Sunday, June 19, 2011

Outraged at an art gallery

I am a regular visitor to art galleries, and am increasingly appalled by the trash that curators and museum directors stuff into their galleries and pass off as art. But nothing could have prepared me for an exhibition of graduate students at a famous art college in London. The trash exhibited there – and presumably approved of by the teachers of that venerable institution – was shocking beyond all brief description.

Marcel Duchamp sneered at the art world when he sent a urinal as an exhibit at an art show, and then again with his readymades and yet again when he launched his slogan “art without an artist”. Duchamp was a cynic but a highly intelligent man. I wonder what his attitude would have been had he lived long enough to see that he has, with his statements and actions, licensed not only museum directors and curators to purvey their rubbish, but worst of all, to have licensed teachers at art colleges – including professors – to abdicate all responsibility towards their students, from whom they now demand increasingly large sums. What he seems to have provided some sections of the art world is a recipe for suspending thought. For there was nothing in the collection of bric à brac exhibited to suggest that the students exhibiting had had any formal tuition in anything remotely related to art, save the notion that anything can be called art provided it is exhibited in the relevant artistic setting. Nor did any exhibit suggest that there had been thought behind it. There was not a single item in that lamentable exhibition that I wanted to contemplate or look at after the first glance, or to think about, or to delight in. Instead, the usual collection of stones, of cardboards with illegible scribbles, and on and on. Truly shocking.

I argued in my book Inner Vision that one of the many functions of art is the acquisition of knowledge. In fact, I would argue that this is a very important function of art. But what kind of knowledge does one get from this accumulation of trash? None at all as far as I can see.

Perhaps the only value of this disgraceful exhibition is that it may spur some to start questioning whether we have not gone far enough with this license we have given to the art world and its conceits. When the rot really sets in, that is, when artists who are also teachers by trade, abdicate their responsibility towards the students out of whom they make a living, by encouraging thoughtlessness and by encouraging the notion that anything can pass as art, then the time has come to pension them off so that they can live by their art alone and replace them with those who have a more responsible attitude towards what they profess to teach.

It is regrettable that art, being largely in the subjective arena, is not as open to assessment as science or as other subjects in the humanities, such as English or history. Had it been, and had there been assessors (as there are in science), the ratings given to institutions such as the one I visited would be very low and they would soon lose their government subsidies. Perhaps one good outcome of neurobiology is that it may soon give an objective measure of just how much pleasure this kind of trash gives, and force those who live by teaching art to think a little more and perhaps to communicate some of their thinking to students.


Sarah said...

The purposes of art are many, including to inspire debate, and provoke though and feelings – which is exactly what has happened here.

You claim 'there was not a single item in that lamentable exhibition that I wanted to contemplate or look at after the first glance, or to think about, or to delight in', yet you have taken the time to write a blog about how enraged it has made you feel!

Your anger seems to be coming from the fact that what you saw did not fit your own tastes and ideas of what art should be, although later on you admit art is a subjective arena. Just because you don't find something aesthetically pleasing does not mean that it's not art, and it doesn't mean that it shouldn't be allowed to be exhibited for others to see (or as you would argue, not created in the first place).

One man's trash is another man's art, which is why it's such a fantastic thing.

MCGuilmet said...

Your outrage is understandable and warranted. The poverty of thought visibly evidenced in some exhibits speaks for itself. While this can be frustrating, there is cause for optimism.
Most cultural signifiers move slowly, not appearing by spontaneous generation nor evaporating suddenly into the aether. It could be argued that what we are witnessing today is the logical conclusion to what was a gradually shifting and then wholly focused exploration of ideation and concept at the exclusion of skilled expression. There are certainly periods when skilled expression has been valued over ideation, and this produced some equally horrid artifacts. If Art history teaches us anything, it is that people will not accept boredom very long either in concept or execution.
It is difficult to place blame. Duchamp is a common target for many, but Duchamp was reacting to a set of circumstances in his time. All art made should be considered within the time it was made. Placing blame on any particular Art maker from any period is difficult.
I do believe that you have placed some blame squarely where it belongs, on the shoulders of many current academic leaders in the humanities. Every new class of freshly minted MFA’s who have not acquired the barest tools of skilled expression, whatever the medium, or who have not acquired the merest understanding of Art theory prior to 1900, (or 1960!) are ill prepared to give birth to great Art of any Form. I do say “any form” as I am an admirer of many forms far beyond “traditional” painting. There are thousands of us today who value beauty, skilled expression and craft, but we are also not willing to ignore the rich explorations of modernism and some contemporary art.
However, when there is no discernible evidence for intelligence on any level; ideation, concept, skilled expression, invention, narrative, wholly nothing there, then it is time for educated reform.
What is absent is a logical platform that recognizes both the subjective as well as the objective nature of Art via empirical evidence. This may require a “reordering”, or an “updated understanding” for the very definition of Art itself, a better understanding for the essences of Beauty, Form, Concept and Expression. Philosophy and Psychology have had the most profound impact on the humanities. I am counting on brain science to have this same profound impact.
The critical question to me is: how do we speed this along?

