The Value of Familiarity; On Smart Art

Bret Schneider

Smartness, a functional ideal of status-quo consciousness due to the necessity of self-preservation and innovative production, is accordingly a common ideal in art as well; the philistine aesthete finds its mirror image in the predigested artwork, finding pleasure in the familiarity of the cultural objects that assert intellectual dominance over them.   The mind that delights in smart art, that takes refuge in the ‘aha, I get it’ moment is of the same ilk to the one that alights at being browbeaten by the familiarity of the pop refrain, the aestheticized and familiar political statement, and the ending moral of sitcoms that ultimately reaffirm what the viewer already knows, but only ends at such conclusions after considerable mesmerization at the intellectual foreplay of one’s aesthetic passivity.  The viewer knows in advance what the answers to the aesthetic riddles are, and takes pleasure in deceiving itself that it doesn’t already know.  But deception in art is not to be understood as a moral form of abject deception, rather, aesthetic deception clarifies its own impoverished reflexive conditions critically, albeit abstractly through a mastery of ironic form.

One instance of smart art is Kristin Lucas’s piece Refresh, wherein the artist decided to ‘refresh’ her identity by legally changing her name to the exact same name, and which was on view at the New Museum’s Free exhibition.  On the surface, one might not have thought of this clever attempt at self-therapy without the emergence of browser windows, which Lucas robotically mimics.  Yet Lucas’s is a familiar trope, one might even say a cliche philosophical idiom first manifest in Aristotle’s analogy of the boat, made all the more self-deceiving by camouflaging itself in the spectacle of new media.   If a boat goes through an ongoing series of plank replacements until all planks are eventually replaced, is it the same boat?  What tickles the mind as an intellectual novelty and exploits the viewers attention in Refresh is familiar pseudo-philosophical humdrum like, ‘If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound?‘, which laymen toy with when they want to play philosophical or smart for a few moments.  The philistine gets its fix by miming smartness for a brief moment, which is after all an absurd sort of act, as if smartness could be put on like a shirt.  However, such philosophy takes on a decidedly different character in modernity, where philosophical rhetoric has real mutilating effects on the subjects who are themselves the planks of a decidedly more real boat subject to ongoing transformation.  This architecture of subjectivity is now bureaucratically determined – because of social totality – and consequently submitted to in Refresh, whose material is exclusively normative administrative documents.  Narcissism becomes a byproduct of the very rational fear of not having any fixed identity whatsoever, and Lucas keeps her ideal close to what already exists (instead of say, and abstract avatar), in a literal implementation of self-preservation in the face of universalism.  We all fear the dynamics of modern uprooting will exterminate our individuality because the ideal social totality that transforms it is less and less clear the more we resist it.

But to fall into this line of thinking is is exactly what the work wants the viewer to do, as it homogenizes aesthetic reflection  into routinized conceptual lines of thought; social order, law, and ethics become domineering modes of reflection that imprint, once again, their stamp on the viewer.  The viewer gives more attention to the artist’s philosophy instead of bolstering its own subjectivity through attention paid to a more objective art work.  For insurance, narcissism and self-preservation catalyze smart conceptual statements as defense against the viewers’ self-extinguishment in the art object, which then shields itself from empirical analysis and judgment in viewing that could annihilate the familiar–the viewer can only access the work by an extraordinary leap of imagination that overshoots empirical judgment and lands back in the familiar empathy of everyday administrative life.   The more the viewer empathizes with Lucas-the-protagonist, the less they notice themselves acutely looking.  Administrative and socially normative legal documents are imported to authorize the experience of viewing, to ensure that the viewer believes de facto what is being represented empirically, though what is offscreen is given central importance.  The viewer need not be present to appreciate the work, as it finds pleasure in the vacancy of physical presence.  Empirical viewing, a diminishing artifact of aesthetics originally implemented for the viewer’s sake to ensure that what is being seen is actually there because subjectivity is not to be trusted, erodes, and subjectivity is trusted instead of tried.  Lucas removes the empirical experience that once overcame self-deception and replaces it with legal documents, a different, more alienated, but also more socially normative device.  The viewer is forced into a situation where individual perception must find solace in solidarity with the law instead of its own aesthetic taste.

Likewise Joel Holmberg’s Legendary Account (2007–10) “involves the artist asking profound, existential questions in the user-generated forum Yahoo! Answers, which requires users to select categories like “Pets” or “Home Maintenance” before posting.”[1]   Legendary Account limits itself to drawing from an archive of existentialist idiom as a way of hardening off from the users/viewers, as a method of disengagement.  The reader of Legendary Account is not in the least surprised by the results – predictable questions incite predictable answers – but is nonetheless amused  to know what was already known, a reaffirmation of the commonplace   Legendary Account spectacularizes everyday meaningless questions masquerading as profound, which the viewer’s everyday repression further upholsters, but also wants to undo, when the viewer steps back and sees their own deception.   The viewer’s attention that once in history was repelled by the glossy meaningless surfaces of minimalism likewise pleasurably recoils from Legendary Account, which is an objective exercise of the meaninglessness of existential ideas that meagerly props up the autonomy of the work, just barely, almost slapstickly retaining the viewer’s attention.  Just as Lucas departs from the philosophical play of Aristotle by instrumentalizing thought for the ends of self-improvement as defense against aesthetic analysis, Legendary Account portrays the predictability of ‘mind’ when divested of external objects of mediation for constructive reflection. Holmberg and Lucas reinforce the reality that social media can only be put to use for the same-old ends that are reifying into the second-nature furniture of everyday life when underlying social relations and cliches continue to thread their content.

