So where are the answers to be found? How is the riddle of mass media to be solved? In Stevens’ exhibit, we are taught to think outside the box, but it is this box that is telling us this! We are told by Stevens to address media manipulation, but how is he doing this? He is using media to question media. He uses his “own” agenda and propaganda to question the agenda and propaganda that runs this machine, which we are all supposedly slaves to. Art itself, apparently, is not innocent in playing a part in the mass-media machine!
In an article I wrote for last month’s issue, I spoke of something I called “transcendental art,” which I observed at the Woodbury Art Gallery’s Invitational exhibition. That exhibit gave me great hope for the state of contemporary art. So that the reader does not have to delve into last month’s article, in short I discussed what I saw as a contemporary phenomenon of “transcendental art.” Art has the power, as I saw at the Woodbury, to have an “open narrative,” to be seen by the many but be seen by the one. In the review of the Woodbury I wrote how I had seen art which had qualities to be looked at by a mass audience, but for a plurality of meaning to be derived from a single art object which allowed for one individual, as I candidly saw at the exhibition, to react differently to others at this exhibition. The final cycle at the Woodbury illustrated this very well: how most, viewing that particular room in the gallery, Layers I, II, and III, could find something individual for them, a feeling, a thought, a memory, a moment, an emotion.When writing that article I wondered if this idea of contemporary art that I had seen at the Woodbury was universal today or specific to the art I saw at the Woodbury show. I see now that it is not universal today, as Steven’s was not, but still is highly prevalent in today’s art world. I see after the new exhibit at the BYU MoA how powerful this idea is. Stevens’ work was not bad art, but one might compare it to something by Bill Viola. In viewing a Viola, one swims in one’s own thoughts. Two individuals watch the same video and have entirely different experiences, a plurality of meaning. For much of the 20th century art has been didactic, a “modernist directive.” Art need no longer be didactic. The comment was said about the Stevens’ work, “It was so engaging!” But isn’t all art supposed to engage, to incite. But art does not have to be didactic. To be didactic keeps art inside the box. It keeps the machine alive. Art can be political or have a particular purpose, but art today also has the power to be free of the mechanisms of society, and in its transcendence, not patronize but allow for a flow of meaning.
To avoid sounding vague, I will use the work of Viola as an example. His recent piece at the University of Utah Museum of Fine Arts introduced to the viewer a continual narrative cycle, one which the viewer could enter the installation room at any given moment and have an equally powerful experience. Viola’s piece defies description, but it was of five figures, apparently reacting to a certain event, each conveying certain emotions. Unlike many video artists who question the role of subjectivity and end up with objectivity in their preaching, Viola introduces the viewer to something sublime, something which is completely open, infinite, and intangible, yet allows for this plurality, this free flow of meaning. In this it is not we who are the subject but we who create the subject, it is we who give the piece its meaning. The piece allows the viewer to reflect, ponder, feel, remember, journey, wonder, think. It does not do those things for us.
It is a refreshing product of art today — that it is freed from the textbook — and we need no set of instructions, no guide book. Today’s artists might be the exception to the media machine and allow the viewer to be engaged but not manipulated. Artists such as Viola, and that which could be seen last month at the Woodbury, allow for an experience where the work is not in a diatribe found in the artist’s mission statement but in the asking questions and not answering them, opening dialogues and discussions and truly engaging the viewer; in allowing the viewer to be freed into their own subjectivity — not preached to, patronized, manipulated. The work allows us to think outside the box rather than being given a directive to do so.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.