Friday, October 17, 2014

For Drawing-Based Art: A Manifesto of Sorts

Drawing is the foundation of art—the basis of painting, sculpture, architecture, fashion, theatrical design, film storyboarding and production design, industrial design, picture storytelling, and so on.

The various Neo-Dada and “new media” practices which comprise Contemporary Art (installation, performance, concept, video, et al), lacking a basis in drawing, are in themselves insufficient to sustain the traditions and historical trajectory of visual art.

Drawing is the direct expression of the mind through the hand; mindful composition is inherent and native to drawing.

Critical theory, expressly antagonistic to the graven image, posits the text as the only valid form of mindful composition, as the only possible expression of thought.[1] Contemporary art practices subserve critical theory by providing a steady stream of novel conversation pieces for verbal exegesis that on their own would provide a feeble aesthetic experience, let alone thoughtful communication. Promised a shortcut to significant form, contemporary artists eschew the difficult burden of providing meaningful content, which the critical theorist is only too happy to retroactively supply through the back door. This is bad art and bad philosophy.

Contemporary art can be exhausted by words; drawing-based art cannot. Contemporary art cannot exist without words; drawing-based art can. Drawing-based art is perceived as being a threat to the word; contemporary art is utterly dependent upon it. And yet the word and image have never been in competition, but along with music, dance, and other creative arts form a holistic expression of communication. Such an imagined or manufactured opposition as dominates contemporary artistic discourse can yield only creative sterility.

Evan Dorkin's Milk and Cheese, drawn by Don Simpson.

For Katy Siegel, art “is the discipline where one can exercise any other discipline—from cooking to sociology to architecture to biology to theater—free of the normative rules proper to those disciplines, professions, schools.” Art is therefore “useful to individuals who want to engage [in] these other activities without really learning them […], as amateurs who won’t be judged as architects or actors but as artists.”[2] Contemporary art therefore comprises a range of practices best described as amateurish versions of other creative categories, and which those categories at their most accomplished and professional for the most part want no part of.

No one expects performance art to be good in the dramatic sense, and theater history wants no part of it. Likewise, video installation is not a part of cinema history, just as conceptual art is not philosophy. Yet these practices have wound up inhabiting the art world, supplanting drawing-based art, an aberration of history spawned by the rise of photography and related media and a willful corruption of art enabled by historians and intellectuals who either lost sight of this basis or for whatever reason have always been hostile to it to begin with.

Avant-garde posturing and art student experimentation may offer a travestial rebuke of the excesses of handmade illusionism, but to persist in such ironies beyond a certain moment of historical or personal development, and to reduce all possible art to such a sterile strip of creative enquiry, is to wallow in hopeless immaturity. Artlab is over.

Art, pace Raymond Williams, is exceptionally fine, worthwhile, and enduring communication of which all human beings to some degree are capable (dance, music, poetry, and so on). Without this communication, there can be no art. For Williams, art is
the substantial communication of experience from one organism to another. Art cannot exist unless a working communication can be reached [...]. When art communicates, a human experience is actively offered and received. Below this activity threshold there can be no art.[3]

But as Williams warns,
There is great danger in the assumption that art serves only on the frontiers of knowledge. It serves on those frontiers, particularly in disturbed and rapidly changing societies. Yet it serves, also, at the very center of societies. It is often through the art that the society expresses its sense of being a society. The artist, in this case, is not the lonely explorer, but the voice of his community. Even in our own complex society, certain artists seem near the center of common experience while others seem out on the frontiers, and it would be wrong to assume that this difference is the difference between ‘mediocre art’ and ‘great art.’

For Williams, the notion that “ creative’ equals ‘new’ […] is a really disabling idea, in that it forces the exclusion of a large amount of art which it is clearly our business to understand.”[4]

The alliance between the art world and academic art history and its emphasis on the auratic presence of the original work and its verbal interpretation inevitably leads to an emphasis on the museum and gallery space and the irrelevance of the creative work itself. The cultural center, to the extent that it is a modern manifestation of the sacred center, emphasizes the church building over the church, the sermon over the religious experience, the palace of culture over culture itself. Originally built to house drawing-based art, these structures have learned that such works are not essential, making possible art’s substitution by pseudo-artistic conversation pieces. The emphasis on auratic presence is a corruption of art and a hindrance to the historical development now possible especially through means of reproduction.

