Monday, March 12, 2007

Gilbert and George and Art

Yesterday I went to Gilbert & George exhibition at Tate Modern. The artists lived and created art in London's East End (on Fournier Street close to Spitalfields, my neighborhood!) since early 70's. Trained as sculptors, they started out as "living sculptures," and soon after they started making photomontages, usually taking themselves as subjects, alongside views of dirty London streets, water poddles, flashlights, cherry blossoms, their bare wooden apartment, young boys, crosses, graffitti, sex ads, tabloid headlines, Gincko leaves, people who look like they belong to the fringes: Muslims, black people, "white trash." (Not to mention penises, spunk, shit and their own arses.) They force you to look at your own dark side in the eye. (And this exhibition forces London to look at her dark side in the eye.)

As it happens when I see modern art most of the time, I was quick to conclude that these artists could not do anything else with their lives, so they decided to do this (continuing in the Hincal Uluç vein, who rightly wrote once that he couldn't be convinced that a black square is art, and even Ertuğrul Özkök vein, "let's all admit our unliberal, intolerant side and relax now!") This alludes to a lack of talent, motivation, structure and patience in everything else that would earn them their living and respect, rather than a specific talent, motivation, structure and patience in art. When I look at an art piece, I'd like to see traces of talent, genius (something new, creative, something that would uncover an idea or emotion in me I didn't realize was there), beauty and discipline. I'd like to see advancement, something greater than myself, something I wouldn't have been able to do. To me, an artist, and any other discipline, should try to rise above and beyond himself, his daily life, his human instincts in his work, rather than making money and a reputation of them. (Advancement, not democracy!!)

So here I am, sounding like your mother or teacher. Being the reflective person I am, of course, this is not the end of the story. Firstly, looking at it from an economic point of view, these artists seem to have made a living with their work. (Watch the videos on the Tate web-site, they look like they made quite a lot since they were able to invest in that technology!) So there are people who like their art, who find something in it. What they are doing clearly has value. (At the same time, sometimes I wonder whether critiques are afraid of criticizing art just because they don't want to sound unliberal.)

They also seem to be working very hard while they are creating their art, albeit its ugliness much of the time. But then, we want creativity, we want new things that would speak to the society we live in now. So we can no longer expect the beauty and technique of Renaissance painting or impressionists or surrealists. That's all been done before. So we have to keep an open mind.

Furthermore, who am I to judge, right? Of course it doesn't speak to much in me because I've mostly been one of the privileged as a Caucasian woman from a middle class background. I don't understand those in the minority, gays, poor, excluded. But I know that most of the time, it takes patience, hard work and structure to improve your life. So while it is interesting and important to recognize, I don't see much to be proud of in clinging on to that alternative culture. The message about racism and religious fundamentalism, while original and interesting at the time, although still relevant, is not that original anymore.

But even to me, there were a few highlights. The sex ads, tabloid headlines and images of my neighborhood - contrasted against cherry blossoms. And the red.

Definitely worth seeing since it sparked so much to talk about!


Tim said...

Interestingly, I would have been even more inclined to agree with your post had I never been to the museum in question. I've thought of the validity of modern art most often in relation to Rothko. I'd seen a decent amount of his stuff at the National Gallery and Guggenheim Bilbao before visiting the Tate Modern and had never been too impressed. My major thought had been that it was too bad that I hadn't thought to create something like that myself so that I could have been considered an artistic genius despite having really no ability to draw/paint anything resembling real life. The big squares never really did anything for me. In the Tate Modern, though, I thought that they were great. The room was apparently built to show them off to their greatest affect and I thought they were much, much more affecting than I had previously experienced. I'm not sure if I should have given more credit to Rothko, or the architect of the room, but I did gain a much greater appreciation for the artist and "greatness".

I can't really comment on the latest exhibit you saw as I don't think I've ever seen anything by the artists in question. I'm personally drawn to darker-seedier sides of things at times, so I might have enjoyed it, but I do agree that it's kind of a cliche theme in art these days. If the photomontages contained some sort of a thesis, rather than just a bit of ugliness, I'd judge them much more positively.

