SOME RAMBLINGS ON SAMPLING SELF-SAMPLED PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND ART
[First published in a 1994 brochure to accompany an annual juried exhibition at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum. The text explains Eyland's decision as the juror to choose works for the show by "matching" his own file card paintings with submitted works as a way of making decisions about inclusion.]
The artist -- to take him as one example of cultural creativity -- gives expression to his nation only if he does not intend it and if no one orders him to do it. For if one could direct him to do it beforehand, that would mean that what he is going to produce has already been said in the language of everyday technical and political prose: his creation would be false." Paul Ricoeur "Universal Civilization and National Cultures", History and Truth Northwestern University Press, 1965, p.281
There are many amusing examples of attempts to reduce the complexity of the world's art by reference to a tiny sample meant to represent the best of everything: witness the art magazines, which imply by their titles that they present, for example Art in America, Canadian Art or Modern Painters or even (however encyclopedic it may be) Arts Atlantic. The big international shows, for example the Venice biennials, the Documentas, and the national surveys like the Whitney in the United States also tend to squash the complexity of the art scene into too-comprehensible packages.
Many people believe the art world to be smaller than it is, and it is easy to present this illusion convincingly by reference to small samples like the one I am about to make.
The art I see here in Prince Edward Island -- a sample the self-sampled -- may or may not show something representative about Prince Edward Island art and culture. What I think is important in this art will have to be seen in the correspondences I make between the art I choose for this exhibition and my own recent art. Of course, this text, and the art that I have made and will choose to use as visual captions to the work I choose for this exhibition, both have the disadvantage of having been written and made in anticipation of having seen the work to which they will be matched.
I have been given a task. I must further reduce the self-sampled Prince Edward Island art with which I am presented by making some sort of "representative" choices, what people call the "best" work. How can I characterize what is "representative" about Prince Edward Island art and choose the "best," given that for me and many others, the general problem of "representativeness" and "best" is as contentious in the world of art as it is in society itself? The art submitted is already in some sense a "representative" sample of something about P.E.I., but representative of what? and perhaps the best of what?
I have been given limitations, for example, I must choose only thirty artists from amongst entrants. This limitation has to do with budgets and artists' fees. The work I will look at might have been made in any medium - this will further complicate my task.
Given my brief, how should I proceed? I will try to pick the requisite number of artists by reference to an idea for a show which suggests itself to me as I look through the work and compare it to my own paintings. The point is not to make theoretical square holes for the round pegs that art scatters about, but to operate like an "insect" robot that trips over and around things as it goes. Because I will choose by reference to my art, some of these choices might seem odd.
We grow up in a culture in which the belief in individual aesthetic judgment prevails, and consensus on cultural matters is not expected, so perhaps few will object to my making personal choices by reference to my own art. When a person who makes these judgments is an artist and curator like myself, one can expect axe-grinding, peculiar associating, and impositions - everything but bad faith. As a chooser, I hope to discover myself and my art through choosing other people's work that makes a connection with myself, my art or my writing.
I have speculated about the kind of work I will see. The grapevine tells me that some professional artists whose work is familiar to me may not submit work for consideration. It is certain that many amateur artists will submit work. It is likely that some work will be submitted on a whim or as a joke. Some artists will be sincere and naive, some will be insincere and naive, etc.
As anyone who has written about art or done research about art will agree, a consensus about art by art world insiders often happens "by default", that is, because some work is simply more well-known than some other work. I must also mention the non-specialist's susceptibility to such "default" work that becomes canonical only because it is handy. We could say, for example, that the Mona Lisa could not be the most famous work of art in the world if it were not so available for viewing, and so often reproduced.
When "representativeness" is claimed for a work of art, it can only be claimed in terms of some restricted tendency in art making by an individual who himself, like everyone, is of limited means.
Recent work in psychology about "representativeness" is helpful in positioning the work of art as being the best available "representative" of this or that limited aspect or tendency. (As I say this, I am conscious of the history of the uses and abuses of psychology by art theorists and artists, and I suppose I am also unconscious of it as well, the most irritating recent examples relating to the work of Jacques Lacan.) Ideas borrowed from other disciplines tend to take on a peculiar life of their own in the art world, a life which can be unaffected by further research in the field from which the original borrowing took place. There is a danger in all this. One can see problems even in the more-or-less benign references to experimental psychology in works like E. H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion, and in Rudolf Arnheim's Psychology and Art. Many of today's art critics would find Gombrich and Arnheim socially myopic because they discount psychoanalysis. Psychological models go in and out of fashion...
The recent work in psychology to which I'd like to refer points to a method by which limited cultural consensus is not enforced but discovered, not based on Kantian notions about universal validity, nor on an ethnocentric approach, but rather on limited agreements a critic attempts to contribute to by reference to shared experience. Of course, one must first agree that consensus should be sought.
The work in psychology that interests me is about the categorization of objects, and I should caution the reader that I am not looking to science for a model by which to evaluate art, but for some support for the idea that there may be a basis for agreement about cultural things. (See "Categorization of Natural Objects" by Carolyn B. Mervis and Eleanor Rosch in the Ann.Rev. Psychol. 1981. 32:89-115, Pub. Annual Reviews Inc.)
There is a concept in psychology called focal colour. Subjects in experiments are asked what is the best or most representative red, green or blue (psychologists believe there are 11 basic colours, by the way.) Research has shown that there is broad agreement across many cultures about what is the best colour given, say, a range of reds to choose from. (This research has a well-known bearing on the assumptions of semiotics and structuralism about the supposed "linguistic" bases of visual perception.) Importantly for our discussion, the agreement across cultures about what colours are "focal" has nothing to do with the number of colour terms in a subjects language. A focal colour or "best" colour is the best representative colour among many colours. Aside from the issue of what focal colours are, the method by which consensus was sought in this experiment is worth imitating.
Notice that the word "best" implies "best representative" and so for us, "best available representative."
One would always want to be representative: given the context and my information, the work I see during my jury duty will be chosen as the best representation, or at least in the range of the best representation, of a certain tendency in Prince Edward Island visual art, the "best representation" given the information.
I will not argue in words for every choice I have made in representing the work of Prince Edward Island artists, but I do hope to show my prejudices in such a way as to invite challenges and counter proposals, and even agreements. Inevitably value in art must be asserted and then challenged, as my friend Dennis Young is fond of saying.
If I am straightforward about my choices, and I present them clearly, they may be accepted or rejected as such.