From a Tree to a Web

From a Tree to a Web

Editor's note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of American Craft.

I have been writing about art since the 1970s, and for most of that time the art world seemed, from my point of view, fairly stable. In the first decade of this century, though, I sensed a change in the structure of the art world, from a hierarchical pattern to a reticulate one, from a tree to a web. This was happening most in the world of art expos and social media, and least in art criticism and the academic community, perhaps because the tenure system is hierarchical. Styles of art also changed, as they always have. But even there, it was evident that structural changes were taking place.

Traditional art criticism and history identify art styles from good to better to best: a tree pattern, reaching ever upward for those who follow the correct path. The progression toward increasing abstraction in the 20th century, from Picasso to Pollock, is an example of the tree structure. But if an artist followed the wrong path at the wrong time, he was relegated to a lower branch, basically going nowhere. The exiling of realism as abstraction gained ground is one example: Who remembers Raphael Soyer?

And yet abstraction itself seemed to reach the far end of a limb with artists such as Morris Louis and Jules Olitski, just as a powerful new branch was flourishing, which combined abstraction with realism: pop art, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. Mastering this system were the art critics and museum curators and dealers who “made taste,” people such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Henry Geldzahler, and André Emmerich. They exercised hierarchical judgments when they selected individual artists to write about or exhibit.

That system worked to create the art world as we know it, or at least as it was at the end of the 20th century. And it was a pretty grand place to be, if you were in it. But there was a lot of suffering if you were not among the chosen artists – or mediums or class or gender or geographical region.

In the 21st century
I was lucky enough to be a part of that old art world as a writer and curator. But in 1997 I learned to scuba dive, and that changed my life as well as my understanding of art. Diving first on pristine coral reefs in Fiji, I encountered landscapes that were so unusual that I wanted to call them works of art rather than of nature. Unable to find much written about them from this point of view, I brought my critical skills to bear on the underwater world and embarked on a brief career as a critic of the ocean realm.

I slowly learned that the ocean realm is highly resistant to critical interpretation and that it was arrogant of me to assume that I could play such a role. Once I met the ocean with humility and abandoned my project of applying art theory to deep water, I began to learn that the ocean had much to teach me about aesthetics.

Diving on coral reefs from Tonga to Hawaii to Bonaire to Florida, I learned about a form of evolution that was different from the hierarchical, Darwinian one. It is called reticulate evolution, and although most of my knowledge about it comes from the work of J.E.N. Veron on coral reefs, some terrestrial life forms also evolve this way.

I decided to take up this theory metaphorically and apply it to art, combining it with other observations about underwater behavior. I coined a term to help me collect all that I had learned from diving and the ocean realm: “reticulate aesthetics.” This was the late 1990s, when the internet was beginning to have a real impact on the way we think about the world. So I was thinking a lot about nets and webs, both underwater and in cyberspace.

I especially like the way a web or reticulate structure in evolution allows for “species blending” and challenges the idea of individual species and unchangeable hierarchies. Similarly, reticulate aesthetics goes beyond traditional art history as a history of individuals and discrete styles, seeing it instead as a history of collaboration and of blending.

This web pattern allows for cross-pollination of ideas and styles. It creates really excellent styles in places (e.g., glass, ceramics, metalworking) that under the tree structure never had any chance of ascending, styles that were always pushed to the side, relegated to a lower limb. And so reticulate aesthetics recognizes the potential value of all art. Our culture’s increasing willingness to look for art at the fringes (outsider art, art from materials such as dirt and urine, art that copies existing art) seems to be an example of this desire for cross-pollination.

That interconnectedness lends strength. As Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote in the New York Times on interbreeding species, “Biodiversity has developed in a web of life rather than a tree of life.” The author used the pizzly bear, a blend of polar bear and grizzly bear, as an example of a stronger species that results from the web of biodiversity. (For further discussion, see Reticulate Evolution and Humans by Michael Arnold.)

So can we conclude that the reticulate model is replacing the hierarchical pattern in art? Maybe. But because power and money still rest with the tree structure – the winner-take-all paradigm that has been adopted by the contemporary art world – it is unlikely that the reticulate model will completely replace the hierarchy. Andy Warhol is not likely to be exhibited on the same wall with Raphael Soyer anytime soon. But maybe we can hope that ceramics, glass, fiber, and metal will be integrated with painting and sculpture when the Metropolitan Museum displays its contemporary collection for the next few years in the space currently occupied by the Whitney Museum. In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the strengths of reticulate aesthetics.

Craft is essential
In the old art world, mastering technique got you to a branch on the tree, and you could move around on that branch, but not up or down to another branch. Mastering painting meant you were a serious artist; mastering clay or glass meant you were a technician.

In the 21st century, I see technique as the essential entry point to a network. Everyone needs to master some technique: glass, writing, carpentry, filmmaking. This gives you an entry ticket. Once part of the web, you can move around as you wish (depending, of course, on ability, luck, money, and political connections). There are no longer truly distinct styles of art: They blend, appear, disappear, reappear, are repackaged. Fiber art becomes fine art. Abstract sculpture becomes abstract glass. Optical glass becomes minimalist sculpture. Handmade gives way to machine-made, which gives way to craft and DIY, which give way to 3D printing.

