Friday, March 21, 2008

The Abandonment Of Meaning

The title of this painting by contemporary artists McDermott & McGough is “My Happiness Is Misery, 1966.” It is an oil on canvas work from a 2008 exhibition at the Cheim & Read gallery. (The ‘1966’ is part of the title. More on that later.)

This is one oil painting, divided into two images. The top image is actress Tippi Hedren in a scene from the 1963 film, “The Birds.” The bottom image is actress Patricia Neal in a scene from the 1949 film, “The Fountainhead.” Many of the paintings in the exhibit are ‘split-screen’ type images. All the paintings, though contemporary, contain ‘1966’ in the title. I’m not sure what significance there is in the date, but since neither of these movies is from 1966, I’m assuming the date has some personal significance to the artists. Perhaps it was the year the artists (or one of them) first saw the films. The exhibit is titled, “Because of Him” and all the films excerpted in the oil paintings were heavily melodramatic stories with strong leading men.

These paintings aren’t about life in 1966 in general. They aren’t about movies in general. They’re simply oil paintings of cinema images people may have seen in 1966.

Is there a point to this?


The title of this painting by Karen Kilimnik is “Chloe (from Blood on Satan’s Claw).” It is an oil on canvas work from 1996 that was shown in an exhibit called “Facing Reality: The Seavest Collection of Contemporary Realism Exhibition” at the Neuberger Museum of Art.

This is an oil painting of an unknown actress playing a bit part in an obscure film. (The film “Blood on Satan’s Claw,” 1971, doesn’t list a ‘Chloe’ in the credits.) Does the process of Kilimnik singling out this image and calling our attention to it in an oil painting make a statement about something? Old movies? Unknown actresses?

Is there a point to this?


Don’t get me wrong. I like these images. I think they’re interesting. When I was flipping through art magazines or clicking through New York exhibitions on the web these are the images that caught my eye and caught my interest. They intrigued me enough to make me want to write about them on my blog.

But I don’t know what to think about these images.

The thing is, thirty or forty years ago painters in the fine art world did have a point to what they did. Painters like Lichtenstein and others created pop images as visual explorations of the nature of painting. Painters like Andy Warhol and others created pop images as ways to visually comment on and participate in contemporary life.

But what is happening in the fine art world today?

These images—and they seem to be reasonably representative of a lot of stuff going on in the fine art world—don’t seem to have any particular meaning beyond the range-of-the-moment meaning they embodied for the particular artist.

I suspect that the fine art world today is embracing the most pervasive trend in the modern world: The abandonment of meaning.

Throughout the internet, television, the music business and the various print media one common thread to everything we see is that content is defined not by some larger or deeper meaning but rather content is defined by its significance to this or that person. Something is important to a celebrity so the media makes it an issue. Something is important to a politician so the media makes it an issue. Something is important to a corporation so the corporation pays the media to make it an issue. (The very existence of ‘genres’—which people now take for granted but which did not always exist—is just a way of making these arbitrary groupings and exclusions ‘official.’)

Throughout most of human history there has always been a shared, collective understanding of shared, collective meanings that were of value to the individuals of a culture. The individuals, then, through their creations in the art world or the entertainment world or even the industrial world manifested these shared, collective meanings in deeply personal ways.

Now the whole notions of ‘shared’ and ‘collective’ meanings have been replaced by arbitrary personal meanings. People don’t take it for granted, as a default, that they are part of a larger whole. (So, for instance, Lichtenstein may have seen himself as a “painter” with all the history of that profession behind and surrounding him. Warhol may have seen himself as a ‘citizen artist’ with the history of that label behind and surrounding him.) People in the contemporary world simply accept themselves as individuals acting out their own individual dramas or comedies or horrors or whatever as if that is all that people can be.

Consider this blog, Impossible Kisses. This blog has a theme, Forteana. The unexplained. The wildly unusual. The odd. Now, often enough I indulge myself and drift away from this theme. But the theme is always there, it’s what I stray from, it’s what I return to. It’s my blogging focus, my blogging meaning.

But before I started Impossible Kisses I looked around the blogging scene and I was struck by how arbitrary everything was. Mostly I looked in on Jerry Pournelle’s site and was struck by how often he devoted a day’s posting to discussing how his sinuses felt or what happened when he walked his dog.

I understand the point of personal comments within a larger context. I don’t understand the point of personal comments being treated as a larger context themselves.

It strikes me that pop art thirty or forty years ago consisted of some interesting personal comments within an interesting larger context. In the contemporary world, it strikes me that pop art has become personal comments—some interesting, some banal—being treated as a larger context themselves.

It makes me wonder what the next two decades will bring . . .

In the spirit of this topic, however, I’m going to give the final word, this week, to artists McDermott & McGough. The title of this painting is “The Shadows Fall, 1966:”

1 comment:

Gideon said...

This is exactly my contention with a lot of visual art that I see, but I don't think it's limited by the current scene. It may be more poignant in a post 9/11 world; after all, at least one lesson from those events is that not all is well.

It often seems to me that a lot of art movements in history have more to do with the artist's personal concerns about color or form or some obscure personal incident than anything else. Certainly there are exceptions, but I think they are disproportionately rare compared to other arts like literature.