Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. – Leo Tolstoy
Every year I choose an overarching theme that relates to my work, my life and my projects. Last year was the year of slowing down (hence the fewer published essays here), the year before was the year of getting dirty (I made a lot of work in the studio that year and truly made a mess), and this year is the year of critical thinking. Critical thinking on first blush seems obvious, maybe easy. On the contrary it’s a combination of the previous two years – to be a critical thinker one must greet chaos in your head holding varying ideas and opinions, messy and otherwise, while slowing down and patiently addressing the opposing ideas and comparing them with experience in order to come to conclusions.
I think therefore I am is true, however strong thinking takes a lot of practice and learning. There are foundations dedicated to the art of critical thinking, and teachers are, hopefully, taught how to help their students think critically. Critical thinking means loosing one’s ego in thinking, it means losing sociological bearings and taking on an observational role in thinking. There are over 2500 years of research on critical thinking, so I have a lot to chew on.
In art practice thinking equals your content. Meaning what you are thinking becomes your content – you can not have content without thinking first. If you have no content then you are not thinking. If you are not thinking you have no content. You can tell easily when looking at a work of art where one is lacking, and the work simply can not stand on its own. Good art has strong content, strong content equals quality thinking. The artist has asked good questions, the very start of good thinking. With this definition, you may now easily discern what type of art is decorative, and which is truly art. Decoration is a fine thing – it’s not a value judgement, it’s simply not art.
A lack of critical thinking in art practice can be seen most obviously in artworks that are accused by critics such as Jerry Saltz and many others as being “crapstraction” (or drop cloth abstraction, aestheticized loot, zombie abstraction, zombie formalism): a flavor of abstract art that has neither thinking nor content. While not exactly crapstraction, I’ve noticed recently a huge amount of quiet, timid art that barely whispers something all in the name of poetry or something I can’t quite tell. I’m not sure what they are doing at all, but it’s using a lot of garbage or everyday materials in no consistent way. Robert Rauschenberg was the king of discarded materials and he used them in the right way to make the right statement, or at the least a strong statement. The timeless example of his is the powerful piece “Monogram (1955-56)”. The contemporary works I have seen are not vying to make a statement as strong as this, but sitting on the sidelines quietly making a wet-noodle statement. The materials are there, but the thinking seems absent.
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. – Bertrand Russell
I tend to do this all ready, though I vow to do it even more this year – that is thinking critically about how art is discussed and written about. The art system as it exists requires some major reconsideration. It’s often written from a specific angle – to prove a point or support an argument related to the author’s, magazine’s, blog’s, book’s or artist’s cause. On first blush it seems like critical thinking, though upon inspection and undressing you realize the author has not done their full homework, as convincing as their writing or the publication in which it exists may be. Or more award-winning type writing that is extremely obtuse and written with the aims of acknowledging a certain minority or type of art practice. For example, I just read an article about the “recent” focus on art and science, something I have been keen on for years. The author wrote well, named a few historical items reaching back as far as 1968, and forgot to mention the symbiotic relationship between art and science that has waffled in power for centuries. The article ended with the wild suggestion that the birth of collaborations between art and science was actually going on now in the Bay Area. This is like suggesting that right now in a kitchen in Idaho the brilliant combination of peanut butter and jelly is being created, so pay attention.
Just because someone is a curator, or an institution is an institution does not mean they are immune to accidents in their thinking. Or not being available for thinking. This past Fall I saw an exhibition titled “MOMMY” at a small artist led organization in Portland called Yale Union. The exhibit “considered motherhood” in all of it’s many colors. So it purported. Among the list of programming were a few films. One of which was Paul McCArthy’s “The Painter”. Really? What on earth does that 50-minute film of a pretend painter have anything to do with motherhood? Mind you it’s a hilarious film that has it’s place in my heart for making fun of artists taking themselves too seriously, it has nothing to do with motherhood. I sent the curator an email in the hopes of interviewing, discussing or at least understanding the motivation. I received a very polite no thank you from the curator. She said that I could attend the screenings. Hmmm. maybe if I was Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker there would be another directive. So I was left in the dark about why the masturbatory film by McCarthy was included. A note to institutions and curators – thanks to the internet and social media the audience is no longer in the dark – you can’t shut the lights off and expect to have no response and dialog. The light shines on the participant and a healthy dialog will move mountains for your organization.
In sum I know that much of my thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. So it’s my aim this year to make a focus on how I’m thinking, and how others are thinking. Reason and logic are helpful guides, and thinking outside of systems are stepping stones to broader thinking. Critical thinking is a system to open other systems. Cultivating critical thinking is actually a lifelong pursuit that takes time and patience. I look forward to sharing my findings with you!
Quotables on Critical Thinking:
The great majority of men and women, in ordinary times, pass through life without ever contemplating or criticizing, as a whole, either their own conditions or those of the world at large. They find themselves born into a certain place in society, and they accept what each day brings forth, without any effort of thought beyond what the immediate present requires…they seek the satisfaction of the needs of the moment, without much forethought, and without considering that by sufficient effort the whole condition of their lives could be changed…It is only a few rare and exceptional men who have that kind of love toward mankind at large that makes them unable to endure patiently the general mass of evil and suffering, regardless of any relation it may have to their own lives. These few, driven by sympathetic pain, will seek, first in thought and then in action, for some way of escape, some new system of society by which life may become richer, more full of joy and less full of preventable evils than it is at present. – Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom
Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society, nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative personalities able to think and judge independently, the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the community…In politics not only are leaders lacking, but the independence of spirit and the sense of justice of the citizen have to a great extent declined…In two weeks the sheeplike masses of any country can be worked up by the newspapers into such a state of excited fury that men are prepared to put on uniforms and kill and be killed…the present manifestations of decadence are explained by the fact that economic and technologic developments have highly intensified the struggle for existence, greatly to the detriment of the free development of the individual. – Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions
There is no slavery but ignorance. Liberty is the child of intelligence. – Robert G. Ingersoll
The great masses of the people…will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one. – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1933
Tagged: Albert Einstein, art practice, art writing, Bertrand Russell, Critical Thinking, MOMMY, Paul McCarthy, Robert Rauschenberg, The Painter, Yale Union