Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#4 Michael Archer 1 Jan 1990

The moral Gap between Art and everyday Life

The summaries of the past decade have come and gone. They said no more than we already knew - that the hitherto adequate barriers between high and low, art and life, had crumbled. Such occasions are the journalist’s dream; copy that writes itself and a get-out clause to absolve him or her of the responsibility for foisting such piffle on the public: simply blame it on the reader by including a statement of regret that our obsessive need to categorize and tabulate in order to comprehend forces us to indulge in such vacuous exercises.


The moral Gap between Art and everyday Life -

But of course these things come to justify themselves, and it does indeed seem that there are shifts in interest as the nineties begin. Emphases not just on issues, but on certain privileged ways of analysing them, rejection of the old notion of originality, occlusion of the contemplative by the concentration on the validity of mass experience:all of these factors have acted to determine that art largely be consumed in one of two ways: on the one hand it has become the process of intense cerebration appropriate to things which are fundamentally ironic, parodie, second-order. Irony and related forms have been major elements, and once irony is admitted nothing can be innocent. On the other hand, the understanding of our cultural context as one in which art is a product like any other leads us to accept it as the means to gratifying an acute physical need. It takes a strong act of will to reassert that a certain phenomenon - a painting, a gesture, a dumb object - is just what it purports to be. When art is about instant gratification, what does it matter if its message is only a one-liner?
Once one reinvests art with some consideration to the real, this yawing from one extreme to the other has to cease. The specific relationship between work and viewer reasserts its importance as the body becomes the site of a different kind of interplay between the visceral and intellectual aspects of the experience. Hence the recent reawakening of interest in minimalism, the politics of its implacable occupancy of real space, and at the same time its theatricality and its rhetoric of power.

Guillaume Bijl's tableaux and more extensive installations move beyond verisimilitude. His constructed environments are such that it seems inadequate to employ simile as a descriptive trope. It doesn’t do to suggest that this gallery now looks so like a health club, or a show house, men's store or whatever, that Bijl's talent must reside in his ability to collapse the whole of life into art. More recently his arrangements of 'primitive' sculptures and other artefacts have suggested something else: that even the irruption of fear and of the unknown into the complacency of life is a process susceptible to control.

Bill Henson's extensive sequences of photographs document reality in a similarly unsettling manner. Presented en masse, as an installation rather than a straightforward narrative sequence, they involve the viewer who wishes to comprehend them, to make something of them, in coming to terms with the degree to which the architecture of the showing space is implicated in the construction of any meaning around them.

Richard Wilsons strikingly simple impulses translate into works of complex beauty. His three simultaneous installations last year at Bristol's Arnolfini gallery, the MOMA,Oxford and Matt’s Gallery, London, all dealtwith the straightforward wish to integrate interior and exterior space. In each of these instances, life and art seem so close as almost to merge. Indeed, the impulse seems to be to force this fusion. But in each case, what strikes one is a refusal to rely merely on the impact of mundane spectacle to force attention on the work.
Questions of value remain important, questions of how good a thing is, of what it might be worth as art. But, just as one cannot rely on important issues to justify art, one should not allow aesthetic factors to suffocate the fears and moral dilemmas thrown up by significant content.

In an interview a couple of years ago, Karen Finley said, I don't know that there's a clear line between what is an atrocity and what’s art. I do know that when Chris Burden shot himself in the arm it was art, but when my father shot himself it wasn't. You know what she means. Violent acts are terrifying, and surely things which are so overwhelming are undifferentiable. But, of course, there are differences. One incident is a case of finality, the other of cosmetics: one destroys life while the other is calculated to excite, to add a litde waywardness to this thing called art. In Burdens case you have to ask whether it is just the deliberate self-infliction of a wound that shakes your equanimity, or whether the demonstrably 'controlled' aspects of the event can make of it a metaphor for irrationality and destructiveness of wider applicability. As Finley implies, it’s not the plain act that is in question. Is the problem, then, to signal that a certain licence is being extended without turning the whole thing into a joke? Elsewhere in the same interview one hears a disingenuous tone in Finley’s pronouncement of surprise at institutional reaction to some aspects of her stage act. But, equally, she has a point. Why should anyone be outraged by this? The notion that one might upset people runs through twentieth century art. It's almost the one thing about modern art that is so traditional it makes you want to offend against it. Art does not offend because it is a bit rude, it offends because it doesn’t assume a comfortable moral consensus. One needs to find an appropriate response. This cannot be to think that one doesn't need to worry about implications because a thing is 'only art’. Outrageous acts cloak themselves in respectability in proclaiming themselves as art. What is more disturbing is to find oneself confronted by something which demands to be understood as art.

Somebody burgles your flat, and even though your material loss is negbgible because you had nothing worth taking, you feel defiled through the knowledge that someone has violated your personal space. When Sophie Calle does much the same thing, posing as a hotel maid in order to investigate and document the belongings of various guests, the emotions shift. The message from the institutions which show her work is, Don t worry, this is acceptable behaviour because it is done in the name o) art, but this does not assuage one’s anxieties. These 'victims’, certainly, don't know that their bags have been searched and it Is highly unlikely that they ever will. The information gained is of no use and the activity is purposeless except insofar as one witnesses Calle being forced to assimilate and respond to what she finds. A fictional occupant is imagined from the minutiae and the detritus of the daily routines of the actual occupant to which Calle subjugates herself. And this process is one to which we cannot remain neutral because even if we wish to reject it, in this instance we recognise the desire to construct personahties and predict their behaviour as a necessary aspect of our abihty to function socially.

A chance acquaintance lets drop that he is off to Venice and Calle decides to follow, track him down and tail him. This she does until the (inevitable) point at which he discovers that he is being followed. There is no anger, no tearful discomfiture at having been exposed so thoroughly; just a mute acceptance of events, a kind of impbcit (or rather complicit) understanding that one is engaged in the same extensive, yet still circumscribed, game. This is not real, it’s art. Is that shocking?

Art and everyday life, art about everyday life; art which reflects everyday life; art which is part of everyday life; art which is everyday bfe. How much are you prepared to forgive if what you are looking at can be understood as art? If it's art then it isn't real. That must make it alright then.