Alexandre Singh’s installation of mundane found objects, theatricalized by spotlights and loudspeakers is slightly more materialist than his peers: “The School for Objects Criticized inverts the roles of artwork and spectator by letting sculptures speculate on the world of humans.”  The artist, in the realm of the modernist readymade’s assailing of meaning and non-identity, assigns speaking identities to each object in order to construct a meaningful narrative that relates to the viewer.  Singh’s words emanate from the object’s pedestals and mock the social role of the critic.  The School effectively shields itself from the judgment of criticism by doing everything in its power to win over the affections of the spectator via deriding, and thus thwarting the critic who would expose the work for the vapidity that it is, and which it itself is dreadfully fearful of confronting.  Such fear in the face of the aesthetic abstraction it flirts with is usually reserved for kitsch (the sitcom), which clings to prefab ideas and morals as defense against the unfamiliar.  The School’s affection is in bridling the status-quo by playing into their own fears of misunderstanding the mythologized work of art, or feeling that they are left out of an art insiders joke, and consoling them by telling each that they too can understand the un-understandable.  Conceptual art, the most esoteric and alienating of all the arts, works against viewing by working so hard for it’s attention, which it finally gets through a conceptual browbeating.  Condescension of individual thought becomes norm and everyone can share an anxious laugh over getting the conceptual joke.  Homogenous interpretation and unanimous agreement is the only access to the work because individual taste is taken away as meaning is given through representation.  The spectator animates with complacency at the exact moment when they identify with the artist’s anti-criticism; their own shortcomings are reaffirmed by the familiar vilification of criticism.


The School for Objects Criticized

Today’s Art, as galvanizer of solidarity, is polarized from yesterday’s Art of autonomy.  An old cartoon by Ad Reinhardt shows one panel where the confused spectator looks at an abstract painting asking what it represents, while the second panel reverses subject and object when the painting accusatorily points at the spectator asking what it represents, or means.  This dominance by the art object is now a self-fulfilling prophecy that has become a parody of itself.  Modernist art objects maintained a hardened objectivity that somehow embodied social conditions better than social relations themselves, specifically by not representing what they want to represent.  Truth and art remained stalwartly opposed, but contemporary art fears this separation and endeavors to bind it.  Art today still retains this kernel, but the way in which the viewer’s subjectivity is bolstered occurs through didacticism which does the reflective work for the viewer before it even arrives on the scene.  ‘Getting it’ has become a standard of aesthetic reflection which wants to make the world into a completed puzzle that needs to be put back together again and again, instead of recognizing that the world would be put together for the first time by not understanding a work of art. (one thinks of Mad Men’s ‘critique’ of advertising here, which is also equally advertising in its own more perverse ways, which the viewer can also observe).

The ‘crap-on-crap-unmonumental-new-easy’ style of yesterday has expanded its matter to include conceptualist thought processes, reducing thinking to another mutable material for exploitation by the habits of self-interest.  If unmonumental work was materialist in its assimilation of junk, much of the new work here unwittingly assimilates conceptual junk and exercises postmodern jargon, exposing the so-called high intellectual aims of art to be the culture trash they are and always have been, or showing how the grand history of ideas itself has become mere kitsch, like a smart TV show that implants philosophy in the viewer by deceiving it.  When a character in the TV show Bones critiques American life for turning violence into entertainment, the critique is also unknowingly leveled at itself.  What is ‘critiqued’, seemingly from without, is always also pointing through itself – self-deception, on a broad social level, is the only way to get a realistic portrait.  Bones, like contemporary smart artists, are not merely lying to themselves and their audience, as the lie seems to be the only way of seeing something true that lies beyond its own condition as it empirically exists.  Despite Seth Price’s claims that recent conceptual work “can only gesture toward a thirty year-old historical moment”, many of today’s artists want nothing more than to be smart, to assert an absurd intellectual authority, but whose interest is truncated by an altogether different commitment of advanced self-preservation against the viewer but therein somehow for the viewer.  Whereas unmonumental work was (is) progressively abstract through materialist rigor, misconceptual artists flirt with a new type of abstraction that wants to fold in meaningless theory jargon and pseudo-thought as just one more material within a similar methodology.  Like bee and flower, spectator and maker are locked in an escalating dance of enchanting self-deception, cloaking themselves in sameness even as the difference between the two is paramount, and whose product is some unknown magical object.  The artist an unconscious automaton of meaningless production, the philistine viewer searching for some specific and familiar product that simultaneously imparts and exceeds meaning.  The ‘twist’ in the mystery television show and the conceptual artwork each give something familiar and wholesome to the viewer that the viewer distrusts as much as it desires.  The viewer rightly senses base idiocy in smart art, which the maker is likewise suspect of.  One of the things that Adorno liked about Beckett was that he reduced meaning and so-called intellectual reflection to the trashy cliche it degenerated into, yet continued to work through and beyond it.  Beckett’s fiction and drama aesthetically sublimated the trends that Adorno had already noticed in his essay Opinion Delusion Society – opinion, narcissistic in nature, is the last remaining vestige of philosophical thought and reasonable investigation in a barbaric society.  Truth is accessed by self-interest, and is consequently distorted.  Delusion is instigated in various forms which are developed beyond recognition today, and which contemporary art captures unknowingly, because it is founded upon, well, advanced self-delusion.  The wrinkle in ‘smart’ contemporary work is that it pretends to do only the deluding, when it is also the deluded.  What is labeled as smart, now a high standard of aesthetic judgment in contemporary art, achieves its mantle through underscoring familiar ideas and reinforcing a status-quo that senses something beyond its own image, within its reflection.  The quality of a work of 21st century conceptual art might instead be determined by how smartness is used against itself formally, to further deceive its intentions.  Aesthetic reflection is always necessarily active, so the insinuation of smart art is like an exercise meant to condition such passivity out of existence, no matter how deceitful it may be – deceit escalates in pressure because it is always about to exterminate but never does.  But there is also the possibility that it will beat us out, and we will assert our dominance over each other eternally without catching a glimpse of what is real beyond the reflection. •

