What is art? And what is art's purpose?
Are these questions that can even be asked, much less answered? Well, yes, if you exempt the last 100 years or so.
Those objects and paintings that today we call "art" indeed had some very specific purpose within a particular culture at a particular point in that culture's history. Their use and value was understood --- like very specialized tools. And anyone outside that culture would most likely have had little use for those representations. The tools would have had no application.
So what about the objects of our own time, this stuff we call "the art of the last century," stuff that does not address the everyday concerns of State or Church? These objects and paintings are not only part of the society in which they were produced, but they also have a lot to do with the position of the artist in society. They may not have been produced for any specific purpose but rather, to exist for their own sake. For the sake of beauty. For the sake of the poetic.
Artists often see themselves, or are seen by others, as outside of or in opposition to mainstream culture. As such, they are positioned opposite mass production and on the other side of popular culture --- even if the subject of their work may be mass production and/or popular culture. The artist is quite often seen as a kind of critical eye, the consciousness of society, a modern-day oracle. And the artist-as-oracle may see and make visible without really knowing what exactly is being made visible.
But what is the responsibility of the artist as a guide to his or her work?
Throughout this review the object/subject to be reviewed has been deferred --- deferred because questions pertaining to "it" are as interesting as the thing itself. Maybe the questions are the thing itself... I mean, what does it mean to spend approximately seven hours over three consecutive days to be able to "see" a work of art? Is this a lot of time to spend or not enough or just enough? What is Matthew Barney up to? What does he want from us? Does it matter?
Those of you who feel it does can go to www.cremaster.net or www.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/barney. Both sites provide lots of information on the artist and his work, and if you want in on the narrative, there a synopsis on each installment of the Cremaster Cycle.
If you're looking for any resolution to this review, or, more importantly, the Cremaster Cycle (also reviewed by Jon Popick in this issue), I'm afraid that's just not going to happen. Both are perpetually deferred. As reader and viewer, you are purposefully not provided with any concrete ending. You end where you began: in your seat. Of course, you may choose to leave, or even wish for a remote with a fast-forward button. You also may be enthralled by the nearly operatic beauty of what plays out in front of you and, for just a moment or maybe seven hours, you may find yourself transported to some other place --- perhaps behind the scenes of a music video, the Saratoga racetrack, the Guggenheim museum, or the Isle of Man.
As for this piece of writing, it, too, defers to the George Eastman House, where the Cycle will play itself out for three consecutive nights, beginning Friday, December 12, revealing a five-part epic, shot out of order, released out of order, shown in order --- a state of "pure" potential.
Cremaster 1-5 be will shown at the Dryden Theatre, 900 East Avenue, from December 12-14, at 8 p.m. Dr. Mark Denaci, Assistant Professor of Art History at SUNY Geneseo, will present a pre-film lecture titled "Transmogrifying Sexuality: An Introduction to Matthew Barney" on Friday, December 12, at 6:30 p.m. This lecture will serve as an introduction to Barney's work and the Cremaster Cycle. Regular Dryden admission prices will apply. Ticket price will include admission to the 8 p.m. screening of Cremaster 1 and 2. Admission: adults, $6; students, $5; members, $4 unless otherwise noted. 271-3361