The Limits and Freedoms of Artistic Practice

What are the limitations of artistic practice? This question has been one of the central pre-occupations of theorists and artists in the 21st century. The rise of industrialism, a series of World Wars, the globalization of capitalism, mass reproduction and a general explosion in population have led to an increasingly skeptical and critical view of the role of art in this time period. The avante-garde movements, especially Dadaism, Surrealism, Russian Constructivism and others may be viewed as direct responses to the means and production of art-making. The central criticism is generally consistent in that the elite controlling party retains the power and means of producing, duplicating, presenting and selecting art. Thus, avante-garde art forms sought to deconstruct and overthrow previous definitions of what was “established” as art.

In the 1960s, Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and others formalized these criticisms, demonstrating that the construction of myth in a capitalist society creates an image of art which the public accepts as standard. This construction of myth is so powerful that even subversive forms of art, originally intended to overthrow controlling power, may now be consumed by it via the public. This essentially signified the end of the avante-garde in art.

One of the most recent responses to this view came with Derrida’s introduction of deconstruction, a technique in which the construction of a myth is exposed for its underlying meaning – thus revealing the specific way in which myth retains its power. Post-modern artists, especially in minimalism, video art, cyberart and new media, have used deconstruction to reveal socially constructed meanings in art.
In this context, the limits of artistic practice thus refer to the ability of the artist to transform imposed social structures. The primary methods of the early 21th century are painting and sculpture. In Dada, Duchamp’s readymade (Fountain) showed that any object may be art, thus breaking the myth of art as a particular type of image. In Surrealism, automatic drawing contributed to breaking the myth that art must depict the objective world, showing that it could also depict a subjective, inner world. Minimalism destroys the myth that art must depict anything, revealing that art may be a purely conceptual act.

Throughout this process, however, the ability of capitalism to subsume these new forms as art, to treat them as new consumable objects, remains unchanged. Thus, we must question the power of the artist as an agent for political change, especially in a capitalist market. There is no reason to imagine that deconstruction of myths could not continue, and that artists will not continue to create new forms. However, we should not necessarily expect that these new forms will transform the capitalist nature of of society (although it may transform it conceptually).

When artists or critics call into question earlier forms, there are two effects: 1) The previous form is define as ineffectual or obsolete, and 2) a new form replaces it which is deemed to be a progressive, better method for upsetting the status quo. Much of the current drive toward new media is motivated by the idea that new media possess the ability to “transform society” in radical ways. However, the same can be said of Breton, Masson, or Dali. Did they transform society in radical ways? Yes and no.

Certainly, the development of surrealism, and 21st century painting generally, has completely transformed the modern public conception of art relative to the early 1900s. The same might be said of how science has also transformed the modern world. Yet through all these changes, the general structure of wealth and poverty – those specific things which both the artistic and scientific disciplines have promised to abolish – have remained consistent.

The ability to deconstruct a previous form through critical examination in favor of a newer one may be understood as simply another tool in the establishment of new forms of self-expression. If we observe the effects of deconstruction-reconstruction in art as an outsider (scientist? sociologist?), we might observer the primary function of this technique is simply to establish the lifestyle, niche and reputation of an artist in a very large world. Despite artists’ claims of transforming the world through art (some claim this, some don’t), the deconstruction of prior arts in favor of new forms may be simply to provide an unexplored survival niche for future generations of artists. The mechanism is simply to denounce the effectiveness of previous media in changing society, and suggest an alternative which only you, the new artist, can provide.

Overall, this argument calls into question the motives for all forms of art-making, and especially new media since it is both technological and artistic – thus drawing on the technological motivations of progress and change, and upholding a myth of social freedom through technology.

To take such a perspective to heart is demoralizing and realistic. The answer to our previous question regarding the limits of artistic practice, we would conclude that artists are infinitely limited in their ability to effect real change – by real change I mean the ability to rebalance wealth and poverty in capitalist societies. Other consequences may result from novel artistic forms, but they may contribute more to upholding the politic than breaking it.

Can a modernist interrogative be used to question forms of new media?

