April 27, 2006

Interpellation as Metonymy

As I half-seriously wrote to Tyler Green, in response to his over-zealous attempts at “defining” Dada on his "Modern Art Notes" (http://www.artsjournal.com/man/), “To say that Dada is art about World War I is like saying minimalism is art about cubes.” The tendency of retrospective critiques of art history is to construct “realities” or theories about the “style” or “movement” in question that are generally based on an over-abundance of individual viewpoint, conjecture, “academicism,” innuendo and half-recollected auto-biographical anecdote.

In our reading of Laura Kipnis’s "Repossessing Popular Culture" this week, she paraphrased Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which he goes to great pains to split the origins of Modernism into two oppositional components. On one hand were the original aestheticists, who developed an art of “purity,” where form was the “supreme” content, an art that possessed “autonomy from the concerns of everyday life.” Rising up against this were the “original” avant-gardists, with their brilliant use of “shock” and contestatory manifestoes, seeking to return art to an engagement with the people, to “rebel against the enforced social impotence of art determined by institutional status.”

This break was precipitated by more than war. Marcel Duchamp first exhibited his bicycle wheel as a “readymade” in 1913, before the start of World War I. This simple act of “choice,” Duchamp’s answer to the dreaded “retinal” images of aestheticism, would gain strength through the 20th Century with its engagement of the intellectual realms of “context,” commodity and the institutionalization of art. The Dadaists had implored Duchamp to join them (he lived in Munich for awhile) but he steadfastly refused – always the iconoclast – preferring instead to carve his own niche in the tumultuous “history” of “modernist” art.

But it is the “avant garde” dance with “mass culture” that interests me here. By “taking” the imagery of advertisements and posters, to make a “collage” of existing newspaper and magazine texts, the Cubists and Dadaists created an art that “arrested” the attention of both prole and bourgeois. Raoul Vaneigem, who admits his Dada influences, extends Louis Althusser’s idea of interpellation into a condemnation of this “address” of advertisements that provide individuals the “universal images” with which to “recognize themselves,” effectively becoming “actors” in the “spectacle.” It is this “address” that the original avant-gardists had anticipated and manipulated so well, imbuing their art with an absolute immediacy and recognition that did provide a “social” engagement.

I am proposing that it is this idea of an interpellative address that has become the defining metonymic factor in post-conceptualism. If the “part is made to stand for the whole,” then that element, or part, benefits from the “arresting” confrontation of advertisement. To enable “the subjects” to better “recognize themselves,” this appropriation of a commodified image or object allows the artist to engage the “whole” (avant-gardist “social” potency of politicization) with metonymy (Richard Serra’s “Stop Bush” drawing, Carolee Schneemann’s World Trade Center “jumpers.”)

April 16, 2006

The Privileging of Use, Pt. 2

In The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, Umberto Eco writes of James Joyce's comprehension and depiction of Thomas Aquinas' theories of aesthetics in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

. . . Joyce understood that the Aristotelian and Thomist aesthetics were not at all concerned with the affirmation of the artist's self: the work is an object which expresses its own structural laws and not the person of the author. For this reason, Joyce was convinced that he would not be able to elaborate a theory of the creative process on the basis of Thomist thinking. Scholasticism undoubtedly had a theory of ars, but this did not shed light on the process of poetic creation. Although the idea of ars, as recta ratio factibilium or ratio recta aliquorum faciendorum could be of use to him, Joyce reduces this to a concise formula: "Art . . . . is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end" [p 207]. By adding "for an esthetic end," a precision which is not considered in the medieval formula, he changes the meaning of the old definition, passing from the Greco-Latin idea of "techne-ars" to the modern one of "art" as exclusively "fine arts."

This comparative analysis of “medieval” (Thomist, or Scholasticism) and “modern” art theories by Mr. Eco serves to direct our discussion “back on topic” to the “privileging of use” in defining or delineating works of/as art and/or architecture. Perhaps the extremities of these divergent eras, with their correspondent oppositional premises, would seem obtuse and incompatible. However, the fact remains that there is a distinct “modernity” to the idea of an artwork being defined as “an object which expresses its own structural laws and not the person of the author,” as was originally posited by Aristotle and further elucidated by Aquinas in the 13th Century. Surely there are others besides myself who will note the similarities to Roland Barthes’ seminal essay, "The Death of the Author" and will begin future research for proper dissertation.

The chief reason this excerpt is of interest, and why I bring it to our attention, is twofold; first, how one author’s definition of art, albeit cobbled together from previous definitions, has influenced the “modern” notion of how objects classed as “fine arts” differ from “useful” objects; and, second, how a “close” or deconstructive reading of his words fully illustrates that the play of “meaning” in written language is contingent on the epistemic construction of that “meaning.”

