In this essay, I will consider the reasons why ‘art’ which provides us with a sensory experience is important. I will explain why the ‘sensory’ experience of ‘art’ is different to the ‘reliant’ experience of ‘art’. I am pursuing this argument as I have a strong affinity to ‘art’ which provides a sensory experience and because Contemporary Art seems to be dominated by ‘reliant’ rather than ‘sensory’ experiences.
I have tried to differentiate between the sensory and the reliant experiences:
A ‘sensory’ experience of art is an experience which is primarily internal, it uses the bodily senses (sight, taste, smell, touch and/or hearing). Both the viewer and the artist experience the artwork without basing their understanding on additional ‘structures of comprehension’1 such as context or supporting documentation.
A ‘reliant’ experience of art is an experience which is reliant on additional ‘structures of comprehension’1. These ‘structures of comprehension’ exist externally of the artwork itself and to the sensory experience; they rely on a learned cognitive understanding.
1 A ‘structure of comprehension’ could alternatively be defined as ‘a means by which one understands’. This understanding can be both a sensory and cognitive. Examples of cognitive ‘structures of comprehension’ include verbal and written language and an understanding of the context which surrounds Contemporary Art.
An explanation of sensory and reliant experience
How do we experience?
Our understanding of experience is not a singular understanding which is unanimously accepted. There are different understandings and these different understandings of experience will influence how we understand and experience art.
Is it possible to have an experience through only the mind or only the senses? Much has been written about how we experience. There are two main arguments, one which proposes that we can measure and express experience scientifically and the contrary argument which proposes that we have a more subjective experience which is unable to be measured.
Utilitarianism or Positivist philosophy, which still dominates much of our thinking and science today, proposes that only what can be measured is real. This argument was founded on the principles proposed by Galileo, who believed that you were able to measure the natural world through the “language of mathematics” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica: 2016). This rational way of thinking proposed that reality itself is based upon logical structures which are supported by mathematical reasoning and therefore experience can be measured objectively. Galileo proposed that those things which cannot be measured, such as our experience of colour, are not scientific and therefore of less importance than things which can be measured.
This understanding of experience ignores or reduces the importance of subjectivity within an experience. Romanticist philosophy rejected the Utilitarian or Positivist ideas of experience and instead “emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica: 2009). Romanticism was influenced by Empiricist philosophy which proposed that “that all concepts originate in experience” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica: 2015). They argued that knowledge comes from and can be tested by sensory experience; provable concepts are “rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions [which] are justifiable or knowable only through experience” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica: 2015).
Descartes reinterpreted the philosophy of Galileo and proposed the idea of mind–body dualism which suggested that mind and body are distinct kinds of substances and therefore are of different natures. This division between a rational active mind and physical passive body suggested that the mind is “an immaterial, non-extended substance that engages in various activities such as rational thought, imagining, feeling, and willing,” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica: 1998) whereas all things which exist physically (including the body) conform “to the laws of physics in mechanistic fashion” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica: 1998). Descartes is, therefore suggesting that mind and body exist as separate entities with different qualities – the mind exists outside of the boundaries which would allow it to be measured and the body exists as matter which can be measured. He proposes however that the physical body is “causally affected by the human mind” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica: 1998). In this sense, he is suggesting that the mind is the place where experience happens (even if it appears to be a sensory experience we experience this through the active mind) and that we are unable to experience reality through the senses of the passive body.
This dualistic way of thinking about experience has been challenged by many thinkers, particularly in modern philosophy (for example in phenomenology), but is still current in much scientific practice, which attempts in most disciplines to eliminate subjective experience and portrays the world as passive; we measure it by our tools and assert our minds upon it to give it meaning. The opposite way of thinking is that it is subjective experience that determines our view of the world and this comes through the body. There is, therefore a divide between the approaches: either experience is rational and scientifically measurable or experience is primarily subjective. Alternatively, many believe that the mind and the body – or the rational and the subjective – are both active in our experience of the world.
How can we apply these theories of experience to our experience of Art?
The different views of how we experience the world can be applied to how we experience art. Conceptual Art is an example of a genre of art which prioritises the rational idea over any subjective physicality and could be seen as a form of art based solely on the experience of the mind. Abstraction is an example of a genre of art in which the subjective and sensory experience of the body is crucial in the experience of artwork and rejects the rational experience of the mind.
How can the different approaches to experience affect a work of art?
If additional structures of comprehension (accompanying language/ text/ context etc. which exist outside of the work in its physicality and in the mind of the viewer) are applied to the experience of an artwork, this can alter the cognitive understanding of the work but it will not alter the physicality of the work itself. However, the addition of a cognitive understanding which is reliant upon these additional structures of comprehension allows for an experience which goes beyond the bodily senses.
How abstraction was a ‘sensory’ experience
Abstraction challenges the two-dimensionality of figurative painting
Painting as a form of art radically changed from a two-dimensional ‘realism’ (e.g. that which was prevalent in the annual or bi-annual Salon exhibitions at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 19th century) to a non-pictorial style of painting produced by the Abstract artists. Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich were among the first truly abstract painters who revolutionised painting. These artists made abstract paintings which were not a pictorial representation of the figurative, but an abstraction achieved through the removal of all visually recognisable forms, colours and lines, leaving “paintings with no discernible subject and no independently intelligible forms” (Maloon: 2010: 17). They were inspired by the Cubists and Picasso’s “abandonment of traditional single-viewpoint perspective destroyed the window through which […] Western artists had been looking out upon the external world” (Golding: 2000: 20). Abstraction went beyond a representation of the actual physical and towards the representation of the non-visual and the creation of “imageless painting” (Schapiro: 1952, cited in Maloon: 2010: 26).
The purpose of abstraction
The abstract artists went beyond what was figuratively accurate from a single viewpoint as they wanted to “represent them [the actual physical reality from which they were painting] as completely as possible” (Mondrian: 1920, cited in Golding: 2000: 20). These abstract paintings were able to “convey a sense of profundity through simple, nonreferential pictorial forms” (Golding: 2000: p67). This “was a revolution in the concept of art […] the new art was the most emancipated of all […] indeed the most spiritual to, since only what was immediately given in feeling and thought […] was admitted to the work of art” (Schapiro: 1952, cited in Maloon: 2010: 26). This non-objective-nonrepresentation went beyond the accurate visual depiction of representational painting.
Malevich’s Black Square goes beyond a cognitive rational and towards sensory transcendence
The new artistic territory discovered through the non-pictorial depictions which completely negated the idea of the physical were able to go beyond a representation of physical visual reality and towards physical transcendence. This new way of painting offered new opportunities for the artists, the flatness of Malevich’s two dimensional paintings could be paralleled with “infinite space […] the elimination of three dimensional or illusionistic pictorial depiction, a fourth dimension – and indeed even a fifth – could be given expression or explained diagrammatically on a two dimensional plane” (Golding: 2000: 76). Malevich “transformed himself into the zero of forms”, (Malevich: 1916, cited in Golding: 2000: 58) with his Black Square painting. The twodimensionality of Malevich’s paintings appeared to achieve the absolute, both philosophically and as a work of ‘art’. These paintings were “an art about flight, about man’s ascent into the ether, into that mysterious light-carrying medium believed by occultists and many early scientists to fill all empty space” (Golding: 2000: 67).
Abstract art as ‘music’
This form of painting was very different from the forms of painting which had occurred prior to Abstraction. The creation of work which was not physically representative and therefore not a continuation of the tradition of painting in which they painted what they could physically see. These paintings did not have the same purpose of representational paintings. Abstract art took inspiration from a belief that an ‘art’ could be produced which was “diametrically opposite to what they called ‘literature’ there was an aesthetic goal: music […] The precedent set by music – its example as a fully emancipated, non-representational art form – was consciously emulated by the first abstract painters” (Maloon: 2010: 27).
Abstract art develops through cognition
However, the first abstract artists did not paint as an exercise which was solely sensory but developed their abstract paintings through the development of cognitive ideas. They took influence from philosophical ideas and events which were external of art: Malevich was influenced by industrialisation and a new mechanical age and his paintings were a reflection of this new era with its new ideas. The abstract painters had to be conceptually aware in order to produce ‘art’ which was radically different from that of those before them and would explain their theorisation using language, “Mondrian wrote extensively about art, as also – at even greater length – did Malevich and Kandinsky” (Golding: 2000: 13).
