This week the conversation was lively and went over various themes relating to classification of art forms. The elusive elements in defining mediums, methodologies and thematics in art, itself a difficult term to delineate in the contemporary context, to my mind are in themselves of little use to the artist… or perhaps very useful. Now, which is it? Taxonomy in the arts can certainly be seen as divisive way of classifying what an artist does… for the artist. However, as in most things, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. For what is a taxonomy other than a means of ordering according to type and hierarchy classes of related things? We all need to order and prioritise our thoughts, and there lies the paradox. To do so in the private sphere of one’s own practice is quite a different thing to how taxonomy is used in the public arena.
There is an element of practicability when it comes to categorising art forms to give an idea of what someone is going to experience when visiting a venue or dedicating time on screen or audio. However, the recent loosening of artistic paradigms and breaking of barriers combined with a (natural some would say) need for people to identify and subsequently classify in terms of type and hierarchy has, to my mind, led to a confusion and profusion of terms more granular than ever before. With the emancipation of artists in the C19th and the growth of private middleclass patronage and galleries, the mediatory phenomenon of the critic emerged. Critics began describing different art forms with epithets such as, impressionism in France and I Macchiaoli in Italy, often without understanding the artists’ intentions and at times derogative in the first instance as in the case of the latter. Eventually artists in the C20th, seeing the marketing power of such nomenclature and affiliations, began denoting themselves as belonging to or having invented this ism or that. Giving name to the different styles that arose, as artists felt freed from the constraints of academism, created a many headed hydra that has metamorphosed into contemporary terms which have proliferated as interested groups have clamoured to delineate their own boundaries, often in an attempt to give themselves prominence. Does this serve the artist, or more precisely does it serve an artist’s self actualisation? I believe that it may serve artists in a worldly, status or commercial sense but whether it serves the majority of artists in terms of self actualisation barring the lucky few, I think not.
So who does this benefit? I feel that the atomisation of the arts has been propagated by artists themselves in conjunction with the pressures of commerce and status, although I do not think they are wholly responsible for the consequences and often fall victims of forces far greater than themselves. It is a paradox of the art establishment that no harder do some try to blur boundaries and foster interdisciplinary ideas, others create borders by defining their turf and defending it like crabs on quickly submerging islands built of sand. This is partly due to the academisation of the arts, in a way not too dissimilar to what happened to academic art in the C19th, but this is a discussion for another time. It is also a phenomenon effected by the market and the commoditisation of the arts despite anti-commodatisation movements. Museums, databases, arts organisations, education institutes, competitions, curators are all tied into this system of categorisation (see this table, a small sample of the variety, some would say confusion, certainly fluidity in just one sector of the contemporary artistic environment – link). Although understandable, it has led to a form of schizophrenia for artists. How do I describe myself, how do I fit into this particular taxonomy relating to this particular context? This is further exacerbated because for an artist to move from one domain to another can present other problems, often generated by the ‘turf’ syndrome mentioned earlier. Unless they are resolutely independent, outsider artists could fall into this category, practitioners can find themselves constrained to responding in terms of what others expect. This can lead to a diminished self actualisation in terms of the practice and place an onerous weight on finding success in other terms such as fame and wealth, one could say power.
Are there any advantages to identifying methodologies, modalities, means and contexts in an atomised environment? Having said all that I have, as an artist I do find that classifications can be useful for the critical analysis of my own practice. Identifying labels for what I do has at times altered perspectives and introduced language that has helped me clarify ideas. At other times, usually in response to outside demands, the result has been restrictive and sterilising. Aware of this latter consequence combined with the former, the result has been a clearer articulation of what I am about: knowing what not to say as much as what to say, all part of developing communication within my own internal dialogue as much as with others. Language can divide ideas but it can also unify them. A word such as performative can be applied to the act of painting and ballet, the placing of sculptural elements and the making of music. This opens up a whole world to holistic, lateral thinking: turn something on its head and new thoughts will come out. It keeps me on my toes with regard to semantics and enables me to play with ideas as abstract and realised.
So elusive taxonomies in themselves are neutral and as all words, labels by which we can respond to, build, and order a world (view). They can be used positively as well as in a pernicious way. But this is the way with all human activities. Something can be a force for good or quite the opposite. Perhaps the thing is that responsibility does not lie in the thing itself but in those that use it.