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A Eureka moment

I have been sitting here all weekend - reading, taking notes, even starting the draft of the draft of a draft of a paper. (Need to read a lot more before I even get to the draft of a draft stage ;-). I really am somewhat obsessed with the question which I keep asking, you see. The one about my students. I am, after all, attempting to do a PhD, the subject of which is art education... How can I even write a dissertation without taking all this into account? Or so I was thinking until a minute ago...

Anyway, I was just sitting here, smoking a cigarette, continuing my ruminations and then I started to think about someone who I do believe has the genuine "bug". Is an artist, in other words. And I began to wonder whether this would have been something that his instructors could have possibly sensed about him while he was still in art school. And more to the point - would he have known it himself? And even more to the point (and this, I believe, is the true clincher!)  - was he, in fact, already an artist at the tender age of 20 something? Or did that actually evolve?

The seeds of it may well have been there from way back when, his childhood, I suppose. Now, I happen to have the privilege of being somewhat familiar with this persons work starting from his early twenties. And admittedly, the essence of what he is all about today is present even in his very early output. However, only an inkling of it, vaguely sensed here and there, poking its head through (almost timidly), buried amongst quite a bit of extraneous material. And then he seems to have moved closer and closer to it as he grew older. Seems to have spent a very long time in finding and then developing his own visual language. (Sine qua non in these matters, I would say). The full-on impact, the blast of "the big question" however - that, as far as I can tell, appears to have happened only quite recently, over the past 2 or 3 years. At a point when he was already in his 40s.

And then, to illustrate an entirely different case: Did I have artistic pretensions when I was 20 years old? Sure I did. It took long decades for me to reach an awareness that I am not an artist, that I do not have these burning issues. I just really like to make stuff. Give myself little assignments. Not at all the same thing!

I cannot project myself into the mindset of Bruegel. Did he know that he was an artist whilst he was still training as an apprentice? Or did that come about later? And would it even have mattered to him? Was the definition of being an artist back then the same as it is today? The operant conditions of his lifetime were entirely different from the ones surrounding my colleague of whom I was talking about above. Really, it is almost like comparing apples and oranges.

So, to get back to today: I cannot possibly know who amongst my students may have a true artistic calling. In all likelihood, they will not be able to know this themselves. Those that are will eventually know, and those around them may do so also - after quite a bit of water has passed under the bridge.
Nothing for me to get all worked up about then now, is there?

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Continued from the other day

I am still wondering here. The previous post, where this bit belongs to as well, is already way too long. So, I am starting a new one.

First, why was I only vaguely aware that Hegel had a gripe with art? Could it be because it is an uncomfortable truth (uttered by Hegel, no less!) which goes against the grain of the prevalent art system? In other words, it is not in the best interest of persons seeking a place within that system, be it as critics, theoreticians, curators or artists, to be quoting him. You do not saw off the tree branch on which you are perching, we say in Turkish. Must be similar proverbs in all languages. So, the word does not get too widely disseminated, or whenever it does it gets buried under mountains of doublespeak. Which could possibly account for how I missed it.

Not that I am trying to justify my ignorance or anything. If anything, I am totally appalled by it: There are 448,000 page results for a query for "Hegel+art+death" on google. Which is certainly more than enough for me to have been fully aware. A lot of these lead to Arthur Danto who seems to have applied the Hegelian principle to post 1970's art. Which, would be the period to scrutinize very closely indeed. The book is already on its way from Amazon.

Second, I said that a true artistic calling would be unlikely to bring fulfillment to its possessor. I am sticking to my guns with this one. Unless the person in question is introverted to the point of autism, that is.

I have this idea that artwork which posits the "deeper question", in the Hegelian sense, has an overall tendency to go over like a lead balloon in contemporary art circles. Will probably not even get shown. If for no other reason than the one that dictates that artwork needs to be of a nature that will enable its "consumption" within 18 seconds. In other words, the amount of time that a spectator spends in front of an artwork is no more than 18 seconds on an average. Anything that takes longer "to get" is not likely to get viewed. This, I am told, is a curatorial/museological maxim which the organizers of art events stick to world wide.

