The Kamakura Print Collection, Photogravure Etchings by Peter Miller

>鎌倉プリント・コレクションへようこそ ・ フォトグラビュール 銅版画、ミラー・ピーター (Peter Miller)

How not to look at prints

The search for meaning has led some in the art world to read prints as arguments for favored positions, or as statements referencing topical concerns and borrowing fame from them. While artist/printmakers from Rembrandt to Goya and onward have often found inspiration in events of the day, such prints have always depended on formal composition and printmaking craft for their emotional impact. Conceptual art asserts, however, that argument is everything and craft is nothing. Disdaining the actual making of artwork, these avatars of advanced consciousness often have their statements executed by underlings. This strange breed of art has been sponsored primarily by government agencies and closely linked advertisers, and is prevalent in festivals and biennials where the judging is not done by working artists. Roberta Smith accurately described the effect of this institutional formula as 'When exhibitions have more to say than to show':

'... Trickle-down festivalism, which is largely supported by institutions and foundations, is influencing artists and curators alike. It has generated a parallel art world inhabited foremost by curators who talk mostly to one another and look mostly at one another's shows, always focusing on the same coterie of artists. It seems possible that commercial galleries, however driven by the profit motive, may actually try harder to show work that directly engages interested viewers rather than using high-minded text-panel sound bites, or momentarily diverting videos, to snare people before they drift off to the next art station. The prevailing artistic strategy is to emphasize topical subject matter -- the urban infrastructure, globalization, cultural identity -- while relying on all-but-exhausted international styles, like Post-Minimal installation or Conceptual Art. The prevailing curatorial strategy is a big, catch-all idea about the present condition of life on earth approached with multidisciplinary intent. This often means artists trained in other disciplines trying to make art more 'relevant.' A result is the repeated substitution of good intentions for good art, unmanageable agendas for focus and shows that, between the art, the labels and the catalogs, are largely talk. For the most part, the viewer is left with next to nothing, other than a depressing hollowness.' (New York Times, April 13, 2003)

The crowding-out of aesthetic content and craft sense by conceptual argument impoverishes our appreciation of artwork, depriving viewers of a distinctive way of looking at art. By assimilating all visual experience into a narrow logical construct, conceptual art seeks to deny us the pleasure of form, line, tone, composition, color, and all the other qualities unique to the graphic arts. This is clearly a self-destructive course for the arts to follow, as David Thompson relates in an article entitled The Road to Nowhere, excerpted here:

'When Chris Ware, creator of the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, visited an exhibition of contemporary art in Amsterdam, the aesthetic experience was less memorable than he'd hoped. Struggling to retrieve a specific impression, he recalled: 'I do remember one particularly obvious pile of Styrofoam and wire that would've been difficult to sort out of the rubble of the building had it collapsed.

'Such disappointment is becoming routine as conceptualism tightens its grip on the art world. So frequent is this lowering of expectation, we seem on the verge of peculiar relationship to institutional art: one of learnt and reluctant disinterest. Yet great and ponderous meanings are attributed to the banal 'conceptual' artefacts wheeled out for our enrichment. As our desire for mystery and beauty is thwarted, ever more elaborate justifications are heard, couched in non sequitur and opaque terminology. The world of fine art now appears exclusively concerned with semiotics, 'the crisis in representation' and other academic matters. Visiting a gallery in the hope of being made to stare in wonder is, according to the prevailing critical theory, 'sentimental' and 'naive'. Beauty, it would seem, is merely something to be analysed in a cloud of righteous deconstruction....

[About an exhibit at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts]: 'What will it mean? Why is it being done? Again, the press release provides the obligatory non-specific clue: 'The work aims to question the Western world's perception of, and relation to, the rest of the world and to raise issues around topics such as the global economy, culture and cultural exchange...' Setting aside the explanation's opacity, you may want to note how conceptual artists love to 'raise issues'. Yet, despite conceptualists' intellectual leanings, the artists rarely specify which particular issues, or exactly how they will be raised, let alone what might be newly illuminated as a result. This preoccupation with validation - generally by means of ill-defined associations with social issues -- could in part be explained by conceptualism's dogmatic aversion to dangerously metaphysical qualities such as beauty and awe -- qualities that require no press release or external validation....

