Stay with me on this one; it'll be worth it.
To mathematicians and physicists, the holy grail seems to be the perfect, simple answer to everything. Einstein died unable to arrive at the "theory of everything". It will likely elude Stephen Hawking as well. But science and math have discovered a number of, let's call them for lack of a better term "beautiful calculations" as well as some that appear beautiful but in fact are just pretty.
To me, the most simple and beautiful of all, at least for now, is pi. If you ever asked God to spell his name, I bet he would spell it 3.141592652589793. Also simple and beautiful is Einstein's special theory of relativity. Only pretty is the Mandelbrot set. Why? Where pi and Einstein's theory are on the surface rather easy to grasp, their implications are profoundly, almost incomprehensibly complex. On the other hand, the Mandelbrot set, although fascinating, seems to lead to nothing more than variations of a theme.
So what does this all have to do with art? I would propose that this strategy has been employed by many of the most important artists of today (and of the 20th century) and amounts to the most significant movement in art of the 20th century, something that Picasso himself employed most clearly with cubism. It's Marcel Duchamp though, an early practitioner of Art of the Beautiful Calculation (explained in just a second) whose work seems more apparent in nearly all the art that is deemed important today.
Art of the Beautiful Calculation is an art making strategy where a single, pared down idea (the "beautiful calculation") is proposed by an artist who then proceeds to create numerous applied examples of the calculation in an attempt to illustrate and explore its implications. The more complex and profound the implications combined with the skill of the artist in effectively illustrating them are the criteria used to evaluate the quality and importance of the art. Its an approach to making art that leaves literally nothing to chance.
Here, just off the top of my head, is a partial list of artists who employ this strategy:
Hilla and Bernd Becher
In Atlanta - Scott Ingram and Kojo Griffin
the list goes on and on an on and on...........
It's a very scientific, "left brain" approach to art making: propose a theory (the "calculation") and then test and prove the theory through experimentation (the art itself). For someone like me who is very science and numbers oriented, it is no surprise that these artists are the ones to whom I'm most attracted.
The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher is probably the easiest to see this strategy in action and is why they have been identified as being as influential as they are. Those who find the work uninteresting would most likely find the work of most all the artists listed above to be uninteresting as well. It's an approach that is not for everyone, especially those who aren't oriented in this way. My argument is that these artists are entirely oriented towards art making in the same way that a scientist or mathematician is oriented towards their particular pursuits.
Identifying and articulating (even if subconsciously) the "beautiful calculation" put forth by an artist makes it much easier to evaluate their entire body of work.
I think then, despite being an influential early adopter of this strategy, the work of the Becher's ultimately falls short because the implications of their "calculation" are not sufficiently complex. Ditto for Andreas Gursky: he's reached the end of the line and will ultimately take a back seat to others. He's the Mandelbrot set of contemporary art. If you don't believe me, simply read texts written about Gursky's work and notice how hard the writer tries, ultimately in vain, to inject complex meaning into his photos.
Surprisingly, I find the work of Candida Hofer, who employs as strict and narrow a strategy as the Becher's to be more expansive conceptually than either the Bechers or Gursky.
Next, look at the work of Kara Walker. It's no surprise that she was the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant. Her approach to art making relies on an extremely pared down, completely clear and unambiguous strategy that to date has resulted in artworks with profound social and historical impact. Her artworks (at least at first) were completely void of a single unnecessary element. But lately, Walker seems to be adding elements to the work that certainly make the works more visually compelling but add little to the scope of her "calculation". This leads me to believe that perhaps she too has hit a wall, her "calculation" has played itself out and for now, she has no where to turn. More interestingly though, perhaps she has started to abandon the "beautiful calculation" strategy which actually seems to be where contemporary art is heading.
Kojo Griffin concluded that his "calculation's" implications were not sufficient for him to continue and has abandoned it. A very brave, but unavoidable conclusion on his part which takes some fortitude that Gursky may not have.
Incidentally, Picasso hit the wall with his own beautiful calculation, cubism and essentially abandoned it in its original form.
