Whitehot Magazine

Barbara Rosenthal on Process vs. Product

Anna Banana

By BARBARA ROSENTHAL, September 2019


What is the Point of Art/ 

What is The Interplay of Elements and Considerations in Artmaking

/ How Does This Body of Video Hold Up 

A lengthy, thoughtful reply from Anna Banana came to "A Crack in the Sidewalk," to my March-April 2018 column in Ragazine, and pointed my pencil toward the subject for an expanded essay about Process vs Product. Anna has been a colleague since the heyday of Mail Art, a genre that intrigued me in the late Sixties because it was cheap, had a worldwide reach and no gatekeepers, and included both image and text; it intrigued Anna because it was cheap, had a worldwide reach and no gatekeepers, and included the artifacts and procedures of Postal Mail itself. What sharpened my pencil was the rough, grinding realization that I was turning 70 years old just then, and a 70th Birthday International Video Retrospective was in the works. Various compilations of the 130 videos I’ve made since 1976 were screened, with me to speak about them, in different countries. The kick-off was my birthday party in at the Film-makers CoOp here in New York. To share the screen I invited six other filmmakers with films on the theme of “Outer Bodies, Inner Selves.”

Our bodies have changed in these 40 years, over which time my nude body has been onscreen 13 times. The nude body of my partner, Bill Creston, who is now 86, has been onscreen 6 times, once with me and both our daughters in my video News to Fit the Family. Bill and I  appear sometimes in casual footage, sometimes in scripted scenes. Most of these came from a Life-Reality-Based Process — so are they Art? The confluence of Anna Banana’s letter and my birthday compilation led me onto the stage where an unceasing debate continues to rage over this familiar but persistent topic, REAL ART: PROCESS v PRODUCT.

FILM STILL from Pregnancy Dreams, 1979. A Slice of Life Film in Super-8, by Bill Creston and Barbara Rosenthal. Rosenthal, nude and nine months pregnant, is reading from her Journal while Creston shoots some film tests.


What is this issue really about? What is meant by “versus” — might there be instances where Process and Product can overlap or be one and the same? How can we more precisely frame this debate?

Can the Process of Creating Art Be Said to Be a Creation Itself?

Can You Be Making Art Even If You Aren’t Making Anything?

Can Creators Be Considered Creative If They Don’t Create a Creation?

Is Process a Life-Event or an Art-Event?

Is the Act of Creation the Same or Equal to the Creation Itself?  (What is the Value Scale Upon Which to Compare Them?)

Is a Product Only a Result of a Process or Is a Process Only a Means to a Product?

Is a Product Necessary at All / Can a Process Be As If a Product ?

Is It Necessary to Produce an Artwork (Sacred Object) to Be Producing Art?

Must There Be an Artifact for Artmaking to Have Taken Place?

Paul Lamarre and Melissa P. Wolf, EIDIA Manifesto


On the whole, I’m from the camp that believes a Sacred Object is the ultimate raison d’être for any Process. But perhaps from that one last vantage on my above list, I could argue, though with some misgivings, “No.” But I would probably cite ephemeral things, maybe music or slight of hand. I define Art as a Vehicle of communication between the universe, the soul and psyche of the artist, and those of the viewer. Such Process Artists as can be that are very rare. Most are rote, repetitive, obvious and off-putting. Process Art implies that a certain procedure is (usually rigidly) followed, and what results is what is the Art, which Process Artists consider secondary to the Process. One artist who does transcend the norms of Process Art because his specific projects do achieve the universal connection that makes for Art is Tehching Hsieh. And there is a partnership that achieves it on an ongoing basis: EIDIA, Paul Lamarre and Melissa P. Wolf, who have spent their conjugal lifetimes showing us a world in real time and circumstance. EIDIA, Everything I Do Is Art. What then is the test for which Process Art is Real Art and which is not?

Let’s ask this first:

Is the Optimal Outcome of Art to Achieve an Emotion in Common, a Feeling in Common, Common Ground, Subliminal Commingling? Is Achieving Such an Outcome of Transmission Via the Symbols of Art an Indication That Such Work is a Work of Art? Let’s postulate “yes” to this double-question. We will bypass considerations such as Depth of Concept vs Puerility, and Good Art vs Bad Art, which we can take up another time.

Anna writes:

            My work…comes about through the notion of “sacred creative action”; that everyone has creative potential, but that most are so ensnared by the everyday needs of job, family, entertainment…, so caught up in the getting and spending…that they never move to creative actions. What IS “sacred” to me is engagement of the individual from viewer to participant in a creative act; it’s more a performative idea. My objective is to move them from passive observer of completed works of art, to participant in a creative act. Rather than from passive observer of a “sacred” image to “sacred act(ion).”

