December 15, 2006

Reflections on the Playground

As Logocentric Playground comes to a close, and before I make some general comments here on my experiences and the knowledge gained during the installation, I should provide a brief background on the history and purpose of the work:

My art practice has evolved from original text written on panels, using my particular “text-bisection process” and resulting in a dense veil of fragmented sentences, works that addressed the difficulties of meaning in this system of representation that we call language. Around a year ago I began to write a proposal for an installation of blackboard panels to be presented as “inactive” and open to public interaction, this interaction to take the form of “deciphering” my writing with provided chalk. The reason that I called these proposed blackboard panels “inactive” was that only with the hands-on action of a site-visitor would the interactive process actually become a literal "questioning" of the fragility of meaning in the written word.

One impression I have gained is that there were two distinct possibilities for the interactions, not the types of actions, i.e., deciphering, writing, drawing, etc. but the essential directions a visitor interaction could conceivably take:

1) There is a perceived sense (wall text, museum press release, website) that I am engaging in a conversational discourse if I present sentences on the blackboards that are bisected with reduced recognition, then there is a game afoot, with the realization that there is a possible “understanding,” deciphering or recognition to be gained. There is also the possibility of misrecognition or an ignorance of the original text. These interactions have to do with understanding that something is written there and acquiescing to the perceived importance of what is written, and comprehending that the artist is wishing the interaction to be directed along his own lines of inquiry or his “preferred” direction.

2) However, there is the equally real possibility, with actual proven instances, that the original words are of secondary importance to a visitor, that the words are ignored or overlooked (in some cases literally over-written) to promote and further personal agendas, said agendas taking the form of personal thoughts, philosophical musings, “tagging” or signatures for recognition, even interpersonal conversations between individuals.

This means that there are two avenues to traverse [one of which alludes to “logocentricism,” not only the questionable belief that ideas exist outside of the words we use to express them, but the logocentricism of the “author’s” original bisected text]. If the artist’s intention is recognized as the essential purpose, then the deciphering of the bisected words takes on paramount importance. However, if one chose to ignore, avoid, or not yield to the artist’s intended direction then one could privilege one’s own interaction (and text) over the artist’s.

Mystery of Interaction
The additions or contributions to the panels by visitors became quite mysterious to me as the installation progressed. Clearly this was because rarely was I able to “witness” the act of people writing – the interactions only appeared when I made a site-visit. I am undecided whether this should remain a mystery to me, as well as to “repeat visitors.” There is the obvious possibility of including a technological aspect to the installation, i.e., closed-circuit video or stop-action cameras. Yet perhaps the intrusion of technology would shift the emphasis from the original conception of the work to the performances of individual visitors, which seems to be a very real desire, as articulated by the . . .

Power of the Platform
By providing a “stage” or a platform upon which unknown individuals can engage in a culturally sanctioned “conversation,” I have entered the provocative “arena of public discourse.” If one decides not to play my “game” of deciphering text then it is tantamount to declaring that one’s “choices” are going to be more important than the platform. The fact that the platform has been erected in respect of the artist’s intentions bears little or no importance in this “power-play” as the sequencing of power yields to the “public” stranger. This stranger’s persona is quite practically an unknown individual who has an invitation to “collaborate” with the artist on this platform, but the opportunity to collaborate is obviously not enough to counteract the personal desire for power.

This particular four-week installation at the Katzen made me acutely aware of an approximate ten-day incubation period for the “peak” of the discourse. Within three days, I had positive, clear contributions that began to “fill-in” missing fragments of words. This occurred quickly but soon the panels became inexorably consumed with visitors' catch phrases, self-promotions or ironic humor. By the end of the second week there was an accumulation of detritus, a networking of lines, scribbles, and other writing, that began to obscure the original bisected texts. If I continue the project, whether with these particular panels or new ones, I am certain that I will determine the most effective duration to optimize the discourse.

I am concerned with the immediacy of a discourse between artist, viewer and the artwork, a discourse that is essentially self-aware, self-critical and self-reflective about the process of viewing and “interacting,” whether passively or actively, with the work. I am making work that comes from a conceptual position, i.e., concept over object. This installation was conceived as an expansion of the artwork from a "precious object" to a "living" thing, to focus the visitor's attention on where art actually resides - in the discourse itself instead of "in" the object.

