14 February 2021
With the shift in art theory proposed in these essays, it might seem that we have lost our mooring in understanding art at all. With art shifting from a separate domain to being another vehicle for evolving consciousness; allowing any creative response to experience to qualify as art, and deemphasizing of the art object in favour of the overall process, we may seem in danger of being aesthetically cast adrift. Before the events of the past century in the West, we had what appeared to be widely acknowledged, and reasonably sensible rules about art. Are we in danger of losing this comfortable assumption?
That is exactly what we need to do in order to deal with the realms of perception and expression revealed by the modern western revolution in the arts. Clinging to comfortable but outdated and inadequate rules is the cause of much of our current confusion in the art world.
Since the advent of intellect (the capacity to distinguish self from environment and consider each independently) consciousness has evolved through various transitions in what, and how, we understand and, overriding those, why. We have been gradually climbing a ladder of understanding that constantly changes our perspective, sometimes in small increments, sometimes in paradigm-shifting, perspective-shattering, revolutionary leaps to whole new levels of meaning. The cosmological grasp of a heliocentric solar system was one, another has been the extraordinary advances in physics of the past century. That is precisely how evolving consciousness works. That is the mark of the intellectual toolkit as it constantly re-evaluates understanding across our various domains of comprehension. Some may briefly panic at the thought, vehemently deny any radically new insights, dig in their rigidly conservative heels and jam their fingers into their ears; others will rejoice as they gaze in awe at newly revealed horizons of meaning.
Should you doubt this, consider language, particularly since the theory of art I propose suggests that art in its broader definition of human creativity in general, is our most powerful language for evolving consciousness. We have rules of syntax and grammar that govern language, but they only exist to facilitate its use. They are being constantly refined, but we barely notice because it is evolutionary rather than revolutionary and occurs as small increments spread over centuries. Had Chaucer’s English prevailed until last year to be suddenly replaced by modern usage, we could expect both considerable confusion and objections to the change. Shakespeare introduced as many as seventeen hundred new words to the language. Many of which he invented himself, some by combining words differently, changing nouns into verbs, or adding suffixes or prefixes. ‘Questioning’ was one of them, ‘traditional,’ as an adjective, another – both pertinent to a re-assessment of our understanding of art.
One of the problems faced by our theoretical shift arises out of the western tendency to grant autonomy to intellect, assuming that the rational, reasoning faculties of mind are the only sensible way to deal with everything. This creates a preference for the binary, for either/or definitions and, with its fragmentary mode of understanding (The Riven Reality of Consciousness); for definition as an end rather than a means. But as I demonstrated with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, the intellect, like any other closed system, can never fully understand itself confined to the limitations of its own domain, thus negating the concept of autonomy. We might fruitfully consider what this means with some specifics of the art-world and the proposed shift in theoretical approach.
In the West we still cling to a distinction between art and craft. It has never been watertight, because it was an attempt by the autocratic intellect to bring definition to bear on what lies to a considerable, and important extent, beyond definition but it retains its usefulness at the relative level. The flaw in the distinction, of course, rests in our old prejudice in defining art by art objects and their categories, rather than by the process, or meaning being communicated. A chair, for instance, is broadly recognized as a craft product, but I think we might get agreement from the crustiest of luddites that when Thomas Chippendale was designing the first of a particular design for one of his chairs, he was involved in a more artistic effort than when his workshop turned out dozens more of precisely the same design. In order to create the original, Chippendale had to resort to a more visionary realm than the makers of later versions. He had to combine function with aesthetic appeal, surface decoration, formal and linear concerns. His skills and understanding of carpentry were involved, of course, but the real task of creating the original transcended them. The workshop carpenters, on the other hand, relied on their skills as carpenters, not on any visionary input. The judgement between art and craft, must shift from the object to the process if we are to make sense of it. We might claim that in the process, the artist seeks to amaze and inspire, both self and others, whereas the craftsman seeks to satisfy a particular brief. Conversely a graffiti artist is not only capable of, but in some cases has, aspired to creativity at a powerful level, making the leap from vandalizing the outside of gallery walls, to being hung reverently on the inside; conversely, it is possible for a technically skilled painter to act more like a craftsman in Chippendale’s workshop, producing saleable works of art for no other reason than that they are saleable.
