Last month, I had the privilege and pleasure of attending a symposium that served roughly as a capstone to one of my graduate courses. The symposium was coordinated in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s just recently closed Figures & Fictions show, an exhibition of a range of South African photographic practices. The second term of my course focused on many of the photographers featured in the show, touching on issues of photographic ethics, gender and sexual identity, and the legacies of Apartheid in South Africa, among others. I can hardly count the exhibition and symposium’s timing as an unexpected coincidence – the curator of the exhibition, Tamar Garb, also happens to be the professor of the course I was in.
It’s interesting to see how an art historian’s current research interests shape and are shaped by the courses she teaches; even more so to see those interests presented for a larger public audience. Throughout our course, my classmates and I saw resonances of the post-colonial theory around Orientalist depictions of race and gender we had studied in the first term regarding late 19th-/early 20th-century French portraiture. The juxtaposition of contemporary South African artists, mostly photographers, and western European painters of a century earlier may seem unexpected, but when viewed through a social history-informed lens, certain parallels regarding the power and expectations of truth in representations continue across period and location.
And those questions around the political nature of the assumed truth-value of photographic representation served as the crux of the Figures & Fictions show, as subtly indicated by its alliterative title. The exhibition consisted of the work of seventeen South African photographers from the well established to the emerging. While the photographers’ practices vary greatly in content and intent, the common thread of work included was the depiction of human beings, human bodies as subjects. Some such as David Goldblatt’s Ex-Offenders photos may be commonly identified as documentary practice, and others, like Kudzanai Chiurai’s satirical portraits of fictional African leaders, offer more explicitly constructed or imaginative projects. Others still remain in a grey area between the two, perhaps constructing a dialogue between photographer and photographed. To collect such broad range of representations in one space is to raise questions and challenge the alleged objectivity and presumed narratives of any and all the photographs. Or so I have no choice but to believe, having raised such questions all term long in class with Professor Garb.
Language draws an imaginary line around objects. That demarcation follows through in all the lines in our lives: the Morse code of a Risk board’s borders, anticipatory lines dragged across the icing of a cake, the dotted line around a coupon in a newspaper. These lines define the edges of something real, something made distinct and separate by words (“Argentina”, ‘my slice,”’”12% off fireworks”). When those lines fail – when things overspill their borders, when the separation of things becomes compromised – language falters too (if this isn’t the USSR any more, then what do we call it?). Conversely, when the rigidity of a line is used to limn something imaginary, something beyond language, the effect is uncanny and somewhat disquieting. It’s like that in Fred Sandback’s string pieces: taut lines of coloured yarn, used to describe semi-architectural spaces that provoke an internal dialogue between mind and body. Why can’t I walk through that empty space? What stops me?
The small installation of Sandback’s work, currently on view in a single room at the Whitechapel Gallery, is the best example of the late artist’s spatial alchemy you’re likely to see in the UK. Sandback needs space, and a lot of it, despite his work’s modest (and physically feather-light) qualities. He’s best showcased at Dia:Beacon, where he effortlessly steals the show from his more heavy-handed minimalist compatriots. A huge rectangle of blue yarn, nailed invisibly to the concrete floor at an angle to its insertion in the wall, becomes a vast and flawless sheet of glass, leaning gently, worryingly. Sandback’s work, like that of Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, and Richard Tuttle, is a reminder that the physical experience of art trumps its intellectual unravelling every time. Language pales in comparison to that stomachy leap of fear and pleasure. As Sandback himself put it in 1975: “I don’t have an idea first and then find a way to express it. That happens all at once (…) Ideas are executions.” And: “Fact and illusion are equivalents.”
