Sunday, June 10, 2012

Art & Life & Art

It is important to remember that we are free to make art and poetry out of anything: a loaf of bread, some beans, a hasty jotting on the train.
—Alison Knowles

Alison Knowles was one of the influential artists in the Fluxus movement, with conceptual art and performance pieces often including the ideas of indeterminacy brought into art by John Cage. Fluxus was in part about removing the artificial distinction between "life" and "art," and many of the Fluxus participants not only practiced what they preached, a lot of the art made by them was conceptual and boundary-denying. Of course, one of things that makes movements like Fluxus what they are is that if you ask twelve of the artists, you'll get fourteen or more definitions, even denial that it in fact was a movement at all. And that very indeterminacy about the art itself is of course one of the reasons we love it. Fluxus was also post-modernism in that all things were considered fair game for being used in art as well as life.

What makes a piece of art? We put a frame around it. Even a conceptual frame will do. How do you separate art from life? Well, if you must, you do it by taking something and making it Special by calling it Art. That was the lesson of Dada, as exemplified by Marcel Duchamp's "ready-mades," the found objects he put on the wall of a museum or gallery and declared them to be Art. Of course, Dada was a protest against the mandarins of the gallery and museum institutions, the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of artistic taste. Fluxus, as post-Surrealism and post-Dada, was postmodern in the sense that it was assumed that the battles of Modernism had already been won, incorporated, absorbed, and forgotten as all avant-gardes are forgotten as soon as they become interior decoration and design.

The problem of contemporary poetry, in that it is hung up on being "all avant-garde all the time," is that at some point even the most rabid of rebels must acknowledge that they have won, and have now become the establishment—which is exactly the position that "post-avant" poetry currently finds itself in. Language Poetry is no longer rebellion when most of its best-known practitioners are now themselves the academic establishment. (LangPo in the US, the Cambridge school in the UK, etc., etc.)

Which brings me back to Fluxus, because I think it is correct to argue that what Fluxus left us with was not a body of art, even of conceptual art (which is not the end-point of artistic evolution after all), but an attitude towards art and life, and art-making.

Which brings me back to Alison Knowles' point: It is important to remember that we are free to make art and poetry out of anything. Of anything. Anything.

Which of course is where we find ourselves in the creative world nowadays: anything is fair game for art. Life and art are not separate. You live as you create. And some of us create not only a way to live, but out of necessity: it's as necessary as breathing. Whether or not you enjoy the process all the time isn't really relevant. That you engage with art-making is.

So we are all in some sense children of Fluxus, Dada, and Modernism. The history of 20th century art was in many ways the history of the dissolution of categories and divisions between "fine art" and "popular art" and "outsider art." It was the history of the dissolution of ideas about what art should be or could be. This has overall been a process of greater artistic freedom. It does have a shadow side—mannerism, imitation, loss of center, the substitution of shallow ironic distance for deep connection and sincerity—but those are topics for another day. I'd rather focus for the moment on remembering that, as Alison Knowles said, we are indeed free to make art out of anything. Including whatever comes up in our lives. An artist is someone whose first response to life is to make art about it. And anything is possible.

(Hat tip to Jerome Rothenberg for getting me thinking about all this. Not the first time his work has been a catalyst for my thinking about art, probably won't be the last.)

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think that really nails it when it comes to defining art these days: put a frame round it. The other thing that I think makes a difference is context. That’s why I don’t really think a single word can be called a poem unless it’s a made up word but give it a title—i.e. a context—and that changes everything. Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ is the perfect example. Just by relocating it he changed how we view it even without signing it. So maybe that’s what art is: being given the opportunity to look at—in the broadest possible sense—something differently. People will still be debating this long after you and I are dust of course.

As far as the claim that “contemporary poetry, in that it is hung up on being ‘all avant-garde all the time’” I guess that depends on what you mean by “contemporary poetry” because I’m most certainly a contemporary poet as are you and neither of us is especially avant-garde and most of the poetry ordinary people—the kind you run into online—isn’t remotely avant-garde. Maybe academics can be tarred with that brush but who reads them anyway? I’ve just been sent a book of, to my mind, quite intellectually-challenging poetry and the first thing I said to my wife when I got it was, “Who’s going to read a book like this?” I mean for pleasure. Certainly not me and not most of the people I know.

On the whole I’m anti-category. I understand why we have them—like tags on the Internet—but I sometimes wish the only categories we had were, maybe, Art, Writing, Music and Dance. That would just about cover everything.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I find categories useful sometimes, but I basically agree that they're only useful sometimes. They are useful for things like critical analysis, but not for deciding taste.

Contemporary poetry is a big tent, it's true, and I was referring as i said those branches that view themselves as the permanent avant-garde. Basically I'm referring to those branches of contemporary poetry that poet/critics like Ron Silliman cheerlead for, while simultaneously denigrating all other varieties of poetry. The deep irony here of course is that these same all avant-garde-all-the-time poets are also the ones who tend to complain loudly about how the only audience that poetry has anymore is . . . other poets. Well, folks, you created an island, then populated it entirely with your own, denying sanctuary to all other poetic refugees, and now you're complaining that poetry is too insular? It's a self-created problem, to be blunt.

That's the dark side of the postmodern disjunction and disassociative condition of the arts. The bright side is that anything goes. The dark side is that anything goes.

I do very much agree that art is very much about providing the opportunity to look at something differently, in new ways, from unfamiliar angles, etc. Great art does create "aha!" moments, and does change the way people think about things. Duchamp was a master of that process, one of its great theorists as well as perpetrators of art that forever changed how we saw things afterwards.

11:25 PM  

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