Medium-centrism and Transmedial Thinking
An Investigation into the Point of Departure and Productive Goal of Artistic Practice
Much of the arts has become used to pre-given forms and mediums as the starting point of any practice. The first part of this article delves into how this is problematic for engaged practices and proposes ways of postponing the form of an artistic endeavour in order to subordinate it to the content of its productive goal. The article does so by levelling artistic production and its chronology. In the second part, the reader is challenged to postpone thinking in (pre)given form so as to make form subordinate to content, and to decentralise its reign over artistic practice. By centralising content within the work of art, the artist can become an ‘engineer of the real’ by tinkering with the inner-workings of form.
1. A Road Paved by Danto
This article is not an evaluation of Arthur Danto’s ‘After the End of Art.’ Nor will I attempt to discuss whether his argument—the end of the dialectical development of art history—is true or whether it is false. I can only argue that I would hope it contains a truth, and even if not, that it has still influenced thinking in the arts, especially by artists themselves, so that they unburden themselves from the already otiose doctrines of avant-gardism in its many forms. Hence, I will use Danto’s argument as a cognitive precondition, or an ‘ideological premise,’ to question the point of departure for engaged practices: what does the start of practice look like? I will probe what the notion of the ‘end of art’—regardless of whether it is true or not—brought the (engaged) arts in terms of their point(s) of departure. I will contrast this point of departure (which is much related to conceptual art and artistic research) with one of those aspects which has outlived the disintegration of individual genres of the avant-garde and thus can still be found in many artistic practices—what I call ‘medium-centrism.’ Medium-centrism means that the medium or choice of material form is both the point of departure and the constituent of the artwork in an artistic practice. It was so with Andy Warhol—Danto’s terminus of art history—as much as it still is today with Hito Steyerl. Medium-centrism often still formulates the point of departure for many practices in that incredibly diverse field of, as Danto puts it, ‘post-historic’ practices we may know today.
All that is quite fine, although a conflict arises when medium-centrism has to coexist with the productive goals of most engaged practices. In other words, a problem arises when practice is reflexive to a subject but persists in taking the same form.
In this article, I want to invite the reader to think ‘transmedially,’ postponing form until it has a necessary role in the given artistic endeavour. I will invite you to regard form as subordinate to content and thus negate medium-centrism. Only so the artist, through the artwork, can become somewhat an ‘engineer of the real.’ In order to position this argument, I will first investigate what paths Danto’s ideas have cleared because in doing so, one can legitimately argue for the method of transmedial thinking in the arts.
After the End of Art
Arthur Danto’s famous essay from 1997 ‘After the End of Art’ once provoked great disarray in me. How could there be an ‘end’ to something as ‘indefinite’ as art, I wondered? Danto added an adjective, namely that good art could no longer be made due to the disappearance of the ‘imitation theory’ at the centre of artistic practice; and secondly, because the arts had reached ‘self-awareness’1 and so resulted in their own dissimulation. I later discovered that it was precisely the end of definition of a rather clear distinction between what art is and what it is not that had disappeared, according to Danto. Hence, the ‘end of art’ is much more ‘the end of art history,’2 and allows us to think of art beyond the restrictions of historical determination (Danto argues it is now ‘post-historical’). In a way, this ‘history,’ as Doorman argues, is more of a period in art-at-large, and is thus rather ‘the end of the avant-garde.’3 Above all, art is obviously still being made and ‘will continue to be made.’4 Danto, however, argues that by now, ‘the class of artworks is simply unlimited […] and art unconstrained by anything save the laws of nature in one direction, and moral laws on the other.’5 In other words, the category ‘art’ was unburdened from the restraints of the question ‘is it art?’, which, according to Danto, now becomes a philosophical question. After seeing Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964), Danto concluded ‘it is the end of the possibility of progressive development’6 of the discourse on its own terms because there would not be a discourse proper anymore. Danto concludes, therefore, that the happy ending of the story of art history results in ‘pluralism.’7 The teleos of art’s own dissimulation through which it got to know itselfhad been reached; it had reached its goal and could now die together with its Modernism. As an extension of this development, I believe the artist was challenged to no longer measure practice according to the premises of the discourse, and thus to ‘Art’ itself. As a result, art could no longer be measured-in-accordance to a clearly formulated framework that it defined itself—be it imitation, theme, or anything else as itself—and thus also escaped a clear good/bad distinction.
