Diamonds and Bones: Looking at Institutional Artistic Validation & the Promise of Greatness

I have been quite amiss in my posts these past few months. For some time, I even entertained the notion of shutting this down. I’m afraid that work and studies (and life) have taken their toll. While looking through my old files, I found this essay I submitted for Metrobank’s Art Criticism masterclass last 2016. It is a review of the exhibition “Finding Phenoms in Art” which opened in April 2016 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I figured might as well post it here while I am unable to write something new.

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Diamonds and Bones: Looking at Institutional Artistic Validation & the Promise of Greatness

Somber is an apt description of the exhibition situated on the fourth floor, Pasilyo Victoria Edades of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Lined in one long row, and flanked by one or two at the sides, the artworks suspended from the wall (or displayed on a pedestal for the lone sculpture) exude a sense of gravitas. Each one a world in itself, sharing neither theme nor medium, neither style nor subject matter, and brought together by a most tenuous thread. If viewing any exhibition is akin to a conversation, then this seemed like a formal dialogue. Hushed, dignified, and brief. Here lies the worthy, they seem to say, as if certain of their importance. This claim to significance, though somewhat affected, may contain a germ of truth— after all, one can argue that these are works validated by two well-known award programs in the visual arts.

The “Finding Phenoms in Art” exhibition that opened on the 8th of April 2016 brought together the winning entries of Metrobank Art and Design Excellence (MADE) whose artists later became part of the CCP’s Thirteen Artists Award (TAA). MADE was initially launched as the Metrobank Annual Painting Competition in 1984, before it evolved into its current state that includes sculpture, architecture, and interior design. The TAA was established a decade earlier, in 1970, to recognize innovative contemporary art making amongst the new generations of artists.

To critique this exhibition is to bring into fore the two awards and to recognize names that had overlapped in their lists. These are the careers launched by MADE: the found phenoms of art. The curatorial framing, however, brings an interesting dimension to the viewing of the exhibition. For in this case, one does not merely see the art object. They do not appear simply as they are. It is not just, for example, Roberto Feleo’s 1984 winning mixed media entry entitled “August 6” that hangs in front of one’s line of vision. Filtering through the viewer’s direct gaze, between the eye and the object’s material existence, is the knowledge of Feleo’s current roles: artist, professor, Thirteen Artist awardee, 2015 Art Fair Philippines special exhibitor, and so on. The gaze is never crystal clear and the work weighs heavily with the mark of time, with significations it did not have when it was first evaluated as a competition entry. Each artwork in the exhibition stands before its viewers now as a promise fulfilled, perhaps as an accurate forecast of future artistic greatness. At the very least, it stands as a sign that bears witness to a career that flourished beyond the confines of the competition. If the curatorial concept is to be believed, these works contained the seeds of success, the skeletal structure that will soon prop up greatness, the bones that serve as evidence of talent. Diamonds in the rough picked out amongst coal.

The first award is a discovery, the second a validation, or so the narrative goes. Such view, however, discounts both the agency of the artists and the sometimes self-fulfilling character of institutional validation. For in an oft-aspired career path that starts with a major amateur competition award, a solo exhibition, and later a CCP TAA, each preceding landmark brings the next goal within reach. Every award makes possible new narratives of advancement but also of exclusion, as the network of artists who successfully climb the ladder becomes ever more constricted. The mislaid, due perhaps to geography, socio-economic standing, or plain bad luck – for artists encounter various complications, economic or otherwise, which shape their priorities and activities, the quality of their work and the recognition they attain – in time find themselves further removed from the short list. Behind every myth of genius in the arts is a life fraught with uncertainty. Behind every survival story, a litter of bones and shattered dreams. In a third world country mired in poverty, pursuing a career as a full-time studio artist is not only impractical, it can also be deadly. In such a context, awards are all the more prestigious, all the more sought after, but also increasingly mired in contradictions and complexities.

Ultimately, a narrative of discovery and institutional validation simplifies the textured, nonlinear development of a life in the arts. It also renders invisible the myriad of artistic practices that take a less conventional route. What of those works that will not hang in galleries, not adopt an aura of prestige and significance, but may in fact be more vibrant as it lives amongst the throngs of masses? What of the artist that does not answer to the calls of institutions, galleries, and the art market? To be aware of the cyclical and exclusionary nature of awards is to recognize its limitations and the scope of its power; it is neither to dismiss the quality and merit of the winners nor to calcify the works and forget the inherent vitality present in every act of creation. For there is, indeed, something joyful in the act of creating, of fashioning form and content. The artworks in the exhibition, though largely different, all bear a sense of containing a world-in-itself. It is as if they were disgorged from distinct bodies of artistic practice that each contained a strong formal, thematic, and conceptually cohesive visual language developed through the years. In their individual visions, they are unyielding and uncompromising. A quality that render them incapable of communicating with one another now, but also perhaps, the same mark that identified them individually as worthy of attention. The pale, disfigured humanoids in Antonio Leaño’s “Concealed Concentric Ebb and Dolorous Earth”, for example, share the formal oddity of Jan Leeroy New’s “Cradle” sculpture. The gaping stares present on the canvas of Andres Barrioquinto’s “House of Love and Confusion” are mirrored by the figures in Neil Manalo’s “Opera, Koro-Koro’t, Kuro Kuro”. One would be hard-pressed, however, to conceptually and thematically tie these works in the context of the exhibition. Their connection lies beyond them, in the recognition bestowed upon their creators by a different institution for a separate but related body of work.

