Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The innovativeness of (some) art and its social implications

Lately one has read a lot about how Apple became the world’s most valuable company because of its CEO, Steve Jobs’s emphasis on innovative product development, rather than his own business leadership style. (According to those who knew him, including his biographer, he was an uncompromising bully.) It may come as a surprise to some, but Jobs’s insistence on innovation — which invariably rests on experimentation — echoes, however unlikely it may seem, with French poststructuralist philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s similar promotion of the idea of innovation through experimentation.

To be sure, this idea is nothing new in itself — it dates back to at least the dawn of modern science in the work of Oresme, Buridan, Roger Bacon, and later, Galileo Galilei, as well as, perhaps most paradigmatically, the artistic and proto-scientific endeavours of that Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci. In Lyotard’s work, however, it becomes a kind of leitmotif of his opposition to something like Jürgen Habermas’s stubborn clinging to what Lyotard sees as outdated modes of Enlightenment thinking, which still — in imitation of Kant’s division of reason into three supposedly incompatible spheres (theoretical, practical-ethical and aesthetic) — denies the spirit of experimentation in art recognition of its efficacy in influencing the social, political and economic sphere. (Ironically, one could make out a case for Habermas transposing Kant’s conception of the experience of beauty, which rests on “taste”, articulated as the harmonious relationship between imagination and understanding, from the aesthetic sphere to that of his own notion of “communicative action” — itself an innovative move!)

The best way to explain this in Lyotard’s work is probably in relation to art. Lyotard is convinced that, today, an aesthetics of “beauty” is no longer possible, by which he does not mean that we cannot experience beauty, of course. All of us do, from time to time. He is simply insisting on taking seriously our historical consciousness of events such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima, which were so grotesquely “unrepresentable” (meaning that no image can do justice to the suffering that occurred there), that any attempt, post-Auschwitz, to write a systematic aesthetic theory intended as the condition of the possibility of a “beautiful world”, has been compromised from the outset.

I know that this sounds counter-intuitive to most people, and again, I should stress that he is not ruling out the daily experience of moments of beauty, albeit in a fragmented form — fragmented, because it is unavoidably situated against the backdrop of a fragmented, historically (and today, ecologically) scarred world. Instead, he says, the only aesthetic theory that could underpin these experiences in a meaningful way, is an aesthetic of the sublime.

In Kantian terms, the experience of the sublime reverses the polarity of the experience of beauty — while the latter signifies the equilibrium between imagination and understanding (the way we “see” something meshes with the way we “understand” it), by contrast, we experience something as “sublime” when there is a clash between imagination and understanding. When we enter Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim art museum, its sheer complexity overwhelms our senses, even as we “understand” that it is a very complex building that cannot be “taken in” all at once. For Lyotard, the world has become like that — it has become too complex, too marked by traces of unrepresentable horror as well as by (mostly invisible) innovative industrial and technological processes to be “taken in all at once” at the level of sensory perception (or imagination), although, by analysis and interpretation, we can grasp its constituent parts.

I shall try to explain this by means of the work of a South African “site specific” artist named Mark Wilby, living in Grahamstown. As Wilby explains: “Site specific art is a distinct genre of art. Its key defining feature is the location of the creative work. When the art is outside or engages with the land, it often overlaps with land art. At the same time, land art is often about a certain place, making the boundaries between the two genres fungible.”

In 2011 Wilby created an innovative “site specific” work (called “Site_Specific”) at the Beacon Isle Hotel in Plettenberg Bay — he invited the landscape painter, Niël Jonker, to participate in this artistic event, and here is the novelty — as (part of) his “artwork”.

The two artists agreed formally that this would be the case, and, consistent with this, that Jonker’s “miniature landscape paintings” — in fact, everything he did in the course of his stay at Plettenberg Bay — would therefore also be “part of” Wilby’s overall, inclusive, site-specific work. By now the time-and-space complexity of this “artwork” should be becoming apparent.

The art event is further described as follows in the photo essay, Site_Specific:

“This turned Wilby’s artwork into a performance, standing as a nearby sage as Jonker set up his easel at a romantic spot, very accessible from the Beacon Island Lifestyle Resort, where many of the events of Site_Specific were based. Hotel guests often wandered from the dining area to visit Jonker as he painted the sun, sand and sea in multiple variations. The performance continued as Jonker drank long into the night offering his room number to several women. During the latter half of the week, Wilby displayed the paintings and a short video work of Jonker’s performance in the hotel lobby.”