Sandback’s Untitled (Sculptural Study, Seven-Point Triangular Construction) dominates the Whitechapel installation. Seven equilateral triangles of black yarn stretch floor to ceiling, the nails in their bases and apexes hidden, so that they act like apparitions. Each is separated by about three feet of space, enough to walk between the shapes; the triangles’ sides climb and drop at either side, like the walls of a valley, and you feel your body respond accordingly, in and out of enclosure (that slight loosening at the top of the spine). Walking through the triangles feels, oddly, like a kind of violation: you brace instinctively for the glass to smash. The experience is physical without being sensual, thoughtful without being cerebral. Transfixed for longer than you’d expected by an almost laughable modesty of means, it’s your body’s mind doing the thinking. You’re paying attention.
Sandback’s work belongs in a tradition of the line as purveyor of illusory magic. In the early Italian figuring-out of spatial recession, the parallel lines naturally occurring in classical architecture formed the axes of new creative territory. Sandback’s triangles might be the ghosts of Palladian pediments, his shafts of vertical thread the trace memory of fluted columns. Lines, whether in a drawing by Paolo Uccello, a zooming grid in Tron, or a soaring geometric form by Sandback, create a framework for imaginative play, a kind of playground of the mind. And yet, in Sandback’s devotion to everyday reality (the ordinariness of that fuzzed thread, with its associations of domesticity and repetition), there’s something more: a poetic reminder, as in the coloured lines on a map, that you are here.
The pairing of Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin in the current exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery reveals an embarrassment of shared interests that make it surprising they hadn’t been paired before. Both artists moved to Rome around the age of thirty, making work that reflected back on their native traditions (American abstraction and courtly French Renaissance painting, respectively) as filtered through a reappraisal of the ancient past – which in imperial Rome was a reappraisal of an even more ancient past: that of the Greeks. For everyone concerned, then – from the wide-eyed Twombly of the fifties, having himself photographed by Constantine’s massive digit, to Poussin, wangling his way into the inner circle of antiquarian patrons, to the Romans themselves, gawping back over their shoulder at the silent grandeur of their adopted ancestors – the classical past was something at a remove, to be jolted back to life through art and writing. This cultural electrode-clamping is something so recurrent in Western culture as to be conspicuous only by its absence. And it’s particularly conspicuous now, with the loss of Twombly this week, as though a golden thread, passed from hand to hand, had fallen to the floor.
Classicism’s associations, particularly in the UK, with rarefied educational backgrounds and paternalistic power structures, have always created unwitting cultural and social division. And yet there’s nothing in the work of either Poussin or Twombly that demands any form of classical erudition, despite the exhibition’s abundance of dense wall-labels, which caper about like a neurotic matchmaker, desperately looking for common ground between the two, as they apologize for Twombly’s table manners and Poussin’s inability to crack a smile. The excess of text in the exhibition doesn’t do much to assuage the modern anxiety around the classical past. Classicism is associatively verbal and literary, stuffed away in the mind as interminable verse translation and hypnotic lists of verb endings, and the exhibition, necessarily scaled to Poussin’s advantage, ends up resembling a walk-in illustrated text, rather than a meeting of visual imaginations. And because neither artist requires textual scaffolding, it would be to both of their advantages to knock it away and ditch all wall labels entirely (that’ll never happen, but try walking through not reading anything; there’s only two artists anyway, and you’re unlikely to confuse them). That way, the startling weirdness of the classical mythology that fired both artists up – a child suckled by a goat! Babies born out of gods’ thighs! A cursed swarm of bees! – will come alive, as suddenly and as resonantly as it must have for each of them, and the centuries will concertina, just like that.
Part 2 of what art and economics have to do with each other. . . .
A few years ago I came across a biographical sketch of Adam Smith, founding architect of economics, in a book by Walter Bagehot, the British essayist, businessman, and former Editor-in-Chief of The Economist magazine. (The Economist‘s “Bagehot” column on British life, politics, and current affairs is named for him.)
I found the essay, “Adam Smith as a Person,” in a general book called Biographical Studies (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 4th Ed, 1899). That book sat on a high, dusty shelf in a section of the London Library called “Miscellany.” A cursory review of Adam Smith bibliographies did not turn it up, though, following from Murphy’s Law, I’ll brace myself for angry scholarly corrections.
