Thursday, November 8, 2018

Art of the Ordinary: A Revolution in Meaning

Andy Warhol and Brillo Boxes, the Stable Gallery, New York City, 1964. (Photo: Fred McDarrah)

Images, our great and primitive passion . . . ” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
Richard Deming's new book Art of the Ordinary (Cornell University Press) explores a major revolution in the meaning of what art is and what it’s supposed to do. Its subtitle sums it up rather nicely: the everyday domain of art, film, philosophy and poetry. Cutting across literature, film, art, and philosophy, Art of the Ordinary is a trailblazing, cross-disciplinary engagement with the ordinary and the everyday. Because, writes Deming, the ordinary is always at hand, it is, in fact, too familiar for us to perceive it and become fully aware of it. The ordinary, he argues, is what most needs to be discovered and yet can never be approached, since to do so is to immediately change it.

Art of the Ordinary explores how philosophical questions can be revealed in surprising places – as in a stand-up comic’s routine, for instance, or a Brillo box, or a Hollywood movie. From negotiations with the primary materials of culture and community, ways of reading "self" and "other" are made available, deepening one’s ability to respond to ethical, social, and political dilemmas. Deming picks out key figures, such as the philosophers Stanley Cavell, Arthur Danto, and Richard Wollheim, poet John Ashbery, artist Andy Warhol and comedian Steven Wright, to showcase the foundational concepts of language, ethics, and society.

Deming interrogates how acts of the imagination by these people, and others, become the means for transforming the alienated ordinary into a presence of the everyday that constantly and continually creates opportunities of investment in its calls on interpretive faculties. He brings together the arts, philosophy, and psychology in new and compelling ways so as to offer generative, provocative insights into how we think and represent the world to others as well as to ourselves.

In the beginning, all of the arts, virtually all of them, were celebrations of, invocations of, and evocations of the Extraordinary. From the very first sculpture of a fertility figurine to cave petraglyphs to paintings on canvas, they all extolled the virtues of idealizing and glorifying some human notion of perfection or supremacy. In other words, they were all anthropomorphic projections of human fears and desires onto the surface of a silent and implacably inexplicable universe.

The same was true of all music, poetry, theatre, literature, architecture, dance, religion and philosophy: originally all of them embraced the enchantments of mythology and wishful thinking, of portraying what humans perceived as the beautiful, the permanent, and the gloriously otherworldly. And everything under discussion by human beings as an embodied meaning and open to interpretation as a work of art, in any medium . . . is an image. Regardless of medium, it is primarily image and idea.

And images, as one of my favourite culture critics Walter Benjamin once remarked, is the realm of one of most primal and primitive passions – almost as addition, I would add. From the cave wall to the computer screen in the blink of an eye, that’s how swiftly the evolution of our deeply ingrained appetite for images sometimes feels. As a profound craving, it is, in fact, one of the principal features that distinguishes us from all the other life forms around us: the urge to depict images and to watch them. We do seem to need reflected pictures (or other kinds of representations in language) of what we look like, of how we feel, and of what it all might mean.

This book examines our insatiable need for images. Along the way it also celebrates the multitude of ways and means that humanity has concocted as a delivery system for the shared core content of all our art and design cultures, as different as they may appear to be on the surface. The key emphasis for Deming, however, is not the appetite itself but rather a transformation that took place in it: the depiction of the ordinary and everyday as opposed to our previous desire for idealizing, mythologizing and romanticizing our condition via amplified and rarefied content, often making the themes involved inhuman in the process.

Willendorf Venus; Greek Venus.

That blink-of-an-eye evolution from extraordinary, even magic and superstitious, was actually, of course, approximately 30,000 years long (approximately, from the Venus of Willendorf female figurine), a lengthy blink indeed, but in Art of the Ordinary, the realm, the domain, and even the kingdom of images and ideas are being examined and interpreted as both overlapping physical locations and also an emotional internal geography. One that continues expanding in a recursive and endless feedback loop daily, but which now also includes more human-scaled and, well, ordinary everyday subjects and themes instead of the formerly grandiose and bombastically idealized myths (such as that of Aphrodite and Venus from ca. 200 BCE).

