Researching cult psychology for my doctoral thesis, I once found myself fleeing from a Korean-inspired cult through a warehouse in Poland. It was a harrowing experience, exasperated, it must be said, after returning to the cult headquarters to locate my notes left behind in haste. Once back in the UK, fearful that I should be kidnapped or worse, I naively attempted to persuade the weaker cultists into leaving their dangerous group. Failing miserably, it was at that point that I began to question my motives. A more experienced psychologist, of course, would have known how to better conduct the all-important exit counselling strategy. As I read later, it is usually impossible for a cultist to perceive “reality” (that is your reality or the reality that a society designates “normal”) by debating against their “beliefs”. Instead, you must talk about the difficulties of balancing family life, career and religious duties. In short, you must discuss practicalities not theory.
I was reminded of my quixotic expedition during a conversation with an artist. Clearly believing that their art could “speak” its meaning, I pointed out some of the issues with that assumption. After I enquired where the meaning was located in their art, they responded that the problem was my questioning. For my language presumed a division between objects and content, which they further proved by referring to a tangible object (a stapler). For them, they claimed that there was no division between objects and content, a mistake of language, and art was beyond language. This, they argued, was a strong case for the production of art. Therefore, no-one, not even themselves, could explain their work, but that was not a problem, because, essentially, it was able to explain itself. Unable to persuade the artist theoretically, I decided to take them at their assumption and raise two practical issues: context and conservation.
A number of scholars have considered “contextualism” a mode of argumentation. It is one amongst a group of differing modes. A person chooses a mode, or inherits a mode, and that often influences how they perceive the world. Indeed, it can define a group of thinkers, a literary movement or a cultural period. Analysing the gradual or sudden shift in mode, can identify moments when a change in outlook happened in a society (think of “zeitgeists” or “paradigm shifts”). The change is not to do with the world, but the mode in which that world is interpreted. For example, a mode of contextualism is important, it is argued, for such world-narratives created by Hegel, Marx and Darwin. By world-narrative, I mean a type of story, not always fully agreed upon at outset, but one that is gradually perceived as a “reality” and used to explain the present, often with reference to history. The mode of contextualism is important for art history too and the way it can generate a perceived (or preferred) reality of a cultural present. A similar contextualist strategy, one that I have warned artists to beware, is the use of selection committees, juries or panels of specialists to generate a reality that objects and object makers are hierarchised. In fact, as I pointed out in my essay Twelve, the industry, as well as Art History, is dependent on such chimeras. The problem with contextualism is that you cannot terminate a context; you always need another context to explain it. It is a concentric set of argumentative circles with no conclusion.
But context is double-edged for the industry. For artists that continue to believe that their objects can interpret themselves or communicate directly with the viewer, context lurks around a dark corner. (Sometimes the context- the curatorial work – in an exhibition can be read for essential meaning instead of the art objects. It itself becomes an object.) If art can explain itself, then the context around it is of little consequence. It should not matter which gallery it is exhibited in, who the curator is, who was on a selection committee, how the works are positioned in a space, how much space there is, what the light is like, or, the real test, which artist or art works it is placed next to in a space. If art can interpret, it will communicate the same meaning in whatever circumstances. Of course, in practice, this is never the case. Artists that appear to believe that their art can speak are often the first to care about context, which suggests that they cannot really believe, or at least have much confidence, that their art communicates meaning. It is this strange and unchecked contradiction that has partly fostered a lack of democracy and an aesthetic or methodological hierarchy in the art industry.
Of course not every artist believes that art objects communicate meaning. There are some artists that have the talk. But what does it mean in practice that the viewer controls the meaning of a work of art? This is one of the assumptions that Parallax Art Fair attempts to consider, albeit with a supposition that viewers’ ideas are always someone else’s, like our concentric circles of contextualism again. For “Parallax” is a contradiction, or, as I termed in an earlier proem, a lucus a non lucendo. If meaning is in the viewer’s mind, then, ultimately, with art-historical narratives functionless, we would have to imagine a world without any art (or phenomena designated in similar fashion), art making or a cultural industry. Modernity, postmodernity and all the “isms” that have been lauded as the next stage in our cultural development would have little meaning for our identity. The idea of cultural development would not make sense. What would it mean to never develop, or, rather, if the progressive narrative that made that idea appear real was unable to function because meaning was configured by each viewer (if that were possible)? Consider a picture of constellations in space and then flicking a switch to turn off gravity. Now imagine artistic culture if we dared to switch off Art History.
