Reality of art


Text by: Kristina Ask

Art is tested at the boundary between reality and truth. From an aesthetic perspective, a falsehood can contain more truth than reality. For art, reality is an uninteresting phenomenon where concretizations and crisscrossing connections occur willy-nilly. Art can be said to exist in the sphere of truth, in defiance of reality.


Reality is a fragmented thing, gaining meaning and coherence through the application of ethical or aesthetic perspectives. The artistic gesture gives a twist (not a distortion) to something familiar, and is thus an instrument that superimposes truths onto reality. Art’s twists are able to reveal embedded and veiled truths about reality as well as about truth itself. Reality might be said to be too entwined with art, whereas truth contains the infinitude, which informs the definition of art.

Truth is the reality of art as defined and presupposed, inter alia, by ethical demands. Ethics and aesthetics are both concepts that are contiguous with truth. They are transcendent phenomena inasmuch as they exist in the world qua being transgressions of their own presence. Ethics transcends reality’s inherent tendency to fix, measure and concretize: aesthetics is a sensuous counterpart to ethics’ intelligent dimension. In the twist delivered by art, sensuousness accrues to intelligible reality through the identification, cultivation and insistence on universal and inexpedient values.

What reality connects and concretizes willy-nilly – and so not, to art, equating with truth – are rational factors, interconnecting not via sense or thought but in virtue of formal relations, bound up with rules and conventions. The definition of truth is its relation to reality, with the mirror turned upon the world. Artworks are objects, images, thoughts and ideas, which get the world to look at itself. Thus is art’s existence contingent upon the reality from which, in one and the same movement, it forcibly dissociates itself. Failing to exist on reality’s premises, art becomes an artificial construction.


Since art is dependent upon reality – art’s sphere deriving life from a reflection of its surroundings – the age needs to have the intellectual space on which art’s transcendence of the world depends. Art seems uninteresting and irrelevant in periods marked by the bankruptcy of value norms, and dominated by rationality. In such spiritually impoverished periods there is scope for neither the aesthetic nor the ethical perspective to make itself felt. Infinity disappears from view in a self-intensifying process which forever abbreviates time and space until reality implodes, spiritually, for want of a response. In periods where values have become vacuous, arbitrary or shibboleths, aesthetics is undermined by beauty’s immediacy and radiance and moral judgements fill out ethical space. Aesthetics and ethics can fill a passivated space with meaning, but even what is latently present needs to be identified and worked up to fulfill its potential. Art’s potential and its central function in a society is its capacity to mobilize aesthetic and ethical claims and, in a dialectical reflection, to turn apathy into questioning.


Boundaries, and the limits of boundary-transgression

The twistings of reality with which art challenges the world betoken art’s probings for and defining of limits. To define limits, the concept of art must itself be pressed to the point at which it dissolves. By so doing, art reflects the minimum of ‘otherness’ that reality can contain or accommodate. In every era, art unremittingly mirrors and searches out the bounds of reality.

A work’s autonomy and authenticity is its independent being, the space and the time that the work in itself generates. By testing the boundaries of reality, the space for the presence and the play of art are uncovered. Qua limit-seeking and uncovering factor in the world, art is an instrument, which – with itself as medium – is able to establish an era’s capaciousness, elasticity and tolerance. Capaciousness and responsiveness mirror each other; which is why what art can show is only potential, only capable of being presented and received to the extent that the era harbors capaciousness. In its transcendence, art is able to establish and transcend the bounds of reality but only by means of reflections. Contemporary art is constrained by the parameters of the age and can only move beyond them within its own sphere. Transgression’s own time and capaciousness can only be ‘synchronized’ with the corresponding contemporaneity to the extent that the latter has the elasticity to be capable of, and a willing openness to, being twisted by art.


Political art is a loosely defined notion, which applies to art that strives for a synchronized presence in time so as to be party to the definition of reality. Political art is also more or less edifying in character. Through its presence, identifying the possibilities for the transcendence of (other) boundaries, the work can become a subversive factor, which seeks (re)constitution through dispersal. The intention behind political art is to create a space, which can lead to reality’s transgression of its own limits.

On the one hand, political works are motivated by art’s potential in relation to the possibility of transcendence. On the other, political works are motivated by intentions that lie outside art’s sphere, with art seeming to be able to set an indistinct and potentially mutable boundary. Political art can be said to have ambitions that exceed its own sphere. The challenge that this represents places art in a dilemma that can either have an undermining effect, through art abandoning its own image and thus transgressing its own mode of being and sphere by focusing on ‘what is other’, or it can serve as a fortifying challenge by homing in on the point where art reflects reality in an image of truth.


