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The Contemporary Artwork Between Meaning and Cultural Identity

Paolo Martore

Résumés

L’article propose l’examen critique de certains termes théoriques liés aux stratégies de conservation, et plus spécifiquement dans leur application à l’art contemporain.

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Introduction

  • 1 Costa M., L’estetica dei media. Avanguardia e tecnologia, Roma, Castelvecchi, 1999.
  • 2 Ivi; pp. 101-116.

1Most of the Preservation strategies for contemporary art adopt a decision making model chiefly devoted to the original meaning’s recovery. Such orientation is still far from providing suitable solutions to face typical problems regarding time-based and hi-tech-based media art. Now, the ongoing weaving of aesthetics and technology binds kinetic art, video art, multimedial installation, digital and cyber art etc. This categorically heavy knot is a much more coherent fundament for study than many other classifications.1 Techno-sphere inherent properties (designing, reproducibility, seriality, functionality, interactivity etc.) have the ability to move incessantly artworks’ notions of identity and authenticity forward. The immediate outcome of this great settlement motion is a paradox: while the technological burst is more and more enriching and complicating the concept of matter, every new media artwork has to be tagged as immaterial, since it no longer sticks onto the usual categorical horizon. Any attempt of describing an art object without considering the device,2 would be thrown off the track from the start.

2But while the neo-technological dimension has just begun to have consideration in literature, there are some topics in international Preservation and Conservation debate, some recurring hindrances and issues that combine themselves to questioning present theoretical tools, forged by aesthetics too much concerned in recovering the exact meaning and/or the genuine artist’s intention, securing the original condition. In such a scenario, contradictions often come up: artwork as historical product but atemporal; as material artifact but of an ideal sense; as blurry synthesis of all these aspects or tensive state induced by their differences. This should push towards testing common definitions now in use; in fact, to refer at merely nominalistic or conventionalist notions is an ever impending risk. Hence, the primary goal is achieving a conceptual base for an effective and updated conservation protocol.

When does Contemporary begin?

3First of all, as a field marker “contemporary” yet remains ambiguous and imprecise, surely never univocal nor universally accepted; faint and flat body, Contemporary Art is supposed to be certainly detached from Ancient Art, though at some unreachable point in time, it frequently lends itself to arguments without substantial variations or middle degree, unless setting chronological and typological exceptions along the way. Conservation theory inadequacy is often motivated by chronological and typological issues.

  • 3 Jokilehto J, Considerations on Authenticity and Integrity in World Heritage Context, in “City & Tim (...)
  • 4 Hummelen I., et al., The Decision Making Model for the Conservation and Restoration of Modern and C (...)

4On the other hand, the notion of “traditional” also stays unsettled as generic reminder of artistic facts hinged on solid and shared historiography. Maybe this happens due to contemporary time permanently overwriting itself. Its tradition keeps attempting to retrospectively change like that of any review mirror. Maybe the acceptation of “tradition” as transmission of inviolable truth stems directly from the western religious lexicon,3 while artworks’ sense (the whole of intellectual and emotional interpretations, as of the significance of an event or the conclusions reached by a group) are constantly betrayed (handed over) through the generations. In Conservation literature the term “contemporary art” seems to allude to artworks made of heterodox material and techniques confronted to the “tradition”, within an incredible wide range of expressive trends. Indeed, critics agree in indicating as distinctive sign the enormous variety of artworks matter/meaning relations, although they simultaneously complain about the lack of clear semantic reference.4 So, to create updated and open databases that can convey and organize an important information about materials and technical processes, along with extensive artists interviews, is the first and the best step to control such exponential germination. Nonetheless, recording files about techniques, materials and artists intents is still bound to a perspective attending to relate all unknown element to established parameters, just to arrange ideas and information into an already acquired set of values.

Between image and matter

  • 5  “Habitus mentale di vocazione giudaicocristiana”. Fancelli P., La Teoria di Cesare Brandi, in Anda (...)
  • 6 Barassi S., op. cit., 2004, p. 3. See also Gioeni L., Genealogia e progetto. Per una riflessione fi (...)
  • 7 Genette G., L’oeuvre de l’art. Immanence et transcendance, Paris, Seuil, 1994; it. trad., L’opera d (...)

