Physical Presence…Necessary or Not?

People of older generations other than this present one often argue that this generation is inept in terms of necessary knowledge or, in this case, art. We were not able to experience the extreme movements of feminism in the preceding century so people of that generation label us ignorant. While we are not able to experience the real essence and presence of the art itself through our own perspective, there are other methods of understanding this art. One can argue that through studying history and media such as film and photocopies can substitute as a liable experience.

Amelia Jones inherits this theory upon criticism towards her lack of exposure to art before her time. In her article “Presence in Absentia”, she argues that the documented versions of a performance or art are equal to the physicality of them. She even turns the criticism around on the “privileged” viewers of the time having a disadvantage. She claims,

“While the viewer of a live performance may seem to have certain advantages in understanding such a context, on a certain level she may find it more difficult to comprehend the histories/narratives/processes she is experiencing until later, when she too can look back and evaluate them with hindsight (the same might be said of the performer herself),” (Jones para 4).

Seeing expressions and the environment of the set of a performance is key to understanding a performance, yet not knowing the artist’s background can leave the performance a bit cloudy for most. Art is very often influenced by the time period in which the artist lived and dramatic occurrences that happened in their lifetimes. Studying the history and past experiences of the artist’s life establishes the setting and implicit meanings behind a work of art. For example, this class’ assignment for MOMA, I chose to analyze Martha Rosler’s collection of photographs titled She Sees in Herself a New Woman Everyday. Upon my first sight of the photographs, I was confused about the exact artistic perspective one can come to just by looking at twelve photographs of different types of shoes. However there was a supporting recording of the explanation and history that identifies the Rosler’s intent. The photographs were actually the shoes her mother owned that represented the various roles her and other women are forced to live. It established the history and setting of the piece, which, in turn, helped me to fully comprehend the intent. History, along with others, is a tool that justifies this generation’s ability to understand art from the past.

Many argue that watching a film inspired by an event cannot fully educate a spectator on the history of it. However, there is really no better way to appeal to this generation than to create something fictional and attractive to represent something so vital and serious. Exaggerating a story from history and infiltrating the love factor really brings attention to a subject older generations find necessary to educate younger people. These methods make young people want to learn because they can identify and relate to the characters. While modern audiences were not able to experience an event so dramatic as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the film inspired by this tragedy measured its intensity phenomenally and it became a classic favorite of at least my generation. It helped people sympathize with the people affected by this event and most people have a broad knowledge of its events. Other films and more media can have this affect on audiences that did not have the privilege to live through these important events and works of art.

The quality of photocopies of works of art is quite the controversial topic among critics. They are convenient in terms of the physical inability to be at a location, for it may be across the world from a spectator, or if perhaps the art was destroyed and a photo of it is used to study. Sometimes it is better to settle for a medium that is less valuable for the sake of education; at least this generation is getting the basic knowledge necessary to become credible. With the help of photographs, our education is not limited in means of travel and time. I am able to come to my own conclusions about conceptual art in this class and my two other visual art classes because of the pictures and videos my professors show in relation to different works. In these cases, they can act as a substitute for a display in a museum.

On the other hand, if one has the opportunity to view a work personally, they will have the privilege of seeing aspects that cannot be seen as clearly on a photo. The texture of a work of art or the context an actor puts the performance in can be fully experienced by being physically present at the location. I experienced this first hand when going to the MET for my New York and the Visual Arts class after studying a numerous amount of paintings on a projector. The terms my professor used in class—such as painterly and realistic—did not seem logical until I saw the texture and depth of the painting while standing directly in front of it. These cases make that argument comprehensible.

While not being physically present at a work of art takes away from the real essence and presence of the art itself, studying history and media such as film and photocopies can substitute as a liable experience. There are explicit aspects that can be arguably invisible in a photocopy, yet implicit facts can be drawn through a more accessible media. This generation cannot control the fact that we did not live during a time of a monumental work of art, yet we can educate ourselves through the resourceful technology that is provided for us. It is better to study what is available than deeming it irrelevant.

-Courtney Schenck

Amelia Jones reading for Tuesday 9/25

Hello class,
Here is a link to a PDF of the reading for Tuesday, an article by feminist art historian Amelia Jones entitled “Presence in Absentia”
Click here to download

Please post your responses to the article by noon Monday, and comment on the posts of at least two of your classmates before we meet Tuesday afternoon.

-Professor Steinmetz