Briefly, the idea of “intelligible matter” that “functions” purely “for an [a]esthetic end” is Joyce’s (and modernity’s) wish fulfillment for an art that could (re)gain equality with an older, tradition of utilitarianism. That this is still a topic for debate over 2,000 years later indicates that there is clearly a reluctance to comprehend the idea of “usefulness” for “fine art” objects. Further still, it does not eliminate the exploration, which has not sufficiently begun on these pages, of the rationale of “use” being the generative criterion for the distinction of “fine” from “useful” arts, as expressed by Ms. Last in her essay, "Function and Field: Demarcating Conceptual Practices".

Last week, Mr. Gagnon wrote that, “The visually literate are free to develop the aesthetic autonomy required to define value, function and utility for themselves.” If one were to bluntly dissect his quote using a “Marxist” critique, one might approach an understanding of our preference for “aesthetic autonomy” based on social and economic class distinctions. Without considering the contradictions inherent in a term like “visually literate,” conflating as it does two distinct modes of “language,” to distinguish the “visually literate” from those less educated surely entangles us in “socio-economic” theories, per se. As we read earlier this semester in James Gaywood’s essay:

[Pierre]Bourdieu’s analysis of the organizing mechanisms perpetuating class hierarchy in society in relation to distinctions of taste is rooted in that most dense site of subjectivity, namely “Art.” Works of art that are “legitimated” by taste distinctions maintain a reproducing system of interrelated economic and cultural capital. This latter, socially oriented value relation is manifested through class-associated qualities of education and habitus that apexes with the intellectual class responsible for the epistemological acknowledgement and overt valorization of that art termed exceptional and of historical importance.

Possibly this represents a concise exposition of the “privileging of use” as a hierarchical determination by the “intellectual class,” perhaps beginning with Joyce and traceable to ancient Greece. A post-colonial “reading” might even bring indictments against these very same Greeks, and medieval monks, as initiating our post-modern downfall and the disintegration of all “meaning” within Western culture with their “architecture” of “Western” dominance in philosophy and, by further implication, epistemology.

To return to Joyce’s quote, and practicing a “closer” read, by investing his “poetic creation” in advance of an “[a]esthetic end” he subliminally introduced the idea of “self” into the “human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter.” This rather remarkable “precision” is also possibly weaker than merely admitting that “sensible or intelligible matter” must provide a “use.” Joyce sets the stage (not alone, of course, since thousands of poets, painters and authors were toiling away at “self-expression” in 1916) for an apologetic reappraisal of the “work” of art. The dominance of “self-expression” in both “fine” and “useful” arts during the 20th Century lead to the creation of “fine arts” and buildings of extreme “self-consciousness,” for example, in the paintings of Jackson Pollock and the architecture of Frank Gehry. The point I am tenaciously addressing here is that our “modern” conception of “self,” which detached us from aesthetics, and our privileging of “use,” both emanate from overarching and ancient theories of art that have ironically established their precedence as the “dominant discourse” of "modernism" and functionalism.

Photograph of Walt Disney Concert Hall courtesy of Richard A. Meade.

April 13, 2006

The Privileging of Use

" . . . conceptualism's redefinition of the territory of the arts threatens not simply architecture's autonomy as it is often defined through the emphasis on objecthood and functionality, but, further still, the logical implication of this boundary shift potentially challenges the 20th Century's priority on function upon which that boundary is often defined. While this situation can be and often is understood as a disciplinary territorial battle, that debate serves largely to mask the premises upon which those territorial lines are drawn. Whereas the question can be what distinguishes the functional from the non-functional arts, or even whether such a distinction can be drawn, the more interesting concern lies around the mechanisms whereby utility is set up - and repressed - as the criterion of evaluation, the content that remains unrecognized and unquestioned."

Nana Last, Function and Field: Demarcating Conceptual Practices

The point that Nana Last raises in the midst of her brilliant essay is the realization that this “territorial battle” between architecture and art is founded on a “given” articulation of functionary privilege. With its “form follows function” mantra, architecture mocks art as “useless” enterprise, tethered to the contemplative and leisurely nature of enjoyment, something hanging in or in front of our homes and buildings. Art, with its own “exceptional” telos of both therapeutic and “social use,” chides architecture as mere necessity grounded in utility, not intellectually engaged, somewhere to hang our paintings or something to decorate.

In the world of contemporary “fine” art it is a foregone assumption that the objects that artists make, whether painting, sculpture or installation, have no “real” function or utility other than their existence as objects made “for the good of themselves as objects of contemplation.” This last phrase comes directly from the Modernist categorization of contemporary works of art which differentiates between utilitarian objects, including those that are ornamented, and objects that seemingly have no “use” other than being contemplated. One could trace this “modern” definition back through Kant (18th Century) and his art theories of “free play” and the engagement of one’s “imagination” and “understanding” with a contemplated object, and further still to the Aristotelian notion of telos and the original distinction of “purpose” as both epistemological foundation and artistic “intention.”

Conceptual art, in addition to placing less emphasis on “form” or the object, sought to regain the idea of “use” within the societal context of human engagement. Conceptualism shifted the focus from the medium used to the concept itself and redefined the relationship of form and content. Conceptual art might be said then to preach a “form follows concept” creed, enabling artists to attempt a “functional” position within society. Conceptualists critiqued the institutions that established the “context” for art and clarified the position of language and photography in the “construction of meaning.” In distilling the “act” as the primary focus of the art making equation, they were able to introduce a discourse about “documentation,” temporality, and memory, encouraging inquiry into the perception of the art “experience.”

