unsafeArt asks: What is the Purpose of Art?

And the Answer, according to ...

Elizabeth Ermarth : Ermarth is a professor who won’t be nailed into a department. She is in the process of moving to Canada to head the PhD program in Cultural Studies at Trent University, Ontario. This program gives students the opportunity to study culture holistically using a variety of departments: English, philosophy, anthropology, art, history, politics or something else I am not imagining. She’s taught at the University of Edinburgh, University of Maryland, University of Colorado and others. Ermarth has written about the current state of culture, and its momentous development since the dawn of Modernity. which started with the Renaissance and is now undergoing tectonic change in which we have lost the keys to social renewal. Art, she said, is essential to this social renewal.

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  • More Answers

     Q: Social renewal, you said, is the function of art. But we are losing the keys to this social renewal because of tectonic changes in culture. Modernity, you said, began in the Renaissance, so when did we start loosing the keys?

    EE: I think something happened in 1900 that amounts to critical mass when it comes to paradigmatic cultural change. At least at some level there was a real turning of the tanker, and in which directions -- where we are going -- I have no idea, and I think that this has significant implications about the art we value, about what we expect from art.
    Pretty landscapes and portraits aren’t going to do it for us anymore and 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: Is art 'Ghettoized'?

    EE: Marginalized, Section Five of the newspaper, not really important. Aesthetics was invented by (Alexander) Baumgarten in the mid 18th century and is a rationalist idea — understand the rational in society and learn how to make people better people — it is all conceived in a scientific model, and if it’s not conceived in that model, it (i.e. art) is probably secondary. These 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, and are things that need to be made mainstream, or brought back into the discussion … of politics, for example.

    It’s not happening; there is so little pursuit of the implications of this turn away from rationalism. It doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be crazy, but that we are no longer thinking about everything as empiricists, like people who chart, who map, who explain — and thank god.

     Q: Who has successfully moved into this period after modernism?

    EE: Talk about (Jacques) Derrida; I think he has. He’s very hard to understand and most people will never read Derrida. He does what (Vladimir) Nabokov would call anthematic* development. Instead of explanatory, rational, causal development, anthematic development loops out and comes back. Think of it as a butterfly design. I don’t find it in the OED; I think he made it up. Instead of being thematic it’s a-thematic. It goes sideways.

    Back to that question of who is succeeding - I think it is so interesting - Creative people pop up in different fields without knowing each other, and without really knowing each other’s work, but somehow at the same time.

    When people started exploring the globe in the 14th and 15th centuries, they used a perspective device for projecting the globe so that we could say, 'these are the coordinates, even though we’ve never been there, we know this is the grid.’ And that was the same kind of modeling that perspective artists used to paint realist painting 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 its possible to bring it together and name it, say this is what’s happening, but there are some filmmakers who are doing interesting things: (Quentin) Tarantino, or, sort of, the Cohen brothers, even Sophia Coppola in Lost in Translation or that movie Sideways, and several foreign film makers. Filmmakers took surrealism and made it more current than most people.

     Q: These people push the envelope, and what is the envelope?

    EE: The idea that there is a common denominator. We are used to it; it is unproblematic. And a lot depended on the belief that there are 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 through Medieval times; modern science was impossible until those neutralities were invented in the Renaissance. We don’t think about things that way anymore.

     Q: There are a few common things, right? 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. + Gallery is the one I like; he (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.

     Q: We need an Art czar?

    EE: I like the idea. Someone who really — I mean really — understands art like the curator at + Gallery does consistently and across the range of media and practice.
    But as you said, art did not work well in totalitarianism. Social Realism -- but the Russian constructivists? Isn't it really interesting that they are the same era as Cubism? All those guys where doing that stuff over there.
    Did you know that Braque and a group of French artists snuck across the border to have seminars with (Martin) Heidegger, (philosophy professor, associated with the Freiburg University, who did remain at Freiburg during Hitler's reign). Nevertheless, in some ways, Heidegger wrote THE book of the 20th century, Being and Time. Here’s Braque, maybe even more inventive than Picasso, going and connecting with that guy.

    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. 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 produce a new end. An artist does not 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 has a mind of its own, very often.

    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: What is the purpose of art, ultimately?

    EE: It’s a very backward question because it implies that first you have art and then you have a purpose, that your 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 is not about describing life on earth today?

    EE: It’s more than that.

    Q: So this is why my question 'what is the function of art?' is a backward question?

    EE: There cannot be a goal as to what art should be, but if something is art, it will have been essential to social renewal.

    Q: In our Brittany Spears society, is art effective?

    EE: The way we are talking about art as a separate entity is part of the problem. Somewhere art got separated off from what everybody does. In Raphael’s time, everybody painted, everyone mixed their own colors, and he just got really good at it and had good connections. Raphael was still just one of the kids in town.

    Q: It's hard to know who's good today. We have a lot more kids in town.

    EE: So many more, and we’re squashing the life out of them in the third 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 the most important subject for 3rd Graders?

    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 – god knows what – 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 that many great artists like Klee struggled their whole life to get back to.

    Q: This web of contemporary people, like a group of 3rd graders that would paint the same picture, some will push the envelope and be essential to social renewal?

    EE: Yes, 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 say to me, 'could we get any feedback on whether all this phoning I did makes any difference.' No, we couldn’t.

    Q: We don’t have to listen to network news or read the Denver Post, any more. We can choose what and when to read.

    EE: They - Corporate America - they’re going to try to kill that. There’s legislation in the Congress already to cut the Internet up, so it’s not one medium anymore.

    It is the common denominator, now. Used to be the neutral medium that allowed us to be rational and scientific and make measurements and do some explanatory things, but now we have got an infinite web of synapses that are useable in a heady way. It’s not really a staged thing anymore.

    Q: Our method of information gathering was staged?

    EE: There is something about a public performance, as in Elizabethan drama. The theatre as a place was important. The fact that 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 being assembled, something that you do deliberately; people cough. You’re conscious that you are a perspective apparatus, sustaining the object together.

    Q: That reminds me of a piece I saw at Site Santa Fe by the conceptual artist Mathieu Briand. He made 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 is so much better than those things they wear at the Denver Art Museum.

    Q: Where everyone holds something to their ear and receive opinions?

    EE: Exactly.