The Figurative Language of the Art Myth

Essay by R.Cronk

The fine artist is a con-artist. The first move in the art-making process is wrong. It is a lie and it has to be. On the strengths of intuition and inspiration, the artist makes it right. Art creates its own truth. It gives the imagination credence as a tool of the intellect. Truth in art need not extend beyond the art object and viewer. Every painting makes the propositional statement: 'This is art.' The viewer decides the truth. Truth in art is not rational or objective. It discloses itself in the encounter.

But art is not based on the phenomenology of perception alone. What distinguishes the aesthetic revelation of art is its context. The experience takes on the attributes of an analytic proposition. The painting proclaims its relevance to the viewer from a context that includes all art. There is an implied conceptual circumstance surrounding the perceptual experience of the art encounter. It is a 'meta' experience: it is an experience meant to reflect on itself and its nature as art. The encounter challenges the viewer to realize its value in relation to the history of art. Art works because it fulfills the conditions of the belief system of the myth in a way that alters what is known about art and/or about ourselves. It inspires a sense of truth that insures its relevance to the viewer as it incorporates the viewer into the developing cultural mythology.

The artist is a cultural trickster, mocking aspects of culture as he reconstitutes its anthropomorphic myths. From art's self-analytic perspective, new art parodies the old before the first paint stroke is laid. To this extent the most novel approach can be seen as a reconfiguration of previous approaches. Even the Formal masterpieces of high Modern carry an implied reference to the work that came before it. New art recognizes previous art as progenitor, and recasts at least some of its elements into a new context. This process qualifies the sociocultural conditions implicit in the new work as contiguously evolved from the previous, and at the same time reconfirms the relevance of the heritage of which it is an extension. Paradoxically, the self-referential nature of art works to stabilize the fragmenting structures of our cultural heritage even as it negates the credibility of its defining attributes.

The recognition of art for its parodic nature acculturates the viewer. The realization has value as a revelation with metaphysical content. Parody is a deconstructive strategy that recasts the metaphysical truth of previous art into a new context that insures a synthesis of viewer, history and a burgeoning world view.

Deconstruction is an underlying strategy at work in Modern art from its beginning (Manet). In recent decades deconstructive strategies have been gleamed from the undercurrent to become the defining methodology of post-modern art. As a contemporary trend, the deconstructivists trained their analytic perspective on the underlying assumptions of Modernism. By exposing the flaws in the logic of post-Kantian aesthetics, they negated the metaphysics of presence in the fine arts. Ironically, deconstruction became the means for transferring ontological value to a new context. By making no attempt to draw conclusions beyond their own criticism of an existing text, the transference of ontological value is left hidden as faith in the underlying principles and assumptions that guide the reading. Deconstructive parodies restructure the art myth to substantiate ideals not yet falsified by nihilistic inversion.

The nihilistic vision of reality portrayed in post-modern aesthetics is another dying myth. It has no more essential truth than the now naive idealism of Modernism. While the logic of the deconstructive methodology is convincing, history has shown that shifting epistemological parameters will eventually undermine the ontological ground of even the most reasonable proposition.

The sense of truth associated with art, whether that of mathematical idealism or aesthetic symbolism, is a reflection of the human condition. However circular and self-fulfilling the logic, truth is not an absolute or objective property apart from the belief system it substantiates. Truth is the affirmation of the myths that define our world. Seen as the sanctifying agent of a sacred narrative, scientific truth is a subset of aesthetic truth. The only truth we can know is felt truth; the passionate personal knowing of the moment. Its value extends no further than the context from which it is perceived.

Despite the objective resolve of Structural and deconstructive aesthetics, they are no less mythic than the Formal aesthetic they displaced. Interpreted as supporting reductionist and positivist arguments, Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even is axiomatic in the dialectics of post-modern aesthetic theory. It is ironic that the piece has become a historical artifact of iconic significance. For the esoteric audience, the fractured panes of the Broken Glass emanate a sacred aura. It works as a numinous symbol of the belief system it helped to establish. The transgressive syllogism of the deconstructive masterpiece has become the transformative symbol of new mythology. In deconstructing the existing myth, the Glass restructured the art myth.

While mainstream aesthetics may no longer be preoccupied with the aesthetic response or the disenfranchised ideals of Modernism, the pivotal masterpieces of post-modernism still inspire an appreciation and status greater than the logic and materials that produced them. This is their symbolic value in the substantiation of an active art myth. The strength of Structural and deconstructive aesthetics lies not only in their arguments, but in the assimilation of a new generation of aesthetes.

Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved

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