Seb said...

Thanks for your comments. Let me hasten to add that there are many examples of contemporary art that I value and admire. You in fact have put it better than me, that the problem lies in not been required to acquire any skills. I think much of the problem lies in this lack of skilled training, fortified (negatively) by any formal learning in art theory. After all, if one is encouraged to collect pebbles and dump them on the floor of an art gallery as an exhibit, why one would bother with skills?

Neurobiology is getting there, faster than we think. Please watch this space!! Regards, SZ

Susannah said...

I see art as an expressive language, more like music which stimulates emotions – all kinds of emotions and much good art is deeply disturbing.
I’m not sure I would welcome art being viewed as something with measurable qualities, and certainly not measurable in terms of beauty. (Although I acknowledge a students work needs be measured according to certain criteria).
I am certain that the study of the brain can tell us things about art. I am sure that the study of art can tell us things about the brain, but I am not at all sure that teaching how the brain works can produce good art just as someone can be an expert in music theory without being a good musician.
If we could discover some sort of beauty spot, a state where the brain produces intense visual pleasure and create art work that stimulated this area, we would all have a lovely time, but that would not really be art in my view.
I’m not sure art can be taught as such but students can be introduced to windows on worlds, taught how to research more effectively and encouraged to ask questions. The production of art is for me, at a very basic level, concerned with play.
Having said that I have also seen some pretty rubbish art shows recently.

Prof Zeki's musings said...

Thanks for your comments.

If, as you say, art is fantastic because it can produce works that some regard as trash, then the exhibition I was referring to can be considered to have been a great success.

If the production of works that can be regarded as trash by some makes art fantastic (as you put it), then the teachers at the art school I am referring to can be said to have been wildly successful.

The question is: what proportion would regard the works at that exhibition as trash? I did not speak to all of the some 300 people who were there, but the (about) two dozen I spoke to were unanimously of the view that this was trash. Hardly a representative sample, you might say, and not a scientifically rigorous survey, but some sort of indication nevertheless.

If, as in science and in other subjects in the humanities, there were some method of surveying the effects of such art, or of determining how effective the teaching at such colleges is, then we might well find that such institutions will lose their government subsidies (as some already have), unless of course there is some policy that dictates that art must be considered as trash by a certain proportion because that is what makes it fantastic.

My concern is about the teaching and production of such trash with government subsidies; I have absolutely no objection to the same works being produced at private expense and consumed at private expense.

Although art is in the subjective arena, neurobiology is moving ineluctably towards providing some objective measure about how much art works satisfy, please, move, and disturb.

I am sure that many will not welcome such a development. But, then again, many will.

Which makes neurobiology similar to art in some respects. In other words, some like what we produce, while others are horrified by it.



Prof Zeki's musings said...

Thanks, Susannah, for your comments.

I agree with you that no knowledge about the brain or its mechanisms would have improved the music of Mozart and Beethoven or the masterpieces of Cézanne and Poussin. Which is why I think that neuroesthetics is a somewhat asymmetrical subject, in that (also in agreement with you), we can learn a fair amount - indeed probably quite a lot - about the brain from studying the products of artists, although we have far less to teach them, if anything at all.

