Griselda Wept

For my own benefit and also for the vindication of revisionist art histories... and to post my reading notes.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Reading notes on "Contemporary Art" Stallabrass

Notes for Future Reference on “Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction ” by Julian Stallabrass, (Oxford University Press, 2004)

• Thesis: Art is not autonomous. Explains how this basic concept plays out in contemporary art scene, market, academia, and politically.

• Much contemporary art is apolitical- why? It is marketed as autonomous because this serves the purposes of the neo-liberal capitalist market system and the state which fund the art which receives the largest audiences.

• This myth about art is propagated by two relationships: with corporations and with states:

o For corporations, art represents an elite realm and social status- a commodity. However, corporations tend to invest only in art that has high a production value but is low on critical content and this has the effect of eroding art’s autonomy. (page 93)
o States want art to be accessible, communicate universals, and tend to social cohesion. Thus they only support art which does these tasks producing a certain kind of art.

• The Biennale System homogenizes difference and functions as a stage where ethnicity is performed for a western audience. Therefore the art world controls what types of Non-Western Contemporary Art should be seen.

• The contemporary art market yields a very low profit ratio per investment. It operates as a pre-industrial market system. (see page 63 for specifics) Stallabrass hints at Internet art and new media arts as having potential to reform this system.

o Art market differs from regular market bcs: 1) participation is optional 2) participation is low 3) more isolated from the influence of other factors (as opposed to legal and political spheres which work closely) 4) inclusion and exclusion function differently. (page 80)

• So the art production is controlled by various forces and is not free even in this post-modern, ahistorical time.

• The subject matter in contemporary art reflects the wider mass culture but engages in a consumerist spectacle which avoids critical thinking about the interrelationship between production and consumption.

• Homogenization becomes a problem; branding is the solution. Art mirrors advertising by creating brands for artists, museums, and also corporations brand themselves with art (e.g. Deutschbank Berlin Guggenheim) (pgae 97)

• Autonomy is tied into a tradition of thinking about the ‘mystique’ of art- art as unknowable (page 102)

o Academic art criticism is tied to deconstruction and psychoanalytic theories because it is easily transferred to any subject and creates endless product to “fill publication quotas” (pg. 110)
o Pop critics have attempted to revive ideas of beauty, freedom, and unproblematic aesthetic pleasure.
o Others- Virilio identifies the uneasy relationship with this autonomy “art that eventually engages in murder for aesthetic purposes” (119) and Relational Aesthetics: art as pedagogical, progressive social good/ interaction as another form of media.

• Conclusion and other developments:

o Internet art fights against this because it is reproducible, non material, accessible, and fosters dialogue.
o Art that is destroyed or attacked is engaged in a critical process…
o Documenta X and XI brought up some of the above issues. (126)
o Walter Benjamin’s concept of radical art was more than the representation of politics in subject matter it required a change in the way art is made, distributed, and viewed. (129) Internet art has the potential to do this and works against the idea of the “autonomy of art which takes up creativity, enlightenment, criticality, self criticism to mask business, state triage and war” (134)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Class and Gender in Albert Gleizes' Woman with Animals

The painting Woman with Animals by Albert Gleizes exists in the corner of PC1 where it is overshadowed by the works of Picasso, Brancusi, and Duchamp. Its lack of an audioguide entry further marginalizes its position within the collection, where it seems to only be acknowledged by the passerby as another Cubist painting, albeit a large one reminiscent of Peggy, a woman surrounded by her animals, whose visage has been maimed by the artist’s representation of a large unattractive nose.

There are several striking things about this work, which necessitate a closer reading of its content. First is the fact that although Gleizes was a Cubist, in the sense that he co-wrote the seminal treatise On Cubism in 1912, but the work itself is a hybrid of several styles. It represents both the diversity and limits of Cubism as a construct in the identification of artistic styles, as well as commenting on class and gender. Gleizes practiced a heavily theorized and politicized version of Cubism, which was equally indebted to Orphism, especially the work of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and Italian Futurism, which was accessible to the artist by heavily promoted exhibitions across western Europe at the time. The use of bright colors and the gradation of the shading within planes represent Orphist concerns with simultaneity, a looser and more dynamic rendering of multiple perspectives than cubism. Repeated and curved lines cutting across the composition diagonally predominantly in the lower half of the painting are Futurist devices which image movement, such as the hand moving to pet the dog, and also the tail of the dog wagging.