There is an anecdote that Dr Johnson, the eighteenth-century lexicographer, once kicked a stone as a way to refute the fundamentalist scepticism of David Hume. The artist that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay appealed similarly, if for slightly different reasons, to a stapler. We all know what the stapler is, so it goes, just as we all know what a painting is (the tangible object, that is, not the word for it, which has changed). Putting aside that a stapler may well cease to be recognisable except for historians of technology in future generations, what of painting? The problem is entropy. Materially all physical objects, including ourselves, change with time. Physical inexistence is an irrefutable irony of existence. But before a work of art becomes dust, its chemical composition, colour, size, weight and shape will alter in our lifetimes due to intervention and non-intervention. Some artists have exploited this. Anthony van Dyck’s portraits were apparently gaudy off the easel with the intention that they would fade. However, some have not, like Mark Rothko, whose colours have sometimes changed beyond recognition.
However, we have invented a way to make it appear that we can manage this unfortunate fact of life. We have called it Conservation (with an auxiliary called Technical Art History). By claiming to regulate an object in its original state, there is a sense that we also control its self-sameness, the presence of the object maker and the historical background. But, as I have written elsewhere, there is a contradiction. Conserving an object presupposes that it has altered and is continually permuting. It is never self-same. I have referred to this in the past as a “twisted epoché”, a state of affairs where we know that the object before our eyes in the museum is transforming, yet coextensively we accept that it is self-same, or that a large part of it is (the most important part for carrying meaning usually). Conservation has the appearance of a confidence trick or a restorative balm, depending on how you look at it. It is this contradictory behaviour that led me to suggest in earlier essays that some objects in the National Gallery may be more contemporary than works in Tate Modern.
Maintaining a guise that objects are self-same possibly helps to hold in place cultural and artistic narratives that we would certainly question if we perceived all objects in a now; a view that I referred to, taking the Greek etymology of entropy literally, as “transformative materiality”. If all objects are contemporary in some way, there is little differentiation, art-historically speaking. Our contradictory and rather quasi-mystical approach to art objects has been influenced by nineteenth-century historicism and anti-modernist tendencies during the 1950s/60s onwards. (The real problem on both sides of that fictitious twentieth-century skirmish was Art History; Modernism was never modern at all.) Perhaps a more “honest” approach to the objects in our museums and galleries would liberate those objects from Art History, and, in turn, release us creatively from pursuing modern identity based on an idea of self-same materiality. That could impact the arts and artists in a powerfully expressive way far from the academic exercises in “postmodernism” we are accustomed to seeing in nearly every gallery, art fair and art school (a sign that Art History is still a world-narrative).
Discussions in academia over these issues often focussed on highly specialised ideas and language. One cannot help thinking of the “Postmodern Moment” as the “Academic Moment”, a time when a generation of academics embraced and exploited the avenues of new interpretations of knowledge in its wondrous rawness. But it travelled little beyond the academic class. Whenever it went outside these circles it was often so complex no-one could grasp it, except bite-sized reductions from the Media, and it was of little use. One has to question too whether some of these thinkers, approaching new terrain, actually understood clearly what they were writing given the inarticulacy of some of the work. Today, a number of arts professionals have got something of the talk, but certainly not the walk. For the walk, it turns out, is a little hard to do when you have a mortgage to pay. And the walk for some is too irresponsible. Domesticated and given a pet name, “Theory”, the talking goes on- a sort of patois amongst groups of intelligentsia. So impossible to fathom is the lingo that numberless specialists, mainly scientists it has to be said, have been able to continue fostering onto the public a kind of technical authority that few in academia would not question. One of the purposes of the Parallax Art Fair, for all the mistaken identities and misunderstandings that have been interpreted of it, is to indicate to artists and the industry that the practicalities of the issues at hand need to be addressed. If we do not, others will in the future. And they may not be so peaceful. For only fools play on the shore when they have seen the ripple of a Tsunami. And only irresponsible fools ignore it.