And I would absolutely agree that great art is often deeply disturbing. It is, to me, very interesting to try to work out how, neurologically, it achieves that effect. That great artists do achieve such effects goes to show that they understand something about how the brain functions, without knowing or needing to know anything about brain mechanisms or organization.

In terms of teaching, I am sure that you are also right in saying that art can be taught to only a limited extent. But techniques of drawing or sculpture or singing can be taught. After all, many great artists learned the tricks of their trade from masters, some of whom they subsequently surpassed, and that includes the great Michelangelo and Caravaggio. My complaint in this post was partly about the educational process, in that I saw no sign of the students who exhibited their trash as having come under any formal training in methods, theory or indeed anything else.

That art is about play is an interesting view, which has been discussed in aesthetic theories. I am not sure how far I go along with it. I would rather see a function of art as the acquisition of knowledge, and play being part of that knowledge-acquiring system. But it is a topic worth discussing, which is what this discussion board is all about.


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Seb said...

Thanks, Min, for your comments

J.M. said...

Being a proponent of the "semiotic parity of Language and Art" theory I believe in the similarity of Cognitive impact and Aesthetics, in their identical neuromechanisms and brain zonings.

“In linguistic terms: visual art (including architecture, landscaping, fashion and other graphical genres and elements of graphical presentation in mixed media) – represents an attempt of expression by means of nouns; performing art, dance, pantomime (including elements of movement determined by a technique of a given genre, mixed genres and media) – an attempt of expression by means of verbs; musical art in its diversity – by means of interjections.”

Everything what makes us to acquire or reorganize existed knowledge, find approach to systematize it logically or proves its validity we are sensing and call “Aesthetics”. All sort of prettiness, harmony and symmetry are the rudiments of our syntactic/conscious perception of reality.

This approach is very strict on what we can call Art but I can sense the elegance or aesthetic of it.

Seb said...

Thannks, JM, for your very interesting comments.

On the relation between art and beauty, and the brain's involvement please see our paper entitled "Toward a brain-based theory of beauty", to be published in the journal PLoS One on July 6 this year.

Sarah said...

To think what you viewed was the complete limitations of those students' abilities does them a disservice. To take the example you offered of pebbles dumped on the floor of a gallery: why should that suggest that the artist is incapable of anything more? That may well be the best way for the artist to represent their message. It is perfectly possible that the same artists has the same flair and perfection with a brush as one of the old masters, yet chooses to express themselves in a more abstract way as this is a more truthful representation of the meaning they are intending to convey.

One may be able to prepare the most delicious and delicate sushi ever experienced, but sometimes a hamburger is far more suited to the moment in time.

I very much like Susannah's comments.

MCGuilmet said...

Reading the comments, several thoughts immediately come to mind;
- All art is abstract, all art is conceptual...if nothing whatsoever can be discerned as being communicated in any particular artifact offered that is able to be abstracted into some type of personal subjective meaning to a viewer beyond 'what is this?' or "trash", that artwork has failed,and failed in an epic fashion. It can be Art if the maker says it's art, it's simply 'art' that failed.
- One does not have to "like" Art to recognize Art. It requires an information-rich and considered mind to determine the qualities that constitute Art in SPITE of ones own taste.
- The purposes of Art may not really be very many at all; the EFFECTS of Art making, are many. Art "making" is cause to the "many purposes" that come after. What causes Art making itself, might be the very purpose of Art.
- Visual Art picks up, in some circumstances, where the limits of language fail concept and philosophy.

It really IS time for an update in the world of Academic Humanities. Even Lyotards marching orders to the avant-garde for the pursuit of the "new" are insulted in every Duchampian-Rauschenberg-derivative pile of pebbles, or every 10th Hirst-derivative "shiny object" at Art Basel, or the 100th upside down painting.(we get it.)
Not that "new" should be the goal, but when that's the only platform being relied on, and even it is not realized, then there is not even creativity, never mind a catalyst for subjective meaning. If any meaning exists or existed 10 layers deep in that makers mind, it dies with them. It was not realized.
Creativity, is not Creation.

Seb said...

Thanks for those very interesting points.

You say that visual art picks up "in some circumstances" where the limits of language fail concept and philosophy. I am tempted to go beyond and say that visual art always picks up where language fails (or rather that the two constitute very different paths. I would heartily agree with Naum Gabo that, where a work of visual art has to be explained in language, then the work itself has failed.

