Evidently, it is a problem for artists as well as for users of art, or in other words the public, that art is placed in relation to society. In my view this has several causes, a couple of which I shall attempt to outline here.
With the concern over resources that has arisen out of necessity these past years as a result of the threat of ecological ruin, and which we will apparently see increasingly unfold in the future, different side effects have emerged in areas where this concern is more harmful than beneficial. It is acceptable to inquire about the social utility of consumer products, activities and the like, and their use of resources. But problems arise when the reasoning that ensues from this concern spreads to all layers of social production-including the production of our consciousness. We see the slow spread of the idea that nothing may be wasted, nothing may be initiated that is not already defined as reasonable, i.e. useful to society and resource-minded. At the same time, this idea changes so that it also covers ways of thinking. In recent years, it has become increasingly common for people to inquire about the public utility of art. In purely social terms, "the different" often appears to be irresponsible, inasmuch as it might not be directly placed under the prevailing reasoning-tied to nature (i.e. tied to natural resources) as this reasoning has increasingly become, in any case in its argumentation.
As a result of the dilemma of art in respect to society, or rather society in respect to art, art comes to multiply this claustrophobic concern over utility-the definition of petit bourgeois common sense-which makes each utterance a slave of the social consensus.
However, it is not only the rest of society that lays pressure on art, for although society says to the artist, be reasonable so that we can understand what you're saying, an increasing number of artists also feel the need to be "taken seriously." In this context, to be taken seriously means to be included in the general consensus.
Thus, the avant-garde position is not popular seen from one side. The artists do not want the marginalized position. Or they cannot bear to live in it. Perhaps also because this marginal position is not considered interesting for the time being. The rest of society only looks towards the avant-garde to the extent that it provokes the respectable citizens in a joyful and usually entertaining way. On the other hand, the avant-garde's insignia are dominant in the staging of art in respect to society. The role of the provocateur is being fulfilled. Without exceeding the scope of its powers, of course. Art is compelled to behave itself at a time when it is once again about to find its place in the public domain after the tumultuous 80s, when the free movement of art and the prices of works of art and other things were, for better or worse, predominant.
The spreading consensus, the hallmark of mass culture, is like a trauma for the marginalized visual arts. Quite understandably, people are tired of not being heard as long as they are working on their own profession and its history, rules, practices, and links to the surrounding world. Power, or the consensus, would like art to be linked to the sphere of experiences, where we are all experts, that is, the social sphere. Just look at the profusion of initiatives where some kind of art form is tied to social events or main issues, thus turning into culture.
Art has become the place where society can place its conception of the world as subjugated to the mechanisms of the free market. The last place where liberalism can be seen develop without control. Art incarnates Darwin's hypothesis on the "survival of the fittest." If not in reality then in any case as an image.
At the same time, artists and art constitute the site where society can place its idealism, its conception of "otherness." By relying on a conception of the artist as an individual who, in pain and privation, anticipates the way of the world out of pure and simple responsibility towards art, and by way of its prophecies concerning society, art can be socially called to account for its morality. It is a double-edged sword. In a way it is very flattering for artists that their surroundings believe them to be capable of claiming a higher morality, of being closer to the absolute, to the great truths, and what have you. Imagine receiving this predicate based on one's choice of profession alone! On the other hand, this maintains art and artists (as the only ones in the world, mind you) in a situation where anybody at all can accuse them of not taking their social commitment seriously enough.
What is new is that art must constantly account for itself, not only based on a principle of utility, as described above, but very concretely in the individual work. Allow me to exemplify this. After many years of discussing semiotics, it is now common knowledge that meanings are created in a net of other meanings. Thus, there is no undescribed place. Direct contact with the world is problematic as a phenomenon, for if everything is language, how is it possible to feel directly alive in respect to the world? This poses a problem for art as regards its own self-conception. A self-conception that has arisen through claiming over the course of many years that art is the place where honesty (which, it will be recalled, lasts longest) and a direct connection to the world is expressed. One might call this conception of art a shortcut between the individual and the world. An easier way of entering into a direct relationship with the world. In this context one might perhaps understand this direct connection to the world as that which is called the Absolute in another context.