The fact that the art world has yet to fully shift from product- to process-based aesthetics, as is required for a fully mature artistic culture, is one of the main reasons why todays art critics, and probably a majority of those who are beyond or only on the fringes of the art world, so completely misunderstand much of what is going on.
Banksy’s recent, attention grabbing, finger-in-the-eye-of-the-artworld moment at Sotheby’s, when the frame of one of his oft-reproduced images was activated to begin shredding the million-pound artwork in front of a stunned audience provides, in the various responses, a case-book study of the confusion. Another is found in the critical response to Damien Hirst’s 2017 Venice exhibition entitled Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. It engendered a predictable mixture of approval and dismissal, praise and vitriol, and the sort of prejudice and misunderstanding we might expect from a thoroughly confused art world. It demonstrated that half a century after the goals of the modern western revolution in the arts had been achieved, there remain convincing indications that even many art-world insiders have yet to grasp what it means.
One comment in advance of the opening was:
‘He’ll probably produce a spectacle, but I doubt it will be of lasting interest artistically. Unlike Jeff Koons, he rarely produces surprises anymore.’
As news of the show seeped out, animal activists deposited outside the Palazzo Grassi 88 pounds of dung, presumably bovine to evoke ‘bullshit.’ It was accompanied by a message at the museum’s door that read ‘Damien Hirst Go Home,’ implying that the exhibition represented an insult to a city of real art.
Another critic complained that the attention to detail was almost obsessive; that there was too much that is oversized, overcoloured, overemphasized, too lavish – there was, the reviewer felt, no real need for a statue’s eyes to be made of emeralds. While some of the delicate smaller works were found to be ‘genuinely beautiful,’ larger pieces were felt to be ‘crude, coarse, ugly even.’ It gets worse: ‘Damien Hirst has created the exhibition the post-truth world deserves… After some 10 years of gestation… it would be fair to say that this show is a contemporary-art spectacle of unparalleled ambition. The exhibition is unbelievable in another sense, too—and not in a good way. Let me be frank: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is a spectacular, bloated folly, an enormity that may prove the shipwreck of Hirst’s career. The duff, hollow note is struck at the outset, on the quayside by Punta della Dogana, where a massive statue depicts a man on horseback assailed by a monstrous sea serpent. Fashioned from Carrara marble (a material famously favoured by Michelangelo), this is, I assume, intended as homage to the tragic ancient sculpture of Laocoön and his sons, now in the Vatican. Don’t be fooled: in fact, it is an overblown, kitsch pastiche, characterized by lifeless surfaces, lurid emotions, and vile, excessive details, such as a couple of toadstools growing on the base. Ugh.’
Another critic wrote:
‘By the end, I felt battered by the exhibition’s relentlessness, but also – and this is worse – bored. Henry Moore’s daughter, Mary, said recently that Hirst had set back sculpture by a hundred years. On this evidence, I agree. The obsession with narrative and storytelling, at the expense of any real feeling for the object; the insistence on immature make-believe: it’s all unbelievably retrograde.’
Another negative review was:
‘Ever since organising Freeze, the 1988 exhibition that launched the YBAs, Hirst has, arguably, shown more talent as an impresario than he has as an artist—operating in the manner of, say, a theatre or film director. This is what we find in Venice: every artwork is subservient to his overarching vision. Yet, rather than seeming grand and epic, it all feels tawdry and low-rent, tinny and fake. This has a lot to do with the outmoded presiding visual style, best described as Eighties Po-Mo kitsch, and the many naked, quivering maidens, excitably menaced by monsters. Water, water everywhere—nor, sadly, any drop to drink.’
Our little diversion into Hirst can be concluded, gratefully, with two positive reviews:
‘For years [Hirst] has appeared a figure of strangely wasted and ruined promise, whose commercialism snuffed out his artistic spark. Yet with his exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,' which fills not only a Venetian palace but also the capacious halls of the ship-shaped Punta della Dogana at the mouth of the Grand Canal, the arrogant, exciting, hilarious, mind-boggling imagination that made him such a thrilling artist in the 1990s is audaciously and beautifully reborn. The young artist who put a tiger shark in a glass tank never died, after all, and we who lost faith in him look like fools for failing to believe.’ The other one: ‘It takes a kind of genius to push kitsch to the point where it becomes sublime … Will Hirst one day be in the history books as a genius? It looks a hell of a lot more likely after this titanic return to form.’
