All signs lead to Picasso.

Will I ever tire of Picasso? NEVER.

Krauss, The Picasso PapersI’ve started reading The Picasso Papers, by Rosalind E. Krauss. It was published in 1999, so I’m a little behind… but no worries. Picasso is often seen as the father of modern art, so an in-depth consideration of his work is an easy bridge to thinking about modern art in general.

N.B. The book resides somewhere between the academic world and the world everyone else lives in. 

Let me first unpack a few things: some context, primarily the aims of modern art and how they have led to the issues Krauss explores.

1) She says in passing that Modernist art aims to have “self-sustaining purity.” (p. 7) By “purity,” she means that we can appreciate the work by looking at the work itself.

But what is the value of “purity?” Context is convoluted. Art which expresses only the essential is refined the way sugar is refined — it’s more potent in its efficiency. Or this is what I can surmise from my own experiences with modern art.

“… if nature always ends, as they say, by resembling art, we need to stress that it resembles it badly.” (p. 4) Krauss quoting the critic, Jean Paulhan. 

One selects from a world of choices only the essential to express a given idea. That is part of how it qualifies as art.

2) An attribute of Modernism is its reductionist logic. “… an artist’s duty is to find the essence of the medium in which he is working.” (p. 8)

Just as the representation of a cow can be reduced to a few select marks on a page, so too can the very logic to one’s approach and/or philosophy for appreciating art in general.

To understand what Krauss means by “essence of the medium,” you might ask yourself, What can language do? What can the novel do (which nothing else can do or which no other medium can do as well)?

With the advent of photography, what can painting do which a camera cannot do for us?

Modern artists have answered this by developing abstract art.

Issues Krauss explores:

Aesthetic modernism severs “the connection between a representation and its referent in reality, so that signs circulate through a field of abstract relationships.” (p. 6)

Using her understanding of Andre Gide’s novel, The Counterfeiters, to show the problem in practice, she observes that “the fraudulent is thus a corollary of the ’empty sign’… a ‘token language,’ signs circulating without a ‘convertible’ base in nature.” (pp. 10-11) She goes on to say that “meaning itself becomes a function of the system rather than of the world.” (p. 18)

What does this mean?

  1. Signs used in a modern work of art might have no meaning in themselves, and thus, the work as a whole has no meaning.
  2. It becomes difficult to tell if a Modern work of art has genuine aesthetic value.

Let me pause here to back track a little.

Krauss uses a term, which gave me pause,and that is “nonreferential sign” (p. 6), as in a sign which has no “convertible base” (p. 11); IE, it doesn’t refer to anything in the natural world.

1) Can a sign be truly “nonreferential?”

No. Even if you don’t see it right away, or you only see it for a moment, the connection between what one sees and what one responds to is necessary for the “sign” to be effective. Let’s take the art of Jackson Pollock for example. I see vitality, and this “vitality” has an effect on me. Vitality may be an abstract idea and the effect may be ephemeral, but I must think “vitality” before I make sense of what I see.

Or Yes. You don’t have to make sense of what you see for the work to have an effect on you. In fact, that is what Jackson Pollock wanted to make possible with his work.

Or No…? Can you respond to something without first acknowledging it in some way, and if one acknowledges it, isn’t this a way of seeing it as a recognizable object or a “sign?”

2) I believe great or “fine” art has a social element. It is a product of one’s living, and it is meaningful to other people. How can a work of art be meaningful to other people? It can comment on our humanity in some way, and/or it can have good form.

Now, if the elements do not refer back to anything in the natural world, can it comment on our humanity? If not, can good form be enough to qualify it as great or “fine” art?

To be continued…

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