Today we extend a warm welcome to Jerry Cullum, a longtime friend of BURNAWAY and today’s guest writer!
When we first encounter art, it is already engaged in painting, sculpture, performance, installation, and conceptual genres.
At least, that is what the archaeological evidence suggests in the range from the rock paintings of Africa and Central Europe to the kilns of Dolni Vestonice to the bas-reliefs of the recently uncovered early cities in the stretches of land past Anatolia.
The earliest thread thus far discovered, a pre-weaving stuff apparently used to hold together animal skins, is dyed with a variety of bright colors. “We love color—our brains go ‘zing’ when they see color,” an academic spokesperson remarked. It might have been just a means of functional identification, but it looks like we are already in the realm of aesthetic delight combined with keeping these cave-dwellers’ clothes from falling apart, or whatever. (The archaeologists voted for “whatever.”)
I approached art, when I was fresh out of college, as an aspect of the history of consciousness. (Bibliography on request.) It isn’t a separate activity; it’s what we do, although some of us in the group would rather do that than hunting or gathering or telling stories or advancing the group’s technology.
So though my ideas have developed and altered in terms of the theories involved, over my years as a practicing critic I found it ever more difficult to justify separating painting and sculpture and conceptual art and installation and photography and furniture design and printmaking and video art and fashion and graffiti and digital and folk art and ceramics and graphic novels and architecture and carpet weaving. And whatever other genres do not come to mind as I write this somewhere towards dawn on the fourth day of January in the year of our Calendrically Described Era two thousand and ten.
You can argue for the enormous superiority of one genre over another because it attains greater complexity, allows for a greater range of imaginative response, requires a much larger quantity of prior knowledge in order to be able to do it even badly, or just plain is more in tune with something that you value highly and can show why you value it highly.
That is how aesthetics gets made: We argue in favor of the values that we ourselves hold most dear, and we produce arguments in favor of why they ought to be held more dear than the contending values of the other guys. And unless the argument is settled with bare hands or weapons of choice, the debate goes on.
Our place in the social and economic and intellectual pecking order (and the social includes ethnicity and gender) really does matter when it comes to what kind of art we make and what kind of art we value, but we can learn to value other kinds of art. Otherwise there would be no point in practicing art criticism, which is largely a matter of educating audiences about types of art that they do not currently like but might come to understand, if not ever quite appreciate.
Unfortunately, art reviewing is not the same thing as art criticism. Art reviewing, in the pre-digital era of print newspapers, was largely a matter of providing a high-class consumer guide. If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing that you will like, as the saying has it that is ascribed to many different people.
Now we are engaged in a revolution in consciousness comparable to the Birth of the Modern at the beginning of the 19th century. I am not talking about intellectual revolutions, even though they lay the groundwork for revolutions in consciousness; I am talking about the revolution in how people go about their day after they get up in the morning and before they have had time to sit down for a minute and think about what it all means.
At the beginning of the 19th century, people were amazed at the prospect of traveling at immense speeds across the landscape, and by the end of it, they were amazed by the prospect of powered flight and the reality of electrical illumination and the new technologies being spawned daily by the uses of electrical currents. In between, they got things like globalized commerce made possible by speedier shipping (and by some unpleasant types of politics combined with a sense of civilizational mission). And they got technologically enhanced postal systems that made possible such customs among the English-speaking peoples as the sending of Christmas cards.
And in certain urban centers in two thousand and nine, the sending of Christmas cards seemed to be dwindling almost as fast as the use of film-based cameras.
David Hockney is using an iPhone as his sketch pad (Brushes 1.0), and sending his sketches to select friends as soon as he finishes them. Then he goes back to his studio and goes back to painting.
“Where there is a new experience,” Edmund Husserl wrote, “there a new form of analytical consciousness must arise.” (Actually, what he wrote is translated as “science,” but “science” means something slightly different from the word “Wissenschaft.” I do not endorse Husserl’s version of the “new science” by using this quotation.)
Where there is a new experience, there a new form of art criticism must arise.
But right now, stuck in between the print media and the digital media, we don’t even have an adequate art consumer guide. Given the different habits that people have after they get up in the morning, we don’t even know how to provide one that will reach all those different audiences.
Audiences that didn’t even like one another used to all look at the same newspaper, even if they wrote letters to the editor accusing the newspaper of bias. Even illiterates looked at the pictures, and sometimes used them for astonishing works of folk art.
Not even YouTube reaches that kind of unanimity in the digital era.
And this is our problem.
Dr. Jerry Cullum is is a longtime art writer in Atlanta.