Therefore, those who today speak of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art are obliged to identify which ‘frame’ they refer to if they use the term ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Are we talking about ethics? About aesthetics? If so, what ethics or aesthetics are we talking about? One thing must be clear here: it cannot be good or bad art in and on itself alone; it cannot be bad based solely on formal affairs. Not only because of what Danto mentions but also because, unlike genrematic art, practices today, especially engaged practices, use radically different conditions and premises in every practice, because the respective form and subject change per case and are positively reactive to that case. What worked ‘exemplarily well’ in one example might very well be disastrous in another, hence ‘exemplarity’ fails. For that reason, we should always discuss the ‘case’ of a practice if we could look at the results of, say, an engaged practice. Hence, I would argue, engaged art at the level of art consumption (for example, in the museum or gallery) is not as much ‘lookable art,’ like an abstract expressionist painting, but much more a ‘thinkable art,’ simultaneously problematising evaluation proper because it transcends the token of itself. Outside of arts consumption, it might even be more ‘experienceable art’ because it disintegrates the idea of an object one can look on to; rather, it intervenes with how we are in the world.
The expiry of this clear judgemental framework caused demand to rise within much of the arts for a new framework—and the arts are indeed ingenious. Although I hoped to believe that what Danto predicted would have come true, thus radically relaxing form, resulting in a pluralism of contents, methods and practices in general, I do not believe this has happened. In a way, the new framework adopted its premises from the expired one, which at least had an argument and base for its false premises (namely, that otiose genrematic structure). The Hegelian process of historical necessity, continuation and realisation that Danto declared ‘dead’ is, if you ask me, artificially kept alive in our current arts. In other words, the frame of judgment that had died was already arbitrary, yet we remain judging art from that framework which by now is not even commensurable with current practices, let alone relevant for contemporary practices. In this article, I hope to illustrate both the shadow side of this development as well as the potentialities that often remain to be grasped by this new discourse. First and foremost, this potential is first and foremost in the unveiled potential of the artwork as a political actor itself, which occupies the friction in between the ‘laws of nature in one direction,’8—in other words, ‘what is possible’—‘and moral laws on the other’9—in other words, ‘what is allowed.’
The relaxation of determination in the arts of the twentieth century is often denoted in terms of content: a series of subjects had become available. To use a painting cliché: it doesn’t have to be about ‘paint’ on ‘canvas’ solely as a topic. In spite of the fact that just as the Protestant Reformation allowed a thematic liberation for many Dutch genre painters, and just as this twentieth-century development in a way does, too, the most important liberation in my opinion was on a formal level (read ‘form-based’). This is a level of what can (and thus is allowed to) exist as an artwork. I would argue that the ‘thematic liberation’ stems from that ‘formal liberation’—i.e., the Protestant artist could start painting everyday life (thematic) because the Roman Catholic Church was no longer the primary client (formal). Moreover, many earlier practices—although uncommon—already contained political criticism, such as the didactic pieces by Bertolt Brecht, or etchings by Francisco Goya, whose engraving, according to art historians, ‘exposes and denounces the brutality and dehumanisation of war,’10 rather than merely politically affirming those ‘brutalities,’ as many artworks were wont to do. However, it is another political reality that opened up in between the lines of Danto’s observations. This political reality is not necessarily a product of substantive or thematic emancipation, as many of its critics have argued;11 instead, it is, above all, a formal emancipation.
Therefore, this ‘end of art’ is neither a normative end, nor one by which we can accordingly and properly judge every ‘part’ of that art history based solely on its position in art history’s timeline; and thus, we cannot properly judge it in relation to other artworks on that timeline. Artists were no longer (completely) bound by the rulebooks of the genres, which prescribed what conditions a work had to meet in order to call itself, say, impressionistic, or even to exist as a work of art in general. Moreover, the fact that we are now sometimes not quite sure whether something is indeed a work of art shows the relaxation of pre-given formal determination: there is no longer a ‘shape proper,’ and, of course, there never was a ‘proper’ shape, but there were shapes that should have been in as much as there were topics that should have been and thus also topics that should not have been.