The transcendence of the physical in the search for the absolute
The philosophy of Theosophy and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine influenced Mondrian. Theosophy had the goal of transcendental knowledge, and Blavatsky “saw religion and art as being on parallel paths and acknowledged that the aim of both was to transcend matter” (Golding: 2000: 15). This transcendence of the physical influenced the non-pictorial abstract art of Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich and ‘art’ became a “means through which we can know the universal” (Mondrian, cited in Golding: 2000: 26). Mondrian was also influenced by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who felt that ‘art’ “was one of humanity’s greatest achievements and even at times as a self-revelation of God or of the absolute [...] arts promised land lay in the search for a new absolute” (Golding: 2000: 37). Hegel proposed that in the third and final stage of evolution “the spirit detaches itself from nature and achieves total freedom, thus becoming pure universal form […] the spiritual essence attains the consciousness and feeling of itself” (Hegel, cited in Golding: 2000: 74) was perhaps achieved with the work of Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky.
The paintings of these artists drastically differed from the paintings of those that had come before them. These abstract paintings included ideas which were not based upon a scientific representation of visual physical reality or an experience which could be mathematically measured. They offered a subjective and sensory experience to both the artist and the viewer.
‘Art’ as sensory experience
This sensory experience that the abstract artists were creating went beyond representation and included feelings and ideas of transcendence and expression. Mondrian even went as far to say that “art was beginning to become a substitute for religious experience” (Golding: 2000: 15). Mondrian reached a conclusion with his abstract paintings, he realised that “nature was not something to be contemplated but rather to be looked into, and beyond, as a key to a higher reality” (Golding: 2000: 40). Other artists took inspiration from this sensory approach used by the abstract painters in the early 20th century and continued to “respond metaphorically to the physical world” (Oxlade: 2008: 6) which enabled the sensory exploration of the natural link between man and world to continue.
How Conceptual Art is a ‘reliant’ experience
The way in which language affects our experience of the world
The structure of language gives us the ability to communicate – and apply meaning to sensory experiences using the cognitive understanding of the mind. Ferdinand de Saussure proposes one theory of language:
“language is a system of signs that expresses ideas, and is therefore comparable to writing […] language, when reduced to its elements […] [is] a naming-process only – a list of words, each corresponding to the thing it names […] the linguistic unit is a double entity, one formed by the associating of two terms […] The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological
imprint of the sound, the impression it makes on our senses. The sound-image is sensory […] The two elements are intimately united, and each recalls the other” (de Saussure: 1959, cited in Osborne: 2002: 225-226).
An exploration of the relationship that art has with language through Joseph Kosuth’s artwork One and Three Chairs
Joseph Kosuth’s artwork One and Three Chairs can be used to explain this relationship between the signified and the signifier or the actual and the pictorial/linguistic. One and Three Chairs consists of a dictionary definition of the word ‘chair’, a photo of the chair, and a chair. These three elements represent the signified (which is the physical mass of the chair) and the signifier (which is the two-dimensional pictorial representation of the physical mass [a photograph] and the two-dimensional linguistic representation of the physical mass [the writing]). An auditory understanding of the bond between the physical ‘chair’ with the sound ‘chair’ (the signified and signifier) is made possible through “concept and sound-image” (de Saussure: 1959, cited in Osborne: 2002: 226). To understand the text (which is the second signifier of the ‘chair’) one must have an understanding of the form of “spatial line of graphic marks is substituted for succession in time” (de Saussure: 1959, cited in Osborne: 2002: 226) which constitute writing. This written signifier of the signified is “measurable in a single dimension; it is a line” (de Saussure: 1959, cited in Osborne: 2002: 226). To understand these signifiers in relation to the signified one must have the ability to read and understand the two-dimensional spatial lines and the auditory sound-image which constitute ‘chair’. This understanding of the relationship between the signifier and the signified is an example of a cognitive ‘structures of comprehension’ which is required for the full experience of this ‘reliant’ artwork.