Thus, taking this leap means that art constitutes a shortcut to the absolute, an almost religious function. If we do not take this quasi-religious idea seriously, there is another model for the direct connection art has with the world; that is, its connection to the social world. It is undeniably quite a different function we are speaking of here. Instead of speaking of the very big abstract questions and thus opening a space in the social, art places itself in the middle of average, everyday life;* the link here is quite obvious to everyone. For in this space everyone is an expert. It is not necessary to try to dedicate one's life to knowledge by means of art (a maxim in this connection is Rainier Maria Rilke's final verse in "Archaic Torso of Apollo": "for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life." The dual concern that the more formally oriented art works must carry in themselves, and in relation to an abstraction, disowns socially oriented art. For it is not in relation to foreignness as a fundamental human condition that social art flourishes. Rather it nourishes itself with the aforementioned close linking of the space of art and life. In this sense it mimics the self-conception of early modernism, that is, that art is dissolved in the act of living.
As for early modernism, I cannot refrain from calling attention to a fact that in my view is still meaningful in respect to the most recent contemporary art.
We are still struggling with our inheritance from early modernism. Its ideals and ideas were encapsulated and set aside quite early on in this century. A brief outline of my viewpoints goes roughly as follows: In my view early modernism is most interesting in its earliest phase. In the period between the turn of the century and the outbreak of World War I our consciousness underwent the considerable displacements that we can still call absolutely modern. In this rather brief period of time a series of new definitions were developed of the art world itself and the relationship between art and society. Of course, these new definitions were not defined theoretically at first, but are decipherable in the art works still in existence from this period. At this time, Kandinsky painted the first entirely abstract painting in our history; Picasso and Braque started cubism; the futurists, headed by Boccioni, were at work in Italy; in Holland, Rietweld drew houses and the familiar red, yellow, and blue chair; Stravinsky composed Sacre and Petrouschka, and Alban Berg and Schönberg worked in an environment that led to twelve-tone music (for example, their 5 and 6 orchestral pieces from 1909). Think of Rodin, Brancuse, Dadaism, Nijinsky, and the Russian Ballet; think of Freud. This entire fabulous shift in consciousness away from the stuffy Victorian houses, away from a postulated and stagnated historical/national awareness was well underway and led by the artists. The works mentioned and many, many more indicated an entirely new direction for art and society and for their interaction.
However, this entire project was overtaken by World War I. Functionalism (one might also use the word modernism) immediately turned into what one could call a functionalism of production. The functionality of things and society as it is outlined in early modernism is seized by the industry and in but few years it shifts from having a human standard of measurement to humankind being forced to submit to the production apparatus. In other words, the way the formal aspect regards itself as capable of working directly with the world is changed. The response of art to this situation, whether conscious or not, is to withdraw into itself. And it is precisely this withdrawal from the idea of a direct relation between art and society that we still see lingering on in the world's judgement of art.
It is after this regression that it becomes impossible for the world to understand that formally oriented art is at all tied to society. A simplification of the field occurs due to the fact that it is exclusively socially oriented art that has a monopoly on being able to "say something about society." Whether one wants it or not, this simplification means that the knowledge used by art and the discourse in which it places itself are often defined by other factors in advance. In this way the special reflective potential of art is lost.
The knowledge present in art is highly specialized and in many cases at as high a level of reflection as in the so-called exact sciences, whether it is a question of writing or the visual arts. However, there is of course the crucial difference that this knowledge, this level of reflection, must constantly be recreated in practice.
In my view, the usefulness and contemporaneity of art is not tied to the period in which it is created; likewise, previous knowledge is not invalidated by new knowledge as is the case in the exact sciences. What determines the contemporaneity of the work of art is the extent to which its knowledge can be recreated, or rather become of immediate interest-put into play.
