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The more general question arises, What is art. Hodin reminds us that the formation and reformation of the concept of art, its metamorphoses, are not only of importance because they bring home to us the truth that every great period has had to forge anew the concept of art for itself, but also because every culture sees its social and moral structure reflected in its art. Heartney (2011) also points out that art can no longer be understood as an isolated event, pursuing its own imperatives without reference to the outside world. Nor can it be seen as a set of developments arising from a common point. Rather, critics and art historians must now acknowledge that art is likely to develop as a response to outside forces, like changes in technology/new media or geographical vistas/globalization, and the ever-increasing influence of popular culture. For artists, the amorphous state of contemporary art makes it difficult to know how to move on, while curators and other art professionals struggle to differentiate art that is meaningful from art that is not. Audiences are often left in a state of utter confusion, without the means to connect the eclectic art of today with the art of the past. In recent decades, as Johnstone (2008) claims in his book 'the everyday', artists have progressively expanded the boundaries of art as they sought to engage with an increasingly pluralistic environment. Teaching, curating and the understanding of art and visual culture are likewise no longer grounded in traditional aesthetics but centred on significant ideas, topics and themes, like identity, the body, time, place, language, science and spirituality; also ranging from the everyday to the uncanny, the psychoanalytical to the political.
Historically, in the book 'philosophizing the everyday', Roberts (2006) summarizes the thought that, by concentrating on the time span from 1917 - 1975, one is able to link the rise and fall of the theory of the everyday across three relevant and influential time-lines during the twentieth century. Starting with the Russian revolution, the cultural, social and political impact under the influence of modernism shattered the class-exclusion and genteel aestheticism of the old bourgeois culture and the academy across Europe and North America between 1917 and 1939. The second important event was the anti-Fascist Liberation of 1945 at the end of the Second World War, especially in France and Italy, which released an intellectual dissent from the official forms of political restitution affiliated with the old pre-war bourgeois ruling parties and culture. The third and most important event was the period of modernist, counter-cultural ascendancy from 1966 to 1974, which, although detached from the earlier avant-garde forms of the 'everyday' (Duchamp, Dada), carried on the revolutionary critique of high culture and political economy. The period is reflected by the powerful events of May, 1968, (students demonstrating in Paris), which changed a generation of young non-Party intellectuals and artists, who withdrew their consent from all the old reformist, continuous arguments and realist aesthetics that ruled the post-Liberation, social-democratic consensus. Out of all the above periods, it is this briefest of counter-cultural movements that has had possibly the widest influence ever since. Roberts evaluates the modern cultural concept of the everyday through these three cultural-historical time-lines.
Contemporary art today
Today, as stated by Roberts (2006), contemporary art is filled with references to the everyday, also reflected since the 1990s in several international biennial, site-specific projects, historical overviews of modernism and themed group exhibitions, which have attested to the broad appeal of the quotation to curators and artists alike. There is also the continual presence of the term and its affiliations in reviews, articles and essays, in which everyday life obtains the status of a global art-world touchstone. The rise of the everyday in contemporary art is usually understood in terms of a desire to bring the uneventful and overlooked aspects of life experiences into visibility, drawing on the vast reservoir of normally unnoticed, trivial and repetitive actions which together comprise the common ground of daily life, as well as finding stimulation in the realms of the popular and the demotic. Johnstone (2008) comes to the same conclusion; how the aesthetic focus on everyday life is bringing fundamental but "overlooked aspects of lived experiences into visibility", while at the same time arguing for the socio-political importance of this visibility, without discrete boundaries. Johnstone also highlights the four basic features of the nature of "the everyday". First, Johnstone claims that the everyday is what is overlooked in the world, since the ordinary is at once everywhere and nowhere in particular. Second, the everyday is authentic and democratic because it cannot be linked to a principle of becoming (such as an originating idea or cause), nor can it be restricted to an elite or hegemonic group. Third, the everyday, when located, is the place where people creatively transform their world. Fourth, references to the everyday are about existing, or remaining within, not transcendence to, an exclusive, aesthetic realm.
Artists and the everyday
Johnstone (2008) argues that today's artists look to a more informal aesthetic that owes something to the domestic and something to the club chill-out zone. In many instances, the gallery becomes a kind of play-area in which the work on the walls and floor form part of a "kitschy" installation or a "cheesy" spectacle, but what counts is the maximum entertainment value; the fact that the private moment of encounter with the discrete, individual artwork is disturbed and exposed to a non-anesthetizing milieu. Johnstone (2008) suggests, with reference to Roberts, "Why the Everyday Now?" that it has something to do with the attraction of the ordinary, but if the everyday is the realm of the unnoticed and overlooked, how do we draw it into view? Which in turn begs the question, why should we wish to investigate the everyday in the first place? Is it simply to see what remains hidden in our lives, to identify what we take for granted? Or do works about the everyday in a way, show us how to observe more critically and, in so doing, 'train attention on our own experiences, so that dialog on the everyday is in the end realistic or presentational in character?' Analysing the work of a selection of artists using the theme of the everyday will hopefully address these questions.
