Seven Ways of Thinking About Art
Monday evenings, Tate Modern, admission by ticket only.
Led by Nigel Warburton
Notes from Session 3, Art as Self-Presentation
For this session we focussed on some of the ways in which artists present themselves through their work, both in terms of their actual and implied selves.
The philosopher Jenefer Robinson in an interesting paper called ‘Style and Personality in the Literary Work’ [Philosophical Review, vol. 94, p (1985) reprinted in Neill and Ridley (eds) The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern and in Lamarque and Olsen (eds) Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art ] suggested that individual style in art is a consistent way of performing artistic acts and that this expresses an implied personality. Implied, because, as she recognises, the actual artist’s personality may differ from that pointed to by the work. Interpreting works of art involves an examination of that implied personality.
Individual style on this view is the style of a particular implied persona (sometimes as, in the Chapman brothers, or Gilbert and George, two or more people may combine to make a ‘team’ persona, though this is not something Robinson discusses). It is contrasted with general style, such as Cubism or Vorticism. Individual style is also different from mere signature (in the metaphorical sense suggested by Nelson Goodman). Signature is simply that by which we recognise a work as by a particular artist: it needn’t directly relate to the implied personality, but is rather more like the identifying trademark. One question that it can be interesting to ask of any element of a work of art is the extent to which it is an aspect of an artist’s style or merely a signature device. This is clearly an evaluative issue.
Gilbert and George by declaring themselves works of art break down the distinction between art and artist. Their images appear in almost all their work. But perhaps all art, whether or not it includes self-portraiture or representation at all, is an expression of an implied personality. Interpretation of art may involve examining and exploring that personality as it develops (or sometimes disintegrates) through an artist’s oeuvre.
The social psychologist Erving Goffman analysed and described the act of presenting one’s self in a social context in his brilliant book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). He gave what he called a dramaturgical analysis of human interaction, by which he meant to take seriously the idea that ‘All the world’s a stage’. We play social roles enacting parts in particular spaces that we to some degree control, motivated by presenting in most cases an idealised role to the audience we think we are before. In this context non-verbal cues are controlled and manipulated, often in a pre-conscious way. For such communications to work we need to believe in the sincerity of the participants. The self is for Goffman a social construct: there is no single ‘true’ self, just a succession of overlapping roles that we play.
Applying some of these ideas to Gilbert and George’s work, particularly that in Room 10 of the current Tate Modern exhibition, we discussed what the implied personality of the artists was. Suggestions included provocative, abusive, celebratory, quasi-religious (in their apparently devout worship of what others might take as profane and profane attitudes to what others may see as sacred), homosexual and to some degree kitsch. The high production values and neat clean-lined prints behind glass contrasted with the recurrent imagery of bodily emissions: urine, faeces, sperm (Manzoni canned his own excrement; Gilbert and George present a stylised abstract image of theirs). Writing this now it occurs to me that Milan Kundera’s discussion of kitsch in The Incredible Lightness of Being as 'the absolute denial of shit' is pertinent here…Gilbert and George to some extent prettify or stylise it rather than deny it.
In the large work Life Without End (1982) Gilbert and George embody the attitude of devotion in the far left of the image, kneeling like the donors in a medieval altar piece, yet they are kneeling before young men who are presumably the object of their (sexual) devotion; at the right of the picture one of the pair makes a two-fingered gesture (to religion?). If we believe the stated intentions of the artists this is view of their heaven:
We wanted to dream a kind of paradise…[with] those brightly lit human beings that we compare to flowers. [G & G quoted in the exhibition leaflet]
Their unorthodox imagery is part of a general policy to ‘deshock’ the viewer. Like the Elizabethan poet John Donne (who used to be Dean of St Pauls - just across the river), they deliberately transpose religious and sexual imagery albeit for different ends. The implied personae from the evidence of Room 10 have a profound reverence for the profane and a desire to shock the viewer into different ways of seeing the world.
Many reviewers of this exhibition have been intrigued by the relationship between the implied personae and the real Gilbert and George (and this is perhaps analogous to the ideas of Jorge Luis Borges in his ‘Borges and I’). They want to know the degree to which the couple are simply performing a role, that may be at odds with their ‘true’ selves. Opinions of the group members differed as to whether it matters whether the real Gilbert and George endorse the values implied by their work; whether, in the most extreme view they are simply taking the artworld for an expensive ride. One view is that the implied joint persona presents a challenging subversion of many received opinions and when considering their work as art this is all that matters; the rest is gossip. From another perspective, if these artists are insincere, then their whole artistic enterprise is a fraud and of little artistic value.