But 18 seconds would be the least of the worries of the folk that decide upon what gets shown and what does not. The real issue would be the "Zeitgeist" and to what an extent work shown is in tune to it. The Zeitgeist of our time is materialistic. And by Hegel's definition art work cannot be so. It is intrinsically spiritual.

A person may be a devout believer and still be deeply materialistic. Or an atheist and deeply spiritual. As far as I can see, the two things have nothing to do with one another. Certain people have questions which relate to what lies beyond the material while most others do not.

I am a child of my times. Thus, unfortunately, I am not at all spiritually inclined. I have a deep admiration for people who are, like my PhD professor Roy Ascott. Who are grappling with issues such as "consciousness". What "being" may be all about. I also know that these are questions that are best left unasked if you want to get funded in science. That the scientist who starts to wonder about why and how we are "conscious" tends to get kicked out of funding schemes. Is considered to be unworthy of further serious attention from the scientific community. Art is not science, but... When I look at the evidence around me I somehow end up becoming fairly certain that the exact same principles which are applied to one are also applied to the other when it comes to the funding of art work, the showing of art work, obtaining a place in good artist's residencies and so forth. It is the Zeitgeist at work. In the case of science, some harm done I am sure, but by and large science may well be benefiting from this. Become more accurate, more deterministic, obtain better results. For art however, the effects are devastating. It is the era of non-art. Material object devoid of spirit. Or at times, even worse: Material object as a representation of "fake" spirit. "Social awareness" it is called? The artwork as sociocultural/political propaganda board.

And then also - and no matter how admirable the initial intentions may have been in most of these cases - the many uneasy marriages between art and science which, more often than not, yield offspring who not only seem to fall short of satisfying the innate requirements expected of either parent, but also of engendering their own novel discourse.

One seeming exception? A lot of personal soul searching abounds in contemporary body art and this could very easily be confused with the term "spiritual". Body art may be (in fact, almost always seems to be) deeply personal. The person embroiled within the process often grappling with formidable personal demons. Is that a spiritual quest though? Given how all the demons would be flesh-bound to begin with? And then, even more importantly: Is a spiritual quest something personal? Or does it transcend the personal? Does it only become spiritual when it leaves the realm of the  personal "I" and enters the realm of collective consciousness? Are there works of contemporary body art that do attain this state? Possibly so, yes. I need to think more about this one. A lot more, in fact.
And then New Age manifestations: Do they go against the spirit of the materialistic Zeitgeist? Can they be seen as evidence of a mass spiritual quest? Maybe the start of a new religion even? Humm... Maybe back in the 1960's and early 70s they might have been indicative of some sort of a search. But today? Isn't the bulk of it all about "what's in it for me"? How can I use age old spiritual techniques to extend my income, become a more successful person, attain a better love life, lose weight and maybe stop smoking even? Sure, there are bound to be persons out there who pursue a deeper calling. Enough for a critical mass to come about? Enough to shift the Zeitgeist, in other words? No evidence whatsoever for that, as far as I can see.

So, getting back to my question from before: What do I tell the rare oddball "true" artist who may wander into my class in pursuit of a deeper quest? A student who has entrusted him/herself into my tutelage? Do I tell them that a lifetime of frustration; of very often, if not indeed inevitably, being overlooked awaits them? That they are proposing to enter a Quixotic state of existence which goes against the very grain of the prevalent Zeitgeist? Tell them to forget it, in other words? And could they "forget it" even if they wished to do so? So, do I stand by, helplessly wringing my hands, as I watch them head off to emotional perdition?
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Quoted from the blog Sex Drugs and Post-Structuralism (unfortunately no longer active, it seems):

... "when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere." Pablo Picasso (Interview with Giovanni Papini in Libro Nero, 1952)
It is maybe not Picasso’s fault, higher forces are at play. Hegel had already proclaimed the death of art one hundred years before. Art, for Hegel, had reached its expressive limit, its “spirit” or Geist, had been exhausted. Art’s expressive form had achieved all that it could. In Hegel’s scheme of things, art had reached full-circle in the complete self-awareness of itself as art... in other words, art becomes self-conscious.
As soon as a particular expression of Geist starts becoming self-conscious, it multiplies itself; art is everywhere, there has never been so much “art” in the world than today...and yet, what is “art”?
The very asking of the question amongst the proliferation of “arts”, is for Hegel, the Zeitgeist, or the “signs of the times”, that art is dead. Art becomes self-conscious, as it starts theorizing about itself in an interminable questioning of itself.

