1. Art is Shamanistic in Origin: As Ernst Fischer observed in The Necessity of Art, the origin of art in hunter-gatherer societies resulted in the projection of the human imagination on all that which could not yet be understood. Fischer argued that this was both a social and spiritual aspect of early art. Humans, he argued, rebelled against consuming themselves in the confines of their own life. At the same time art served to unite small bands of human beings around common concerns and a common narrative. While all the individuals of these early human societies participated in art – the key practitioners tended to be the shamans. These shamans negotiated their own (and others’) unique personalities with the collective mythologies and needs of their groups as a whole.
2. Weak Avant-Garde: Boris Groys argues, in his 2010 essay, “The Weak Universalism,” that the contemporary avant-garde has become “weak.”[iii] Artists avoid the “strong” images of classical art and popular culture in favor of “weak” images that, among other things, elude confrontation or social complicity. In Groys’ view this is because artists are seeking images that transcend time (in a world in which change is the only constant). What if this weakness, however, was a byproduct of avant-garde art becoming too separate from the concerns of the majority of the population – paying rent, personal loss, deferred dreams, making ends meet, falling in/out of love? What if the "constant change" was rooted in the UCD of contemporary capitalism? What if the working-class experiences that change, culturally speaking, as both gothic and futurist, as the past and future are a series of autonomies gained and lost, repeatedly, until capitalism is finally abolished?
3. Popular Avant-Garde: Olinde Rodrigues (1795-1851), in his essay, “L’artiste, le savant et I’industriel,” demanded that artists serve as [the people’s] avant-garde.” Rodrigues, a utopian socialist, was part and parcel of a long tradition that located the modern avant-garde in relationship to popular concerns. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, artists looked to spiritual or political utopias that would alleviate human suffering. Such artists (Goya, Gustave Courbet, the Mexican muralists, the surrealists, etc.) aimed to elevate the inner and outer life of “regular people.” In recent decades it became fashionable to be suspicious of any such beliefs.
4. Narrative Conceptualism: One strategy to reassert “belief” in art comes from the installation artist Ilya Kabakov. Kabakov was part of the underground (and illegal) Moscow conceptual art scene (1970s-1980s). The Moscow conceptual artists, unlike Western conceptual artists, had a profound interest in narratives and story. They created a counter-mythology to the false mythology of the Soviet dictatorship. They elevated the stories of working-class Soviet citizens into fantastic tales – not unlike “magic realism” in late 20th century Latin American literature. Kabakov went on to create what he called “total installations” – environments that surrounded the viewer, most famously The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment.
5. Epic Theater: Kabakov’s “total installation” recalls the “Epic Theater” of 20th century playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht sought to engage his audience, appealing to the traditional emotional and visual snares of theater, while alternatively “distancing” the audience from those tropes. The distancing techniques of Epic Theater were meant to introduce a contradiction within the play; plays that would employ the traditional snares of “high” and “popular” theater (which Brecht often plagiarized outright), and then interrupt them by exposing the inner-workings of the theater (asides to the audience breaking the fourth wall, putting the band onstage, exposing set construction, speeches and songs that seemed to have no connection to the overall plot, etc.). Brecht employs shaman’s tricks (various theatrical and narrative devices) and then exposes how they work. The result is a pumping of the conscious and subconscious, back and forth, awake and dreaming, repeatedly. Like the breathing of a lung (alienation followed by suspension of disbelief, repeat), this gives his plays life, and endows them with a sort of unified but democratic chaos.
6. The Democratic Image: I am interested in recreating this theatrical, democratic and aesthetic chaos within the art space. I am particularly interested in the “high-low” or “strong-weak” image – images that connect the reality and concerns of “regular” people with the fantastic or utopian. There is a long history of the “democratic image” in art – in Gustave Courbet’s Burial at Ornans – described as having an “anti-composition”in that no figure was given primacy over any other. “Courbet’s democracy of vision, “Linda Nochlin writes, “his additive, egalitarian composition, were seen as the concomitants of a democratic social outlook.” A similar aesthetic permeated 20th century muralism – particularly its greatest practitioners, the Mexican muralists. Courbet and Diego Rivera alike foreshadowed the “all-over” aesthetic championed by Clement Greenberg in New York School abstraction. I want that democratic “all-over” aesthetic to be connected, in a dynamic way, to the dream of a better life – either in this world or the next.
7. Evicted Art: If contemporary art has been (in a sense) “evicted from both heaven and earth,” my work is primarily about mitigating that. A) I see my artwork as both social and spiritual. B) My use of painting is meant to valorize the stories of “regular” working-class people. C) I create fictions – fictional artists to produce work, and fictional characters – to inhabit my theatrical “total installations.” In my installation, A Painter of Our Time, a working-class artist is forced to move in with his brother after becoming unemployed. He desperately searches for a painting or image that will give meaning back to his life. In 13 Baristas I created a fake collective of artists who also worked at coffee shops. They compulsively covered all their paintings in coffee and drew little crosses on coffee cups. My present installation, Red Mars, is about an artist who lives in Southern Illinois who believes he can see the future of a colonized Mars through a telescope in his backyard. D) Like Brecht I try to create a “push/pull” in my work, both conceptually and visually. In Red Mars I have covered the canvases in stickers, underlining their flatness and contrasting the unique “auric” value of a hand-made painting with mechanically reproduced images, etc.
8. Interrupting Disbelief: It is my hope that my work plays a modest role in preparing people to believe, once again, in a progressive and collective mythology – a way of moving through the world – both together and as unique individuals.
- See Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (London and New York: Verso, 2010)
- For a fuller discussion of the role of shamanism in early art see J.D. Lewis-Williams, “Rock Art: Myth and Ritual, Theories and Facts,” The South African Archeological Bulletin Volume 61 No. 183 (June 2006)
- Boris Groys, "The Weak Universalism," e-flux (April 2010): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-weak-universalism
- Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment (London: Afterall, 2006)
- Stanley Mitchell, ed., Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht (London and New York: Verso, 2003)
- Alan Antliff, Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007), 17-36. Courbet, a follower of Pierre Joseph Proudhon, played a major role in the Paris Commune of 1871, leading the destruction of the Vendome Column. Courbet was imprisoned and later renounced his actions during the Commune, therefore escaping execution.
- Nochlin, 20
- Nochlin, 24
- See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm