Last Fall I taught an art seminar that was a required course for all art majors. The students were mostly freshmen but some were upper classmen who had not yet taken the course. On the first day of class, I projected two slides, side by side, of paintings by famous artists. Without identifying them, I asked the students to write down their impressions of the two works – one a Thomas Cole landscape and the other a typical abstract by Wassily Kandinsky. Now, as a curator of contemporary art I have certainly heard my share of complaints from the general public bemoaning that they do not understand contemporary art, that a child could produce most of it, and perhaps the most common utterance is quite simply “why is that art?” But I have to admit that I was not prepared to hear these same responses from a group of students who intended to graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Some of them wrote that the painting by Thomas Cole, a pioneer of the Hudson River School, looked like something you might find in a dentist’s office, a motel room, or at one of those “starving artists” sales at the local Holiday Inn. Likewise, they felt that their younger siblings could have created the painting by Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of early 20th century abstraction. Despite the art historical canon there was clearly some reason why my students did not perceive the “quality” and “genius” of these master works. So, for the rest of the semester we set about trying to answer a simple question: “What is art?” Now, in my opinion, this is an exercise in frustration, and I hoped that by the end of the semester my students would agree that there is no simple definition. However, they found the exercise not only redundant but boring as well (and dare I say mundane?). The art work we reviewed and discussed in class was somehow so completely removed from what they were capable of producing as artists and besides they wanted to make art, not study it. They did not feel it necessary to define the creative efforts of artists who came before them. Didn’t everyone already know that art had to be beautiful/good/meaningful/[add your own adjective here]? And after all, it really didn’t bother them that no one could quite agree on the parameters.
I tell the above story to illustrate, among other things, that we are conditioned to accept or deny legitimacy based upon context. If I had taken my class to an Art Museum and they had seen that same Thomas Cole landscape, would they have responded in the same way? Would they have been so quick to write it off? And what if I had taken them to see that exact same piece in a dentist’s office? Isn’t it, after all, the same painting? Is it merely the context that makes it a “work of art”? And anyway, what does it mean when someone says a work looks like something you would find in a dentist’s office? Clearly, someone chose it for its aesthetic value. But maybe it’s just a decoration to them, like the patterns on the couch or on the dishes or on our clothes. But isn’t decoration art? Haven’t we all seen traditional Native American pattern rugs, or Amish quilts, or traditional African headdresses in art museums? Why don’t we see rugs sold at Wal-mart, or Martha Stewart bedding from K-mart, or baseball caps in these museums? Perhaps it has something to do with popular culture, mass production, cheap labor, consumerism, and the traditional distinction between work and leisure.
One of the purposes of Journal of Mundane Behavior is to understand how normal, everyday ideas, actions, and interactions go into the construction of some things in life as “mundane” and others as “extraordinary.” This is a particularly complex exercise when it comes to the visual arts because many artists and art movements have explored the very subject of the “everyday” and have often incorporated it into their art. Hence, attempting a definition of mundanity and attempting to answer the question “why is that art?” are both quite perplexing efforts.
Let’s begin with the premise that visual art is in fact pervasive in our lives, but that it takes on a multitude of forms, many of which we do not recognize as “art” because, for whatever reasons, we are more comfortable with distinctions. While I’m sure that there is or will someday be a treatise on so-called “banal” art, I will not attempt here to define what art is nor will I attempt to define what is good art, what is bad art, what is high art, or what is low art. Instead I will attempt to present what I believe to be a most influential and pervasive preoccupation of much of western art produced in the 20th century – the collapse of the boundary between art and life. I will offer brief analyses on certain periods in art history in order to speculate on why art and life ever diverged and why artists in the 20th and now 21st centuries are so interested in exploring the boundaries between.
