May 13, 2008

End of Art Theory (as if)

Administrator’s Note: Andrej Ujhazy is a BFA major at Corcoran College of Art + Design. He sent me the following essay via email and I post it here with my reply.

Dear Mark,

I am opting to once again form my essay into that of an email. Looking beyond the novelty of it, I find it to be a more accurate form of communication for my intentions. The voice is unambiguously mine, and the audience is also quite specific. Quite simply, it's easier for me to write to you without the anxiety of implying any expertise that I am not sure I have achieved yet that I find to be implicit in a more academic essay--missing the point is more ok in an email. Or less embarrassing, maybe.

I'm not in a panic, as I have my thoughts, and I know where I want to go with them. However, there is an unavoidable sense of urgency as well, a sense that inaction now will not be good. The situation I am finding myself in may perhaps serve as a metaphor of sorts for the circumstances of "post conceptual art":

"It's getting late, everything's set, what to do?"

The task at hand as outlined in the course goals is to "...decide whether [Post-Conceptualist] art practice is adequate for our time, or if it represents only a metonymic avant garde."

As I understand semiotic theory, post structuralism and other "decentralizing" theories, the notion that one thing is more adequate than another [or that it's 'only' metonymic] is not valid anymore, as meaning is essentially an arbitrary practice, so a potentially stubborn advocate of a specific reading could in fact influence the future of the text through mere diligence and volume. Or rather that there isn't a single ideology, thus negating any notion of accuracy in defining what accounts for a single 'time.' This is largely the problem I have with seriously pursuing any academic inquiry.

Your exchange with Ms.Heartney being an example for the problematic situation of theory (and therefore post conceptual art that relies upon it.) Given that both you and Ms.Heartney are established as operating within the "Art World" both interpretations of Prince are therefore 'accurate,' and any further discourse over the disagreement is irrelevant to the work being discussed; both are now part of the catalog. Both interpretations imbue it with meaning, albeit a different one. Isn't this precisely the nature of what Post Structural theory implies? A multiplicity of valid readings, each corresponding to a separate, though not necessarily independent ideology. And if this is the case, how do I determine the relative value. The entirety of the situation is impossible to understand, and anything outside would be presumption and negate the effort entirely by again being arbitrary.

I don't want to announce a crisis, as I don't think I'm allowed to given my still growing/uneven appetite for theory, but it all does leave me nervous sensing some potential for where further ontological inquiry may lead. A state where theory isn't so much critical, but more an empty exercise; a whimsical refining of an unconscious system--it seems at times in critiques, talking about art, and in classroom settings that exercising the discourse is more important than what is actually being said. As I understand semiotics, the theory seems to reinforce this very idea of privileging mode against content, or rather destabilizing content through the mode. In other words it's important to create any meaning, regardless of what it is, because there exists no exact or effective way to inform anyone as to what it ought to be.

And this issue as before overshadows any concern I may have over the state of art. In writing this, I am again torn between fulfilling what I know to be very clear instructions--reporting on what I know in a certain format--and actually acting on what it is that I know, that is that reporting what I know is inherently problematic if not impossible. I'm stuck in a gesture that is a bit of a paradox, or not a paradox, but just a bad place to be/I shot myself in the foot.

I know that this paper is itself subject to itself and that anything I stand my weight behind will thusly be reinforced, and so if I stand my weight behind a proposition that undermines my stance, where do I land?

Speaking with my father this morning, I explained my dilemma, to which he replied that this is a part of the humanities, where there is no clear authority, where the governing body isn't married to a constant as with 'positivist' and 'empirical' fields [I don't like these words on a personal note]. It's another way of saying it, but we've talked about this in class before, and the point I may have missed making then that I repeat now is that given that this is the case, that there is no foundation to hold on to when writing about subjective views, that this is a responsibility that I am incapable of fulfilling: if this can be good why not that just because, too.

I don't know when I know what I am talking about makes sense and when it doesn't. I practice no taste because that is the least 'aggressive' stance to have. Or it is aggressive but once removed from the sort of territorial 'aesthetically pleasing' sentiments that only 'push' art in sheer number, not in quality, if quality exists. No taste, the non position, this is a place I like to be, a place where I am neither on any side nor against any side, on both and on neither. It makes sense.