Perhaps, it would be wrong to claim that phenoms in visual art are “found”, as if through chance or accident, and much to the surprise of everyone including the artist himself. Maybe it would be better to claim the creation of a phenom. Artworks are products of labor, sometimes borne out of love, sometimes of necessity, but all the same they are the fruits of labor. To recognize someone as a phenom is to recognize his artistic labor. At the same time, to recognize the process of creation of a phenom is to identify the politics involved in determining which artistic labor is to be validated or ignored.

The works in MADE’s “Finding Phenoms in Art” continue to hang somewhat dolorously on the walls of the CCP, almost like carcasses, as the once forecasted artistic trajectories of its creators are played out in the flesh. They keep to themselves, strange relics of a possibility of greatness once foretold. Tied intimately to a brief, but career-defining moment, they wait; perhaps, for a time in which a different layer of personal achievement or social understanding can bring them to life.

 

 

 

 

Thinking about Design

Last week, I talked about wanting to theorize about the practice of design to two Art Studies professors in my university. This was during an interview for graduate studies admissions. They asked me why I was interested in the program and I went into a somewhat lengthy story explaining my thoughts about Industrial Design, my concern about the gaps in our knowledge of local design history, and what I deemed as a shift in contemporary design practice in the country, specifically through the works of local design firms/ groups that have cropped up in recent years, such as Curiosity and Habi. One point of interest has been the way they seem to veer away from object-based or campaign-based outputs into a focus on processes that engage with communities and stakeholders. For me, they seem to practice what Victor Papanek wrote way back in 1972, in his book Design for the Real World: of designers that are “generalists” and who bring together the different perspectives and skill sets of various stakeholders into coming up with a design solution. These solutions need not be objects, per se. They can be a different way of doing things, or even structures/processes that would, in turn, allow users to create adaptable and inclusive processes. This is in contrast to the more traditional role of designers who come into projects to create specific outputs such as chairs, tables, cars, and other consumer products.

Of course, these ideas on design, because they are preliminary, tend to be simplistic (and in my case, optimistic). Hopefully I can help craft a more nuanced view/ analysis of contemporary design practice in the coming years. In any case, I’ve started amassing readings on design theory from various sources as preparation.

 

 

 

Reading John Berger’s “The White Bird”

Last week’s trip to the late dictator’s hometown left a bad taste in my mouth. For almost three years now, I have been engaged in work that touches upon certain points of his legacy. Since then, nostalgia for the strongman’s period of reign has spread among the populace. It may be due to this extended and continued exposure to materials related to him that the recent turn of events have a personal, and somewhat emotional, effect. I was extremely surprised to see how public sentiment turned to his family’s favor and reached a fever pitch in this year’s national elections. The historical mass amnesia and revisionism do not show signs of subsiding in the near future. My reactions of late have mainly been denial, disbelief, and repulsion. In some instances, paralyzing numbness. The visit, however, awakened darker and nihilistic emotions.

While waiting for our bus to leave, I was able to re-read John Berger’s “The White Bird” (available online here). The essay provided a bright spot in what was generally an exhausting trip, due in part by the solitude provided by the act of reading and also by the contents of the essay itself. Berger starts thus,

From time to time I have been invited by institutions – mostly American – to speak about aesthetics. On one occasion I considered accepting and I thought of taking with me a bird made of white wood. But I didn’t go. The problem is that you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.

I first encountered (and reported on) the essay during a class about Folk Art. At that time, I had only read it in the context of traditional and indigenous art-making. The white bird, after all, was a simple wooden construction created traditionally by peasants in Russia and certain parts of Europe. Yet I had overlooked the point Berger made about the aesthetic emotion, which the wooden bird evokes in people who view it for the first time.

One is looking at a piece of wood that has become a bird. One is looking at a bird that is somehow more than a bird. One is looking at something that has been worked with a mysterious skill and a kind of love.

This recognition of sentimentality was startling. It had been ages since I had read a work by an art critic that explicitly used the word “love”, it was more likely that one would come across repeated exhortations for, or against, the “Void”. Berger continues to expound on what can be considered as his theory on the aesthetic emotion and its relation to nature, and by extension, to the world.

