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Art and The Everyday

Published on 19th November 2017

Q: Much contemporary focus on the everyday in art aims to work with the paradoxical power of the unnoticed, the indeterminate, the ordinary, and the familiar, to bring art and life closer together and give art access to the authenticity and reality of life.  Critically discuss, using the work of at least 3 contemporary artists.

This essay will critically discuss the concepts surrounding art and the everyday in relation to three artists who recycle readymades in art, not to create art for art’s sake, but rather to give art access to the authenticity and reality of life. Through my examples I will explore theorists who analyse art and the everyday and then with the artists I have chosen, I will highlight how they use their art to highlight contemporary issues of their times which allows for a critique on life. Banality is key to these works, the elements are taken from their construction of life which work with the paradoxical power of the unnoticed, the indeterminate, the ordinary, and the familiar. However, the way they use elements of the everyday constructs an alternative way to view society from a white, western or male canon.

An important element to the concept of the everyday is that the audience can understand the everyday. Conceptual art that seeks the mundane and unnoticed must acknowledge that the ordinary looks different depended on who views it. The breakdown of the class system in the last 100 years plays an important part to the hierarchy of art. A famous art critic or collector no longer has a detachment from life, instead, they are a part of it and the symbols and iconography have changed to reflect this. Marcel Duchamp, in a talk in Houston in 1957, said "the artist performs only one part of the creative process. The onlooker competes it, and it is the onlooker who has the last word."[1] In this talk he called himself a “mere” artist, disrupting the hierarchy of art and giving the audience access to art’s aura. In this essay, I have looked at artists who give art access to the authenticity and reality of life in ways that highlight an everyday that not everyone would see. They give power to the objects that tell their own stories, objects like ashtrays for Tony Albert; the classic toilet and odalisques from art history from Sarah Lucas; and the mundane, everyday sewing needle from Roohi Ahmed in a minimalism inspired construction.

The first series of artworks I will analyse (and all three of my artists use series, once again highlighting the everyday isn’t something unique or out-of-ordinary), is Mid Century Modern, 2016, from Tony Albert. This series is a striking and dominate set of art works that explores the everyday true to its banality. Yet, through his kitsch motifs he manipulates the everyday to give art access to the authenticity and reality of life. Albert reconstructs the readymade, taking ashtrays out of life and into the framing of contemporary art, by hanging them in mass on a wall of an art gallery. As a current Australian artist, we can consider his work through the theoretical framework of Chris McAuliffe’s “Don’t Fence Me In: Artists and Suburbia in the 1960s” especially when McAuliffe discusses his theory on Dale Hickey’s artworks.[2]

McAuliffe’s argument is centred around Australian artists in the 1960 “resisting the geographical and cultural marginal.”[3] His example of Hickey discusses the deconstruction of suburbia into the framing of abstract art. Playing with line and form, Hickey was able to break the binaries of Australian art, allowing them to re-evaluate their own cultural discourse.[4] This transgression created a site of the suburb being the epitome of banality, while recognising its site of culture.[5] However, Albert’s artworks present the theory of the artist’s construction of presenting suburban motifs, thereby opening suburban content and revealing conflict, without seeking to resolve them. As an indigenous artist, Albert resists his own constructed culture. At once an Australian with the familiar Aboriginal motifs and style, playing with the boomerang, kangaroos, emus. At the heart of every image, laden with cultural appropriation sits a burning cigarette; or two; or five; or too many to count as we see with Medicine Man, 2016.

Each ashtray’s lines play with the angles of the forms within them, or the framing of each photograph. When Mid Century Modern appears together, they fill the wall, each focused in on its own story: overwhelming together. The ashtrays sit on tablecloths or scarfs covered in similar print. We can only question why we have been able to see only this little section of the table it sits on, who smokes the cigarettes and why have they been left. As he said in an article for Convicts in 2015:

“I started to really understand the social and implications of the objects and what they represented. A majority of Australians and the world understood aboriginal people through these objects.”[6]

Albert has manipulated the everyday art form, dissecting its banality to connect it with life. Albert’s use of the everyday has given his own everyday meaning and purpose by connecting it with art. Other artworks by Albert may feature the people of the everyday, using them to create a striking detachment of the everyday, however, he always returns to his “Aboriginaliana.”[7] Applying the kitsch works of indigenous art and connecting them back to life and authenticity; instead of the romanticised version that most would rather see. By playing with the everyday, Albert will not let you forget Australia’s secret, even with objects as simple as ashtrays, cigarettes, or tablecloths. The simple iconography on an everyday object creates depth beyond its banality.

Whilst Albert takes the deconstructed elements from the everyday and manipulates them to tell a story in their kitsch iconography, Sarah Lucas detorts the everyday iconography in a conceptual construction. Leaving behind a metaphor for everyday as a repetition is one of the problems facing us. Henri Lefebvre in his theories on the everyday in “The Everyday and Everydayness” reduces the everyday to a “set of functions which connect and join together systems.”[8] By doing this, the everyday becomes cyclical from nature and the linear, which dominates in the processes known as rational. The everyday can at once be the cycle of life and the repetitive gestures of work and consumption and render the works to the concept of work.