Yes. A interrogative, or deconstructionist view, can always be used to question existing forms. Deconstruction essentially encapsulates the process of crticial analysis, the breaking apart of a thing into components (Derrida). In the process, structures of a previous myth are revealed, and new forms are conceived.
In light of the history of painting it is actually fairly easy to do so with new media. We observe that new media itself upholds a myth of technological promise while at the same time that technology places such severe constraints on the artist as to make it difficult to express forms and ideas common to painting (e.g. boundaries between physical objects). The de/re-constructivist view is simply to identify the points at which technology is deficient, and propose novel solutions that provide greater freedom – exactly as I am proposing to do in my doctorate.
In the previous paragraph, I have thus constructed myself as an object of myth in an artistic world now driven by technology. This myth is that the purpose of the artist is to “destroy previous forms”, to “break out”, and “boldy adventure” into unknown territory using new tools.

I would suggest the contemporary problem of the artist is how easily one forgets the relationship between the individual and civilization as a whole. As shown above, the individual is powerless to affect the balance of power directly. Yet many new media artists continue to critically examine the past in favor of new techniques. The problem with such “critical examinations” is that they set up the past as point of contention, rather than learning from and embracing it. In addition, criticism defined in this way both devalues a previous form while boosting a new one, thus allowing the artist to promote him/herself as offering something transformative. The issue is not that such things may actually be transformative, but that they are proposed as transformative above and beyond other things which may be equally or more valuable.

Thus, it is possible to develop an interrogative to generate new forms of art, but we must ultimately question and be extremely cautious of the reasons for doing so. It is likely my own reasons for doing so are much more related to personal motivations, psychology, and desire than they are to a belief that I might be capable of transforming civilization on a larger scale in any significant way. Yet our culture has conveniently arranged for a myth in which this the supposed role of the artist.

We can see from the 21st century that no art may be universally transformative of civilization, just as no artist, individual or politician can be globally transformative of the much larger social dynamics of survival and need. However, in Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, we can find language and meaning which goes a long way toward change. This language is not deconstructive (analytic), but eliminates boundaries by proposing an end to logic and reason. The works of dada and surrealism were themselves integrative, removing boundaries in art and language. This can be observed directly in their ability to collapse forms and beings in space, and also in their philosophies.

Ideas are thus still capable of transforming the individual, where individual transformations are perhaps still the only real solutions to global problems. In an era of new media, it is possible that to synthesize and connect works of art rather than deconstruct them is a more valuable process. In this way, the artist acknowledges that he or she is just one single individual and that the myth of dramatic social change of the individual to transform wealth and poverty is just that; a myth. More importantly, these larger changes are not within the pervue of any single individual to resolve. The process of art-making is no less valuable, however, in that the artist is now concerned with changing him or herself, of developing ideas which connect disciplines, and simply creating forms and works to enable the transformation of others. These self-critical roles of the artist are perhaps much more valuable than the tools of critical examination of other media in the development of new artistic works. The role of the artist is to synthesize, to bring together, to perpetually embrace change without the expectation of social utopia.

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4 thoughts on “The Limits and Freedoms of Artistic Practice

  1. “We can see from the 21st century that no art may be universally transformative of civilization, just as no artist, individual or politician can be globally transformative of the much larger social dynamics of survival and need.”

    This is particularly unlikely given the postmodern fracturing of narrative. Art no longer serves as narrative, or perhaps serves a multiplicity of narratives in some kind of pastiche. Interesting read.

  2. By saying “wiping the dust from the coffee table”, you suggest that real change is superficial (i.e. dust). I am curious how you mean this, and what you think is more substantial in art. That is, what is the table itself?

  3. My own view is that explicit change in politics, i.e. the avante-garde, should not be an artistic project. Too much is done in the name of avante-garde that still really serves an individual purpose. Although it has been effective in some cases, in general it has not affected mass change, and the idea that art can directly and explicitly change human behavior seems counter-intuitive to its purpose. However, I do feel that art can and should provide implicit change, that is change in the individual/society which indirectly results in changes to our behavior.

  4. “…we would conclude that artists are infinitely limited in their ability to effect real change – by real change I mean the ability to rebalance wealth and poverty in capitalist societies.”

    It’s curious that you consider the above a.) “real change” and b.) central to the artistic project. This sort of change, in the scheme of the omniverse, is merely wiping the dust from the coffee table.