How do we make art in a violent time? (Is there any time that isn’t?) How do we make art that says something meaningful about the human experience while eschewing didacticism and heavy-handedness? What is the role of spirituality in art? What is the role of feminism?
Modernism had an enormous push away from meaning in the exploration of an ideology of “pure” form, and while I agree it was necessary to divorce art from the stranglehold of classicism, the resulting new stranglehold of “pure art” has left just as many artists by the wayside of the contemporary art world. The elevation of the heroic gesture has become just another expression of toxic masculinity in our misogynist culture and yet another way of excluding women and people of color from having a seat at the table, as it were. By removing meaning from art, we ignore context and culture. By pushing away from figuration and ritual context, we have pushed away from art by people and cultures outside of the white European male paradigm. It is considered a sign of ignorance or even a lack of culture to exclaim that you don’t understand a work of art (though meaning can be read into anything), especially abstract works with no clear narrative; it requires someone who is educated in the jingoistic, coded language of the “Art World” to explain to the ignorant masses what an artwork symbolizes and why it’s legitimate, and often the explanation itself is incomprehensible to the average person. Pierre Bourdieu says, “Any legitimate work tends in fact to impose the norms of its own perception and tacitly defines as the only legitimate mode of perception the one which brings into play a certain disposition and a certain competence. Recognizing the fact does not mean that we are constituting a particular mode of perception as an essence, thereby falling into the illusion which is the basis of recognition of artistic legitimacy. It does mean that we take note of the fact that all agents, whether they like it or not, whether or not they have the means of conforming to them, find themselves objectively measured by those norms.” Modernism, despite shrugging off the shackles of classicism and the necessity of ritual meaning in art, has also created new shackles of a rarified and exclusionary aesthetic theory.
Our reductive approach toward culture borne of the Age of Enlightenment leaves little room for those whose art explores mystical or metaphysical topics; as we rejected religion as the meaning in art, we have effectively thrown the baby out with the bath water and rejected spiritual exploration in art as well, decrying it as irrational or superstitious. Walter Benjamin said “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value…But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.” He’s making this argument in favor of the equalizing force of reproductive methods in art rather than an elite mystical aura applied to objects made by hand. Certainly art as a whole has benefitted from wider access to reproductive methods by the general populace, but humans tend to struggle with moderation and so this has also lurched us toward a glorification of empty, mass reproduction and a scorn of craft methodologies. This becomes a racist issue too since handmade ritual objects are traditional forms of art in many non-Western cultures, and someone employing a non-Western visual language may find it difficult, if not impossible, to gain any traction in the contemporary art world. In this pendulum swing, the handcrafted item becomes especially political if it has a ritual meaning in addition to a (subjective and culturally specific) aesthetic value. The history of western art is a history of colonialism, and contemporary art is still employing these tactics by invalidating works that fall outside its nebulous, yet somehow narrow, parameters. In Black and Blur, Fred Moten says, “There’s another kind of prayer, another modality of devotion, another devotional mood, given in the black indigeneity of ceremonial indigo. We are (in) the general prayer just like we are (in) the margins, the wilderness, the social. We are (in) the insistent previousness of the we.” He is asserting the relevance, the sacredness, of tradition and craft outside of the erasure of colonization. Art is bigger than the world we are shown and when we try to reduce it, it becomes empty; a hollow capitalist enterprise.
When we look at the contemporary art world through a feminist lens, we see that it also has a narrowness hemmed in by misogyny. As a female artist I have felt this particular sting keenly over the years. Many women work in ways that reflect our cultural confinement within domestic space, both literally and metaphorically. The humble and personal, frequently the subject of art made by women, is often seen as merely decorative or overly sentimental; on the other hand, works that are overly critical of the structures that constrain us may be dismissed as “angry” feminist art, because anger is an emotional expression coded for men. I have heard many men in my life refer to angry women as “feminazis” and therefore anything said or done by them is invalidated. Black women have an exponentially harder time being recognized, especially when they are legitimately angry. Betye Saar is an artist who originally gained some recognition for her 1972 assemblage piece, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” It’s a small piece, roughly 8 x 11, but it created a significant impact in its revolutionary political moment. Unfortunately the United States didn’t keep its attention on political change for very long and Saar’s work, especially as she addressed questions of meaning, mysticism, and Black identity, fell out of the peripatetic sightline of culture; her style and subject matter don’t fall within the parameters of “high art.” Now in her 90s, she is receiving recognition again for her body of work as a whole and for her contribution to intersectional feminist dialogue. It’s wonderful that she’s receiving this recognition, but it has been an absurdly long time in coming, and it’s a poor bandaid on the cultural wound of misogynoir.
How art is determined to be “high” or “low” is generally the purview of theorists, mostly men, mostly white. Low art is accessible, therefore less valuable in a capitalist society that seeks to maintain the status quo, because low art is dangerous in the way it can reach people who don’t already know the stratified language of art. Low art speaks the language of the common person, which doesn’t mean it must be simplistic, just that it has the capacity to pose questions in an appealing, comprehensible manner. If art is to be a tool of revolution, then the lumpen proletariat has to be able to grasp it in some way. The world has more than enough elites, I think it’s time to aspire to breadth rather than height.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Accessed August 10, 2020. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Aristocracy of Culture.” Media, Culture & Society 2, no. 3 (July 1, 1980): 225–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/016344378000200303.
Lippard, Lucy R. From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art. Dutton, 1976.
Moten, Fred. Black and Blur. Duke University Press, 2017.