What doesn't make any sense to me is the critical stance, the one that asserts and prescribes one idea superior to another with some certainty. The idea of a better future is irresponsible and naive, and anything that works to invent a potentiality that hasn't an organ for evaluating or even inferring the outcome prior to is not anything to bother with. If I can't know what is best or even just better, how do I continue assuming I do?

I have been thinking of an allegorical story/an extended metaphor for some time now that I would think would be appropriate:

Consider a train station. You are waiting. There is an old arcade machine nearby with a single life remaining. You may choose to go and play this game to the best of your ability, not knowing much about the 'rules.' You may or may not do well with the apparent scoring mechanism within the game. However that only matters if you use the scoring mechanism to be that by which you gauge success. If instead you decide that it isn't the score but rather the speed of completion that is important, the game changes. Then you may also consider that you could invent an infinite number of other scenarios by which to gauge the success to the point of dismissing "the game" altogether and rather investigating the machine that the game is being produced by, and the level of insight gained to be the value of success. And the entire time, there is the thought that this game is not actually with any purpose because it is only a distraction while waiting for the train.

This is what bothers me. Even critical discourse is still not beyond being marginalized by the vastness of existence. This venture to discover what is happening, what is important, if it can be important, all of this can be negated by a simple switch of attention, a shift of focus to another entirely valid field of inquiry, that is instead of figuring out if Martin Creed is or is not a challenging post conceptual artist, I could simply enjoy his work, or enjoy a sandwich, and nothing would be wrong or the matter with that.

It is not that I don't enjoy reading theory, and thinking theory, and researching theory more. It's that beyond its own activity, I see no value to its practice, no way to know its value. And I don't even know if I enjoy it. I think I do, but it's not so clear often enough as everything else.


Dear Andrej,

It truly gives me great pleasure to post your “essay/email” so that we may engage a bit longer in a discursive search for “meaning” and the use of criticality in consideration of art. Moreover, your grasp of semiotics, poststructuralism and the fragility of language inspire my response to you; certainly, given the current popular view of Postmodernism, your respect for these issues is evident and encouraging.

My use of metonymy with respect to postconceptualism was to show that (some) postconceptualists’ (P-Cons) have a fondness for adapting stylistic elements of conceptual art to “stand-in” for its more substantive theories. The role of metonymy as “master trope” is a suspicious substitution or at the very least a weaker analogy particularly with regard to previous conceptual art theory. Its usage by the P-Cons signals their problematic relationship to historicity and provokes a critical reassessment of their work. My intention was to question the validity of a “stylistic” conceptualism or as Joseph Kosuth calls it, “SCA.”(1) This critique is meant to bring our focus to bear on the methodology of the P-Cons and their “studied ignorance.” And although “academic,” I would hesitate to equate it with an “empty exercise.”

It may indeed be true in our “de-centered,” postmodernist world that “meaning” is an “arbitrary practice.” Further still, the privileging of one “reading” over another is suspect within the rigors of poststructuralist critique. However, the essence of what one attempts within the confines of a limited purvey of language is precisely the issue, as it is after all the attempt that matters.

If we acknowledge that ultimate “meaning” might be infinitely deferred, in any case, within that premise resides an active discursivity that allows criticality to open. That is to say, that our discourse is not so much an exegesis as a “practice” within the “system of representation” of language. This is but one of the remarkably liberating values of poststructuralism that continue to infuse Po-Mo with workable theories with which we valiantly can contradict and counter-attack the narrow-minded vapidity of traditionalists, nihilists and Neo-Cons.

As for my previous “Art World” disagreement with Ms. Heartney, it may better serve us to project our differing viewpoints as a formula. For instance, her view of Richard Prince’s Girlfriends series saw it as (either) “social commentary or sleaze.”(2) My position is “we might view it as both”(3). Thus, our “interpretations” represented, respectively, as formulaic propositions - “A or B may/may not=Prince” and “A+B may/may not=Prince” - are cast not as opposing views but actually have a connatural relationship. This relationship has to do with the pursuit of “meaning” through discourse and essentially reflects “a multiplicity of valid readings,” which perhaps does not help us with “relative value” but may whet our appetite for its apprehension.