Indeed, many ancient and traditional cultures did and do not have a separate category for art, or even a word for it, because it was and is a part of life. This is very different from a modern, western concept of art, which is often defined by its value as well as by certain [dare I say mutable] aesthetic characteristics. If we return to the roots of human “artistic” expression, cave paintings for example, we can speculate on the purpose and motivation behind such creativity and we can begin to ask questions about distinctions between art and life. Were these images utilitarian or merely decorative? Were they a part of a ritual or an everyday activity? Were they painted by only certain people or by anyone? Were they considered to be necessary or frivolous, masterpieces or doodles? Are there great works among average ones and did viewers argue over which images were of higher quality? Were certain parts of the cave designated as “gallery” spaces as opposed to living spaces? Did the people who painted the images even have a concept of art making as separate from the rest of their daily activities?
It is well documented that many non-Western and traditional cultures have a tendency to consider art and art-making a natural part of life. For example, the Australian Aboriginal curator Djon Mundine explains that in Aboriginal cultures “it is normal for every man or woman to paint, sing and dance whatever their social status.” (Mundine, p. 33) He writes: “all indigenous art and life continues in the belief that personal experience, immediacy, past and present stories of places and environment, can never be separated, any more than forms and mediums of expression. Art is thus a coexistence of art and life, in whatever form it appears, a complex twining of relationships.” (Mundine, p. 35). In some cultures it is understood that there is no need to even identify a particular artist’s hand because his or her work is not about individual but about community. There is an egalitarian approach to creativity whereby the artist may be known by his or her style but they are never openly acknowledged and the particular object remains unsigned. But many European and non-traditional cultures have a very different approach to art and artists. At some point in history “art” became a distinct category, one that was associated primarily with the realm of the élite and dictated by the fashion of the day. Emphasis was placed on the individuated subject and the art object primarily became a luxury and a commodity. In his book Finding the Muse, Mark Freeman writes that the “notion of artist as isolated from his or her social environment began during the early part of the Renaissance and emerged in full form during the Romantic era…the alienation of the artist from society is one of the earliest themes of Romantic thought.” (Freeman, p. 21) But the fact of the matter is that creativity does not flourish in a vacuum and despite the perception, artists do need to be part of a meaningful exchange of ideas.
Before the modern era, art had a broader social significance and contained imagery and symbolism that people could more easily understand. In a sense its purpose was straightforward and the object itself was often utilitarian. Even the “high” arts such as painting and sculpture were in a sense utilitarian because they often depicted religious or historic themes and were in a sense both decorative and useful. Both the system of patronage and the history of the museum have parts to play in the evolution of objects from functional to precious. The roots of the modern museum can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman temples dedicated to the muses. And while these temples containing votive offerings, statues and busts, specimens from the natural world, and other man-made objects, were open to the public it was not until the late 17th century that European museums – of a version similar to what we have today – began to open to the public. In the Middle Ages treasures from the crusades were brought back and displayed in the palaces of princes and nobles; and while the 16th century saw a burgeoning of art collecting and patronage throughout Europe the displays were only really available to royalty and the upper classes. Museum display too has a close relationship with store window display and can be traced back to the first indoor pavilions where people of the leisure classes could shop and mingle unencumbered by the weather – and more importantly, by the common people and beggars in the streets. Just as shop windows are intended to inspire a desire for ownership in the passersby, museum cases, vitrines, pedestals, and even frames give the objects they contain an aura that they may not otherwise have. This is one reason why context is so crucial to meaning. But context is not only important in terms of perception but in terms of comprehension.
In their book The Grandeur and Twilight of Radical Universalism, Agnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér write that perhaps a way “to understand the cult and deification of art in modern times” is that
modern men and women feel themselves encapsulated into their own subjectivity. Since the traditional modes of understanding and self-understanding as well as the traditional norms for action and judgment are constantly queried and tested, the vision of the world becomes fragmented, and personal communication (self-expression and the understanding of the other) is strongly problematized. The more one chooses oneself as a unique subject, the greater difficulties the person will encounter in personal communication. (Heller and Fehér, p. 224)
It is interesting to note that art is often perceived as a universal language but if this were so we would never have to ask what it means. Nikos Papastergiadis explains in his essay in Everyday, the catalogue to the 11th Biennale of Sydney, the meaning of art lies in its broader social context “but the available concepts of the social are not always adequate for communicating the fullness of its significance. The meaning of art does not come just from within, it also comes from without. If the relationship between art, politics and theory is not a zero-sum game but a dialogue, then the concept of the everyday could reveal the specific forms of engagement or objectifications that result from bringing these practices closer together.” (Papastergiadis, p. 22) He further explains that while the relationship between art and life is never straightforward the artist must nevertheless produce work “from the materiality of both art practice and experience.” (Papastergiadis, p.22) So, art must therefore always exist, on some level, in an everyday realm; otherwise it does not exist at all.
