Friday, December 27, 2013

Oh, Hell!

A recent Internet meme has pope Francis renouncing the doctrine of Hell. Of course the statement is a spoof. 

Still, belief in Hell as a literal place of punishment has been questioned by some theologians for a long time now. The Spanish writer Juan de Valdes, who died in 1541, thought that the Biblical terms should be interpreted as meaning "the grave." Thus those who "went to Hell" would simply not rise to eternal life - a view tacitly endorsed by many Christians nowadays. 

Elsewhere Valdes concedes that Hell does exist as a physical place, but it is just that the deity has not yet seen it necessary to confine anyone there. It is empty real estate. As D. P. Walker has shown in his book "The Decline of Hell," the doctrine came under broad attack in the 17th century. However, there remains the awkwardness of passages that affirm it in Scripture. 

Unlike Hell, Purgatory has never had any Biblical warrant. As the French historian Jacques Le Goff has demonstrated, this notion was invented out of whole cloth in the 7th century.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Alphabetical order

In many spheres of life we are familiar with the principle of alphabetical order, ranging a series of items from A to Z.  We take this convention for granted.  Yet where did it come from? 

The Greeks took their alphabet from the Phoenicians.  In that script the letters clearly have a pictorial value, stemming from their hieroglyphic origin,  Thus Aleph was an ox head; Beth, a house; and Gimel, a throwing stick (later a camel).  All of these things were important to powerful people in those lands, individuals who could afford to subsidize scribes.

Why though was Aleph the first?  In many early cultures, cattle were a trope for wealth.  So in Latin we have pecus, the origin of our “pecuniary.”  The English word “fee” is a cognate of the German noun Vieh, meaning cattle.  This consideration suggests that placing the sign for cattle first would be the equivalent of our starting an alphabet with a $ sign. 

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Reflections on Contemporary Art (draft)

[I am currently revising for publication my book on the Historiography of Art.  As part of the effort to bring it up to date I am including some reflections on contemporary art.  I transcribe the draft below.]


Not so long ago it was thought that the open-sesame to the understanding of contemporary art was Postmodernism.  As time went on, however, it became clear that the term had different meanings in various fields, so that Postmodernism in architecture, for example, has quite different qualities from  Postmodernism in philosophy. The temporal parameters were also uncertain, stretching back to 1960 or so according to some writers.  Finally, postmodernism shared a number of features with the modernism it was claimed to supplant. 

If postmodernism was the general umbrella term, it welcomed to its sheltering embrace a number of more specific trends, such as minimalism, earth art, performance art, neogeo and so forth.  The identification of these trends represented a prolongation of the older strategy of segmenting modern art into such styles as postimpressionism, fauvism, cubism, expressionism and so forth.

Why 1989?  That was the year that the Berlin Wall was breached, signaling the end of the Cold War, which had preoccupied the most powerful nations of the world since 1945.

At all events, by 1989, this strategy of assembling a procession of isms or movements had become increasingly unusable as a key to understanding new art.  Practically speaking, there were no more movements, only artists.

Now, as in the past, most artists toil in obscurity.  Only a few rise to prominence, seeing their works exhibited in fashionable galleries and included in the great art fairs, such as the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, and documenta, that have increasingly become the showcase for those who have made it.

One can easily peruse the various books of 100 (occasionally 200) “essential” artists of today.  In these compilations the same names keep recurring, constituting a kind of informal canon of contemporary artists.  Who enters the canon is decided by a confluence of factors, including attention by influential critics, representation by important galleries and appearance at the art fairs, and purchases by influential collectors.

Once an artist has made it into the canon a further process of sifting occurs.  This serves to distinguish the ultimate elite, the blue-chip artists, from the rest.  Typically, the blue-chip group consists of older, established figures.  But not always.  A few artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons made it into the charmed circle at a relatively young age.

Today the ranks of top artists include many more women than previously,  However, old habits linger, and there is a sense in many quarters that some shows and museum collections remain disproportionally male.

Today powerful dealers and major collectors seem to bestride the art world like colossi.   But they cannot have things just as they choose, for critics, resourceful wordsmiths, retain their influence.  In addition these forces are joined by a relatively new body of contenders, the international curators who decide which artists will appear in the great art fairs and other collective venues. 

In this crowded field two opposing camps may be detected. One faction is headed by the huge globalized art dealerships that to the international super-rich – those individuals so dazzlingly wealthy as to be seemingly immune to the economic upsets.  The other group consists of writers, thinkers, and artists, often left-leaning, who cherish vision of art that is politically engaged, historically aware, and socially inclusive.