I realise that those among us who still think of art strictly conventionally as framed paintings, and as sculptures, would find it hard to wrap their minds around this — is this art? As far as Lyotard is concerned, it most decidedly is, not only because of its innovativeness, but also because it is art of the sublime — and of all the poststructuralist thinkers, Lyotard is the one most savvy about art. In 1985 he curated, by invitation, an “art installation” — which is allied to site specific art — called Les Immatériaux, or The Immaterials, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Why do I claim that it is art of the sublime? Because of its unpresentable complexity. Lyotard claimed that an art of the sublime obeys the paradoxical rule: “present the unpresentable”, which is precisely what Site_Specific does. It includes art (landscape painting) within art (site-specific installation art, which is highly conceptual, in combination with images), and it “presents the unpresentable” in the guise of an unimaginably diverse series of activities, responses and experiences. These range from aesthetic responses of taste, to economic ones concerning the question, whether the miniatures were for sale on the part of passers-by, to a variety of experiences on the part of everyone involved, including the two artists (one of whom was “performing” his way into the artwork of the other). These are all constitutive of this unrepresentably inclusive “artwork”.

In fact, the complexity of this artwork of the sublime would be demonstrated if Mark Wilby were to submit one of Jonker’s miniature landscapes — which, crucially, comprises one of the elements of his “own” site-specific artwork – for inclusion in an art exhibition open to other artists as well (which he was contemplating when I last spoke to him). Why? Because this miniature would “present the unpresentable” in so far as it would be a metonymy of the site-specific, inclusive artwork, the boundaries of which would be hard to define, given the complex interactions recorded in the course of its “performance”. In other words, the miniature, while it might appear small alongside of other artworks that would be exhibited, would instantiate one of the “largest” works “(un-)imaginable”.

This is also why Site_Specific is the kind of innovative, experimental artwork that Lyotard valued so much, and why it simultaneously transgresses its own boundaries as art, becoming a metaphor for the way extant society could be transformed into an (unimaginably) better society, if everyone were willing to be as innovative as Mark Wilby, and as Steve Jobs.

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    • Rene

      Wilby’s art reminds me of the multiple installation titled “Bloedlyn” at the KKNK some time ago, that was similarly complex.

    • Udo

      Most people resist social innovation, but welcome economic innovation if it means an improvement in their material conditions.

    • Maria

      Bert, I’m afraid you are a voice crying in the wilderness here, as the saying goes. The vast majority of people have no inkling of what you are talking about, not merely because they haven’t read Kant, Burke or Lyotard, but chiefly because the word, “art”, for them, conjures up pleasant feelings induced by the effects of interior decorating, or Hollywood feel-good movies (or even worse, soapies). To revert to an earlier post of yours – on “the superficiality of our culture” – although the best art today, like Wilby’s, is an art of the sublime, the masses are oblivious of its significance, and would rather wallow in the anaesthetic effects of the superficial, or kitsch. After all, the sublime, even when experienced – not forgetting Kant’s remark, that one has to presuppose some intelligence on the part of persons capable of experiencing the sublime – would frighten most people unbearably, and chase them straight back to kitsch. Still, I find your attempt to educate the masses philosophically laudable, albeit misguided. Giving the masses the benefit of the doubt, I suppose there would be a handful of souls who would benefit from it.

    • Lennon

      I haven’t read Kant, Burke or Lyotard.

      Would this count?

      1) Egyptian murals pretty much always depict members of the royal household as having a “v-shaped” frame with slender arms and legs much as their religious deities are shown. This seems to indicate an idealised form of beauty and, I suppose, serves to re-enforce the notion that the pharaoh was a descendant of the gods.

      2) Medieval iconography portrays prominent characters from the Bible with stoic-looking faces and halos over their heads. They often have somewhat disproportionate bodies (specifically their faces). In particular, the infant Christ is shown with his one hand raised. The art seems to suggest that Biblical figures are above us mere mortals, hence the otherwordly portrayal.

