CONCEPTIONS, STRATEGIES AND PRACTICES OF AN ARTIST

BY SŁAWOMIR MARZEC

The increasing today correlation of diverse discourses inevitably leads to their hierarchization in daily life. The more subtle and more complex discourses are written down (read: reduced) into the more straight and readable ones. In this way they become understandable and useful for average people. Thus, the effects are often lamentable – former subtleties challenging our thoughts, imagination and feelings often are reduced to the category of superfluous freaks, or outright anomaly. Art exemplifies it very clearly – now its „essence” is defined by marketing rules and „predominating social problems”; artists and their works became simply derivative from them. And everything happens in the context of such slogans like: „everything is a text” („… a discourse”), „the death of subject”, “the death of man” etc. It seems, that in the consequences, nowadays already the very treat of the problem of an artist as individual person, has subversivecharacter to the status quo. It makes however a chance, to regain the human dimension of art.

How distant, but simultaneously how concurrent and close to us (especially in the shelter of own studio) seem today the creators of prehistoric paintings, Egyptian „givers of life”, the Dogons` „prisoners of own creation”, ancient experts of measure and harmony, migratory, or the rather pilgrimage creators of icons. Artist’s identity is evolving in time, every culture and epoch (and today even every decade) raises own challenges to him. However the artist’s status always carries the stigma of ambiguity balancing on the borderland between contempt and admiration. Already Plato wanted to chase them away from cities, because of causing superfluous confusion with their aesthetical whims and inspiring mindlessness. Meanwhile Neoplatonism propagated the conception of „genius with empty hands”, which led by the worry about ideas, saved them the fall into a matter at all; that is: he hungs around. However there is a myth originated from iconoclastic cultures, which advocates, that after artist’s death, figures painted by him would demand own souls from their author; the consequences were to be so gloomy, that – just in case – better even today approach to practice figurative art with deep anxiety. The artist’s dignity reached the apogee in the romantic conception of genius, who, thanks to the power of will, talent and sensibility, penetrates the essence and brings it into being. Nowadays artist’s status probably was preeminently expressed by W. Gombrowicz: now “artist is closer to reality, because he does not need to pretend that he knows everything – artist just should be able to show that he is alive”[1] (let`s add: alive in the entire meaning).

However who is the contemporary artist? Obviously it is possible to dispute about the notion of contemporary, but here I will concentrate myself on the idea of avant-garde and neo avant-garde artist, and next on the status of the artist in the time of crawling Second Modernism.

There are many varied interpretations of avant-garde phenomenon, however the belief in progress of art and its (efficient) participation in social and political transformations, was its main determinant. That conviction about the junction between art and life, is probably most clearly defined in John Dewey’s idea of experience. He considered, that experiences of art causing real transformation, are more important, than the idiosyncratic aesthetical values of art piece. And artists were to stimulate those transformations through their inflexible radicalism. As we know from the history, the belief, that art would improve our societies, appeared delusive – already Dadaism artists (getting over the disaster of First World War) expressed it through the canon of convulsions beauty situated on borderland of absurdity. Piet Mondrian, who marked the direction of art progress and new sensibility, can be another good example – he became probably one of the first victims of the progress: in the latter part of his life, he was not able to suffer the view of no-straight lines (as tree branch)… And art directly engaged in social and political transformations, which took place for example in Soviet Russia, where many artists greeted the revolution with hope on rational and free world, carried tragic, and often physical defeat.

Meta/art is the next essential avant-garde feature: art about art, art through art, art in art and so on, which, first of all, operates on the level of artist’s self-consciousness and analyses every possible problems and contexts ensuing from art praxis. This tendency was concluded in Conceptual Art confounding art into linguistic, logical etc. games. And it ended practically in total failure too – topped by the conception of artist without art, where question about art became secondary. Probably it was most clearly performed in Cezary Budzianowski’s action titled „Who will recognize the artist?“, which took place in one of supermarket in Lublin in 2001. The megaphones repeated these title question so long (around 20 minutes), until someone found the author, brought him to the cash desks and received chocolate box as the prize. The question about the reasons of the recognition (the artist`s name, description and achievements were not passed) hung with heavy cloudon the routine of our behaviors.

The idea of institutional artistis another, though softer variant of the conception artist’s without art. In the 60`s important transformations took place in the avant-garde bosom – some important artists‘ group came into being (as Art Workers Coalition), which aiming to their fuller freedom, decided to become independent from art institution through… taking them over. The process is known as institutionalization of avant-garde, which – in the consequences – congealed on regular posts. This phenomena found the theoretical subsidiaries in (very popular and practice even today) Dickie`s thesis about art world and as well Danto’s one about art institution. They claim – in shortage – that art is that, what given art world considers as art. Although this very simple and pragmatic approach has some infirmity, especially in countries – like Poland – where the communities of values and senses, often are replaced by self-seekingcoteries.

