Friday, June 19, 2009

The one and only

“Magnolis argues against the notion that there is but one correct interpretation of a work of art, and against the concession that multiple interpretations are possible only if they are compatible.”

I think I’ve found some answers to my questions from my last post, thanks to the chapter ‘One and Only One Correct Interpretation’ from Joseph Margolis’ The Arts and the Definition of the Human (Stanford University Press, 2009). My first attempt to read this philosophy book was compromised by the sound of teenage girls on the Metro North train snapping their gum and chattering so loudly that I can only assume their generation is near-deaf from overusing portable listening devices. Oh dear, I hope I’m not going to become one of those shushing librarians.

Magnolis argues against the notion that there is but one correct interpretation of a work of art, and against the concession that multiple interpretations are possible only if they are compatible. The essence of his argument is that art is not objective, exemplified by his question, “ the meaning of a poem simply the meaning of its words?” In keeping with the poetry analogy, he could easily quote Yeats' exquisite line, “ can we know the dancer from the dance?” because one of his many arguments centres around intentionality and the presumed inseparability of the artist from the artwork. I won’t get into the minutiae of his other arguments because I don’t have a background in philosophy, but I will touch on this one as a follow-up to my previous blog post.

He states that artworks contain intentional properties, unlike physical objects that occur naturally in the world. I think of this as ‘Rather than finding artworks in the world, we make them and share them with the world’. Of course, sometimes artists use 'found objects', most famously Marcel Duchamp who exhibited a urinal and turned art history on its head, but let’s disregard that complication for now, shall we? While Magnolis doesn’t entirely disagree with philosophers who insist that artists’ intentionality is of great import (Arthur Danto, for example, sees intention and interpretation as inextricably intertwined), he says that interpretation shouldn’t depend on awareness of the artist’s motivations.

To bring this idea out of the realm of philosophy and into the gallery setting, it would mean that viewers should be able to appreciate art without an artist’s statement. I suppose I agree with this in principle, but what does it mean when the artist consciously approaches art making differently to encourage appreciation in the absence of expository text?
I have no qualms about admitting that the inability to include an artist statement in many gallery submissions has prompted me to change my cocoon sculptures. My Aberration Series (above) is an outgrowth of this concern; I felt that having three works represent a cocoon at different points in time was a better surrogate for my artist statement than one-offs.

Another point that interests me is that we cannot separate the artist from human culture. Magnolis gives the example of Michelangelo Buonarotti’s Pièta, the marble sculpture of Mary holding her crucified son, which really is as beautiful in person as you would expect. He sees the act of chiseling the sculpture as the artist giving form to a mental image but also as the application of an age-old tool, which is a compelling way of merging philosophy, anthropology, and art. Without the development of tools, the Pièta could not exist in its present form. Likewise, my art is not just the product of one person’s inability to let a problem go; it’s the byproduct of human invention and it binds me to a lineage of people armed with needle and thread. There are two things I really like about Magnolis’ perspective: (1) it could be just the ticket for reuniting art and craft, which didn’t always occupy separate classes and (2) it could be extrapolated into a feminist take on art history because it minimizes the emphasis on great masters and by association, male genius.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Performance anxiety

"A classmate of mine from art school would characterize Winterson’s encounter as ‘losing her artist’s virginity’. I have no such story to tell..."

I was outside my usual territory in the library—in the Ps downstairs instead of the Ns upstairs—when I discovered Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (Vintage International, 1997). Uh-oh…vintage…yes, I realize that blogs are generally about what’s new. However, this book is too good to avoid blogging about it. Winterson’s writing is eloquent but punchy with re-readable passages like this one about art historian Robert Fry: “It was he who gave us the term ‘Post-Impressionist without realizing that the late Twentieth Century would soon be entirely fenced in with posts” (6). It’s an understatement to call it an ‘easy read’ as the words seem to leap off the page, but skip ahead and you are only cheating yourself.

While standing at the bus stop under the warmth of the sun, I became enraptured only one page in. I hopped on the #12, anxious to continue reading, but it was not meant to be. The rhythm of the words couldn’t compete with the incessant cussing of a loud passenger. Exhausted from being kept up by a street party the night before, I fought back tears of frustration. When I finally finished reading the book from the sanctuary of my apartment, it was in spite of the sound of firecrackers set off from the street below (in the afternoon no less) and a deafening security alarm on the rooftop. Welcome to New York.

Winterson comes at the artist’s creative process from the perspective of a seasoned writer, revealing common ground between artists and writers. She begins this book of short essays by recalling the development of her love affair with visual art: it was in Amsterdam, and she was literally moved to tears even though she had no prior interest in art. A classmate of mine from art school would characterize Winterson’s encounter as ‘losing her artist’s virginity’. I have no such story to tell, although apparently sleepless nights in the city that never sleeps will practically reduce me to tears. I have never been affected by art in a visibly emotional way (as many of my classmates have), but once I came close. I sat in the National Gallery of Canada, in the presence of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Forty Part Motet, a stunning audio installation of individual voices in a choir, willing the tears to come. In light of Winterson’s comment, “Art coaxes out of us emotions we normally do not feel…art works to enlarge emotional possibility” (108), I wonder, is something fundamentally wrong with me as a viewer? (Like Winterson, I have visited galleries in Amsterdam, but with dry eyes). Moreover, is there a right way to respond to art?