Was Adam Smith an artist?
He was a philosopher who founded the field of economics. I think that act of invention, along with the way he did it, makes him an artist. His thinking was as original and—to borrow a business-ism, “game-changing”—as the first Cubist painting.
The godfather of modern capitalism—whose 1776 book The Wealth of Nations laid the framework for the field of economics—was described in Bagehot’s essay as “one of the most unbusinesslike of mankind.”
Bagehot wrote, “He was an awkward Scottish professor, apparently choked with books and absorbed in abstractions. He never engaged in any sort of trade, and would probably never have made sixpence by any if he had been. His absence of mind was amazing.”
Bagehot went on to recount a time a stallworker at the Edinburgh fish market once described Smith as seemingly crazy though surprisingly well dressed—“taking him for an idiot broken loose.” On another occasion, Smith was asked to sign a document and instead of writing his own name, produced “an elaborate imitation” of the signature on the line above his.
Smith was, however, a keen observer of actual economic behavior. For instance, he became disillusioned during a Snell fellowship at Oxford that, he felt, the smartest men had gone into the Church of England over academia because the pay was better. An economic actor himself, he also took two years out of professorly duties to travel around France as the well-paid tutor of a twelve-year-old boy. (Some modern-day artists have this commercial instinct in spades.)
A camera is a room and a room is a head, and the head is constantly being filled with images it has to process and make sense of. A person born blind whose sight has recently been restored will initially see the world as planes and blobs of light, until the brain has caught up enough with its new stimuli to package the planes and blobs into names, at which point images distinguish themselves from the murk. A camera obscura can replicate that pre-linguistic, undifferentiated stream of visual stimuli, streaming the outside world onto its dark walls in unexpurgated flow. The history of photography – which began with those uncanny images projected, at first by a chance concurrence of darkness, light and a tiny aperture, later by design – is the history of a sudden revelation and its gradual wearing down into the commonplace. Little wonder the early large format landscape photography of Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge has a visually ravenous quality about it. Trace the accelerated history of photography into the later twentieth century and there’s an almost palpable feeling of an appetite having been sated.
Vera Lutter made a camera obscura out of an old leather suitcase and took it with her to Egypt, surreptitiously making images of ancient monuments (local laws being fairly punctilious when it comes to photography). The intrepid Tintin-meets-Capa narrative is a reminder that the romanticism thoroughly leached out of conventional ‘fine art’ in the 1960s still has a home in photography. Curled at their edges, intimate in scale, their clandestine provenance becomes part of the meaning of each work. The resulting negative images are as unsullied a representation of the pure photographic image – photography as ‘light writing’ – as a fixed image can be. Lutter’s photographs are, in other words, what images look like before language makes sense of them, and her practice involves geographical locations that are swamped and steeped in language: Manhattan, Venice, Egypt. Unphotographable places.
Last Friday, my invitation to graduation arrived in the mail. It seemed rather premature as I am but a fraction of the way through researching and writing my final dissertation, but it was also rather fitting since the MA program at The Courtauld is one of the shortest Master’s degrees in Art History around: a mere nine months from the first day of lectures to the receipt of the diploma. Taking a (most welcome) moment away from my dissertation, I thought about the value of the nine month journey.
A full-blown immersive plunge into art history was what I was seeking. My degree brought me into challenging thought, interesting discussion, and engaging writing projects. But it all happened so fast! It makes me wonder if The Courtauld is better suited for those looking for a fast track to a PhD? What of those people, like me, who (at the moment) aren’t considering continuing the climb of the ivory towers?
In cooking, there is a process called blanching, which can be used for greens like spinach and wild garlic (currently in season here in the UK), consisting of boiling the greens for 2 minutes before submerging them in a cold water bath in order to extend their freshness in the freezer. While the culinary analogy seems incongruous (besides an immersion into all things art, I’ve also nursed my passions for yoga and, you guessed it, cooking), it is rather apt in this case. As a student, I was thrown into the deep end (the boiling water) and now, my gestation time (my 2 minutes/9 months) is just about up. Now for the cold water bath.