'As the American installation artist Sol LeWitt informed readers of Artforum in 1967: 'In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. All planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.' Clearly, conceptualist dogma assumes nothing of significance could possibly be learnt during the execution of the work. (One might also note LeWitt's pointed use of the word 'execution' and its connotations of the terminal and robotic.) But in dismissing out of hand the wisdom gained exclusively by doing a thing -- and by doing it well -- conceptualists risk losing the very essence of creativity.

'Practical interaction, not academic theory, is at the heart of the activity we call 'art'. Whether idly doodling on a napkin or improvising the archest of freefall jazz, the means and the end of the exercise are the same - an immersion in the periphery of consciousness. One might plausibly define art as a particularly effective interface between the ego and the subconscious mind -one that allows the participant to watch what he doesn't know being delivered and discovered. The Lithuanian-born painter Ben Shahn described what is missing from the conceptualist equation in his book The Shape of Content: 'Painting is both creative and responsive. It is an intimately communicative affair between the painter and his painting, a conversation back and forth, the painting telling the painter even as it receives its shape and form...' The denial of this semi-subconscious interaction with a physical medium is, I suspect, precisely why conceptual art is so unlikely to send a shiver down your spine....

'Conspicuous use has, of course, been made of outlandish or 'shocking' materials. Carcasses, congealed blood and faecal matter most readily come to mind. Predictably, the use of such materials results in fits of moral indignation and protestations of distaste. Thus, whether championed or reviled, the artist's first step towards celebrity has been taken. However, a question remains: what has actually been registered, favourably or otherwise, beyond the raw material itself? Marc Quinn's Self, a sculpture of the artist's head composed entirely of frozen blood, lingers in the memory not because of any artistic significance or sculptural ingenuity, but because of its impromptu disintegration due to an unplugged Saatchi freezer.... And, finally, what is left? A joke, sneerily told, laughing at itself.' © David Thompson 2002; in Eye (International Review of Graphic Design) #47, March 2003

Humorist Dave Barry reveals himself to be a perceptive observer of the art world who is not taken in or intimidated by pretentious nonsense:

'Whenever I write about art, I get mail from the Serious Art Community informing me that I am a clueless idiot. So let me begin by stipulating that I am a clueless idiot. This is probably why I was unable to appreciate a work of art I viewed recently, titled: 'Chair.'; I saw 'Chair' at Art Basel, a big art show held recently on Miami Beach. It attracted thousands of Serious Art People, who wear mostly black outfits and can maintain serious expressions no matter what work of art they are viewing. This is hard, because a lot of Serious Art consists of bizarre or startlingly unattractive objects, or 'performances' wherein artists do something conceptual, such as squirt Cheez Whiz into an orifice that has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for snack toppings.

'But no matter what the art is, a Serious Art Person will view it with the somber expression of a radiologist examining X-rays of a tumor. Whereas an amateur will eventually give himself away by laughing; or saying 'Huh?'; or (this is the most embarrassing) asking an art-gallery person: 'Is this wastebasket a piece of art? Or can I put my gum wrapper in it?' But back to Art Basel: I didn't go to the main show. I went to an officially sanctioned satellite show called 'Art Positions,' which was a group of large, walk-in shipping containers set up on the beach, serving as mini art galleries. Serious Art People drifted blackly from container to container, solemnly examining the tumors. I managed not to say anything stupid until I encountered a slide projector sitting on the floor, projecting a rectangle of white light and twitching lens dust onto the wall. I asked the gallery person if there was supposed to be a slide in the projector; he patiently explained that, no, this was a work of art titled 'Autofocus Slide Projector Dust.' I didn't ask why it was on the floor, because I didn't want to make a total fool of myself. In another container there was a work of art consisting of a video, repeated over and over, showing a man - not in peak physical condition, I might add - rollerblading around a vast empty space, stark naked. I'm proud to say I betrayed no emotion while viewing this work, although my daughter, who is 3, said, quite loudly: 'You can see his tushy! Yuck!' She is young, and has no art training.

