When Are You Finished

“You’ve done it Pollock. You’ve cracked it wide open.” One of the best Hollywood scenes ever; when Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner celebrates her husband Pollock’s breakthrough drop painting. And it gets even better, the scene and the film knowing that Ed Harris who plays Pollock also directed the film. That’s an ego.

But Hollywood isn’t particularly, just a bit over the top because isn’t more or less all western history writing applying the same strategies, celebrating male white subjectivity, genius and the moment when it happens – when Ed Harris slash Pollock stumbles on drop painting. Amazing.

Exactly, everything in western history is individual men that stumble over stuff and kind of become genius through the stumbling. There were never no team work, maybe it was Lee who figured it but didn’t bother to you know, or networks of circumstances, dialogue, conversation, study. Nope it’s always a stroke of genius.

It goes without saying that the cult of genius is not eternal but rather the consequence of circumstances, such as the understanding of individual property, a societies relation to progress etc. In short capitalism needs geniuses so let’s make some and let’s make some of the right kind so that power relations are maintained. In fact the genius often seems to suffer more than anything else. Pretty much expectations on a genius, right. The ones to questions is rather the institutions and powers that choose and maintain the status of all those geniuses.

When it comes to art, it’s just great to read all these stories of lonely men in their studios, painting or composing symphonies in gloves because the money is gone and the logs for the fire place too. But we all know that these stories are fabrications and even if there is some truth to them – that the winter of 1947 was really cold or whatever – the reasons for why painting, and everything else, ended up where it did had much more to do with how capitalism understands progress, the saturation of markets, the distribution of power and wealth and other fairly simply things to analyse and detect.

If we agree on that capitalism’s first dictum is expansion at any price it can not be otherwise concerning art. The lineage from the break with figurative painting up until today is nothing different than the linage in any other business. Before the introduction of republic and bourgeoisie culture there could exist no secondary market for painting, hence no gallerists. Before the introduction of republic and the end of aristocratic society the conditions for progress in painting or any other art was entirely otherwise. As a matter of fact change was not appreciated so the successful painter was obliged to paint in accord to his master, maintaining traditions and hence feudal values. So, it wasn’t Pollock that invented anything at all, it was capitalism that needed it happen and Pollock was lucky enough to stand in the way. The history of painting, the history of art is not a history of male genius, it’s the history of capitalism – case study version.

In lieu of this what is key is to alternatively break new territory or push boundaries and consolidate one’s position on a market. But mind you, if you push to bad you might just fall of established markets and become obsolete or excluded by markets because your proposal will deflate the markets diverse interests. The successful 20s century artist was the one that could master the balance between expansion and consolidation. Cynical definitely and perhaps that’s why the story is told differently. Heroic is not much better but better than cynical. It’s also a little bit sad to resign to that that, say the war on representation was not a matter of ideals, devotion or conviction, but more or less a strategic battle to be part of the show.

Of course it’s not this easy but pretty much. It’s conventionally understood that abstraction was a “logical” step in the history of painting. I just had to happen, all the rest was exhausted and in order to captures paintings “being” it was necessary to get rid of figurations, depiction etc. But what about if there was another reason, one that couldn’t be voices. Isn’t it equally possible that painters or whatever artists, especially in American after WWII had they decided to paint, so to say ”their story” their destiny would have been exodus and poverty. From a certain perspective abstraction was a heroic battle with conventions around representation but from another perhaps a smoke screen that was there to masquerade the artist’s subject, political position, sexuality, you name it. Abstraction in the 50’s was a solution of getting away with identifying as a communist, something that could be “in” the painting but must not be represented. Questions then opens to both what abstraction in painting today is and what it does, in other words to both its actual and relation values.

 

Never the less, when examining the modernism’s battles around representation it is remarkable to what extent these are specific battles largely concerned with making sure that the battles stays in the museum or gallery world, perhaps with an open door but never far away enough to not hear the murmur from the crowd. It is largely a battle in respect of what is in the painting, from painting as a mimetic practice towards something that only reference itself, i.e. has no value outside itself as itself. Modernism’s painting in this respect was a non-relational art. It is from this vantage point we should understand “in the eye of the beholder” because what you experience in front of an artwork that reference itself is yourself experiencing experience, a self-referential experience.

 

Reflecting briefly about abstract tendencies in contemporary painting it is tempting to interpret these attempts as a continuation – critical or benevolent/admiring, stupid or uber-clever etc. – but what about if it is all reversed. Abstraction today can and is of course just a matter of economy but I believe it’s neither – at least very rarely – a matter of questioning or modifying representation nor about a withdrawal in respect of some kind of smoke screen. No, the question is if abstraction at all is abstraction or if it just looks like it. To me it seems that painting today to a large extent has left abstraction behind and somehow degraded into a mimetic relation to the image. The crux is just that it is a mimetic relation not in respect of what is “in” the image, what you can see. But it is a matter of miming phenomena.

A painting or in fact any or most kinds of art works can appear or look abstract but in fact are mimetic, because what is mimed is not what you see but in respect of what you experience. Today painting mime experience, in particular experiences that are contemporary and satisfying for a contemporary liberal individualised subject. Painting mime the experience of being on Facebook, browsing the internet, playing computer games, swiping or shopping on Ebay, and it’s congenial because at the same time as I contemplate an abstract paintings I get the rush from posting an image on Instagram, winning an auction on Ebay or getting to a new level of some game. Similarly, when we today, if we do, talk about networked painting it’s certainly nothing critical but just another method to make the viewer feel as connected in gallery as when on the phone.

In that movie a journalist asks, “How do you know when you are finished with a painting?” and Ed Harris answers: “How do you know when you are finished making love?” I don’t know how to paraphrase that one, but western narratives around genius has certainly not ceased and following a sort of equalisation and interchangeability of everything there is no battles around representation to fight, nor between mimetic and abstraction. I might just be that abstraction is key never the less, but not due representation, but in order to generate experiences that isn’t connected, instrumental, ethical, political and economical but instead just that, to generate just an experience.

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