“For people like me, solitude is a victory.” – Karl Lagerfeld
Let’s talk marginality. It is a surprise, even to me, that I begin with that quote by Karl Lagerfeld. I do it reluctantly. Perhaps that is on me for having a preconceived notion of what a marginalized artist looks like, but Karl Lagerfeld just doesn’t match that conception. On the other hand, the quote itself captures the sentiment that I want to convey, the feeling of being outside, of disconnectedness, of the ability to conjure a positive outcome within a potentially negative space. These are the qualities required by those who find alternative paths toward accomplishing creative goals.
What is marginalization really about? Most dictionaries tell us that marginalization is a forced, and enforced, situation; that it is in various ways societal. My first query, in relation to that, is whether it is also possible for marginalization to be a choice, that is to be selected. For example, suppose I am born into a marginalized class. I am educated in an Ivy League institution, and then choose to continue my path back within that, or another, marginalized situation. Is that marginalized? Or is that hybrid marginalized? Or is it bringing homogenization to the margin?
Suppose I am born into the establishment but have personal feelings of disenfranchisement and ultimately choose to work outside of the system I was born into. Am I marginalized?
To step ahead for just a second, what is important to me and what I am ultimately trying to reach and understand here, and I am going to give this objective away to you up front, is how the work, say research work or artistic work, of a person working within the establishment, and the work of a person working in the margins, compares in terms of purpose, effect, and benefit to society. Put another away, can we generalize that people working within the establishment tend to do work that benefits and prolongs the status quo, and that people working in the margins do work that tends to alter that status?
Just to blow a theatrical fog onto that already murky statement, I attended the Voice Awards presented by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles over this weekend. One of these awards was given to Focus Features, the film company that produced such projects as Brokeback Mountain and The Danish Girl. Upon accepting the award, the CEO of Focus stepped out to state in no uncertain terms that Focus’s focal point is on the bottom line. What he didn’t seem to say clearly, but what I did take from that message, was that Focus had discovered that poignant stories about marginal characters had at least an equal, if not larger, popular draw than similar stories about mainstream characters. At the very least, they are moneymakers.
Within the article, The Institutional Margins of Aesthetics: A Study Proposal by Jozef Kovalcik and Max Ryynanen, are included the phrases: “Working in the margins.” and “Whether there are benefits in working in the margins.” Inherent in these statements are two assumptions, one, that creative people in the margins might actually be “insiders within their own milieu,” and two, that there might be “benefits” to being there.
First, it seems taken for granted that the margin is a place. It is a mental space, really a psychological neighborhood, for some a ghetto. One dwells there, creates an environment in which life, work, and social interaction has a specific meaning. It is this particular meaning which causes it to differ from establishment life. Everything about this meaning is in reaction to how others go about every day. It is a parallel life. Walking down the street is the same. Visuals are the same. Physical objects are the same. But how all these things are perceived is different. I just want to throw in that perhaps it is the gaze that is also different. But, basically, the interaction, how one who feels comfortable with how established society interacts with their environment, is internally different than one who feels unaccepted by that same environment – or who has chosen to dis-accept it.
It is this decision, or reaction, that is the space of margin. For some this space, this universe that is parallel to the assembly, that one walks while seeing things that are described by others in ways that one considers ludicrous, that one cannot believe he and the other are looking in the same direction, that they are talking about the same object, or the same person, as if that margin line – what if one were to straddle that line? Is that schizophrenia? – As if that line was the Berlin wall or the Wall of China. Was that Walter Benjamin, who Kolvalcik and Ryynanen perceive as a marginal character, walking in the arcades of Paris? Was he trying to describe the margin? Or find his way out?
But do you remember? Do you remember when Carlos Casteneda found Don Juan in Mexico City? (Yes, you found me out. I am just brazen and naïve enough to quote Castaneda.) In a brown pinstriped business suit? What did he say? Something about being able to co-exist in separate worlds? The antonym of margin is center. So it follows that to live in the establishment is to be centered, while on the margin, I suppose, is on the edge? It feels like a defensive position, like watching ones own back, like having to explain oneself, while also believing in what one is doing. This is the state of non-acceptance.