In this way, the artwork became able to not merely ‘represent,’ ‘imagine,’ or ‘imitate’ something political; the formal relaxation meant the work of art could now also become a political actor itself. This would mean we can ascribe all kinds of new categories, conditions and accidents to art, and, more importantly, would be able to completely occupy new hermeneutics of dealing with these ‘artworks-as-subjects’ that is much closer to how we deal with anything in our lives—because we are, indeed, all subjects. Yet again, imitation and thus also representation are not necessarily the tipping point of the arts anymore. Object-oriented ontology, a contemporary philosophical movement, illustrates this principle further by attributing a subject status to ‘things’ that we previously could only call passive, lifeless and monadic from the perspective of Kantian ontology—from a strict order of beings in which we could have ‘subjects’ that contained active life and ‘objects’ that were passive, and, most importantly, both were absolutely separated from one another. From the object-oriented ontology framework, this dichotomy is broken because objects also have active lives, just as much as subjects can also have passive lives. Hence, an artwork would not solely be a negation of anything pre-existing, but could become that pre-existing thing itself. Again, it would be a formal emancipation with an effect on substantive content.
Were Goya’s Etchings Political?
As the romanticist Maarten Doorman notes, the avant-garde is easily seen as ‘a permanent revolution in which there are scarcely any pauses,’12 so it is in permanent crisis. Of course, genres have been transgressed by the avant-garde on a formal (micro) basis, mainly because of dissatisfaction with previous genres, and were, therefore, retroactive ‘transgressions,’ very much following the negational structure of the dialectics that, according to Danto, would lead to a ‘end,’ and so, as Doorman puts it, ‘the more problematic the reflection on the question of development become[s].’13 In that sense, genres mainly existed as a negation of another genre—and this is a typical genre-making structure, where one formulates itself by noting that it is not the other. We could even argue that the avant-garde genres were negational to one another in the sense that they all tried to be less, eventually finding their path to abstract minimalism, and dissimulation in the ‘end.’
The formal changes we have been experiencing since mainly concern that the formal aspects of a work, such as form, presentation, and medium, may be determined on the basis of the substantive aspect of the work on the basis of the theme, subject or ambition; because it does not measure backwards, it escapes the ‘grand narratives.’ As Danto writes: ‘It means the end of the tyranny of history—that in order to achieve success as an artist one must drive art history forward, colonising the future novelty by novelty.’14 This is a radical difference because in the genre-driven periods, this chronology worked the other way around: substantive aspects were determined by the formal aspects, which, moreover, regularly led to the disappearance of content in general, whereby art withdrew into formal matters, such as the dissimulation of figuration, which found its climax in minimalism. Frank Stella is one example, who said with sober conviction that ‘you see what you see’15 in his work Tuxedo Park Junction—black stripes on canvas. That’s it. This is a purely formulaic art, to use Camus’ words, ‘that is nourished by affections and abstractions, and that finally results in the destruction of all reality.’16 In this manner, as Doorman argues, ‘the avant-garde wanted art to […] be abolished.’17
The formal turnaround I speak of is, therefore, from ‘retroactive transgression’ to ‘forward-acting transgression,’ in which art primarily measures itself against the (possible) future, rather than primarily to the abhorred past, and with that choice, it discovers a new domain of possible forms that is not limited by the genre doctrine. ‘And perhaps,’ Danto notes, ‘in consequence of the fact that art under modernism had become increasingly to be about itself, painting [or any art] began to show limitations.’18 The difference here is in an optical or chronological inversion, where the vocal point of art was no longer itself but anything else, and it was thus unbound from its ‘formulaic’ bounds, dissimulating any notion proper of formal ‘limitations.’
