A Place to Know: Aesthetic Meaning in Recent Visual Art

A Place to Know: Aesthetic Meaning in Recent Visual Art

by Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlof


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To engage with the aesthetic is to watch yourself watching—and what you see cannot be reached, for all that exists is the reflection of the vision performed by you. The aesthetic experience offers insights into the consciousness that are both ancient and linked to creative inventions in present-day art culture. In A Place to Know, Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf interprets twelve recent artworks, from Sol LeWitt to Katharina Grosse. She sets out the unique claims and qualities which are inherent in seeing and understanding contemporary art. The book presents four analytical categories of artwork, charting the character of the aesthetic experience and the traditions that determine how we think about visual art. She peels back the layers of consciousness to lay bare the forgotten seams of experience, interwoven with artistic expression. The ancient thus arcs into a deepened awareness of avant-garde art. Artists whose works are discussed in detail include—in thematical order—Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Rémy Zaugg, John Chamberlain, Sofia Hultén, Louise Bourgeois, Julie Roberts, Marcel van Eeden, Amy Simon, Katharina Grosse, Ai Weiwei och Danh Vo.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789188661395
Publisher: Nordic Academic Press
Publication date: 08/31/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf is professor of Art History at the Stockholm University. She is retired from teaching, but is active as senior advisor to the University on questions on art-events, exhibiting art, and on perspectives on art in comparative analyses with other ways of thinking and expressing. From having dealt mainly with the classic traditions and the Baroque, she is now engaged in contemporary endeavours in art and exhibiting art.

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Paths through reflective territory

This book is about aesthetic meaning in the interpretation of visual art. It centres on twelve artworks exhibited between 2012 and 2016 at the Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art in Stockholm, and seeks to offer answers, but also an inner reflection on the thoughts that come into play when viewing visual art, and especially when consciously searching for meaning. The twelve studies are divided between four chapters according to the key concepts of the artworks, and specifically the appearance and character of their meaning: pictorial space, transformation, reference, and dimensional split. These interpretive fundamentals serve as a guide to what is broadly unknown territory.

The idea of meaning in visual art as a 'place' is essential to my theoretical approach. I think of meaning in the artworks as having a spatial quality, featuring in their depth and movement, their visual comings and goings. This is what I identify with most — a sometimes profound pictorial depth, opening onto the ever-receding vastness of time. To understand each artwork's mode of expression, I have returned to it several times. To understand the artwork, I need time and recurrent visits; I dwell on it; I return to it again and again, the same day, or many days later.

Aesthetic theory is rooted in specific artworks. Arguments about meaning are always relevant, but are equally open to objection whenever they project the reality of the exhibited works. I do not stop at the level of the specific artworks, however, but move onto more general areas of thought — the aesthetics of visual art, its preconditions, and its claims.

The artists whose works are studied here, arranged by interpretive theme, are Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, and Rémy Zaugg (pictorial space); John Chamberlain, Sofia Hultén, and Louise Bourgeois (transformation); Julie Roberts, Marcel van Eeden, and Amy Simon (reference); and Katharina Grosse, Ai Weiwei, and Danh Vo (dimensional split). The themes have a general, abstract form, but they are also evidence of the specifics of observation and showing. The process of understanding is one of observations and experiential moments in a sequence of one-off occurrences. There are many repetitions, all of them different, yet all repeating in some sense the agenda of comprehending and understanding a specific work, and the themes take their pattern from these occasions, resulting from the 'repetitions'.

In interpretations of visual art, the active elements are the 'viewer' and the body of the work, which is seen as being performed. The 'viewer' is a role. It is a special attention brought to bear on the work and a far-reaching, media-specific experience pursued by the person engaged in the interpretation. The viewer, then, is both a specific person and a structure of viewing inherent in the artwork.

To see and interpret art is a professional role, reminiscent of the actor's craft. Its agenda is to apply a certain attention and experience to what is presented in the work. The role of the interpreter is reminiscent of a scenographer or narrator. The individual self of the interpreter becomes a hidden but active resource in addressing readers or audiences. To interpret is a further step on from the involved act of looking. To interpret a work is a public and social act. The interpretation, however, must be based on the viewer's subjective involvement in the 'world' of the artwork. Each work has a special tone and brings into play traces of experiences, far beyond written explanations. Each work evokes reflections on art's many transformations.

For art, repeatedly, has 'died' and risen again from its ashes, transformed. The absolute preconditions for the artact have been challenged, erased, and reconstructed. The next play is already being built on the closing moments of the previous act.

In exploring aesthetic reflection, I have selected the crossroads and paths where visual art is understood as the interplay of difference — in 'art', in 'the aesthetic', and 'the imaginary'. Works of visual art, in present-day situations, are often combinations of techniques, methods, and structures, and so may comprise sounds and text, or be screen-based, or present moving bodies, or occur sequentially. Yet, the art form as such is identified as 'visual art'. The artworks considered here all date from the past fifty years, a choice that acknowledges the medial variability that informs them all. Texts, sounds, passing time, performing bodies, and props of a scenic character — these are all elements that today are frequently combined with images, pure forms, and objects in visual art.

