming-of-age films..." or whatever.

12 February, 2007 18:14  
Blogger fisher6000 said...


(One must insert oneself in order to excise oneself.)

This is really true and really interesting.

12 February, 2007 18:16  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Hey Matt! I know you! It's great to see you here!!!

I would argue it's science on poetry, not science on speed... rather than being right or wrong (proving your hypothesis), I think there are other alternatives for dealing with your data.

But yeah. It's enlightenment-based looking at the world and figuring out what to do with it in a straightforward, rational, truth-searching kind of way, just like science. I would argue that instead of always asking "does this prove my hypothesis," the artist asks "Now what do I do?" or "How do I keep from fucking this up?" or a whole other set of questions that are more open-ended and not about the predetermined endgame, JMHO.

12 February, 2007 18:52  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

Deb -quit picking on the dead guy

13 February, 2007 12:35  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I'm not picking on Friedrich either!
He didn't do anything wrong... he was exploring. We can see from here what the fruits of that exploration were.

I mean, you don't blame Shackelton for the fact that the north pole has no arable land, do you?

13 February, 2007 16:36  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

I'd say he did ALOT right but I'm really just ribbing ya

13 February, 2007 18:19  

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