What is the purpose of art?
Interview with Elizabeth Ermarth, professor of Cultural Studies
with Terry Talty
July 25, 2007
Q: Modern, post-modern, new century modern, where is art today?
EE: Art is following through on a new impulse that seemed to reach critical mass and signal paradigmatic cultural change around 1900 — in physics, philosophy, the arts, linguistics, the media, politics. At some level there was real turning of the tanker, and in which directions — where we are going — I have no idea.
But I think that this has significant implications about the art we value, and about our expectations of art.
Pretty landscapes and portraits aren’t going to do it for us anymore and I'm not sure we know what will. Maybe we need more environmental art — installations, for example. They get down off the wall and stop being virtual and start being actual context. They make us start thinking about the kind of experiments that artists are dealing with in a much broader context, so that art is not ghettoized.
Q: Art is ghettoized?
EE: Marginalized, Section Five of the newspaper, not really important. In the mid 18th century a field called 'aesthetics' was invented during the high tide of rationalism in what is called the Enlightenment. Rationalism formulated social goals largely in terms of empirical science — the explanatory model of the day and one still lingering in our tools of thought even though science iself has moved on. 'Aesthetics' as codified by Alexander Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant was a refuge for art.
Perhaps they should have paid attention to a similar moment several centuries before the Christian era when the Greek playwright Euripides sent 'the Furies' underground so Athens could be run by Apollo, the god of reason. Apollo apparently didn't want to compete with the women who from time immemorial had woven the universe and each destiny in it from their central spindle. The political outcome was not good, leaving an impression that perhaps Apollo would have been wiser to share power.
The kinds of experiments that artists make can be seen in parallel with similar experiments in theoretical physics, or in the work of other people who are not necessarily rationalists. Their experiments are things that need to be made mainstream, or brought back into the discussion of politics, for example.
It’s not happening, especially in North America. There is so little pursuit of the implications of the 20th Century turn away from rationalism. It's as if this turn meant wholesale abandonment of all reason to embrace insanity. What it actually means is that we are no longer thinking about everything as empiricists, like people who chart, who map, who explain. Most of Eurocentric culture has understood this turn away from rationalism, taken what was useful, left what was not, and moved on. North America largely has misunderstood and dismissed it, childishly using the term 'Postmodern' to discredit it.
Q: Are there success stories in this period of ... I won't say post modern time, but in this period after rationalism?
EE: Sure. I find it really interesting that creative people pop up now, as they did in the past, in several different fields without knowing each other and without really knowing each other’s work, but somehow do similar things and at more or less the same time.
For example, when people started exploring the globe in the 14th and 15th centuries, they used a perspective device for projecting the globe so that they could say, 'these are the coordinates.' Even though they'd never been there, or we’ve never been there, we know this is the grid.’ That was the same kind of modeling that perspective artists used to paint realist paintings for the first time. And they didn’t consult with each other and have seminars. Something had happened; it’s magic.
That’s what’s going on now. I don’t think it is useful or even possible to bring it together and name it, say 'this is what’s happening.' But there are some filmmakers who are doing interesting things with sequence and identity. Quentin Tarantino, the Cohen brothers, Sophia Coppola in Lost in Translation, Alexander Payne, the director of Sideways, and several foreign film makers: Kieslowski, Godard, Bunuel, who have taken surrealism into new territory.
Q: The ones who succeed we describe as on the edge, pushing the envelope ... is there a way to describe the envelope?
EE: We are used to it; it is unproblematic. We assume as 'natural' the idea that there are neutral media, time and space, that everything is 'in' and that these act as common denominators. In the past a lot depended on the belief that there were common denominators, such as my favorites: neutral time and neutral space. Without them, mutually informative measurements would have been impossible, which means that empiricism would have been impossible, and was impossible through medieval times until those neutralities were invented in the Renaissance. Modern science was impossible until the Renaissance.
We don’t think about time and space the same way anymore.
Q: There are a few common things; we all know Brittany Spears.
EE: The interesting thing to me is to try to describe the cultural system that made Brittany Spears common knowledge — Why? Whose interests does it serve? And what structures is it part of? Because, obviously, she is not that interesting.
Q: What about the most popular art subject in Denver at the moment, the new Denver Art Museum by Libeskind?
EE: I should like it because it’s adventurous, so I’ll say it’s artistic because it does push the envelope, but it’s aggressive and unpleasant. I don’t like what it does to space. The only side I like to look at it from is the south, where it looks like a cabbage. I’ve been in a Frank Gehry building and it just makes me feel happy. Libeskind doesn’t make me smile; he makes me feel tired. I say 'alright, already, you’re fabulous.'
Q: Making art is hard, isn’t it?
EE: Look at Denver, there is a lot going on here, and I’m thinking of visual arts. +(Plus) Gallery is the one I like; the Gallery owner, Ivar Zeile, just consistently hits it. I don’t always understand it, or like it, but there’s just something bracing about the experiments that are good. How great it would be for Denver to have somebody, like an art czar, who really — I mean really — understands art like the curator at + Gallery does consistently and across the range of media and practice.
Q: Art czar? Art did not work well in totalitarianism. Nothing was produced after Russian Constructivists.