A final step is that formal aspects such as a ‘medium’ do not have to be primarily passive for art because the chronology between substantive matters and formal matters can now be reversed. Moreover, it would not be formally decisive whether Goya had made utopian images from his artistic doctrine, like Thomas More did in literature, instead of his critical ‘retroactive’ images of the Spanish War of Independence. The formal change here is in the ontological difference between ‘imagining’ and ‘realising.’ Moreover, an imagination [ver-beeld]19 is a ‘distant image,’ far away and distant—whether it is in an obscure past or a utopian future does not matter formally. It still occupies the same logistics in which substantive aspects are determined by the formal aspects of what a work of art is regarded to be.20 It is at a distance, and remains at a distance because the formal aspects of the work do not allow active treatise (think ‘on canvas,’ ‘in bronze,’ ‘in etching,’ ‘filmed,’ or even ‘performed’—all passive forms). This structure is often still reproduced at art academies, including the one I teach at, where students say things like, ‘With this work of art I try to say that…,’ or ‘The meaning of this artwork is…’ The artwork is about something political—as with Goya—but that does not make the artwork itself political apart from that we can disagree on this ‘aboutness.’ In this instance, the artwork is a token of a story that comes before or after the artwork. Nor does the manner in which an artwork is ‘about’ something political make the artwork itself political in any particular way. Only when the artwork itself seizes to be a vehicle of content, and content can become a subject itself, can the artwork finally be political. Content should be the vehicle of form.
The formal movement towards the actualisation of the preceding passive imagination means that the work of art is the actor, a moving mover, a Demiurge, if you like, that intervenes on the movement towards the future that time necessarily performs. It draws on time, and time to itself, possibly morphing that former linear chronology of art history. In this art, content-related aspects can be the vehicle of form, which is strongly at odds with earlier artistic practices, such as Goya’s, where form remained the vehicle of content, regardless of its radical contents, and thus stays an etch in a climate-controlled room, boxed in from the surroundings on which it was thought to be so influential. It was only radical because of the narrative that surrounds it, of which it, the work of art, is merely a token.
To put it differently, content can now be the ‘form’ of form. The engaged artist attempts to interfere with the changeability that the world knows, thereby shaping a piece of change as a work of art by intervening on the fabric of reality, as is advocated in many Rancière’s works.21 This means that there are formal structures that fit better with such a substantive ambition than the tranquil work of art, such as Goya’s political work, for example, which we encounter in a museum, the conservative function of which makes the work even quieter than quiet. A preserved scream, which ‘criticises’ the war, is a silent scream and, therefore, not a scream at all. The goal here, and perhaps it was also Goya’s goal, is to do something about war: the form of engraving may not allow that. The engraving can only hope for other people to do something about war, but as Rancière notes, ‘There is no reason to believe that it would make viewers aware of the reality […] and encourage them to resist. The usual reaction to these kinds of images is to close your eyes or to look away.’22 From the perspective of medium-centrism, maybe even the concept of a ‘scream’ or ‘denouncement’ as a piece of art is not allowed to be activated. The engaged practice, as opposed to the political art which we can call Goya’s, does not merely represent a certain subject with a political connotation, but attempts to interfere as a political actor.
What Survives of Genres in a Post-Genre Art World
There are many different ways of dealing with the artistic practice. And while the post-genre era we live in according to Danto has stirred much of the traditional chronology of practice, there are still some fixed aspects that remain to prevail today; some remains still haunt artists today. I will attempt to touch upon some of those remains, and problematise some—because, of course, that something remains from another time does not necessarily mean that that which remains is an issue. It can become an issue when what remains does not fit contemporary premises: that issue here is the ‘rulebooks’ that still silently prevail.
Historically, avant-gardes defined themselves, among other things, through rules, sometimes written and sometimes unwritten, which might explain why so many representatives of genres, such as Guy Debord for the Situationists, published manifestos to proclaim their existence, intentions and motives. These rules can concern many aspects of the artistic practice, and range from choice of theme, which is evident, for example, in landscape painting, to method of production, in the cases of impressionism or pointillism. Another aspect of often reoccurring ‘rules’ is where the starting point of an artistic endeavour is located. Conceptual art as well as many artistic research practices take different points of departure than, say, contemporary abstract painting, which might also explain why those differ so much from each other in their final form. Another aspect is the position and importance of a fixated medium in an artistic practice, which bounds and unbounds the possibilities of that certain artistic practice by that centralisation. Although no practice is firmly fixed into these bounds, and many take it as their practice to break such bounds—say, by seeing painting as sculpture—choices of material and theme, among other things, do bound what can be done and what cannot be done.23 So, let’s return to the questions this article started with: what are the points of departure of an engaged artist? And what relation does this point of departure hold with the way the practice is executed?