So, what is the everyday, and what aspects of it compel artists to produce work that either reflects it or comments upon it? What details are worthy of interpretation and what methods are employed? How does an artist decide, for instance, that his or her desire for direct interpretation may translate into realism, or critical commentary into social realism, or an aesthetic pursuit into abstraction? Heller and Fehér explain that “living (everyday life) is the tension between the given, necessarily existing, unposited world of objects, on the one hand, and the lonely, isolated, solipsistic subject on the other.” (Heller and Fehér, p. 222) They explain that the individual (subject) thirsts for communication in order to escape solitude and isolation and the work of art offers a form of expression. However, they introduce that, according to Georg Lukács, a paradox exists in terms of interpretation because comprehension only works if both the creator and the recipient agree upon a “normative” language while at the same time the creator is reflecting upon a personal and therefore subjective experience. To me this signifies a very real conundrum. If the everyday is subjective, then art, as a form of interpretation of lived experience, is also subjective. It cannot really exist as a solipsistic endeavor because it must at least form a dialogue between two parties who share either a common experience or a common language to express that experience.
But the problem of communication is complicated further by an ever-expanding global community in which people encounter a multiplicity of cultures, a multiplicity of values, and numerous parameters by which to judge the effectiveness of various forms of articulation. Freeman writes: “That which is deemed creative ordinarily effects a change in the structure of consensus itself – a change that becomes that much more difficult to effect when there is not much consensus to begin with, as is the case with much of contemporary art.” (Freeman, p. 10) In addition, it also doesn’t help that much of art today is engaged in a self-referential discourse about itself, and if one is not equipped with this language, one is basically locked out of the conversation. However, while art may indeed be a self-reflexive activity it nonetheless exists within the “structures of the quotidian as the only possible context of existence.” (Misiano, p. 28) It is interesting that the 1998 Sydney Biennale chose the subject of the everyday as its theme and that it brought together a group of international contemporary artists all of whom address the quotidian in some way in their work. (Everyday, p. 16) According to Papastergiadis this topic was chosen because “despite repeated efforts to break the divide between popular culture and high art, the concept of the everyday has remained relatively untheorised within the contemporary discourse of art.” (Papastergiadis, p. 23) The examination of this topic on a worldwide scale was challenging because of the differing interpretations among cultures of what is familiar or ordinary. Inevitably the exhibition demonstrated both the diversity and similarities inherent in interpretations of the “common” and the “everyday” as subject in art.
In Wayne Brekhus’ “A Mundane Manifesto” (JMB, v.1, #1) he discusses the practice of “reverse marking” as finding “the exceptional in what is ordinarily taken-for-granted as unexceptional.” I would argue that in art, since the definition is dependent upon context, this process requires an understanding of the opposition in question in order to determine the boundaries between exceptional and unexceptional. The concept of aesthetic negativity as determined by Theodor Adorno uses a similar oppositional strategy to determine “the distinction between the aesthetic and the nonaesthetic.” In his book The Sovereignty of Art Christophe Menke introduces multiple interpretations of Adorno’s texts and explores the notion of the autonomy of art – as both unique from “non art” and as inseparable from the societal sphere. (Menke, p. 5) In other words, a combination of the two: a) the traditional purist interpretation of “high” art as somehow segregated from the realm of lived experience and existing somewhere above it; and b) the reality that artists do indeed create work from within and in response to their personal lives and experiences.