It doesn’t matter whether or not you like any or all of the individual pieces. I didn’t like the Shark in a tank, in the sense of wanting to live with it and look at it every day, but I admired it as art. The overall project of Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable represents one of our most significant modern artists, coming up with his most spectacular creation and, yet again, stirring up the art world from his lofty position as living cultural prophet. What matters is that artistically he continues to be highly creative and influential.
Critics are, of course, entitled to say whatever they choose, the process-based approach to art allows for every member of the audience to have a personal opinion without the need to agree with anyone else – leave that to consensus and the passage of time. As a member of the audience, I too am similarly entitled, so let me briefly go over a few points that I believe demonstrate that we are dealing with opinions that, perhaps, we should not accept uncritically just because they come from leading critics. As we judge art from our individual, subjective perspective in process-based aesthetics, so we can judge criticism. Critics have long been considered well-informed gatekeepers, facilitating the entry of the mysteries to the uninitiated; fully informed guides. The whiff set up by the general response to Hirst’s gargantuan project was not that of animal dung, that is relatively bearable, it was the whiff of censorship, harking back to the old days of pictorial art as propaganda encouraging us as to what to think whereas our modern revolution in the arts has been a powerful force in teaching us how to think…for ourselves.
The expectation in one review of a ‘surprise’ as integral to art is a clear indication of the misunderstanding of the fundamental undertaking of our recent revolution. Hirst certainly produced a spectacle, but that is not antithetical to art, but to decry it because of a lack of novelty seems to be missing the point. In fact, however, the novelty was also present and abundant; it is there in the boldness of the concept, the unparalleled scope, the imaginative content, and its presentation, the workmanship (regardless of whether it involved a thousand collaborators - no-one complains of there being more than one person in an orchestra) and the showmanship.
I think the main point here, however, is the overriding indication that the critics were focused on the art objects, not the process of communication in art. Obsessive detail, choice of materials, size, beauty, crudeness, coarseness and ugliness. Those are all the choices the artist makes – as audience we can say we don’t like them – but they remain legitimate. To question something as art because eyes are inlaid with gems, reverts to product-based aesthetics. The story Hirst created as a vital element of the art was of a vastly wealthy, obviously obsessive collector from the second century. He would have preferred, possibly demanded, emerald eyes for a statue – if we are to imagine a different time, we must also allow different taste and artistic choices. But our critic was focussed only on the object in front of him, not what it represented. Even with real eyes, he could not see beyond it.
The point about Hirst providing the art that a ‘post-truth world deserves’ was almost certainly intended, as revealed by the rest of the review, as derogatory. I suspect the comment by this critic about ‘post-truth’ was intended to refer to the fable invented by Hirst to underpin the concept. In which case, we might as well have a crack at those famous ‘world of the fairies’ paintings of the Victorian era, or any painting of St. George and the Dragon or, for that matter, of angels and cherubs. Oh, and out of the window would also go a great deal of the treasury of past literary fiction. The same critic was also wrong about the ‘shipwreck’ of Hirst’s career. The sales arising out of the unveiling of a ten-year creative project with a cost reportedly in the hundreds of millions of pounds were reportedly rewarding. In any case, as with any artist with an international audience, his career goes far beyond any single artistic concept, one exhibition, one sculpture - two toadstools.
I dealt with the issue of what Mary Moore said about Hirst in my earlier book.1 But again, the focus is on the objects, although at least the narrative is granted a grudging nod here, albeit described as ‘immature make-believe.’ Immature? Why? Is it because Hirst has linked his imaginary story to something as ‘serious’ as art? The great literature of the world is awash with make-believe; our vital myths, including religious myths (does anyone any longer defend the reality of the Gods of Olympus) are make-believe. Make-believe is an essential element of human consciousness and aspiration; it serves a fundamental purpose. Is it the immaturity of the concept that damns Hirst here? But it is not the concept alone that is the art, it is only a part of it. An essential element, but it is not immature or mature on it its own, it is simply imaginative. So are we to believe that linking the ‘make-believe’ to the art renders the whole enterprise immature?