Drawing-based art has never been dependent on the elitist museum or gallery space for its display and public adortion, and in the age of mechanical reproduction, is certainly not dependent on the auratic presence of the one-of-a-kind object. Like the word, the image can be transmitted and distributed democratically, in reproduction; the product of the hand is no more constrained than the product of the vocal chords, or of the body. The apparent imbalance of these sensory extensions through the uneven development of disparate media now appears simply the accident of a certain technological history, to which McLuhan still offers useful insight. The scholarly display and archival preservation of original art remains desirable and important for research, but the sacralization of original art as an act of public, communal worship can never be anything other than exclusive and exclusionary.

Photography is by its nature a recording medium, not an art. To argue for photography’s status as art on the basis that its technical parameters are set by humans and specific to human perception is specious. If photography is not a recording medium, then there is no such thing as a recording medium, outside of an indexical footprint in the sand. To be well done, photography requires a selective eye, just as sound recording requires a selective ear and cinematography a directorial touch. But these are recordings of artistic compositions, not artistic composition itself. Photographers who are considered artists are artists by virtue of these other considerations, not because of their mastery of the technical aspects of photography. Mindful expression is not native or inherent in recording media.

The insistence that drawing is merely manual photography, and therefore irrelevant to art today, is the most fundamental and willful misunderstanding posited by logocentric critical theorists, that has catastrophically deformed and debased notions of art in the modern period.

Since the inception of photography, the market has steadily replaced the hand of the artist with the camera, and the manually-generated image with the mechanically-recorded image. Ostensibly hostile to market values, critical theory imagines drawing-based art, visual poesis, as superfluous to contemporary art, thus paradoxically furthering market aims. In lockstep with capital in its repudiation of cognitive manual skill, critical theory replicates market values in the realm of art, exiling the draughtsman from Contemporary Art. This double-barreled assault on drawing by capital and critical theory amounts to shooting the wounded.

Larry Marder's Mr. Spook, drawn by Don Simpson.

In contemporary art, drawing, visual composition, is forbidden and only writing, textual composition, is permitted. This alliance between the museum and gallery-based art world and academic art history has only achieved total dominance quite recently, but is only the most recent chapter in a long and hard-fought struggle. For the moment, Talmudic, Puritanical iconoclasm has gained the upper hand over the sensualism of the eye and hand, and the Judao-Christian word appears ascendant over Greco-Roman image, an age-old tension in Western civilization.

The attack on drawing as thoughtful composition is specific and unmistakable, the settling of an old score by grudging writers who jealously claim the text as the only form of thoughtful composition. It is an internecine knife-fight in a prison riot, a shiv between the shoulderblades of the visually adept by the verbally adept, rendered moot in a culture that is completely visual and overwhelmingly dominated by mediated images. To face a deluge of mediated imagery with only words is to fight with one arm tied behind one’s back. Drawing-based art, as vital as language in processing and communicating human experience, is even more crucial to navigating the mediated, virtual world. Writing and drawing must join together if the mind is to survive, and our notion of art must be reconstituted accordingly.
[1] Max Horkheimer explicitly claims the Second Commandment as the basis of critical theory. See Max Horheimer, letter to Otto O. Herz, September 1, 1969, in Gesammelte Schriften, volume 18, Briefwechsel 1949-1973 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1996) p. 743; cited in Sven Lüttken, "Monotheism à la Mode," in Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson, Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 304, 310, note 11. Frederic Jameson, among others, has made the claim that "thought is linguistic or material and that concepts cannot exist independently of their linguistic expression," i.e., that communication of the mind by any other means is impossible, a curious stance for one who comments so authoritatively on art. See Frederic Jameson, "Symptoms of Theory or Symptoms for Theory?" Critical Inquiry 40 (Winter 2004), p. 403.
[2] Katy Siegel, "Lifelong Learning," in Dumbadze and Hudson, op. cit., pp. 408-419; quote p. 410.
[3] Raymond Williams, “The Creative Mind,” The Long Revolution (Columbia University Press, 1961), p.42.
[4] Ibid, p. 47.

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