2. Medium-centrism and Transmedial Thinking
Productive Goals and Medium-centrism
Every practice has a goal, no matter how big or small, conscious or unconscious, or even dissimulated it might be: goallessness is very much is a goal, too (the goal of the avant-gardes). Each practice thus results in something other than any other practice because the goals differ and the methods of reaching that also goal do. I call this aim towards a certain outcome the ‘productive goals’ of an artistic practice because it prescribes what is to be done and what is not to be done leading to an artwork, and ‘what is to be done’ can be anything, even ‘nothing.’ It is the motive that distinguishes choices from serendipities and guides those choices as they come into being simultaneously with the artwork. These motives can be instructed by many factors: societal conditions, rulebooks of genres, often even personal considerations. This productive goal does not reach further than the process of the artwork—from nothing into a shape that is regarded as ‘final’ for the producer of that respective practice, and thus also does not regard the eventual and speculative imprint it might have on a possible spectator, excluding, of course, when that interaction or imprint is considered as the work itself. That being said, a very common element in any artistic practice, even in these post-genre times, is that the eventual crystallisation of a ‘project’ into material form is essential and remains a necessity of the goal. A representative of the art world could argue that without an artwork, Art cannot manifest. Because, according to this person, Art is located in the artwork. Even for conceptual practices, where the emphasis is very often on the non-material or pre-material aspect of an artwork, it is still always eventually put into material form, which remains part of its productive goal as a result. (Its productive goal is not just a ‘beautiful concept,’ which sounds more like a criticism a student could receive at art academy, although the consequence of the artwork might very often result in a beautiful concept).
This is true of Joseph Kosuth, for example, one the early and best-known conceptual artists. Although his work One and Three Chairs (1965) questions the concept of the ‘chair’ and its representation—almost in a Platonian sense wondering ‘what is the true chair?’—it rightfully does so through material form—through representative structures. We think through our brain, our brain is a thing, hence we think through things. No concepts exist without material, although it cannot be reduced to material. We find one chair, one print of a textual description of the definition of what a chair is, and a photograph of a chair. All three material things are pointed towards our conceptual presumptions of what a chair is, and so question those presumptions, which, I would say through deduction, was the productive goal of Kosuth’s work: he worked through all possible material forms to find this one most fitting. This approach underpins that a chair is nothing without its examples, whatever form those might take. Kosuth repeated this structure, which almost appears as an argumentative structure where B follows necessarily from A, more than once throughout his oeuvre (One and Three Lamps, 1965; One and Three Tables, 1965; Clock (One and Five), 1965). Why, one might ask? An answer would be that this form fitted the productive goal he maintained as an artist at that time. He made his work according to his productive goal, and from the work, we can deduce the presumption underpinning his goal. This is what gives his work ‘depth,’ so to say. The material form follows the concept and is subordinate to it. Without an organising principle, the material that makes up an artwork remains merely a stack of material. In that instance, we can only speak about the aesthetics of how that random stack of materials was put together, whereas with Kosuth’s work, we can still speak about aesthetics, but also about so much else.
Material as Mechanics
In a way, this subordination of material form in the artistic process might appear to many as a loss: that which for so long has defined much of the arts—the ability to work (exclusively and solely) with material on aesthetic terms—has gained a lesser position in that same artistic practice, which sounds like a paradox. Because is artistry not exactly that ability? To go back to the argumentative structure of Kosuth’s practice, the productive goal is not the material artwork in and of itself but the implementation of this concept in (material) form; how it instructs the coming into being of the artwork. The productive goal is, therefore, aimed towards the actualisation or activation of his concept, which he did through material form. Hence, content cannot be ‘added’ to an artwork once it is there, but can only be discovered. This simply follows the more philosophical idea that only immaterial things can be passive because anything material changes, and thus also allows for activation. No concept is active without form, be it in acting it out, ‘believing’ in it, materialising it, or as a guide to practice. One can understand material form in this structure as the internal workings, or ‘infrastructure,’ of the system called the artwork. This might sound instrumental, but I believe it is nearly impossible to escape the idea that the artwork is a device, as a piece of rhetoric might be in literature, but then in the relational world we all share. The attempt to escape the necessary functionality any artwork has in a respective context might well be a remnant of that avant-gardist genrematic structure of self-dissimulation.