I am so pleased to be a new guest blogger at Art21. We were encouraged to introduce ourselves in our first blog post, and so I thought I would write about art and economics. . . .
In 2004, Daniel H. Pink wrote in the Harvard Business Review:
The MFA is the new MBA!
It was number 9 on the list of breakthrough business ideas of 2004.
James J. Cramer—the television host I associate with loudness and a Daily Show sparring match on par with wrestling trash talk of the ‘80s— tackled the same topic around the same time in New York magazine. He wrote, “Analysts need fine-arts degrees. Like the modernists, they need to think creatively, think outside the walls of the 10-Q filing!” Cramer argued that this would help traders, like all great artists before, to foresee the opportunity to buy underrated AT&T stock that would double in value two days later.
At the time, I was receiving an MFA in painting after already having an MBA. Reading the articles, I felt like a guinea pig in the wild, who happened to be accidentally replicating the lab experiment that followed from the hypotheticals they put forth.
MBA-MFA thinking seems to be making a comeback:
In March, Steve Blank wrote on his blog that “Entrepreneurship is an art not a job.”
Last year, John Maeda, the RISD President, coined the term “artrepreneur,” offering RISD graduates Artrepreneur Starter Kits. (When I asked, John said the term has existed for some time and he resurrected it, like a found object.)
In 2008, Katherine Bell, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review issued an “HBR IdeaCast” titled “The MFA is the new MBA.”
New York Foundation for the Arts now offers an “Artist as Entrepreneur Bootcamp.” Creative Capital and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council jointly run an Artists Summer Institute which is also a business bootcamp. And California College of the Arts offers a “Design Strategy MBA,” to my knowledge the first and only MBA within an art school (and where I teach the core economics class each fall).
From the other side of the conversation, last month, I received a newsletter from Gotham Writer’s Workshop, where I take a class for fun. The lead essay by Jacob Appel painted a picture of the “All-MFA Society.”
I really like it. But what exactly does all this mean?
A small black and white newspaper photograph hangs on the wall of Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s studio, located in an old warehouse in Istanbul’s Karaköy district. The photograph is crowd shot, taken from above, and thus mostly of the tops of people’s heads. It is from the 9th Istanbul Biennial, in 2005. “That’s me,” she says, pointing to one of the tiny figures in the crowd. The Biennial was the first large-scale “art event” that Çavuşoğlu had ever attended, and she points to this moment as the point at which she realized she wanted to be an artist, to be a part of the community represented by the Biennial. Though she had completed her BFA in Cinema and Television at Istanbul’s Marmara University the year before and had already completed one of her earliest works, Dominance of Shadow (a project in which the poster for a made-up film was posted on rented billboards throughout Istanbul) and even participated in a group show at Platform Garanti titled That from a long way off looks like flies, she was not yet working full-time as an artist or even thinking of herself as such. Attending the Biennial changed all that.
In the nearly six years that have passed since this turning point, Çavuşoğlu has pursued her career at a breakneck pace, establishing herself as one of the most intellectually stimulating and active members of a new generation of young Istanbul-based artists, most of whom were born either in the years leading up to or directly following the 1980 military coup. Though they work in a variety of styles and media, these young artists, much like the generation of Turkish artists that proceeds them, all have at least one foot planted firmly in the field of conceptual art and continue to explore questions located at the intersection of art, everyday life, and politics in the tradition of artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Joseph Beuys, and the Paris-based, Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis. While rooted firmly in the political realities (and surrealities) of life in Turkey, the many opportunities, made available to them at the early stages of their development, to participate in residencies and exhibitions throughout Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, has enabled this generation to consider the conflicts and contradictions that characterize their locally specific experience through a broader lens that connects the local to the global flow of capital, labor, bodies, information, and ideas.