The cross pollination of stylistic influences began in Gleizes’ work when he established an artists commune in 1906 which reflected his socialist ideals of creating a collective brotherhood, where art could be created in an environment free from economic pressures and influences. There he collaborated with artists from Mexico, Russia, Italy, Germany as well as France. In these years he met with the Cubist sculptor Raymond Duchamp Villon, with whom he would exhibit work in the Armory Show in New York during 1913.

This piece was created after the Armory Show but several months before the outbreak of the First World War. In this brief historical moment the pressures which would contribute to profound changes in art and society is documented in this composition by a ideologically motivated use of Cubism which does not display several physical perspectives at one but instead constructs reality from multiple symbolic views of its subject. In On Cubism Gleizes states that the collapse of the foreground, middle ground, and background into one another functions to explore the influence that forms have on each other. In his work Gleizes uses this framework to establish the complex social relations of subjects to their changing environments.

Women with Animals takes on a largely unconventional modernist subject matter a middle class woman in a domestic interior in order to comment on class. Mrs. Raymond Duchamp-Villon is pictured flattened against a backdrop of the domestic interior, which reflects the social conventions of women of the upper class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At a time when women were agitating en masse for suffrage, this image, which the catalogue identifies as one of “bourgeois complacency,” serves as a biting critique of the participation of the upper middle class in what was an especially sore point for women in France. After the Revolution French women had the right to vote, own property, and have legal representation but these were rescinded less than a century later during the Paris Commune. The status of women was dictated by their class standing, which was conveyed by a combination of clothing, occupation, and location.

Duchamp-Villon’s class is evidenced in the painting by her clothing. The details are not fractured in a Cubist style but exist in their own undisturbed planes of color, specifically, the wedding ring on her hand, a string of beads, hat, embellished shoes, and a leg which reveals a silk stocking. Multiple perspectives of her face, reveal less flattering views of the bourgeois lifestyle. The immersion of this figure into the background infers that Duchamp-Villon exists as just another pet within her husband’s household. Just as the dog is satisfied with attention from its owner, this woman has been placated by luxury goods and a comfortable lifestyle. The title alludes to the fact that Yvonne, or Mrs. Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s, identity rests solely on the social status of her husband. The creature comforts of her surroundings is contrasted by a grey, lifeless, mask used to convey the emotional emptiness of material possessions. One of the planes has been rotated to create the illusion of a mustache atop of her blackened lips adding to the ugliness of the disproportionate nose which further places the subject in a negative light.

Gleizes had come from a family of textile workers, and had apprenticed in his father’s shop as a youth before attending art school. His pre- 1914 work generally reflected his socialist politics and he submitted a portrait of a worker in the Armory Show of 1913, which was more conventionally modernist. This piece used the same conventions as Woman with Animals of collapsing pictorial space to fuse the worker with environment, a building site, but positions the figure as a constructive force in the creation of a modern and therefore more equal world. During the Armory Show, which introduced European avant guarde art to America, there was a massive strike in the neighboring county of Passiac, New Jersey which proved to be a decisive battle in labour history. The Paterson Silk Strike began as a dispute between textile workers and factor owners, which grew to encompass a total of 25,000 workers and lasted for five months. At this time the World Workers International, an international labour organization represented a major front on the second international and in general the brotherhood of a global socialist movement. The strike was unsuccessful and this defeat represented the failure of international socialism resulting in the radicalization of the fragments of this group as evidenced in the proliferation of Communist parties across Europe, Latin America and North America during the 20th Century.

