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Schaffensdrang 4 March 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Culture, Painting & Sculpture.

Tom Ford interviewing Jeff Koons? Only on Iconoclasts. If you can get past Ford's tendency to talk more than his subject (tell me again why artistic egos are such a cliché?) and to interpret for us what it all means as if mere Groundlings just can't get it (think: George W. Bush saying, "America is addicted to oil!"), Koons art is actually arresting.

Koons has a huge, multi-million dollar studio with faithful minions executing his will, making everything from paintings that reference Warhol, put together in a paint-by-number process so that Koons can have final control of the product, to his current project of large statues of blow-up toys.

What fascinated me—despite Ford's cloud of cologne-induced garrulousness—was Koons' description of what it feels like to create and why he uses every-day objects to force a rethinking of our daily, often unnoticed experiences. Whereas Warhol often feels staged or cynical to me, the younger Koons seems to understand intrinsically that, while our mass culture might deprive objects of their meaning through the speed and scale of their production, we nonetheless have meaningful relationships with them. His work playfully mimics kitsch (as in the 1988 statuette of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, in the style of an 18th century French ceramic) or inverts pornographic forms so that staged sex becomes somehow innocent and exhuberant (as in his 1991 series, Made in Heaven).

Karl Marx believed that all human beings had something native to them, their "species-being" (der Gattungswesen), which was marked by the desire to create, to build, to make—our Schaffensdrang. Marx believed that one of the effects of a modern capitalist society was to alienate us, or tear us away from our deepest nature, this Schaffensdrang. Marx was more concerned with the products of labor than with the production of art, but his insistence that there is something innate about creation included the production of art (although he had very narrow ideas of what counted as art). For a few years now, I've been wondering if consuming art—seeing it, listening to it, touching it, eating it, wearing it—is enough to satisfy that urge, or if individuals are all compelled to create.

Consuming artful objects—from philosophy to food, from painting to MTV, from poetry to Brittany Spears—may be instead the focus of our species being. John Dewey argued that art was simply a particular and purposeful organization of "things" such that, when they were experienced by someone else, this organization provoked an affect response, that is, a particular feeling experience. For Dewey, what distinguishes art from other objects is that their very reason-for-being is that consummatory experience, that feeling produced when it's encountered. There is no difference in kind, according to Dewey, between so-called "high art" and popular art or even personal art. That is, Jeff Koons and Tom Ford are not different in kind from the WB or from the picture your four-year-old drew, now hanging on your refridgerator. They are all purposeful organizations of elements, "things," to provoke a particular affect. "High art" in this view becomes merely an artful object that requires education or particular specialized knowledge to interpret, before the individual can experience consummation.

Art is always context-specific, for Dewey; that is, it can only produce a consumamtory experience in individuals from the same or related cultural contexts, because the art's consummation is that it lends meaning to the life-experiences of the individual, shared in some way with the artist. Through imagination and the embodied experience of the art itself, art connects communities together in their consummatory experiences. Art, then, can be judged by its effectiveness in provoking that response within the context of its production and/or consumption. A child's art may be "bad" because it is so limited in its affect to the child and her parents; whereas Brittany Spears's pop music is readily accessible nearly world-wide; and whereas Koons' art may require art history (to understand his references and methods and media) and critique (to understand its cultural significance).

But after all this philosophizing, I am left wondering what is the relationship between my experience of seeing Koons' Balloon Dog (2003, above) and my desire to create something that affects others or speaks that affect to the world?

[Note: For some reason the whole time I was writing this, I could hear my friend Peter making fun of me for sounding like Camille Paglia.]



1. mattblack - 5 March 2006

I’m very interested in this correlation between art and cultural context. There’s something problematic for me about the current market driven approach to artmaking where, the broader your audience, the more value the art-object has (the more money you can make from it). Over time, living in a world where art is valued this way, the cultural context needed for the consumption of what might be considered “high art” erodes leaving us with shelf full of Britney Spears clones and a disapointing lack of “affect response.” There is something deeply unsatisfying about living in a world dominated by pop-culture.
Of course “high art” is still being created but its audience continues to shrink until, in extreme cases (the current state of poetry perhaps), the only people that consume it are the small community of people that produce it.
There seems to be a growing “art gap” where people refuse to engage with art they don’t immediately understand for fear of looking foolish and artists throw up their hands and leave the general audience behind.
All well and good, I haven’t been to the opera in years and I feel fine. But the erosion of cultural context extends beyond the arts to areas like science, where the general public is so far behind in terms of context that they think that intelligent design is a valid response to Darwinism.

