The Work of Art as Open Process
Although terms such as “postmodern” & postpost modern or “an open work of art” have been with us for a while, & theorists & the public have been comfortable at using them for a couple of decades, their adequate comprehension requires us to return to a patient examination of the essential core of the problem represented by the very possibility of such a work of art. We should consequently ask what can it really be? What is truly a contemporary, or an “open” work of art in process? Then, we would like to pose a question such as: how is this old analytical theme related to that of the role of the artist in difficult, dark or any other sort of times, indeed?
As the possible answers involve the entire history of civilization & culture, from Paleolithic & Neolithic times onwards, we would like to offer at least one of them; perhaps, an answer which would enable even the most innocent & simple observer or reader to interpret such a work of art. In order to somewhat explain our approach to the so called “open” work of art, it would be perhaps useful to go back to its origin & then ask oneself what is its precise meaning at this extremely complex moment of human history which is the beginning of the twenty-first century? The latest atonal music (Bill Laswell, Steve Reich, Philip Glass), the monochromatic paintings, or books without a story or a plot which the reader/spectator helplessly tries to decipher – what do they really mean? Is it something that one could use as the latest cheese spread (the participants of ‘rave’ parties), or something he would never understand regardless of the volume of the spent effort but someone else would die for (as was the case of the Russian artist, Kasimir Malevich who paid for his art by his mental health)?
In order to draw the line between the form & the opening in a work of art – & establish the notion of axiological ambiguity as a hermeneutically legitimate category in analyzing a work of art, we should first try to comprehend how & why at such notions as chance, the unformal, chaos & indeterminacy in a work of art. Art is nothing but a part of everyday life experience although it often precedes ‘life’ in an avant-garde, precognitive manner. Art also ‘follows’ life in the sense that the 21st century art is a part of the 21st century life as it has been developing since its inception. And if our century appears to us chaotic & life in it fragmented, often senseless & hazardous, the art which follows it appears just as chaotic & senseless. Thus, the emergence of such artistic figures as Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, John Cage, Philip Glass & earlier Stockhausen was not incidental. Their repetitive & fragmented scores are added to the previous musical tonal elements or subtracted from them in a way that has been far from incidental. Here we mention music since it is the most harmonious & direct form of art which is then followed by literature & visually decisive images & preceded, as usual, by philosophy or any prophetic intellectual development or sensibility & artistic style that may lead us to the threshold of contemporary art.
However, new works of art & new consciousness about them have not emerged “out of nowhere.” Things happen historically & in continuity & ideas repeat themselves & return in cycles. So, in order to arrive at Boulez, we were bound to have an open score by JS Bach, & in order to be able to comprehend the work of James Joyce & Proust, we had to have the “open” manuscript of Sterns & Cervantes which did not insist on the plot & the classical narrative structure. Umberto Eco who devoted a greater part of his studies to this problem claims that the category of “opening” or an open work of art could have been found in all the arts & in all their forms, but that it is generally best applied to all “post-Weberian” compositions in art starting from the Baroque era through Symbolism. All these compositions were based on the spiritual & theoretical collaboration of the spectator & the author/artist where the spectator & the reader have not leisurely lounged in an armchair contemplating the artistic final product but rather participated actively in the interpretation of a given work of art.
And so instead of looking, for example, at the final form of the vase & flowers in the domain of visual arts, the spectator would enter into a situation – as in the case with Picasso’s painting – where he would instead create, helped by his own eye retina, a form of the aesthetic act of creation of the work of art instead of merely observing its existence. In order to explore more vividly the phenomenon which permeated the 20th century art & which entered literature through the big door with the appearance of Mallarme’s Book, we have to go back to Shakespeare who introduced the notion of an open work in his play “Midsummer’s Night Dream.” He not only introduced us the notion of an “opening” by applying the technique of a story within story, but had also given us a real advice there on how to observe such a play. His Thisbe asks Pyramus who is imprisoned “ how should we make a hole in a wall & make an opening”? To which Pyramus, using a famous technical & theatrical gimmick, answers: “move your fingers, open your fingers & you’ll make an opening.” In other words, by changing the angle of viewing things in art, we arrive at an opening, an open work of art.
“The opening” in the visual field of arts begins in the twentieth century with the development of lyrical & geometric abstraction: for instance, the Czeck artist František Kupka reduces the form to an absolute abstraction as early as 1912, & Matisse arrives there in 1914; Fernand Leger arrives in 1921 & Hans Arp only in 1929. Of course, there is Alexander Calder who opened the way to the postmodern combinatory science in 1933 & we remember Dubuffet who in his painting “Permeated Clarity” (1957) combines the spiritual & mystical contemplation of art with a simple & brutal approach to it (Art Brut).