And yet, many creative souls living in Marginalia, while despairing the lack of community, do not have the capacity for accepting it. This situation parallels the lottery winner who, having no experience with how to live with tons of bucks, is soon without them again. Creativity is their community. Silence is their cerebral milieu. The lottery is their utopia and yet their cesspool. And how do they attain this cesspool? By critiquing it. By trying to create a better cesspool.
And for just a moment, let’s go back to that Art PhD – and art research – and Cezanne. What do they think Cezanne was doing? And what were Picasso and Braque doing? What was Paul Klee doing? And Mondrian? Ana Mendieta? If not research.
Society, the center, at some point recognizes that, yes, this creative, living in the wilds of Marginalia, has come up with some interesting takes that could be capitalized. Let’s incorporate it into Centralia. And so these establishments take this Marginalia creative into Centralia, give her/him some capital, put him/her (lottery winner?) into the creative equivalent of a brown pinstripe business suit, and perhaps society itself becomes nudged ever so much toward a larger center, and maybe the margin, the enforced margin, becomes that much less of a space.
On the other hand, isn’t it just the case that out of such concentrations as this new intensity in the arts (Kind of reminds me of that real estate bubble. You know which one.): art as investment, art as profession, art as achievement, art as academic qualification – out of all that sometimes come these great Chardinian-like im/explosions, these upheavals, that leave us, for just a moment, with the immense relief and gratification of knowing that we really weren’t all wrong; that there was, after all, something more important.
I am not one to spout Malthusian scenarios. Perhaps it is premature, or maybe I am just too reluctant to place my foot too solidly into such a disagreeable position. I would certainly not, given the array of daunting, if not just incomprehensible, fissures that are in real time erupting around us (pick one of any number), denounce anyone else for moving in that direction. Still, for the moment anyway, I am going attempt to stick with the wink/nod/glimmer/grimace kind of positivism that looks forward to something green sprouting in the freight yard.
The question for me and my kind is whether we will be able to recognize and/or accept that sprout. Since the beginning of the industrial age, just to start somewhere, these sprouts have generally been duplicitous. Technology has almost always been a double-edged sword; making our lives simultaneously easier and more difficult to navigate. No wonder there are those now finding solace in material(isms); perhaps in the vain hope that something outside of ourselves will come to our rescue and solve all of our profound dilemmas.
We will continue to maintain the hope of a better existence because we are able, as futurists articulate science fiction, to envision a more enviable condition; but we also know that we are required to cope with the infinite, sometimes absurd, variety of human behaviors, the ones that not only create rich experience, but also those, such as greed, anger, and distrust, that lead us to wars and prevent us from being able to distribute resources equitably.
I was once told, when I asked someone on what basis a particular decision was made, that it was made on “the rule of sense.” I always appreciated that determination, and have actually tried to confide in it. But it only takes an election season, or a session of congress to make me question it as a life rationale. The opposite of utopia is what? Cynicism? And, like it or not, there seems to be no general agreement on sense.
This is it, reality: human, post-human, anthropocene, material (And yes I acknowledge that the earth will go on without us, but what does it matter?). Personally, I want to be on record that, at least for me, we cannot ignore the damage that continually rains on our psyches due to the supremacy, and the covert and incestuous nature, of capitalist consumerism. We can accept it and participate in it all we want, but I contend that such passive immersion reduces us. It is soma.