The institutional artist is the man or woman with new proprieties, competent mainly in sociablegames, efficient in bureaucratic meanders and promotion systems. The measure of his/her greatness is the quantity and amount of exhibitions, catalogs, grants and so on.

Incessantly, in the sphere of avant-garde, the tendency of engaged, critical art comes back, which uses to fail in every possible ways. How is it possible to criticize and transform the society through performing it in front of narrow connoisseurs team, which usually are sensitive and consciousness of the problems people? And furthermore through reducing art into fair meanings, which usually are far-off even to the level of third-rate journalism, and which often does not overcome even the frames of the one-dimensional political correctness. Anyway, nothing does make the politicians and businessmen more gladden, as the transformations of real problems into symbolical ones. Though obviously we should avoid such general view – I respect H. Haacke, the classic of this tendency, who, invited to MoMa, displayed documents disclosing financial swindles of the bosses of this institution.

The contextual tendency is worthy of mentioning too. It claims, that art is resulted from given context. However it appeared, that there are many contexts, in which any sensible and valuable art is simply not possible. It concerns in large rank also the avant-garde idea of liberation, or emancipation. Art treated as an arm – in noble otherwise battle for social liberation of feminists, gays, ethnic minority etc. – often falls into similar problems like contextual art. Art is here usually reduced to a sociological symptom, or diagnostic, which pushes out symbolism through own „authenticity”. And it is, in my opinion, inadmissible, because thanks to the symbolism (understood in all manners), art introduce the beneficial „surplus” to the totalisation of cultural realities.

Popular art, art of subculture, blockers art etc. is fairly specific, however it is still the legacy of avant-garde idea of emancipation. But under the slogans of authentic spontaneity, the inadmissible reduction of art happens here again – the automatist of spontaneity should provoke our suspicions about it’s schematize. We are not more free because being not consciousness of our conditioning. The authenticity of expression of given context becomes here the superior value, what is easy to recognize as the echo of Marxist idea of socio/biographic art. Blocker artist, that is: „artist fully authentic” is practically an usurper, and only his/her willing decides about his artistic status. The authenticity invokes the idea of art accompanyingour common life – getting over its fears and hopes. The artist has to be here “himself” and express the pure “himself ness”, supporting in this way (by his biography and activity) a material for sociologically disposed art curators and critics. The situation is perfectly concluded by prominent NY art critic R. C. Morgan, who asks about “the ability to distinguish between what is significant and what is symptomatic in culture”.[2]

It coincidences with another – merely suicidal – thesis advocating, that art is the expression of personality. If it would be truth, then obviously the expressions of every pathological type of personalities would be more attractive. Nobody would be interested in the expressions of really normal (intelligent, sensitive and responsible) persons. And of course famous personalities` expressions would be desired – how many people would prefer to have on the wall Tysson`s painting, instead of “any Olitsky`s” one?  Anyway, some years ago Madonna bought some paintings of Braque and Picasso, repainted them a little and… sold for better prize. In spite of quoted examples I will obstinacy claim, that art is not the expression of personality. Because personality – in certain frames – isfluxional, and it is possible to re-form, “re – build” it according to our dreams and reason, not only to express its (always accidental) state.

The activity including new technologies into the art realm, belongs to the avant-garde tradition of progress too. In the initial step the technical complexity usually causes, that rather tinkering men, than humanists (acting with the feeling of senses and value) use to deal with it.

Technological progress, of course helpful and desired, but totalizing the Cartesian heritage of isolated, idiosyncratic reason, use to reduce us into the condition of user, or element of technological system; that is „the duralumin art in duralumin epoch creating the duralumin society and duralumin human being”…

In this short and (of course!) provocative way I expressed – not aspiring to objectivism – my rate to different avant-garde conceptions of an artist. There was colloquial opinion, that in Modernism, artist’s subjective ness was the reason of art works (Heidegger: „The artist is the source of art”).[3] We should say it more precisely, that yes, artist, but treated as artistic personality, that means: written into specified ideological and institutional contexts. It leaded to another specific “emancipation”, which separated artist from the gesture of art creation (that is the disregard of the next sentence from above quoted Heidegger’s sentence: „Art piece is the source of artist).[4]

The two great avant-garde projects: the meta/art and the junction, unification of art and life, appeared as disaster too (though in some moments beautiful and fruitful of great works). Yet today we are rather tired both the enigmatic analysts of next art re/contextualization (closed in their expertness), both so called engaged artists, running over the world and forcing – saying not ad finem figuratively – to ruminateover every eaten hot-dog.

