Saturday, 23 January 2016

Where is the sublime, how do we evoke it, and how much does it cost?

"Immensity is within ourselves," wrote Gaston Bachelard. The question of where the sublime is situated has been a point of contention from Kant and Burke to the present. Artist James Turrell has called himself an 'intranaut', an explorer of inner space. This may sound counter intuitive for an artist whose practice includes creating view-finders, through which we may observe the light of the external world. However, the use of the external infinities of sky or space, are used to better site ourselves within a context of immensity. We gain understanding (non verbal) of ourselves through a relationship with something greater. Turrell once said, "I want to create an atmosphere... that can be consciously plumbed with seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking into a fire". Here, while the sublime comes from observation of the external, it is 'felt' within us. It speaks of a connection/moment of clarity in which we have a non-verbal, metaphysical understanding or experience.

I do not see the sublime as existing in a specific location such as the natural world, nor is it evoked when a specific set of parameters are met ; vastness/ awareness of ones insignificance/ being overwhelmed/ terror/ the infinite.

This is because it defies definition. It belongs to the indefinable realm of feeling, which is a personal response. We can no more guarantee that a viewer will be moved by a work, than we can guarantee a friend might like film as much as we do. Our own route to the sublime depends on our personal and cultural understanding and experiences. While this can include collective ideas and concepts, the exact nature of ones response will always be personal. Words may 'summarise' our response to an experience and site it within a collective understanding, but they cannot ever fully explain how a work is felt. In a variation of Berger's "Seeing comes before words," feeling comes before understanding.

As discussed before, I believe a sense of spirituality/otherness/sublime is evoked through a work’s aesthetic. It is our first aesthetic response to a work that holds our deepest understanding or connection to it. However, I believe there is another culturally accepted way through which spirituality or otherness is evoked by the art object; exclusivity. I see exclusivity as a 'false prophet' (thou shalt not worship the unique) of spirituality/otherness. Exclusivity speaks of prestige, money, social status, material desire, and anxiety of our own poverty. Here we are in awe of the art object as a precious artefact to be coveted, contained, owned. As John Berger writes, this could be linked to the rise of the camera and ease of reproduction, meaning that value had to be reattributed. In a world in which everything could be cheaply produced, the power of the wealthiest would be nullified. To maintain the illusion of this established hierarchy, the unique is used as a symbol of status. The rarer something is, the more it is coveted because its ownership reinforces our own success. The art market functions with a value system in which aesthetic and socio-political content are secondary to exclusivity. I think that ultimately, this is why art has repeatedly failed to connect with the mass public in the way pioneers of the avant-garde had hoped. Art’s primary appeal is as artefacts, to be collected by the rich; it is not for the contemplation and enjoyment of the masses.

"The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependent upon their market value, has become the substitute for what painting lost when the camera made them reproducible. Its function is nostalgic. It is the final empty claim for the continuing values of an oligarchic, undemocratic culture. If the image is no longer unique and exclusive, the art object, the thing, must be made mysteriously so.'' (John Berger - Ways of Seeing)

A question which I am constantly considering/exploring and see as central to the development of my work is, “Do I submit to the cult of the unique?” Currently,I produce work in which there is no original, no master image. The works are created from different sketches/ink drawings, which are combined to make reproducible digital images. With the digital image, there is no distinction between original and copy. Layers from earlier works may be reattributed, reused in different contexts, flipped, reflected, re-scaled. However, the unique does feature in my current work. Projecting multiple images from different sources on the same picture plane makes for almost endless variations. Given the same source images, the viewer would be free to create their own running order. In effect, everyone would be free to create their own unique work, undermining the concept of exclusivity, to which the unique is usually attached.