There have been loud demands for 'purity' in art, opposing the tendency towards blending and multiplicity. In the second half of the eighteenth century, 'art' was thematized in two different ways, devolving on the one hand into a plurality of categories and subcategories that mirrored various uses of imagery and objects with representational content (reflecting a growing market and acknowledging specific individual needs and interests concerning images), and on the other hand yielding to media-specific 'purity' for each art form. The art theory of modernism was based on ideas of essence and difference. Over the last three centuries or so, art that was seen as transgressing the boundaries of its own ontological identity has at times been criticized and discounted for its lack of 'purity'.

In its present expressive abundance, visual art casts back over the centuries, beyond the 'modern', sometimes aligning with forms of expression in distant times when ritual, belief, power (and especially contested power), emotional needs, and existential orientation were conditions for a visual expression that had a complexity and perfection equal to what is seen in the things that were labelled 'art' later. Yet visual art's 'modern' phase, like its legacy, cannot be expunged. It is the impact of premodern practices and non-Western practices that make visual art the complex hybrid it so patently is. And, in this hybridization, we find the claim of the optical, the perceptual, the spatial, the visual, which, stemming from 'modern' art theory, influence or mark elements with tactile, audial, narrative, conceptual, or processual characters. The effects are bewildering, and unique to any understanding of visual art. Our impressions of art stem from its tactile or audial expressivity, and are effected through our immersion in visual energy.

The obscurity of it all — the issue of notions of imagery — arises in the wordless, 'silent' aspect of visual art. The work can resonate, it can contain speech and more, and yet it is cognitively silent. Visual art is not transcendent, which is the epithet commonly given to music. Music is an idealized conflation of romanticism and symbolism which transcends the factuality of its making and speaks straight to the soul. According to classical Greek astronomy, it is also a quality of the passage of the celestial bodies — a sounding, spiritual movement. It is certainly one of the traditional liberal arts, combined with mathematics and harmonies, and thought to be ultimately the business of angels. Visual art, meanwhile, is physical, for it deals with that side of the existential condition. It has a vulnerable body, always susceptible to wounds.

Some periods have seen revolutions in the arts, when the boundaries and features of expressive means were renegotiated and systems tended to overlap or blend into one another, yet the essential qualities of the proper sphere were defended all the while. The means were put to the test, its functions retrieved from other areas to revitalize a tradition. The Renaissance, the Baroque, and symbolism at the turn of the last century were all such waves of change. In the baroque, for example, architecture and sculpture were grafted onto each other, and in painting the affinity with visual perceptions was marked in the extreme, balancing an equally extreme artificiality in the treatment of paint as substance.

Just such a reworking of categories came in the late fifties and sixties in New York. In the fifth issue of the magazine 0 to 9 (1969), Sol LeWitt published the famous thirty-five 'Sentences on Conceptual Art'. In the first, LeWitt announces that 'Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.' Until the late sixties, the truth of LeWitt's claims, while borne out by experience, was not tested as theory. What were thought of as serious projects turned out to be chaotic, and it was not obvious whether there was a failure to face up to the challenges, given the diffident attacks on the presumptions of the opposition in the polemics of art: visual art versus linguistics; concepts versus traces of the artist's hand, personality, and individual style; expressions of the mind versus devices generating dehumanized compositions. There is no way to tell if LeWitt was being ironic, desperate, or sincere when he called conceptual artists 'mystics'. LeWitt's Serial Project #1, published in 'The Minimalism Issue' of Aspen magazine in 1967, presents an elaborate device for the rebirth of art and language; a multidimensional manual for an automatic sign-production based on numbers and ratios. What cannot be denied is that his rational apparatus eventually collapses into unreadability, as if to communicate the incompatibility of the linguistics regime (repeatable) and the visual regime (the performative).

In the following, one of Sol LeWitt's 'wall-drawings' is my selection for a first presentation. In his work there is a realization, in all senses, of the key issues of visual art: plan and execution; line and space; intention versus irrational impasse; the boundlessness of reflection and the specificity of the work; the interplay of surface and space, art's vast domains of expressivity. In LeWitt's work there is the impression of a surface tending to close itself, in active resistance towards a virtual opening space.

Visual art and the arts — the conditions of interpretation

Literature and music are at the aesthetic extremes, and as such dominate in different ways. Both art forms belong to the construct that is the 'liberal arts', and both rely on intellectual refinement in the competition with the other arts. Literature and music not only define much of the aesthetic discourse, they are also opposites. Poetry (aligned originally with rhetoric) was thought superior because of its affiliation with thought and philosophy; music through its spiritual nature, its lack of bodily manifestation, and its power to stir the emotions. The more abstract the form of expression, the higher its value — and the more invulnerable it is to physical decay and fragmentation, let alone the caprices of its owners with their power strategies. Visual art, on the other hand, was nothing if not tangible, exposed to the threats of physical decay, and always hedged about with financial considerations, political struggles, building projects, and social stratification.

In the intensifying debate in the eighteenth century about literature and pictorial art, the focus was on 'imagination', about the human ability to project in the mind scenes of a 'world' with scenery and figures. A 'story' with various roles was thought of as being played out in these arts — differently presented, but similarly having protagonists, life-journeys, places, and detail.