The following is a brief synopsis of 20th century art that demonstrates various methods by which artists attempt to reintegrate art into the everyday, in a sense, to come full circle to where creativity began and to a place where we no longer have to ask, “what is art?” No investigation into art and the everyday in contemporary art would not be complete without first a mention of Marcel Duchamp and the influence of the avant-garde cabarets of the late 19th century where an anti-serious approach to art profoundly influenced the early 20th century movements of Dada and Surrealism. Duchamp and his milieu were reacting against bourgeois values and other dominant forms of consciousness. They were interested in subversion as a means to “break out of the strictures of convention.” (Papastergiadis, p. 23) Duchamp was interested in rejecting the preciousness and stylishness of the objet d’art and the values that went along with it.
One of Duchamp’s signature works was Fountain (1917) a urinal that he signed with the name R. Mutt and entered in a sculpture exhibition. While the work was rejected from the show it became the quintessential “proto-Conceptual” artwork in its questioning of its own status as art. This piece, along with his other Readymades, used common objects such as a bottle rack or a bicycle wheel and introduced them into an elite realm. By reducing the creative act to a common everyday thing, Duchamp was not only critiquing commodification and commenting upon the difference between mass production and craftsmanship, but was also exposing the seemingly random practice of naming an object “art.” This provocative act negated the category of individual production and focused on the signature itself as the one creative act. His anarchic gestures proved to destroy the aura of the art object and to reintroduce the everyday into the artistic process. He “was not interested in the prestige of works of art but in their attitude, which may or may not be publicly acceptable, that is, approved for showing in a museum” and he was motivated by the democratic belief that there are ‘countless numbers of men who are just as worthy, or worthier’ than those who become aristocratic ‘heroes on the Stage of History’ – which is what a museum is – but who ‘will always be forgotten.’” (Kuspit, p.38). Duchamp’s methods are similar to the process of reverse marking that Wayne Brekhus describes as “a humorous form of inversion that lays bare the absurdities and logical fallacies of our taken-for-granted social world” and “a useful preliminary step toward ‘marking everything’ with equal epistemological weight.” (JMB, v.1, #1) I would argue that this tactic is quite evident in a number of contemporary art movements and traces back to Duchamp whose actions continue to influence contemporary art practice today.
Duchamp’s ideas gained popularity in the 1950s as non-formalist movements became more widespread, most likely because conventional painting and sculpture seemed to have been exhausted of ideas after formalism and minimalism. The Situationist International was founded in 1957 and among other things indicted passive consumerism. It grew out of the Surrealist emphasis on disrupting conventional, bourgeois life and played with the boundaries between art forms. Another movement that took shape in the late 1950s was Pop art. The importance of popular culture and common objects to the Pop art aesthetic is well known. Pop artists drew attention to the status of art as a mere commodity by using facsimile and by employing generally recognizable signs and symbols. Artists like James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein were influenced by such things as billboards and comic strips and Claes Oldenburg is renowned for transforming commonplace objects such as clothespins and baseball bats into monumental sculptures. But of course, the most well known artist from this movement was Andy Warhol, and no discussion of the mundane would be complete without mention of his early films and of his book A: A Novel. Warhol’s films made in the early 1960s were shot on black and white film with a static Bolex camera and had titles such as Eat, Sleep, and Kiss. The films are all silent, their lengths are determined by the lengths of the reels, and they may show a single image for hours such as the Empire State Building or people doing a single activity. Kiss, for example, shows close ups of one couple after another kissing in slow motion. The monotony and repetitiveness of the activity on screen is really quite uninspiring and the filming is purposely amateurish. These films are studies in reductiveness in which Warhol, like Duchamp, challenges convention and questions authorship. In fact, many reels were shot by whoever was available and the viewer never really knows who is filming or whether the activity on screen is reality or scripted.