5In order to get a safe path in Conservation process, Cesare Brandi elaborates a distinction between matter and image; however many contemporary artworks have been resilient to such division. Indeed, bipolarity is a covert asymmetry, subordinating one to vehicle for the other; it secretly sets the symbolic separation of life and death: the matter (the body) becomes an objective residual, in favour of the image (the spirit). Matter can find reality just via this fracture, as place devoted to sacrifice for the sake of the image. Yet they are both simultaneously generated by the same abstraction, a teleological vision aiming to defer death (the irreversible state) along the one way, linear trajectory of history.5 Although distinction is prejudgmental, matter’s borders are still unattainable: the structure may vary to save the aspect, which is surely not just a surface, but whose limits are impossible to track down.6 Besides, these confines have been already trespassed by Brandi himself in pointing out that site, light and ambience are participants to the artwork as well; they are elements that elude the physical concept and penetrate deep into artworks’ identity. Moreover, artworks’ lives are marked by symbolic caesuras, not because of physical alterations but due to changes of context affecting the sense. Since environment itself could be susceptible to modifications, change is possible even without the displacement of artworks.7

  • 8 Van Wegen R., op. cit., 1999, p. 205.
  • 9 Van de Wetering E., Conservation-Restoration Ethics and the Problem of Modern Art, in Hummelen I., (...)
  • 10  Immediately juxtaposed to an historical instance; cfr. Van de Wetering E., op. cit., 1999, p. 248.

6Furthermore, dualism returns to opposition in aesthetic and historical instances where the aesthetic faction is ruled by vision. Western critics have tended to be obsessed by visual, this persists with some contemporaries, including Brandi, who focuses on visibility to that which is recognizable. Rik Van Wegen insists on original “external appearance” idea as a guarantee for artist’s intention;8 he believes contemporary art has a “theatrical aspect”, distinguishing it from the past. Ernst van de Wetering tends towards the same theme, he sees in conservators, who are chronologically close to the artist, a preference for the theatrical, to match visual aspect with artistic intent.9 Therefore, the theatrical dimension, related to object presentation and its “existential power”,10 seems to assume the duty of Brandi’s aesthetic instance. Once again, the only solid reference is the object in its physical consistency, however aesthetic and historical instances must split, to avoid material authenticity from clashing with the transmission of the original external appearance.

Production, reception and sense negotiation

  • 11 Rezeptionsaesthetik’s utility for artworks’ historical aspect deployment has been put in relation w (...)
  • 12  So a common idea has got spreading: “[...] transformation does not only involve the ageing and cha (...)

7To keep on speculating about performative character of artwork confirms the solidarity of matter and time, rather than asserting a de-materialization. In regard to artworks’ time dimension, the partition made by Brandi (duration/interval/moment) seems too confident of making a clean incision into the continuum of strictly tied events and effects. Nevertheless, Brandi’s idea of time dimension opens up to a theory of reception, which probably represents an effective cue to Preservation studies.11 Indeed, referring to a reception/fruition theory is a way to break out of the closed circle of the game played to define art. Given a waiting condition into an experiential space, as link to an historical context and to a necessary group of relations, this connects artworks into a local fruition that promotes a meaning. This process is not a mere data transfer, cause it always implies a resetting of the affective and cognitive skills and aesthetic judgement of the receiver. Thus, experiential dynamics are efficient and the artwork never ceases to re-appear, augmenting with changing motivations (inexhaustible semantic constitution). Pragmatic and textual constrictions into the interpretative process are not stiff mechanisms of permanent, concurrent and universal effectiveness; objective data gives support for the negotiation of sense. Therefore artwork identity is comprised of receptions promoted through time by the artwork itself, as if it were a circuit between the artist and the beholder. The open negotiation causes a sedimentation of interpretations, which accumulate into an artistic feature, rather than something that negates or diminishes the work.12 However, the continuation of changing receptions makes identity difficult to crystallize into something conclusive however, the artworks meaning is not just what it predicates: whatever numerous, different or contrasting interpretations may concern artwork, all interactions are participants to its identity, without fixing it in one set way.