      3) Propaganda often utilises art to convey a message and entrench a particular social or political viewpoint. In Nazi Germany, Jews were often portayed as have big noses and sometimes hunched backs. The idea was that Jews were nothing mored than craven scum who could not be trusted. Even the Star of David became mark of scorn as Jews were forced to wear a yellow patch on their arms for (humiliating) public identification. One American poster from WWI advertised a government bond scheme: “Beat the Hun back with Liberty Bonds”. It showed a German soldier’s blackened face and a bloodied bayonet. The point was to show the enemy as an evil bloodthirsty killer. “Hun” referred to the (Mongolian) tribe which terrorised the…

    • Lennon

      … which terrorised the Romans under the leadership of Attila.

      4) Modern fashion magazines and advertising show people of specific build and seeks imprint an ideal of beauty / perfection on the average person. Often the models themselves have minor imperfections, but thanks to the wizardry of Photoshop this is no longer an issue. The proliferation of ideal beauty in the 20th and 21st centuries has gained following of people who attempt to emulate this with an almost religious zealotry. Many people undergo surgery – from minor tweaks like Botox to invasive procedures such as breast enlargment – in a vain effort to maintain the appearance of youth or “beauty”. The constant bombardment of this ideal beauty affects men as well: “Size” is apparently a big factor and a popular theme in spam e-mail. While everyone would like to be beefy or slender with big boobs at some point, many simply cannot be due to either budget or genetics. It has reached a level where people keep buying these magazines and become (or remain) depressed because it is often unattainable.

      While ideal beauty is not an unprecedented concept (cultures as diverse and geologically separated as the Aztecs and the Masai also held / hold their own ideals), it has – in Western Culture – reached almost epidemic proportions and simply re-enforces (through the continuous bombardment of this “artform” the superficiality of modern and postmodern Western society.

      …. unless I’ve missed something.

    • Maria

      Hey Lennon, I usually have my tongue firmly in my cheek when I play the provocateur! Wonderful contribution, as I can guarantee Bert would confirm. You may not have elaborated on the theme of the sublime, but (linking with Bert’s earlier blog on superficiality) exposed the undeniable connection between all kinds of (including popular) art and people’s idealization of the human form as depicted there. The sad thing is that, as you point out, people allow all this to depress them no end.

    • Lennon

      I meant geographically.

      Sorry…

    • Bert

      Lennon, for Kant, geography was a universal(ist) science, so you’re in good company.

    • A

      What about the idea that often emerges from the Eastern philosophies that ‘ life is art’ or ‘living your life as art’ ?

    • Max

      Wilby’s piece sounds like it could also be a parody of totalizing corporate power – the way the environment, the public, other artists are subsumed into Wilby’s all-consuming authorship and ownership of the artwork.

    • Bert

      A – This is certainly relevant, in so far as it merges with the kind of art that Wilby practises. It is not exclusively of Eastern origin, though; the book by Alexander Nehamas on Nietzsche, LIFE AS LITERATURE, interprets Nietzsche’s work as promoting exactly the same notion, and the later Foucault also speaks of the individual’s task as consisting in a project that is simultaneously ethical and aesthetic. Even in Kierkegaard you find this idea.
      Max – You are spot-on, I believe. In conversation with Mark Wilby he has remarked on his interest in economic relations, and how his art is an attempt, among other things, to reflect – or perhaps ‘refract’ would be a better word – these relations. Seeing it as a parody of totalizing corporate power is very illuminating. Thanks for that.

    • Sebastian

      This really twists my mind! Is this art? Yes! Is this post-modern art? Yes! Yet, something feels wrong about this artistic attempt.

      First of all: I like the idea of Wilby’s artwork. Taking “conventional” art and using it to portray it with another artistic medium intrigues me. I also like the idea of a formal agreement between the two artists (as this is so much not artistic, but becomes artisitic in the process).

      Certainly Wilby can submit one of Jonker’s miniature landscapes for inclusion in an art exhibition as part of his artwork. But to me this is only one little part of the (brilliant) mosaic he created. It would be like a photographer submitting a photo with only a couple of pixels visible. Which surely is art in itself. But to me it is not art of the sublime, since the whole dimension could be shown – e.g. in Wilby’s video. It would be a manufactured sublimity (?). If one refers to Jonkers landscapes as sublime, then any other landscape painting would be an art of the sublime, too.

      Yes, I see Wilby’s work as innovational: a fresh attempt to take (modern-)art a step further. Hence, everything that surrounds this project is artistic. But the biggest problem I have with this is that to me the artist of this little artwork (the landscape) is not Wilby! The artist is Jonker. The project – the cercumstances under which it was created – is Wilby’s artwork. With or without legal agreements: The author, the creator of the piece of art, can not be transfere

    • Carson

      I agree that work like Wilby’s work has art-historical importance because of its attempts to further the definition of modern art. It exemplifies the “present the unpresentable” idea because it is something you would have to experience to really get the full effect of. Just seeing Jonker’s paintings isn’t experiencing the project as a whole.

