This short essay is written in the form of an internal dialogue between a lifelong Practice and a lately acquired Theory, with the aim of reducing my ‘artist’s statement’ baggage. The 21st century ‘artist’ is expected to be fully aware of every emotional, academic and conceptual aspect of their ‘art’ in a way that Beethoven never was.
I try to reconcile the creative habits of half a career in the arts before a Fine Art degree with the academic experience and years after graduation by taking elements of a single evolving artwork on a journey through space and time.
Theory: Ok. Let’s do this. How should we start?
Practice: Well there’s your first mistake; acknowledging a ‘start’. So not only are you trying to quantify emotion, reflection, contemplation and action with words in a structured format, but by theorising what, for you, with your mark making, your painting and drawing, being just a release of expressive tension, you’re submitting to the notion of an actual ‘practice theory’.
… You’re only doing this because you’ve been to college!
Theory: Well yeah, fair enough, so look at this exercise as a final word on your ‘artist’s statement’. You get to dictate the words and the tone … it’s still mark making innit?!
Practice: But it’s not just that is it? These written marks have a concrete quality that transcends their inherent singular, collective or synonymous definition. The law of the land is framed and defined by their dictionary definition and comprehension in their context and time.
Theory: Granted, but these abstract shapes and sounds form the most naturally preferred and ultimately most convenient and universal method of exchanging information to develop in the human world, and you must concede that, by using a finite assortment of these ‘word’ things then you begin to play a puzzle, a game of conflicting or supporting documented threads, saturated by their, in a sense, history of existing and evolving conceptual DNA. Words are subject to fashion and intent, -you know, like subjectivity, satire, subversion that may well not be anchored in the meta narratives since, in particular, the advent of digital media, where the myth/time continuum virtually ignores chronology beyond empiricism.
Natural and scientific laws are the most stable, whereas linguistic laws are merely an art form, at the whim of the individual. Logocentric rationale is fundamentally unique and personal.
So, what we are saying then is that an artist’s statement in the traditional sense is not necessary because it aims to set objectively into words an expression that is indescribable?
I think so, but that said, words can play a part in that process at the discretion of the instigator. Duchamp used titles as part of the work of course, this just part of the creative game we talked of earlier.
Practice: But I’ve always seen ‘art’ as my first language that maybe, I think mostly, needs to be supplemented by words and interaction, you know, conversation with spoken word, body language etc… the ‘art’ object or happening, for me, is ideally just a humble catalyst. A personal and/or public response to one’s universe.
As a mature student, following on from half a career as an unqualified practising ‘Community Artist’ – for want of another description, – it was really interesting to discover theory after practice.
The freedom, albeit within an academic framework, that the degree offered allowed the inner self to be explored to the max because of the liberating nature of self-directed learning – as opposed to being taught….having dedicated time to let your own mind and body explore your curiosity was revealing and consequently energising … to use any media or perspective as a vehicle to investigate a subject takes learning to another level, another dimension; ultimately, the whole process is life enhancing.
That said, I remember in the fourth year of university, a tutor saying that my modus operandi lay in the field of Relational Aesthetics.
-Who?! What?! I thought.
I’d never heard of it or the list of artists I was given to research
So, basically, my natural approach, the one I’d been using for years attempting to understand any subject was, I was informed, an existing officially documented theory, and this made me wonder how the art world legitimises practice by documenting peripheral organic and rhizomic responses to the universe and connecting them to existing theories in the canon.
The abstract elements of Manifesto Without Words (front cover) basically unfolded this way as we were introduced to post-modernism and, for me at least, Derrida in particular.
Theory: Blimey; a lot to unpack there … but also, it makes very simple existential sense when you remove the theory.
Practice: Cheers, I wish I could say I was perceptive but I was just reacting to the era, because I had the opportunity to. The prevailing political context of the time, all the cultural references, short and long term linear chronologies and social media ‘diary’ entries operating within the zeitgeist all constitute a form of artistic intervention. The protagonist (aka artist) does not need a statement, because the output, – the existence is the statement. The theory of ‘art’ is for theorists to formulate and record for whatever reason they might have.