  • 13 Kapelouzou I., On Artworks, Heritage, and Persisting Things in General, in Art d’aujourd’hui, patri (...)
  • 14 Basso P., Il dominio dell’arte, Roma, Meltemi, 2002.
  • 15 Genette G., op. cit., 1999.

8In spite of the many complications, the production is continually extended into reception, that is definitely not passive; it implies that the cultural artwork is constantly into a process of construction. The surveying field then grows even wider, dividing on two sides: production front - intrinsic, concerning its manifestations arrangement in relation to practise; and reception front - extrinsic, concerning statute assigned to those manifestations by social groups. The artwork is inside a permanent cultural elaboration process, that is bound to its manifestations, where apparently separated themes seem united: particularly statute assignments and authenticity sanctions. Artistic statute is regulation, rather than constitution; in other words, the status is a social convention ruling artworks’ semantic, posing them as appreciation candidates and prescribing fruition modes for them. Statute doesn’t accomplish the artistic by itself, because it needs to recall cultural identity formation procedures (implying production and reception practices). Artworks can ever go in and out of the “heritage”,13 which is a narrower field of the cultural dominion, where caring for the works is Conservation rather than maintenance or repair. Identity, which trust in statute’s solidity, is both at the same time a cultural-historical connection to recuperate itself philologically and a composite value resulting by social negotiation among several groups.14 Gerard Genette tells about attention or reception plurality: artwork cannot get twice the same effect or meaning.15 He portrays himself as skeptical of the possibility of art achieving its intrinsic features, just because he doesn’t see an artistic statue as established once for all.

Artist’s intention

  • 16  Intuition is “servirsi di quelle proprietà acquisite dalla esperienza come di un mezzo per rivesti (...)
  • 17 Costa M., op. cit., 1999, p. 58.
  • 18 Carboni M., Montani P. (ed.), Lo stato dell’arte. L’esperienza estetica nell’era della tecnica, Rom (...)

9In returning to the issue of medium/meaning, it is expected that artists are often supposed to select material by intuition by responding to its potentiality.16 But free will can not exist outside a range of possibilities set by the plexus of technology and social-cultural relations systems. Thanks to this association, invention or review, rejection or abidance can finally proceed. The technological dimension dismantles supposed absolute freedom of the aesthetic subject,17 because it merges with perceptual experiences it continuously promotes, inseparable from the symbolism that is linked to it.18 Through varying degrees of validity of direct sources, the use of the artist’s intention exists as an artwork’s limitation as it leads towards a speculative philology that can precariously diminish an artworks cultural existence, especially when documentation is missing. Artists shouldn’t be supposed as an undisputable keeper of an artwork’s meaning. Intentions may be easily ignored or misunderstood by the community of spectators, like in cases where individual interpretation of the artwork is desired by the artist and then re-integrate or repudiated narrative versions or that of a preparatory sketch considered as an autonomous work, and so on. Recalling artists intention is often a shortcut to solve artwork’s identity issue, as well as to establish a single undisputed meaning or even to reinstall a romantic vision of the artist. Supposing that the author is perfectly conscious of all possible relations between artwork and context is wrong, like taking this unconvincing consciousness as parameter for interpretation; it would be desirable for artwork’s cultural identity to liberate from implicit or explicit artist’s intention. The only purpose is the will to make that specific work, that is admitting artist’s paternity claim in terms of historical identity, not just semantic. To hold objects’ identity to a pre-forming intention means to not see the mobile, strategic situation (set by cultural net and practices) into which they are.

Meaning and cultural system

  • 19  For an example see Hearns Bishop M., Evolving Exemplary  Pluralism: Steve McQueen’s Deadpan and Ei (...)
  • 20 Brandi C., Teoria generale della critica, Torino, Einaudi, 1974.
  • 21 Garroni E., Estetica, Milano, Garzanti, 1992, p. 62.
  • 22 Muñoz Viñas S., Contemporary Theory of Conservation, Oxford, Elsevier, 2005, pp. 49, 160-164.
  • 23  Once again, see van de Wetering (op. cit., 1999, p. 247): “At first sight conservation-restoration (...)

