Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rachel Whiteread: Breaking the Chains of Form and Content

In his essay “The Present Body, the Absent Body, and the Formless,”1 Uros Cvoro provides us with a compelling analysis of Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 public sculpture House. Although it was destroyed only three months after it was constructed, Cvoro argues for its persisting relevance: “The questions that House raised about the articulation of memory as a displacement of past into present, the tracing of absence, and the dialogue between the viewer's body and the materiality of the object remain as pertinent as ever for any serious study of sculpture and memory.”2 Since we take a real interest in both sculpture (as students of art) and memory (as human beings), it would seem dangerously negligent to overlook this landmark work.

Cvoro begins by rightly criticizing “the unquestioned assumption that House either acted as a symbolic substitute for the body of the viewer--an inverted, disrupted body--or represented the absence of the domestic body.”3 As he keenly observes, “the result of such an approach to the work overlooks… the conceptual potential of House to dislocate the oppositions of work/beholder, text/reader, and object/subject.”4 In order to bring the discussion back to the realm of reasonable analysis, Cvoro sets out to “link Whiteread's work to a material operation of sign deferral that contests its very materiality as fixed location and show how it has the capacity to decompose the very coherence of form on which the materiality of House has been thought to depend.”5

Now, Cvoro draws on the work of Bois and Krauss in order to introduce the important notion of the formless, a notion without which we might be left groping in our encounter with more recent approaches to art. As Cvoro explains, “Bois and Krauss detach the trace of the formless from the visual form, thus undermining the proximity of the trace to the form and the possibility of the trace being absorbed by the form. Their point is that if the trace of the formless is independent of the visual form, it will eschew the binary logic of form and content.”6 As my readers are well aware, this binary logic of form and content has tyrannized art theory for far too long. But in introducing the essential notion of the formless, we find ourselves in the happy position of moving beyond this relic of ancient speculation.

But Cvoro is here concerned with House, and he makes skillful use of the previous considerations to open our understanding of the work. Cvoro suggests that

“by using the operations of the trace and the formless as models for our reading of House, we will open the interpretative possibilities of the work to more democratic ways of reading. More specifically, we will be able to eschew the confounding absent/present binary of the body. In short, I will suggest that just as the trace is without a past, and the formless is without a form, House is without a body.”7

With this move, Cvoro can finally declare checkmate against “the reductive humanist perspective” that has hitherto been “brought to bear on House” and that “always returns into the symbolic economy of the body.”8 If House is in fact without a body, then any debate over its status as either inverted body or absent domestic body is rendered meaningless, no matter how well entrenched it may be.

I suggest that my readers review their own past modes of thinking and see if they are not equally infected with the form/content prejudices so prevalent even in this new millennium. I expect that you will be surprised and greatly benefited by the realization that there is indeed a way out of this binary straightjacket, a way that can lead us closer to our elusive quarry, artistic truth.

1-8: Cvoro, Uros, Art Journal, Winter 2002, Vol. 61 Issue 4, pp. 54-64.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Artistic Truth and the Hierarchy Revisited

I must thank reader George of FutureModern for replying to my post concerning a possible hierarchy of the arts. Whereas he was clearly responding to my call for anyone with greater expertise to aid me in my defense of the visual arts, I fear that his arguments have actually served to undermine my own. At the time, I believed I had hit upon a solid defense. Now I am left bewildered.

Before anything, I’d like to address his question as to why one might propose such a hierarchy in the first place. Playing devil’s advocate for such constructions (in reality, I am undecided as to their value), I would make the following argument: Provided that there is one type of thing that we can call “artistic truth”--which might be used analogously to the way we use the term “scientific knowledge” to encapsulate various branches of scientific inquiry--then the hierarchy would be quite helpful in determining how any given art form might be related to it. Think of how the hierarchy of the sciences gives us insight into what constitutes genuine scientific knowledge (physics is a “harder” science than biology, which is a “harder” science than clinical psychology). I would suggest that a hierarchy of the arts could provide the same help in understanding what constitutes genuine artistic truth, provided there is such a thing.

But George argues that my friend’s characterization of painters as “more likely to work from instinct and taste and less likely to call their beliefs into question” is a mere assumption and ought to be disregarded. Now, this is indeed an assumption, and my friend even admitted it was merely a generalization, but I must say that I have often found this to be the case (though perhaps I too, being merely a devotee of the visual arts, am here working more from instinct than knowledge). We are faced with a problem here that wouldn’t necessarily come up in informal conversation. How could we possibly establish this or refute it? Survey results would be based on suspect self-reporting. Surveys of second-hand impressions would be even more suspect. At best, it is a questionable claim. But if it were true, it would play an important role in the discussion. To simply disregard it also undermines my response meant to vindicate the visual arts: that visual artists work more from instinct because they have a sharper and more immediate artistic insight.

George further agues that it is incorrect to call paintings “static” insofar as they represent a record of decisions made over time (and thus, he implies, my friend’s claim that they have a tendency toward superficiality is without foundation). I would have to disagree here in that the experience of a painting is clearly static in a quite important sense (when compared to music and literature especially). Our experience of it takes place in time, but it (the painting) does not change (except when we shift the angle from which we view it, but still the object itself remains the same). There is something apparently superficial about a painting, though I would tie this into the more immediate revelatory nature of the visual arts. The fact that it simply “is what it is” may be painting’s advantage over music and literature, insofar as the experience of either of the latter arts involves a great deal of interpretive mediation, even in the simple mechanics of our experience of the work.

Now, the final point of interest is George’s connection of truth to hiddenness (I presume he has Heidegger’s treatment of the ancient Greek notion of aleitheia in mind here). He writes, “For the sake of simplicity, I won't argue over the ‘truth’ and will assume that if something ‘hidden’ is revealed, it is a truth.” But I find this approach to serve simplicity at the expense of precision. If an 18th Century portrait reveals to the viewer that a certain dress was worn at the time (at least that once), this would, on George's provisional definition, constitute a truth. But this is certainly not what we have in mind when we speak of artistic truth. This is why I feel compelled to reiterate my original argument that the kind of truth uniquely revealed by a work of art lies on the opposite end of the “knowledge spectrum” from the kind of knowledge sought by scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. If this holds, we would expect to find that artists least concerned with these latter kinds of inquiry might be more open to the exploration and “expression” (and I mean this in a heavily qualified sense, and in no way do I mean mere “personal expression”) of artistic truth. How often does a great scientist or philosopher produce great art? I think we rightly suspect (in general) that they would be particularly unlikely to do so (and history supports this supposition).

Now, parallels are commonly drawn between high literature and philosophy, and between art music and mathematics. Visual art is commonly tied to a kind of immediate aesthetic awareness, a “different manner of perceiving” found in a certain sort of person. Although George will object that I’m again relying on common opinions, I believe that my readers will have sufficient backgrounds in the arts (George included, I presume) to see that these connections are not arbitrarily drawn. According to the counterarguments I presented to my friend, all of this suggests precisely the inverted hierarchy I proposed, wherein it is the visual arts that ought to be considered paradigmatic in any discussion of artistic truth.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Material Demands, Intermissions

We've covered so much ground in the last couple weeks that it might be time for some well-measured reflection. I leave you with this profound puzzle:

If a work of art hangs next to its own interpretation (which is common), which has priority? After all, don't many people take a glance at the work, refer to the "explanation", and then make an "informed" decision as to its meaning? If this is so, why not just write an essay instead?

Once you have solved this problem, I'll be sure to supply you with another.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Theory Now" and the Limits of Language

Today, I was alerted to the existence of a blog apparently patterned directly after my own, the so-called "Cameron Boyd's Theory Now." Compare my initial post back in October 2005 to his initial December 2005 post. It now pains me to think that I took such a long hiatus while Professor Boyd produced so much work. Nevertheless, as I have already mentioned, this period involved a life-changing meditation on Aesthetics which I can hardly be said to regret. In the end, I'm sure that Professor Boyd and I would agree that, when we are concerned with theory, format is of no importance. It is the substance which we are both after. Thus, in a gesture of good will, I would like to use today's post as an opportunity to discuss some of his recent ideas (though it will lead us on a temporary detour from the visual arts).