By manipulating the everyday in a feminist discourse Lucas highlights the mundane to be part of a bigger accessibility to life. Her art reflects iconography that relate to women in the house and layers this with highbrow art symbols, surrounding the objects with negative gallery space instead of the kitchen or bedroom. She restages the objects and instead of being a simple uncooked chicken that many are familiar within the banality of life, they become art that connects to the everyday. Being involved with the YBA movement in the 1990s Lucas’ work is influenced by the post-feminist sphere where she developed her own language to explore the modernist attitudes of sex and gender. The use of domestic objects which have been deformed and manipulated lend to reference itself to the female body, implicating the objects she chooses to reflect the feminist discourse.

Lucas works to redefine the meaning of the everyday object; examples such as Human Toilet Revisited, 1998 or Human Toilet II, 1996; with their Duchamp reference acknowledge the early power of the readymade to disrupt the power of art. Furthermore, Lucas uses her body to give the objects access to life and within that, a feminist and female body that refuses to conform to both the expectations of women in the 90s, but also rejects the classic odalisques reclining art history female body. The gritty style of the images relates back to a world outside the art gallery that is often mundane and thus, creates art so ordinary is collapses across the divide. Lucas’ use of simple presentation invites us to look at the everyday in a different way, thereby creates a representative of something more real and authentic. Lucas’ work shatters Peter Bürger’s concepts of autonomous art, nothing is new in her toilet series, yet as we have seen with the success of the YBAs, her work isn’t protected from the preservation of academic interpretation.[9] Like with Duchamp’s urinal: the readymades becomes a manifesto and when it is repeated it becomes an adaptation of the cycle of the art market.

A reoccurring medium throughout my artwork choice is photography. With this medium, the artist can reproduce the readymade yet manipulate them which allows for a shared meaning. John Held Jr. explores the use of photography in “DADA TO DIY: The Rise of Alternative Cultures in the Twentieth Century,” and how it redistributed the artist’s claim to be the primary chroniclers of visual reality.[10]  Held Jr. claims that if lit properly, any subject matter could be beautiful. However, I want to unpack the concept of “beauty” in regard to the everyday and photography. Held Jr. shares a quote from Francine Duplessix-Gray where she says:

“In Zen Buddhism nothing is either good or bad. Or ugly or beautiful… Art should not be different than life but an action within life. Like all of life, with its accidents and chances and variety and disorder and only momentary beauties.”[11]

This concept of exploring the everyday in art can both reveal the mundane in art, but also the beauty in everyday life. Beauty doesn’t have the same meaning in art compared to pre-technological advancement. As Walter Benjamin explored in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” beauty is a concept that can reveal something true about life.[12] He argued that whilst art has always been reproducible, technology has given the artist (and now through social media and everyone owning a camera on their phone – the every person) even more means to create art. Therefore, beauty has to be redefined in the purpose of art. Benjamin claimed this reproducibly gave rise to a negative theology of art, in the form of an idea of pure art, which rejects not only any social function but any definition in terms of an objective purpose.[13] Thereby, leaving art in a state of “aestheticizing of politics.”[14]

I argue that this gives artist more power to explore the mundane to give art access to life, and artists can now act as the social critic. The minimal forms and structure, to the kitschy objects once dismissed by Clement Greenberg as having no style, thus rendering themselves as lowbrow art (without any power over the audience).[15] These pieces of art, now stripped of classic “beauty, style and form” are free to express the banality of life and in the same moment the excitement and unordinary elements of everyday life. Roohi Ahmed, an artist working in India, explores the concepts of the mundane through her photography and construction of sewing needles. In the series Nishana, 2003, which include works: Hamla (Attack) Taiyyar (Ready) Pesh Qadami (Advance); the needles are arranged in a way to source conflict and direct questioning of the everyday through manipulated negative space. Her minimalist constructions play with the unnoticed, the indeterminate, the ordinary, and the familiar; yet the title allows for the audience to make the connection back to life. The titles of the work bring conflict into the art pieces, giving the needles access to life.

Ahmed’s work evokes the work of the early Fluxus movement, using the everyday to collapse the difference between the artist and the common person. Nishana uses its minimal presentation to highlight the unnoticed, trivial and repetitive and its effect, not just the distinctive separation of art from life. As the audience member is forced to think why the simple needles on the white background should suggest titles such as Attack, Ready, Advance; the layout of the needles begin to take on a different meaning. Ahmed brings everyday use of the language to the context of the war zone. Ahmed can tell the complex story of the “political and military terminologies through which the neighbouring nations of India and Pakistan interact with each other.”[16] The juxtaposition of these works combined with the provocation offered by their titles allow for the everyday to give access to art. Just as the Fluxus wanted to break the binaries between life and art, Ahmed’s work disrupts the conceptual and forces the audiences to think about the everyday in both its banality and access to life.

