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a kind of leitmotif of his opposition to something like Jürgen Habermas’s stubborn clinging to what Lyotard sees as outdated modes of Enlightenment thinking, which still — in imitation of Kant’s division of reason into three supposedly incompatible spheres (theoretical,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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