In common conviction, avant-garde produced peculiar “art of artists” (using O. y Gasset`s terminology): art devoid of wider public (however, according to statistics 70% of society is the functional illiterates, so it is not necessary to deplore over it too much). Finally avant-garde, as Marcin Czerwinski said, fall down under the heaviness of own emptiness,[5] and was replaced by Postmodernism. Confusion round the term is tremendous. So we should at least emphasize the distinction between Postmodernism, Pop-postmodernism and Postmodernity, which – in my view – is possible to identify with neo avant-garde. Namely, I regard Postmodernism as the artistic program of radical eclecticism. Pop – postmodernism, could be described by the slogan „everything goes”, which on the pop-culture ground creates the vulgar trivialization of Postmodenity. Postmodernity is the attitude, which advocates, that nothing, any rule, any convention, any truth and so on, does not discharge us of complete responsibility for our acts and thought. It is obviously utopian challenge to permanent consciousness, full sensibility and endless creativity. Where reality – paraphrasing Zygmunt Bauman – is rather a task, than something given. However, in practice, nobody is able to match the requirement of permanent creativity and full consciousness. And rather we should deplore over it, than mystify it.

Big Narrations homogenized the modern world, but the lack of belief in them is the main Postmodernity feature. And crucial here is the unbelief in possibility of understanding the world athwart one universal, static and final type of rationality. It ennobles and radicalizes plurality, simultaneity and equality of different ways of perception, which often lead to the fragmental sense of reality. So the postmodern world appears as dynamic and infinite complexity, where practically pointless is the discussion about any conceptions of an artist, which use to be related with definite vision of the world, art and human being. In this context the artist’s status slips away of any durable qualifications, so we should not talk about the conceptions of artist, but about strategiesof artist. Postmodern artist occurs in dependence on concrete circumstances, in dependence on concrete recipient/participant. And considering the popular slogan about the death of subject and man (Foucault, Deleuze etc.), even the discussion about artist stands up here something improper (J. Derrida: „The game of life is the artist”)[6]

Postmodernity responded to the reality shaped by the global processes of mass medialisation and commercialization. And the processes forced artists into specific strategies and behaviors, as Paul Virilio noticed: into political correctness, and optical correctness,[7] which are clearly performed in so called festival art. Commercialization, as the apologue of interchangeability and equivalence, eliminates idiomacy and exceptionality. The artist appears here not so much as producer, but rather as commercial traveler. Art – as J. Baudrillard defines – became the super commodity, pure signality, where important become just the mark, logo of this perfect (because perfectly superfluous) commodity. However the very possession of the super commodity “ennobles”. The fluctuation of fashion, displacement of client intends and support the need of possession, are the basic market rules. According to them, artists should unceasingly change themselves, showing new striking offer. Or – what is the worse – he should invariably last in given iconography, performing own trademark. Any way, the basic slogan here is: „art is to sell a painting, not to paint it”.

In opinion of many people, mass mediality slowly becomes the basic form of our reality: something, which does not appear in mass media, does not appear at all. The conviction seems to be really – as statistics prove, the average inhabitant of European countries, annually use to spend so many hours in front of television set, as in work. In this context the cry for art understandable for everyone, gets proper horror. Sometimes I fear, that forbidding my children to watch TV too long, I will cause that they will outgrow on freaks, under standards of future society, as the community of advertisements… After mass media principle, artists should compete for spectators‘ attention (the most losing today commodity) with sport stars, models and serial incendiaries. Thepassage to artistic success is here based on the reformulation of art piece into a scheming mediumistic fact. The fact awaking a scandal, which creates „alive social interaction”, is the easiest way. Thanks to this mechanism, every revolt and protest can be treated like… marketing gesture.

The domination of fashion joins all the processes as their common feature. Fashion as a kind of community, but also as the only one today universalform of rationalization, and the basic determinant of individual identity. Fashion does not raise any question, but instead of that, it „indulgently” defines the area of possible expressions. Artists can give up to the dictate (as for example, and with good result Gerhard Richter did, writing down himself into next new trends), or attempts artistic diversion and critique of these phenomena. However the attempts usually are like cobwebby  – fighting them, we get entangled in it more. It was possible to observe it on the example of Jeff Koons`s career , who initially mocking kitsch, after years stood its synonym.

