Ebony G. Patterson …three kings weep…, 2018
Photo : courtesy of the artist & Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

The Ethics of Material Visibility

Giovanni Aloi
Classical art and its materials were bound by the miraculous — their relationship defined by a process of transubstantiation. To become art, materials such as marble, bronze, and paint had to be transformed as closely as possible into flesh, skin, hair, and fabric. It was this process of transubstantiation that granted them the right to speak about human ethics and morals. But to do so, they had to relinquish their material voices first. For over two thousand years, this condition defined the history of Western art so that marble, bronze, and paint could exclusively ventriloquize human ­values such as purity, heroism, faith, and pride — their material histories and ­origins had to be forever silenced to amplify the greatness of human accomplishments. Classical art bent, cast, chiselled, and mixed mate­rials into shape until affirmative meaning could radiate from them with overwhelming, culture-defining power. These processes always ­predetermined meaning. Metaphors, allegories, and symbols had their roots firmly planted in the written word, and the primary duty of art materials was to translate, not create.

Today, we think of artists as deeply experimental creators, busy crafting new aesthetic languages to express what lies at the edges of our cultural domains. But in the history of art, this kind of expressive freedom is relatively new; it was conquered as artists strove to make sense of the tumultuous cultural changes triggered by the industrial revolution, the invention of photography and film, and the unprecedented atrocities of two, almost consecutive, world wars. During the 1960s and 1970s, as postmodernism brought the Greenbergian fixation with material purity and medium-specificity to an end, artists had the opportunity to rediscover materials and their biopolitical agency. The irreverence of the Gutai Group in Japan, Arte Povera in Italy, and the experimental approaches of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Judy Chicago, Sun Ra, and Carolee Schneemann drastically redefined our conception of art materials and their expressive potential. For the first time, matter was truly allowed to speak, and artists were keen to listen to what it had to say.

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This article also appears in the issue 101 - New Materialisms

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