In his book A: A Novel (1968), Warhol further explores and subverts the notion of documentary by transcribing a full 24-hour day from audio tape recorded while following Ondine around New York City (even into the bathroom). The tapes captured every detail of what was said and done including the background noise. This book reveals Warhol’s interest in projecting the boredom inherent in his social set and ultimately in commodity culture. “By dwelling in boredom – indeed by insisting on it – Warhol teaches us about the limitations of the pleasures that are offered to us under the sign of capitalism.” (Veitch) This exercise was certainly not unlike the writer Georges Perec’s three days spent in 1978 staring at the Place Saint-Sulpice and recording everything he saw. Perec, like Warhol, is interested in what sameness reveals. For Warhol, staring at the same thing removes meaning and negates substance. For both Warhol and Perec their compulsive recording demonstrates the overwhelming and unsettling power of minutiae and the Herculean effort it takes to even acknowledge it. While the everyday is all around us it is almost beyond comprehension. According to Maurice Blanchot, “Le quotidien: ce qu’il y a de plus difficile à découvrir.” (Sheringham, p. 188) It is ambiguous yet familiar, insignificant yet profound.
Other artists in the late 50s and early 60s were toying with Duchampian notions. For Fluxus artists and in various Happenings – rehearsed multimedia events that invited the audiences to take part – there was a strong interest in breaking down the barriers between art and life and disrupting bourgeois routines. Not unlike Dada events, Fluxus spectacles and Happenings were part of the Pop art phenomenon and were interested in simultaneous experience and in reducing the alienation between performer and audience. Less of a group than an international phenomenon, Fluxus included both activities and objects that used unconventional materials and methods to explore the boundaries of art. Inspired by the innovative music of John Cage that incorporated everyday sounds and by experimental dance that incorporated ordinary movement and improvisation, Fluxus artists were interested in chance, spontaneity, and anarchic collaboration. They pursued anti-art and had a communal focus that was anti-heroic and anti-individualistic. Fluxus promoted the idea that there is no line between art and the everyday and many of their performances centered on commonplace activities such as cutting hair, brushing teeth, eating, and cooking. Fluxus perceived all people as artists; and Fluxus products were simple, unpretentious, and required no skill to produce. They had little or no value as commodities, and the number one emphasis for anything Fluxus was that it was fun or a combination of seriousness and silliness. Performances were often dictated by an Event-Score but these were simple directions that anyone could follow and audience participation was encouraged. An example would be: Draw a straight line and follow it. Like Duchamp many Fluxus artists often used mass-produced objects as commentary on authorship and commerce.
In this era, the object itself lost much of its importance. It was more or less the idea that was paramount and there was a general move towards the dematerialization of the art object altogether. The preference was to bring it down from its elitist pedestal, and away from the idea of ownership or even of the artist’s individual hand. Lawrence Weiner even went so far as to proclaim that even if someone made a reproduction of his work it would be just as valid as art as if he had made it. The political climate of the era had a hand in influencing strong reactions against institutions, including museums, galleries, and critics and against commodification. In the mid-1960s a diverse range of activities began that can be placed under the umbrella of Conceptual Art. The basic tenet of much of these activities was the notion that the traditional art object was obsolete, over commodified, and a luxury item. The abolition of the art object eliminates concerns for style and subverts the role of the art market.
Conceptual artists were anti-formalist and reacted against more institutionalized forms of avant-garde thought and against the cult of originality and traditional aesthetics. They worked in a variety of mediums including performance, photography, and video and were interested in language, theory, philosophy, and the sciences. Much of their work was ephemeral and was often recorded in photographs, charts, and other such documents. The artist On Kawara, like many conceptual artists, is interested in logging the activities in his daily life. He is well known for his paintings of dates in white numbers on a black background and has been marking the passage of time in this reductive manner since 1966. These paintings reveal the abstract and seemingly arbitrary qualities of measuring time itself as it ranges from slow and boring to quick and anxiety provoking. In another piece called I Got Up he wrote down the time he got up in the morning each day on separate postcards and sent them by mail to friends. For Kawara, art and life are the same thing. In some of their collaborative works, the British artists Gilbert and George made no distinction at all between life and art and called what they did everyday Living Sculpture. In another work, Drinking Sculpture, they merely went drinking in London pubs. The artist Bruce Nauman suggested that art is whatever an artist does, whether bouncing a ball, holding various positions in his studio, or drinking coffee.