Duchamp challenges the notion of ‘art’
Marcel Duchamp is considered by many to be the first ‘conceptual’ artist. Duchamp disregarded what was already “proven” to be an ‘artwork’ and placed ready-made objects within an artistic setting. He challenged the known perceptions of what ‘art’ could be and combined idea with a physical object. He believed that an artwork was only an artwork in the minds of those who believed it to be an artwork: a cognitive understanding of what ‘art’ was, was all that distinguished ‘art’ from ‘non-art’ and therefore ‘non-art’ placed within the context of ‘art’ (an artistic space) would be considered ‘art’. Duchamp changed “our cognitive relations to their [arts] visual form” (Osborne: 2002: 27).
Conceptual Art reinforces the notion that ‘art’ is based on idea and the physicality of the work is irrelevant
This proposal that ‘art’ is an idea which is based on a cognitive understanding and is subject to change was initiated by Duchamp and further reinforced by the Conceptual Art movement. “By the early 1970s a revolution had taken place in the perceptions and practice of art: it [art] had become redefined as a vehicle for ideas” (Osborne, 2002, cover page). The nature of art was questioned when artists presented “new propositions as to art’s nature” (Joseph Kosuth, cited in Osborne: 2002: 232). Kosuth proposed in his essay Art After Philosophy that “a work of art is a kind of proposition presented within the context of art as a comment on art” (Joseph Kosuth, cited in Osborne: 2002: 232) and that “the forms of art most clearly finally referable only to art have been forms closest to analytical propositions” (Joseph Kosuth, cited in Osborne: 2002: 232).
Critical writings became as important as the works themselves and the physical properties of the works were seen to be irrelevant. Sol LeWitt’s essay Paragraphs on Conceptual Art proposed that “Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions […] Anything that calls attention to and interests the viewer in this physicality is a deterrent to our understanding of the idea” (Sol LeWitt, cited in Osborne: 2002: 214). Kosuth also argued that “aesthetics are conceptually irrelevant to art […] art’s ‘art condition’ is a conceptual state […] art’s viability is not connected to the presentation of visual (or other) kinds of experience” (Joseph Kosuth, cited in Osborne: 2002: 232). He went on to say that the viewer of contemporary artwork (the work which was being produced in 1969 at the time he was writing) must be given “advance information about the concept of art and about an artist’s concepts” (Joseph Kosuth, cited in Osborne: 2002: 233) in order to experience and understand it.
Conceptual Art destroys the need for a medium-based art
Rosalind Krauss’ essay, ‘A Voyage on the North Sea’: Art In The Age of Post-Medium Condition discusses how the “traditional connection of ‘medium’ to matters of technique, as when the arts were divided […] into ateliers representing the different mediums – painting, sculpture, architecture” (Krauss: 2000: 7) were destroyed by Conceptual Art which “rejected the restrictions of the received conceptions of artistic media” (Osborne: 2002: 19). Conceptual Art instead produced ‘art’ through “multiple yet disjunctive mediations between different forms” (Osborne: 2002: 19). Conceptual Art’s rejection of medium specific artwork was partly a reaction to Clement Greenberg’s ideas on medium specificity in which he stated that the medium of the artwork should determine the artwork. “A medium is purportedly made specific by being reduced to nothing but its manifest physical properties […] the nature of a recursive structure is that it must be able, at least in part, to specify itself” (Krauss: 2000: 7). This medium specific artwork Greenberg championed took the form of Minimalist paintings which emphasised the flatness of paint as a medium most efficiently through paintings which consisted of flat blocks of colour. Krauss sees the rejection of medium specific works which had “vested their claims to purity in being autonomous, which is to say that in their declaration of being about nothing but their own essence” (Krauss: 2000: 11) and the shift towards artworks which were not constrained by medium and willingly encompassed “various forms and sites” (Krauss: 2000: 11) as enabling “a higher purity for art […] it would […] adopt any form it needed” (Krauss: 2000, 11).
The legacy of Conceptual Art
Although the ‘Conceptual Art’ movement’s “polemic rejection of visuality and objecthood per se” (Osborne: 2002: 47) has passed, the legacy of Conceptual Art “as a critique of medium and autonomy […] continues to be felt across the whole field of current art practices” (Osborne: 2002: 47). The challenge it posed remains, it highlighted “the importance of language to art […] in its heightened awareness of the role of critical discourse in the production and experience of art” (Osborne: 2002: 23).