The fact that Gleizes was intimately acquainted with both socialist politics and textile manufacturing is essential to understanding his choice of subject and manner of representation. He images the wrongs in society as a woman, a practice which is congruent with male dominated structures of modern art, which often polarizes women as objects of desire or deviance. Before the developments of nylon and other plastics in the 1920s only upper-class women could afford silk stockings, which in this image serve as one of the identifying accouterments of social class. Woman with Animals may also be responding to its contemporary movements in art such as the Russian Constructivist clothing design and the fabric collages of Sonia Delaunay. As one of the last figurative representational pieces Gleizes makes before retreating into abstraction during and after the war, this work is an interesting document which records not only the alternative histories of women’s and labour rights but also the loose parameters of Cubism as a movement.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Success! Theater of the World Done

The six o' clock news reported that the Vancouver Art Gallery will be removing the live animals from "Theater of the World" in Huang Yong Ping's Retrospective : House of Oracles. I am utterly relieved, this travesty has been robbing me of sleep for nearly two weeks. There is some justice in the world. Words cannot express my elation... so here is the press release in all of its glory:


VICTORY: Art Gallery Will Remove Animals

Peter Hamilton, of the Vancouver based ecology organization Lifeforce, is pleased to hear that the Vancouver Art Gallery will finally remove all animals from the controversial exhibit “Theatre of the World”.

Lifeforce implemented a letter writing campaign to the Management and Directors of the Art Gallery. We also urged people to tell the SPCA to immediately seize the animals because the SPCA agreed that the captives could die.

“The species are from different ecosystems and are subjected to a forced predator/prey relationship. Society must not condone promoting violence and cruelty in our society and to other sentient creatures, stated Peter Hamilton, Lifeforce Director, ”Forcing animals to fight is not art, it is sadistic”.

Vancouver has been a leader in recognizing Animal Rights Day and implementing animal protection laws. If the Vancouver Art Gallery curators continued this cruelty, they would be impeding the progress towards developing a compassionate society for all life.

BCCTV reported that the Art Gallery would keep the “cage” in the exhibit as a “protest”. Our response is that it is unfortunate that the Art Gallery doesn’t fully respect the rights of animals. If they keep the death trap, they should paint it red in respect of the animals who would have died. However, they should remove the offensive cage and deem the space a “Memorial Against Animal Cruelty”.

For further info:

Peter Hamilton

Founding Director

Lifeforce Foundation

Box 3117

Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6


Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Shut Down "Theatre of the World"

The latest news reports that two toads are missing from the Vancouver Art Gallery's inhumane installation "Theatre of the World" by Huang Yong Ping. Friends have inquired if I liberated them. No, I did not. The piece is designed in a way that such trouble making would be niether quick nor quiet. The most logical answer would be that they died, as it is dry as a bone in the gallery. I don't know how this news was leaked but the gallery was probably covering its ass and said the frog's were missing. Not very convincing but better than admitting you were wrong...

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Are Animals Being Harmed During the Exhbition at the VAG?

"No animals were harmed in the production of this film"

- is a disclaimer that is attached to films which have met the standards of the American Humane Association's Guidelines for the Safe use of Animals in the Media.

Can the Vancouver Art Gallery say the same thing? After browsing the American Humane Society's guide, which is also used in Vancouver film productions, I have come up with several more complaints about the House of Oracles show at the VAG. The issue outlined at-

1) Amphibians and reptiles are infamous carriers of salmonella. Their presence in the gallery puts children, the elderly and those with impaired immune systems at risk.

2) Amphibians must be provided with an abundance of purified water and adequate housing. Anyone who has ever had a pet frog or salamander will see that the set up at the VAG is inappropriate.

3) Sand or any bedding with small particles is not recommended as it could be ingested by the animals and destroy their digestive systems. "Theatre of the World" has sand bedding.

4) My personal favorite- Section 8-265- "When using snakes and other animals together in the same scene care must be taken to protect both the snakes and other animals. Each must be accustomed to being around each other. They are purposefully or negligently exposing different species to each other!!!

5) In the case of insects, arachnids, reptiles, and amphibians- a knowledgeable expert must be around at all times to ensure the well being of the animals. The VAG has someone come in only every couple of days.

6) Nothing can be done to the animal that will cause permanent harm or alter its physical characteristics.

7) Animals must be checked daily for injuries and/ or illness. Again, there is a lack of trained and brained supervision for the animals.

VAG's "Theatre of the World" appears to not stand up to film standards! Does this seem right? Both involve the use of animals for performance purposes. Both should be held to the Humane Society's standards.

