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January 7, 2011 / the s.a. project

when concepts disguise hot air

I’m pasting below a fantastic excerpt from ‘Rhetorical Maneuvers in Contemporary Art, Part 1by Chris Gehman from the fuse magazine online.

While the entire article deals with a different art market and different dynamics altogether, these particular excerpts are VERY relevant to the crisis of the contemporary art market in Pakistan. In so many words, it probably makes my work look shallow as well on a superficial level (but for 2011 I have decided to worship the ground I walk on, so umm…)

If reading is not your thing you are allowed to skip excerpts 1 and 2, but do NOT miss the third excerpt. Seriously. at least NOT the bold orange bits of text I highlighted!

Sylvie Smith, Back it up Conceptually, 2007

Excerpt 1:

It’s a short walk from the anthropology offices to the cultural studies department, shorter still from cultural studies to contemporary criticism and artistic practice, and the rhetorical maneuvers described by Sahlins are commonplace throughout writing on culture. It’s a tendency that should be dismally familiar to anyone who has spent any time reading the kind of contemporary art criticism published in magazines, in catalogues and essays printed by galleries to accompany exhibitions, and in some academic forums, particularly in the field of cultural studies.

Examples of this rhetorical inflation are legion. Craft forms such as knitting and cross-stitch, when the products are exhibited in public spaces or art galleries, or contain political slogans, are routinely described as “radical” and “revolutionary” or “seditious” either by the artists themselves, or by critics (3).

Excerpt 2:

Legions of contemporary artists are obsessively focused on the trivial and the commonplace, but seem incapable of admitting the fact. Instead, in order to justify this obsession with minutiae and trivia, the culture offers up claims of its radical intentions. Here the facts are obscured not through a process of diminishment and concealment, but through the proliferation of self-aggrandizing claims that are not supported by the actual work. Art that lacks any concrete political content, or in which the political content is feeble or tepidly ironic, is transformed in the crucible of critical writing into radical gold.

What exactly is happening here? I think that in this peculiar combination of extremely modest art buoyed by extremely grandiose claims there are a number of contextual factors:

1. The deskilling of art, particularly in the context of the art schools.

2. The rhetorical legacy of the postwar avant-gardes, on the one hand, and politically engaged art on the other.

3. The movement towards degree-granting programs in art, which produce a concomitant homogenization of thinking and writing.

Excerpt 3 (Now coming to the most crucial part):

For many years, my experience in editing critical texts was that artists were often better — clearer, more concrete, less pretentious — writers than many academics and professional critics and curators. For one anthology I labored for many hours to clarify meanings, correct errors, and generally improve a few essays by scholars with PhD’s, while the contributions of practicing artists, even if they were sometimes tendentious or obscure in some respects, were direct and to-the-point and required little editing. What I notice about writing coming from artists who have emerged more recently from the educational system, however, is that it has begun to look more and more like the writing produced by curators, critics and academics. It is increasingly homogeneous. This should not be a surprise: as more and more art schools become degree-granting institutions, students spend more and more of their time in academic courses and courses that deal with the professional world in which they are expected to function — i.e., courses on curating, critical writing, museology, etc. At the same time the cost of education has risen rapidly, so that many, probably most students need to hold down jobs during their years of post-secondary education as well. All of which must logically leave the student with less studio time, less time to devote to developing his or her own ideas and to the making of art, but well schooled in the thought patterns and linguistic habits of curators, critics and academics, hyper-aware of the art historical context in which they work, and with a pretty good understanding of the art system. The art-school graduate of 2010 may leave school without having made anything of much consequence, but set up to write a pretty impressive sounding artist’s statement. We have moved as far as possible from the position expressed by Barnett Newman’s famous quip that “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” (5)

After minimalism, conceptual and performance art, the idea of the artist as someone in a skilled and thinking occupation, engaged with a particular set of materials and visual ideas, has been thoroughly suppressed in favour of the idea of art as mainly an intellectual activity. The artist as thinker, manager, intellectual rather than maker, worker, craftsperson. In other words, the artist as bourgeois – but apparently a radicalcriticalbourgeois. At the same time, there are other contradictory trends that move partly in a different direction, but are partly complementary in a way seldom acknowledged. For example, young artists are also aware of a legacy of political art, art emerging from “identity politics,” from feminism, queer liberation and the utopian aspirations of postwar avant-garde movements like Fluxus and the Situationists.