(Sigh.) Forget Chardin. Forget Malthus. Things will continue as they have for centuries and longer. It is the way of things. We careen from moments of joy, reside in staleness, slide into sadness, if fortunate into momentary despair. In that vein, the art world will continue on its several paths: including the capitalist/acacemic/beaureaucratic path we have discussed previously – and it should. This evolving establishment incarnation provides a vehicle for those who find joy and relish in such intrinsic energy and endeavors. Out of this might come ground-breaking, mind-opening research that aids us in seeing a clearer world. If “non-academic” artists are given equal opportunity to focus on studio research applications, as we also mentioned earlier, equally brilliant work might also prevail.
For others, alternatives will arise and/or be created. Some, those that provide promise of profit (in a general sense) will be capitalized. Others will be marginalized. That is not all bad. There are not only creative, but also radical, possibilities within marginalization. Not that one necessarily enjoys residing within that state of exclusion (and silence), but there is a certain freedom available in not having expectations written one-to-ten on a stone tablet.
And I guess this is where the heart of the debate occurs, does significant and requisite change occur from within or from outside of the institutions? On the surface it would seem that research that comes from within the establishment would continue to support the nature of those very walls, while structural change, logic would portend, should come from outside.
Think about it! “”Bauer countered with her own question. ‘Why not? Why wouldn’t artists want to pursue research and have the opportunity to expand their investigations in an academic setting?” (from Notes on the Panel “The Reluctant Doctorate: PhD Programs for Artists?” CAA 2011). Think about it.
My friend, Gina, works in a gallery that specializes in exhibiting outsider art. Her own painting is about as far as painting can be from outsider, yet she loves the stuff.
Personally I haven’t yet found a way to turn the tide on outdoor advertising. I think that our perpetual immersion in this commercial environment provides not only a constant pressure toward spending, but is also an automatic indoctrination into capitalist culture, allowing little space for any alternative. That’s my personal rant. But I also know that outdoor advertising is part of a larger system. The way I see it, so is the art PhD.
Yes, I really like my Y3s. Still like my iPhone, though I rue much of what it hath wrought. Could I do without them? Don’t tell anyone, I once lived three years in Santa Cruz with only Birkenstocks. Which reminds me, I walked up to some people from Santa Cruz who were sitting in a panel at CAA about research in art. I told them that I was an alum from UCSC and was co-chairing a panel about Investigatory Art at that very same CAA Conference. They said, “Oh.”
So you have people creating an art PhD, and you have people studying to get an art PhD. And then you have people promoting the art PhD. This last part is the slightly sticky one for me, for, as we all know, promotion is most often carried out on the side of self-interest. And I get concerned that, just like the iPhone, people who are self-interested also try to define, or to misuse, or to restrict, or to otherwise dictate the system. In this case the system happens to go by the classification/description art, and, just like those advertisers who use the “eminence” of the capitalist system to dignify their practice, we certainly don’t need more folk in the art world spending resources attempting to put “art” in a place where it just possibility doesn’t comfortably fit, or where many may not want it to fit. At the very least this movement towards the art PhD is just another rung in the telescoping extension ladder of professionalism in the arts, a way to fit into a system that expansively commercializes art education and art product.
First, let’s be clear. This is primarily an artist-philosopher degree or a philosopher-artist degree. I don’t see it being described as simply an art degree. This degree is obtained through the language of words, not the language of medium.
For example, I know a dancer who went through a program to obtain a doctorate in dance. She thought that she should be able to obtain this degree by becoming superlative through dance, by expressing new thoughts and creations through movement. Of course the committee felt they had no way of judging the adequacy of this practice in terms of awarding it a doctorate. What if, as another example, Jackson Pollack was in grad school working on his PhD in 1946 to 48, and said, “This work is my dissertation.”? In other words, are we saying that a certain artist establishment is determining that advanced artistic recognition must be determined by a language that is not inherently artistic; or that artists must become something other to be recognized: that is, is it necessary for artists to speak linguistically as well as in their artistic language in order to be taken seriously? Do we split the field so that there are so-called academic artists and professional artists? Or do we rename it all so that art product itself becomes known by another name?