Every communication of propositions must, over and above the ‘local’ rhetorical code, take into account the codes of the age that more generally constrain communication. In a modern society, hallmarked by globalization and a complexity of parallel and interacting realities, any statement has to be viewed through the prisms of international, national, cultural, religious, social, political, economic and historical factors. The intention behind any communication must thus be conveyed by the sender and read off by the receiver across layered contextual values. Communication in the present age – in the public space, in the political sphere, in institutional and private contexts – inscribes messages into contexts that while deflecting communication also moulds values onto it, impinging on the content too.

Not least when communicating statements in a politicized age like our own, the historical, economic, social and cultural factors must be taken into account. These factors are not just crucial to whether a message comes through to the audience in its entirety, but also to whether it has a confirming or disconfirming role vis-à-vis secondary factors potentially in conflict with the work’s or the act’s purport and ethical code.


Political engagement

At any given time, the regnant structure of the art world can cause dissension between artists qua constituency in society, through that structure being constrained by political and economic choices and by subjective aesthetic visions. This structure is something the artist can either be against, to the detriment of his affiliation with it, or elect to represent it, to the detriment of the extent of his ties with other artists. The experimental organization of artists in the 1970s gave rise to thoughts and ideas, which have inspired those who came after. The shared motivation consisted not only in social engagement (e.g. resistance to the Vietnam war) but also in the need to break away from the modernist conception of art and its institutions. That artists are at all sympathetic to the idea of manifesting themselves as a social constituency is in itself indicative of an interest, not in a peripheral existence but in exerting (direct) influence at different levels of society – ethical, aesthetic and political – both through praxis and theory.


An important aspect of political art is that it is a form of expression that relates differently from other genres to the notion of ‘being art’. The communicatory work’s contextual relation to the surrounding world – the attunement of the work’s identity vis-à-vis it’s wider setting – releases its statement from formulaic codes and parameters of understanding. An artwork in the more traditional sense signals the distance, which, in all its indeterminacy, exists between work and world. A modernistic work’s ‘object’ aspect is a function of the museum setting which ‘services’ the work by introducing a species of formal reticent responsiveness of a spatial and temporal character between work and viewer.

The communicatory work is dependent on the context’s engaged participation and must therefore reach out in a way that matches, and makes a claim on, the latent capaciousness of the age. In periods marked by low levels of responsiveness, or where the responsiveness and tolerance is focused on concrete reality, it is a disadvantage for the political, artistic statement to signal its genre. The work must reach out beyond itself by incorporating within itself an aspect of the reality with which it is entering into dialogue – must have embedded in itself a level of presence which is not transcendent but participatory in contemporary space. This is the locus of the connection between art and activism and of the motivation for the activist elements that critical contemporary art may be said to deploy.


Work or action

Politically and socially engaged art is often motivated by a sense of a wrong that calls for action. Action can be the starting point for dialogue, interchange, reflection. As against works that in mirroring the surrounding world seek to point to universals inhering in aesthetic fragments, socially committed art pulls (with art as instrument) agency into the artwork. At parallel levels, political and interventionist art may be said to draw the levels of agency, thought and reflection into a process-oriented elaboration of the work itself. The process-oriented progress evinces a flat structure whose individual levels are not antecedently valorized and hierarchized but are integrative and interactionist means adjusted to an end. This kind of artistic praxis may be said to have process as its goal: action and reflection running in tandem produce partial outcomes which jointly yield a whole or a statement greater than the sum of the individual parts. Thus can the process be said to mirror a complex context.


 The flat process-oriented structure from which the concurrently reflective, tentative and immediate character of the artistic or activist acts referred to above spring forge a basis for the delivery of potential impacts into the heart of a contemporary (social) situation. The deciphering of spontaneous interventions in specific local circumstances will – through the work and action’s reflection of the context qua premise – accentuate the latent, the potential and the virtual. The ideas, intentions and forms of production that exist in the interspace between art and activism reflect the mutability of society and bring it about that contemporary art – communicatory, critical and context-oriented – is by definition focused on the interconnections between action and reflection in the process of change.

The fluidity of current parameters requires that the focus be on those interspaces in which art and activism lodge themselves, identifying them as the spaces in which change finds its potential ignition point. 




This text was printet in the paper Re/aktion, Copenhagen 2003