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Marlena Donohue


Before the shocking events of this September 11th that rendered most intellectual pursuits pretty darn trivial, this month’s column evolved in my head as a manner of speculating out loud about the role of what I will call art’s “viewing space,” namely that space--literal (the white box), ephemeral (the installation/performance), semiotic, socio-economic, psychological, symbolic, political, what-have-you--within which art speaks directly and indirectly to those of us who view it. My interest in this relatively unaddressed “space” began as an extension of a graduate class I am teaching where I hoped to consider the origins of American conceptual art and its drive to “activate” the viewing paradigm, to bring art off the wall, to mitigate a passive viewing relationship to a commodity and indeed yank a new sort of art out of the white box and into a more direct interaction with experiential reality.

This latter conceptual strategy interested me in the particular way it set itself apart from the form for its own sake of the ‘50s, the process for its own sake of the ‘60s, and the theory for its own sake that began in the mid ‘70s and still dominates a good deal of our best, if not always accessible, conceptual art today. The timing of this “activated” viewing space also intrigued me. There is not much theory on how that space has morphed from the traditional white box to the complex arena of contemporary art “doing,” which uses, mines and negotiates, relies on an active interchange between artist and viewer, between art object and life experience.

Well before September 11th, when such things still made perfect sense, I was considering how that space is actually used, i.e. how are art messages typically received in our traditional models of doing art, gallery going, museum visiting. I tend not to go to openings but prefer to look at art when it is quiet, but I decided to make a concerted effort to watch large numbers of viewers in that literal and experiential arena I have dubbed the viewing space. Maybe I watched on a bad day, maybe I watched the wrong crowd, but typical NPR-listening viewers, literate, sincere seekers of culture spent an average of perhaps four minutes in front of each work, and a good portion of that time was spent reading the label. My impression: the white box is alive and well.

I was writing early Tuesday morning just as the horrors in New York and Washington unfolded. My line of speculation came oddly full circle. Artists like Joseph Beuys and Lucy Lippard, progenitors of the earliest conceptual theory, insisted that political activism lie at the core of strategies intended to challenge the traditional passive, commodified viewing space and reconstruct it as activated viewing experience that attempts to engage the viewer’s mind, analysis, perception, language habits and indeed their sense of social responsibility.

In the 1950s, when conceptual art first began to seriously consider the boundaries of art and life--in the U.S. with the likes of Lippard, Lewitt, Piper, in Japan with Gutai, in Italy with Arte Povera, in Germany with Fluxus--artists in the U.S.were spurred to more conceptual, experiential paradigms by the possibility of global engagement in nuclear war, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam--the events central to that era. They were shocked out of art for its own sake, and into art as action by the giddy facade of patriarchy and prosperity that swept America and Western Europe during the Post War years. They reacted to art as product and white box collectable because the corporate world, for better or worse, had adopted Abstract Expressionist works as its emblem of acquisition, culture, coolness and philanthropy. In that crucible, conceptual strategies then and over the last decades have attempted to dematerialize the discrete commodified art object, find a way to make the art object an experience of, a reflection of, a lens into understanding how we live and construct meaning, rather than mere “pictures” of living.

The current parallels of a languorous period of relative calm broken by some assaultive reality check are obvious. Extending arguments like Lippard’s (from her 1973 book Six Years), things like social ferment, the traditional humanist affiliations of the artistic sensiblity, events that act as political shock therapy--Hiroshima, Vietnam, and this latest event of September 11th--necessarily shock the institution of art into a closer and concerted consideration of its role in relation to real life. At times of crisis the ivory tower/white box must consider questions that do not come up in prosperity, when there is, so to speak, a chicken in every pot, room for disparate, contextual truths, and the comfortable hope of the coming show, sale, commission or exhibition. In those times we tend not to think about the relation of art to life, art to social action.

The last thirty years of our attempts to find a new context within which to make art more experiential functioned to expand acceptable media and fertile ideas of creativity exponentially--body as medium, earth as medium, mass media as medium, sign-making as structure; viewing space and content. The art and theory of original conceptual models--those of Lippard, Sol Lewitt, Arte Povera, Fluxus, Gutai, and others that have followed--have made immensely valuable progress in sparking the critical discourse concerning how we engage in creative endeavor: We have looked at the white box, the gilded frame, the pedestal and how economic, political, intellectual and artistic academies set up a semiotic forest of signs that say “high art,” erudition, culture, so that we “read” the extraneous signs in the viewing experience, or respond to the privileged habits of language often more than we experience the art itself.