I don’t agree that everyone is born with equal creative potential, or equal potential for any particular thing, but even granted so, I think the distinction between those who make Sacred Objects and those who get ensnared by everyday needs is precisely the difference between those who are Artists and those who are not, whether born or made. For an Artist, adversity is only another color on the palette, tool in the toolbox. Job, family, entertainment, the pressures Anna lists and more, are, no matter how they might plague an Artist, the elements of an Artist’s life and times. Both the macro and the micro are raw materials, not distractions. Every bit of Life feeds into the Creative Unconscious of an Artist. And it’s OK that not everyone be cursed with this blessing. 

Reading Anna further, about the people she seeks to address through her work, I deduce that she believes Art has a mission, and that its mission is to prod Beholders into doing something, into becoming Participants, possibly making Art on their own or engaging in a communal activity. Perhaps on a more metaphysical plane she also means that a Beholder is necessary for the Work of Art to complete itself. Like the tree that falls in the forest needs an ear and brain to cause a sound. Anna and I both see Art as an interface, a communication device, but in different ways. Anna continues: 

The question then is “how to get them to take that/those steps?” Parody…allows me to visualize situations involving creative ACTS that are non-threatening for a “non artist” to consider possible participation. HUMOR…allows me to consider what actions a “normal/non-artist” person might consider themselves being ABLE to take…. Ideas germinate around these parameters…inviting public participation in a parody of existing forms that are usually highly competitive and serious…such as… judgements about what may be considered “high art;” or “divine/sacred images.”

Anna acknowledges High Art and Sacred Images, as I do, but she types them in quotes as if to mockingly say “so called,” meaning that she is contemptuous and dubious of their commonly accepted definitions and values. And it also seems that her directives depict a somewhat captive audience being lured by humor to denigrate the very thing they have expressed a willingness to encounter. I believe such terms as High Art exist because such universal core concepts exist. I believe that however precious many other types of creations are, High Art is a diamond in the goldmine.

Barbara Rosenthal, 1975, in her painting studio at 95 Avenue B, where she lived after paying the fixture fee to Maria Lassnig, an Austrian painter.

Here is where our Philosophies of Art diverge, then reconcile: 


What are the Underlying Suppositions?

Anna Banana supposes that Art, whatever is meant by the term in the minds of those who hear it, is a threatening concept for the general public; that Artists are a breed apart; that Art is made when an Artist convinces a member of the general public of their equality in the field, and of their capability to make Art on their own and just as good. Anna subverts the Process of Artmaking as an endeavor yielding Objet d’Art, whereas I champion the action solely for that purpose. 

Barbara Rosenthal supposes that Art is a symbolic way to reach and commingle with another mind, a way to interface an Artist’s soul and psyche with those of any other human they seek to address by way of Art, or anyone who stumbles upon it alone. Such an Artist would have no assumptions about the Beholder because every willing Viewer would be trusted as a Naif, and the symbols of Art (such as size, balance, etc) are so powerful that any Naif (an open soul with no preconditions) would be reached. The Artist must trust in this or else they would corrupt the integrity of the Artwork by fashioning it to taste or cerebral assumption. Thus, this is the Process of an Artist:

The Artist yields to the trance of Life, and lets subconscious Works of Art bubble unbidden into mind. Any moment of Real Life might reveal a clue from an Emerging Work of Art about what step the Artist is to take next. Thus the Artist is directed by an unborn Sacred Object to midwife the Sacred Object’s birthing of itself. And it is these Sacred Objects by which Artists and Viewers meld their universal human cores.


Does Either or Both the Artwork and/or the Process of Creating and/or Viewing the Artwork, Promote Meaningful Exchange of Innermost Soul and Deepest Psyche Between Artist and Beholder? 

As I’m culling from the 13 films and videos for this birthday screening, I ask myself in light of this discussion: Does this particular selection of our work — in this case all of which are from my own Process-Based video projects and from my work performing in Bill Creston’s films under his direction, live up to the mind-meld I think is necessary for Process to equate or give way to Product? Can there be a perspective from which a Process = Product equation — including the Process of creating a Sacred Object or Artifact rather than only the Artifact itself — be Art as much as I believe the Sacred Object is Art? Could Process and Product ever be like the Matter Energy Exchange — Could one thing ever be just another form of the other?