There is a large spectre of neo avant-guard strategies, however we can emphasize three basic ones: strategy of simulation, deconstruction and intervention.

The principle of the simulation strategy is quotation and so called „game of remainders” – a trial to excite spectators only through chosen („emancipated”) elements of art. In this context art piece becomes e pluribus unum elements of our consumptive ecstasy. And the primal activity of the art world is here the heroic rehearsals of separation of the (art) element from others, in hope that someone some when will write any meaning in it. Obviously, after R. Ascott, it could be named more stately: that artists only project a contexts, in which spectators shall construct their own experiences, meanings and references (quotation from memory). Likewise the prevailing recently shock poetics, where the artist’s success is just the attraction of even faint spectator’s attention, and where art appears as unforeseeable game of intensity. This procedure ennobles obscene, brutality and anomaly as authenticsphereandsparkling social interaction. Paradoxically, considering the little effectiveness in propagation of declared ideas in this way (of an open society etc.), one should rather perceive it, as a pure demonstration of anomaly… After the strategy, the main values are directness, authenticity and spontaneity. I already mentioned about my restrictions towards spontaneity (automatism, that is de facto schematize), whereas directness eliminates our reflection and – in general – the inter/sphere of meanings. And authenticity, that is the „pure expression of oneself”, does not allow us to build ourselves according to own project and on own responsibility.

The deconstruction strategy creates solely interpretative commitment of the participants, where the re/interpretation course is more important, than its destination or rules. In common parlance the rising of associations, reinterpretations, and quotations is perceived as something irresponsible and empty. But we may look thereon a little bit friendlier. Then deconstruction could be regarded as dramatic trials of rescue the humanistic legacy of disinterested reason in the world, which “is devoted to extremities, not equilibrium” (J. Baudrillard).[8] Though, it happens on the level of disinterestedness, which, in our pragmatic time, appears as senseless game of words. Deconstruction actualizes the idea of truth as incessant transformation of meanings, which is to prevent us to congeal in one given sense of reality, treated here as disabled illusion of fulfillments. However on the other hand, the multiplication of senses can effects in depreciation the idea of sense; it reduces a sense into a meaning.

Intervention is the next neo avant-guard strategy, understood as the direct commitment into social life. The art piece use here to expose every figure of evil, and goes not only beyond art conventions, but often also behind the standard of social behaviors. The purpose is the attempt of elimination every (wide comprehended) pain, and stigmatize every symptom of social, ethnic etc. constraints. It islaudable idea, if it does not turn into aggressive and insolent activity, what in Poland is often manifested as so called critical art. However the call to pluralism and tolerance, too often ends in the endeavor to locate the caller on privileged position. Instead of initiate a dialogue, many artists use just demonstrate, that they executed the sensible and best choice of life or politic attitude. And, in their conviction, it lets them treat other people as passive and ignorantmass, which could be shaken, provoked and stimulated to creative activity (that is: to follow the artist’s “proper” choice). But fighting the conservative fundamentalism by the fundamentalism of progress (as we already know, it exists) – in practice – leads only to further radicalization of the attitudes. Any way, the strategy of intervention follows Nietzsche’s dream about artists creating „without resentments and remorse”,[9] however with marketing handbookin the pocket…

Recapitulating: Hegel thought that the autonomisation of art reduces its rank. However the experiences of recent decades portray, that the commitment and confounding into given social, political etc. contexts, also depreciates art.

Second Modernism, new cultural formation, slowly rises on the edges of neo avant guard. The formation, in my conviction and hope, abandons the utopian thinking based upon the mechanism of deriving human identity from idealized or reduced vision of reality. It rather tries to endow people in instruments of wrestling with reality, it tries to help us ridding off from contemporary forms of cultural totality throughout supplementation and compensation. It is the soft version of Modernism, as the conscious of final infiniteness, as incessant search of dynamic equilibriums and optimum. Though it is the aware of necessity of acting in varied horizons and on different scale. After the postmodern experiences, we probably sufficiently realized, that not so much human being breaks up and disappears in the formulas of neo/structuralistic narrations and social or economic sociologisations, but rather those formulae are incapable to define living people. To define in a way, which would facilitate and appreciate our life, without reducing us into a product, an element or a function of a given general system or vision.