In the later nineteenth century, music became the more radical paradigm for developments in visual art. The inspiration came from German philosophy, from Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Opera became the all-embracing artistic expression of choice, where the power of music to express and stir the emotions totally overshadowed its narrative structure. With music as a different kind of touchstone, abstraction reached visual art, in the shape of symbolism and modernism. With music as its latent reflector, visual art abandoned narrative and endorsed the overwhelming wholeness of emotional impact. But the essential qualities of 'image' emerged in visual art in new ways: the remaining shapes in painted, drawn, photographed, or sculpted form inspired a sense of timelessness, and with it the silence that is so characteristic of visual art. If music was the analogy for abstraction in visual art, it remains there as a powerful memory or as a formative prototype, the tool of a cast.

Come the period around 1970 in New York, artists were opting for a 'cool' mode of creation, a condition where sensation and emotion leaked out of the system of designation. Associated but not identical with linguistic elements, however, works of visual art still used a mode of showing. In the process, they brought out other likenesses with words and grammar (beyond the abstract and systematic). Visual art also called for the inscription of letters, a theme that became common ground for both the visual and the linguistic as art forms — with high stakes and challenges on both sides. Literature ventured beyond its shelter within the human mind, and merged with visual art to become visual or audible signs (rather than mental signs). Ultimately, words were observed materially (not only as signifers) and heard as sounds more than as meaning (for instance, in performances of Samuel Beckett's plays).

In Sol LeWitt's works, the sliding value scales for different art forms merge — the abstract and arbitrary with the visual and analogous. The aura of high value culminates in the features that are comparable to music, the most abstract and simultaneously most emotional art form.

The 'cool' grids of LeWitt's works are not language, nor are they technology. To me they seem to emerge from past sufferings, and then to offer a sense of resistance, with magnificent solutions of the incompatible contact between abstraction and abundance. His works seem to fight off semiotic philosophy, intent on establishing an alternative order by means of other radical oppositions than the grammatical — differences that occur between levels of acts rather than as a result of the application of 1's or 0's in a digital system.

The power balance between the art forms can also be measured, using questions about what can be interpreted in the arts, and how. Literature is very 'eloquent' in the sense that it coordinates easily with interpretive reasoning of a distinctive, philosophical kind, whether it be semiotics, hermeneutics, discourse theory, reception aesthetics, or post-structuralism. However, in phenomenology, a philosophy that aims at a perceptual level of consciousness beyond language and psychology, the 'visual' character is more one of philosophical self-reflection than of experience reminiscent of visual art.

Literature is not only close to the conceptual thinking found in language, the written sign also shares with writing a degree of independence of its source. The level of abstraction is also the precondition when the reader 'invents' the people and places described in the text. The situation that used to be typical of reading literature — by oneself and in silence — is connected to ideas about modern subjectivity. The experience of visual art, meanwhile, continues to take place in a social arena, with social codes reminiscent of the premodern era. As a spectator, you the viewer are in a public situation: you are alone in your inner experience, but as a visitor in a public space you are observed and you can address other people in the audience.

These differences in the siting of reception are about to merge and thus to some extent dissolve. In the computer age, instead of closing oneself off when reading a book and exploring fantasies in a solitary situation, the self in a reading act has become public.

Even though poetry, images, drama, and music can today appear fragmented or variously combined in digital interfaces, many centuries of tradition, stretching back to classical antiquity, are active in any basic understanding of the arts. Literature is closer to theoretical thinking and philosophy. When Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten coined the term 'aesthetic' (1735), his purpose was to state ideas about poetry and knowledge, and thus he argued for a specific 'aesthetic' knowledge — variable, dense, and consisting of many elements — second in value to logic, and yet 'knowledge' nevertheless.

The standard understanding of expressions such as drawing, painting, and sculpture was established through encyclopaedic literature, such as the biographies written by Pliny the Elder during the Roman imperial era in his Naturalis historia, where painting is denoted by the substance of pigments in nature, and sculpture by the physical qualities of stone and metal. Apart from presentations in the format of atlases and surveys, things that we now call 'visual art' were described in instructions for artists — during the early Renaissance, about how to construct central perspective and other impressive methods to convince and and deceive the eye of powerful patrons.


Excerpted from "A Place to Know"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Nordic Academic Press and Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf.
Excerpted by permission of Nordic Academic Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Paths through reflective territory,
Visual art and the arts — the conditions of interpretation,
The viewer and the aesthetic dimension,
Aesthetic meaning in visual art,
2. Pictorial space,
Flat surfaces as a 'picture',
Sol LeWitt,
Agnes Martin,
Rémy Zaugg,
3. Transformation,
John Chamberlain,
Sofia Hultén,
Louise Bourgeois,
4. Reference,
Julie Roberts,
Marcel van Eeden,
Amy Simon,
5. Dimensional split,
Katharina Grosse,
Ai Weiwei,
Danh Vo,
6. Aesthetic interpretation,
The artwork's world of inclusion and exclusion of the viewer,
The multiple and variable self,
Interpreting visual art, interpreting truth,
About the artists,

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