Visibility for mid-level artists?
The reach and affordability of social media mean that all artists have a chance of having their work seen. And if the art world is becoming more like a web than a tree, the artists we once called “mid-level” may be able to play on higher ground. The result could be more artists who are happier and economically stable. The old economics of art presumed a correlation between aesthetic value and retail price, producing a graph that looked like a ramp: The higher up you went, the better and more costly the art. The legitimacy of that relationship was never proven. The new economics theoretically seeks ways to price art so the entire reticulate system thrives. Good art may have many different price points, and prices may change depending on a variety of influences.

Mimicry: It has its uses
This is one of my favorite ways underwater behavior applies to art theory. Mimicry is a behavior fish use to survive: A weak fish mimics the color and shape of a dangerous or poisonous one to scare off predators. Over the years, my position about copying has changed, because of my observations of mimicry. I now theorize that it is natural for weaker artists to mimic stronger ones in order to survive in the marketplace. That, for me, is reticulate aesthetics at work.

Kinder and gentler, but also messier
In this complicated, reticulated world, critics and art historians need to revise how they discuss art. We must recognize how messy everything gets, and rather than intimidate and discourage, we need to encourage even more messiness.

We should push for civility within the world of art criticism and art history for two reasons: First, because we need some basic rules of discourse that respect the gender, race, and level of wealth and education of everyone; and second, because we can benefit from observations about behavior such as mimicry, which puts copyright infringement in a kinder, gentler light.

We need to tone down the endless bickering among critics and realize that the role of criticism in the 21st century is not to establish and support hierarchies, but to encourage the exponential growth of new art forms (and old art forms, too).

Encouraging new forms
Every artwork deserves our attention. But our time is limited. The idealistic task before criticism in the 21st century is to look at and appreciate all works of art everywhere. This is no longer a fantasy; with social media it is at least theoretically possible. We need to look at more art, encourage more art – not the other way around, as was the basis for 20th-century criticism: to discourage and narrow and elevate, to act with arrogant purpose.

From the viewpoint of reticulate aesthetics, everything is important and has a place. The key is to locate the place of each artwork and the direction of each style and map it all out, while realizing we all will produce different maps and nets. Of course, such a project is impossible, but it is possible for a nimble individual, working as part of a larger social media group, to help chart the art world in greater detail than it has ever been mapped before.

Reticulate aesthetics is developing in this context: It is admittedly utopian. We need to know everyone, look at every art object at SOFA Chicago, Art Miami, and Art Basel, give it its due and determine its place. We need to respect and employ the aesthetic positions of Charlotte Potter, Helen Lee, Glenn Adamson [“Reinvesting in the Mission”], Bruce Metcalf [“Hot Glue and Staples”], Donald Kuspit, Hegel, Plato – everyone, every era.

If we see the structure of art as a net or web rather than a hierarchy, the nature of judging changes, too. Judgments are no longer exclusively about good, better, or best, but rather about where in the web the artist and artwork fits. You judge in order to locate. The critic places art in a context, at a point on the web, and as part of a story. Distance and direction rule even for the critic.

Do we judge good and bad in a kinder, gentler system? I discovered a more respectful way to judge with a Facebook posting I made about my experiences at SOFA Chicago in November. I posted a series of handsome detail images of artworks that attracted my attention, and these produced many comments and much discussion. Among the social-media audience, we found ourselves judging and criticizing details, at times constructively, without criticizing the artists, and some viewers began to appreciate the work of artists they had previously dismissed. So the process of looking at details, really looking at them deeply, has become a new ally in my search for a kinder, gentler, and more satisfying criticism.

In the old art world, the hierarchical form of criticism was, I admit, very good at bringing closure: These are the 10 best objects from Art Basel. In the reticulate world, there is no closure. Every list of the best produces 10 more and 10 more. And on it goes.

It might be argued that a kinder, gentler criticism encourages a bland, passive art community. The opposite is true. We need more transparency and collegiality in our criticism because, in a reticulate environment, manipulation of the web conveys great power to control and distort remotely and under cover. A web or net is not always a passive structure: It can be actively woven and cast in order to capture. The historian of magic Ioan Couliano wrote in 1987 in his book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (in a stunning passage that anticipates the structure of the Internet) that “Indeed, what does the lover do by means of his deeds, words, services, and gifts other than create a magic ‘web’ around the object of his love...To put it simply: the lover and the magician both do the same thing: They cast their ‘nets’ to capture certain objects, to attract and draw them to them.” Couliano, interpreting the writer Giordano Bruno, describes a world where perfect knowledge by privileged individuals can be used to create bonds and "exercise control over others." If the web or net as I envision it is to be open to all equally, we need to recognize this active and powerful side of reticulate aesthetics: that it can be used to control and project authority. I suggest a kinder, gentler criticism as a guard against those who would seek to use the power behind nets, webs, and social media as a means to manipulate rather than appreciate.

A former curator at the Corning Museum of Glass, William Warmus is the author of more than a dozen books, including biographies of Louis Comfort Tiffany, René Lalique, and Dale Chihuly.