      For me, what sets Site_Specific apart from other kitsch pieces is Wilby’s attempt to make a critique of economic/corporate power that Max mentioned earlier. While reading this, I thought of American sculptor Jeff Koons who is often criticized because he claims to have no hidden meanings in his work. Koons’ work is merely reproductions while Site_Specific is sublime because of the way it is innovative.

    • Emma

      I think that perhaps this work could be seen as an allegory describing the artistic process or creative act itself. The procedure that ultimately ends in the creation of an artwork is, in the same way in which you describe Site_Specific, “an unimaginably diverse series of activities, responses and events”. While the finished artwork may not necessarily depict or describe this procedure visually, it still in some way has to be a representation of it.

      Since “activities, responses and events” are essentially temporary and intangible in nature, the finished artwork could therefore be seen as a tangible “present[ation of] the unpresentable”. In this sense, I feel that all artworks could be seen as being sublime in the sense that they all represent in some way the artistic process. I’m not saying that all finished artworks are sublime in subject matter or that all finished artworks instil a sense of sublime in the viewer. Not all artworks can make that claim. Merely that, in the same way that Lyotard’s installation, The Immaterials, shows only the surfaces of materials like styrofoam, the finished artwork speaks of a process that is not present.

    • Emma

      I also think that Wilby’s “commandeering” of Jonker’s work in Site_Specific challenges authorship and is part of what makes it so innovative. As a visual artist, it is inevitable that one appropriates aspects of other artists’ work all the time, whether consciously or not. When one acknowledges this as Wilby has done, one conveys questions relating to ownership and individual creativity.

    • Claudette

      Wilby’s miniature landscapes is unarguably art of the sublime. As with any artwork, to best appreciate it, would be to understand the historical, cultural and social aspects surrounding the creation of the artwork.
      Once having an understanding that the complexity of ONE miniature landscape is subject to one variation of the various landscapes painted by the artist(Jonker) thus only one illustration of the artist’s interaction with his environment at that specific point.And is therefore merely a fraction of the entire complexity.
      Not to mention the social interaction experienced whilst painting each landscape. These are only elements regarding Jonker’s artwork and are captured within a completely different form of art, and forms the basis of a larger artwork.The complexity of Wilby’s artwork is just as brillantly comparable as it captures the complexity of Jonker’s artwork and yet leaves so much almost ‘uncaptured’ as it is created from a distance. It is artwork about artwork and all that surrounds it at a specific time and place.Perhaps one could say that it is literally history in the making.Taking the above in to consideration one realizes that it is impossible to fully comprehend the complexity of each painting and its respective circumstances,each social encounter and perhaps even the future implications of these.And if so,one would be experiencing the sublime by the complexity wrapped up in one miniature landscape painting which is ‘presenting the…

    • Farron

      I think that Wilby’s artwork qualifies as an art of the postmodern sublime because he uses Jonker as the ‘medium’ of his artwork. Just as a painter would use paint to create their painting, Wilby used Jonker to create his artwork. I agree with Max’s statement that: “Wilby’s piece sounds like it could also be a parody of totalizing corporate power” i.e. Capitalism, which implies that anything can be bought, owned and utilised, even a person, in the supposedly ‘free’ world in which we live.

      If Wilby were to enter one of Jonker’s landscapes into the exhibition, I think that it would make his parody on Capitalism even more powerful as Wilby would be stating that this miniature landscape is essentially his artwork because it is a part of a bigger artwork of his (‘Site_Specific’) and because it was painted by Jonker, who is Wilby’s ‘medium’. Therefore, everything that Jonker has done that is within the two artists’ agreement, including Jonker himself (for that specific period), belongs to Wilby because he ‘owns’ the rights.

      Therefore, Wilby is commenting through his artwork that he/she who owns the rights, holds the power (to claim everything that contractually belongs to him/her). Furthermore, it is a metaphor for Capitalist society – whoever has the money to buy the rights can ‘own’ basically anything, as long as there is a formal agreement.

    • Farron

      I think that this is a truly brilliant example of conceptual art.