written by Taeung Moon 2010
"If one considers an article of manufacture - as, for exmaple, a book or a paper-knife - one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it...paper-knife is an article producible in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose... Let us say, then, of the paper knife that its essence precedes its existence...if God does not exist, there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it...Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself... man is responsible for what he is...And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality , but that he is responsible for all men...in choosing for himself he chooses for all men... " - Sartre, 'Existentialism and humanism'.
When we do not believe in God again, it is quite certain that there was no art in pre-Big bang anyway. If we imagine the moment of the birth of art then, regardless of whether the essence comes first or the existence, there must be the first being who 'invented' conception of art (essence) in the human history or at least a piece of thought which will lead to conception of art, because otherwise there will be no concept of art today. When I say conception of art, I do not mean linguistic term designating particular human activity, neither the activity itself but the conceptualised activity. This first idea of art, then has been evolving through interactions with different conception of art proposed by others from later generations which are ranging from magic to contemporary each involving different functions, different technics, different theoretical horizons and context, bearing variations which eventually consist what we call history of art. To be more specific, each piece of writing and each work of art or even piece of dialogue about art from different culture and different times, 'commit' themselves to all human beings to either re-affirm the conventional concept of art or show new possibility. By choosing to paint religious painting in middle ages in western europe, one position himself in the role of advocator of all that artistic circumstances in the epoch. Like yesterday, humans continue to be born today, and when they are born, they do not come with what art is. They must be free to choose. Enumeration of individual commitments, countless possibilities worked out by ancestors and present generation, history of art, should open up insight into what art can be and what matters to decide what art is. It is our historical responsibility not to let history of art becoming authoritative historicist obssession in narrative, if we mean responsibility for later generation by historical responsibility.
What is art? when we ask this question, it seems we are not asking what it is, but we are asking what should it be since defining what it is in itself is impossible. When young child, for example, first encountered computer or anything, he is not looking at the total contingency, but he is trying to analyse its function to formulate a concept of computer. This process, when applied to question we are asking, inevitably brings abstraction and reduction of individual commitments. When this question performs on the level of collectivity, it puts subjective concept of art in danger, as we know well that though totality comes from individuals, it does not show individuals. I am not critiqueing this attempt to somehow grasp understanding in art - it is necessary process, otherwise it is only contingency, however, what matters is its form and affects in collective level; authority. This process of defining art, cut off art from its root in origin (individual commitments), and makes it to become abstract, autonomous entity - 'art context'. Art context does not exist because art exists, however, precisely 'becoming to exist' because of this process of drawing a boundary. When one defines art as anything that is in whitecube for example, then whitecube becomes art context. This idea 'art context' when it works on the level of collectivity, as Marcel Duchamp already criticized with his urinal about its framing function, acts as a signifier of art, thus plays significant role in formulation of idea of art in individuals. There is a space that we physically can experience this - art institution. It is physical realisation of art context. If we take Tate for example, it demonstrates powerful authority of established art museums over the audience on their decision about what is art and why it is. This is partly because limited experience of diversity of art due to limited access to galleries - if public is the case - except goverment supported big museums but also because primary and secondary art education encourage these public to regard art in such museums as a kind of standard of what art should be like. Modernist art, which these museums usually displays, because of its historicist nature, is difficult to understand without prior knowledge in history of art, thus producing public to mystify these art works as if they do not understand the work because it is such a high, profound, true art. This is precisely how the individuals give up their right to 'invent' and remains under prison of authority. They do not see art, however, they see the frame. This is not only discourse in public. Even if it is not direct, there is implications without speaking to encourage students to look at certain kinds of art in certain way in art education. This boundary, idea of 'passive' art context is needed to be rejected. Art context is something has to be 'activated' by the individual, re-structured and re-defined with their own terms of aesthetic judgement and spontaneity. In order to do so, art, has to run out from gallery and strip off itself, waiting individual judgement.
In addition to this, if we can agree with Benedetto Croce's idea of art, art as activity of intuitive cognition using imagination distinguished from physical realisation (performance), the boundary between artist and audience (idea of non-artist rather than onlooker in whitecube) also becomes blurred since they both do essentially the same thing - reading. One can do art simply by looking at his hand and contemplating its dirtiness in extreme case. There still can be an argument that artist has additional role which can distinguish artist from audience - artist creates their own materials for new cognition. Through participation and Bourraiud's idea of relational form, or even through every-day activity, audience truly creates in contemporary art. Why cup of water that you drank yesterday cannot be art? Even audience in National gallery, they don't have to look at paintings in the same way like the day it was created, but they might see relational form between beholder and paintings, even though painting was not designed for it.
Artist should now be irresponsible, precisely because of social responsibility. Traditionally, artists have been fighting to function as critical community for society, in which case, it is inevitable that art becomes sub-system in society and loses its autonomy. Art is not gear, and that is something that we have to remember. Romanticist model of artist should be renovated and reclaimed to maintain autonomy of art. Aritst should work with their own terms pursuing their own purpose, not to say that they should put themselves in the box of limits of subjectivity, however, to engage with society. Social responsibility now is not to function critically, but rather It is something that actually makes audience to be creative, critical practitioner. We have gained forms and strategy to make this happen and circumstances to make this possible. The only remain is individual artists to 'commit' themselves.
Nicolas Bourraiud (1998) Relational aesthetics, les presses du reel, Paris
Jung-kwon Chin (1994) Aesthetic odyssey, Humanist, Seoul
Roland Barthes (1967) The death of the author [Online] http://a.aaaarg.org/text/1061/death-author [accessed 12 Feb 2010]
Jean-paul Sartre "From 'Existentialism and humanism' " in Harrison and Wood (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000, Blackwell, Oxford
Clement Greenberg "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" in Harrison and Wood (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000, Blackwell, Oxford
Theodor W. Adorno "From 'Commitment' " in Harrison and Wood (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000, Blackwell, Oxford