In this cartography of the imagination which Deming elucidates, the imaging system itself provides an obvious and illuminated map of sorts, to a territory of brilliant darkness known as the imaginary. It is one which everyone can recognize regardless of the personal style or taste contours of the images they hold dear. From drawing to painting, to photography, to cinema, to television, to digital technology, to virtual reality, the history of art unfolds as a huge landscape of propulsively produced images created to entertain, amuse and edify ourselves.

Even advertising and political propaganda make crucial use of images in the applied-arts transmission of their commercial messages. In fact, it might even be possible that the entire European Renaissance itself was largely an advertising campaign designed to convey the Medici brand abroad via some of the greatest artists in history. Images are us: they cater our dreams, and as Benjamin so cogently declared, they remain our great and primitive passion.

And so, we ask a few pertinent questions about our deep affinity for images of all sorts and what this romance might mean. It’s not just a question of obviously beautiful artifacts and works that have already been sanctioned and affirmed as being of the highest order. Rather, it’s about asking what meanings are embodied in our vast array of images (whether in visual art or linguistic poetry, in theatre or in philosophy) across human history and what they tell us about the phenomenon itself: constructing new pictures of what we already have directly in front of us.

Where are we and how did we get here? Why does the world of contemporary visual culture look the way it does? What will it look like tomorrow? Considering the fact that this key aspect is recursive and as a result plunges forward in endlessly accumulating iterations of image after image, each one building on the last like an exploding avalanche, it should even be possible to predict the future of images based on the earliest examples such as cave paintings or illustrated stories such as the tales of Gilgamesh, for example.

Jean Shrimpton, by David Bailey, 1961; Katichka, by Katichka, 2016.

The future of images is sometimes, I suggest, found in the community of shadowy images themselves. It’s a visual party for our eyes, hearts and minds glancing across a landscape which every single one of us already knows: the fact that we love to look and to watch. Therefore, you’re invited to enjoy what amounts to retrospect, prospect and futurespect in the crowded carnival of imagery that surrounds us outside and in. The first brief proviso regarding images, whether painted art, mechanical cinema, or otherwise, is that there is more than meets the eye, and that the secret of the power of images is the fact that what really matters is behind our eyes: our assumptions, beliefs or even superstitions, which we look through whenever we look at.

Thus eventually we arrive at an aesthetic experience where everyday life and the domain of the ordinary replace the zone of the ideal and the mythical. And utilizing only the obvious template of feminine beauty, we arrive at the location on the map where fashion permits us to extol the virtues of the commonplace (or at least the more real) instead of the fabulous. It’s a contrast illustrated well in the panoramic sweep of styles from Willendorf to Venus, from Venus to Jean Shrimpton and from Shrimpton to Katichka, the “everyday” or “ordinary” girl portrayed in her self-portraits on Instagram.

The week I read this book was also the week that a renowned artist of the everyday just happened to pass away. The gifted Canadian realist painter Mary Pratt left us at 83, after bestowing many gifts that appeared to celebrate everyday living and humble objects in a manner explored aesthetically, psychologically and philosophically by Deming in his book.

I say appeared to, because her mysterious impressions of daily household items was actually a profound meditation on what it means to be embodied, to be corporeal, female and even simply a sentient being surrounded by “things."

Eggs, by Mary Pratt, 1965.

And therein lies some of the charming content of this rewarding book by Richard Deming. Pratt herself, an expert at depicting and documenting the quotidian, expressed it very well: “I don’t think anything is ordinary. I think everything is complex and worthy of conjecture and worthy of a closer look.” Deming would agree wholeheartedly, and does so with multitude of fine examples of the shift from the supernatural or extraordinary obsession in art and ideas to the more recent emphasis on the fetishistic focus on the more human: that which is within our everyday grasp.

Deming has a unique way of approaching and expressing often complex ideas and feelings in a direct and down to earth way and his technique of art criticism and cultural analysis is quite out of the ordinary, as in refreshingly non-academic. The ordinary, he argues, is what most needs to be discovered and more deeply appreciated and yet it is actually something that can never really be approached at all (or hardly) since to do so is to immediately change it into something else (such as art evoking or celebrating the ordinary, for instance).

There’s something pleasantly quantum-like and uncertainty-principle-based about these observations, which is again utterly refreshing. In Art of the Ordinary, by examining this domain in art, film, philosophy and poetry he also reveals how philosophical, or even existential, questions, can be unearthed in the most surprising places: as in a stand-up comic’s routines (such as Steven Wright's), or in Hollywood movies (such as Adam’s Rib, with Tracy and Hepburn) or in Andy Warhol’s revolutionary sculptures of Brillo Boxes, from 1964.

