Curators and critics are imagined to have innate insightfulness, cultivated sensibilities, and special training that allows them to make judgments on everyone’s behalf. But what special credentials entitle curators and critics of contemporary art to ply their decisions? Contemporary art, by definition, has not withstood the test of time. Yet curators and critics possess an institutional authority that is constructed to seem impregnable. These art professionals do recognize the moral, ethical, and practical necessities of presenting what they believe to be authentic objects and factual information. But the tenor of their presumptions raises serious questions about the perceived role of curators and critics in our society.
Because of this, and in light of the publicity surrounding Bruce Munro’s installations at Cheekwood, I thought it would be appropriate, and even necessary, to present a brief art historical examination of Munro’s work. As an art historian, I often find the art of contemporaneity more easily understandable in the context of the history of art. Generally speaking, there is, I think, confusion over the status of contemporaneity as theoretical determinant and contemporaneity as social effect. If we remember to heed this confusion when evaluating contemporary art, it would be greatly beneficial to us.
As I have previously noted, only time determines what remains important –canonical– and what will quietly fade. Therefore, comprehending the history of art is an essential prerequisite to coping with its present, and productively imagining its futures.
Although Munro’s work responds to many art historical movements and theories, I find him most closely affiliated with the Light and Space art movement of the 1960s. Related to op art, minimalism and geometric abstraction, Munro’s work focuses on perceptual phenomena, such as light, volume and scale. Munro employs materials such as glass, neon, fluorescent lights, resin and cast acrylic to form installations conditioned by the work’s surroundings. Essentially, the spectator’s experience of light and other sensory phenomena is the main focus of these kinds of works.
This method of art-making dematerializes the art object. Because this art is often less centered around the ideological and more on the perceptual, it is easy to write off as “kitsch” or “bad art”, but this is naïve. Just as immaterial as mind-boggling conceptual art, Munro’s environments intensify sensory awareness and heighten the experience of nature itself in the form of light. This heightened experience of nature is precisely why I believe art exists.