Many artists began to experiment with video and photography as a way to investigate reality and “real time.” Joseph Kosuth’s work 1 and 3 Chairs (1965) consisted of a common folding chair, an actual size photograph of that chair, and the word chair. Artists were beginning to question the authority of the documentary photograph and they began to use video in order to explore immediacy, which they perceived as the true missing link between art and life. They began to experiment with instant feedback and also to reflect upon the “reality” of TV news reporting and popular programming since television was becoming pervasive in people’s lives. In the age of spectacle and simulacra, the mediated image began to challenge notions of the real as the artificial image in a sense replaced the actual.
Vito Acconci used multiple forms of self-surveillance as a way to discover the nature of the self. At first he recorded simple activities such as stepping up on a stool but later he began to explore the outside forces that control and construct identity, one of the main preoccupations of the post-modern era. He used video as a tool to explore polarities such as subject/object, private/public, and art/life and his performance/installations often required the participation of the viewer. Other performance artists pushed the boundaries of art by using unconventional materials and their own bodies and pursued the collapse of the art/audience divide by encouraging participation through instruction or dialogue. Many pieces were inspired by personal experience or “collective memory” and by the desire to break down barriers between art and life. This type of confessional work, either autobiographical or based upon personal experience, was particularly conducive to feminist work and to the philosophy that the personal is political. The format easily set up an empathic relationship between audience and performer.
Feminist art was a natural outgrowth of the women’s movement. Reclaiming women’s histories and the inclusion of women in the art historical canon brought with it an inevitable need to evaluate the existence of a possible female aesthetic and the influence of gender on artistic endeavors. Since women artists did not have access to the same art world as men, they inevitably used material from their immediate surroundings. A good example is the work of Mary Cassatt, whose imagery includes predominantly women and children. Therefore, it would follow that the inequities produced a need for further analysis and an inquiry into the meaning of “quality” and the valuation of women’s work. Ultimately this included an attempt to dismantle the hierarchies that exist between “art” and “craft,” craft being perceived primarily as the realm of women’s creativity. Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party is one of the most widely known markers of the feminist art movement. The piece not only honors women by naming 999 important women in history but it uses a familiar sphere of women’s domestic lives – the dinner table – to celebrate women’s history and women’s creativity. Chicago worked with traditional craftspeople to create the separate elements, from china painting to embroidery, that went into the 39 place settings that honor particular women.
Feminism and later multiculturalism were influenced by identity politics, one of the central aspects of postmodern culture. Postmodernism grew out of French post-structuralist theory which translated in art as a questioning of absolutes, of quality, of artistic genius, and the canon in general. The postmodernist position that there are many discourses and that there are a multiplicity of interpretations possible in everything gained currency in the mid-1970s art world as a response to formalist aesthetics, to pure abstraction, and as a challenge to the certainty about the autonomy of art. Postmodernism also dismantled the notion of the “universal” and questioned the idea of the truly original.
One method that was employed quite broadly in art was appropriation because it not only exposed the fallacy of the original but it revealed the mechanisms of commodification and power and in many ways the processes by which meaning is constructed. Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer both rely on language and graphics to disrupt the authoritarian voice. By using generic looking provocative texts and scavenged images emblazoned on everyday, mass produced objects, such as matchboxes, T-shirts, shopping bags, and billboards, they subvert and challenge the official power structures that influence us on a daily basis through a media barrage.
Postmodernism and various forms of activism influenced artists to make work that subverted the authoritative paradigm, rectified exclusion, and loosened the wedge that had been driven between art and life. David Hammons draws inspiration directly from the streets and from everyday life. He transforms discarded and found objects into sculptures and installations that reflect the African diasporic experience. Self-consciously irreverent towards the art establishment, Hammons engages in both an internal dialogue about the nature of art and in social commentary. He is interested in audiences that have no particular interest in the art world and often uses materials that reference African-American life and experience like chicken bones, basketballs, hats, hair, and bottle caps. By using these stereotypical articles he reclaims black experience and explores the complexities of racism and cultural encounter. Many of his works are installed in public spaces as opposed to gallery spaces. The work Higher Goals was constructed in a vacant lot and was made of extremely tall basketball hoops made of car parts, buckets, and trash baskets. The piece acknowledges the importance of basketball as well as the fact that it is excessive in its influence on black youth. In another work, Blizzard Ball Sale, he stood on the sidewalk in New York City and sold snowballs that he had made in varying sizes. By standing among other impromptu vendors peddling various wares this performative and ephemeral piece was not only a critique on the boundaries between art and life but it was a commentary on the growing necessity for an underground economy.