I personally believe that Warhol was one of the four most influential and important visual artists of the 20th century (the others being Picasso, Duchamp and Pollock, in that order). He is an artist so advanced that he is still inherently demonstrating the future of our post-industrial society. Some people remain puzzled by his staggering achievement and they need to be reminded that he didn’t just stick actual boxes into the gallery, or stick up actual Campbell’s Soup can labels. Each was methodically hand-painted, on plywood and in serial silkscreens, and re-presented in a new, radical context. Their key subject is the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction -- that and the ethereal beauty and paradoxes inherent in the everyday and ordinary world surrounding us.

One of the things this author does so well is to explain how deep dilemmas of daily life can be explicated, or at least explored, through the very manifestations and embodiments of that everyday life. So the figures he uses as emblems of the enigma of existence, like philosophers such as Stanley Cavell, Richard Wollheim, Arthur C. Danto (my favourite art critic, by the way) and the poet of daily obscurity John Ashbery, showcase the fundamental aspects of art, language, ethics and our society of shared or conflicting beliefs.

Museum of Modern Art. New York. (Getty Images)

He examines how the acts of the imagination of these individuals, become the means for transforming the alienated ordinary into a presence of the everyday. It’s a method, in his capable hands, of investing in strenuous calls upon our interpretative faculties. He does this quite artfully, through a series of insightful and interlinked chapters, in which he investigates what it means to lead an ordinary life, through a philosophy of the ordinary, through a question that what Wollheim posed in his mid-80‘s Harvard lectures: what is it to lead the life of a person? Through a study of comedy and its serious side of exposing the uncanny ordinary; through a grand exposition of the poetry of the ordinary in John Ashbery’s quest for How to Dwell; and most exceptionally, through his appreciation for the secret wisdom and brilliance of Andy Warhol's remarkable achievements in his aesthetically elegant assault on the aura of art itself.

As a master of transformation, Warhol was perhaps the ideal vehicle for Deming to embody his central premise: “Danto describes in general the poetics of Warhol’s work, at least throughout the 1960's, as his intuition that nothing an artist could do would gives us more of what art sought than what reality already gave us. Warhol was able to manifest his intuition about reality that it yielded experience meaningful enough for our attention.”

The same is true of John Ashbery’s “poetics of the ordinary,” in which Deming shares a similar intuition in the shapes of modernist verse: “As we have seen in our discussions of painting, of the cinematic experience, and of one-liners in comedy, art, in its various forms when it turns its attention to the ordinary, can offer a fraught condition of skepticism and belief, frustration and revelation.” Thus it replaces the earlier classical style of certainty with our more contemporary ethos of doubt.

Deming also allows us a great deal of space within which to embrace the obscurity which was a specialty of Ashbery's, by not imposing too much of his own interpretations onto the poet’s mysteriously commonplace insights. As when he quotes the key Ashbery observation that best sums up the book that Deming himself is writing: “I’m sorry – in staring too long out over this elaborate view one begins to forget that one is looking inside, taking in the familiar interior which has always been there, reciting the only alphabet one knows.”

The author of Art of the Ordinary sums it up best in his own closing insights, which are of course out of the ordinary in the best sense of the phrase: “To know more about how the mind encounters the most everyday objects, the wager goes, is to learn more about how human beings go about finding a world to take part in. In demanding that it be about beauty, to give but one example of a traditional criterion for art, one loses one’s responsiveness to a lived life that is as revealing, and deeply mysterious, as watching someone else sleep for five hours. This art offers a vehicle for the act of thinking, thinking about the self and about the self in relation to the world.”

The test for this radical and tantalizing thesis is a simple but daunting one, and I invite the reader to engage in it easily by finding a video of Warhol’s 1963 film called Sleep, in which the poet John Giorno does exactly that. In this book, Deming teaches the reader to regard the everyday and ordinary more closely because “it is full of the meanings that we give it ” and because we can, if we so choose, make the everyday, in the words of the American poet Wallace Stevens, “a sacrament of praise to mere being.”

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His most recent work is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in November 2018.

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