Appreciating works of art is supposedly a pleasurable activity. However, this pleasure is reserved in what we call ‘contemporary’ art. It involves an incessant, sometimes tiresome, thinking under the pressure of judgement: Do I like this work or not? Do I evaluate it or not? Should I tell others that this work is great or not? In the face of works of art, we restlessly feel, look, listen, observe, question, analyse, and judge, in light of our experiences, knowledge and emotions, and in reference to other’s opinions. This obsession to judgement is particularly prominent in modern and contemporary art which quality draws upon an invention of ‘new’ meanings and stories through individual endeavour. Art in present time is diverted from the one in the past which was predominantly religious and in which meanings and stories were collectively given. The act of appreciating art in our time is no longer taking place in a comfort of belief or sensual pleasure, rather it serves us a diorama of judgement, demonstrating how a certain opinion is formulated, exercised and contributes to the creation of value systems in cultural, intellectual and economic spheres. Particularly since poststructuralism and deconstruction took over the Western intellectual and artistic climate, we tend to claim that judgement is not a gift to the human perception uniquely attributed to each person; it is an amalgam of perceptual cannons, stereotypes and discourses that are culturally, socially and politically manipulated. There is not much left for a subjective agency in our sentiment and taste. How we think and how we feel are largely dependent on the cultural and social contexts. Art is increasingly being dispersed into the discourse of power relations, thereby an idea of aesthetic experience is dismantled into an exercise of critical thinking.
The recent trend of critical thinking (which in contemporary art owes largely to French poststructuralist and deconstruction philosophers) is essentially designed to assure the claim that the personal is the social, and vice versa. This idea is to demonstrate how power intervenes in every hole and corner of our lives, thinking and behaviour, and that the nature of power has transformed into a ubiquitous exercise in everyday life. Artists, curators, art critics, art historians, all endeavours to furnish art with an activism look, exploring its virtue in an application of discourses of political correctness and identity politics – colonialism, racism, immigration, native rights, animal rights, eco-justice, anti-sexism, queer, trans-gender, trans-sex and so forth (which seems a return of a collective belief). Art increasingly appears as a practice of representing/performing and provoking social issues without taking particular ideological positions (This reminds me of the avant-garde figures in the early 20th century typical of André Breton whose attempt of coinciding art and politics largely failed. Breton was too political for artists, too artistic for politicians). Particularly since 1960’s when Conceptual Art as well as Performance/Body Art started to conquer the Western art world followed by Relational Art in 1980’s, political correctness has become one of the essential aesthetic categories which mission is to cultivate a tolerance to and an understanding of vulnerable ‘me’ and ‘others’. Art is responsible for a society: Artists appear to be a quasi-social scientist/activist who materialises and theorises their emotional, aesthetic and ideological/non-ideological responses to what is happening in the societies where they live.
In this climate, an experience of looking at works of art takes place as if a moral test to examine if we carry an emotional/aesthetic tolerance for embracing something incomprehensible or unlikable. The criteria lies in whether we could sublimate an intolerance into a sociological, say, ‘anthropological’ curiosity in hope of bridging between an aesthetic pleasure and a moral call. It would be an intellectual, and almost moral failure, if we could not extract a social significance from any works of art, however rubbish they seem. If you ever happen to show a sense of hatred, disgust or negation, you would be stigmatised as an aesthetic fascist. In this machinery of cultural/aesthetic relativism, and in binary thinking exacerbated by the emergence of Conceptual Art (concept/material-technique, language/object, theory/practice and so forth), the voice of ‘Hey, the emperor is in fact naked’ is destined to be suppressed. Objects have faded into concepts and events, language has replaced technique. Arts become a place of logo-centric battlefield for self-justifying defense of a concept as against a skill of object/image-making. The play between the socio-critical quality of concepts and the craft quality of objects/images is a criteria for giving credibility to a work of art in contemporary context.
On another front, in the face of works of art, we are yet (and secretly) longing for the absolute moment that can nullify these intellectual hustles. In an appreciation of works of art, we can’t hold our horses, we can’t contain our expectations toward the moment of the absolute ‘yes’, surrendering all those sickening labours of judgement. Transcendence through an aesthetic experience is our long-lasting desire in which we expect the moment of going beyond who we are and how we think, beyond our cultural and social constraints. There we desire to get out of a thick-skinned shelf of ‘self’ composed of layers and layers of personal/collective judgements and norms. In the face of art, we are still stuck between two desires, between a moralising desire to tolerate and understand any works of art as a social statement, and an aesthetic ‘purity’ that can release us from worldly concerns. In a sense, we are still crawling together with Theodor Adorno’s perverted lamentation over cultural degradation and his desperate search for a reconciliation between social concern and aesthetic transcendence. As Adorno precisely articulated the issue at stake on art and literature in the aftermath of the Second World War (after humankind witnessed the unprecedented scale of violence), we are still bound up by a moral obligation to understand other’s pain and suffering in an act of representation. We are obliged to see the world primarily through an eye of violence inherent in humankind. Yet, while reminding ourselves that an idea of autonomy of art can’t hold any longer and art has to involve social dimensions, we can’t stop looking into something fantastic in art, some miraculous space of liberation that can release us from worldly concerns. Social criticism and aesthetic transcendence, this horrific duality that art imposes upon us is what lies behind our act of looking at works of art.
Text by Michiko Oki
Image by Edward Allington
Video/Sound by Pablo Padilla Jargstorf