As a rule, important collectors are wealthy members of the jet set.  But not always.  In New York City a middle class couple Herbert and Dorothy Vogel managed to assemble a major collection with limited means.  The secret of their success was to visit an artist when her or she was just beginning the process of ascent, when prices were affordable.

Art fairs and recurrent exhibitions.

Particularly characteristic of the art world in the last 25 years are the biennial exhibitions, large assemblies of contemporary art, generally on an international basis.  While the practice has greatly burgeoned in recent years, it origins stretch back far into the early years of the modern period of art.
The archetype is the Venice Biennale.  The first such event was held in 1895 largely with Italian works.  Gradually, the occurrences became more international.  From 1907 on, several countries began installing national pavilions at the exhibition. After World War I, the Biennale showed increasing interest in innovative traditions in modern art. Between the two World Wars, many important modern artists had their work exhibited there.

The 1980 Biennale introduced “Aperto,” a section of the exhibition dedicated to exploring emerging art.  In recent years the event has been guided by a series of influential curators, including Germano Celant, Francesco Bonami, Harald Szeemann, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Robert Storr, and Daniel Birnbaum.

 For 2013, the board of the Venice Biennale appointed Massimiliano Gioni to the post of director. The theme chosen was Il Palazzo Enciclopedico / The Encyclopedic Palace, named after a project by artist Marino Auriti featuring an actual scale model of a museum meant to house all the world's knowledge.
In the United States a similar exhibition has focused on contemporary American art.  This is the Whitney Biennial, which was begun in 1932 as the Whitney Annual,  Ir is held at the Whitney Museum in New York City.  The event has seen a number of changes of focus.  In the late 1960s the administration decided to alternate the showings between painting and sculpture,,  Then in the 1970s it was decided to combine both together in a biennial. The first Biennial occurred in 1973. Since then, the events have become broader in scope, seeking include all media.

As regards the selection process, the Whitney Museum has experimented with different methods of organizing the exhibition. It has employed its own staff members and invited outside curators, including Europeans, to present the show.The 2014 Whitney Biennial is scheduled to be the last one in the museum’s Marcel Breuer building. The Whitney Museum is leaving the Upper East Side for the meatpacking district in Lower Manhattan, where it plans to occupy its new building, designed by Renzo Piano in 2015.

In Switzerland Art Basel was founded in 1970 by Basel Gallerists Trudi Bruckner, Balz Hilt and Ernst Beyeler.  It proved an immediate success.  Three years after its launch, Art Basel welcomed 281 exhibitors and over 30,000 visitors.

In 2002 Art Basel was launched in Miami Beach, under the leadership of former director, Samuel Keller.  At the tenth edition in December 2011 a record number of fifty thousand collectors, artists, dealers, curators, critics, and art enthusiasts participated in the show.

Art Basel debuted in Hong Kong in May 2013.

Documenta (or documenta) is an exhibition of international modern and contemporary art that takes place every year in Kassel, Germany.  It dares its origins back to 1955.  Since every documenta lasts only100 days, it is sometimes dubbed  the “museum of 100 days.”

Each event has a particular emphasis.  For example documenta X (1992) focused on certain key dates for wide-reaching social and cultural upheavals, such as 1945, 1968, and 1976/77.   Documenta XI (2002) was organized around such  themes as migration, urbanization, and the post-colonial experience, In 2012 documenta XIII addressed feminism from a variety of points of view. The exhibition typically gives its artists at least two years to conceive and produce their projects, so the works are often elaborate and intellectually complex.

A  Map of Contemporary Art

Given the immense diversity of contemporary art - which is inescapable - it is still possible to find some landmarks - common features - in the new art.  At least that is the view of Eleanor Heartney, author of Art & Today, to whom I am indebted for insights that helped me to assemble the following roundup.

1.  Permeation of motifs and styles from popular culture.  In his 1939 essay, “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” Clement Greenberg sought to erect a great wall of separation between advanced art and popular culture. Norman Rockwell, for example, was simply not art.  In the 1960s, though, with Pop Art and Andy Warhol, this wall was breached.  Now there are no barriers at all, and artists feel free to allude to comic books, cartoons, advertising, and television shows as much as they please.  For example, from 1999 to 2011 the prolific California artist Mike Kelley labored on the “Kandor Project,” a series of sculptures named for the Kryptonite city where Superman was born and which, according to the DC Comics of the artist’s youth, the Man of Steel kept preserved in miniature form under glass.

2. Everyday objects as art.  Sometimes these things are single objects, modified of not.  In other instances the creator presents us with assemblages of thing.  The intent, we are told, is to bring attention to the excesses of the consumer society.  Yet the effect is ambiguous.  In 2000, for example, the French artist Christian Boltanski gathered masses of old clothes, which he presented in heaps at the Grand Palais in Paris without comment.