In 1995 the independent curator France Morin organized a series of projects called The Quiet in the Land. She writes that she was searching “for a way of working that would reaffirm the potential of contemporary artists as catalysts of positive change. This new way would hopefully open up a new language for speaking about the relationship between art and life…. By creating situations in which artists and communities may work together to perceive both the differences that separate them and the similarities that connect them, these projects strive to activate the ‘space’ between “groups and individuals as a zone of potentiality, in which the relationship between contemporary art and life may be renegotiated. Fundamental to each project is a conception of art rooted in the cultivation of the creative spirit that lies within everyone as a powerful agent of both personal and social transformation.” (Morin, p. 5) Planning for the second series of projects began in 1997 and is called The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and Projeto Axé. Projeto Axé in Bahía, Brazil, is a component of the Centre for the Defense and Protection of Children and Adolescents and is a project that serves the children that live in the streets of the city of Salvador. The program focuses on what the children enjoy, such as music, dance, and fashion, and is organized around the “belief that artmaking is essentially a spiritual activity through which human beings can examine the experience, quality, and meaning of their lives.” (Morin, p. 6) The artists involved in this project immerse themselves in the children’s lives for six weeks and work with them to produce various projects that reappraise the value of daily life, as one would art, and reaffirm the social utility of integrating art into life.
Ultimately, these types of projects both teach us and remind us about what Scott Schaffer identifies as the “political possibilities inherent in our mundane lives.” (JMB, v1,#1, p. 4) The vision of a better world is inevitably connected to community and to a rejection of the disaffection that arises from displacement and rupture in a modern context. As Papastergiadis explains: “In positing that capitalism creates social relations which alienate subjects from their ‘species being’ and from others, [Henri] Lefebvre stressed that the concept of everyday life can illuminate the complex ways in which subjects exercise their potential to be emancipatory and critical. Thus, in the Marxist tradition, the significance of the concept of the everyday lies in the way it points to the overcoming of alienation.” (Papastergiadis, p. 24) Lefebvre was interested in the creativity inherent in everyday life, as is Michel de Certeau. For Certeau this creativity lies in our ability to subvert through what he calls “tactics” or “ruses” our roles as “passive” consumers. He proclaims that as users rather than producers of institutions and discourses, we assert ourselves by editing, amending, and undermining these power structures that are built around us. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life he writes: “The tactics of consumption, the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices.” (Certeau, p. xviii) He suggests that as consumers we actually appropriate the visual or written texts of established mediums, such as television, newspapers, or magazines, through everyday practice and transform them into our own narratives. He uses the metaphor of moving into a new apartment and shaping it internally with our own furnishings and possessions. He further proposes that “the ruling order serves as a support for innumerable productive activities, while at the same time blinding its proprietors to this creativity (like those ‘bosses’ who simply can’t see what is being created within their own enterprises).” (Certeau, p. xxii) While others may perceive the everyday as marred by routine and tedium, Certeau sees the quotidian as providing the necessary tools for liberation.
These strategies are used time and again by contemporary artists and there are innumerable examples. The collaborative team Fischli and Weiss use common detritus to create bland and bizarre three-dimensional tableaux that transform ordinariness into the sublime. Their world is one of relentless leisure or relentless ennui, but either way their work transforms the significance of the commonplace. There are so many artists who use “lowbrow” materials and ideas to produce “highbrow” art that it would be impossible to record them all.