Perhaps the idea of mastery still exists in art. Not only art's mastery of its own material, of techniques and tradition (that which is called academicism), but a mastery of the world. Due to the naming of the world attempted by each art work, a mastery also exists, regardless of whether there is a strategic aspect in the motivation for the work of art or it is pure will to power (as is written somewhere by a certain philosopher). This approach to the world with the sinister purpose of mastering it is perhaps the place where art and society meet.
It is difficult to define how the interaction between art and society takes place. It is my claim that the most fundamental connection is not of a social or moral nature. It may exist in a much more undemonstrable place. There are artists who have actually been very close to sociality, or rather power, in their practice. Allow me to name just one of them: the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich, whose work was wholly in the service of a certain cause on the surface. If one reads his writings, however, entirely different topics are brought up. The paradox lies in the fact that precisely an artist like him, who has been associated with the Russian Revolution in 1917 to such a great extent, unceasingly writes about knowledge, and even about God. Without hesitation, he upholds a revolution and a firmly anchored notion of something as absolute as a God. His radical heterogeneity became too much for the quickly fossilizing regime in the Soviet Union. Instead of maintaining the usual political/rhetorical slogans, one of the many things he said was that "the revolution has succeeded when each worker has a white cube on his mantelpiece."
This may sound like a corny statement, but to me it calls attention to the fact that the visual arts above all concern reflection and consciousness, and that it is in their continuous disclosure of the world that their force lies. Accepting this way of thinking leads to a number of avoidance manoeuvres beyond the surrounding world's immediate demand that the individual artist and work display social commitment at the general level of slogans. Both artist and work are in the paradoxical situation of at once having to refer to the world around them and having to attempt to avoid becoming fossilized in opinions. Statements like the one made by Malevich are, as just mentioned, at once an avoidance manoeuvre and a statement that precisely articulates the conditions for a revolution of consciousness. I could also use another image of these avoidance manoeuvres: alchemy. In alchemy there were two kinds of adepts. One was straightforward, doing everything in his power to guide the reader to the right track, towards knowledge of the absolute, which presumably constitutes the philosophers' stone. The other kind of adept was secretive, always doing his utmost to guide the reader as far away as possible from the quintessence of things. Moreover, they did not disclose whether they were of one kind or the other in order to force the reader to physically relive the knowledge. Without wishing to call art alchemy, there is still a parallel in the fact that art also demands a fairly physical understanding in order to be comprehensible at all, regardless of whether it is a matter of the artist or the viewer. Another condition shared by alchemy and art is that one can never be entirely certain when one is on the right track, no watchword suddenly appears and expels the openness. This position does not spell sheer joy for the artist. He does not consciously prepare traps in order to enjoy watching people fall into them. Precisely openness, or emptiness-another word for it-suddenly moves art out on a sidetrack in respect to society, raising the problem of legitimizing the practice of art.
For many years the sculptors of my generation claimed that slowness in particular was crucial in relation to a more and more mediated society with a greater and greater flow of information. Our thought was that the high speed-as seen in the television programs-caused a flattening of all structures. Thus, we called one of the first exhibitions we gave "Inertia, min elskede" (Inertia, my love). In the meantime, computers have appeared, and with them also a displacement of the relationship between speed and complexity. By way of the Internet and other vast networks, computers are capable of gathering, handling, and mediating highly complex information at a very high speed. The traditional "quality" of the visual arts thus drops, it no longer having a monopoly on great complexity.
Yet the space of the computer, which in certain areas could take over the definition of artistic meaning that was predominant in sculpture in the 80s-the relationship between complicatedness and speed-neither borders on the space of art nor on that of reflection. Only by virtue of its own primary demand: compatability, which ultimately means lack of scale. It is my claim that each reflection is coupled with the awareness of the space (scale) in which this reflection occurs. That is to say, there is a certain measure of pure physics in it.