Before a mountain, a desert just after the sun has gone down, or a fruit tree, one can also experience aesthetic emotion. Consequently we are forced to begin again – not this time with a man-made object but with the nature into which we are born.

Berger clarifies that nature is not serene and picturesque as we often imagine it to be. Our current technological and industrial progress have allowed many to “enjoy” the beauty of nature without worrying about its destructive capacity. This view, however, is mostly mistaken and we are reminded of this during times of natural calamities. In the midst of turmoil and violence, the perception of beauty becomes all the more acute.

It is within this bleak natural context that beauty is encountered, and the encounter is by its nature sudden and unpredictable. The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context. Reflect upon more everyday examples. However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us.

Other more everyday examples of beauty in nature, perhaps an interesting texture of the mud or the dripping of rainwater, by the very nature of their ephemerality and simplicity adhere closely to the Japanese aesthetic emotion of wabi-sabi. While most Western artworks are more refined, more divorced in form from the natural qualities of the materials from which they were made, works made with the wabi-sabi aesthetic exhibit qualities closer to that found in nature.

While beauty is found “in despite of,” art was humanity’s attempt to capture this emotion. For Berger, art orders itself around the aesthetic emotion; beauty is not incidental anymore, it becomes “the basis for an order”. In this regard, I find Berger’s conception of beauty in art ossifying. Again, it might be interesting to look into the more complex notion of wabi-sabi as a worthy partner to Berger’s notion of beauty in nature. With the former, beauty is not captured for the purpose of fashioning form, but rather, emanates from the object through its texture and unrefined quality. The aesthetic emotion is not permanent (and the objects themselves were not designed to be permanent) and is contained in the object only for a certain period. As Leonard Koren stated, “[a]n object contains the state of wabi-sabi only for the moment it is appreciated as such.” After that, the objects (often used in the context of a tea ceremony) revert to their everyday existence. In the same way that the beauty one finds in the perception of a flower growing from an avalanche is contained within a singular glimpse, the state of wabi-sabi is in the moment and not inherent in the objects. 

All of these presuppose a subject that will recognize (perceive, affirm, or perhaps, mediate) that which causes the aesthetic emotion.

One is obliged to acknowledge a coincidence or perhaps a congruence. The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see (and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself – without the pretensions of a creator – in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis…. And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derives, I believe, from this double affirmation.

This perception and affirmation of the object by the subject has roots in Marxist tradition. Andrew Feenberg, in an essay, talks of the aesthetic emotion in the works of Marx and Marcuse:

Marx claims that the senses have a history determined by social and economic development. The real content of experience is gradually revealed as civilization advances. There is a hierarchy of sensation, going from a minimal, crude encounter with the object through the full realization of its complexity and beauty. A dog may hear a symphony but it will not hear what its master hears. The human being at home in the world under socialism will find more in nature than the impoverished and alienated worker under capitalism.

The aesthetic in both senses of the term is invoked here. Like the practice of art-making, the “practice” of sensation involves on the one hand objects rich in meaning and on the other subjects capable of receiving that meaning. This reception is not passive but involves granting form to the given. Marx corrects in this way the over-emphasis on the object in empiricism and the subject in Kantian idealism. His theory corresponds to what Adorno refers to as a “mediation” theory of sensation in which both object and subject contribute to the shaping of experience.

Marcuse’s interpretation of Marx results to a theory of aesthetics that is somewhat congruent with Berger’s conception. Both uphold the creative act as a response by man, one that not only resists violence (in nature or in capitalist society), but also affirms the aesthetic emotion that we, as conscious beings, are capable of feeling; and from this very same emotion, dare to imagine a different world. Berger writes the following:

Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply… the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

Similarly, the aesthetic emotion and man’s creative impulse is a response that errs on the side of life, in despite of the numbing effects of modern society. As Feenberg writes:

[Marcuse] argues that the erotic impulse is directed toward the preservation and furtherance of life. It is not merely an instinct or drive but operates in the sensuous encounter with the world that reveals it in its beauty, the objective correlate of the erotic. But this impulse is repressed by society, partially sublimated, partially confined to sexuality. The loss of immediate sensory access to the beautiful gives rise to art as a specialized enclave in which we perceive the trace of erotic life affirmation. 

… aesthetic form is a kind of simplification and idealization that reveals sensuously the true essences of things, things as they would be redeemed in a better world. [emphasis mine]

In the days following our trip, amongst the deluge of pessimism that threatened to overpower my reason, I turned to Berger’s essay for solace. I am reminded that in the midst of madness, there can be resistance and beauty. And there can be hope.


References:

Berger, John. “The White Bird,” in The Sense of Sight, 5-9. New York: Vintage International, 1985.

Feenberg, Andrew. “Marcuse on Art and Technology,” in Heathwood Institute and Press. Accessed 18 September 2016. http://www.heathwoodpress.com/marcuse-on-art-and-technology-andrew-feenberg/.

Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing, 1994 and 2008.