Saturday, December 13, 2008

Accessibility in Art

Remembering back, I had a professor once who proposed that a piece of conceptual art -- leaving pieces of paper with partial quotes in subway cars and on buses for random strangers to pick up and posting copies of the quotes on a gallery wall with explanatory text of "the project" -- was more accessible to viewers/an audience than a "classically" representational figurative painting.

His premises? As I understood, accessing the figurative painting required awareness of the history and lines of development of representational figurative painting to really "get" the painting (beyond seeing it as a pretty picture) since the painting referenced Balthas, who referenced ..., etc, on back in time, while the piece of conceptual art did not suffer from the need to have awareness of the past and make connections to it. The reference within reference within reference was true of the particular painting that he used as an example. To a degree, painting does promote an "in the know" insularity: we can be part of the special club that can pat themselves on the back from getting it, our breadth of exposure and knowledge being greater than that of most others. However, a painting can be received on its own terms as much as a collection of posted quotes, and since the painting may at least be visually interesting, more so. In any case, to get the irony, even the one line kind, of much of conceptual art, we must be in on the references illustrated, whether the references are artistic or philosophical or political or cultural or consumerist snippets.

I thought of the professor's distinction as I was reading commentary by Matthew Collings on Clement Greenberg's birthday, written with an insider's tone of disdain, particularly this comment: "Even the art writers who produce small-audience, faux-intellectually rigorous magazines such as 'October' in America or 'Texte Zur Kunst' in Germany are nurtured pets of society not its opponents. The aim of these publications is power within a certain morally unassailable context, the university being its main institution. The aim of the circle of writers connected to each of these magazines is not to define an alternative world but to caress and polish certain long established creeds of alterity, congratulating themselves (like shallow versions of medieval scholastics) on ever more subtle and pointless re-castings of what they and their friends already know."

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