What the post-conceptual, post-minimalist high art strain and the politically engaged strain share is an emphasis on context, concepts and language. Minimalism and conceptualism established their importance by invoking ideas and philosophical questions in a condensed visual form, leaving art writers with plenty to say. The artist was allowed to provide less and less, while the significance of the gesture appeared to grow and grow under the lens of critical discourse. Politically engaged art, on the other hand, emphasized its connections to power struggles taking place in the larger social context, and intended to support progressive social change. But this kind of art tends to date quickly — it loses its currency as society changes, even when those changes are exactly the ones sought by the political artist. What is left of this today is an art that is seldom politically engaged, but carries a residue of expectation: the expectation that the artist is motivated by a critical politics, however removed artist and work may be from concrete political struggles.

If I’m right in thinking that these strains form an important part of the context in which most contemporary artists are educated, and that the idea of the artist as engaged with a particular set of materials and processes is in abeyance, we can begin to see how we have arrived at this particular alliance of art and rhetoric. The artist has learned that to do less is to be credited with doing more. The artist has learned that to be engaged with physical materials and processes is to be a mere craftsperson, while to work with concepts is to be respected as an intellectual worker (now properly identified as a member of a creativeclass by the ubiquitous urbanist Richard Florida). The artist has learned that art should be able to claim a political subtext, but not a political subject per se, as the latter will often be derided as unsophisticated and unartistic. We are left with a situation in which the increasingly meager offerings of artists are accompanied by a kind of critical discourse that is both maddeningly academic in its style and often politically pretentious as well. It is the kind of bad faith that arises when a population with the highest ideals is marginalized to begin with, and is then further stripped of the tools it once possessed to assert its unique importance. The birds are now well up on their ornithology; but they may no longer know how to fly.

1. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, v. 4. Eds. Sonia Orwell & Ian Angus. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970). 169.
2. Marshall Sahlins, Waiting for Foucault. Second edition. (Cambridge, England: Prickly Pear Press, 1996). 16-17.
3. See, for example,
4. .
5. The Barnett Newman Foundation.”Chronology of the artist’s life” entry for 1953. .


Leave a Comment
  1. Afia / Jan 7 2011 2:45 am

    Read all of it and could not agree more. I’ve seen the same trend of pretension in art buyers, btw. If artists are becoming happily bourgeois, it’s partly because there’s a cadre of nouveau riche art buyers propping them up. Owning art is a convenient way of ‘moving up’, unfortunately, and I think organisers of art exhibits capitalise on this by targetting buyers who want to be seen at an event and who want to be seen buying art, rather than buyers who genuinely engage with a piece and feel compelled to have it.

    • the s.a. project / Jan 7 2011 3:03 am

      I don’t know what I’m more impressed by:

      a) that you read the whole thing
      b) that you made such an astute comment
      c) that you read the whole thing & made that astute comment at quarter to 3 in the morning!

      i love writers.

  2. zm / Jan 11 2011 8:21 pm

    ” The art-school graduate of 2010 may leave school without having made anything of much consequence, but set up to write a pretty impressive sounding artist’s statement.”

    aaah the secret of success…should throw away art material and stock up on dictionaries 😦

    ‘The artist has learned that to be engaged with physical materials and processes is to be a mere craftsperson, while to work with concepts is to be respected as an intellectual worker”

    yes ,yes and a 1000 times YES,i couldn’t agree more!…..i need a dictionary/thesaurus to decipher a painting in an art gallery these days,its such a YAWN! : the price tags get bigger and whats on display gets more mediocre by the day!….and you realize when looking at the artist’s name that this nincompoop could barely compose a sentence,stretch a line(or a canvas) or have a coherent conversation when he/she was your batchmate,probably got through college by giving supplementary exams and now theyr’e Socrates ki aulad, raking up the moolah and they snort at your work ethic to boot! its ABSURD!
    It boils down to personal ethics and finding that perfect harmony between content and skill:bieng honest with yourself…but oh wait that’s old fashioned and obsolete hence the snorts and snickers!

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