As an artist, there are certainly reactions that I prefer above others. While I was installing an exhibition a few years ago, someone called my cocoon sculptures adorable and someone else said they were hilarious. I was perplexed, since I had been striving for angsty, not funny or cutesy. One of Winterson's many comments that resonated with me is her suggestion that true artists are interested in the problem, not the solution. Now my mind is spinning. Is trying to control the viewer’s reaction effectively forcing a solution? Does advocating for change (say, of gender stereotypes) smack of effrontery? Considering that she is a pro at bringing questions out of readers, and that she is upfront about her aim to avoid arrogance as a writer analyzing art, Winterson really is an artist who puts problems before solutions.


Winterson, Jeanette. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Exhibition of exhibitionists

"...the overwhelming majority of images strike me as the visual equivalent of shouting, 'I’ll show you mine if you show me yours'."

My sister and I emerged from the Morgan subway station in Brooklyn on Friday night to find an industrial area that seemed an unlikely location for an art gallery. We were on our way to the opening of Sex Cells, an exhibition of erotic photographs and videos created by the American public using cell phones. When we saw a group of glammed up teens walking while texting, we knew that we must be close to our destination of 3rd Ward.

Was Sex Cells the provocative show that I was expecting? Not really. Maybe the artwork about young people reveling in their sexuality would have made me “laugh, gasp and blush” (as the gallery website predicted) had I not finished reading Art/Porn by Kelly Davis (Berg, 2008) earlier that day on the train. The book includes reproductions of fetishistic stereographs and daguerreotypes, whose size is actually reminiscent of cell phones. Dennis argues that photography brought pornography to a new level, mainly because of its ability to convey realism. The fact that these lascivious scenes were made during the restrictive Victorian era makes them seem a whole lot more daring than their modern counterparts in Sex Cells.

The show, which had an open call for submissions, suffers from an apparent willingness to accept all entries. The sheer volume of images (212, if I counted correctly) conveys the pervasiveness of sexting, but at the same time it desensitizes the viewer. If such a high number of works is going to be included, it might be helpful to capitalize on the indexical nature of photography. Grouping like images together would reveal how few photographs include two lovers interacting, plus it would emphasize the laughable fixation on the phallus in the male portraits compared to the portraits of women, who—how shall I say this—have taken a more holistic approach to pleasure. The installation is weak in general: the images have been blown up on 8-by-10 inch paper and hung in a grid on several walls. The size robs them of their assumed initial intimacy between photographer and lover or would-be lover. It also does little to elevate them to high art status, for the familiar scale and poor paper quality make them look like a home printing job. The statements beneath the images are curled up at the edges, giving a slapdash effect. A staggered salon style hanging may have enhanced the installation because it would accommodate the large number of images and be more in keeping with the ephemeral nature of the medium than a static grid (and that’s probably why the videos felt more effective).

Maybe the problem lies in choosing to exhibit works like these in a gallery. Kelly Davis reminds the reader that the controversy surrounding pornography depends on the implication of touch and not just sight. In the case of 3rd Ward, public display connotes only voyeurism. A safe distance between subject and voyeur (er, I mean ‘viewer’) is maintained because the names of the contributors are not postedwith the exception of two artistswhich can be explained by the fact that the call for submissions stated that submissions could be anonymous. Anonymity takes two things away: (1) recognition for the artist and (2) the element of inviting physical contact à la names and phone numbers scrawled on a bathroom stall. Perhaps that’s a crude thing to say, but the overwhelming majority of images strike me as the visual equivalent of shouting, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

This is not to say that there is lack of artistic merit. Some of the works are accompanied by thoughtful statements that make reference to concepts like the scopophilic gaze, revealing training in art or at the very least, a vested interest in art. Unfortunately, the inclusiveness means that the more serious-minded works are integrated with what might be considered low-grade porn. I feel badly for one of the participants who referred to Sex Cells on Facebook as her first show in New York City, which is like a badge of honour for artists. Honestly, it feels like participants were duped into dropping their pants for a sensationalist exhibition that is short on curation.

One thing that the organizers have done a terrific job of is selecting a winner. Given my inclination to merge cupcakes with pasties in artwork, it should come as little surprise that I was impressed by the Sex Cells winner. Genevieve Belleveau applied her background in burlesque to a series of x-rated images taken before an unassuming public in an ice cream truck. They tie in wonderfully to the theme of the exhibition and are playful and smart in equal measure. I can just picture Xander Harris in the Restless episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the voyeur.

All in all, I am not sold on Sex Cells.