Given the new freedoms of perception and expression granted western artists by our modern revolution, he has, as much as anyone in the art world grasped the full potential of what this means, permits and encourages. In doing so he has left a lot of perhaps conservative art critics and academics, unable to grasp the nature of the revolution as clearly as he has, a bit bewildered, a bit upset by it all and, therefore, by him.
Then we are invited to believe in the suggestion that a showman, a theatre or film director, is less than an artist? What Hirst has done is accepted the challenge, as did Warhol, arising out of the emancipation of art in the west, of ignoring the old constraints governing existing art forms and allowing that anything can be art. To denigrate him for being a painter, sculptor, conceptual artists, storyteller, mythologizer, director and impresario all rolled into one is simply missing the point of what is possible with art and the nature of creative response to experience.
I have proposed a distinction between our two ways of knowing (The Riven Reality of Consciousness), which allows quite different, even contradictory, meanings depending upon which domain we are talking about. In approaching art, it is also useful to recognize various distinctions at the relative level of intellectual interpretation. There is, for instance, a big difference between what we recognize as art, and whether or not we want to devote attention to something, or even an entire category of art or artists. Having had an outing with one YBA, let me turn to another, Tracey Emin. Do I admire Tracey Emin as a creative artist? Unequivocally, unreservedly and with enormous enthusiasm, ‘yes.’ She is a major, provocative, powerful, independent, confident, and meaningful aesthetic mover and shaker. As with Hirst, what she produces my attention eagerly awaits. But there is a distinction between granting attention, and committing to a long-term, evolving relationship with a particular work of art, or a particular artist. Would I like to live with one of Emin’s more famous works of art? So far, no. Nor would I want a shark in formaldehyde in my living room, but in a museum or gallery setting, I would devote plenty of attention to either. In process-based aesthetics, there is an obvious difference between what Tracey Emin communicates as an artist, and the works themselves, making it possible to admire one but not feel inclined to live with the other.
This may seem like a strange conundrum, but only if we conflate the art with the art object. Hirst and Emin are serious artists within the context of western culture. They are truly creative, but for me that is true on a local, and thereby, relative scale. My particular reservation about modern Western art is that it has only just begun its transition from adolescence to maturity. My reservations are with the broader aesthetic culture of which Hirst and Emin are an integral part. Again, by distinguishing between different aspects of the artistic process, we are led to the possibility of different overall levels of profundity, or deep meaning in different cultures. As I propose in these essays, it is my conviction that Chinese culture arrived at the same transition millennia ago and has had centuries to better understand it, and explore its depths. In short, I prefer to surround myself with Chinese art of the ink-painting tradition, although I see no distinction, other than chronological, between modern and traditional in an art form that has been, by western standards, ‘modern’ for more than a thousand years. My point is that the theory I propose allows that given this imbalance between cultures, it is possible for what appears to be enormously significant, meaningful and revolutionary in one culture to simultaneously be adolescence or immature in another. Hence the urgent need of a trans-cultural theory of art, and the modern western attempts to overcome centuries of hubris by entertaining the possibility that while western culture may have fostered extraordinary technological progress, the arts were relegated for centuries to the service of religion, philosophy and science rather than joining them as primary vehicles of evolving consciousness. Marginalized, artists still produced masterpieces, as they always will regardless of cultural constraints, but only recently has the West broken free from servitude to establish the independence of art and its release into an infinite wonderland of potential for the refinement of perception and expression. Finally, there are no rules that govern art in the West, only those that arise out of it. Essentially, that was the prize won in the modern revolution, a prize firmly grasped, and integrated into Chinese culture long ago.
A helpful analogy might be to imagine an isolated group of hunter-gatherers in, say, the Amazon basin, or the Indonesian highlands, cut off from the rest of the world, came up with a culturally extraordinary idea for them, such as written music notation, or gun powder, it would be transformative locally while remaining irrelevant globally.
But, hey! Thanks Tracey, while I may not aspire to owning your bed, albeit torched in an unfortunate accident in St. John’s wood some years ago – no it wasn’t me – I salute you: creativity is relative, like everything else that can be described within the intellectual realm and if that is a puzzling coda, refer to Godel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorem’ – I did.
No-one ever said art was going to be easy! It is our most profound channel of communication between the intellectual realm of fragments and the enlightened realm of transcendent meaning, so it is worthy of our devoted attention.
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.