Archive for January, 2010


Loss of the individual genius – PART 3: Loss of the Single Author.

At this point in history it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe in the concept of the individual genius. The genius can only be understood in the structure of the collective thought that has gone before. The individual genius as a concept is grounded in Modernist thought. The Modernist way of thinking has led us to believe that the genius idea can be found in originality. In this framework we understand the concept of the genius as the originator of original thought – the embodiment of originality. The struggle then is for individuality and originality though innovation. However, as the broad basis of knowledge increases so does specialisation. And as specialisation increases so does the need for collaborative knowledge pools.

The romantic notions of the artist in the studio struggling to create that last master piece, as is so often portrayed by popular fiction, becomes absurd in the 21st century. This is still a notion that is popularised by many American critics. The premise for this argument lies in the idea that the artist is still an individual genius, an idea that fits in well with the ‘American dream’. This kind of thinking is also often shrouded in myth. The 1980’s debate on the death of painting is rather glib and beyond the scope of this essay – a  myth that points to an aspect of the crisis taking place in Art at the end of this millennium. The truth of this myth lies with the accepted notion that art has reached a crisis at the end of the 20th century and that the old forms of communication are riddled with confusion. Certain Art forms as forms of expression are locked in genres that carry too much past baggage that confuse meanings. If one can still see painting, or more specifically a painting, as a powerful communicator in a multi-media and multi-disciplined world culture then one’s approach is based on naïveté. Walter Benjamin outlined the significance of meaning in artworks and the resultant crisis in 1935:

It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance and prevailing for three centuries, clearly showed that ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it. With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter (Walter Benjamin).

In recent times the ability to reproduce artworks mechanically has been made available to the general public on a mass scale. This availability is cost-effective and easily assessable to a majority that has opened the door to new forms of expression. The history of mechanical reproduction started with the Greeks using techniques of founding and stamping. In later centuries the woodcut allowed graphic art to be distributed on to a larger audience and in the 10th century engraving and etching techniques became available. In the 19th century, lithography allowed for inexpensive changes and recreations of graphic images, but this was soon surpassed by photography and film  (Walter Benjamin).

It has been these changes that have undermined the concept of the presence of the original as a prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. The idea of authenticity in art has recently been a sensitive issue in Western thought. As Walter Benjamin says:

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object (Walter Benjamin).

If we take this argument further, we see how reproduction has opened the gaps for collective ideas to seep through. As he states:

To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility matter (Walter Benjamin).

Walter Benjamin sees the shift that occurs in artworks as one from ‘been reproduced’ to ‘predetermined reproduction’ but what has actually happened is that the artworks are currently an ‘aspect of reproduction’. In other words, the shift that has occurred is one from the ‘observed’ to the ‘participant’.

In late 20th century Western cultures the reference framework for Art, through specialisation, is undermined. The author’s ideas have been increasingly isolated from a larger framework and meanings have become centralised in partial contexts. With Modernist values losing credibility, the information explosion, and with new ways of expression available to the artist, the artist as the isolated singular author becomes increasingly absurd. Even Walter Benjamin realized that “painting is simply in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience” (Walter Benjamin).

The 21st century will be a time of collaboration between specialists with a specific goal that is predetermined via common premises. An artwork may have a single or multiple author(s). Ultimately the artwork remains a singular isolated component that can only be understood in the context of the framework that has been attributed to it by the society within which it is contexturalised. The meaning of the object/item/artwork can only be altered as the social context and structure changes. A sort of one-to-many relationship is established between the object/item and its meaning. As Julian Scaff in discussing Walter Benjamin’s article on the “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” points out:

The digital reproduction of anything is not reliant upon any materiality in the process, apart from the quantification of an image of a material object. This makes it vastly different than any other technology of reproduction in history. Digital reproduction is actually based on a philosophy of quantification that began with the ancient Greeks. This philosophy of quantification lead directly to the invention of binary code, the representation of information with ones and zeros. The reproduction of art using this binary code removes any materiality from the process, and thus the digital is quite different than the mechanical. Although mechanical (especially photographic) reproduction forever changed our notions of authenticity and perhaps destroyed the ritualisticness of art in our society, these notions may not even apply at the simplest level to the digital reproduction. Much of this is due to the very apparatus of the computer. Just as the apparatus of the camera itself changed notions about art, imagery, and reality more so than the content of the medium, the computer apparatus is inherently resistant to older assumptions about the purposes of art, the substantiability of authenticity, and the role of the artist (Julian Scaff).

He goes further in showing the changes that have taken place in the values of late 20th century reproduction:

 What is authentic with a digital reproduction? The artwork on the computer can be replicated a hundred or a million times, each copy being perfectly identical. With the ingress of the global internet, the digital work of art may be transmitted and viewed by millions of people in schools, offices, and homes any time of the day in countless different conditions. Not only does authenticity become meaningless, but space and time become an ambiguity for which we only have vague metaphors such as “cyberspace.” With the digital reproduction of art there may still be an “original” somewhere in the world that was scanned, sampled, or otherwise digitized, but the digital art form takes on a life of its own.

The apparatus of the computer is totally unlike the camera as a device for reproduction. The camera is a very accessible and inexpensive piece of technology, now requiring very little skill, and with processing labs abundant and relatively cheap in developed nations. However, the camera is only one step in the process of reproduction. Most users are quite removed from the film developing process, and do not have access to modes of mass production and distribution. The computer apparatus, on the other hand, serves as the mode of production, reproduction, and mass distribution. For around a thousand dollars, anyone with a telephone line can buy a computer with a modem and be “surfing” the web, grabbing digital art works, reproducing them, and distributing them to other web surfers (Julian Scaff).