10These observations stand against the immanent, right meaning hegemony and rearrange a multiplicity of factors, that join together an artworks cultural identity. That’s a radical shift from assuming a phantom original state and looking for a metaphysic stage, which, actualizing an artist’s will,19 would embody the very right meaning. Also, placing authenticity solely on dependence of an exact match of matter and artist’s intention means to jump over the artwork itself in search of shadows, rather than of an historical or physical situation. However, the meaning has been a major point in Brandi’s interest, who tenaciously tried to redefine it in a non-semiotic way, through refusal of art linguistic and communicational features.20 Any interpretation is carried out through a linguistic and conceptual system, that doesn’t fit with aesthetics.21 Signification is strictly rooted into languages and thus into semiotic cultural system of the world; it is not raw conceptual mediation and neither should be simply confused with an analogical comprehension procedure. Also Salvador Muñoz Viñas thesis implies the inability to set an absolute and finite meaning; he writes about “webs of meaning” and “trading zone”, according value to subjective variables brought in by the “stakeholder”, individual or collective.22 There’s a never ending re-motivation process that involves every cultural object.23 Finally, the meaning, goal of the ongoing preservation/conservation action, is articulated into several dimensions (cognitive, pragmatic, emotional etc.), is always connected. Singular determination cannot be truly exhaustive.

  • 24 Hummelen I., et al., op. cit.; 1999.
  • 25  See the case of Jean Tinguely’s Gismo in Hummelen I., Sillé D. (ed.), op. cit., 1999.

11Literature offers more than just one feedback. The decision making model introduced in 1987 by Theory and History Conservation-Restoration working group which was further elaborated on by Ijsbrand Hummelen together with others within the Conservation of Modern Art project in 1999,24 made for a successful contribute to Preservation studies due to conjoining different kinds of knowledge, balancing pros and cons of any strategy. However, the model doesn’t manage to arrive at rigorous theoretical organization; it remains redundant and somewhat entangled; and it leaves an unsettled contradiction in basic terms, such as historical aspect and authenticity. Above all, it stays anchored to the immanent meaning. Anyway, from a different perspective, the Dutch model is a tacit demonstration of ongoing negotiation for authenticity with implementation history and reception practices.25

  • 26  AA.VV., Rapport de la recherche: La restauration de l’art contemporain, Association Française des (...)
  • 27 Larsen K. E. (ed.), Nara Conference on Authenticity, conference preprints, Nara, 1-6 nov. 1994, Tro (...)
  • 28  “Le respect dû à ces cultures exige que chaque ouvre soit considérée et jugée par rapport aux crit (...)
  • 29 Ivi, p. 24.
  • 30  “L’autenticità di alcune creazioni contemporanee non è da riconoscere per forza nella materia che (...)
  • 31  Krestev T., Cultural Diversity and the Concept of Authenticity, in Larsen K. E. (ed.), op. cit., 1 (...)

12Besides, the Association Française des Conservateurs-Restaurateurs de Peintures report26 confronts the Document de Nara,27 that says that notion of authenticity (lying into the “integrité de la matière originale”) saying that a work can only be defined in relation to a determined cultural background.28 It points out how craftwork’s continuity (“continuité du travail artisanal”), in adhering to various techniques and production procedures, may be an authenticity gauge just like matter. Briefly: “l’authenticité dépend donc de critères propres à chaque culture, et si ce terme a un sens, ce n’est pas toujours une qualité intrinsèque à l’objet mais la garantie du espect des procédés traditionneles”.29 Even Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava admit that authenticity is not necessarily in matter, but knowing how artworks value has been debated by spectators, critics and cultural world in general has a major methodological weight.30 So, authenticity idea has grown richer of dynamic qualities, which count attributes like tradition and function, indicators for not otherwise detectable values. Context opens up a vastness of time, that immediately connects to the social and anthropological dimension as well.31

In conclusion

  • 32  Corrado G., Riflessione ermeneutica sul restauro, “Kermes”, oct/dec, 2005, a. XVIII, n. 60, Firenz (...)
  • 33  Bourdieu P., Les règles de l'art, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1998; it. trad., Le regole dell'arte, (...)