Yes, all this discursivity may seem like an “empty exercise” but at the risk of sounding facetious it certainly keeps one busy. Obviously, there is no point-of-view that cannot be “disproved” through linguistic dexterity or rhetoric but these discussions breathe life into our intellectual capacity for art and at least reveal the possibility of gaining some knowledge of it.

Ideas like the destabilization of content are “very” postconceptual and “valid” for P-Con pursuit, and the relationship of poststructuralism to the visual arts opens up unfathomable possibilities (at least to me). Which makes your comment that it is “important to create any meaning, regardless of what it is, because there exists no exact or effective way to inform anyone as to what it ought to be” extremely relevant to our continual discussion of “meaning.” The creation of any meaning arrives at the service of the “constructed-ness” of the language we use, hence the crisis which you hesitate to announce. Indeed, it is a crisis - of mode pitted against content, methodologies versus ideologies. We are left with the negligence of history, a mistrust of meta-languages and meta-narratives, forever chasing distinctions and definitions yet shackled to a fragile articulation through writing and speech.

You represent your position as one of “no taste, the non position.” Obviously then, you are in opposition to this “territorial” aestheticism to which you refer. This is not unique but just another assertion of “one idea superior to another with some certainty.” Forgive my linguistic jousting but I am only trying to make it clear(er) to you that your own keen criticality has already opened an intellectual investigation into the nature of art theory – through its relation to language, art history and all this endless discourse about it.

I have been carrying around an essay by Victor Burgin all semester, not knowing when I might reference it, and that day has come. Your essay encourages me that you have the mind with which to pursue these theoretical issues. However, I urge you to avoid the ubiquitous “jaded-ness” that often ingratiates itself with your generation; for instance, in comparing Martin Creed to a “culinary enjoyment” (“aesthetically” pleasing) you express a decidedly “pre-modernist” approach in comparative judgments. It was then that I thought of the Burgin essay, which I cite at length below, as he provides us with a lucid and thoroughly wrought personification of the various modernisms:

“But if the expression ‘post-modernism’ is to take on anything other more than such a merely tautological meaning then we have to look beyond the self-defined boundaries of the ‘art world’ – Art – to the more general cultural/political/intellectual epistemological upheavals of the post-war period. If, for expository convenience, and in the manner of allegory, we were to ‘personify’ a figure of ‘pre-modernism’ then it would be characterized by the self-knowing, punctual, subject of humanism, ‘expressing’ itself, and/or its world (a world simply there, as ‘reality’) via a transparent language. ‘Modernism’ came in with the social, political, and technological revolutions of the early twentieth century and is to be characterized by an existentially uneasy subject speaking of a world of ‘relativity’ and ‘uncertainty’ while uncomfortably aware of the conventional nature of language. The ‘post-modernist’ subject must live with the fact that not only are its languages ‘arbitrary’ but it is itself an ‘effect of language’, a precipitate of the very symbolic order of which the humanist subject supposed itself to be the master. ‘Must live with’, but nevertheless may live ‘as if’ its conditions were other than it is; may live ‘as if’ its condition were other than it is; may live ‘as if’ the grand narrative(4) of humanist history, ‘the greatest story ever told’, were not yet, long ago, over – over at the turn of the century, with Marx, Freud, and Saussure; over with nuclear weaponry and micro-chip technology; over, in the second half of the twentieth century, with the ever-increasing political consciousness of women and the ‘third world’.”(5)



1. Wollen, Peter. “Global Conceptualism and North American Art” in Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, New York, 1999, 79.

2. Heartney, Eleanor. “The Strategist,” Art in America, March 2008, 151.

3. “Prince of Thieves”.

4. Lyotard, Jean-Francois. La Condition Postmoderne, Les Editions de Minuit, 1979.

5. Burgin, Victor. “The Absence of Presence: Conceptualism and Postmodernisms” in The End of Art Theory, Great Britain, 1986, 49.

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