Bennett (2005) highlights the point in his book 'the culture and the everyday', that the positive response of Prof. Fiske, in acknowledging the understanding of the audience as active participants in the construction of cultural meaning in their everyday lives, has had a considerable impact upon the field of media studies. During the mid-1980s, significant attention began to be paid to the role of the audience in the construction of textual and visual meanings. Following innovative audience research, notably Morley's (1986) nationwide study, theorists began to take more seriously the notion of the audience as active agents in the production of media. The result was a new body of work which recast the audience as an authenticating power in its own right; that is, as agents capable of critical reflection and evaluation, rather than as empty vessels passively receiving information and images from the media. Inherent in this redefinition of the audience, it was argued, was a weakening of the interpretive authority of the intellectual to define the meaning of mediated texts and images. The claim is that this art of the everyday demands the viewers' participation. When art takes up the everyday, it adapts the role of experience as a medium, revealing the everyday, 're-mediating' it, with its own inflection and processes. This point is made by Johnstone (2008) in the section, 'the Poetics of noticing'. The art of the everyday encourages viewers to attend to the experiences and exhibitions of "everydayness". Fundamental to 'noticing' is the concept of attention. Noticing is poetic because it involves selflessly attending to the ordinary reality of others, a process that enlarges vision, stretches the imagination and elicits judgement. In line with the authors in this section, there are two ways to practice the poetics of noticing or attending: we allow art to mediate our experience of the prosaic, or we live the everyday aesthetically.
Valuation of the everyday
For an artist, to turn to the ordinary leads to recognition of the dignity of ordinary behaviour, or, as Johnstone (2008) highlights, can simply be the act of stating, 'here is value'. For some artists, it might be the revealing of the 'accidentally miraculous', or the desire to make art with the unpretentious ease of the amateur photographer. For others, an art that focuses on the everyday might construct 'a vaguely ethnographic aesthetic', or be nothing more than the record of simply venturing out and coming across something interesting. From another perspective, interest in the everyday indicates a loss of guilt before popular culture and its pleasures; looking at it from another angle; investigating it so that the everydayness asks us to consider the deceptively simple question, "What happens when nothing is happening?" So, who will make it happen? This is a call to connect with a participating audience.
The everyday in art
This brings me to the artist, Lee Mingwei, an installation artist from Taiwan, who lives in the USA. We will be looking at his installation 'The dining project' which was part of the 'Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary art', at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, in 2012.
The information about the exhibition in Chicago was very inviting and certainly opened my eyes to the possibility of a new medium opening up to art. The curator, Stephanie Smith, stated that ever since the 1930s, artists have used the simple act of sharing food and drink, to advance aesthetic goals and to foster critical engagement with the culture of the moment. These artist-orchestrated meals can offer a radical form of hospitality that punctures everyday experience, using the meal as a means of shifting perceptions and to spark encounters that aren't always possible in a fast-moving and segmented society. "Feast" presented this practice for the first time, showing the work of more than thirty artists and artists' groups, who transformed the shared meal into a compelling artistic medium. The exhibition examined the history of the artist-orchestrated meal, assessing its roots in early-twentieth century, European, avant-garde art, its development over the past decades within Western art and its current global ubiquity. "Feast" addressed the radical hospitality embodied by these artists and the social, commercial, and political structures that surround the experience of eating together. The ways in which artists are using shared experiences with food and drink do spark new ways of thinking about the world around us.
Lee Mingwei is a successful installation artist with projects involving the public in most cases, one way or another. The most interesting installation is 'The dining project' because it has a personal story attached to it, from the beginning of his studies in Blue Haven in the USA, where Mingwei did his MFA in sculpture, in 1995 at Yale University. The story begins with a lone student and a good idea. Mingwei has a Zen Buddhist background and decided to put posters around the town of Haven and the Yale campus, asking for people who liked conversation and food to share some with him. It never entered Mingwei's mind to call it art. Cooking is a celebration of attention and aesthetics, as these are the Zen way of being. An invitation for a solo show arrived and the participants for 'The dining project' were chosen through a lottery ticket system and one of the winners happened to be the curator of the Whitney Museum. Mingwei was then given the opportunity to build an installation of a seated, eating area, built and thought through by the aesthetics and attention of a Zen artist. The platform is a simple 12x12 square with 4 titian mats covering the centre piece, surrounded at the edges by black beans.
The project involved an after-hours encounter at the museum. Through a lottery, an arrangement is made for a private dinner for the artist with a stranger on scheduled nights during the exhibition period. Using food as a catalyst and medium of trust and intimacy, four times a week, carefully prepared meals were presented, attuned to the dietary preferences of the dinner guest. The on-going interaction and dialogue is recorded on audio/video, with a camera lens at the level of the food, as each sits across from the other at the low table. The following day, the recording is played, slightly altered and barely audible. This visual/aural trace allows the next guest to experience the previous night's meal along with their own, whilst maintaining the earlier guest's anonymity.
Pc I, Lee Mingwei, 2012, the dinning project, 12x12 square,
Smart Museum of Art
Mingwei talks about an evolution of his project, the importance of an installation in the museum that people come in and started questioning, "Is this art, or could this be art?", which is precisely what Mingwei wanted to achieve with his artwork, to present a different challenge, an idea and possibly, a rethink of what art could be.
Johnstone's (2008) unstated but implicit notion was that turning to the everyday will bring art and life closer together.
One of Duchamp's most famous sayings was that a work of art was not complete without the perception of the viewer when he or she starts asking questions, even if those questions are nothing more than, 'Why in the world is this art?' The search for an answer by the observer, participant or viewer becomes an integral part of the artwork.