It is going to be very interesting to see when a reaction against the "pebble and stone" industry in art will set in [In this I also include such prized items I have recently seen in art museums as - a brand new filing cabinet, a chest of drawers and a swivel chair).

I believe that the time for a reaction is ripe. It may awaken art schools from their slumber. SZ

Susannah said...

I am certain art has many functions and purposes but I’ve been wondering whether one of them may be concerned with maintaining long term memory by creating short cuts to previously experienced emotional states in order to prevent the decay of neural networks through non use.
If this were at all the case it might go some way to explain why art work is often personal to the artist but of an order of communication that is non linguistic. When we view and judge a work of art we are possibly seeing whether it ‘speaks’ to us, in other words, does it conjure up something similar in emotional terms, to our own experiences. If not it I too personal to be accessible and the artwork could be described as ‘having failed in epic style’ as it communicates nothing. It might still have been an important work for the artist but might best be described as art therapy.
If a work of art communicates broadly it probably achieves cultural as well as personal relevance and for this reason I believe an approach to teaching art should be to encourage active research and participation in culture.
I agree with MCGuilmet’s first post that art is a product of its time and we live in a time of such massive technological change it perhaps isn’t uprising if art is in some state of crisis.
The most interesting use of technology I have experienced in recent years has been music, especially the rapidly developing sounds coming through some underground dance culture.
In terms of visual art I am hoping to see similarly exciting developments however I wonder if the advancement of artistic expression is held back by institutions of art and preconceptions of what art is rather than permitting creativity through play – with technology.
Or perhaps the threat of technology is causing expression through pebbles & bric a brac.

Udom said...

"Whoever has truly penetrated into the temple of painting knows that it's initiates seldom communicate by words" -Andre Breton.

Art, the wild and untameable led in chains before the rational, fettered with concepts and comment, it's spirit broken... Enkidu led before Gilgamesh.

Seb said...

I think that you are probably right in supposing that preconceptions of what art is may be playing a large part in the poor education that art instituions, or many of them, provide. At least that is the impression that I am getting, and it is depressing.

Seb said...


Fred McVittie said...

You say in the blog post that you regret that art is not as open to assessment as science or other empirical areas of practice. However, it seems to me that the progression of art in the C20th owes a lot to a mimicking of the processes by which knowledge is gathered and accumulated in the sciences. Imagine a science in which quality was determined by how well the work echoes traditional themes, or established understanding of skill; this would be meaningless. Empirical knowledge in the sciences (particularly the more theoretical sciences which rely most heavily on mathematics) is derived from 'dialogue' with existing ideas and theories as much as it is from physical experimentation. Inevitably many of these dialogues are fruitless and no real progress is made but nevertheless the formulation of propositions and contrary propositions is part of the fabric of scientific endeavour. This is the process which the arts have increasing come to echo; each artwork is not referential of some aspect of the physical world but is part of a dialogue about art (and therefore about representation, imagination, ontology etc), a dialogue which Duchamp had a significant part in starting.

Whether this mimicking of the structure of progress in (some) science by artists is a good thing is open to debate, but it is not correct to say that art should adopt the processes of empiricism as a 'cure' for what is suggested as its current malaise. If anything the reverse is true, the state of the art is possibly a result of science envy and the inappropriate copying of its methodology.

Seb said...

Your points are interesting, Fred McVittie. Art can engage in a very wide variety of subjects, including dialoguing about art itself. No one could possibly object to that; indeed one would like to encourage it to do so. But originality is of the essence in it, as it is in science. Assessment in science is not perfect, but originality is a quality usually looked for. I doubt very much that a scientific project that echoes traditional themes would get a high mark. And originality is the one thing that was missing in the exhibition I referred to, and others like it, but shockingly so in this one. I did not suggest that art should adopt the methods of empiricism. This would be alien to my concept of art. What I came away with from this exhibition and others like it is not so much that there is a malaise in art, but in the teaching of, and about, art. For here, the impression gained was a thoughtless mimickry - just the sort of thing that a scientific assessment would not favour.