2. Todd - 5 March 2006

I am perhaps less hostile anthropologically speaking to pop culture, Brittany Spears notwithstanding. I do think that people create meaningful relationships to pop/mass art objects, often against their intended meaning; and I think the emptiness itself often is the meaning (as so brilliant demonstrated by many a drag queen).

But I am completely with you on the effect of mass culture being that potential audiences have been “trained” to accept only art that is, in your words, “immediately understandable”. I’m not sure that the art gap in general is a new phenomenon, however; but rather I see it as a product of modernity, that is, of social structures arising out of the industrial revolution. Bach’s church music was immediately accessible to the paritioners who heard it; and likewise Michaelangelo’s works were immediately discernable to his consumers.

It seems that historically it is massification itself which has separated artist from communities of consumption. In pre-modern societies, of course, artists were intricately connected to their audiences; now, due to technology and the scale of our societies and the sheer number of our cultural affiliations, it may be a simple reality that there is no way to connect “high art” to larger communities, that high art is, by definition, rarefied discourses only accessible to tight and slightly in-bred audiences.

There are structural issues at play as well, which you allude to in your first paragraph. That is, because of the scale of our world, the only way for a work of art to get an audience is through the distribution aparatus of the mass culture industry. There are rare exceptions, when a small work, musician artist, etc., spreads by word of mouth; but these are exceptions to the rule.

I recently took my students to the San Jose Museum of Art as part of an effort to connect the social and cultural history they had been studying to the production of aesthetic objects. What struck me in that moment was that the act of educating them in the way I and my colleagues were, we were initiating them into that community that could, if they chose, understand and enjoy high art.

3. mattblack - 7 March 2006

I’m probably not as hostile to pop culture as I let on. It’s a love/hate thing if anything (hell, I produce the stuff) and there is plenty of decent stuff around if you look hard enough and yes, I have my share of guilty pleasures.

Also, I’m aware of the temptation to resort to faulty-logic nostalgia (the good old days that never were). Certainly the art gap is no new phenom. In large part, art of bygone eras was produced soley for the rich. It’s no far stretch to see the rise of popular culture as evidence of democracy at work. Some days though, when I’m at the mega-plex that’s showing films like Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Shaggy Dog, and Final Destination 3 (all on multiple screens) there’s a little voice inside my head that whispers… the aristocracy’s not so bad.

4. Todd - 7 March 2006

oh yeah, I know you like pop culture, but you probably aren’t as big a pop culture whore as me. 😉 I wasn’t thinking that you were in a nostalgia trap. Rather, I was trying to push the boundaries of what counts as “art” in the first place, so that when we think of things that are “high art” now, we can see that often in their contexts, they were “pop culture” at the time (religious art, architecture and music through the 19th century; Shakespeare; even Diego Rivera’s public art in the 20th century). Although much art was funded by wealthy patrons, it often had mass consumption at the time. (Even opera in Italy was a form of popular entertainment; and in germany during the nationalist period, as well, especially Wagner.)

The reason I was pointing this out was because I wanted to add to your argument about communities of consumption, the folks who can consume and understand “high art.” I think that what massified culture does is that it has to have meanings which are so generic and so generalizable that they can be ‘read’ by as many people as possible. The result is art that is disconnected from particular communities and very often disconnected from the real meaningful-experiences of people, who in turn have to re-interpret the generic-empty pop cultural signs and fill them with meaning.

So I think this dynamic produces art of low quality; and it attests to people’s creativity in generating and attaching meaning to vapid and meaningless objects (Brittany Spears).

What concerns

5. Todd - 7 March 2006

oops, I didn’t finish that before sending.

What I mourn in the loss of ‘high art’ is the loss of art rich in implication, history, culture that resonates with specific communities.

It’s probably obvious that I don’t believe in “universal” art, because I think art is intelligible in the first place from within the contexts that produced it. When artists try to make universal art, they either fail and produce something that is still anchored in their community of meaning or they produce “Baby One More Time.”

Of course, an art object can then circulate in other meaning-communities who can assign it new, different meanings, sometimes oppositional, sometimes similar, sometimes nonsensical (think: The Gods Must Be Crazy). So I suppose in that way, the objects are universal, but not the intelligibility or the meanings possible.

6. Jamie - 30 December 2006

Just searching in google and came accross your site, looks good, i will pass the url along

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