Throughout this essay I have focused on the banality of everyday art in its relation to contemporary life. Tony Albert, Sarah Lucas, and Roohi Ahmed are all artists who work with the paradoxical power of the unnoticed, the indeterminate, the ordinary and the familiar to bring art and life closer together. The reason why I chose my artists is because not only do they succeed giving art access to the authenticity and reality of life; but they reveal something new in the genre typically held by white, western males in the contemporary art canon. For them, their artworks reveal the realities of life yet they disturb the banality of life for some audience members. Dada and the surrealists first disrupted the definitions of contemporary art, however, now artists who are iconic exist in the canon they first hoped to blow up.

For Albert, he allows for a window into the very ordinary home setting, yet reveals the taut and strained relations between the indigenous population and appropriation of culture in Australia. In Lucas’ case, she allowed for a female voice to break apart the male dominated art scene in 1990’s Britain. By using her body and the everyday objects, she highlighted art’s connection to life and how artists work within the framing of conceptual photography. Ahmed is an artist who also reclaims the everyday as a female artist working out of India, a country that continue to feel colonisation, and thus is left without the necessary resources to compete with first world countries. Her use of ordinary sewing needles, highlights the effects of war on the every person in their routine of mundane life. However, by playing with minimal constructions, she uses the art movements previously dominated by men and allows for a feminist reading. Sewing needles are mostly used by women, yet they play an important role in dressing the country. Emphasising the importance of female’s role as we see at play with the example of sweat shops effect on India’s economy. The most important element of everyday art is not only that it gives access to the authenticity of life, but that in its construction of the ordinary it reveals how unordinary life is. What can be considered mundane and banal to one group of people, may be completely extra-ordinary and unexpected to another

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility [First Version]." Grey Room no. 39 (Spring 2010) p.11-37.

Bürger Peter. “On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art In Bourgeois Society.” Theory of the Avant-garde. Manchester University Press, 1984

Carson, Fiona. Pajaczkowska, Claire. Feminist Visual Culture. Routledge, 6 May 2001

Devi Art Foundation. “Roohi Ahmed – Pesh Qadmi (Advance).” Google Arts and Culture .

https://www.google.com/cultura...

Duchamp, Marcel. "The Creative Act" ARTnews, Vol. 56, no.4 (Summer 1957)

Graefe, Melinda. “Trench art tells a story of survival and resilience.” The Conversation. November 2016

Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-garde and Kitsch.” Art and Culture. Thames and Hudson. 1973

Held Jr, John. “DADA to DIY: The Rise of Alternative Cultures in the Twentieth Century” George Maciunas Foundation. 2016

Kelada, Odette. “Shooting From the Hip: An Interview with Tony Albert.” Art Monthly Australia. April 2009. Issue 218, p.15-17

Lefebvre, Henri. “The Everyday and Everydayness.” Yale French Studies, Vol 73. 1987 pp.7-11

McAuliffe, Chris. "Don't Fence Me In: Artists and suburbia in the 1960s." Beasts of Suburbia - Reinterpreting cultures in Australian Suburbs. Melbourne University Press. 1994. p. 94-110

Power, Petra. “Artist Sarah Lucas At London’s Whitechapel Gallery.” The Culture Trip.

https://theculturetrip.com/eur...

Prince, Mark. "Sarah Lucas." Art in America, vol. 102, no. 2, Feb. 2014, pp. 105-106.

“Tony Albert.” Convicts. August 2015

https://sullivanstrumpf.com/as...

[1] Marcel Duchamp, "The Creative Act," ARTnews, Vol. 56, no.4 (Summer 1957)

[2] Chris McAuliffe, "Don't Fence Me In: Artists and suburbia in the 1960s," Beasts of Suburbia - Reinterpreting cultures in Australian Suburbs, Melbourne University Press, 1994, p. 94-110

[3] McAuliffe, ibid, p. 95

[4] McAuliffe, ibid, p.102

[5] McAuliffe, ibid, p.97

[6] “Tony Albert” Convicts, August 2015

[7] Odette Kelada, “Shooting From the Hip: An Interview with Tony Albert,” Art Monthly Australia, April 2009, Issue 218, p.15-17

[8] Henri Lefebvre, “The Everyday and Everydayness,” Yale French Studies, Vol 73, 1987 p.7-11

[9] Peter Bürger, “On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art In Bourgeois Society,” Theory of the Avant-garde, Manchester University Press, 1984

[10] John Held Jr, “DADA to DIY: The Rise of Alternative Cultures in the Twentieth Century” George Maciunas Foundation, 2016

[11] Held Jr, Ibid,

[12] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility [First Version]," Grey Room, no. 39, Spring 2010, p.11-37

[13] Benjamin, ibid, p.16

[14] Benjamin, ibid, p. 36

[15] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” Art and Culture, Thames and Hudson, 1973

[16] Devi Art Foundation, “Roohi Ahmed – Pesh Qadmi (Advance),” Google Arts and Culture