Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rauchenberg's Little Boxes:
The Death of the Patron Saint of Mainland is food for thought

What I study in real life can be called "the capitalist aesthetic." What this means is that people develop a taste in art and decoration for things which show of the capital that they use. The same is true of other kinds of income. What we term "folk" culture is really the culture of cooperative labor.

People praise artists who are able to make people reflect on what those people do every day. Artists are the high priests of a way of life, and the people who have a way of life and work show allegiance to the artists who elevate that way of being. This is why coverage has been so adulatory in the old print world. Rauschenbergs way of making art is, basically, what a newspaper does every day. Find objects produced by artists, comment on them, and smear this with the crude brush of lived in sensationalism. It's also why Rauschenberg is the patron saint of Mainland.

Robert Rauschenberg is the kind of art who should be seen through this lens, and particularly the celebration and lionization of his work. He was born in 1925, and died recently at the age of 82. Whether you know it or not, his art has a tremendous influence on Second Life. Or more exactly, I think, would be to say that he forced the acceptance of a kind of artistic activity which much of Second Life exemplifies.

The place to start is with his works and the combine this with his context.

This is one of Rauschenberg's best known works, the Sphinx Atelier, sorry for the typos in the file name, may Google for give me. It is typical of his works in that period in that it centers around images form media, that is things he did not create, the sphinx and the firemen, and then overlaying both other images, and his own painting.

Rauschenberg is best known for works in the form known as collage, where objects are combined together, often whole, and then presented. The "Boston Symphony Poster" presented here is a typical example. The violin, the glasses, and the amusement park ride in the background are taken from the commercial, and capital world. They are polished productions of professional artists, engineers and so on. They are combined with intentionally crude scrawl. The comment of the art is that there is such a vast gap between the products of the capital world, the old craft world, and the present. This has a technical word, that technical word is "alienation." Alienation is the separation of people from the world they make and live in, because they no longer have control over the tools with which it is made. It's something that was named by Marx, but is common in the art world at this point, or more specifically in commentary about the art world, and among artists. It's not a particularly new idea to this work.

If you have gotten that, that Rauschenberg took things from the commercial world, he worked for a while making department store windows, and then "lived on them." You have the basis of his art. He did very sophisticated things technically in order to appropriate, including use of silk screening and different media. But these were all in service of a simple process. Find things, combine things, and then live on them.

Which brings me to talking about context.

In this working method Rauschenberg follows the early 20th century art movements which collage media objects with personal artistic acts: Picasso and Braque's cubism, and most especially Duchamps' Dadaist works. Dada and cubism wanted to have an different relationship of artist to the world. Previously the artist made his or her proof of being an artist on the ability to create form out of light and shadow in black and white, perspective in the handling of vanishing points and foreshortening, and combining these with some handling of materials, whether the color of paints or the properties of bronze. The result was not necessarily depictive, but depiction was the standard against which the art was looked at. El Greco isn't being a realist, but he is stretching and distorting from a sense of the real.

In the 20th century this strong sense of centering of art around techniques of abstraction of the real world broke down. Partly because the techniques were widely available. Anatomy, shading, inking, became procedures which were common to illustration and hence no longer separated artists who had them as an elite. It was also the case that photography made the raw depiction of objects no longer a revenue stream for artists. For much of history, what we think of as the great works of art were exceptions. Most artists lived on more mundane commissions, and only occasionally had one where they had permission to do extraordinary things. This is why we generally only study a few dozen works out of the long careers of most artists, the rest being relatively ordinary production.

So here comes the 20th century. It looks different, it feels different, it pays different. What is an artist to do? One response was to manipulate that real world very directly, and prove that the artist could still smash, fold, an remake that world. That's the response of collage.

He was part of the New York City post-war generation of avant-garde American artists, including John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Andy Warhol, who had a different sense of what it meant to be in the world. Their idea was that art and life are a continuum, and that the old society of art was too focused on the mastery of particular skills and forms, and not enough on what they saw as modern life, and existential reality. Cage and Rauschenberg have particular links in how they talked about what they did, and both produced many conceptual works that tried to demonstrate this. Cage did sound collages, and both have a single celebrated work which is about absence: in the case of Raschenberg, his Erased DeKooning came from taking a drawing by deKooning and erasing it, then displaying it.

deKooning was on the other side of a branch in the response of artist as imposing raw emotion on the world. Rauschenberg and the other artists like him used found objects as focal points, deKooning, as with Jackson Pollock, wanted pure action. The Abstract Expressionists used primarily traditional media. It's hard to think of it this way, but the abstract expressionists were the conservatives in the argument over how to impose action on art.

And that's where I get to the focal point of what Rauschenberg was talking about in his most famous quote: "in the gap between art and life." What he meant by this is fairly simple. When a person focuses on shaping the details of something, it creates a bond, a relationship. It is compared with the loving attention on a child for a reason. We set things apart that are the products of this lavishing of attention, even if there is no conscious attention, as art. Life often has such moments on things not meant to be art: a meal, a baby, a phone conversation. But there is a gap between what we elevate as Art, and the daily business of living. Warhol, Cage, Rauchenberg, and others, wanted to obliterate this distinction between high art found in galleries and low art found in posters, and between both and simply living and being oneself. It's appealing to be well known for being yourself. I suppose until you try it sometime.

This is why I say Rauschenberg's capitalist aesthetic is central. He's a person, in a world filled with polished products of a machine which makes things that look like art, but have no attention, and people who pay attention to those objects as if they were art, consumers I mean, who don't have the ability to make anything like them. Even Kimball and Perl, who foam at the mouth about Rauschenberg, are Rauschenbergians: they find the objects, stick them together in their little box, and shit words on them just to say they were their. If you think Sphinx Atelier is ugly, then ranting about magnifies it by participating in this same process.

It is also why Rauschenberg's era is over, and why he is the patron saint of Second Life Mainland, and the horrors that it presents aesthetically. Rauschenberg's alienated blandscape is not ours. Tools are falling into everyone's hands that allow them to make polished products. I've burned a CD and given it to friends, so have you, probably. Or made a webpage. We've got other options to media than shitting on them with paint. Jed Perl rants and wails about Rauschenberg, but that's to miss the point. Rauschenberg was the product of a time when people live in a world that went in one direction, from those who could make and present, down to those who could only consume and kvetch.

Rauschenberg was famous for piling objects in small boxes, and sort of pasting them together. So too do many people on SL. Scavenge for freebies or cheap things, and then cram them into their little cluttered box. Next to the other little cluttered boxes.

The failure of the pop art world to be workable in our virtual age comes from a host of failures. One of them is the alienation itself. They were wrong about where things were going. Look at Warhol's films. What you see is an increasing distance from everything, even our own physical bodies, and especially our art. Second Life is part of the reverse trend: we are closer and closer to everything. We even refer to our avatars as "me."

The failure of mainland as an aesthetic and commercial project is seen in the Bay City build by LL. Mainland is a giant alienated beast parting its cheeks and defecating on computers, the spatter spreading in all directions. It clings to everything we do. Leaving aside the crassness of charging us 295 a month for islands and then competing directly against us, sometimes by using free labor, LL has realized what was obvious from long ago: little boxes make neither art, nor life. Not even second life.

Rauschenberg is gone, and soon his era will be over too, because, it does not work. The very thing that made him an icon is going to kill him, in that he is praised by people who work their worlds as he worked his art. I'm here to bury him, because his way of working is strangling my world, and is in complete opposition to how things must be for me, and others like me, to survive at all.

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