The goal of the system called the artwork is not its own internal workings (otherwise, it would remain to be this genrematic thing); its goal is what it does through those internal workings. Again, the loss one has to accept in this structure is that the material form we often ascribe aesthetics to is the mechanical part of the artwork, an essential but nevertheless subordinate part of the artwork. A response in the same sentimental realm to that sense of loss would be that many ‘non-conceptual’ practices in the genre-dogmatic sense of the word with its rules and manifestos also function in exactly the same manner. To use a classic argument, for the artists who attempted to reach the sensation of the subliminal through landscape painting, the productive goal of the practice was never the painting itself, but the feeling of the sublime it tried to instil: it attempted to actualise or activate the concept of the subliminal through material form. It would be vulgar to only regard the quality of the painting in aesthetic terms, without taking the instillation of this ‘sublime’ into account. To stress the point again, this is the same ‘mechanical’ structure as Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs: the material serves a goal, the productive goal. When the material itself becomes the goal, the practice is aimed towards ‘medium-centrism.’ There is only material workings without a goal, without it doing anything. And this can indeed be very beautiful, even alienating in the Heideggerian sense—if something stops working, we actually start looking at the thing itself properly for the first time on those same aesthetic terms. Doing something for the sake of itself—the goal is goalless; the material is the artwork—is thus a reflective structure. It merely functions to show itself as it really is. But who wants to see the internal mechanics of a machine that does not work? Would they not rather see the mechanic to repair it? Even the famous ‘useless machine’ that seems to have no function but in reality functions to make you realise its function does not have a distinct function apart from frustrating its user (which is clearly a function).
Medium-centrism in Engaged Practices
This approach of material being its own goal in itself, however, does become problematic when the productive goal of the practice is indeed to produce an ‘affect’—when the intent is for the artwork to do something. One of the most prevailing and explicit examples in this choice of artistic practice can be found in the engaged artistic practitioner whose productive goal is to take an issue in its broadest sense as the point of departure, and to then use the mechanics of art to do something with that issue (not necessarily about it). If we applied the structure of medium-centrism, where the goal coincides with the material, and we regress into ‘pure’ aesthetics, it would mean that the artwork is—that is to say, equals—the issue. If we followed that argument, the only thing the engaged practitioner would have to do to live up to their own productive goal would be to stop making art. What happens here is that the artwork reproduces the issue which formulated its point of departure, and thus becomes contradictory, which, again, can be very beautiful, or even poetic in this Heideggerian sense. But if being beautiful or poetic is not the productive goal, this is not a strategy to follow—although the art world would most definitely love it. The productive goal of this type of practice would then not be engaged anymore because it does not attempt to do something with that thing it started with, because, again, if it did, the only logical conclusion would be to destroy itself. If we were to fix the material or medium as the centre of this practice, the productive goal in the engaged artistic practice would be to betray itself. This does not, however, in any way imply that if the aim might be to change something, it could not fail to live up to the productive goal.
What Kosuth was well able to do was materialise a concept into the inner workings of an artwork in which the artwork was activated. Metaphorically, I would argue the mechanical part was fed by energy of the concept, just like a battery, making it ‘work.’ The reason this worked so well in his practice was that he negated and neglected the urge to follow the traditional remnant of the genre era called medium-centrism. This negation or postponement of the urge to centralise the material is what I call ‘transmedial thinking.’ Transmedial thinking does not in any way imply that it does not engage with material. It merely neglects thinking in a fixated and predetermined form (as many traditional genres would not do) until that form can be argued for from the perspective of the productive goal. The material or form of the artwork is thus not included in the productive goal of the practice, but stems from it. This means that if we regard the material it as the inner workings of an artwork, it is determined according to the point of departure in artistic practice, which is an ‘issue’ in the engaged artistic practice, but might be something else in any other practice.
