Thursday, April 24, 2008

Some Observations on Contemporary Art

We are beginning to see clearly now that in the last decade or so the several categories of the plastic arts have become increasingly indistinguishable. What separates a large drawing from a painting, a construction from a collage or sculpture, and so forth, is not at all easy to define. A kind of interchange is occurring which, besides blurring traditional outlines, is producing a new set of forms that in turn are reconditioning our experience.

Thought individual points of view vary, I feel there has been a shift in general from a concern for the work of art as a thing to be possessed, i.e., a valuable object upon which highly specialized care has been lavished, to the work of art as a situation, an action, an environment or an event.

More often than not, the result is fragile, as though it had emerged spontaneously, composed of mixed "mediums" that usually do not belong to "art," but to industry, the household, nature, the ash can and the hardware store. Its shape is sprawling and irregular, sometimes made up of units that are infinitely rearrangeable, expandable and reduceable to adjust to different areas, which gives the whole an ambiguous, fluid existence. Added to this seeming lack of professional definition (and therefore respectability), is the rawness or immediacy of impulse present in the manner some of these artists use their materials, or, in other cases where the touch is more delicate, the indifference to the "beauty" of craftsman-like arrangement. Not only have permanence and skill largely been given up in the literal finished product, but this implies philosophically greater preoccupation with the changeable as a raison d'etre.

The structural principle of these works can best be conveyed by the term "extention." Changeableness being what it is, one thing may become another, which may extend to another ad infinitum. Unrestricted to paint on canvas, these may literally include: anything. Space is no longer pictorial but actual (and sometimes both), and sound, odors, artificial light, movement and time are now utilized. Hence, extension as an organic function is meant to embrace the whole world of experience.

These agglomerates may grow, as if they were some self-energized being, into rooms-full and become in every sense of the word environments where the spectator is a real part, i.e., a participant rather than a passive observer. And in their most extended form, the environments have gone the next step to "happenings," events in a given time in which, put simply, "things happen" according to flexible scores and where theoretically the participant becomes even more actively engaged. (This present exhibition, for practical reasons, cannot show the more fully developed aspects of this new art, but even so, certain rudiments of it can be recognized by the sensitive visitor.)

Considering the above, the art world here may find itself on the edge of a crisis. Aesthetically, the absence of clear categories, of familiar names (What is it, i.e., it is art?), makes judgment nearly impossible for all but the few deeply involved. Critics' frequent references to neo-dada in this connection, a completely erroneous comparison, reveals more the helplessness and anarchy of understanding in the minds of these judges, than it does the nature of the art. (The real roots of it may actually be traced to the last generation of radical painting in the United States. This cannot be examined here, but I would suggest that some insight into the reasons why can be gained simply reflecting on the overtones of the words "action school.")

More crucial yet is the ephemeral existence of the work with its attendant financial consequences. We are no longer producing monuments or heirlooms. One cannot emphasize strongly enough the clear-headed decisiveness of those who choose to employ as media tissue paper, the un-programmed visitor, real food or growing grass. For they have recognized the connection between the impermanence of the physical life of their work and the principle of change. Their reward is the feeling that something truthful and essential is happening; and besides, that a whole realm of forms hitherto impossible with conventional means, has emerged.

This is all healthy and positive rather than irresponsible and bitter as some have thought. For in the long run, whatever drawbacks exist now will disappear and it will all seem perfectly credible and will be praised as a note of freedom in a trying period.

In addition, the amateur may in fact make this art as much a part of his life as he has any other art of the past or present. The human condition is still the only source of its meaning. What has altered is a mode of speech, as it were, in keeping with the different way we are viewing ourselves today. if one cannot in every case pass this on to his children in the form of a piece of "property," the attitudes and values it embodies surely can be transmitted. And like so many facets of our lives, this art can be considered as a semi-intangible entity, something to be renewed in different forms like a garden or the seasonal changes, which we do not always put into our pockets, but need nevertheless.

We ought to begin to realize, I think, that there is no fundamental reason why a work of art should be a fixed object to be placed in a locked case. The spirit does not really require the proofs of the embalmer.

Allan Kaprow
From "New Forms--New Media"
Martha Jackson Gallery

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