I think I'm at an ideological point in my life right now where I'm reacting a bit against the liberalism that's allegedly surrounded me for the past years. This is because 1. I don't think it is all it purports to be as it does have a specific worldview that it seeks to force on others, despite its claims. 2. In a purer sense, threaten to end up in a sort of a nihilism. I don't particularly see it going there, because people seem to need to cling to some sort of identity forming ideology, but I don't think I'd like the end result even if people could embody their philosophy. Annoyingly, I seem to have been born a relativist and thus creating a non-relative worldview is more a project of construction than anything else. Wait, wasn't I talking about art...oh yeah, this kind of relates. I agree that a lot of people don't want to disparage some modern art because it would seem unliberal. I think that is stupid. Some art is stupid and it should be able to be called shit. Particularly when it is shit. In a bucket. (Who gave out that prize anyway?) So I'm in agreement with you.

I'm not sure whether the paragraph stating "Furthermore, who am I to judge, right" is backing off your stance slightly. At first I thought it was, then I thought it wasn't, now I'm not sure. The "Furthermore" seems to be in contrast to the end of the paragraph in question. If you do back off it, I'm pretty amused at the essay structure and its self illustration.

Tim said...

Also, I still don't know what post-emotionalism is. Care to enlighten me?

Tim said...

In a continuing dialogue with myself, I've now noticed your entry talking about post-emotionalism. I'll go read that. I retract my above comment.

lightcapsule said...

To start with, I agree with your point about compensating lack of talent with a clever idea - that seems to be what the modern artists are after. At least, we can surely say that the clever, new, original idea is more important than the talent (even if they have talent, it is not visible anyway, but the clever idea is supposedly there.) If you contrast Picasso's early works with the later, he had the talent to produce works that resembled the real world, but later a new idea, a new style, a new technique became his priority. (I haven't seen any of Rothko's works, so I won't be able to comment on him specifically.)

"Resembling real life" is an interesting phrase you used. Talent is easy to judge and admire when it's only a matter of imitating the world: The shapes, the anatomy, the movement, colors, light and shadows. Throughout impressionism, cubism and surrealism, artists moved further and further away from imitating what the eye sees towards what the person feels when confronted with the real world (of course, sometimes the world is nice, sometimes it's ugly.) Therefore it has become progressively more difficult to measure their success. Is the clever idea really there? I guess an artist is successful in "imitating real world" if people can relate to the feeling it portrays.

(This is the same with literature. Great literature brings out something I knew, but didn't know I knew, as Orhan Pamuk says. But literature too has different levels: Orhan Pamuk is more accessible to me than James Joyce. I would say I don't like Joyce if I can't understand enough to relate to him. Then I don't know if the clever idea is there or not. If I don't know, I shouldn't argue either way.)

I agree that "liberalism" is more like a continuous line segment than a point (there are several points you can stand on that line segment.) Actually, I am very practical, sometimes liberal views seem to make the most sense, sometimes the unliberal. I know that my circumstances also determine how I see things, and nobody can be objective. For example, as I said in previous entries, telling people that they are fundamentally backward not only does not reflect the truth (because their backwardness is often due to another group's advancement), but it also simply won't work, it will only make them angry and stubborn. You have to give them the opportunity and incentives to do better, you have to set a good example. However, I also believe in individual responsibility. If a group is excluded and labeled "backward" somehow, it is partly their own fault. Sometimes that alternative culture may be too comfortable a place to step out of.

Maybe Gilbert and George did portray some aspects of the real world accurately. But this world is not something to be proud of, something to stick to.

As you see, I argue for mutual responsibility and mutual effort. Rich-poor, white-black, EU-Turkey, Christian-Muslim, everyone has room for improvement. The key is good faith and open mind.

That's why I keep second-guessing myself and sometimes I don't reach a conclusion. To help you understand, here's the structure of my entry:

-For me, Gilbert and George's art is shit.

-But it may not be shit, because some people seem to relate to it and buy it.
-But it may not be shit, because creativity may be more important than beauty and talent.
-But it may not be shit, because I'm not objective (hence the "furthermore.") Although I'm not objective, I still think the world it portrays is not something to be proud of, and their message is losing its originality.

I call everything "post-emotionalism," to me it relates to a world where things lose their meaning, everyone stands on the border and it's too easy to give up anything (because nothing really matters.)