Labels: , ,

Friday, April 06, 2007

Animal Cruelty at the Vancouver Art Gallery

The House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective has been keeping me up at night.

What started as a rumor that the Vancouver Art Gallery was exhibiting a piece of work that involved putting different species of reptiles, amphibians, scorpions, tarantulas, millipedes, cockroaches and other insects in an enclosure together has been confirmed. Let me clarify why it was a rumor. Vancouver has a reputation for being staunchly against animal cruelty and no-one would believe that a large public institution like the VAG would dare to do something like this.

I did some preliminary research to find out more about this particular work titled "Theatre of the World" and the findings were disturbing to say the least. The controversy is outlined quite well at: I wrote to the curators and asked them to remove the piece on the grounds that it was cruel and disgusting treatment of animals. While waiting for their response I reported them to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Perhaps I reacted so strongly because I have had reptiles, amphibians, and spiders (also spyders) as pets to varying degrees of success as a child. Having lost many of them to unintentional negligence, I understand how sensitive they are to their environments but also the rudimentary fact that amphibians and reptiles often have drastically different habitats and different species of omnivores could never cohabitate peacefully. The fact that the VAG denies the intention of intentionally causing conflict amongst the animals is complete malarkey. After talking with them it became apparent that the herpetologist they contracted was either corrupt or incompetant and that the curators felt no compassion for the animals as living beings.

The curators invited me for a private tour and discussion about the ethical issues and value of the work which was very insightful and contributed to my appreciation for the other works in the show. However, the inherent wrongness of intentionally putting animals from different ecosystems in the same habitat with the hope/intention of creating conflict among them for the purpose of 'art' inhibited any purposeful interaction with the work. In short, I was turned off.

Not only do I take issue with the inhumane and thoughtless combination of animals for the purpose of creating a public spectacle but I also object to the message the work articulates within the larger context of the House of Oracles show. Quoting from a recent newspaper article interviewing the Phillipe Vergne the "allegorical microcosm of power dynamics" and "metaphor for the conflicts among different peoples and different cultures" to me translates into a thinly veiled racist conception of "human existence itself" with different groups represented as different species from several continents. Just as the social sciences in the 19th century sought to prove that some races were different species, i.e. not human, to justify slavery, colonialism and other forms of exploitation, this work seeks to frame inter-cultural human relations as a veritable maelstrom of all against all where according to the tenets of social Darwinism only strongest survive. This statement flies in the faces of the ideal of multiculturalism that Canada prides itself on.

The attempt by curators Augaitis and Vergne to naturalize the idea of using live animals in contemporary art in today's paper, impels me to object to the disservice they have done to the memory of the great artist Joseph Beuys and his seminal piece of 1974 "Coyote (I like America and America Likes Me)." The impetus behind the work of Beuys was to shamanistically heal the pathological drive to war in the world, specifically commenting on the American aggression during the Vietnam War. Ping on the other hand, calls into question the very possibility of harmonious existence in the world through his metaphor of claustrophobic existence among different species (or is that races Mr. Ping?), by placing incompatible animals in a confined space to reference among other things, Gu, a Chinese poison made of venomous animals who have devoured each other. Poison kills, and so does the VAG, apparently.

The tension between Beuys and the coyote existed as a singular event surviving as an art work for exhibition in video form unlike "Theatre of the World" which is staged live and constantly for an audience. As footage of "Coyote" plays it becomes obvious to the viewer that the only one at risk is Bueys, who must fend off the increasingly hungry coyote. More importantly the coyote only had to contend with Beuys, while the creatures in Ping's work are on show for countless viewers undoubtedly intensifying their already heightened stress levels brought on by competing for territory with the other predatory animals. Which brings me to my final point, that the artistic merit of the work and an otherwise exceptional show is denied to the viewer by the unethical treatment of living things used as a means to questionable ideological ends. This is easily remedied by doing as the French did, when this piece was exhibited in Paris in 1994. Protests succeeded in replacing the live animals with art- that is representations of the animals.