13So, the aim is certainly not to totally reject signification or to declare artist’s intention irrelevant. It is also not intended to dismiss the value of getting knowledge about the artwork however, it is to say that any effort to extract from the art object (only from it) its identity or meaning is ingenuous, as well as disastrous, because it doesn’t rest asleep inside the work. The possibility to fully cover the interpretation of an artistic text, as punctual presentation of the intentio auctoris32, has a strong appeal for someone who is about to design a Preservation/Conservation plan: by finding one right meaning, he would check authenticity, ratify identity, then aim at target and start a praxis. Preservation obviously passes through making choices, which could both produce conditioned and conditioning results. The goal for building a theoretical structure around the cultural identity concept, is to get a more consistent operative protocol that is worthy of its mission. Since culture is not an inherited collective memory, Preservation players should keep a check on mechanisms that generate, gather and motivate the continued creation of artworks. The self-sufficient descriptive data listing is such an absurd exercise that is the equivalent of trying to describe an underground route without considering the net system, which is the objective relations matrix for all stations.33

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Notes

1 Costa M., L’estetica dei media. Avanguardia e tecnologia, Roma, Castelvecchi, 1999.

2 Ivi; pp. 101-116.

3 Jokilehto J, Considerations on Authenticity and Integrity in World Heritage Context, in “City & Time”, 2, URL: http://www.ct.ceci-br.org, 2006.

4 Hummelen I., et al., The Decision Making Model for the Conservation and Restoration of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Hummelen I., Sillé D. (ed.), Modern Art: Who Cares?, Amsterdam, The Foundation for the Conservation of the Modern Art in the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, 1999, p. 164. Also see Van Wegen R., Between Fetish and Score: the Position of the Curator of Contemporary Art, in Hummelen I., Sillé D. (ed.), op. cit., 1999, p. 204; Barassi S., La conservazione dell’arte contemporanea, “Nuova Museologia”, december, 2004, 11, pp. 2-6. And Chiantore O., Rava A., Conservare l’arte contemporanea, Milano, Electa, 2006.

5  “Habitus mentale di vocazione giudaicocristiana”. Fancelli P., La Teoria di Cesare Brandi, in AndaloroM. (ed.), La teoria del restauro nel Novecento da Riegl a Brandi, conference proceedings, Viterbo, 12-15 novembre 2003, Firenze, Nardini, 2006, p. 364.

6 Barassi S., op. cit., 2004, p. 3. See also Gioeni L., Genealogia e progetto. Per una riflessione filosofica sul problema del restauro, in “Restauro”, n. 162, Napoli, Edizioni scientifiche italiane, 2002.

7 Genette G., L’oeuvre de l’art. Immanence et transcendance, Paris, Seuil, 1994; it. trad., L’opera d’arte. Immanenza e trascendenza, Bologna, Clueb, 1999, pp. 245-251.

8 Van Wegen R., op. cit., 1999, p. 205.

9 Van de Wetering E., Conservation-Restoration Ethics and the Problem of Modern Art, in Hummelen I., Sillé D. (ed.), op. cit., 1999, p. 248.

10  Immediately juxtaposed to an historical instance; cfr. Van de Wetering E., op. cit., 1999, p. 248.

11 Rezeptionsaesthetik’s utility for artworks’ historical aspect deployment has been put in relation with Brandi’s ideas in D’Angelo P., La teoria del restauro e l’estetica di Brandi, in AndaloroM. (ed.), op. cit., 2006, p. 324.

12  So a common idea has got spreading: “[...] transformation does not only involve the ageing and changing of the material but especially takes place in the mind of the beholders. As to this last type of transformation, Brandi noted in his Teoria del restauro that the object is constantly reborn in the minds of those who see it and that it is undergoing a multitude of transformations in the process” (Van de Wetering E., op. cit., 1999, p. 248).