However, like all theory and party line, I have watched the once powerful concept and intellectual practice of “deconstruction” become so overused and misused as to render the word as much a cliche as the empty academic platitudes it was intended to (re)address. Further, despite all the deconstructive rhetoric and the hope of the ‘50s to have theory link art to experience, with the exception of brief radical interludes, we remain hellbent on maintaining the white box, on segregating art making and art apprehending so that the art object--now a conceptual object as opposed to a traditional one--and our relation to it are maintained as another order of experience, separate from the events of life.

The consequence of this higher order, ivory tower specialized art object/experience, whether old hat or post structural, is its eventual separation from life, its commodification and brokering. The other consequence of art as separate gallery-museum-purchase reality is art which unquestioningly de-emphasizes, even eschews all subjects that deal with knarly issues of humanity’s existential and spiritual (oh, oh there are words verboten in cutting edge circles) condition. In spite of the fact that conceptual art began as a specific way to activate our viewing space and expand it into life, it has evolved into its own rather hermetic model that shies away from any too emotional, too specific, too social addressing of art’s relation to big human concerns. Post structuralism permitted an amazingly rich shedding of boundaries as art attempted to draw maker and viewer into a closer awareness of the context-bound way we create signs and experience. The significance of this cannot be overstated because it was the first critical dialogue through art on ideas like “other,” “primitive,” “academy,” “hierarchy,” “taste,” even “value.” But witness the nervousness with which our preeminent conceptual artists approach such loaded and distinctly non-post structuralist content like a spiritual reality amidst pluralism, the impact of 21st century nihilism and neo-racism--phenomena that once more come into high relief at of September 11th.

I heard these disparate poles incarnate the week of September 11th. Some artists with whom I spoke after Tuesday said that it felt patently absurd to return to their studios and contemplate things like “the non-illusionary surface” they were after. Other artists said that they were not surprised, what’s new,? they asked me, why were we shocked/outraged now, but less shocked when these atrocities are perpetrated outside our boundaries or by us, and what did “us” mean anyway? Given all of this, they were simply returning/retreating to their studios because they had a traveling show to prepare for.

I am not passing judgement on the validity of either reaction. But it does seem as though in these intense existential junctures art is under special duress, forced to reflect on its role as some Platonic, ordered, para-reality of formal and conceptual rules into which we can escape. Or, conversely, an arena through which we connect with the exigencies of our world and a sense of our collective destiny as a human race. Is it art’s job to remain connected to social consciousness, or is art's job to create an ideal utopian spot designed to intellectualize and/or harbor us from the banalities of (frightening realities of?) life?

Where is the point of balance? Can skill in process, good structure, clear valuable conception and relevant but unsentimental engagement with social/human issues co-exist? I do not know. To my mind the implications of recent events on our ideas of “us and them,” “good and evil,” “art and life” “theory and practice,” render obsolete any wholly hermetic, rarified art object that holds us at bay by virtue of its obscurity, or lulls us into a false sense of utopia through sheer surface or emotional appeal.

Every prime time talking head woke up on Wednesday, September 12th to tell us that American reality as we have known it will never be the same. America’s undeniable identity as something special, spunky and, however flawed, rooted in freedom; its association with a global cutting edge; our unmitigated vanity and unquestioning adherence to the myth of positivist and capital power--all these Americas we must contemplate will never be the same. We have heard this rhetoric before during recessions and wars. I do not know from politics, but I do know that art as the powerful world of symbols and messages will have to take a renewed, serious stock of its relation to life, its social function and its immersion in life's human questions in real time. The art/life intersection is perhaps the subtlest line an artist can tread. As a talker about art, and not a maker, I would not even venture to speculate how that line might best be navigated or expressed. I know when I see this content and am moved by it, and I know that in this not-so-brave new world, art will need a newly attuned sensitivity to those life vs art, object vs experience, commodity vs social consciousness subtleties.