Anyway, Second Modernism recovers anew responsible and critical working. So in some sense, it is a return to the idea of moderation. As I believe, extremes are reasonable, if they facilitate to sketch the current optimum and compromises; to endure in the complexity. Here the subject of art is not the image as ideological, institutional, comprehensive etc. „correction” of reality, as it was in Modernism. Either it is not the game of pure images and their re/contextualizations, as it took place in Postmodernism. But the matter is an image as economics of our seeing. Seeing close to W. Welsch`s meaning: as the basic rationality present in the ability of shaping the world. And in my opinion, the image is to let us, so to say, see our seeing, that is the schematizes of our consciousness. I write here about consciousness in large meaning, concerning also non-verbal sensibilities and these subtle forms of rationalities contained in mood, corporeality, attention and so on.

If Modernism formulated conceptions of the artist ensuing them from wider systems, meanwhile Postmodernism celebrated the casualness of the world in the figure of artistic strategies, afterward Second Modernism refers to the idea of practice. Compensationis probably its basic artistic praxis, which outlines we can find in O. Marquard`s texts.[10] He maintains, that every human working to be sensible, should make allowance to our irreducible infirmity. Marquard recommends the practice of sluggishness, which supported with ambiguity and multitude of interpretations, would protect us to killing each other on the behalf of “better”, or just only more „authentic” world. It let us also to get rid of the necessity of euphoric manifestation in face of every novelty and every otherness. Artist, according to him, should harmonize human situations, should spread them with alternative solutions. And as well, artist should care about the needs and values displaced from the ground of „sole real currentness”. The compensation does not rely here upon psychological getting over the reality, but on the care about optimal quality of our existence. Even in a defiance of the current cultural reality.

The praxis of compensation is completed with the „self-building” idea, but not in finely aesthetical sense, as happened in Postmodernism. Probably Kierkegaard can be regarded here as the precursor, who considered art as a kind of individualized approach to existence.[11] Art joining various perspectives and dimensions, becomes both the way of the artist individual development, both the confrontation with the horizon of qualities contained in the tradition, or confounded in own biography. Art stayed here (as previously) an initiation of new kinds of communities – these immediate ones, but also the communities crossing given time and place, which would open anew metaphysical dimensions of existence. The artist of Second Modernism is convicted to be in a way, to be awanderer.As it is, not only every synthesis is premature (P. Ricoeur), but also … every instantiation too. The Postmodern ontology of casualness abolished the world predictability and reduced our responsibility to aesthetical and consumptivechoice. It turns out however, that we are forced to act, act on the global scale. And because of that, we are sentenced on the ethics of responsibility. Not so much universal ethic of Modernism, but ethic unceasingly and critically verified into an universalisation movement, it means: co-ordination the consequences of our workings.

Unlike the Postmodern „waiting-room”, unlike the Modern “machine cutting” of reality according to a given project, Second Modernism bases on the consciousness, which restores the horizon of our dreams and hopes – quality, senses and value, towards which we can strive. It restores also the horizon of past – our confounding: obligations and calls. Above all it releases us from the duty of being entirely „current” – probably I am old-fashioned here, but I think, that life in its full complexity and variety is the purpose; or at least the attempt of matching it. And art creates the chance on such growing life. So there is no reason, as I think, to wasteart on the expression of „currentness” (yet always deficient).

We should look for wise dependences, we should increase our rigors in the face of prevailing today arbitrariness and passiveness; that is to practice fight for own greatness – as Zbigniew Warpechowski, prominent Polish performance artists, calls.[12] Art is alive of our life, of our sensibility, intelligence and passion. It is alive through participation in our existential questions. And being of an artist is not the finial of human nature, but rather a chance to be the man or woman more. Well, I hope that Second Modernism could restore the comprehension of art as a kind of humanistic practice evolving our vigilance and care.

[1] E. Pieszak „Trzy dyskursy o spotkaniu z Innym” p. 64, Poznań 2003

[2] R. C. Morgan „Cultural Globalization and the Artist” p. 12, Łódź Biennale 2004

[3] M. Heidegger „Drogi lasu” p. 7 translation J. Mizera Warsaw 1997

[4] M. Heidegger „Drogi lasu” p. 7 translation J. Mizera Warsaw 1997

[5] M. Czerwiński „Sztuka w pejzażu kultury” p. 82, Warsaw 1997

[6] „Estetyka przestrzeni współczesności” p. 47, Warsaw 199

[7] Interview with E. Bai „Corriere della Serra“ 20.03.01

[8] “Postmodernizm – teksty Polskich autorów” p. 100, Cracow 2003

[9] L. Ferry „Człowiek – Bóg” p. 23, Warsaw 1998

[10] O. Marquard „Szczęście w nieszczęściu”, Warsaw 2001

[11] „Estetyki filozoficzne XX wieku” p. 40, Cracow 2000

[12] Z. Warpechowski „Podnośnik” 2001