Becoming Memorable by Becoming a Landmark, Research Time, 09/03/2018

There are moments, when you’re researching a big project, when a few key ideas all come together. I’m having a moment like that now, looking back at some notes on an essay about Félix Guattari.

Stephen Zepke wrote it – he’s a scholar of Guattari and Gilles Deleuze’s work, who focusses a lot on their aesthetic theories. It has a mouthful of a title – “From Aesthetic Autonomy to Autonomist Aesthetics: Art and Life in Guattari.” Despite that in-your-face blast of technical vocab, it’s actually quite an interesting study.

Arinze Stanley with my favourite of his drawings.
Zepke talks about how Guattari explored art as a revolutionary process. Start from one key fact – if you want to start a successful art movement, you have to run against the mainstream.

You could bring up lots of examples from history. But most of the historical examples I know are Western, and in the spirit of my iconoclastic colleagues, I want to talk about a more global example.

Contemporary installation art, over the last few decades, has been dominated by the overtly shocking – blasphemous, stomach-churning, deranged. Photographs like Andres Serrano’s Piss-Christ, or installations like Damien Hirst’s famous The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Back in the 20th century, this kind of provocative sublime surreality was a sufficient shock to mainstream European visual and installation art that it ushered in a whole new way of thinking about what art was acceptable. It reminded popular culture that art is supposed to push boundaries.

As Zepke follows Guattari – art is a deterritorializing medium. The most remarkable art movements are the ones that forcefully reject the norms of an ossified mainstream. They create a whole new set of common principles for thinking about what art is.

Yes, it's a zebra in formaldehyde. But is it art?
The conceptual and social territory of – in the most extreme cases like Hirst, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Kenneth Anger, or Henri Matisse – what counts as art at all. In most cases of historically remarkable art, you’ve at least helped create an exciting new movement that sweeps away a redundant mainstream. Or at least gives people the impetus to see how redundant and stale the mainstream had become under their noses.

Here’s the wider lesson for any social revolution. Every deterritorializalization ends up reterritorializing. It’s a fundamental aspect of life. Every departure has to set itself down somewhere, unless it just wants to fly to pieces. Maybe you want to fly to pieces. But you don’t have to.

What was once a provocative new artistic movement becomes a staid, drab mainstream. In the example I’ve been talking about, the once-shocking sculptures and installations of the Young British Artists are now old hat. Damien Hirst was becoming a punchline before the last century was even finished. Now, his new work is dismissed as “a showroom for oligarchs.”

What do I contrast to the bizarre shock of surreal that’s Hirst limping aesthetic? Hyperrealism. Massive canvases of charcoal and pencil still-life drawings with more detail than a photograph.

Chiamonwu Joy and her remarkable images.
Hyperrealism is a global scene as well. Notable figures are Nigeria’s Arinze Stanley and Chiamonwu Joy, Germany’s Dirk Dzimirski, Canada’s Jeannette Sirois, and plenty of others. Hyperrealist images are more emotionally powerful than Hirst-ian provocations could ever be.

The best of them, of which I count Stanley, creates images of faces that tear you from your complacency – human drama rooted in the individuality of real people. An image of reality hand-crafted in such detail that the devotion to completed, perfected art impresses you almost as much as the faces that root you from your self-interested museum-goer’s detachment.

Don’t think hyperrealism developed purely in reaction to the decadent excess and greed of Hirst-ian installation art. I chose those two art movements because I’ve been looking into hyperrealism over the last six months or so. I’m late to the party, but that was only when I discovered Arinze’s work.

Hyperrealism is a global movement, and the artists who are part of it each have their own motivations and techniques. Deterritorialization – ripping a mainstream out of its prominence to pursue utterly different directions in creativity – isn’t about taking the “opposite” of that mainstream.

What would be the opposite of a cow suspended in formaldehyde? Does it even make sense to talk about opposites of artworks? No, only different artworks. If a cultural movement is influential enough to spawn a ton of mediocre imitators, then eventually some other movement will gather enough energy to blast the old corpse out of social prominence.

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