March 23, 2011

All ego is lost to meaning

“As a painter, Arnold Schönberg was a one-hit wonder. You will find The Red Gaze from 1910 in a lot of modern art primers, despite the fact that it’s a pretty bad painting. (Should you feel in the mood to challenge that verdict: look at the shape of the eyes. They have been carefully drawn by an artist biting his tongue, and they carry no expression all. The superficial energy of the gaze lies solely in the make-up.) Why has this picture become a part of the wider canon? And not one of those that look more interesting to our eyes today, like the clumsy proto-Gustons and the hilarious proto-Condos? (Well, apart from the fact that our painting has come to look like the ghost of Andy Warhol?) . . .”

That’s only a teaser, if you want to read on you have to get issue 6 of Eartrip, a pdf mag on freely improvised and other adventurous musics edited by David Grundy. My article is not about Schönberg, but rather the visual art of two European musicians, Peter Brötzmann and Keith Rowe, explored mostly through what they have put in the gallery of their record covers. Do download, give it a read, then report back.

Thanks. I’ve lately been thinking much about the use of references, how they work or don’t, and if there’s an established way of reading them. Simply because I can’t help doing it myself, even if it doesn’t really interest me: still, you want to pretend you’re doing hard science onto a piece of contemporary art, then you have to sleuth out unconscious forebears and conscious references and write an ersatz art history around them. Is that kind of thing more rampant now than it has been? Since I have neither the authority nor the miles for blanket statements diagnosing trends, I am lucky to have stumbled across a Frieze article by Dan Fox, who thinks the fault is in the art, not in the way I read it. “Confusing the footnote with the essay,” he calls this bad habit: “Sociologists use the term ‘prostheses’ to describe how people use the symbolic value of the clothes they wear or items they own in order to demonstrate their cultural competence or literacy. In contemporary art, we can identify this in the referential turn—‘X work references Robert Smithson, Martin Heidegger’s theory of Dasein and the music of Donna Summer in order to . . .’ etc. As a strategy that has permeated the way much work is made and is signposted for interpretation, it has now entered its mannerist phase. Critical value gets transferred from the formal or conceptual functions of objects and images to the collection and arrangement of impeccably chosen cultural products, events and historical allusions. In many cases (though not all), the auratic value of a well-appointed suite of references creates a smokescreen of illusory scholarship and can falsely imply an historical lineage between the artist doing the referencing and the thing being referenced. It masks the fact that creatively little is being done such sources in the first place.”

I agree with most of that, except for the underlying value system. (And hey, I’m more aggressively highbrow than Fox, since I mention Renaissance hermeticism in my discussion of Rowe’s rich table of connotations, while Fox talks of a “mannerist phase”—these being two currents within the same intellectual movement.) In contrast I enjoyed myself, I had a field day trying to decode the Rowe paintings a little beyond the artist’s remarks published in interviews, and with reasonable success, I flatter myself. The central point here may be that the art doesn’t expect me to be able to read anything out of it, the connotations are in there not for purposes of communication, but because the artist feels that they should be in there. And when I put some effort in, I get the reward of discovering that all is in place for a reason, and I learn to trust the artist even where I’m clueless. Which means from then on I simply dare to enjoy without intellectual remorse. (Trust being a fundamental virtue in contemporary art.) The references don’t seem about establishing an “illusory scholarship,” but rather about the artist placing himself through thoughts and enthusiasms. Now excuse me while I quote Jeff Koons, who seems to have regularly recurring epiphanies in front of his own recent photoshop collage paintings: “When I look at the paintings and realize all the historical references, it’s as if, for a moment, all ego is lost to meaning.” To him, it’s about “the dialog of art,” and I think his approach works very well. While his new paintings are later work that is way past ambition, and while (despite the continuing myth of perfectionism and a workforce of dozens in the studio) the execution has mostly become rather sloppy, when Koons layers a doodle after Courbet’s Origin Of The World with the blow-up of a drawing that his own kid has done, then that is conceptually a beautiful move.

And then I think of Stop, Repair, Prepare, a smash hit from 2008 for Allora & Calzadilla, who destroy a grand piano (referencing Fluxus) by sawing a round hole into it (referencing Matta-Clark), preparing the strings (referencing Cage) and sticking a musician through the hole (referencing Andrea Neumann’s inside piano), who plays the “Ode to Joy”—well, that makes Beethoven part of the form of the work, so that’s not a reference, but since the music’s a readymade of course it references Duchamp, and the performance history of the music references Furtwängler’s Dilemma and the whole Erbauungskultur of the Nazis . . . Stop, Repair, Prepare is well crafted, rich with surface text, a pleasing arrangement of meanings behind historical probabilities and performative facts, there is the real-life allegory of the player pushing a piano around the gallery and some music everybody can hum to.

But what have they done to the references? The “Ode to Joy,” I learn from the catalog, was actually played in 1933 at the laying of the foundation stone of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, where official Nazi art would be shown during the Third Reich. That was also the place where Allora & Calzadilla’s piece was first realized, and at that exact spot the choice of music makes real and deep sense. But when the piece is exported to gallery spaces, that sense seems to vanish behind a smokescreen indeed: the artists’ “research” collected in the catalog tells me that “The Ode to Joy” was adopted as the National Anthem of Rhodesia, it served as a soundtrack to a popular japanese anime series, Pope Benedict likes it and so do the Maoist guerilla of Peru, it was played at the official bringing down of the Berlin wall and at the 1938 Reichsmusiktage for a pleased Adolf Hitler . . . it goes on and on, a bit much for a single work of art to handle. It’s often unfair to quote catalog essays, but here we go: Allora & Calzadilla “dismantle Beethoven’s ‘hymn to humanity.’” That’s a brave act. What worked so very well with the very concrete frame of reference at the original place of performance, now has become overblown holier-than-thou scattershot self-importance for easy consumption.

The other two major references don’t fare much better. The circular hole in the piano transforms it into a shell for the player, and the artists have even switched the piano pedals so that they show inwards and can still function. That is all so very useful (despite the Sisyphean note of the player having to push the grand around, it’s still useful for the purpose of performance) and it has nothing to do whatsoever with Matta-Clark ripping up the shells of our cocoons, except an exact quote of the form. Same with Cage: the piano is prepared to somehow distort the music, which is an evergreen through ages and cultures. That’s a most questionable act of having your cake and eating it: taking the most popular music in the world and delighting everybody with the fact that they will recognize it, then incorporating some token strange sounds so it all will appear like serious art. Which has of course nothing to do with experimental music, or music period. In fact I think it’s pretty offensive, pure exploitation of something that has come to signify eternal avant-garde. And the exploitation is what makes the piece so popular, even with the critics, despite the fact it has no more poetry than a table of contents. Oh wait, Roberta Smith says it has poetry.

If only it were really in homage to Andrea Neumann (hey, they’re all part of the Berlin scene, they should know each other). It would simply be called Innenklavier, they would stick her in it and she’d perform funny noises in off-spaces. That would be brilliant, even with the strings attached.

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