Takashi Murakami has a name for his: Superflat. As does Jeff Wall: Near Documentary. Wall has proved the importance and depth of his "calculation"; Murakami is well on his way, but he too may hit a wall some day.
This all brings me to who I believe will be the two artists that history will recognize as being the apex of the "beautiful calculation" strategy: Thomas Ruff and Vik Muniz.
If one looks at the entire body of work by Thomas Ruff, it's becomes so easy and clear to see his "beautiful calculation". No one to date has been able to match the wildly inventive and diverse examples that Ruff has been able to produce to prove his "calculation".
Vik Muniz too, with every new picture he creates, has been able to illustrate another facet of his "calculation". He also can talk very effortlessly and eloquently about his work. These guys are scientists in artist's clothes...hence they better be able to explain themselves both visually and verbally. What sets Vik apart is not so much the diversity that Ruff possesses, but his astonishing skill as an image maker.
Those with influence in the art world now, even without knowing it, have embraced the idea of the "beautiful calculation" as the strategy that defines what is centrally important in art today. But that is changing. Read on.
Science has at least for now, has been unable to tidy things up as nicely as they would have liked and instead has moved - in the quest for the theory of everything - to a theory, string theory, so mind bogglingly complex and messy that even the super brainiacs cannot figure out a way to prove it. String theory detractors point to this as its fatal flaw: its an unprovable idea. As an example, string theory relies on the existence of as many as 13 dimensions which is a concept, despite the fact that I've read and read and read, I still cannot even begin to grasp. I can't even grasp one additional dimension. If the scientists can't explain it well enough so that I can at least begin to grasp the concept, I think they most likely have trouble grasping the concept as well but that has not stopped them from including it as a central element of their theory.
What's next in art is more akin to string theory than to the elegance of pi. Artists are making work that does not stem from a single "beautiful calculation". Instead they are, in effect, attempting to create work in "13 dimensions"..many of which are completely unexplainable to them but at the same time absolutely essential to the work. This approach is far harder to be successful at than the "beautiful calculation" which is why the galleries are so full of not-so-great-but-completely-new art. At least with the "beautiful calculation" approach, less successful work hits a dead end mercifully quickly. This "manifesto" of mine grew out of a conversation with an unlikely person in an even more unlikely place:
Jennifer Cawley at Tew Gallery
I went to see Jennifer Cawley's newest body of work last night at Tew Gallery. She is not of the "beautiful calculation" ilk, she's a string theory artist. Jennifer graciously allowed me to critique her work and I attempted to do so from a "beautiful calculation" standpoint. Cawley paid me what I first regarded to be a very validating compliment in that she said my critique of her work is "exactly what Kara Walker said about the work" (she and Walker went to ACA together and have remained friends). Its no surprise that Walker and I critiqued the work identically. We both approach art from the same starting point. Walker and I, to Cawley and the rest of the world of art makers using this strategy, must sound like string theory detractors: if you can't prove it, its not valid.
Later though, I realized how completely inappropriate this approach is when evaluating an artist who operates in a way counter to the "beautiful calculation" approach. But the question remains, and someone will have to answer it to properly evaluate the tidal wave of this type of work that is coming: how do you evaluate artwork where not everything has to be so clearly essential to some central proposition? Perhaps Kara Walker will be the one to answer that: I have the feeling that Walker will abandon the "beautiful calculation" in exchange for the crazy and unprovable world of string theory.
I believe that the continual critiques that Cawley has received from this position have undermined her confidence in the approach that she uses. Cawley certainly knows how to make compelling paintings that are conceptually complex and ambiguous at the same time. This is not to say that all of the elements in her paintings are successful. One cannot simply cry "string theory" and throw in everything along with the kitchen sink. But to have complete confidence in every element of your work is crucial and Cawley's paintings will improve once she stops seeking advice from those who will not break free of the "beautiful calculation" approach. In other words, Kara Walker has something to learn from Jennifer Cawley and not vice versa.