The role of the experiencer
Conceptual art also challenged the role of the experience within a work of art, often asking the viewer to participate in, or complete, the works. For example, Art and Language aimed for their work to produce ‘not a form of responsive emotion but a form of responsive activity” (Charles Harrison, cited in Osborne: 2002: 23). Yoko Ono’s “Instruction pieces are unbounded, in principle, by any particular context. This both draws attention to the indeterminacy or infinity inherent in their linguistic expression and confers a participatory dimension to the work, requiring the audience to ‘complete’ it” (Osborne: 2002: 23). This “open ended imaginative completion both clinches the conceptual character of the work and challenges the modernist conception of the artwork as an autonomous or self-sufficient entity” (Osborne: 2002: 23).
A summary of Abstraction and Conceptual Art in relation to how they offer a ‘reliant’ or ‘sensory’ experience.
Conceptual Art relies on a scientific understanding of experience
The removal of an intuitive or sensory way of working gives us a work based solely on a planned idea. Art based only on an idea is reliant on objectivity, if “all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand […] the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” (Sol LeWitt, cited in Osborne: 2002: 213-214). This singular emphasis on concept replaces any sensory or intuitive ways of working with a planned outcome and therefore avoids any subjectivity. LeWitt proposes a method for this way of working, “the artist would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. After that the fewer decisions made in completing the work, the better. This eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious and the subjective as much as possible” (Sol LeWitt, cited in Osborne: 2002: 214). Kosuth’s piece of writing Art after Philosophy assesses the purpose of ‘art’ against its ability to be measured objectively in a scientific manner. He proposes that ‘art’ does not comply with traditional scientific reasoning or the ability to ‘test’ art against scientific rules, so “art’s ability to exist will depend not only on its not performing a service” (Joseph Kosuth, cited in Osborne: 2002: 232). Kosuth continues, “Art’s unique character is the ability to remain aloof from philosophical judgements. It is in this context that art shares similarities with logic, mathematics and as well, science.
But whereas the other endeavors are useful, art is not. Art indeed exists for its own sake” (Joseph Kosuth, cited in Osborne: 2002: 232).
A sensory approach to art opposes Conceptual Art’s objectivity and nonmateriality
The artists and writers who are advocates of the sensory approach to making and experiencing art dismiss the cognitive approach of Conceptual Art which is “made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions” (Sol LeWitt, cited in Osborne: 2002: 214). The proponents of a sensory experience argue that art is “a physical and an abstract expression of one’s existence” (Reichert: 2008: 2) produced using our bodies and therefore a reliant art which does not incorporate a sensory experience is lacking in fullness. Sr Anselma Scollard OSB argues that “because man is body and soul there is a lack of accuracy and reality in a so-called artistic manifestation which does not incorporate the bodily dimension.” (Scollard: 2008: 21) This sensory experience is seen to outweigh the rationality which dominates Conceptual Art. Scollard contrasts art which is understood and produced in a sensory way with art which is understood primarily through cognition. Scollard argues that as drawing, painting and sculpture are made “through the body and by means of matter” (Anselma Scollard, cited in Reichert: 2008: 21) how can an artist express oneself “by means of an empirical, analytical statement?” (Anselma Scollard: 2008: 21). She continues by saying that “there is a lack of accuracy and reality in a so-called artistic manifestation which does not incorporate the bodily dimension. This is why Conceptual Art is somehow unreal, and empty of expression. In trying to transcend the physical or locating one’s expression solely in a concept, Conceptual Art actually impedes the possibility of conveying meaning. There is no objective reality to which to refer” (Scollard: 2008: 21).
This argument could, of course, be countered by the rationality of Utilitarianism, which would argue that there is an objective reality to which one can refer, and therefore Conceptual Art can convey meaning through ideas which rely upon an objective understanding.
