Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Innovation is dead.

Or so says British artist Grayson Perry, in the Reith series of lectures aired on BBC Radio 4 in 2013.

The exact words that made me drop my tapestry bobbins and scramble for pencil and paper were:
Perhaps the most shocking tactic left to artists today is sincerity
Let me back up.  Last month many of my posts focused on what I saw as innovative artwork I'd recently seen in Milwaukee and in Atlanta at the High Museum.  I  used the word "innovation" a lot in these posts.  It was a delight for me to see artists do new things with familiar materials, with thread, beads, and scraps of paper.  I saw things afresh, and that is perhaps the cardinal expectation we have of modern and contemporary art.  For over a century, the First Commandment for artists has been to Make It New, and if possible, Shock the Bourgeoisie while you're at it.

Grayson Perry, a Turner Prize-winning potter who has also worked in sculpture, drawing and tapestry (yes!) has many provocative things to say about the contemporary art world, as you might expect from a guy whose public persona looks like this:

Grayson Perry
He acknowledges that these days, the ruling ism in art is pluralism.  There is no ruling style; anything goes.  Art is defined not by particular materials, techniques, subjects or qualities, but by context--where it is seen, who has made it or is paying attention to it, why it exists.  Primarily it is defined by those who are credentialed in the art world.  If you are looking for a witty, clever, dead-on insider's skewering of the contemporary art world, you will enjoy this series of four lectures, available on You-Tube and as podcasts on iTunes.  They are thoughtful, challenging, and very funny.

I have listened to three of the four lectures twice now.  Listening to Perry is a little like looking through a kaleidoscope.  Just when you think all the glittering pieces are resolving into an image, everything shifts and suddenly you're looking at a new idea or perspective.  There are layers of wit, irony and long experience as an artist to unpack.

And yet.  Underneath it all, Perry has rather old-fashioned notions about what constitutes a truly meaningful artistic experience.  And make no mistake, for Perry "art's most important role is meaning-making."  The artist is a "pilgrim on the road to meaning."  Despite his eyes-wide-open, cynical view of the contemporary art world, when he goes to a gallery or museum he wants to be moved emotionally. He even dares to look for beauty.  And he argues quite convincingly that the commandment to Make it New, to Shock the Bourgeoisie, has reached a dead end.  "Anything can be art but not everything is art."  At this point in history, all the boundaries have been transgressed.  It is no longer possible to be beyond the pale.  "Innovation is mere tweaking."

Well.  Where does that leave us then?

If the First Commandment was to innovate, perhaps the Second was that artists had to display a certain amount of self-consciousness and irony, to show that they were aware of what has gone before and that their own contribution somehow comments on or subverts other artwork.  Perry argues that this ironic self-consciousness is so commonplace now that it has itself become a cliche'.   Indeed, for an artist too much self-consciousness can inhibit the free flow of play.   This is where Perry remarks that perhaps sincerity, rather than irony, is now what is truly fresh.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some to do some weaving about the Virgin Mary.

No comments:

Post a Comment