There are two concerns that a work of art can be preoccupied with as far as our society is concerned. Let us accommodate the fact that a work of art, by the nature of its origin, by its insistence in our lives it is a social product. By the same token the artist can be looked upon as an outlet through which a particular society can be looked upon. This looking upon, this gazing that an artist undertakes when they make work that valuates a feature of a society, to be approximate (or ‘precise’ if you wish to use that word) their own society – their reportage or visual portrayal of society serves to surface the nature of that society as far as a particular feature of that society is concerned. At this meditative level an artwork can be looked upon as a study.
In the present writing I wish to term these concerns that an artwork can be preoccupied with as far as it being a study of a society as ‘levels of social critiques’ of which there is a Primary Level of social Critique and Secondary Level of Social Critique respectively. However, before we penetrate deeper into what I am proposing here, we ought to take a step back and look at an artwork at its gross state. If you allow me the liberty to sanction your consideration of the art object at that virgin moment before its intercourse with the public; at that point when the spectator looks at it for the first time or in the case of a literary text, when a reader experiences the work through a first reading, what we will encounter at this state is a social artefact that demands nothing but our time for its consumption. If it is aesthetically pleasing we are urged to acknowledge the abundance of decorum that the human hand and vision are capable of. If it is prophetic in its nature we will be warned through it of what doom looms arround. If it is stylistically developed and deploys new ways of methodology in its construction it will pave or, if you will, forecast other possibilities in art making. And if it pulls and deposit all these ‘Ifs’ in it, it is an explosive breakthrough – it undeniably changes how art will be made from that point onwards. But only if we the recipient of the artwork grants them time and consume them.
At its basis an artwork is an artist’s outlet wherein he or she deals with certain preoccupations. These preoccupations might be personal to the artist or impersonal to the artist. Either way what is at the core of their art production will be to give these preoccupations, whatever they are, a concrete experience to the viewer. Perhaps the concretization of these preoccupations is more important to the artist than it can be supposed they are to the spectator as artists’ production and practice of their vocation serves to give a visual language to a rather myriad or ideas within their psyche and during our viewing of the artwork (or a reading of a literary text) we happen to find some of their works appealing, not by a mere chance, but because the works comment on various aspects of our social psyche – and this commentary makes bare to us what remained hidden up to the point we made contact with the work.
One can ask: what about works spanning centuries which continues to be of appeal to us, why do they continue to influence us today? It is because they have been globalised by the cultures that have come into contact with them to such an extent that they are now cosmopolitan with their effects having overtaken human civilisation itself. Just how far ahead a work’s far reaching effects stretches remains locked in time.
It is general knowledge that works of art gain prominence through exhibitions, patronage, criticism and the artist’s contribution to art history either on a global scale or national scale. Let us move a little step inward and acknowledge that in our time it is also common knowledge that the spectator or viewer of art is a co-creator in what the work is concerned with. But at the location of the juncture wherein what the artist initially intended their work to be about, human curiosity inserts an occurrence that is vital to the life span of that work of art. It is at that point that the spectator, the viewer can firmly stand and weave their own meaning of what the work is about. The artist’s initial intentions can be inverted to form a skeletal framework upon which the flesh of what the work is about can be pulled on. For now, limiting the present writing to work that is concerned with our society, I venture to state that this skeletal framework is the reflection of the existence of the Primary Level of Social Critique that a work of art can be preoccupied with.
Abbreviated as PLOSC the Primary Level of Social Critique is transparent. Indeed Plosc could be thought of as the obvious aspects of what the work of art is about without recourse to the artist commentary on their own work to shine a torch ahead of us in aiding to reach a conclusion as to what the work is concerned with. Here our nearness to the culture and time that has given birth to the artist privileges us to be in step with the artist, to sort of ‘get him’.
On the other hand below the surface of Plosc exists another critique which works of art deal with. To appreciate this critique one needs to internally reflect on the artwork and have an intellectual engagement with it. A passive approach to the artwork reveals its opacity. Here we are at a secondary consideration of the artwork, we are at SLOSC, which stands for Secondary Level of Social Critique. While Slosc exists at a deeper viewing of a work of art it complements Plosc which in effect, in an involved viewing of an artwork, paves a way for its consideration as we remain suspect as to what the original intention of its creation might have been and start looking for documentation that would shed more light as to what the content of the artwork is par excellence. Through Slosc the contact with the artwork is not merely a passing fancy of ‘I know what the artist is saying’, rather it is a probe that disregard this first order statement in experiencing works of art and a move towards ‘I want to know why(s)?’, i.e. I want to know what influence the artist to say what they are saying, I want to know why the artist chose the formal language he used in making the work, I want to know where he trained, grew up, etc, etc.
Armed with an understanding of these two critiques, Plosc and Slosc, works of art can be understood as vehicles that communicate themes inspired or set off by the society of the artist’s time. Having set the tone, here, we shall test these modes of critique in a follow up jot later.
© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2013