One might think that socially oriented art is in fact characterized by its placement of physics as an immediate figure in its interaction with the world, and that it must thus be closest to a contemporary reflection. However, one more connection manifests itself, that is, the connection between the above-mentioned physical anchorage and language, i.e. the layer of culture and convention that must shift pure physics from pure being and sensing to projection and articulation.
The emergence-or rather re-emergence-of so-called social plasticity (I call it re-emergence because we already saw most of these forms in the 70s) points out an essential problem for art: the absence of an entity outside of art that can put the work on a scale; that is, an entity in respect to which a way of regarding the work can be supposed. It is true that the work needs an Other who can give the expression form; this concept is not conceived as a core of meaning, but rather as a link to reality to which the work relates by way of the means of the discipline in which it is placed. I thus wish to meet an often heard criticism of formalistic art: that formally oriented art is separated from the world or solely occupied with contemplating its own navel.
The concept of scale enters the picture in different ways. For one thing it appears in what one might call the problem of transition. A further difference between sculpture and virtual reality in the shape of computers and other information transported by the media is, as I mentioned above, that in the universe of the computer there are no transitions-transitions in a literal sense. Everyone can easily produce images, text, film, and the like on their home terminal, and without the slightest problem apply these different elements to one another.
The scale never appears because one is never faced with the problem of keeping together and synthesizing completely incommensurable entities in the claim of a unity, that is, in the dimensions 1:1.
Between what one might call "the other" and the world in 1:1 is a dividing line, a limit. Across this limit, both the limit itself and thus a topology of meaning, and at the same time the work as expression-i.e. of the optic through which the work sees the world-is continually being mapped out. We could call this continual mapping out "modelling" (modulation). Incidentally, in this way one can perhaps also approach one of the basic disciplines of the art of sculpture, that is, purely physical modelling. If we can regard physical modelling as a mental image, an incarnation of the relationship between the thing-the world-and "the other," then perhaps we can use this technique again; the continual subdivision of a surface-a continual clarification of relations regarding form and scale. But even without using traditional techniques and disciplines, this "modelling" makes sense as an image of how one can produce a very fine-meshed picture. That is to say, how one can approach the world as physics without necessarily accepting the world in terms of naturalism; that is, without the unifying, healing figure that the prototype (the model) constitutes in naturalistic visual art.
As opposed to architecture, which in many other respects is close to sculpture, sculpture almost always arises from an experience that in one way or another is linked to pure physics (again, a 1:1 connection to the world). Even for an abstract reflection, this purely physical point of departure turns the problematic of scale upside down. The scale of architecture serves to establish the relationship between viewer and structure. It serves, in other words, to raise the building to its full scale in the viewer's head, to make the absent building accessible to a physical experience, as it were. Here the scale is thus a measurement of empathy.
In sculpture, however, the scale is always 1:1. The problem is to get experiences in other media (scales) folded into this physically present figure. It is not possible to do so completely. One is constantly left with what I have mentioned a couple of times and which one could call the phenomenon of transition.
The transitions between these many different pieces of knowledge and experience must be brought on the same interpretive terms in order for sculpture to be regarded as "whole," or in any case coherent and delimited from its surroundings. Thus, the scale in sculpture serves to cultivate and unfold all the embedded considerations in sculpture in their own particular scales.
Perhaps in modelling, in the sense outlined above, an answer exists to whether the complexity of a figure is able to maintain its self-defined interpretative space over time. Can the way in which the figure, through its modelling across the border between the figure's point of reference and its physical place (also in the sense of realization here), outline a closeness, an inertia that in any case momentarily can maintain parts of the intentions embedded during the creation of the thing? I imagine that this could be the case. This means that the work of art is in fact more than its reception. Just as the work of art works on an "Other" during its creation (what I referred to and allowed to remain open above), the figure itself becomes "the Other" for the interpretation of it. Unbridgeable gaps exist between what lies before the work, the work, and ultimately what is said about the work. It is these gaps that at once make what is said about the work necessary and preclude the work from being captured in it.
Morten Stræde, May 1995