Where do we arrive, or better still, where do we start from in all these occurrences & instances of an “open approach” to art? A possibly useful starting point in examining the existence of an open work of art, is the consideration of the problem of the role of the quotidian in the work of an artist. We shall try to glance, but only in passing, at the role of an artist in the quotidian, & the hidden meaning of his role expressed in an everyday form of existence. Is s/he in jail? Does s/he dwell on some sort of Gulag, or Google island? Is s/he smitten by a pandemic flu, with his/her empty pockets full of the capitalist promises? Is s/he still alive or do we just hear the podcast of his voice mixed with the noise coming from the central Almighty’s box streaming the orders from the President’s office?
As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, from the Russian revolution onwards, artists as well as their spectators/readers/listeners have evermore come to terms with the fact that the “ivory tower” or say the extreme aestheticization or isolation of the artist from the world & from him/herself were no longer viable. These escapisms from the real were no longer valid elements of an adequate assumption of the status of the artist in the contemporary world. This insight we will later invoke despite that old & well known danger of theoretical reductionism symbolized by the dogmatic “Stalinist” or say “Maoist” approaches to art & existence as such. Sadly enough, the aforementioned approaches had staggered & ruined the most pertinent & brilliant pillars of the early Marxist writings cum philosophy. Whenever the artist is kept in a doghouse or in a lockdown, & whenever he’s being told to “shut up,” he screams out barking ever louder & better. That’s the nature of his role in the times which are for her/him rather always difficult.
The period which precedes the Abstract Expressionism & say Neo-expressionism (1980s) is largely putting it – the era of Baroque. The open stance characteristic of the Baroque epoch as well as its extremely wrought-up artistic & aesthetic endeavors have left us with the heritage of the genius such as Caravaggio whose models of the homeless seem to emerge straight from some contemporary Parisian Metro stop or the London Tube (underground). As the author’s aesthetic & artistic “I” have disappeared from the scene, & the scene has become more spiritual flowing into that large river called life, we feel comfortable to observe the uncomfortable presences of the most spiritual artists of the twentieth century: artists such as Kasimir Malevich & Victor Brauner, the Surrealists such as Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Yves Tangy & Marcel Duchamp had participated in a massive resistance movement during the World War II. In the period when evil starts dictating our existence & our lifestyle, the dictatorship of totalitarian system closes up “an open work of art” as much as it diminishes the artist who often dies or ceases to exist for his/her public. We see this statement exemplified in the case of the Supremacist artist, Kasimir Malevich who was ordered by Lenin to accept figuration in his work, by the end of his life (see “The Man who Runs” 1933) or in the case of Felix Nussbaum who was literally executed by the Nazis in Berlin by the beginning of the World War II, to name just a few of those for whom the destiny acted at its most cruel. The examples of those artists who were forced to face exile such as Thomas Man, Brecht, Benjamin or Max Ernst are numerous & somewhat already recognized by their insistent followers.
As the result of an overall disgust over the destruction of Europe which happened during the subsequent World Wars, the artists moved to other continents thus we have found the painterly works of Abstract Expressionism in Europe exemplified by the energetic Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Larry Rivers & Jackson Pollock. Except for the local artists such as Dubuffet, Robert Filliou & Pierre Soulages in France, we have noticed the delightful presence of the Eastern Europeans living in Paris such as Petar Omcikus, Mica Popovic, Ljubinka Jovanovic & Dado Djuric. Their contemporaries, the totally committed Italian artists such as Luciano Fabro, Mario Mertz, Penone & Pistoletto, as well as the Greek artist Kounellis, have not only enlarged the borders & frontiers of the notion “art vs. life” but all of them have worked hard towards the idea that art is not a petty bourgeois product to be “framed” & later hung on a wall of some pretty neoliberal salon! All of these artists that we have just mentioned were adamant to claim that their artwork is the liveliest political comment & the best form of protest – even if their pieces do not mention politics in an ouvert manner or these simply fail to be didactic & “teach” their public the actual political truths.
Every work of art of high quality is by its proper nature & character – subversive in itself & it always represents a sort of danger… that’s why many books are being burnt in different countries, or simply censored or they never get to the final stage of going to print, etc. However, the fact is that despite their poor social status, the artists represent the most prominent consciousness in the face of mankind, & they tend to remain quite different from animals, such as an ostrich for example, the animal who loves to bury his innocent head into the sand without any form of grievance.
*Published in ALIENIST 9: THIRD WAVE