Though it may be beginning to sound like it, I want to make clear that I am in no way opposed to research in the arts, or having a branch of the arts that takes a philosophical approach to understanding or investigating culture and other things. However, it appears to me that this entire discussion is beginning to turn on just one thing, capitalistic and egocentric endeavors aside for the moment, and that thing is linguistics. What is the language that we are talking about: the language of art, the language about art, the language of dance, or about dance, etc?
The concern that many people obviously have is that a class is being set up within the arts, and that class has to do with linguistics. It has nothing directly to do with artistic brilliance or performance. But it has very much to do with rewarding a certain kind of participation in the arts that is not being made available to artists who may not be participating in this particular way, but may be participating, with equal intellect, in a very different way.
I think it is important that as this process of extending the academic credentials of artists is being developed, we include programs of doctorates in actual studio arts. Not doctorates in studio arts that require immense linguistic dissertations in languages not the first language of artists, but the language in which that artist actually works. In order to accomplish this, we also have to develop an academy of teachers who are able to determine and jury in that language under which a true studio doctorate must be accomplished. What would be the creative, perceptual, and skill levels that must be attained to qualify on the same level as a linguistic dissertation? In this way, then, I think we can raise equally the accomplishment of all artists who wish to continue in the academy, and to avoid the class differences that will certainly occur if the status quo continues.
For myself, at another time, I might have seen myself sitting, wiling away the thousands of hours with the thoughts and the words in pursuit of some perhaps very gratifying grail. I’m not certain that some of my painter, or sculptor, or performance friends, who are amazing artists of change, as the phrase goes, might feel the same if not given a similar opportunity.
It appears that in ancient Egypt the onion was a primary source of divination. This worship seems to have arisen from the belief that its spherical shape and concentric structure might symbolize eternal life. Traces of onions were found in burial sites, as in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.
The onion itself, known as the common onion (genus allium), along with its brethren, the Japanese bunching onion, the tree onion, and the Canada onion, as well as the Egyptian onion; are typically fleshy, hollow, and cylindrical with one flattened side. They are at their widest about a quarter of the way up beyond which they taper toward a blunt tip.
The onion leaf grows out of a basal disk. As the onion matures food reserves begin to accumulate in the leaf bases and the bulb of the onion swells. In the autumn, the onion is basically a biennial but is grown as an annual, the leaves die back and the outer scales of the bulb become dry and brittle.
Onions, somewhat uniquely, have particularly large cells that are readily observed under low magnification. As a result, their cells are easily separated for educational, experimental, and breeding purposes.
Additional uses for the onion include:
Teaching the use of the microscope
As a moth repellent
To prevent insect bites
To promote hair growth
To reduce freckling
To polish glass and copperware
To prevent iron rust
To increase resistance to plant pests
To repel moles and insects from plants
As a yellow-brown dye
Ancient Greek athletes ate large quantities of onions, as they believed the onion helped to lighten the balance of blood flow. Roman gladiators rubbed onion on their bodies to firm their muscles, and, in the middle ages, onions were proscribed to facilitate bowel movement and erections, and to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebites, and hair loss.
Aside from its uses in cooking, one of the most common associations we have to the onion is its ability to cause tearing in our eyes, much as an artwork that may strike us very personally. This eye stinging induced by the onion is brought on by the release of a volatile gas: syn-propanethial-S-oxide. The gas is produced by a chain reaction that occurs as follows:
Chopping or cutting the onion damages the onion’s cells.
Enzymes (alliinoses) are released.
There is a breakdown of amino acid sulfoxides.
Sulfenic acids are generated.
1-propenesulfenic acid is acted on by lacrimatory factor synthase (LFS).
Syn-propanethial-S-oxide is produced.
Gas diffuses through the air and reaches the eyes.
The diffused gas activates sensory neurons.
Tears are produced.
Which in an obtuse, but also synchronic way, brings us full circle to the subject of cromniomancy, divination by onion.
