Conversation Piece

Conversation pieces cover.jpg

I am half way through a fascinating read: Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, by Grant Kester.  In the first chapter, "The Eyes of the Vulgar," Kester traces the history of avant-garde art from the particular view point of this tradition's assigning of value to the "intelligibility of the work of art."  He summarizes his thoughts as follows: "Thus we encounter in the modern avant-garde a series of strategies designed to anchor the meaning of the work of art so thoroughly in the recalcitrant individuality of the artist, and to frustrate existing norms and expectations so completely, as to render it utterly unpalatable to the appropriate powers of consumer culture.  The act of semantic resistance gradually becomes an end in itself and one of the defining characteristics of avant-garde art."  His description of the evolution of modern avant-garde art from this perspective is what I found really interesting.  (His point in laying this theoretical framework in this chapter is to later talk about process art as art work that creates a place for "discursive exchange and negotiation.") 

What I was thinking about as it relates to this chapter is that so much of the art and dance that I've seen over the last 10 years doesn't, in my opinion, obstinately resist intelligibility nor does it exactly open up a discursive space.  It is somewhere dreadfully down the middle.  


Especially in dance, I feel many choreographers utilize all the strategies of the 60s John Cage-ian ideas to disrupt legibility but without a deeper under-girding understanding of why they are doing it.  "Valorization of ambiguity" - as Kester puts it - is what all good artists should do; all authentic art is ambiguous.  All the while, however, as a viewer, I almost always feel with much contemporary dance this nagging sensation that there is a very important message in the work that the artists intend to communicate. That if I was enlightened enough I might just get it.  And I must admit that what I miss in contemporary art, what critic Michael Fried calls a "state of grace," is what can occur when one encounters an indifferent object. There is a sense of timelessness in its presence because I am not required by the object to enter into a dialogue with it.  I am not needed to complete it.  It's nice not to be needed.

I think these thoughts are important for us to ponder more deeply.  Lately, we've been discussing how we would like to see our art function like Jesus' parables functioned.  But didn't Jesus use his parables to frustrate the legibility of his teachings for all but those who had "ears to hear?"  How is this any different than elitist ideas of art as only being able to be understood by a few enlightened enough individuals - something Kester talks about in some detail?  Or is this just a fact of post-Fall humanity - a fact Jesus understood?  Some people want to think hard and some don't?  Some have the time to think hard and others don't?  This troubles me.