Read the whole text here:

Do I agree? Well, yes and no... Sadly, I do think that the author of the post above knows precisely what she is talking about.

But then again, I still see the real thing on rare occasions as well? Works of art, in other words? That do not theorize about themselves? Tough to pinpoint, tough to define, tough to categorize and to label. And thus, unforgettable. Admittedly, few and far between. If anything, I seem to encounter them years apart. Certainly not an everyday occurrence. Buried amongst a pervasive avalanche of verbose iniquity, gasping for breath. But nonetheless - there!

Continued on the following morning:

This shook me up. I have to be totally honest and own up to the fact that I was only vaguely aware of Hegel's proclamations (*ouch*), until an article sent to the journal which I am editing made me encounter them head-on yesterday. Needless to say, I have been reading up feverishly since then.
I have felt the Zeitgeist which Hegel points at. And for a long time too. But obviously my feeling something, no matter for how long and however strongly, and Hegel articulating it are two different things entirely. When the man, whose thought processes have helped shape two centuries of subsequent intellectual activity, says that "a (social) need for art is obsolete" it is of momentous impact. For me it is so anyway: Can a calling which attempts to exist with no underlying societal purpose achieve this exalted state at all? Well... Yes, it seems that it can. Can it do so and still bring fulfillment to its possessor? Very seriously doubt it...

I do not call myself an artist, so this does not shake up the foundations of my existence on an immediately personal, first person singular sort of a level. I just carry on doing what I have been doing all along - which is making stuff that I know to be design output. But nonetheless, it is still important, even on a personal level, in the sense that I am also an art educator sometimes. Not always, thank God. I am a design instructor most of the time. However, I do have students that have artistic aspirations as well, particularly on the graduate level. So, what do I say? What do I do? Because I do know that Hegel is correct. A visionary, given that his thoughts do not really apply to the works of his contemporaries, as Chaosmose very accurately points out in her post, but to what came about long after his death.

Hegel argues that art, in concert with religion and philosophy, is an activity of the mind whose task is to reveal spirit, in sensuous form. And as such, it would inevitably have completed its intrinsic life cycle with the advent of materialism as the founding principle of the post-romantic/modernist social mindset coming to the fore during Hegel's own lifetime. I have previously tried to define an artist as someone who has a fundamental question that they are trying to articulate, a question that has no answer but the answer to which is haunting them nonetheless (by which I suppose I was groping for that very Hegelian definition). Today, for the largest part, individuals with such an obsession would have a horrifyingly difficult time getting across their query, given that they are totally obliterated by a maelstrom of non-art to begin with. And then - even more importantly, the religious/cultural infrastructure that would have provided a socioeconomic milieu of "genuine need" to aid Bruegel in his quest - where is that now? How do things work in it's demise? What is there for a "real" artist to do today? In the year 2010?

The malady would also manifest in the proliferation of art, which Hegel seems to define as one of the symptoms of its decadence, apparently already somewhat in evidence towards the end of the Romantic era (all this as far as I can make out from my survey reading since yesterday - believe me, I will be reading more deeply - ordering the books even as I write...). So, how many artists are there now? I mean how many human beings are there in the world today that define their output as "art"? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Hundreds of millions? 1% of the world's population? 5? 10? I have no clear idea, but a huge number, of that I am certain... And so, what would have been this same percentage until the advent of modernism? 0.001%? 0.0001%? 0.00001%? I think that whatever that tiny percentage may have been back then, it would probably still be the same today. In other words, a handful of individuals, in societies comprised of tens of millions of people are artists today also - very much as was the case during the Renaissance or whenever.

So, I could well encounter one of them or maybe two of them in my classrooms in all the decades that I teach. How do I know that they are the genuine article? And again, what do I tell them even if I do manage to somehow distinguish them from the fray? And then, what does one tell all the others? How does one differentiate even? Does one simply shut up? Probably... I am certain that shutting up and pretending that all is hunky dory is what is expected of the likes of me. Our employers, our peers, our students - no one wants the apple cart to be upset, do they?