Computer art   and the Internet has been essential in breaking the hold that Modernist thinking has had on authorship, creativity and genius. As Julian Scaff says: “Not only is authenticity in question, but the idea of authorship is almost obsolete” (Julian Scaff).

The creation of artworks by many authors over a period of time is also important in understanding the loss of authorship. An object/item/artwork that is created by many authors over time, creates new facets of experience that regenerate meaning. When looking at an artwork created in this way it is important to understand the time and spatial based relationships. If the original work is the parent, the next generations are the child/ren and their sibling/s. In other words, the parent produces a next generation or child/ren that can also produce child/ren or sibling/s. The genes of the parent are passed onto the child. The work and its creator are positioned historically as time specific, but the work is also time-untied as it is a self-regeneration of a form by new creators. What happens here is that the meaning of each single stage of the artwork appears to be prescribed by the sequence of all proceeding events and the potential of all future ones.

The work as a living organism

 Works that are created by multi authors over unfixed time frames are developmental. Multiple authors work in historical positions that are tuned to the current historical contexts, the present requirements and the context of the specific age. Sianne Ngai in discussing recent issues in contemporary art has coined the term ‘agglutination’ – “the mass adhesion or coagulation of data particles or signifying units” (Sianne Ngai) – to describe this move away from the singular author. However, she incorrectly sees agglutination as achieved only through the devices of repetition, permutation, and seriality and not as a collective process of progression and recreation. The result of only seeing agglutination in this way rather than as the potential rebirthing force that it is, is that agglutination becomes a negative force in contemporary art. The agglutination of an artwork is one that evolves to recreate meaning by removing the idea of the completed artwork.

The concept of the final or finished product is lost when the work is a recreation of potential and actual creators. The artwork is a result of the individual and collective reinvention and counter-invention of the artwork, which is the artwork. The artwork is in a constant state of evolution and meaning is reestablished in context to contemporary issues. To view the individual results or instances is equivalent to the understanding of moments in isolation – it’s like viewing a singular frame of a film.

What each of the creators do is to realize a moment of crystallisation of the work as a potential. The individual may be limited by a specific time frame but through mating with others is able to create a rebirth that occurs continually over time with an evolving meaning framed in changing contexts. The individual author is lost and replaced with the multi-author. The individual object/item/artwork is lost and replaced with the progressive state.

The individual genius is dead…



“There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause”. Mao Zedong (1893-1976), Founder of the People’s Republic of China. “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May 1942; published in Selected Works, vol. 3).

As a Gallery director in 1970 it was pretty easy to ‘Hang’ your Gallery. You displayed artworks by collections, periods or styles. Works could be easily located and a sense of familiarity was bred into the enthusiastic gallery visitor. Galleries could be divided according to Modern and Historical styles, Local and International, Movements and Collections. Generally, the trick was to rotate the works in a collection, period or style every so often, so the Gallery was able to display all its collection over a period of time. The Public interest was increased as their favourite works would appear on display at one time or another. The works were framed in their context, which is in the frame of contemporary works with similar stylistic reference points. Many galleries still hang their collections according to these principles. The logical meaning of this Modernist approach to ‘Hanging a Gallery’ relied on the historical context of the works and reinforced a linear understanding of art based on progressive and developmental principles.

The approach in its essence is pragmatic. The meaning of the artwork is conveyed by it being placed in the correct historical ‘box’, or frame of references. This doctrine isolates the meaning of the work in its observable practical traits. So as a gallery visitor my understanding of an artwork is improved by seeing examples of the artist’s works in the context of being framed by their peers. I am meant to observe similarities and differences so I can compare their stylistic progressions to other periods and styles. The gallery may have a vast collection of their works and these can be rotated from time to time without reconsidering a total unrealistic rehang of the gallery. The artwork is seen as positioned in a historical structure. The problem is that the structure is a fabrication and understanding of the artwork is based on empiricist lines of thought.

These sound principles of arrangement and display have been followed in many other disciplines. Video/DVD stores do a similar thing. Videos/DVD’s are displayed by genre: thriller, comedy, action, etc. In both cases, the person/s arranging the collection are not trying to communicate a direct message, although they cannot help but send a message of reading and readings to the public. This approach often says more about the collector/curator than about the collected item.

A way forward is to try to give meaning to the works on display while acknowledging the context of the Gallery and its artworks in its local community with the bias of the Display Artist (or even better display artist’s) left transparent. The Gallery becomes a place where the viewer is confronted by works that have been chosen from a wide range of time frames and periods with the aim of provoking debate and engaging local interests, concerns, fears etc. This means that the Gallery visitor is not engaged in a purely Empiricist debate, but rather a virtual one. The Gallery becomes a place where the viewer experiences relationships that actively engage local issues with the understanding that the context of the display has been arranged to enhance these specified needs. What become important are the relationships established between the Items, the Selector, the Viewer and the Environment. The emphasis on context can be achieved by hanging artworks by community themes or concepts.

The Display Artist/s [a.k.a. curator] create an experience through selection. The approach of provoking meaning and readings frees the individual items from being seen in isolation or in a linear time frame. The items become contexturalised in present ideas. The meaning of the individual artworks is always shifting and being regenerated. Meaning becomes flexible, temporary and transient. This means that the importance of the Gallery shifts from passive receptor to active engager of meaning. The Gallery dis-plays the role of a peoples place where learning, reconciliation and reflection take place. The role of the Display Artist/s shifts from arranger (archivist) to communicator (artist). The role of the Gallery shifts from the cacophony of individual voices of disarray to interactive collective community engendered.