All of these innovations do not exclude conceptualism from a thorough and rigorous critique, especially in light of the confusion surrounding post-conceptual practice. One avenue for this investigation, and today’s topic for discussion, is the privileging of use which establishes a criterion for a definition of both art and architecture. As Last writes near the conclusion of her essay:

”This pervasive privileging of function operates by instituting a criterion for judgment – utility – that seems unquestionable. This framework leaves the object, concept, discourse, etc. defined around the construct of use, as though it provided the one criterion in need of fulfillment. Use thus offers itself as an uncontested rationality definitive of the object in question.”

April 7, 2006

The Construction of Posthumous Identity: Curatorial Practice, Pt. 3

The disturbing news that deceased artists Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Gordon Matta-Clark will represent the United States at the 2007 Venice Biennale and the 2006 São Paulo Bienal, respectively, has introduced a distinct possibility that a new “curatorial practice” has been formulated to construct posthumous identities for contemporary artists. To lay a foundation for this discussion, we must first agree that there are, as David Joselit wrote in his Notes on Surface, “two models of identity: one in which subjectivity is immanent to the body, and one in which the architecture of selfhood is imposed from without”(pg. 301). We should further acknowledge that the former model is a modernist construct, having to do with the focus on “self” which reached climactic peaks in the early 20th Century, while the latter model appears to be an assertion of postmodernism, coming from such divergent multiple “fields of knowledge” as psychoanalysis (Lacan), semiotics (Derrida) and post-colonial theory (Said).

I propose a speculation in which Joselit’s essay, which states that postmodern art results in a “visuality in which identity manifests itself as a culturally conditioned play of stereotype,” (pg. 293) further supports my theory that the “deflation” of self in the postmodern era has metastasized into a morbid curatorial construction of posthumous identities.

Understanding that deceased artists have reached the terminus of their artistic output and have no real interaction with their continued posthumous identities is granted. The present topical issue is the apparent curatorial tactic of having Gonzalez-Torres (deceased) represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, an over-determined and institutionalized international context. The decision to include Matta-Clark among the grouping of artists for the São Paulo Bienal is perhaps forgivable, since it does include living artists, but the fact that there is only one dead artist representing the U.S. in the Venice Biennale points suspiciously to the prevailing conditions surrounding this curatorial choice. Nancy Spector was appointed as the U.S. Commissioner for the Venice Biennale and will organize the exhibition, which will include “a new work, made from a drawing by Mr. Gonzalez-Torres but unrealized in his lifetime.” The fact that she also works for the Guggenheim Museum, which mounted a “major” Gonzalez-Torres exhibition in 1995 while he was alive, may be only coincidence, but should we not consider, since there are literally thousands of other worthy artists living and working in this country that could have been selected instead, that there may be a covert curatorial agenda afoot in her selection?

From the U.S. Department of State website (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/64112.htm):

At the request of the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for the Arts convened the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions on March 20. The Committee reviewed proposals received from U.S. curators in response to an open competition for the 2007 Venice Biennale, announced by ECA in early December 2005. FACIE advises ECA on proposals received for official U.S. participation in major international exhibitions. At the meeting, FACIE, which is composed of curators, museum directors, artists and other experts in American contemporary art, also reviewed proposals for the 2006 Dakar Biennale and the 2006 Sao Paulo Bienal.

In addition to the Venice Biennale exhibition, ECA will support a group exhibition at the 2006 Dakar Biennale, organized by Amy Horschak of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, including works by Louis Cameron, Kori Newkirk, William Pope. L, and Senam Okudzeto, and a group exhibition at the 2006 São Paulo Bienal, organized by the curators of the Bienal, including works by Mark Bradford, Dan Graham, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Without further research into the names and occupations of the “curators of the [São Paulo] Bienal” I hesitate to pursue the “institutional connection” further here, but it is notable that Ms. Horschak is from MOMA. One would have to take the lead provided by Hans Haacke to pursue these insidiously labyrinthine threads further. But it is sufficiently distressing to wonder if one’s artistic identity may be constructed still from outside sources and institutional power structures, even after death.

I will close with a quote from Felix Gonzalez-Torres, from an interview he gave to Robert Storr in 1995:

For example, here is something the State Department sent to me in 1989, asking me to submit work to the Art and Embassy Program. It has this wonderful quote from George Bernard Shaw, which says, "Besides torture, art is the most persuasive weapon." And I said I didn't know that the State Department had given up on torture - they're probably not giving up on torture - but they're using both. Anyway, look at this letter, because in case you missed the point they reproduce a Franz Kline which explains very well what they want in this program. It's a very interesting letter, because it's so transparent.

(From http://greg.org/archive/2004/06/11/on_politics_and_art.html)