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The art of scandal

Revolutionary works of art are no strangers to scandal; this applies also to the makers of the work. Though the work and the artist are not the same thing –many have a difficulty separating the two especially if they are unable to understand and discuss aesthetics or art criticism.

Art criticism in various forms dates back to Greece, China and Africa.  A formal art criticism from the Western perspective that we are most familiar with comes to the art world in the 18th Century.  Needless to say there are many viewpoints about art criticism – its life – its death – its theories.  Through all of this are standards that change through time. Ultimately, discussion brings notoriety to the artwork and the artist – “good” or “bad”.  The larger question is will the work stand the test of time? The artist is going to die – the work is what will remain- and even that is in question.

What is the artist’s intention? How does the work contribute to the history of art that already exists at the time? How does the work move the discussion forward – how does it not rest in old notions that bomb the progression of art making back to the Stone Age? What does it contribute to the cultural context of the time?  All of these questions are why theory, criticism and history find a place and are necessary in the production of art work.  The objective is not to paint like Pollock – but to move the painting beyond anything Pollock ever did – while at the same time recognizing all the aesthetic contributions that were made up until that time.  If we do not know our history we are doomed to repeat it. This applies to politics and it certainly applies to art.  The practice of art making is evolutionary.  Art criticism is there to keep us awake. The conclusion of the criticism is if the work itself stands the test of time beyond its perceived “scandal”.

The art of scandal took a paradigmatic shift with the advent of postmodernism. The mediation of work continued – but in addition to the artist’s presence; their ability to articulate about the work became paramount. The audience was now part of the discourse.

The idea “that art needs to stand on its own” is based on a Renaissance notion of the narrative. Conceptual art requires discourse. Art is made up of signs, symbols, actions and (sometimes) objects – it requires the viewer’s engagement.  Post Modernism included the audience as part of the work.  With the audience as their partner, the artist was demanded to confront their social responsibility.

Carol Becker’s seminal 1990 essay Social Responsibility and the Place of the Artist in Society pointed to the fact that artists no longer were the sacred individual in the studio blessing the masses with their brilliance. The audience was no longer just the receiver – the empty vessel, in waiting, for an aesthetic experience.  What brought this essay into being were works of Dread Scott, David K Nelson and Robert Mapplethorpe. Artists who were creating “scandals” at the time.

In a nutshell, the point of the essay was that the artist needs to be educated about what they are making. It is not only the responsibility of the institution but also of the artist. Artists must understand their intention, the meaning of what they are doing in regard to a larger audience and most importantly to be able to articulate the subtleties of the works existence at time when it has the potential of being controversial. The artist must think about what their visual language is saying. How will the work affect numerous communities? Not the old mono-modernist view – the postmodern view, the postmodern community and most importantly a postmodern world.

Artists in the 21st century have a responsibility that was determined as part of their role 30 years ago. That responsibility is to be able to articulate and discuss, with their audience, the meaning of their work in the context of the time in which it is created. The artist needs to be sensitive to the shifts in the culture in which they work. That is the artist’s job – the artist responds to the world. The art is public. The artist has a social responsibility; not to censor but to be wise as a spokesperson for the visual language that they created.  All of this needs to stand the test of time – beyond scandal.

Dread Scott Tyler’s brilliant work stands the test of time. He continues to be consistent in his message and his presentation – this too was Mapplethorpe in his approach to a consistent visual language – an aesthetic.  David K Nelson?  Still making work? Standing the test of time? Intention of the work? Commitment to understanding of an audience or social responsibility?  That is for you to answer.


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