Again, there appears to be evidence that its sphere-within-a-sphere structure caused the ancient Egyptians to observe the onion as a much-revered symbol of spirituality and eternity. They would take sacred oaths while placing their right hands on the onion. They divined the weather, sought romantic advice, and answers to important questions by inscribing names or words on onions, placing them on sacred altars, and waiting to see which ones would sprout first.
One of the things that interests me most about this veneration of the onion is that such reverence seems to be based, as previously stated, on the spherical concentricity of the onion’s structure; yet this is a structure that, at least in those times, could never be completely observed.
In order to perceive the onion’s systematic yet harmonious structure, and its unique rhythms, even perhaps through our tears, it is necessary to abuse the object, perhaps to destroy it. Even then, as we divine ourselves into its secrets, we never see the entirety of each sphere, the inner and outer sides, as a whole.
I am personally struck by the qualities of a single horizontal slice, about 1/8” to 3/16” thick. I try to punch out each separate ring, wholly, in order to observe each ring’s singular dynamism. And I imagine how wonderful it would be to hold, in the palm of one hand, the “unbearable lightness” of one whole interior onion sphere, while at the same time, in the other, quite comfortably, the delicate nucleus of art.
I want to begin, quite simplistically, with the thought that art arises from a particular set of personality traits; a certain way of seeing, thinking, or expressing that is not prevalent in the minds of most individuals. I can imagine that a similar analysis might be stated about a physicist, or an auto mechanic, or a beautician; a set of personal magnets that draw most of us, given the opportunity to escape fundamental environmental concerns, toward a particular direction. The difference is that there seems to be not as much questioning about what an auto mechanic or a beautician does, or what they do might mean. This difference in perception between what an artist does and what others do leads me to think that this peculiarity might have something to do with a demand for societal productivity, or use value for what one produces or for what consumes most of their time. If it is not utilitarian enough, there may be attached a stigma of “time wasted,” or an appellation of “dreamer.” Such analyses reek of the American ethic of work, rugged individualism, and capitalist thought above all. But that’s for another time.
In any event, there are some people who pursue the world in a certain way, and these people have chosen to call themselves or are called artists; and what they produce is called, by some, art.
But this is where we hit a fairly dense wall; a huge wide wall where there is art hanging around one end of this almost infinitely wide wall, and symbolically continuing across to its other, almost out of sight, end. All of it is called art by someone. No one can say for certain that any of those someones is incorrect.
However, whenever a group of people do agree that a certain type of product that each of them beholds is called art, let’s assume for the moment that what they behold actually is a certain kind of art, or, more boldly, a consensus about art itself. For example, there is a consensus about high art that is shown in museums and galleries and is taught in institutions of higher learning. (There used to be a low art, but it got consumed into the culture that was populated by the consensus for high art, and thus also became high art.)
There is also a consensus about what is called “outsider art,” which is created by people without education in institutions of learning.
These are not the only kinds of consensuses about art. There are also consensus groups that consider some production that has utilitarian content, such as architecture or craft, to be art as well.
And there seems to be a consensus about avant garde art that appears to have to do with negating all art as it now is, and revolutionizing life as it is lived – somehow making life easier and bringing us closer to a, I suppose artistic, vision of utopia.
There are many other kinds of consensuses about art, some having to do with other categories similar in nature to the ones above, some (that is many separate groups with differing opinions) having to do what people might consider the nature of art, and then there are many differing groups that like to debate each other about the qualitative aspects of art.
As you might see, and as I am beginning to feel, it is almost ludicrous to use the word, art, for it appears on the surface, to have very little distinctive or inherent meaning.
Beginning this interrogation by unearthing thoughts about the overly exploited and by now much worn myth of the avant garde is a blatant ruse, a subterfuge. I am shamelessly brandishing this symbol of change as a tool to be nonetheless exploited as an aid in prying into the very nature of art. The historical avant garde, at the very least, caused us to question what art was; and I think those instances of outspokenness, a common character of the a.v., are still viable at least for fussing about questions of practice or, perhaps in this case, praxis.