Luckily the City of Vancouver has recently passed some by-laws regarding the display of exotic animals and in addition to the pressure of local animal rights groups shall prompt the VAG to reconsider "Theatre of the World." Animal Cruelty as Art in Vancouver? Not on my watch, I say.

Issues of censorship were discussed with the curator, and I stated that I was not into censorsing artists and it was with some trepidation that I am taking a stand against this work. However, we both agreed that there were limits to what should be shown although these thresholds are different for everyone. He seemed to respect my disagreement with the work, but stated he would not take "Theater of the World" down. Ah, the joys of the post-modern condition. Who needs a soul when you have the eternal ambiguation of meaning to hide behind....

I thought I would include a photograph of myself with my dog, Muffin for anyone who needs to ask why I am occupying myself with such a 'trivial' matter. READ: All living things need to be treated with compassion and respect, not just the cute mammalian ones. If a parent caught their child doing what the VAG is they would sit down the youngster for a talk, not stand there robotically nodding saying " post-modern."

To paraphrase Blake: I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand... Til the VAG stops torturing animals, in Vancouver's green and pleasant land.

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 22, 2006

Musings on Hogarth's Curve of Beauty

"Aspects of art can be analysed mathematically" Peter Forbes Thursday July 11, 2002The Guardian

Excerpt: "Is there a science of beauty? Are there equations behind the most beautiful works of art? In a seminal work, The Analysis of Beauty (1753), William Hogarth wrote: "The subject is generally thought to be a matter of too high and too delicate a nature to admit of any true or intelligible discussion."

There are aspects of art that are amenable to scientific treatment. Music is the most obvious. Musical intervals are mathematical: an octave is double the frequency of the root note, and this - as discovered by Pythagoras - was the first known mathematical scientific law. Another area is the importance of curves in visual art. Computer-graphic techniques have enabled us to understand the aesthetic intuitions of Hogarth and the early 20th-century biologist D'Arcy Thompson. Hogarth and Thompson agreed that the essence of beauty of line in painting, drawing, nature and design is not the simple geometry of a straight line or circle, or more subtle shapes such as the ellipse, but of curves that modulate from one gradient to another. Hogarth's perfect line is pure maths. A mathematical treatment of the principle of Hogarth and D'Arcy Thompson, as enshrined in the Beziér curves of graphics programs, can account for the aesthetic effect that we call beauty."

My dad sent me this article and it spoke to me because it connects to the concepts I am learning about in art history with the aesthetics. The current trend in art history at my school anyways, especially in modern and contemporary art, is to ignore this instead focusing on the social constructions that produced works and the way their meanings are manipulated to refract back onto society.

I also took a philosophy of art class which was very beneficial in placing debates on aesthetics into an art context but left me at a loss for what the function or even definition of aesthetic was. Hogarth and others ground the notion of aesthetic in mathematics but I think it could equally be attributed to the laws of physics that rely on the rhythm and patterns found in matter to explain the structure the world. If you entertain the notion that contemporary physics shares much of its 'philosophy' with eastern religion, then, one can make a logical link back to Hogarth. Hogarth's assertion that the concept of beauty resists easy definition and relies on something more authorative and mysterious, maybe divinity, in tandem with greater structures of the universe. Hence beauty, or aesthetics, is the articulation and representation of that which already exists: the structure of the universe.

This brings up the issue of representation in art for me. If the natural structure of the universe is the standard of beauty, then can anything man made, like art, be beautiful? Fine art, as we know and celebrate it, then, is only an imitation of this existing universal structure and is denied true designation of beauty as its value comes from notions of authenticity, or naturalness. If aesthetics are applied to an appreciation of nature this makes sense to me. However for 'art' this leads me to resist applying Hogarth's concept of the mathematical curve to beauty, if art must be linked to the Socratic vision of art as beauty.

I like to think that one of the triumphs of modern art is the way it reveals the artificiality of beauty and its tenuous link to aesthetics. I also suspect the social constructivist slant of my education has informed this opinion switching the debate from what is beauty, to how does the notion of beauty operate invisibly to produce and operate within structures of power. Not to throw the baby out with the bath water, 'beauty' is useful conceptually in art discourse... its just also problematic.