1.  all quotes are taken from the Free exhibition catalog


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  2. A good read. I couldn’t help but notice that the essay was a great example of the exact thing it spoke of. It asserted the smart conceptual artist and philistine audience as a model, but somehow tellingly left out the smart art critic? I’m not sure if you intended it, but in the end it was there?

    “the critique is also unknowingly leveled at itself. “

    This is always good terrain.

  3. Greenberg already saw the preconditions for the problem that Bret lays out with the advent of conceptual art, which Greenberg tags, however provocatively, as “idea art.”

    In his lectures on esthetics in the book Homade Esthetics (he preferred to spell the word this way for whatever reason), Greenberg claimed that “[I]dea art is the quintessential form of academic art.” Greenberg defined academic art as art that applies predigested tropes in their making, and then is regurgitated out for display. Hence, they are no longer innovative approaches to art making and viewing, and the experience of this art becomes governed by a ready-made formula.

    Greenberg elaborates on this idea–which is entirely in line with how Bret’s essay accuses “smart art” of always resorting back to the “familiar” in our experience of art–by saying:

    “The reason it is all so academic, another reason, is that we recognize this as surprising to start with. We don’t even have to visit the gallery, we don’t have to look at the ditch, we don’t have to read what the Conceptual Artist puts on the walls or writes in art magazines. The surprise is already there as recognizable, unsurprising surprise when someone tells us about what they read in an art magazine and you’ve gotten it all.”

    Much like “idea art” being predictably surprising before one even encounters the work, the “a-ha, I get it!” moment we encounter “smart art” is already anticipated. This phenomenon in both the worst of “idea art” and “smart art” points towards a devaluation of aesthetic experience all together, as we no longer approach art works as a singular and unique–the experience is predetermined to begin with.

    • Yes, as Adorno says, everything has already been said, & usually better the 1st time around! Greenberg speaks about the conditions of conceptual art as it is emerging, realizing that culture is moving on. This article comes decades later, after such transformations have already taken place, & are furthermore taken for granted as part of the art firmament – conceptualism is second nature, not the conscious criticism of aesthetic idealism it once was. Might this new smart art actually mark the end of a conceptual moment then – akin to an Abex painter sticking to his principles during 60s conceptualism? The subtext to the article is that familiarity arises because there is something eerily unfamiliar lurking beneath.

      My conclusion is a bit different. We know that certain things are no longer viable – both Abex & Conceptualism have run their course, but what else is emerging then? When movements deteriorate it is difficult to place the artworks that belong to them (e.g. Matta was not quite surrealist, not quite abstraction). Likewise I think these new smart art works aren’t really conceptual, but merely look like it because there is a real inkling that they are something alien and different than what is already known and formulated. And one thing of value in them is that they show their artifice. One can acutely smell fear in the work, a legitimate fear of newness.

      the conclusion I wanted to draw was that, though it belongs to a canon of vulgar aesthetic looking, we owe it to ourselves to follow this type of work, to allow it to exhaust itself, to kind of kill off the conceptual moment once and for all by allowing it to come full fruition and decay. The philistinism, after all, is mutual in the viewer and the artist. Its not as if the artist is merely manipulating the viewer, this is a mutually beneficial relationship. The idea is that philistinism shouldn’t be tabooed because of aesthetic principles, but that it can be exercised, consciously, almost like a form of therapy. If the artist puts the viewer in a box, which is what the viewer always wanted, this can turn into a sort of play-acting game, or perhaps an aesthetic foreplay!
      Ultimately, I agree with Greenberg about the regression of innovative art production and meaningful reflection, but evidently we are left with no other choice but to make regressive aesthetic experience work for us.

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