Let me add that I am not in favour of judging art by scientific standards, or vice versa. But surely, originality is a thread common to both and without it, science would fail, from which you should not conclude that I consider all current and contemporary art a failure. Far from it. SZ

Fred McVittie said...

@Seb - Thanks for the response. I'd say that the drive toward originality in art is exactly part of the problem. Each artwork has to announce itself as simultaneously part of a current debate within the discipline and also as an original contribution to that debate. This, again, is to my view a mimicking of the scientific method in which creativity is necessarily a function of both a relationship to current knowledge and an original contribution which sets it apart.

Barbara said...

"Perhaps one good outcome of neurobiology is that it may soon give an objective measure of just how much pleasure this kind of trash gives..."

The Acclair Art Valuation Service has already put this idea into practice by offering an EEG art evaluation system:
The technical details set aside, I think the project explores the possibility of a "brain based" measure of art in an interesting way.

Seb said...

If you mean seeking of originality just for the sake of being original, then that is a problem, I agree. But surely originality is important, in art as in science. In originality, I include two different strands. First, the originality that comes from starting a new approach - of which there are so many examples in art, that of, say, Caravaggio on the one hand and Mondrian on the other (to take examples that are far apart) being just two. Then there is an original development of a new idea - as in the case of, say Cezanne in his study of form, and the switch from analytic to synthetic cubism in the case of Picasso (just two examples). Here there are many artists who continue to develop the same line to boredom, two good examples being Lucio Fontana and Bernard Buffet.

In science, too, there are many who continue along the same line without developing that line, leading to a sterile repetition. Equally, there have been examples of scientists seeking to be original at any cost and ending in failure.

Perhaps the difference is that science allows of a more objective assessment.

Seb said...

Thanks for your response. This is interesting, and I am sure the technology for this will develop and have a big impact on the art market. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is another matter. I personally welcome it. SZ

Fred McVittie said...

Vaguely related video

J.M. said...

Thank you! Your "Toward a brain-based theory of beauty" is very solid practical research.
In my view it still needs to be adjusted on its empirical fundamentals.

What you call "beauty" & "ugly" can easy renamed to "meaningful" & "meaningless" and let us to establish important syntactic correlations/conjunctions derived from the same medial stimuli.

The end registration in the brain zones activity on sufficiency or insufficiency of stimuli to create "meaningful" syntactic junctions (even at their highly metaphorical stages, when one is appealing to many) can be perfectly sensed as "beauty" & "ugly".

Notions like “we are possessing Language with the brain-based syntax” or “we are possessing Art with the brain-based sense of beauty” sound equally correct, when graphics is noun, dance is verb, music is interjection.

I believe, you research is very important for bringing Language and Art to the single facility in human brain structure.


Mr Bould said...

photography killed the canvas and Semmelweiss was right after all

Stephanie said...

tI also attended a graduate exhibition this summer which contained many items I found dreary, derivative and in some cases overblown - small ideas writ large as though their large scale could increase their importance. I agree with Susannah that visual art is a language: expressive, yes, but also potentially analytical, political, philosophical. If it's true that it's a language, though, surely there are many aspects of it that can be learned? This doesn't necessarily mean the tutor must teach a prescribed curriculum in a didactic way.....In my own art school the dialogue was the thing, combined with total immersion in visual arts culture from the most ancient to the most contemporary.

As to what art is and what it does to our minds, here's Nicholas Bourriaud in "Contemporary Forms of the Monument" from his book Relational Aesthetics: "The common point between all things that we include within the umbrella term of 'works of art' lies in their ability to produce a sense of human existence (and point to possible trajectories) within this chaos called reality."

I find the Prof. Zeki's neuroesthetics research absolutely riveting, and while I wouldn't insist that artists should respond by making works of art designed to reflect the findings, we are nonetheless able to take them into account if we wish, just as Bridget Riley took known optical response into account when developing her own remarkable body of work. If art is a language it matters very much that he individual subjective response is a strong one & that the work is "legible" to the viewer. Perhaps art tutors become so accomplished at "reading" or inferring meaning into their students' work that they can't always see what is legible or meaningful (beyond a very individual, personal self-expression) and what is not?

S.Z. said...