Whilst I could print limited sets of works, this feels like an act of defeat, a hollow gesture. A limited set serves no artistic service; it only goes to reinforce the art object symbolic function to denote financial or intellectual superiority, as Berger goes on to say:

"The majority take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery which excludes them: the mystery of unaccountable wealth. Or to put it another way, they believe that original masterpieces belong to the preserve (both materially and spiritually) of the rich." (John Berger - Ways of Seeing)

However, there is a major issue with this philosophical standpoint. If I do not create work within the established framework of ‘exclusivity equals value’, if I instead create works which are cheaply or freely reproducible, then how will I afford to make art? Without the commodification of art, its very existence is put at risk. I cannot afford to spend my life creating works to give them away. By securing financial reward, I will be able to go on creating new works. Ultimately while mystification in art goes to obscure true value, paradoxically, financial value makes the production of art possible. On reflection, this point could be further refined to say that, value created by exclusivity, affords the artist to work and live within the existing capitalist system.

Could the cult of the unique fall? I believe this is unlikely. The idea that exclusivity denotes social status is not a problem unique to the artworld, it pervades and underpins the very fabric of our modern society. Technological progress is achieved due to the anxiety that, in order to be happy, we need the latest and best products or services. With acquisition of status symbols, we seek to banish our anxiety and confirm our success in relation to others. If, culturally, we could see through the illusion of exclusivity, it would not only radically change the value of art objects but precipitate a global financial meltdown. A reassessment of what we need to be happy would take place and the resulting economic landscape would look very different. It is in the interests of a financial elite and our technological progress that the status quo be maintained.

In my original Statement of Intent (which can be found on a much earlier post) two questions I proposed my investigation would consider were:

1) I intend to experiment translating my artwork into different formats, therefore, could a so-called sublime image be conceptually robust enough to survive reproduction into different platforms? Or, within the framework of a technological reading, could “networks of reproductive processes thereby afford us some glimpse into a postmodern or technological sublime, whose power or authenticity is documented by the success of such works in evoking a whole new postmodern space” (Jameson, 2010, p.145). Essentially, could the very act of reproduction lead to a postmodern sublime?

2) Reproduction affects the monetary value of a work: the less unique, the less value there is; thus, the value of a work may also affect its aura. This raises the question: is monetary value needed to create or reinforce the aura of a work? If so, it makes processes of mass reproduction more problematic for me as a method of communicating the sublime.

The idea of value, both in art and in a wider context has always been an interest but something which I have yet to directly explore in my own work. In my latest animations, I see the potential for them to function as libraries of paintings. The work could be expanded to work as both projected animations and series of digital prints taken from individual frames.

I want to explore how translating these animations to printed images changes both their reading and value - the uniqueness of the ethereal projection being replaced with the mundane postcard. The unrepeatable experience of a site specific work is replaced with the mass produced portable image. The question is, will mass producing multiple images lead to a post-modern sublime or disengagement?

As an experiment, I intend to exhibit an animation alongside a series of digital prints taken from said animation. Next to the prints will be a plaque with the following words:

In buying a print you accept the artist’s right to endlessly reprint, rescale, reinterpret, rework, and re-present the image. Elements of it may be re-appropriated and used in future works. You are buying the work based on your value judgement of its artistic merit, not its exclusivity. Exclusivity does not validate artwork or provide value. Value is derived from perceived aesthetic, social, or political merit. The notion that value is tied to uniqueness is an outmoded elitist concept used to project superiority over others. You are buying an idea not an artefact.

I want the viewer to stop and think about how value is attributed, why do they attribute more value to the unique than the reproduction? Does the unique hold some physical quality that a reproduction or duplicate may lack? Or is it solely exclusivity and with it, status, which they are buying. Is the unique art object merely operating in the same way as a branded t-shirt, selling for five times as much as a non branded one does?

A point to note is, that I have arrived at these conclusions through contextual research and logical thought. Yet, I too find myself willingly falling into the traps of exclusivity and the unique. I'm sure that if I was ever offered the first known photograph of Duchamps Urinal unframed, or a good, framed reproduction of that same photograph, I would choose the unframed original.

It is also worth noting that I am not calling for the devaluation of art. The primary question that I am posing is that why is the reproduction so devalued, when its aesthetic and socio- political resonance can be just as impactful?

To change our views about value would require the unlearning of a culturally ingrained concept. It would require a total transformation of thought and social structures. The model of exclusivity and value are so closely embedded in our collective psyche, that I question if I could realign my own way of thinking. I anticipate that the ideas, concepts and questions set out here, will continue to underpin my critical thinking as I go on to create future works.

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