Producing art outside of the cognitive boundaries of ‘art’
Roy Oxlade explains why the making of art outside of cognition is important and why very few artists today achieve this, “the hallmark of ‘non-art’ […] is its innocence about art. How can artists who are sharply aware of art history and current practice, produce work which is innocent of it?” (Oxlade: 2008: 30). Artists reliant on a cognitive understanding of art history and a coercion with the current practice of Contemporary Art “fall continually in the trap of watching ourselves work, making it almost certain that, in doing so, we produce ‘art.’ To avoid the trap it is necessary to leave the framework of expectation, the safety of an anticipated result, and instead trust hand and eye to combine instinctively” (Oxlade: 2008: 30). Oxlade is pushing for the production of ‘Nonart’ i.e. art which doesn’t fit in as ‘art’ within the established frameworks and which has an innocence about it which is removed when we try to make ‘art.’ “To work, conscious that you are making art, is disastrous” (Oxlade: 2008: 5). To break free from the creation of art which is based upon “scientifically-shadowed training” (Oxlade: 2008: 5) we need to forget that ‘art’ is reliant and produce work outside of these scientific boundaries.
The importance of reliant ‘art’
Art which is reliant on additional language or context which exists outside of the work itself allows cognitive ideas which are external to the work itself to be explored. This can give the work additional meaning and shed light on philosophical ideas and external events unconnected to a sensory experience of the physical work.
Josh Kline’s recent installation Unemployment (2016) is an example of a contemporary artwork which is reliant on a cognitive understanding. Unemployment is made up of several sculptural works including a chair made up of shredded financial documents and life-sized 3D prints of business professionals “curled in the fetal position and bagged in plastic like yesterday’s recycling” (McGarry: 2016). The work is “a period piece set in the near future, possibly the 2030s” (McGarry: 2016) and gives insight into the current economic crises and possible future crises. The work attempts to make a statement about how technological advances are changing the way that people will be employed in the future but it does so not through an experience in which one obtains this information directly through the sensory experience of the physical work, but through a comprehension of the context of contemporary events and the addition of text and language.
Art which is ‘reliant’ upon these additional structures of comprehension can be useful to both artist and experiencer as they are able to communicate cognitive ideas that exist externally to a primarily sensory experience and can, therefore enhance the overall understanding of the work.
Going beyond ‘Contemporary Art’
Contemporary society and its reliance on scientific experience
The contemporary world relies heavily on shared understandings of ideas which are based upon scientific reasoning. Our reliance upon scientific reasoning for understanding has led us to lose contact with many of the things which connect us to the natural world through subjective experiences. Our response to the world is both a physical and a cognitive one, but it seems that our subjective sensory experiences of life are being overshadowed by one of cognition which is reliant upon scientific reasoning.
Defining ‘Contemporary art’ as fundamentally ‘reliant’
There are two definitions of ‘contemporary art’, one is that it is “contemporary with us in the most obvious sense, a vital part of our immediate experience of the present” (Smith: 2011: 8), it is contemporary in the sense that it his happening now, in contemporaneity.
The other is that “the term Contemporary Art will be shown to be the name for a genre of art.” (Malik: 2013) The definition that will be used henceforth in this essay is that Contemporary Art is a genre of art and is not as a measure of contemporaneity.
Suhail Malik argues that Contemporary Art is “a field of activity” (Malik: 2013) which cannot be defined solely on the content of the artworks alone. The experience of Contemporary Art is therefore fundamentally reliant, “the terms of Contemporary Art are sometimes the artworks, but not always […] they are also the common places, the idiolects, the received ideas, the judgements, the justifications, the social and administrative quasi-structures, the power operations and so on that constitute Contemporary art as a field of activity” (Malik, 2013).
Looking towards a new form of ‘art’
Both Malik and Smith look towards a new form of ‘art’ which is an “art for the world” (Smith: 2011: 325). This art will be produced by artists who are “responsible to others […] responsible to themselves […] responsible to ideas […] sincere, authentic, political, just, effective” (Malik: 2013). He goes on to say that “the dream of art [is] to be: less private, narcissistic, inauthentic, socially detached; less abstracted from real, concrete conditions from life” (Malik: 2013). All of this points in a direction away from current practices within Contemporary Art, and towards an art which has positive attributes as ‘art’, and outside of art.
