Diving into the Iconosphere

Art Beyond Aesthetics

Editor’s Note: This essay is written by Grégoire Müller, the Editor of Artsmagazine (as it was written) between 1969 and 1972. During his brief tenure he made a point to welcome original contributions by artists as diverse as Vito Acconci, Frank Bowling, Salvador Dali, Walter De Maria, Dan Graham, Sol Lewitt, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra and Andy Warhol. He also published thought-provoking essays by Jack Burham, Nicolas Calas or Cindy Nemser, and put together a whole team of young reviewers that included Roberta Smith.

In 1972, after the publication of his book “The New Avant-Garde, Issues for the art of the seventies” he took a distance from art criticism to go back to painting and began showing with other pioneers of the return to figuration, such as Susan Rothenberg or Eric Fischl.

Since 1986 he is based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland and has kept showing in New York at the Jason McCoy Gallery. His paintings are represented in many institutions, including the MoMA and the Zürich Kunsthaus.

With the benefit of hindsight, the late sixties much heralded “End of Art” (as diagnosed by Arthur Danto for instance) appears to rest upon a confusion between art and aesthetics. Art, understood as the sum of realizations resulting from an activity aimed at creating images, will never end. It has been with us, in all cultures and civilizations, for over thirty thousand years and will remain so, as an answer to a near organic need of humans to see themselves and the world beyond mere ephemeral appearance. Aesthetics, the attempt to enclose in a discourse the innumerable facets of the experience of art, or even to capture its essence, is a relatively recent and more Eurocentric endeavor; it is rooted in the philosophy of Plato and of Aristotle, only becoming a discipline on its own during the mid-18thcentury with Baumgarten or Kant, among others. And yes, as such, we could arguably state that aesthetics (as well as its offspring, art criticism) died around the mid-seventies.

Writing on art goes on, perhaps more than ever, but is now a mix of plain reporting, sociology, ethnology, gender politics, subjective emotionalism, academism or, at its worst, PR messaging from the art industry. It has all the semblance of the proverbial chicken running around in circles without a head. In other words, it is directionless, there is no longer a mainstream in relation to which one can position oneself, for or against.

Ann McCoy, “The Alchemical Doors for C.A. Meier,” lithograph with metal leaf (1991) Image credit: the artist

The causes of such a fiasco lie deeper than the present-day take-over of the art world by the demons of economy. They are to be found in the very nature of the aesthetic discourse: its ambition to see art through the lens of the rationalism that characterizes western culture, particularly since Descartes. This implies a blind faith in a scientific conception of time, space and even identity. But science itself, over the past few decades, has made increasingly adventurous forays -think of quantum physics as an example – outside of its own self-imposed rational boundaries. Aesthetics seems to have missed this train; stuck on the rails, it has reached the end of the line.

While mainstream criticism, at the time, kept itself well within the bounds of reason, Jack Burnham, in a daring article published in Artsmagazine (March 1972) stepped way out of line by exploring and documenting, under the title of Duchamp’s Bride Striped Bare the multi-layered links between occultism (from the Kabbalah to Buddhism and even the Tarot) and the one who had been reduced to being the inventor of the ready-made. In this not-so-surprisingly overlooked essay, he stated:

No writing, no public art, no commercial enterprise, or making art is without its subconscious significance as a sacred performance.

This was, understandably, a bit beyond what the art critical establishment could accept; it simply could not fit within the framework of Greenberg’s Formalism or even in Philip Leider’s concept of the “art of the real”.

Hilma af Klint, “The Ten Largest, No. 6, Adulthood, Group IV” (1907). Image credit: Rob Colvin

With its posthumous 1986 exhibition of works by Hilma af Klint, The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting, the Los Angeles County Museum made a big step outside of the canon. Among other things, it demonstrated that abstraction, in the work of this pioneer, could be achieved without relying on a formalist approach. Unfortunately, the success of this show, soon relayed by the Guggenheim Museum in New York, led to new misunderstandings among many. A trendy idea that art, like the teachings of some commercial guru, could be some spiritual fodder. Far from it.

The near obsessive large-scale works on paper by Ann McCoy recently put on display at the Metropolitan Museum show, in their magnificence, that the spiritual is not some magic potion that can be wrapped and sold like a feel-good edible. It is, rather, like entering a whole other dimension, with a rich complexity and a resonance in time and space that extends beyond contemporaneity.

And here is another, more recent, take on it. In a podcast, the critic Jerry Salz dares to say that prehistoric cave paintings are indeed “contemporary.”  Good for him. He makes it crystal clear that the linear notion of time that prevails in science and in the unfolding of a written text does not apply to art: it always exists in the present.

We can see that the overall historically advancing Eurocentric conception of art ought to be put on the shelf. It would be presumptuous to announce the colors of a new model, however we would like to conclude with a modest suggestion: the concept of an Iconosphere, as a space allowing for a better understanding of what pertains to the world of images.

Cañadón del Río Pinturas, Cueva de las manos (Cave of Hands) created between 7,300 BC and 700 AD, Santa Cruz, Argentina Image Credit: PabloGimenez.com

As in the biosphere, all in it is interconnected and interdependent. Inasmuch as they reach beyond the merely functional authentic images, both the ones that inhabit us and the tangible works of art, exist in a different time-space continuum, in a perpetual flux. It is not quite art for art’s sake, but rather art on its own terms. Each one of us can enter this sphere, without any discrimination, and contemplate with an open mind what inhabits it, respectful of its diversity. Eventually we can enrich it with our own contributions, as long as it is not done with exploitative ulterior motives. Considering the relentless assaults of mercantilism, cultural tourism, political recuperation and vanity fairs, all directed against the integrity of our iconosphere, it deserves everything we can do to preserve it.