Attempting to think transmedially frees the artistic practice from a predetermined framework of possibilities, and, in doing so, also frees the other aspects I introduced throughout this text, such as the possible points of departure and the method of production. The possibilities this mode of thinking brings forward might mean a loss of mastery of a medium and the refocus of the evaluation of aesthetics, but it also means emancipation from the artistic serfdom to the medium. It means the medium can be utilised freely in subordination of the starting point and the productive goal, unbinding a whole world of possibilities. It also allows the artwork itself to become a (political) actor—something that actively does, rather than just hoping other people do things due to that artwork. Hence, pottery, starting a post office, sculpting miniature ponies, designing a new church bell, or starting a library of used erotic books all might be equally legitimate mediums for this practice, although only if they are for from the perspective of the productive goal. Starting from any of these forms as an artistic doctrine would, however, regress into medium-centrism.
3. Exercises in Transmedial Thinking
Many of the traditional genres and disciplines prescribe a chronology of artistic practice through binding and unbinding certain possibilities and impossibilities of theme, points of departure, methodology, productive goals, and media. I imagine it would be possible to produce flowchart-like schematics for many of the traditional genres, which if you were to follow them, would lead to, say, an impressionist painting or a conceptual artwork. Tweak this flowchart just a little—run against its lines—and many would call it a masterpiece because it would be so ‘revolutionary’ that it slightly adjusted a pathway in the flowchart. This doctrine of artistic practice is, however, firm and prescriptive, and only because an artwork can be called revolutionary if it is to break with a part of the genrematic rules. What would happen, however, if the engaged artistic practitioner refused such a classical ‘chronology’ of practice? It would oddly be neither and both revolutionary and conservative at the same time. Revolutionary because it negates any pre-given structure at all; conservative because there is no structure by which we can compare it in order to call it revolutionary, anyway, because it negates any structure of that kind. If I would not be mistaken saying, we live in a post-genre era, the end of the genres could be this because there would be nothing to distinguish one doctrine from another except the radical otherness of all practices. Only here could we really call art the domain of ‘plurality’ without losing ways of evaluating it because each practice here sets its own productive goals. Consequently, the process leading up to something like a work of art becomes the structure by which we can also evaluate it.
Nevertheless, if we presumed a chronology to any practice, it would be odd to merge the start with the end, the material with the realisation of an artwork. However, for many artists, this is both the point of departure as well as the productive goal and the medium of the artwork produced. Here, the beginning becomes the end, and the end the beginning, spiralling down into endless regression. The only method of engaging with this approach is through experiment without a research question, a hypothesis, or a way of evaluating the data collected. Just random ‘doing.’ This practice would be a ship without a rudder. Although this dérive kind of practice could occasionally result in the discovery of something beautiful or poetic as I’ve argued before, it would also be very dangerous to the engaged practitioner because this artist aimed to engage with an issue, and if the way in which this artist does so is steerless, it could worsen the issue as well as developing what is engaged with.
Exercises of Transmedial Thinking: Not Making-do, Postponement, and Pre-Materialised Abstractions
So, how could you train this transmedial thinking? Here, I want to give three thought experiments I believe could help train a transmedial way of thinking. The first is the negation of making-do: not making-do. The second regards postponement and is thus more a type of ‘resisting’ than thinking, but needs active enactment as much as thinking does. The third builds on this ability and concerns a pre-materialised abstraction.
Making-do in the traditional or ‘positive’ sense means that to try your best with a goal in mind, you have to work with ‘what’s there,’ stimulating thinking in possibilities in a restrictive environment. Making-do helps finding possibilities in a very limited situation, and so is functional in the production of nearly any artistic practice, let alone any practice at all. Making-do frames such an environment in a superlative way, thus training that manner of thinking in isolation. This might mean that in an extremely restrictive environment, you have to work with what is available, hence dissimulating material liberties with a goal in mind. Making-do is useful in the sense that it is a manner of thinking in which one transgresses the prevailing codes of how to use things; a planter can become a plinth, or a weapon, or nearly anything at all depending on how you use it. Anything can become anything thinking through making-do. Nevertheless, translated to the period Danto described to have come to an end, it allows us to say that it metaphorises much of the way genres and the avant-garde ‘progressed.’ Therefore, ‘making-do’ can also be read as manoeuvring through the restrictions of the avant-garde. This, however, yet again reduces the productive goal to material. The exercise thus is to not make-do with what’s available. Let’s read ‘making do’ in another way: it has to do with the idea that what you need does not exist, or is not at hand and will not be. So, the negative interpretation of making-do is that you centralise the lack of available materials in formulating a solution, rather than reducing the solution to the lack of materials, meaning that the material itself needs to be formulated according to something substantive. The question is, ‘What is not-yet that needs to be realised in order to actualise the respective productive goal?’
