From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

A new revolution in Art: part one, breaking the cannon… again

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This essay got far too long to put in a single post, so I’ll be breaking it into a few parts.  I am also in the process of getting through a booklist on a certain part of art history (the New York School) that is shedding a lot of light on the subject and my ideas are expanding too fast to keep both current and coherant- so I will settle for large less precise chunks spaced a bit apart.


Revolutionary artistic movements now accepted as influential and important are generally dismissed in their time, and nearly always in infancy… mostly because they are re-writing the criteria for what art is.

A revolutionary movement is one that changes the rules.  In the last century accepted Art has expanded to include objects of mainstream manufacturing origins, junkyard-employee selected crushed cars, dead bodies, women clothed in raw meat, naked people standing in gallery doorways, a branch found in nature, a man in a cage with a coyote and even MANY different variations on actual feces either on its own (one piece had it canned) or applied to paintings (elephant dung).   Most of these mentioned have graced the Guggenheim and MOMA in NYC.  I’d say that the idea of What Art Is has been pushed as far as it will go without actually physcially attacking the viewer (and I may just be missing some here).  Famous artists have often put themselves in danger as an integral part of the piece.  Where now?

"The face and voice of the citizens of Black Rock City" HeadSpace is an interactive audiovisual installation which comes to life at dusk. A video projector, camera and microphone booth stationed 20' away from this giant head project the image of the participant's face and voice onto it. This live projected image appears to be three-dimensional from all angles around the sculpture, and the 10' tall projected "face" seems to float in space above the playa. All who wish to have their dreams, confessions, announcements, stories, jokes, poetry, performance, or songs heard are welcome." (text from BM website) Photo taken by Mary March, 2005

Right now any media is fair game, and any subject, but there are still rules.  Fifty years ago tossing out technique and conventional composition in favor of process, concept or emotional content was still up for debate.  Now it is part of the cannon of accepted Art.  A piece can stand on concept alone, or even (less often lately) on craft and composition alone.  It can stand on technique together with composition and/or process and various other combinations, but validity nearly always demands the artist place the piece within an art-historical context.  Right now awareness of and deliberate relation to art history is essential to an artist’s credibility, which seems to be  increasingly only accepted in the form of an MFA.  The institution again.  But I think the rules are changing again.

I have been wondering for years what would come next- but really everything I could imagine was a return to something in the past- in particular I expected a return to high technical craft and representationalism coming together with the conceptual and the abstract.  Endless variations within the current cannon  in subject matter and aesthetics (a lot of it with that technique/concept fusion) created plenty of new art and argueably new movements and schools  but the cannon remained.   Now after at least 6 years of being in the middle of the new art revolution I only just recognized this week that it is indeed a revolution: finally something that has the potential to change the rules again. I just didn’t notice it because I didn’t think of it as Art-art until I started studying what I consider the last major revolution in more depth… no doubt because I was educated within the current institution.

Now I see a growing movement that is making new rules which do not demand any of the standards that are still left.  Technique, concept, art history awareness, focus on process, conscious composition… it’s all being tossed… and yet I see some incredible art coming out of it.  I think some of the best of it retains an element or two of the remaining cannon- but some of it really doesn’t and still works.  The artists are also increasingly passing on control to participants and collaborators… and a large proportion of them come from outside art educational backgrounds.

What I am observing now is an international movement of art projects that could only be described as “outsider” art by the art world… and yet they are not only gaining entry into the art world, but transforming it. Moreover I’m not convinced this movement could grow up properly (or more to the point improperly) inside the art-educated art community because the art institutions are passing on their Traditions, their cannon (as is their role), much of it a good 50 years or more old.  Most of my professors in art school gave us what I now recognize to be a very 40’s-60’s view of art and the artist.  Contemporary artists are rewarded within the current system for fitting their work into that cannon… but the system may be shifting again.

The changes in the rules (or a lack of regard for them)  is coming mostly from outside of the educated art circles, but there is some cross-pollination and participation by what you could call art-educated artists.  I see the kind of communities springing up around these things that I don’t see in the academic art community now, but which perhaps echoes famous transformative artistic communities in other times and places.  I see what I can only interpret as a revolution in art that seems as-yet unacknowledged, even by many of the people within it.

I will now use dirty words that will make many Art-art people smirk and roll eyes.  Burning Man.  If you haven’t been, whatever you think about it is probably wrong.  There is just no description.  But I can tell you this, my first time there changed my views about art forever, and it represents or even leads a large part of this new movement.  In fact, it may be the only community doing these things that has any consciousness of being a movement, despite the fact that the people creating the art often don’t even identity themselves as artists (though they will tell you that what they are making is art).

I attended my first burn fully familiar with installation and interactive art such as it was in the museum setting.  I was already leaning that direction… but what I saw there blew my mind.  More dirty words in Art circles.  It wasn’t that the art was good in the currently accepted Art-art ways.  But it had other things that impressed and set it apart:  Scale, use of serious Engineering and Technology, huge Collaborative Groups creating projects together, a sense of freedom or Whimsy, and most of all, Interactivity.   This is the heart of the new movement I see in art, and it is slowly moving outside of the desert and into public spaces and even museums and galleries.

It took a year or so for what I saw at Burning an to sink in to my art process.  I arrived there with a new sense of the importance of the viewer- that work is only complete in that interaction with the viewer, but I came away considering how much more complete that engagement can be when the viewer becomes a participant. A few years later I look back and see that the bulk of my work since then (and the best of it) is interactive or collaborative or both.  This is a movement that is not only transforming engineers, programmers and random people  into artists, but transforming art-educated artists who come in contact with it.  It is causing them to drop the egocentric view of the artist and reach outward- not just to their environment, to history or current events, but to other people (in particular to non-Art people), here and now.  That may be the most revolutionary thing about it.


The next post will focus in depth on the work coming out of Burning Man and Maker communities that create together, often in huge warehouses.  If it doesn’t end up as long as it looks, I will also go into examples of this type of art entering into public spaces, museums and galleries… but that will probably be post 3.

Written by Mary Corey March

August 13, 2010 at 2:49 am

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