EE: The Constructivist are from the same era as Cubism. Isn’t it interesting that the all those people were doing the same stuff?
Did you know that Braque and a group of French artists sneaked across the border to connect with (Martin) Heidegger (philosophy professor at Freiburg University) because, in spite of their national, professional or linguistic differences, they both were looking in the same direction. Heidegger wrote THE book of the 20th century, Being and Time. And Braque was maybe even more inventive than Picasso.
Q: If Heidegger wrote THE book of the 20th century, how did he affect social renewal?
EE: You can’t plan social renewal. We have housing projects in Chicago that are the result of planned social renewal and they didn't all work. You can’t say 'here’s the result I want and this is the way I’m going to get it.’
It’s the opposite: Art is not a means to an end, an end in itself, but if it is done with discipline and imagination it will become a means that will, unpredictably produce a new end. An artist doesn't say 'here's what I want to say and here's how I'll say it.' No, all they do is experiment with their material, which very often has a mind of its own.
That’s what I like about installation art. The material becomes you and me to some extent. It starts pushing us around a little, makes us aware that we are in space, not outside looking in, not the voyeuristic tradition of art.
Q: Can you answer the question, what is the purpose of art?
EE: It’s a very backward-looking question because it implies that art is a tool: first you have purpose and then you have 'art' to express or realize that purpose. You imply that art is purpose driven. I don’t think that’s the way it works. Art is mysterious, an exploration of things that have something to do with the medium, the plaster, the clay or the paint, or whatever it is, or the transparencies, or the experience or the words that just have a life of their own. It’s kind of like making an intervention with something that is already there to see what happens.
And if you get really good at it — are a really good artist — you learn how to make that sing a little bit. So you can’t really think of it having a purpose. You can think of it in terms of having an outcome, which you could eventually chart, and from the point of view of that outcome, say 'ahh, the purpose of this gesture in art was to produce this outcome.’ I don’t think you can say you are an artist and have this purpose. I think you definitely don’t want that.
Q: Art isn't self-expression or describing my life on earth today?
EE: It’s more than that. Your question 'What is the function of art?' implies a goal, and there cannot be a goal as to what art should be. If something is art, it will have been essential to social renewal. As Marguerite Duras put it, 'if it is not art, it's just advertising.'
Q: In our Brittany Spears society, is art being effective?
EE: The way we talk about art is part of the problem. It's back to the idea that art is separated from what everybody does. In Raphael’s time, everybody painted, everyone mixed their own colors, and Raphael just got really good at it and had good connections — he was still just one of the kids in town.
Q: And now we've got a lot more kids in town.
EE: So many more, and we’re squashing the life out of them in the 3rd grade, turning them into little test takers, and cutting art out of the curriculum. Art is more important than science and math and anything else you could do for them at this point.
Q: Why is art so important?
EE: Because it gives the kids training in using their own powers. It doesn’t engage them in memorizing the results of what other people of power have produced. It gives them the chance to develop their own powers and produce their own results that may be ... something you didn’t imagine. Powers not results.
Kids seem to paint the same images no matter what culture they come from. They all start out with this ability to do great things and then we 'school' them with enlightenment (ours) instead of opportunity (theirs).
Q: There is a web of contemporary people, like a group of 3rd graders, who are painting the same picture. Some will push the envelope and be essential to social renewal?
EE: Maybe, but they won’t be living in Denver, because the superintendent has just cut art from their curriculum.
Q: And in politics, we’re pushing the same papers across the desk to each other?
EE: Back and forth, same old same old. No one is coming up with new ideas, new methods, new approaches.
I just helped with the election, and yes, I believe in getting out the vote but the usual way isn’t the way to do it. It just doesn’t have any effect. People would ask me, 'could we get any feedback on whether all this phoning I did makes any difference?' No, we couldn’t.
Q: Does the Internet make a difference?
EE: The Internet might look like a common denominator, but it is not neutral the way the media of modernity, time and space, have been neutral. Now what we have is an infinite web of synapses that do not belong to any recognizable body — social or other. It’s not really a staged thing anymore.
Q: What do you mean the Internet is not a staged thing?
EE: It's content is not planned. There is something about a public performance, from Elizabethan drama to MSNBC. The fact that a performance take place at a place has major importance. Instead of people milling about the street or around the church porch, they put a roof on a place, some walls around it, and people became aware of themselves as a body.
If you go to a concert or the theatre, it’s not like a movie where you forget who you are, where you are, and it doesn’t matter if you are with someone or not. There’s a self-consciousness about going to a performance, something that you do deliberately. People cough. You’re conscious that you are a perspective apparatus, that you are sustaining the object together.
Q: Like a piece I saw at Site Santa Fe by Mathieu Briand where he brought in helmets with cameras, and you, the visitor, wear a helmet and walk around the gallery. What you see is recorded and made available for other people in the gallery to see.
EE: That sounds so much better than those audio things they wear at the Denver Art Museum, where, like most museums, content is ignorant and misleading, the shallowest of received opinion, and certainly nothing to do with understanding art.
Q: Well, thank you for helping us understand art.