Saturday, July 23, 2011

Artists-Writer-Artist: Fiona Banner (2)

For once, I found something useful on Wikipedia. Under 'Art', it provides a broad ranging and useful summary of the different functions of art. They are: non-motivated functions of art (basic human instinct for harmony, balance and rhythm; experience of the mysterious; expression of the imagination; universal communication; ritualistic and symbolic communication) and motivated functions of art (communication through illustration; art as entertainment; art for political change; psychological and healing purposes; social inquiry, subversion, or anarchy; propaganda/commercialism).

There’s no question in my mind that art of the non-motivated kind is vastly superior to the motivated kind. How to identify the different kinds of art that one sees, and deciding where to place them on this sliding scale, is an unending process of evaluation and response. The categories are not mutually exclusive, either. Pure aestheticism (pretty pictures of flowers to put in the bathroom) can be as banal as pure agitprop (down with patriarchal society!). Confronted with the former, I want to say to the artist: “Haven’t you at least tried to read Walter Benjamin? Have you ever looked at something by Andy Warhol?” Confronted with the latter, I often say: “You know, the idea of including beauty in art is not per se a capitulation to conventional power structures.”
I hesitate to use terribly old-fashioned terms like form and content, but it’s difficult to avoid this, or any of the terms listed above, when thinking about the art created by someone like Fiona Banner. I return to this again because of the positive things in her work, or perhaps my suspicion that there are positive things that I am missing. I admire her sincerity of purpose and the consistency with which she expresses it. I admire the fact that her pushing together of text, object, and performance creates a kind of art, or perhaps a series of moments full of the implied possibility of making a work of art, that blur some of those boundaries. That can often be a sign that an artist really is conducting a worthwhile experiment, trying to find a new language to say something. I think that Banner falls between two stools, however. On the one hand, she wants to make a political statement: I will take an actual fighter jet, write some text on its tail fin, suspend it in a gallery, and hope that the audience questions its own role in propping up death from the skies via its political choices. 

This is a political analysis I happen to agree with. So why do I feel that this is a banal piece of work, both as agitprop and as ‘non-motivated’ art? Perhaps because she herself seems to want to cordon off the meaning of the work from the taint of the mysterious, the imaginative. In other words, she is determining the meaning very clearly, and the meaning is about as complex as a slogan on a banner: you read it, you either agree or disagree, and you move on. Case closed. Next object.
With the work that consists entirely of words, or word-blocks, it’s this idea of anti-narrative that is frustrating. This may indeed be an intended effect again, the reasoning probably going something like this: “We read long pieces of text assuming that it will have a form and structure to it, a narrative, the implication that this is a connected series of thoughts or moments that arrive somewhere. But I, the artist/writer, reject that idea, because it implies that I am imposing something on the material, and therefore imposing a structure on the reader. Far better to subject the reader to pure repetition, in order to draw attention to the inherently authoritarian nature of so-called narrative shaping. The reader will then be exposed to the idea of freeing him/herself from the shackles that bind him/her under capitalism.” I get all that. I’ve read all the texts that this aesthetic is derived from, and have taken part in arguments based on them going back decades to my university days. I agree to a large extent that our society is organized wrongly and should change; I no longer believe that art is the way to do that. As Lenin said, if we had to rely on artists instead of workers to rush to the barricades, then heaven help the Revolution.
And I truly do not believe that to write in any form of narrative, even with the most conventional fictional forms, is a way to avoid engaging with any of those urges to explore society as it is and society as we would wish it to be. On the contrary: to immerse oneself in understanding and trying out narrative art might be the best way to depict and bring about those changes. And that would be the very least of the discoveries that a visual artist, or a politically engaged artist, might make (think of the social implications of understanding character, dialogue, scene, story arc, and so on).
So my quest continues for an artist who uses writing not in a failed attempt at linguistic subversion, but in a sincere attempt at narrative.

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