Art as a social, cultural and political contribution
Malik’s description of the drawbacks of ‘Contemporary Art’: “the negative formulations, the insincerity, inauthenticity, narcissism” (Malik: 2013), are reinforced by Anton Vidokle and Brian Kuan Wood who look towards an art “that does not lean entirely on the professional superstructure of art in order to come into being as art […] this break [with Contemporary Art] can align itself with a cohesive social project” (Vidokle and Wood: 2012: #37). This proposal for an art which is defined by its “social, cultural and political contribution […] not just about art [which fits within the strict scientific boundaries of ‘Contemporary Art]” (Malik: 2013) but more social, more collaborative, more real, less arty” (Malik: 2013) is a push for an art which is less dependent on the scientific boundaries which define and constrain ‘art’ as ‘art’ and towards an ‘art’ which exists outside these boundaries. This proposal could be seen as a push away from an art which exists solely within scientific boundaries towards an art also based on sensory experience and subjectivity.
Two works of art which fit within the objective boundaries of Contemporary Art defined by Malik but could be seen as socially engaged and providers of subjective and ‘non-art’ qualities also proposed by Malik are This Progress by Tino Sehgal and When Faith Moves Mountains by Francis Alÿs.
This Progress by Tino Sehgal was performed in the Guggenheim in 2010. The artwork consisted of participatory performance split into several parts. The participant was taken up the spiral ramps of the building by a series of guides (first by a child, then by a teenager, then by an adult and finally by an elderly person) and asked a series of questions about the idea of progress (Smith: 20011). By the time you reached the top, “you had ascended five floors, scarcely noticing your passage through space and time. You had arrived, perhaps, at some degree of enlightenment, or had sensed the limits of conceptualisation, even in such apparently ideal, untrammeled circumstances” (Smith: 2011: 323). This work provides an example of ‘art’ which is clearly within the boundaries of ‘art’ (it was performed in one of the most celebrated art institutions in the world - which by logic - must make it ‘art’), but it also provides the experiencer with a subjective and sensory experience in which they were a participant within the work – not a separate and autonomous entity. Furthermore, the artwork is socially and politically engaged, by asking the participants ‘what is progress?’ Sehgal is engaging the participants in a meaningful cognitive experience which offer them an opportunity to question and consider their own ideas.
Francis Alÿs’ work When Faith Moves Mountains consisted of recruiting “500 volunteers with shovels to shift a 1,600 foot-long sand dune about 4 inches from its original positions” (Smith, 2011, 325). Alÿs describes his intentions, “here, we have attempted to create a kind of Land art for the land-less, and, with the help of hundreds of people with shovels, we created a social allegory” (Francis Alÿs cited in Smith: 2011: 325). Alÿs is working within the boundaries of ‘art’, creating ‘art’ within the established genre of ‘land art’ but unlike a permanent land art work, “the story is not validated by any physical trace or addition to the landscape” (Francis Alÿs cited in Smith: 2011: 325). Alÿs goes on to say “in modern no less than premodern societies, art operates precisely in the space of myth. In this sense, myth is not about the veneration of ideals – of pagan gods and political ideology – but rather an active interpretative practice performed by the audience, who must give the work its meaning and its social value” (Francis Alÿs cited in Smith: 2011: 325). Alÿs has created a work in which the participants are engaged not just in the sensory experience of moving the sand, but the cognitive political comment which surrounds the moving of the sand and is interpreted by the audience who give it its subjective meaning. Smith describes the work as “An opportunity for interaction […] along with the chance to leave a symbolic trace. By inviting people to, as it were, ‘assist’ a natural process, Alÿs makes visible the value of cooperation for community and planetary purposes, the poetry of conviviality when created by both humans and the earth” (Smith, 2011, 325).
This essay has described both approaches to experience: the rational, measurable cognitive experience and the more subjective, sensory experience. It has described how Abstraction developed through a subjective, sensory experience and Conceptual Art developed through a reliance upon rationality and scientific appraisal. It has proposed that ‘Contemporary Art’ is reliant, scientific and purposeful. It has outlined the benefits of a more sensory, less arty art which is more inclusive of sensory experience and less based on rational boundaries. It is not proposing an exclusion of rationality or scientific measuring within ‘art’, but proposes instead an art which is less reliant on rational scientific boundaries and is more inclusive of a sensory experience.