Not only a ruse, it is a provocation. Thoughts of any contemporary avant garde are probably illusory at best. There might be, lurking beneath our toes, biological or technological change, that, just like the internet, could alter all practice (in parallel with society itself); but that is not like an intentioned art movement
But for the moment, getting back to a contemporary experience, and, particularly, the art-is-life hypothesis, I have finally come to believe that art has always been about life, but has never been life. Art is art is art, and life is still just life. Last I experienced, life for most of us was the usual, putting roof over head, bread on table (in no particular order), and then, if there is still time, find some art to put into one’s maw. As to life becoming art, much as I have tried to incorporate that premise into a world view, and I am the first to admit that I just might not be up to it, I somehow always see art leading the fray, or alongside the fray, rather than becoming the actual cultural zeitgeist, as in, say as a perhaps derisive extreme, the forest culture of Fahrenheit 451.
For now, there appears to be no, at least visible, avant garde, in art particularly, that is being successful in altering the above equation. Most advanced “art practices” that we see now are, paradoxically, bent on showing that art is somehow above this populist situation. It seemed true for the Dadaists, and also for the futurists (Situationists aside for the moment.). One could have easily called them egoists.
The other potential mutation to our contemporary art structure may come from a more common adoption of the burgeoning visual art doctorate movement. Thoughts as to the potential long term effects on the practice of art by the development of this program are many and varied. Such images span from the practice of art becoming evermore split into the camps of academia versus visual studio practice, or that visual practice becomes even more philosophical in nature, etc. In most scenarios that I can imagine, this endeavor truly has the capability of redefining art practice to the cultural establishment and to the museum/gallery going public. On the other hand, such a development may also engender a populist or low art reaction entirely different from those seen before.
ICI Residency 2016
Notes on the Hidden Avant Garde – Or, If I Was Exhibiting, Would I Give A Shit!
Second thoughts (Beginning 3.24.16):
ICI Residency 2016
Notes on the Hidden Avant Garde – Or, If I Was Exhibiting, Would I Give A Shit!
1. It is not the form, but the intent. (things can still be collectible)
2. Allen Kaprow
3. The avant garde is still the same as it always was; we just don’t know the form it is taking at this time. Yes, it is important to comment on the status quo, as it always has been. It is important that the challenge be of a confrontational nature, per dada? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is just important to alter the nature of things.
4. Where did the word art come from? And when?
5. I have to think about whether i would change my tone with regard to all of this if i was given the opportunity to exhibit in commercial galleries and museums.
6. What makes art revolutionary?
7. Can art be life?
8. Where is the avant garde, and when will its ugly head arise out of the muck?
9. As difficult as it is to see our own society, and our place within it, whatever it is; it is that much more difficult to see what is coming next. The advent of a new avant garde is the same as what others call a paradigm shift. Usually seen in retrospect, it is interesting to look into, and try to calibrate, potential shift might look like.
10. Display The Democracy Album, theartbeautyproject, and DuSable Park: an archeology.
11. Social praxis.
12. Does avant garde necessarily have to refer to the political? or revolutionary? I guess it is always revolutionary, but in what sense.
13. Is art really in trouble? I saw a list of the 100 most iconic art works of the last five years, according to Blouin Artinfo. First was Christian Marclay’s “Clock.” Second was Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present.” These are great pieces, but not necessarily paradigm busting. But then came works such as, 3, Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress,” and 4, Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds,” and, 15, Paul Chan’s “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans.”
So what is all my bitching about? These are works that redirect the nature of art from the usual commercial vantage point.
14. At some point, during the course of any research project, one must confront one’s own, perhaps misbegotten, tendencies and prejudices in order to clear the path toward an honest conclusion. In some cases, this cleansing leads to a reassessment, perhaps even a dismantling of the foundational premises upon which the project is based.