As illustrated earlier, another way the train transmedial thinking is to postpone thinking in material or form in the chronology in practice to the moment after a solution has occurred, which introduces the third exercise. Because postponement negates materiality, this needs a sense of abstract thinking. However, abstract means ‘taken away from material.’ The abstraction I speak of is not a derivative; it is not abstracted from material. It is pre-material; not-yet materialised abstraction. The power of this method of thinking is that once you have found a solution, you can ‘make’ the solution according to the most fitting methods, material and forms, and, even in a reductive setting, scale the solution to what’s available. The method, then, starts at an abstract level (it does not abstract from material, but starts at abstraction), and materialises further onwards. Material here, and in the other examples, should be taken in the broadest sense of the work, and can best be understood as constituents of practice: so, communities can also be such a ‘material,’ or an issue, or an abstract concept.
- Camus, Albert, Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist. Translated by Sandra Smith. New York: Vintage International; Penguin Radon House LLC, 2019. EPUB version.
- Carroll, Noël, ‘The End of Art?’ History and Theory 37, no 4 (1998): 17-29.
- Danto, Arthur C., ‘The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense.’ History and Theory 37, no. 4(1998): 127-143.
- Danto, Arthur C., ‘The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art.’ Grand Street 4, no. 3(1985): 171-189.
- Doorman, Maarten, Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003.
- Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. Algemene Kunstgeschiedenis. 15th edition. Amsterdam: Meulenhof, 2011.
- Rancière, Jacques, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer. Translated by Joost Beerten en Walter van der Star. Amsterdam: Octavo, 2015.
- Ruitenberg, Claudia W., ‘Art, Politics, and the Pedagogical Relation.’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 30, no. 2 (2010).
Maarten Doorman, Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde, trans. Sherry Marx (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003), p. 121.
Arthur C. Danto, ‘The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense,’ History and Theory 37, no. 4(1998): 137.
Doorman 2003, p. 125.
Noël Carroll, ‘The End of Art?’ History and Theory 37 no. 4(1998): 17.
Danto 1998, p. 139.
Danto 1998, pp. 139-140.
Carroll 1998, p. 17.
Danto 1998, p. 139.
Danto 1998, p. 139.
Claudia W. Ruitenberg, ‘Art, Politics, and the Pedagogical Relation,’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 30, no. 2. (2010): p. 212.
Mainly focussing on the idea proposed by Danto that the quesion of arts would now be a philosophical question.
Doorman 2003, p. 115.
Doorman 2003, p. 116.
Danto 1998, p. 140.
Hugh Honour & John Fleming, Algemene Kunstgeschiedenis 15th edition (Amsterdam: Meulenhof, 2011), p. 851.
Albert Camus, Create Differently: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist, trans. Sandra Smith (New York: Vintage International; Penguin Radon House LLC, 2019). EPUB version.
Doorman 2003, p. 117.
Danto 1998, p. 138.
‘Imagination’ in Dutch is ‘distant imaging’ [verbeelding].
This substantive decentralisation also decentralises the question of ‘what is art?’, which according to Danto has now become solely a philosophical question. Danto notes that the only way for artists engaged with that question is to stop being artists. Critic Noël Carroll notes, quite legitimately, that artists can be both philosophers and artists simultaneously, as Danto mistakenly also argues when saying that his essay ‘The Last Work of Art: Artworks and Real Things’ is a work of art (Carroll, p. 23). However, I would argue he misses the point that it is also not philosophers who can answer this question for the discourse now transgresses determination in the conceptual sense. The definition of art, paradoxically, must now be that it is undefinable, only leading to otiose tautological philosophical considerations. Carroll 1998, pp. 19-20; 23.
Ruitenberg 2010, p. 15.
Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer,trans. Joost Beerten en Walter van der Star(Amsterdam: Octave, 2015), p. 88. The translation to English is the author’s own.
A critique of Danto’s after the End of Art is that he makes a categorical mistake when applying a contingent tendency of painting (that it works towards its own dissimulation) as a necessity to the arts as a whole. Carroll 1998, pp. 17-29.