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John Seed

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Towards Eclecticism

Posted: 08/09/2012 10:13 am

When it comes to art and culture, I like anything that is good.

Isn't that what we all love to argue about? Every discussion about art is about different view of what makes something good. Could it be said that the whole history of art is based on that discussion? The idea that something is good is the single underlying justification for its place in the complex social and historical hierarchy that we call art history.

This is the 96th blog about art I have written for the Huffington Post, but I don't consider myself and art critic, even though many people assume that I am. I consider myself an "arts blogger" and have carefully avoided presenting myself as a critic. There are several reasons for this. The first is that I have trouble making firm judgments, including definitive pronouncements about just what is "good" in art. Another reason is the fact that I am not a trained art historian or journalist: I'm a painter who started writing 12 years ago. The final reason is that I don't like offending people, and offending people is -- and should be -- an inevitable by-product of writing criticism.

My respect for criticism was recently re-awakened by the death of Robert Hughes. Reading his various writings on art, and particularly using his book The Shock of the New for 25 years has been tremendously important to me. Re-reading some of the things he had to say has reminded me that although I may still be an arts blogger, it might be worth at least dabbling in criticism.

So, here is my critical manifesto, my starting point:

When it comes to art and culture, I like anything that is good.

Yes, I have shown you my hand, and the cards are blurred. Critically speaking, my development has been a movement towards eclecticism. Here is the Wikipedia definition of that term:


"Eclecticism is a conceptual approach that does not hold rigidly to a single paradigm or set of assumptions, but instead draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject, or applies different theories in particular cases."

That's right: you don't have to choose a favorite "ism." If you are eclectic, any and every approach to art making is there for you to draw from at will. Eclecticism is the smörgåsbord of aestheticism.


2012-08-09-eclectic_gallery_sm.jpg

Image by Photofunia.com


I'm assuming that this is the point in my blog where those of you who are aligned clear, singular theories of culture are clicking are reaching for your mouse to click back to the HuffPost Politics vertical. If you are still reading, I'm hoping that there is a chance that my fluid approach seems to hold some kind of potential.

Many of the problems we face today began with the German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He did the world a great service/disservice by applying categories of style to art objects. In other words, he gave us the systematic, categorical skeleton that today holds up the flesh of art history.

When I say that Winckelmann did a service, what I am applauding him for is that he gave the tools that opened up a very precious and powerful field of study. When I say he did a disservice, I am implying that by setting up a system that resulted in categories, styles and theories he also steered the study and appreciation of art into a cul-de-sac.

Scientists are familiar with the observer effect which states that "the act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed." I am going to argue that from Winckelmann forward the tradition of art in our culture has been affected by a similar effect. Styles, categories and movements are helpful in the making of art, but the consciousness that these things exist has a limiting effect on the imaginations of artists who begin to think about them, or who aim to become associated with them.

There are so many practical dangers that come from the development of styles and categories. In recent times, the most sinister dangers for living artists have emanated from the art market/gallery/museum nexus which carefully regulates, monitors and attempts to manipulate what is hot and what is not. If you have been following the recent controversies at MOCA in Los Angeles, you have seen an example of how heated these types of internecine arguments can get. If you are an artist who pays too much attention this system and its politics, you are in deep trouble because you have become a follower.

Some of the worst art I come across is by artists who are too conscious of some category they want to belong in, or of an individual style they wish to emulate. Haven't we all seen pieces by "Outsider" artists are ridiculously well informed about what is "in" and what is "out?" Or, how about artists who want to be the "next" Diebenkorn, or the "next" Basquiat, or the "next" Warhol, but who haven't a clue about they actually are in any authentic sense? How about those "street" artists who are out-doing each other to have "street cred" so that they can sell their t-shirts at Nordstrom's?

Before you try to hold me to what I just said -- "WOW, Seed is sounding like a critic now" -- I should remind you that I might soon look at the problems mentioned above from a different point of view. Being eclectic means always being open to acknowledging that something good can appear outside of any system you have set up. Eclecticism is infinitely flexible and paradoxical, and that seems to suit my caste of mind.

John Stuart Mill once said that "All good things which exist are the fruits of originality." This is the kind of thinking that made steady progress in the modern era. Valuing originality gave progressive critics a yardstick to apply, for better and for worse. Later, in the so-called Postmodern era, true originality has seemed less possible, partly because originality had become such a cultural fetish that a kind of cultural exhaustion took hold. Paradoxically, trying too hard to be original leads to a profound lack of originality.

I need to ponder the idea of "Post-postmodernism," a term that describes a possible future artistic culture: I just saw the term for the first time earlier today. It was used by Professor Ruth Weisberg of USC in a brief article posted for the upcoming Trac2012 representational art conference. Weisberg, a representational artist, posits that "Post-postmodernism is going to be more like the great periods of classical and Renaissance art, and therefore much more about the direct expression of a sensuous experience of the world with a deep and abiding connection to human aspirations."

Weisberg's thinking is noble and optimistic, and I would be pleased if she is right. One of the things I notice about her statement is that is isn't specific about media or style, but that she values qualities: directness and sensuality.

I'm going to suggest that I personally have no idea about what Post-postmodernism is going to be. I've always thought that the term Postmodern was lame because it means so little, and Post-postmodernism just isn't a very poetic or engaging label. I also worry that Post-post-postmodernism might be next...

Eclecticism is beautiful because it allows every label, every approach, every style and every work of art to be allowed into the ring of possibilities. I know, it is a cop-out too, but I am confident that we can all argue our way through all this and still let what is good or great make its way towards the top. There are so many new kinds of art media out there, and so many individuals with unique approaches to art-making that eclecticism is looking more and more feasible to me. The atomized, democratized culture brought on by the internet may mean that art criticism is -- for better and for worse -- going to be crowdsourced in the future.

Looking over the Guardian's selection of Robert Hughes' 20 best quotes, there is one that stands out for me, and which hints that Hughes, in addition to having moments of commanding critical clarity, had a personal well of eclecticism to draw from. "I have never been against new art as such" he stated, "some of it is good, much is crap, most is somewhere in between."

I'll miss Hughes' commanding judgments of what was and wasn't crap, while relying on my own eclecticism to sort out what comes next. Since I'm not yet ready to call myself a critic, I'm always looking for others to do the dirty work. I think it's best that I remain an "arts blogger" for the foreseeable future.

 

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