Tiger Woods is a profoundly uninteresting man, elevated to role model status in America by his unwavering commitment to brand promotion and the eradication of personal charisma, so when the revelations of his marital infidelities came to light in 2009, it was yet another contradiction of Fitzgerald’s too-quoted line about there being no second acts in American lives. Woods was being given a second chance, to save himself from the ignominy of living and dying the blank-eyed apparatchik of marketing departments at corporations everywhere. He was becoming a human, in the way that all robots in Hollywood films eventually grow a soul. Yet during the televised press conference, Woods’s charmlessness shone through like the sick light of a vandalized lighthouse. “I am truly sorry,” he intoned, auto-AutoTune-ing his voice beyond the wavering reality of the human larynx and by doing so, managed to simultaneously address and obfuscate the reality of his actions. Woods was using language against its function, allowing phrases like “my behavior has been a personal disappointment” to suggest contrition while denying his listeners access to genuine feeling. This is how an institutionalized language works: we’re telling you all we think you need to know. This is how language works in the art world.
“Internet artists come from numerous [sic] backgrounds and the Internet is developing extremely rapidly – these and other factors make it hard to define what makes good Internet art and whether ultimately it will be as durable as other art has been in the past. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s this: it doesn’t matter. Enjoy!” Thus the institutional voice of one of the world’s most important museums of modern and contemporary art, one funded in part by the public. Tate’s 2009 book How to Survive Modern Art, one of many guidebooks to modern and contemporary art nominally aimed at the general public, is full of examples of the sort of language designed to deny access to expertise. Take this, for example: “Pop artists didn’t try to make their art clever,” or “Pop artists … tried to make art that was as accessible as fast food, television, and pop music.” Both of these quotes come from a page with a reproduction of Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces, to give you an idea. Johns (let’s not split hairs, but not actually a Pop artist anyway) couldn’t be accused of not being clever, and despite a guest appearance on The Simpsons, makes work that is probably a bit more complex than, say, Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.” Similarly, complex artistic ideas and movements are reduced to absurdities by the text’s attempts at comprehensiveness. Matisse was an “unusual” artist because “his work was always about happiness.” “Rothko’s aim was to create in viewers a feeling of peace.” Abstract Expressionism was “hard for the public to understand.” Harlem Renaissance paintings were “uplifting and fun.” Art made before modernism was about “royalty, the nobility or members of the clergy looking down on the rest of us.” All of it.
Richard Long’s artistic medium, since the 1960s, has been walking. On his walks all over the world, he uses found materials to create formations – circles, lines, ovals — leaving behind remnants of artistic presence that are mostly ephemeral.
While his walks take place outside of the grasp of general art audiences, Long also shows and develops works for interior spaces, bringing some of the natural materials that shape his practice into galleries and museums.
For Berlin Circle, his exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Long has installed six large-scale floor works that are accompanied by two films, Walking a straight 10 mile line forward and back shooting every half mile (1969) and Richard Long in the Sahara.
Circles are the reoccurring shapes that one finds here – not only in Berlin Circle, a stone work with a diameter of 12 meters that was first shown at the opening of the Hamburger Bahnhof in 1996, but also further ones of sandstone, basalt, turf and mud.
What is one to make of Richard Long’s massive indoor circles? Has earth art, once a radical artistic expression coming out of the emerging environmental movements of the 1960s, become a mere aesthetic, a formal exercise of minimalist forms with natural materials? I would say that the works definitely do function on a purely aesthetic level (and this is no diss) for many visitors. I recall that, as I was walking through the space, I also heard someone call them “meditative.”
But while they certainly seem complete, one can also grasp that these forms and materials have a history, a place and time outside of the realm of the exhibition. A realm that is really only known to the artist in full, even though their origins can be traced (the mud of River Avon Mud Circle, for example, comes from the river Avon in Bristol, Long’s hometown), in the Hamburger Bahhof’s large main space, they become abstractions of things, found things, of the natural world.