13 Kapelouzou I., On Artworks, Heritage, and Persisting Things in General, in Art d’aujourd’hui, patrimoine de demain, Conference proceedings, Paris, SFIIC, 2009 (pp. 37-42).

14 Basso P., Il dominio dell’arte, Roma, Meltemi, 2002.

15 Genette G., op. cit., 1999.

16  Intuition is “servirsi di quelle proprietà acquisite dalla esperienza come di un mezzo per rivestire lo schema” (Brandi C., Struttura e architettura, Torino, Einaudi, 1967, p. 43).

17 Costa M., op. cit., 1999, p. 58.

18 Carboni M., Montani P. (ed.), Lo stato dell’arte. L’esperienza estetica nell’era della tecnica, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2005, p. 106.

19  For an example see Hearns Bishop M., Evolving Exemplary  Pluralism: Steve McQueen’s Deadpan and Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Anne, Aki and God – Two Case Studies for Conserving Technology-Based Installation Art, “Journal of the American Institute for Conservation”, 2001, n. 3, Vol. XL, p. 181.

20 Brandi C., Teoria generale della critica, Torino, Einaudi, 1974.

21 Garroni E., Estetica, Milano, Garzanti, 1992, p. 62.

22 Muñoz Viñas S., Contemporary Theory of Conservation, Oxford, Elsevier, 2005, pp. 49, 160-164.

23  Once again, see van de Wetering (op. cit., 1999, p. 247): “At first sight conservation-restoration ethics seems to be a cultural, and thus temporal phenomenon. This may imply that is only valid to a limited extent; that is relative by nature. There is, however, a deeper significance in conservation-restoration ethics as enshrined in existing codes. This makes one wonder whether these codes do not in fact formulate truth instead of temporary conventions”.

24 Hummelen I., et al., op. cit.; 1999.

25  See the case of Jean Tinguely’s Gismo in Hummelen I., Sillé D. (ed.), op. cit., 1999.

26  AA.VV., Rapport de la recherche: La restauration de l’art contemporain, Association Française des Conservateurs-Restaurateurs de Peintures - AFCOREP, Paris 1996.

27 Larsen K. E. (ed.), Nara Conference on Authenticity, conference preprints, Nara, 1-6 nov. 1994, Trondheim, UNESCO/ICCROM/ICOMOS, 1995.

28  “Le respect dû à ces cultures exige que chaque ouvre soit considérée et jugée par rapport aux critères qui caractérisent le contexte culturel auquel elle appartient” (cfr. AA. VV., op. cit., 1996, p. 23).

29 Ivi, p. 24.

30  “L’autenticità di alcune creazioni contemporanee non è da riconoscere per forza nella materia che le concretizza [...] Conoscere le informazioni sul valore artistico attribuito loro dai fruitori e dalla critica, recuperando qualche impressione dall’ambiente e dall’emozione di quando furono realizzate”. Cfr. Chiantore O., Rava A., op. cit., 2005, p. 49.

31  Krestev T., Cultural Diversity and the Concept of Authenticity, in Larsen K. E. (ed.), op. cit., 1995, p. 344.

32  Corrado G., Riflessione ermeneutica sul restauro, “Kermes”, oct/dec, 2005, a. XVIII, n. 60, Firenze, Nardini, pp. 35-37.

33  Bourdieu P., Les règles de l'art, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1998; it. trad., Le regole dell'arte, Milano, Il Saggiatore, 2005; p. 339.

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Paolo Martore, « The Contemporary Artwork Between Meaning and Cultural Identity », CeROArt [En ligne], 4 | 2009, mis en ligne le 14 octobre 2009, consulté le 28 mai 2017. URL : http://ceroart.revues.org/1287

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Auteur

Paolo Martore

PhD, indipendent researcher, Rome. He is currently assisting the Contemporary Art History Teaching at the Faculty of Cultural Heritage Preservation of Tuscia University, Viterbo (Italy). He worked as freelance assistant curator, chiefly at Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (GNAM) of Rome. His major interest is the Theory of Conservation applied to neo-technological contemporary artworks.

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