3.  The new variety and untidiness in abstraction.  With Ellsworth Kelley and Minimalism, abstraction had opted for clean lines and pristine surfaces.  The new abstraction allows for all sorts of unexpected effects, including color combinations that are deliberately garish. Perhaps the most prominent instances are the viscous squeegee abstractions of the veteran painter Gerhard Richter.  He produces these alongside his more realistic works, producing a kind of visual dialectic.

4.  New representationalism.  Reality is present, but is processed through alienating schemata.  In his recent portraits, Chuck Close presents the sitter’s visage through a diagonal grid producing tiny lozenge-like cells which are filled with dots, crescents, and squares.  At close range the image dissolves into an almost psychedelic abstraction.

5.  Puzzle pictures. These scenes look ordinary, but in fact evoke uneasiness and perplexity - and in fact thoughtful consideration.  The works of the photographer Cindy Sherman are exemplary in this regard.  Working as her own model for more than thirty years, Sherman has interpreted herself in a wide range of guises, which are by turns amusing and disturbing, distasteful and affecting. To create her works, she assumes multiple roles: photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser, stylist, and wardrobe mistress. With an arsenal of wigs, costumes, makeup, prosthetics, and props, Sherman has deftly modified her physique and surroundings to create a plethora of tableaus and characters, from screen siren to clown to aging socialite.

6.  Body art.  The human body becomes a zone of alienation, distortion and eve assault, with some effects approximating to porn.  A case in point is Ron Mueck’s disturbing sculpture “Dead Dad” (1996-97).  This piece is a simulacrum of a cadaver of an elderly male fabricated from silicon, resin, and human hair, clinically laid out as if awaiting the attention of a coroner’s scalpel.

7.  Nature modified.  In some cases this art consists either of intrusions on the landscape, continuing the tradition of Earth Art.  An example is Martin Kippenberger’s project known as METRO-Net World Connection (begun in 1993), consisting of dummy subway entrances placed in isolation in a landscape.  Although only two prototypes were constructed - on the Greek island of Syros and the other in the Yukon in Canada - the viability of the project had been demonstrated.  Other artists have sought to bringing nature into the gallery in the form of trees, grass, and other “outdoor” elements.

8,  Rediscovering transcendence in the sense of reprocessing religious imagery, often in a deliberately banal and kitschy mode.  In 1999 a painting by British-born Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, became notorious when New York’s mayor Rudi Giuliani assailed its inclusion in the “Sensation” exhibition being held then at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  The work depicts a Black Madonna surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines, using elephant dung as one of the media.

9.  Kleinarchitectur - that is, architecture-like structures displayed either in the gallery or outside on the street.  Using plaster, cement, building samples, photographs, and bric-à-brac, the German artist Isa Genzken creates architectonic structures that have been described as contemporary ruins. For Genzken, the column is a recurring motif  - a “pure” architectural trope serving to explore relationships between “high art” and the mass-produced products of popular culture

10.  Intertextuality. Some works are created to establish dialogue with other works, often  major pieces in the historic tradition.  Mark Alexander’s “The Black Gachet” of 2005-06 is a rendering of Vincent Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Gachet entirely in that hue.

11.  Institutional critique.  In November 2012 the Museum of Modern Art displayed Martha Rosler’s Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, a large-scale version of the American custom of the garage sale, in which Museum visitors could  browse and purchase second-hand goods organized, displayed, and sold by the artist. The installation was a space for exchange between Rosler and her customers as they haggled over prices. This was not a first for Rosler wbo had organized other events of this kind at San Diego, Vienna, Barcelona, Stockholm, and London.  Implicitly, the events are meant as a critique of both the larger consumer society and the perceived commercialization of our museums.

12.  Dizzying multiplication. This occurs when the artist gathers a vast number of little objects, more or less identical to form a superheap.  In 2010 the leading Chinese asrtist Ai Weiwei created an installation in London’s Tate Modern in which he filled the great Turbine Hall with one-hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds.

In this vast welter of diversity, one thing stands out, love of spectacle.  Ours in not an art of reticence or decorum, but one of flamboyance and excess.


Elizabeth Wheatney, Art & Now, London and New York: Phaidon, 2008; Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson, eds,, Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013; Kelly Grovier, 100 Works of Art that Will Define Our Age, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013; Bruce Altshuler, ed.m Biennials and Beyond - Exhibitionss That Made Art History, 1962-2002, London and New York, 2013;  Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel, eds.  The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012;  Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott, The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, New York: Prestel USA, 2013.