But I would like to end my analysis of art and the everyday with a brief discussion of what I see to be a current populist trend in art and in museum practice in general. Whereas artists in the first half of the 20th century were reacting to popular culture and to burgeoning commercialism, many artists in the latter half of the century are not only continuing the critique but actually embracing and accepting our consumerist culture. In a post-postmodern context, younger artists are reacting not only to lowbrow but also to what the author John Seabrook calls “nobrow,” a combination of culture and marketing where being and buying are inseparable. In nobrow there is no distinction between high culture and the commercial arena because barriers barely exist. The mainstream feeds off the avant-garde and deviance itself is commodified. The real and the simulacra are interchangeable. Visitors can see “masterpieces” at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas – the land of simulation – just as easily as they can at the Met. Cultural tourism can lead to Disney’s Epcot or Nike Town just as easily as to a “real” museum; and museums are borrowing tactics from shopping malls and from Disney to learn more about interactivity and visitor services. MTV’s Jackass show could rival any Vito Acconci or Chris Burden performance piece. Many artists really try to push these boundaries. Takashi Murakami has created his own cartoon character and sells mass-produced stuffed animals that could rival Pokemon. In a recent piece, the collaborative group the Art Guys commissioned Todd Oldham to create two designer suits on which they leased out advertising space and then modeled the suits in parades in Houston and Dallas and at a fashion show in Times Square. This humorous piece made a strong statement about the colliding worlds of fashion, art, business, and commerce. In the essay to the catalogue for a recent show by Yumi Janairo Roth – whose work is pictured here – Michelle Grabner writes:
The beauty of Yumi Roth’s art resides in the effectiveness in which it reattaches style to the ordinary, mystery to ornamentation, and perfectionism to the mundane. By subjecting everyday visual elements to the platitudes of modern thought and critical thinking, Roth’s sculptural forms become icons of personal taste that navigate a circuitous path from High Modern design to the banal and back again. She does not criticize the shortcomings and coded aesthetics of everyday life; instead she works to redeem them.
Roth and many artists of her generation have adapted a form of optimistic cynicism necessary for survival as we navigate the media barrage and the hyper-consumerist landscape of our contemporary condition.
Clearly many artists in the 20th century were interested in collapsing the boundaries between art and life, and now that we are moving into the 21st century, it is still a preoccupation. The attack on the rarified object has not yet been resolved and artists are still grappling with issues relating to commodification, aesthetics, beauty, and boundaries of all kinds. In the greater culture, we are all dealing with the triumph of capitalism and the emerging global economy. Marketing has become the ideal democracy, and artists can play a crucial role in dismantling power structures by using the available tools of our capitalistic society, such as the internet, to restore a sense of ownership over our daily lives. It remains to be seen whether artists can act as change agents from within or whether their role is to remain on the margins.
Either way, there is great potential in the power of art to remind us of our humanity and of our connections to one another in our everyday lives.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Everyday, the catalogue for the11th Biennale of Sydney, 1998.
Freeman, Mark Philip. Finding the Muse: A Sociopsychological Inquiry into the Conditions of Creativity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Grabner, Michelle. Kwality Art Show: Recent Sculpture by Yumi Janairo Roth, brochure for the exhibition at Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, April 7-May 14, 2000.
Heller, Agnes and Ferenc Fehér. The Grandeur and Twilight of Radical Universalism. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1991.
Kuspit, Donald. The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Menke, Christophe. The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.
Misiano, Viktor. “Radical Quotidian,” in Everyday, the catalogue for the11th Biennale of Sydney, 1998.
Morin, France. “The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and Projeto Axé,” in Art Journal, (Fall 2000), pp. 5-17.
Mundine, Djon. “A Casual Acquaintance,” in Everyday, the catalogue for the11th Biennale of Sydney, 1998.
Papastergiadis, Nikos. “Everything that Surrounds: Art, Politics, and Theories of the Everyday,” in Everyday, the catalogue for the11th Biennale of Sydney, 1998.
Seabrook, John. NoBrow: The Culture of Marketing the Marketing of Culture. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2000.
Sheringham, Michael. “Attending to the Everyday: Blanchot, Lefebvre, Certeau, Perec,” in French Studies 2000 (v. 54, # 2), pp. 187-199.
Veitch, Jonathan. “Taking it All In,” The Boston Phoenix (May 4, 1998) on www.weeklywire.com.
Author: Nadine Wasserman is Curator of Exhibitions at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz. She has utter faith in the power of art to transform our daily lives, and has never bought a work of art from more than $20.