December 7, 2006

Authority of Historicity

It is unfortunate that we had to end our discussion yesterday, as I was just beginning to enjoy what would surely have become our long critique of Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom. Suzi Gablik’s essay is problematic for a couple of reasons that I want to quickly mention here, and I expect that I may not use this particular reading in future Theory NOW coursework as the scant insights of the piece are plagued by her insistent premise regarding a moral imperative that she assigns to the postmodern artist.

Gablik’s position is at least partially based on her misrepresentation of Aristotelian principles regarding ethics, as evidenced by the following:

To us, productivity means efficiency of output – works of art coming off an ethically blank assembly line like automobiles – but not the individual’s potential for creating himself, for becoming, as Aristotle proposed, an excellent person.(1)

In my own humble and academic understanding of Aristotle’s practical intellect I recall a definite separation of doing and making, as we taught “doing is to human conduct, as making is to an object.” This established that in Aristotelian art theory the activity of making art was concerned only with the “good” of the work, not the “good” of mankind. So those assembly line autos are rightly non-ethical as determined by Aristotle and this principle was continued at least through the Medieval period by Aquinas as recta ratio factibilium, i.e., “the right [straight] making [reason] of the thing to be made.”(2)

Clearly Gablik has used this principle incorrectly to suggest that postmodern artists ought to make art that is ethical to set an “example of high spiritual devotion” and to give “one’s mode of life an ethical stamp.”(3) Gablik’s confused supposition may reflect her personal hope that we cast-off the “anything goes” character of the current pluralistic modus operandi but it muddies the true issue of pluralism which is its utter disregard for art history and its discourse as the validating “higher authority.”

Let us first begin with one good point, however. I will agree that our present “unlimited freedom of expression” has weakened the “importance of what is expressed,” and that the “overavailability of options actually lowers the degree of innovation possible.”(4) This makes perfect sense, in that without an authoritative comprehension of what has been previously validated as substantive art, any and all artworks apparently are granted a “pass” under the “freedom of expression” rule, albeit temporarily. Gablik then puts forth an indefensible suggestion that with the “accommodation” of these expressions the “plausibility of tradition collapses” and, further, this “disintegration is not merely of this or that aesthetic assumption, but of the overall pattern of meaning.”(5) Remarkably, she appears to believe that art still has a “meaning-giving” role, and this essay was written after the “linguistic turn” of the poststructuralists quite successfully evaporated all definitive signifieds, in art as well as in that other system of representation - language. That this is a postmodern trope ought to be quite evident to any student of visual art of the last twenty years.

Continuing this line of thought, Gablik derides the “contingency” of modernism as “mere self-expression.”(6) Clement Greenberg’s work would disprove that assumption, given that the modernist painter was chiefly charged with critical awareness of the medium and its possible uses. Greenberg felt that the “essence” of modernism was the “use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself.”(6) Certainly self-expression was allowed but the theoretical thrust of “literality” was an adherence to “medium-specificity” as an aesthetic directive, an “authority higher” than that of the individual painter. Yet it “needed the accumulation over decades of a good deal of individual achievement to reveal the self-critical tendency of modernist painting.”(7)

I am only suggesting that Gablik revisit recent art history to recognize that it is that “higher authority” that she wishes for the postmodern artist to follow. The history of art and the constant discourse about art has an as yet unrealized potential to enable a full reassessment of the pluralist and myriad styles, possibly even leveling the field to a few essential trajectories that may prove to have significant historicity. If in Greenberg’s view “modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art,”(8) then postmodernist art, or certainly one or two of its movements, would have a lucid thread that can be traced forward from that initial modernist narrative.

I am not saying that history is infallible – only that it has infinite and enduring duration over stylistics as well as individuals.


1. Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, New York, 1984, 82.

2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 57, 3, c, replies to Obj. 1-3, translation: V. J. Bourke.

3. Op. cit: 82.

4. Op. cit: 75.

5. Op. cit: 76.

6. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting”, Art and Literature, No. 4, Spring 1965, 193.

7. Ibid., 200.

8. Ibid., 201.