Several people have said that all my own art is actually Process-Based. When I hear that I sink with chagrin to think that the often decades-long evolution of iterations of many of my Works are of more interest to these thinkers than the Products, which are, after all, the Works of Art I labored over engaging in those very Processes they value. I didn’t do these things, didn’t go through any steps as a discipline or wish, in order to make Process Art. So I sometimes reply “I only went through those steps so the Art could get made.” But some people are more enthralled by the act of creation than in the creation itself. (I try not to extrapolate from this to those who profess religion but trash the planet.) In my practice, the Evolving Artifact signals me to affect it in some way. There is a dialog between the Evolving Work of Art and my inner soul and psyche. The Artwork tells me what to do: what medium it wants to be, what size, words or sounds or light if any, whether to move a shape or color it pink.

The Artwork has its own unseen hand, its own director’s megaphone. The Artwork is a medium between the Artist and the Viewer. The Artwork is the catalyst between the Universe and the Artist and the Viewer. Remember — Process Art implies that a certain procedure is (usually rigidly) followed, and whatever results is what Process Artists call their Art, which they consider secondary to the Process. To me, therefore, Process Art yields dross, leftovers, as its product, no matter how Dada and striking they may turn out, and which I have amused myself to produce in some works such as Dirty Book and Bookmarks, none of which I’d add to my canon of High Art. To me, Processes have no great value except to produce the Product. And that Product is what directs the Process of High Art, not the other way around. 

All 13 films and videos among those being culled for our segments of the birthday program, from among the 160 on Bill Creston’s filmography and mine, contain casual or scripted images of our naked bodies since 1976. Almost all 160 have been publicly released as Video Art. Yet in several cases their footage was recorded as Slices of Life, along with others in which we physically appeared but weren’t nude, and many in which neither of us appeared at all. There is also a subset of another dozen or so videos and films of a more intimate nature that are listed on my videography but never released. These might perhaps be released in the future, depending. But in any case, is any of this work Art? Which of these moving image Slice of Life / Process-Determined works do or do not fit the subconscious communication criteria for Art, and why do I think so? Do these Video Art Products stem from a deep enough place in me as Maker and do they reach a deep enough place in their Viewers?

Bill Creston’s work in film was his primary work, and as such gets an easy pass, but mine in this medium does not. Every one of his works exists on multiple levels of language and pathos and they appeal to everyone’s sense of the absurd. I have fun and take technical pains with this body of work, but I don’t consider it anywhere near my most important. The project I still consider my High Art is the ongoing Surreal to Conceptual Photography Project, which, thankfully, Mitchell Algus Gallery is going to show some of in the fall. I’ve always considered my 130 videos lower on the Artscale. (Most of my Artist’s Books, too, by the way, but we’ll get to that genre another time.) However, as I was getting my thoughts together for this column, Stefan Stux, a gallerist who has shown some of my video work, said to me unrelatedly that he thinks video is the medium of my finest work. Anna’s email came fortuitously, followed by the birthday screening plans, followed by Stefan’s comment confounding my own evaluation of my works. Thus I have been contemplating Life-Reality-Based Process work in this swirling context.

Here’s a list of the particular films and videos with nude footage of me and Bill Creston to be culled and spliced on a reel with similar films by friend-filmmakers for my birthday screening in August. Most of them have rarely been seen. Perhaps I’ll know by my partygoer’s reactions whether they meet the criteria of Art. These are the 13 film and video works we are culling from for our part of the party:

Barbara Rosenthal Contemplates Suicide, BR 2005

Bath, The, BR & BC 1976

Clothes and Books, BR 1989

Haircut, The, BR & BC 1976

Leonard Moltz, Sewing Machine, BC 1977

News to Fit the Family, BR, BC, Ola C, Sena Clara C,1988

Nude Super-8 Dance, BR & BC1990

Ola, A Film by Her Father, BR & BC1979

Open 7 Days a Week, 24 Hours a Day, BC 1976

Pregnancy Dreams, BR & BC 1979

Priming a Wall, BR 1979

Push Me, BR 2010

Push Me Pas de Deux, BR & DJ RoBeat 2011

Of course, not all Artifacts are Art (Not all objects are Sacred). And once we determine that an Artifact or process might be Art, we can then think about whether it be Bad Art, Good Art or High Art. And a related topic: whether or under what circumstances Documentation or Documentaries might be Art. Come to my birthday party! Come roast me into my 70s!

[Ed note: A reminder on reading, first-letter capped expressions denote those she has assigned specific definitions for, which may be found in Rosenthal’s evolving Glossary.] WM 

Barbara Rosenthal

Barbara Rosenthal is an idiosyncratic New York artist/writer/performer/philosopher whose latest book, the novel,  Wish for Amnesia (Deadly Chaps Press, 2017) explores themes of idealism, innocence, esthetics, dimensionality, thought and corruption. She is particularly interested in the intersection of art and life.

WIKIPEDIA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Rosenthal

WEBSITE: http://www.barbararosenthal.org

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