(As reflected in relevant articles, books, texts and exhibitions)
This exploration into the language of contemporary art has a number of origins and was done for several reasons.
Its origins stemmed from my decision, several years ago, to delve into contemporary art: in terms of trying to understand it better; in terms of trying to get a sense of how it was being talked about in articles, books, exhibition texts etc; and in terms of wanting to test out my own capabilities in ‘doing art’ and ‘making art’.
The starting framework for this was also a deep interest in modes of learning, and how a particular outcome might be got to by various routes – including putting together my own art curriculum (culled from the Foundation, Degree and Masters curricula of a range of universities in this country and elsewhere – selecting the elements and approaches that I felt most interested in personally pursuing in my own ways and against my own timescales). This is described elsewhere. One unit of my constructed self-learning programme was a better understanding of the language of art, in general, and contemporary art in particular.
A further driver was an interest in language and its uses. My own inclination was less in terms of looking to establish precise dictionary-type definitions, and more in terms of the flexible (and often contradictory) ways that words were used in practice. This looked for an opening up, rather than a defining down, of understandings. A specific example of this was my doctorate in sociology, which looked at the ways the concept of Community was constructed by various groups (residents, community workers, local politicians, national policy makers, academics, writers) and how various elements of meaning were differentially strung together as chains of understanding by these different groups – and how these understandings could form broad constellations of sense-making at different times or in different contexts.
In practical terms, I had to hand 50 pieces of written material from art exhibitions across the past 25 years; more than 100 newspaper and magazine articles from across the period from 1990 to the present; more than 100 books on art since 1945; a watch-later library of more than 40 YouTube videos on aspects of contemporary art – ie a rich and varied source of ways that people wrote and spoke about late-modern/contemporary art.
The job was to make some sense of all of this, for my own better understanding.
This was primarily done to fulfil part of the learning commitment I had made to myself, and also for the sheer enjoyment of attempting to think through some new topic.
A second reason emerged the more I thought about things. This was to see if the various statements gleaned from the numerous wide-ranging texts could suggest any recurring categorisations that could be used as headings to make some initial sense of things, The headings I used thus arose out of the thinking being done. These broad working categorisations, which were by no means mutually exclusive, were:
Contents and Intentions
Curating and Exhibitions
Identities and Portraitures
Narratives and Meanings
Ambiguities and Realities
Cities and Places
Memories and Histories
Fragments, Layers and Multiplicities
Each section contains numerous phrases that were things in the articles/books that struck me as interesting. These are fragments and part-phrases rather than full sentences. These listed phrases-of-interest are not in any specific order. A number of the phrases could equally be relevant to other headings. Sometimes phrases clumped together, more often they did not. They are certainly not intended to form a linear narrative, but simply to sit as fragments, any of which might trigger some response in the reader. There are many fragments, so many possibilities for thoughts being triggered – so any reader might begin to construct their own chains of ideas, building into a potential narrative that begins to make some sense to that person.
The fragments and the headings then became some kind of Thinking Framework – something that would spur further intellectual exploration – or that might trigger ideas to inform my own making of art.
This is my interpretation of the information from my particular set of sources. Others may construct things differently, from other sources. Another approach might throw up different headings, different ways of selecting and arranging phrases, different chains of meaning and different constellations of understanding. This is my constructed thinking tool It is up to me to make of it what I can. As I scan through it from time to time, certain things catch my eye and set trains of thought going. Similarly, it is up to other people to engage or not; and to make their own connections, linkages and uses.
What follows is my first attempt at putting the Thinking Framework together. It can be considered as an act of creativity at a number of different levels. It is a work in progress. As I read more, more ideas will seem worth including, but I don’t aim for it to go on forever. I am more interested in getting to a sufficiency level, where it can be something adaptable, yet fit-for-purpose, for me to use in various ways in order to progress my own learning about contemporary art and, potentially, my own practical art working.
Readers should feel free to use this Thinking Framework in whatever way they may find helpful. Its source should be quoted whenever it is shared with others.
(Note: The source of each phrase is not listed. This is a personal exploration not an academic article requiring specific references. Nor is it an attempt at originality, attempting to pass other’s words off as my own. The whole basis is that these are fragments of words as used by many others – few of which are specific insights unique to that writer. In a small number of cases, the artist source in included in brackets, simply for interest).