Arts  •  May 11, 2003

A Posteriori Art

The majority of what we call art are a priori art. That is, they are art even before the artists pick up any tools of their trade, because they are products of self-acknowledged “artists”. For something to be art, we look for and expect meaning appropriate for the term “art”. This meaning is a prerequisite for any products of art to be made. If it doesn’t exist prior to production, their identity as “artists” is questioned.

Artists are “artists”, because they make art. Their products are art because they are “artists”. Art has evolved into a highly self-conscious act. When we call something “art”, we expect some form of profound meaning in it. Suppose you as an artist say, “I’m going to make art.” This is something most artists do on a daily basis, whether they literally say it or not. What does it mean to say that you are going to make art? It means that you are going to create something profoundly meaningful. Thus even before you pick up your brush, you assume that you are going to create something profoundly meaningful. This sounds rather conceited, but our current art world essentially requires you to do this. By “art world”, I don’t just mean the institutions of art, but everyone in the art world including the artists themselves.

This is a problem for some forms of artistic endeavor. It discourages experimentation. It forces artists to plan everything in advance, leaving very little room for the meaning to evolve in the process. It is particularly a problem for a new breed of art that is highly interactive and iterative. Since many interactive works, especially community-based works, are highly unpredictable in their behaviors and in their paths of evolution, many ideas for these works cannot be declared “art” in advance. They could be art after the fact, but not before they were actually built and deployed to the environment they were intended for. This also means that they could turn out not to be art, if nothing meaningful emerges out of it. Like having a wedding after 50 years of happy marriage, you declare your work to be art only after it attains something meaningful for you. Until then it is not art--perhaps we can call it “interim art”--and you are not an artist, at least with regard to this particular work.

This is not to be confused with the process of making art that incorporates accidents, such as the methods employed by Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollack. It is true that they were not in full control of the outcome. It is true that there was no guarantee that the outcome would be something meaningful. However, their intentions to make something meaningful was never in doubt. The moment they stepped into their studios, the moment they picked up their brushes, they fully intended to make something profound. What I am questioning here is this intentionality. The Western art is limited to activities that have this intentionality.

Some may object to this by saying that if something meaningful is achieved accidentally, it cannot be called art, for anyone can accidentally create something meaningful for someone else or for himself. This is semantically true, at least to a degree. It is like calling a shot when playing pool. The Western convention of art is not to create something meaningful, but to create something meaningful intentionally so that the creator can be properly credited. That is, in the West, art is ultimately about authorship, about credit, about art being an assertion of self. If the artwork cannot be traced back to the name of the creator, it is not art. If the artist cannot be properly credited, if the meaning cannot be traced back to the artist’s intention, then everything loses meaning. This is true only within the Western tradition of art.

Suppose someone keeps creating something beautiful and profoundly meaningful to the viewers, but he does not know what art is, and had no intention of creating something meaningful. Technically speaking, his work would not be considered “art” especially in our post-Duchampean era. From time to time I come across objects of this nature where I have no idea who made them, what the creators’ intentions were, but were profoundly meaningful to me. In fact, I do not make much distinction between the beauty of nature and the beauty of man-made objects. After all, human beings are part of nature. In the end, meaning is something only I can perceive, regardless of the intentions of others. The fact that something is meaningful to someone is merely a piece of information to me. Unless I too perceive the same meaning, that information is not meaningful to me. In this sense, I am the artist in everything I perceive to be meaningful, regardless of the creator.

What matters in the end is that something is profound and meaningful to me. I cannot speak for others. Although what is profound and meaningful varies person to person, it is a common practice by artists to pursue something that can be perceived by the art world to be profound and meaningful, even if what it takes to achieve it is to create something absolutely meaningless. In many ways, calling yourself an “artist” implies that you want other people to know and recognize your pursuit of meaningfulness and profundity. Pursuing alone is not enough; you want others to know that you are pursuing it. This is all fine and well, but there is a danger here of alienating yourself.

The institutions of art are not to be solely blamed for this alienation; the artists do this to themselves. They want to be recognized as “artists”, so they would only do something if it can be profound. They would not waste time with something in which they can’t see any meaning in advance, even if they felt curious about, passionate with, or fascinated by it. If they are just doing something out of their own passions, there is a great chance that they won’t be recognized as “artists”, which is something they want to avoid at all cost. First and foremost, they want to be called, and be able to call themselves, “artists”. And, there is a price to pay for that.

