Sunday, 5 January 2014

Searching for the Systematic

[revised January 2015]

An explanation.

A new direction.

For a year now the subheading on this occasional blog has been Searching for the Systematic in Contemporary Art. I thought I'd try another explanation and discuss my broadening interest.

When I look at paintings, especially those that draw me in, my attention soon turns to consider how the artist made the work. Some of this is discernible from the work itself (brushstrokes, arrangement etc) and some from what the artist wrote about their technique.

For paintings (and generally for visual art) there are a number of ways in which the work is systematic. By this, I mean, that it is possible to detect a System that has been followed by the artist in making the work.

Primary among these Systems are

  1. Structure, 
  2. Process  
  3. Series.

1. The Structure of the image is the System discernible in the relative positioning of marks.

2. The Process followed by the artist is also a System. It includes the techniques they have applied and the sequence in which they have been applied. Some artists are keen to keep this System to themselves.

3. The Series in which an image appears also forms a System. The artist's behaviour is systematic over a long period, however original the artist believes they are being. The current painting is a development of the previous painting, whether intentional or not.

Of course, this discovery of the systematic in works of art applies to any generation, but my personal interest has centred primarily on Modern Art and Art that would have been considered Contemporary in the twentieth century.

Painting may seem a very narrow focus for this research. And it is, or has been. Searching for the systematic in painting has helped me to appreciate a whole range of twentieth century artists in a deeper way than I had simply by visiting galleries and reading books.

But I have increasingly found it frustrating that neither artists themselves, nor curators, nor critics who write about them, seem to be able to express in words the ideas that have been coordinated to make the work. It's not as though they don't try. But the outcome is seldom as insightful as I would hope. So I necessarily turn detective.

There are other artists, however, who are more precise about the Systems that they have employed. These are not painters (conceptual art excluded, perhaps). Composers, choreographers, film-makers, performers in particular need to write down what their work comprises, precisely, because the work itself is collaborative. They have to communicate the idea, the method to their collaborators.

The most obvious works of art that are precise about their systematic nature are musical compositions.

Written music, with its annotations about performance, tries to be totally specific about how the work should be when realised. Its the original of conceptual art.

Musical notation has a mathematical precision. A similar precision in describing graphical imagery would be an interesting development. If painters could write instructions on how to recreate their painting, that would be the ultimate in being systematic. Where they haven't done that (some artists excepted, of course, Sol LeWitt for example) the detective in me wants to do that for them. That would be the ultimate is discovering the systematic in works of art.

I am not trying to achieve that goal, but it does capture the direction in which I am heading.

This, I hope, explains my recent change of direction on this blog, studying the methods of composers and video artists.

Ultimately, I hope to be able to say something useful about how to take a Systems Approach to understanding works of art. These, in my opinion, are a sensible target, because they are complex enough to present a significant challenge and yet simple enough to be understood (when explained) in a few pages.

If I do have an ultimate goal, it is to make a contribution to Systems Thinking, in a way that artists, scientists and engineers will all find compelling.

see also my more recent post at Searching for the Systematic (Feb 2014)