Thank you for your comments, Stephanie. Perhaps the definition of art given in your quote from Bourriaud should be more widely known; it is not clear to me that such a defininition would include pebbles, brand new filing cabinets, a door on the floor, and so on - the staple diet of many modern art museums

Stephanie said...

Mmmm...or in my case a washing machine and some cables and other detritus!
However - thinking of your mention of pebbles - I do like the works of Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, both working in the natural environment (with water, ice, leaves, bark, mud &c) whose works are deliberately ephemeral, existing only as photographic records after they revert to the natural state from which they came. Also rather Buddhist in conception, although different in their specifics from the digital works you describe elsewhere by a Japanese artist. I must look him up.Sounds very intriguing.

J. Hamlyn said...

I didn’t see the exhibition that you mention so you may well be right that it was unworthy of description – many are. As an art teacher though, I’m a little provoked by your suggestion that teachers “encourage thoughtlessness”. Surely it’s in the nature of students – art students especially – to question and to pose alternatives (flawed as they may be) to the thinking and making of their teachers?

I can understand your frustration and that you felt a need to identify a target. But blaming teachers is even more naïve than blaming parents for the actions of their children who have long since fled the nest. If those young artists had impressed you, I wonder if you’d have spent even more than a moment in consideration of the influence of their teachers?


J. Hamlyn said...

oh and...
The point you seem to be missing is that the very gestures you find so outrageous are successful for precisely that reason. They’re not made to impress the likes of you - or me for that matter – they’re made to stand against all that we hold dear. The difference between you and the teachers you criticise though, is that they probably understand that the best way to discourage such familiar gestures is to ignore them rather than affirm them through expressions of outrage or attempts at censorship.


T. Adrian Hoffman said...

Sarah begins the comments section by stating 'The purposes of art are many, including to inspire debate, and provoke though and feelings' and defends the creators of garbage art by applauding their ability to irritate the viewer - because this is a 'feeling' that has been stimulated by the 'non-artist'. This is a load of CRAP. Why not throw out the countless hours of hard work and imagination, and simply walk the city poking people with a sharp stick? That would invoke the same feeling. Ahhh is that art?? No Invoke feelings, if you must - that take a viewer beyond himself ... that cause the viewer to say, internally, 'Now I understand a tree', or a figure, because I see it through the eye of a trained master, who breaks down and understands through countless hours of study, the essence of a tree, and its balance in the universe... it is seeing through God's eyes, the mysteries of our visual perception, to grow beyond what is known. A sharp stick in the groin, or a pile of garbage called 'art' - do NOT qualify.

Jocelyn Ireson-Paine said...

You replied to Susannah that: "neuroesthetics is a somewhat asymmetrical subject, in that we can learn a fair amount - indeed probably quite a lot - about the brain from studying the products of artists, although we have far less to teach them, if anything at all."

But imagine that we could write a program that simulates a brain connected to a pair of eyes, well enough to calculate the pleasure derived from any piece of art shown to it. And that can also indicate, for the not-so-beautiful pieces, which laws of aesthetics have been violated. Wouldn't that be useful? "The position of that tree weakens your grouping aesthetic, but if you move it five pixels to the left and retexture the bark so it looks more like that of the elm on its left, you'll strengthen grouping by 14%, and increase total pleasure output by 37%".

I'm thinking of a conversation in one of Primo Levi's stories between an engineer and a writer. The writer is bemoaning the fact that, unlike the engineer, he has no objective measure of how good his constructions are. Which often leads him into vicious cycles of self-doubt and creative paralysis.

S.Z. said...

I fear that many misunderstand neuroesthetics, and believe that it is somehow trying to "explain" beauty or tat it confounds art with beauty. This is far from true, but no amount of explaining the difference seems to allay the fears of those who have them.

Far from trying to "explain" beauty, our aim is much more limited. It is to understand those brain mechanisms which allow us to experience beauty. This is as legitimate and interesting a neurobiological question as searching for the neural mechanisms that allow us to experience colour. But in framing its questions, neuroesthetics is, inevitably, very inspired by past debates in the humanities. It is in this sense that I think of the relationship between neuroesthetics and the humanities to be asymmetrical.

Of course, the day may come when neuroesthetics contributes something to the humanities. That will be decided by the humanists, not by us.