Salvaging Meaning In The Art Gallery

Like many other institutions in the West nowadays, the world of curatorship and art production (in its literal sense) is a rather closed and self-referential space. It’s an anthropological universe with its codes, rituals and, above all, its very own language and ideological references that go with certain repetitive and self-reinforcing narrative habits.

Of all different conceptions, critiques and strong reactions on the state of contemporary “Art”, its relation with the structure of the art gallery medium and its networks, and the specters of an avant-garde that never ends, important questions can and should be raised: what meaningful and truly significant work can be found nowadays in this scenario? Is such thing even possible? Or should the answer to these questions be self-evident?

For these questions, an overall critique and coherent historical understanding of contemporary fine arts is needed: these are issues that are often discussed, usually with plenty of grand generalizations, bickering arguments in bad faith, almost always with significant doses of snobbery, philistinism and ignorance in equal measure. Of all the different arguments that present a coherent criticism of contemporary art, Jean Baudrillard’s take on this matter holds particular strength:

As long as art was making use of its own disappearance and the disappearance of its object, it still was a major enterprise. But art trying to recycle itself indefinitely by storming reality? The majority of contemporary art has attempted to do precisely that by confiscating banality, waste and mediocrity as values and ideologies. These countless installations and performances are merely compromising with the state of things, and with all the past forms of art history. Raising originality, banality and nullity to the level of values or even to perverse aesthetic pleasure. Of course, all of this mediocrity claims to transcend itself by moving art to a second, ironic level. But it is just as empty and insignificant on the second as on the first level. The passage to the aesthetic level salvages nothing; on the contrary, it is mediocrity squared. It claims to be null -- "I am null! I am null! -- and it truly is null.1

In this scenario, permeated by a complete emptiness of meaning, sign or expression, in this desert of post-modern mediocrity and banality in which fine arts finds itself, is there even any reason or feeling that can be found? And why is it so?

If we are to take a Spenglerian position on this matter, the current state of art is only the inevitable material “Thing-Become” of western expression, with any truly unique expressive strength as being completely spent already. Modernism was the last feverish nihilistic explosion of western expression, a last spasm of an artistic tradition that peaked long before its inception. Dynamic expansion, infinity, pure abstraction: these were the fundamental concepts of Western artistic expression borne out of its Prime Symbol, and nothing more could be said on these issues after Modernism.

Post-Modernity is then the condition of unadmitted hopelessness towards this reality. It’s because of this that we can recognize the engagement of post-modernity with deconstruction, satire, and self-destructive animus. We are left only with a constant desperate illusory attempt towards constant reconstruction and artistic progress.

“Styles” reproduce and metastasize, breaking into myriad different aesthetic proposals, all equally banal and unsubstantial. Nothing can be really taken from these works. To simulate meaning, the creator tries to support his piece with all sorts of sophistry, often interlaced with second-rate ideological babble that just serves to signal towards their brethren in the art gallery scene.

We can learn all we wish to know about the art clamor which a megalopolis sets up in order to forget that its art is dead from the Alexandria of the year 200. There, as here in our world-cities, we find a pursuit of illusions of artistic progress, of personal peculiarity, of the “new style”, of “unsuspected possibilities”(…) The final result is that endless industrious repetition of a stock of fixed forms which we see today in Indian, Chinese and Arabian-Persian art. Pictures and fabrics, verses and vessels, furniture, dramas and musical compositions – all is pattern-work. 2

Within this current condition, with its usual inarticulate tics and auto-referential emptiness, can we find a positive answer to our original question?

In this desert of expressive energy, it seems that only the empty space for exploration on new mediums (historically speaking – photography, video, digital…) can still offer some minimal possibility towards aesthetic value and meaning. These new mediums still hold undisclosed forms of expressive content. Nonetheless, the underlying spirit can’t be raised by the medium alone - something meaningful needs to be said first, and works on these mediums are still very much open to mediocrity and banality, not to speak of its equal vulnerability towards mercantilization and commodification – an endless mechanical reproduction of signs. Whatever meaning that could come from these is bound to be rather limited either way. What could be said has been said, and we can only really express the same things in other languages, from slightly different perspectives.

This may seem like a disappointing, bleak perspective but one should not be discouraged, as the possibility for sincere and meaningful art still exists. The regard for this historical condition cannot be a limiting factor in aesthetic and creative exploration. Simple, humble beauty is still possible, and it’s up to the individual to take this critical awareness of our contemporary condition and to work towards a more constructive alternative to what largely stands for art today. But then, what are these alternatives? What can be meaningful in this closed world of art galleries and curatorships that seem to produce only noise?

A couple of years ago, I had the chance to visit the Contemporary Art exposition in the Georges Pompidou Centre, in Paris. This exposition was ingeniously organized as it tried to filter, catalog and offer some stylistic structure and bearing to what is an inherently scattered, fragmentary and schizophrenic universe.

The expo was divided into several chapters, and though most tended towards a rather superficial and haphazardly grouping of tangentially related work (generally with some common intellectual pretense), some offered a legitimately sane and recognizable coherence, with a common purpose. Of these, three categories stood out: “Artist as documentarist,” “Artist as Historian” and “Artist as Archivist.” They offered something that was rather uncommon in your usual contemporary art gallery – they presented a rather humble trend: the common intent in these works was documenting, narrating and offering simple representations of personal perspectives on the real world. It was an activity borne out of an obsession with the past and the present, and a simple and sincere interest to stand witness to reality.

In contrast to most works in that gallery, obsessed with their own image and producing only noise through disconnected signs, these three perspectives were instead contemplative. There was a sincere aesthetic pursuit in the representation of the real. These works were valid by their own accord – they were intuitive and couldn’t (and didn’t) depend on some forced parallel textual interpretation, a usual exercise on pathetic narcissism by your average contemporary artist.

A form of sincere artistic work could be found here – it was a work that didn’t try to glorify the mundane or the obscene, or an attempt towards some idiotic ideological stand – it simply offered a representation or narration of the real, from the perspective of the artist. It was a simple activity in search of beauty or worth in reality. It’s not surprising that most of this work is based on the medium of photography or video, as these mediums tend towards this kind of documenting/archiving activity. How these mediums are used varies: from found footage, which is edited and presented in the way the artist intends to, or through telling of an original story with original footage.

Harun Farocki - Videograms of a Revolution; Different kinds of found footage that tell a poignant story about the Romanian revolution.

Can this type of work be truly called art? That is open to discussion, but it holds a meaningful, sincere place in the contemporary art gallery, so commonly attacked by bizarre absurdities. Despite any possible criticism, this type of work is capable of doing something that is essential in any artwork worthy of attention: it can express the underlying feelings of our times, synthesized as an art form. If there is still anything that can be salvaged from the contemporary art gallery, this type of documental work would at least be worthy of our attention.

  1. Baudrillard, J. (1996). The Conspiracy of Art, p.12. New York: Semiotext(e). A PDF version of the book can be found here.

  2. Spengler, O. (1926). The Decline of the West Volume I, p.294. London: George Allen & Unwin. A PDF version of the book can be found here.