'Anyway, in the corner of one container there was a ratty old collapsed armchair - worn, dirty, leaking stuffing, possibly housing active vermin colonies. I asked the gallery person if the chair was art, and she said yes, it was a work titled 'Chair.' I asked her what role the artist had played in creating 'Chair.' She said: 'He found it.' She noted that 'Chair' had been professionally crated and shipped to the art show. 'Chair' is for sale. The price is $2,800. Really. I looked up 'Chair' on a Serious Art Internet site,, which said: 'The chair offers not a weedy patina of desuetude but an apotheosis of its former occupant.' ( See, I missed that altogether, about the desuetude and the apotheosis. I thought it was just a crappy old junk chair some guy took off a trash pile and was now trying to sell for 2,800 clams.

'I also was baffled by an artwork called 'Moonwalk,' presented by a Paris art gallery. You walked into the gallery/container, and it was empty, just blank white walls. Around the ceiling were a half-dozen speakers making a high-pitched sonar sound, like this: 'boop.' That was the art: 'boop.' Sitting outside on a folding chair was a gallery person, smoking Marlboros. I wondered what it would be like to fly all the way from Paris to Miami, only to spend four days sitting outside an empty shipping container going 'boop.' I would go insane.

'I would have an apotheosis of freaking desuetude.

'And I want to repeat that I am a clueless idiot. So you Serious Art People don't need to write letters reminding me. I agree that you know MUCH more about art than I do, OK? So YOU buy the chair.' (from Dave Barry's column of Jan 26, 2004)

What can one say about an art culture that hands out its most prestigious awards and taxpayers' cash for ...garbage? Again Dave Barry says it:

'It's time for an update on the British art world, which, as far as I can tell, exists mainly to provide me with material.... British art institutions have taken to paying large sums of money for works of art that can only be described as extremely innovative (I am using 'innovative' in the sense of 'stupid').... An artist named Martin Creed won the prestigious Turner Prize, plus 20,000 pounds (about $30,000), for a work called The Lights Going On and Off, which consisted of a vacant room in which the lights went on and off. The prestigious Tate Gallery paid 22,300 pounds (about $35,000) of British taxpayers' money for a sealed can containing the excrement of a deceased artist. It's hard to imagine art getting any more innovative, but I am pleased to report that the British art community is doing its darnedest. According to a London Times story sent in by alert reader Ronald Thurston, the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Foundation has awarded one of the biggest art prizes in Britain -- 30,000 pounds (about $47,000) -- to an artist named Ceal Floyer, for a work of art consisting of: a garbage bag. Really. The work is titled Rubbish Bag, and to judge from the photograph in the Times, it is a standard black plastic garbage bag, just like the ones you put your garbage in, except of course that you have to pay people to haul your garbage bags away, whereas Ms. Floyer got $47,000 for hers. There is a compelling reason for this: Ms. Floyer's bag is empty. That's what makes it artistic. Ms. Floyer is quoted by the Times as follows: 'It's not a bag of rubbish, it's a rubbish bag. The medium is clearly portrayed: It says it is a bag, air, and a twisted top.' Got that? It's NOT a bag of rubbish: It's a rubbish bag! If THAT'S not $47,000 worth of innovation, then I don't know what is. The Times states that 'Floyer's sculpture is displayed by a doorway; the intention is that the viewer wonders whether it is full of air or rubbish.' Actually, what it makes me wonder is whether the folks writing checks at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation have been smoking crack.' (from Dave Barry's column of May 18, 2003)

These examples of conceptual art deserve ridicule, of course, despite cries of 'censorship' by those who benefit from this form of patronage. Their game is to test the limits of outrage, thereby feeding the publicity machine that generates the entire conceptual genre. Hayter's advice to 'empty the mind of nonsense and superficial matters' is the perfect remedy. The 'exclusion of obvious associations and the emphasis on things present of themselves rather than the symbols of things elsewhere' can re-invigorate our capacity to look at prints and artworks on their own merits, rather than on account of celebrity. Familiarity with the actual work of making prints enables viewers to experience for themselves the creative intuition by which visions are realized in ink on paper. Technique is important not as a recipe, but, as Henri Focillon writes in The Life of Forms, 'as a whole poetry of action and ... as the means for the achievement of metamorphoses'. Focillon identifies the source of the conceptual flaw in the centuries-old habit of separating form and content. Art works on the mind not by argument, but by incorporating perceptions, including those of our contemporary life, into a formal structure of line, color, composition, depth, texture, tone, and other qualities arising directly from the actual art-making. These, rather than superficial external references, are the things to look for in looking at prints and artwork.


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