Ironically, yet as we expected, this idyllic non-theory needs to be documented to be validated, it needs defining with an ‘ism’ to be credible….to be ‘sold’. The trick is to forget it thereafter if at all possible.
Be sentient and oblivious … let’s call it Be-ism. The act of responding to the universal discourse without ‘artistic’ awareness.
So, if we say that Be-ism is the state of being as a manifesto, that is: a lived, shared, unavoidably documented statement cum existence cum journal of intervention and interaction.
I’m confused! Am I Practice or Theory now? I’ve lost the plot.
Good! That’s the point. You’re not supposed to identity with an identifying theoretical paradigm anymore. This is a purer existence, well, an awareness of it anyway!
Hold that thought!
Remember, the art or political worlds won’t readily facilitate or encourage this kind of revelation, both are essentially capitalist in their outlook. Mythically, they are both laboratories of new approaches to growth but ultimately, they are corporate in spirit. Even Conceptual Art has to be sold and justified to a market.
Yep. Look; we promised not to use a quote but we can’t ignore the mantra that we both consistently return to can we?
The Robert Henri?
Yeah, stick it in, I need a breather.
‘The object isn’t to make art,
it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.’
I assume that this refers to the individual mind, but by extension, the societal conditions are essential to enabling this on a larger scale … outside of art and art theory.
Yes, absolutely! Otherwise we are just perpetuating the art theory bubble, the one that has outlived its purpose! The capitalist doctrine of relentless economic expansion and growth cannot provide this new approach to an alternative definition of growth, – the evidence is overwhelming, particularly in terms of the concentration of accumulated wealth. The means to whatever end cannot be justified in this age of the information superhighway. Statistical truth is free to share!
Yeah right … ! … the plutocrats control the perceptual, subjective ‘information’ and therefore, in our corrupt democracies, the all-important ‘democratic’ will.
Sympatico news hitting us daily down the tube is captivating, but we have to hope that there is still some kind of empirical force to be reckoned with?’
Are we saying that, basically, any human system or structure that is held together by a monolithic groupthink will never look to allow the conditions for it to be dismantled or allow wholesale ethical change even when it senses its own moral compass drifting?
Not while it thinks it is a ‘thing’, no. We like to belong to things, the bigger and simpler the better.
Even when the biological conditions for its own survival are threatened?
I think not, because the economic forces driving the universal and individual systems have the demonic belief that monetary wealth can solve any problem, because in their world, it always has.
When the ‘arts’ are vocally supported, politically, it’s always in terms of how much it’s worth to the economy, not for its unquantifiable values. As a work of art is ‘never finished but abandoned’ so it takes a lifetime for humans to become the unfinished article. Remember how we realised 2 years into the degree how we disliked the discipline needed to realise a career ambition –
We missed that boat 25 years ago mate …
Sure, but hear me out, it seemed an unnecessary distraction to even consider it, all that business of starting a decades-long journey to maybe, perhaps having a work accepted into the canon, that might, perhaps, one day, be held in a gallery basement along with the other 80% of art held by the state. I think that, by ‘art’ accepting a role given to it by any ruling elite, be they political, cultural or financial, it lost its raison d’etre. So now, in the early 21st century for example, fully immersed in national cultural manifestos, it looks to top-down guidance and funding rather than the bottom-up wealth of freedom … the freedom that promotes the Sartre claim that existence precedes essence. So, we must learn to abandon the destructive nature of empire building and embrace sustainable actuality as an art form.
That’s it, yep, Art must free itself before it can be an example of freedom.
Yeah, deffo the most disappointing aspect of the arts in general now is how this common language has become a bridge that divides us. It’s elitist, and blatantly aspirational.
