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Contemporary art and transgression

Every encounter with art requires entering into another’s life-world, to discern the delineaments of significance for each piece within their experience.


Steve Latham


Contemporary art, with its valorisation of the subjective, therefore throws us into a hermetic rabbit-hole, an endless process of Piercean semiotics.

Hermeneutics is vital; especially when there are no clear lines for aesthetic judgement, in otherwise everyday objects.

What made Duchamp’s ‘Toilet’ art, was its presentation as such; and its meaning lay in giving the finger to official standards, and gatekeepers, of the art establishment. That rebellion is now normalised as part of the same establishment. Transgression is today an expected pose of the artist. But the backstory is still important, even if it rejects the idea of story, of meaning: an embrace of nihilism. For that too, is a story, a Nietzschean one.

The story can be positive, an embracing of one’s life, or one’s society, even a rescuing or redeeming of painful episodes.

Or, it can be negative, a rejection, a critique, of cultural mores and norms; even the rejection of life, a death-drive to suicide.

Either way, the backstory matters. Especially with contemporary art, which frames the individual biographical story, we need to know, to listen to, that story.

The problem is, especially where the work embodies deeply personal experiences, that we may not know the story, and hence fail to grasp its import.

And it’s impossible to have enough little explanatory cards, with sufficient detail, beside each piece, to explain its provenance.

Besides which, these cards distract from the art-work itself, as viewers pay more attention to the card than the piece, as they puzzle out the reaction they’re supposed to have.

Besides, truthfully, we can never the whole story of every person. There is never enough information to catalogue the inner journey of each individual.

Everyone is a mystery, even to themselves. We are all sphynxes with secrets, but without ever knowing the full extent of our own secret.

If, as Freud showed, we don’t not even know ourselves, how can we ever know the other? But this demonstrates the importance of the subjective turn in contemporary art.

It is at once the expression of the individual’s alienation in contemporary society, and simultaneously, the attempt to redeem the individual.

Here it departs from the decorative rococo function of what passes for art today, reduced to what will look nice above the fireplace.

But we do not have access to the full story of another’s life; only sub specie aeternitatis is that available.

Each encounter therefore requires a silence before mystery. And ‘mystery’, as existentialist Gabriel Marcel wrote, is conceptually distinct from a ‘problem’. Hence, art is not a problem to be solved, an iconographic puzzle; but a confrontation with the other.

And this is also true of life. Whenever we meet someone, they too are mystery. We come face to face with the whole life of another, even when we don’t know its chronology.

Viewing art, and life, is therefore an act of contemplation.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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