I am going to write about something that I have never before written about in public: visual art. This, to a large degree, terrifies me. Somewhere along the line, the manner in which visual art is presented began to intimidate me. Bare in mind that I’ve been through art school – I already understand meaningless terms like “anacrusis” & I’m still worried to talk about this shit. I’m not sure where the initial fear came from. It could have come from reading Oscar Wilde’s art reviews. It could have come from a desire to rebel against my mother’s artistic production as a stained-glass painter/illustrator. I dunno. It could have come from the utterly intolerable manner in which the majority visual artists conduct themselves, the somewhat fanatic manner in which so many of them seem to aggrandise themselves. We will probably never know.
(It’s the 3rd reason.)
So, I’ve been to the Baltic – the contemporary art gallery in Newcastle – quite a lot recently. Moreover, I’ve actually enjoyed it. At 1st I shrugged this off, thinking that I was more likely to be enjoying the presence of the people who accompanied me. However, today, possibly for the 1st time in my life, I caught myself genuinely analysing visual art, putting to use my many ill-fated attempts to read textbooks, technique guides etc upon the subject. The artist in question was 1 Lorna Simpson. My layman’s observations on the pieces are most likely unworthy of recitation. However, both myself & my friend Joe had a similar opinion of a select few of the pieces. This, I thought, could spawn a short blog post. Both of us “wanted to like” quite a lot of the pieces, but couldn’t. Both of us understood what the message of several pieces meant, & understood the composition of said pieces. We did not, however, understand how these things correlated. Marxism time!
(I’m openly telling you how this article has been structured. It’s profound, right?)
In an article what I wrote, called The Yenan Forum, I talked about something called the unity of form & content. I want to expand upon this here, albeit very briefly. I want to talk about this in relation to visual aesthetics.
Any artist, whether they paint landscapes or preserve the body parts of dead cows, will tell you that the manner in which visual information is presented can entirely change our perception of it. That’s basically the point. What is not observed in this rather simplistic point is that aesthetics – that is, the artistic effect of form – guide our emotions toward this or that content. Take, for example, a comparison between the below images of the internet meme Slenderman. In the 1st image, Slenderman is presented as terrifying. The grain, composition & “realism” dictate this. The 2nd image, a cartoon, is benign. Remember, the character in both images remains the same; in both images, Slenderman remains an extraterrestrial, demon child-kidnapper.
This is an exceptionally frivolous example of aesthetic phenomena, but it gets to the point: the artistic form applied to a content changes its meaning. This complicates the unity of form & content somewhat. It seems to imply that, for artistic matters, the form of a work dictates its meaning entirely. It could imply that no unity is, in point of fact, at all necessary: if style dictates meaning, content is irrelevant. An effective proof that this is not so must demonstrate a defect within an artistic work. Moreover, an effective proof must demonstrate that this defect stems from the imposition of form upon inappropriate content (content is never inappropriate – it is the matter of artistic products).
To return to Lorna Simpson. 1 of the pieces presented at the Baltic gallery which made both myself & my friend Joe “want to like it” was a video installation entitled Chess. The piece shows video-footage of a man & a woman, both shot from multiple angles & presented on separate screens, playing chess. A further screen shows multiple angles a man playing jazz, free-style piano. Both myself & Joe understood that this was about gender roles & that the composition had aesthetic value (the shots are beautifully crafted etc). However, we were only privy to how any of this connected, following a reading of a rather long information pamphlet outside. Apparently, Chess is about gender-fluidity, the rigid rules of chess (representing heteronormative roles) is contrasted against the freedom of jazz (representing fluidity). I really, really want to like this as a concept. Unfortunately, I do not. The entire work relies on form, which the content itself has nothing to do with. Furthermore, in order to understand the piece, we require an understanding of form – we require an understanding of jazz music. The installation relies entirely upon form to create its meaning: it is formal fetishism &, at least for myself, achieves no meaningful effect.
Incidentally, my favourite piece from the gallery, Wigs is the image opening this post. It is also about gender-fluidity. The piece uses form to this content’s advantage, utilise text & the image of the wig, a feature commonly associate with acting, gender transition etc. It achieves a unity.
(The post ends abruptly after this sentence to make my point clear. Also, I’m quite lazy. The end.)