Aesthetics to the Abstract Machine
In art critic Ben Davis’ book, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Davis presents a sort of algebraic formula for determining whether something is “original or derivative”: ‘artist x is like artist y meets artist z’”. It is, Davis writes, “just a matter of connecting one art reference with other art references”.
It is a theses and an algebra that has shaped the way I approach both my practice and my assessment of art: looking for how the artist is inspired by what came before him and yet brings in something new.
Yet, in his writing, “Aesthetics to the Abstract Machine”, Simon ‘O Sullivan appears to classify this theory as something of the recent past now overshadowed by what reads as a higher order of approaching art (both in the making and the viewing or, rather, the experiencing of art). He discusses and prioritizes art that “did not fit into [his] own interpretive frameworks” which he finds both “bothersome” and “compelling” (190).
In short, O’ Sullivan emphasizes the artist-of-today’s calling as the creation of something altogether new. Such inventions, he has determined, are “involved in the production of worlds rather than in the critique of the world as it is” (196).
Post-post modern art, according to O’ Sullivan, has “worked through the ruins of representation“ (emphasis mine) resulting in its “’knowing’ or self-conscious character” (196).
Ruins of representation.
When I read this phrase, I am reminded of Kerry James Marshall who laments in many of his writings that figurative representation already went through a phase of ruining with the rise of abstraction. Marshall’s lamentation is based around the truth of our figurative-art-experience when we enter most galleries and museums: wall to wall portraits of white people with very few images of brown skinned folks. And he laments the idea that before this lack of representation could be remedied by artists like himself with his hyper-black figures, the art world has announced the end of the figurative.
There is a transcendental beauty in O’ Sullivan’s analysis of what art must do today: the creation of new worlds and pieces that avoid interpretation or analysis or representation but rather invite the purity of experience.
But I wonder at the idea of this new order being built upon the “ruins” of representation. Have we really moved past the need to critique this world we are in now?
O’ Sullivan himself categorizes his theory of what art must do as utopian but I wonder, especially with the condition of this country today, are we ready for this next plane or does this world we live in now need our critique more than ever?
Even if O’ Sullivan’s case can be made through a need to escape the ugly of the world through new, otherworldly and utopian-esque art, I wonder and lament at the other factors in the ruins of the art of the past; are we done with the artist and analysis of her process, the genesis of her work? Is art no longer to be about biography, zeitgeist, point of view, and the human condition? Have we really encountered all of the permutations of a life that we are free to so thoroughly abandon representation for experience? And is there room for both representation and experiential art in the same space—can they speak to each other? Can connections be made and gaps be filled from one piece to the next—the old and the new—without casting what came before into “ruins”?