ALŸS, Francis. 2002. ‘A Thousand Words: Francis Alÿs Talks About “When Faith Moves Mountains”’ Art Forum 40:10 (Summer 2002)
GOLDING, John. 2000. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. Great Britain: Thames and Hudson
HEGEL, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. Cited in GOLDING, John. 2000. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 74
HARRISON, Charles. 1991. “Conceptual Art and the Suppression of the Beholder”, in his Essays on Art & Language, Blackwell: Oxford. Citied in OSBORNE, Peter. 2002. Conceptual Art. Hong Kong: Phaidon p23
KOSUTH, Joseph. 1969. ‘Art After Philosophy’ Studio International, 178(915-17) 134-37 cited in OSBORNE, Peter. 2002. Conceptual Art. Hong Kong: Phaidon p232-234
KRAUSS, Rosalind. 2000. A Voyage on the North Sea Art in the Age of the PostMedium Condition. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
LEWITT, Sol. 1967. ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’. Artforum, 5(10), 79-84 cited in OSBORNE, Peter. 2002. Conceptual Art. Hong Kong: Phaidon p213-215
MALOON, Terence. 2010. Paths to Abstraction 1887-1917. The Art Gallery of New South Wales.
MCGARRY, Kevin. 2016. ‘An Art Show That Addresses the Economic Collapse HeadOn.’ New York Times May 6, 2016 [online]. Available at:
[accessed 20 October 2016]
MALEVICH, Kasimir. 1916. From Cubism to Suprematism, The New Realism in Painting. Cited in GOLDING, John. 2000. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 58
MALIK, Suhail. 2013. ‘Exit not escape - On The Necessity of Art's Exit from Contemporary Art, 2013’ Artists Space nj [accessed 29 November 2016]
MONDRIAN, Piet. 1920. Natural Reality and Abstract Reality: An essay in Trialogue Form. De Stijl. Translated by Martin S. James. New York. 1995. Cited in GOLDING, John. 2000. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 20
MONDRIAN, Piet. The New Art – The New Life; The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, edited and translated by HOLTZMAN, Harry and Martin S. JAMES. 1986.
Boston. Cited in GOLDING, John. 2000. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 26
OXLADE, Roy. 2008. ‘Introduction’. In Marcus REICHERT(ed.). Art without Art: Selected Writing from the World of Blunt Edge. Ziggurat Books: Exeter, 6
OSBORNE, Peter. 2002. Conceptual Art. Hong Kong: Phaidon
OXLADE, Roy. 2008. ‘Vitamin D: For Drawing’. In Marcus REICHERT(ed.). Art without Art: Selected Writing from the World of Blunt Edge. Ziggurat Books: Exeter, 26-31
REICHERT, Marcus. 2008. Art without Art: Selected Writing from the World of Blunt Edge. Ziggurat Books: Exeter, 20-26
SCHAPIRO, Meyer. 1952. ‘The introduction of modern art in America: the Armory Show’. Modern Art: 19th and 20th centuries. 1978. New York: George Braziller. 144-45. Cited in MALOON, Terence. 2010. Paths to Abstraction 1887-1917. The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 26
SCOLLARD, Sr Anselma OSB. 2008 ‘The Sense of Touch Verses Conceptual Art’. In Marcus REICHERT(ed.). Art without Art: Selected Writing from the World of Blunt Edge. Ziggurat Books: Exeter, 20-26
SASSURE, Ferdinand de. 1915. Cours de linguistique générale. Paris; trans. BASKIN, Wade. Course in General Linguistics. 1959. London: Peter Owen, 15-17, 65-70. Cited in OSBORNE, Peter. 2002. Conceptual Art. Hong Kong: Phaidon, 225-226
SMITH, Terry. 2011. Contemporary Art World Currents. Lawrence King Publishing: London.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. 2016. ‘Galileo biography, discoveries, & facts’. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. available at: [accessed 28th November 2016]
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. 1998. ‘Mind–body dualism’. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. available at: [accessed 28th November 2016]
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. ‘Romanticism’. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. available at: [accessed 28th November 2016]
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. 2015. ‘Utilitarianism’. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. available at: [accessed 28th November]
VIDOKLE, Anton and Brian KUAN WOOD. 2012. ‘Breaking the Contract’. E-Flux Journal #37. available at: [accessed 28 November 2016]
The Importance of Sensory Experience