There is only so much time in a day, and in your life. You need to define priorities. For an “artist”, any activities that do not appear to have much profound meaning are pushed towards the bottom of the list. The same process will occur at the institutional level. The unfortunate thing about this process is that we often achieve great things if we didn’t intend to achieve great things. If we try hard to attract someone, we fail, but when we have no intention of attracting anyone, we end up attracting someone. When we try to be funny, we fail, but if we stop trying, we naturally become funnier. Our intentions are overrated. We accomplish much greater things if we just let them happen, if we didn’t sensor ourselves with intentions.

Despite the fact that artists are supposed to be doing what they love, many famous artists live miserable lives. Contrary to the Marxist theory of Alienation, the artists, who presumably are producing for the sake of self-realization, are just as alienated as the people of any other fields. The only solace they can find, what keeps them going, is the notion that they are doing what they love. It is not that they are truly doing what they love; it is the idea that they are supposedly doing what they love, is what gives them the comfort and pride. Meanwhile many of these established artists are slaving themselves to the market that demands and expects a specific brand of products from them. All they do is to churn out what is expected, like factory workers, because their concerns are more with preserving their status as artists than with doing what they love. They suppress what they truly want to do for the sake of what could give them the title of “artists”. In other words, by being self-conscious of the idea of self-realization, they are hindering their own self-realization.

Suppose you are an artist, but you find that you really enjoy cooking. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, you feel that you have a very little chance at achieving something profound with cooking, so you suppress this desire, or keep it moderate, not to take too much time away from making “art”. In this fashion, your true interests and passions get pushed down to the bottom of your priority list, because, as an “artist”, your priority rests on creating something profound. A healthier approach would be to simply follow your passion, whatever it is. If something profound and meaningful comes out of it, that’s great, if not that’s great too; at least you didn’t alienate yourself. However, this approach does not get much support, neither from yourself nor from your community, because you are scared of the possibility of failing to achieve something socially, culturally, or historically meaningful. Meanwhile you are ignoring what is truly meaningful for yourself.

Because artists want to be “artists”, because they see themselves to be artists, what they make by default must be profoundly meaningful from the get-go. This leaves out certain possibilities. Say, an engineer made something fun for himself. It was a big hit among his friends, so he decided to make more of them to give out. His friends started using his device daily, and eventually had a profound impact on their lives. One day the engineer realized that what he had created was something more than a piece of device; it was something more profound and meaningful. He decided to call it “art”. The current art world does not have any means of supporting, or even recognizing, activities like this. The intentions of any activities in the art world must be to make “art”. I feel that this is quite limiting. As a modern artist, you must be able to explain why what you are about to make is profound and meaningful. Otherwise you won’t be able to get any support or recognition from the art world, or from yourself.

Interactive art, especially when the interaction is with other people, your message as an artist is often the medium itself. That is, the artistic meaning is not in the content of the interaction, but in the way the medium influences the way people think, feel, and live. Mediums like radio, TV, transportation, cell phones, email, and the web had profound impact on our lives, but it was not always clear how these mediums were going to change our lives. A medium that was invented for one purpose often ends up being used for an entirely different purpose. Where you thought it would have meaning, end up having more meaning elsewhere.

Today with the help of technology, we can create a medium that can be used by millions of people without getting millions of dollars in funding. That is, a medium no longer needs to be a physical device. A piece of computer software is a medium that is entirely intellectual, and can have an enormous impact on our lives. Although most applications are written with specific profit-making goals, one could build an application that has a potential to create a profound meaning. However, as with any medium, whether it achieves that goal or not is not something you can accurately predict. The only drive you have in this endeavor is your gut instinct, curiosity, and passion. If your primary concern is with being called an “artist” or being able to call yourself an “artist”, then you are probably better off not pursuing something like this.

It seems apparent to me that the institutions and the communities of art now need to foster this type of art--the activities and the products that are not art until they turn into art in the process of interaction and evolution--a posteriori art, if you will, so that certain projects that possess the possibility of becoming a posteriori art can be funded or supported. All too often certain projects are shot down, self-censored, or criticized, because they do not possess any meaning in advance. Rather than rationalizing the legitimacy of art in advance by using cultural, political, or metaphysical theories, which breeds conservatism, we could do better by judging the potential by our gut instincts.