Theory: I love the idea that Alfred Wallis, for example would not know what conceptual art was, but his humble artistic intervention could resonate beyond anything he might imagine in a world he was probably blissfully unaware of. That solitary, austere commitment to one’s own internal dialogue is simultaneously unassuming and awesome.
Practice: Steady on, you’re getting all emotional! … but to me, that’s why, although the journey into theory is beautiful in many ways, – it’s a brilliant mind-gym, but the Practice (if I may speak for the third person) must heed the core energy of the ‘artist’, and the ‘work’. This approach, or way could still strive to have authority and humility, even when it’s being frivolous.
Theory: Respect! Theoretically then, we agree the meta narratives are over, so why do humans insist on searching for a purpose for their being by navigating the totality of reality with stories and reasoning? This is where ‘art’, serving as a narrative, or a commodified illustration, is trapped I think.
Practice: I don’t know. It’s at moments of overthinking like this that I reach for my paintbrush … catch you later …
Theory: Wait! Fair enough, I’m done justifying what you do too. Theorising inside a cultural vacuum has limited growth potential, but before we go, I’m just thinking that if we can tie up some loose ends here, we need never bother each other again, leaving you more time to exist.
Practice: Ok, but I don’t want my innocent name associated with any dogmatic anti-theory.
Theory: Cool. This just yours. You can print it and give it out. You can share it freely digitally. Then you can take your ragbag of homemade relics and prayers to any gathering, – a conceptual car-boot sale even. All your ideas and experiences laid out for anyone to see, curated by you.
Just think, a career in Relational Aesthetics without the paperwork and hoop jumping!
The only rule of Be-ism is to be it … Theory begone!
Practice: Oh please! In the hope that its nature is contagious … a viral catalyst!
That would be ace. It’s a real burden when practice is influenced by the pantheon, I miss the days when it wasn’t. I didn’t expect the competitive nature of the hierarchical arts structures to be so dominant, I went to university to escape the rat race. Not only that, I didn’t want to apply to the funding sector or aim to sell my large works to the only people who could afford them, with all the guile that that would need.
I’m done. I think it was the day that exhibition idea for how an absence at a planned attendance could be defined as an intervention … my head was spinning with wordplay and I just knew that I needed to return to the comfort and dignity of manual labour.
Artist’s love their world, their micro culture, and for good reason, but we need a reality check often. A new passport came this week, and there, watermarked across two pages were a couple of Anthony Gormley’s most renowned works, and this kind of iconography troubles me. There must be millions of naive idiots like me who would never look at a flawless coastal vista and think, ‘what this view needs to improve it is a hundred cast iron copies of my naked body’. But we live in this absurd Boaty McBoatface patriarchy that insists on stamping its authority on the quiet majesty of nature, including people.
Theory: Is that why you identify as a post-structural peasant rather than an ‘artist’?
Practice: Well yeah, it’s a political identity. Subversive insofar as, attaining this apparently lowly status is a career goal. Unlearning ‘tradition’… you know, that ‘peer pressure from dead people’ as it’s known, being absolutely a life / work nirvana whereby you have nothing to gain and nothing to lose. Having the option to be an earth artist, with a mind and body free to explore and share earth’s common wealth.
The art of living becomes inevitable.
Theory: Sure. Ok, last question; if you feel statements or explanations are unnecessary, why do you feel the need to be present with your semi-abstract work in order to discuss it?
Practice: Well, firstly, I’m not anti-word, written or spoken, it’s just that mark-making is the primary method of enquiry, and the way out, into conversation, not explanation, with another human. I’m saddened that there is an arrogance amongst some of the political and cultural intelligentsia that can treat the general public as fools for not understanding their acquired pseudo-intellectual perspective on matters. This is compounded by their assumption that they can learn nothing from that same public.
Theory: I’m with you mate, its airless in this ivory tower. I’m educated beyond my intelligence and theory don’t make no cup of tea by itself.
Together: Brew time!
Manifesto Without Words. (Stage 2) Castlefield Gallery, Manchester. 2015