Back in May, Boyd provided us with a compelling discussion of the linguistic radicalism of Death Cab for Cutie's "Different Names for the Same Things." He reminds us that singer Benjamin Gibbard is nothing other than a "a post-structuralist trapped in an 'alt-rock' limbo," bringing us face-to-face with the disorienting conflict between genre and individual, convention and identity. While it may at first strike us as a simple pop tune, "Different Names for the Same Things," upon repeated listenings, forces us to confront the very limitations of language and thought. As Boyd explains, "The post-structural understanding of language contends that 'meaning' is never fully present in any one concept, or word, and in fact is 'infinitely deferred.' This 'deferral' exposes a limitless 'excess' of meanings, 'different names,' or signifiers, for the same 'things,' or signifieds."

It is no coincidence that Benjamin Gibbard chooses pop as the vehicle for the shattering of a naive linguistic realism. Can we think of anything more ordinary and obvious than the popular song? Caught up in the familiarity of our everyday speech act situations, we are prone to interpret pop lyrics as harmless puzzles, the frivolous products of drug-induced delirium and lower-than-average intelligence. Gibbard exploits precisely this kind of underdetermined hermeneutic posture so typical of the popular audience to effect a reversal of any such interpretive presuppositions.

Professor Boyd turns our attention to Gibbard's "Crooked Teeth," the following lines in particular:

I’m a war of head versus heart and it’s always this way
my head is weak and my heart always speaks before I know what it will say

I leave you with his stunning observations:

"The 'head' stands in for the 'presence,' the conscious self-awareness of one’s authenticity; the 'heart,' as its polar opposite, 'speaks' through actions motivated by the impulse of instinct, often prior to knowing or control. The 'recording artist' inhabits a darkness of 'invisibility,' at once 'here' through the audible recorded sound, yet 'absent' from our space. This dual nature is part of the 'magic' of recorded music, as its 'existence' is based on our memory of the discontinuous notes, one after another, in a narrative of melody. So it is that, as uneasy inhabitant of a 'vehicle' called Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard accepts the limits of his 'pop' language with charming angst, to craft his 'deferrals' of identity as a testament to the 'pop songwriter' as the binary opposites of the 'presence' of performance and the 'absence' of the recorded art."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ape Artists and the Paradoxical Photography of Michael Snow

In an article for Frieze, Andrew Dodds takes up the issue of the ape artists of the 50’s. He points out that their success had much to do with the prevailing aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism, the style by which he characterizes their work. He also points to the problem in interpreting such works: “The emphasis on immediacy and directness of action dissuaded an aesthetic reading and enhanced the ‘animalistic’ and performative elements apparent in all the paintings.” But he is skeptical of any claim that, say, Congo should be credited for Composition on buff paper in the same way one might credit Jackson Pollock for Number 8. Of 384 paintings produced by Congo, apparently only 40 or 50 were selected for exhibition. And who selected them? Congo’s handler Desmond Morris, unsurprisingly. Dodds reminds us, “as with Ham, the first chimpanzee launched into space in the 1960s, we know the ape was not at the controls.” This is naturally a great relief for the world of art.

Nevertheless, these considerations cannot help but bring to mind the role of the photographer vis a vis the objects of photography. Is the photographer in essence a kind of Desmond Morris, merely selecting from pre-existing aesthetic phenomena? In other words, should photographers, to be accurate, follow Morris’ practice and assign authorial credit to the non-human sources of the images?

Fortunately, Michael Snow provides at least one example of a photographer who transcends the passive point-and-click of everyday photography. Jean Arnaud, in an article for October explains, "He fills his work with paradoxes related to photographic presence-absence and plays on the verisimilitude of illusion… Using subterfuge, he goes beyond the haptic dimension of vision; his work stands between seeing and touching. With Snow, you have to touch in order to see.”1 Arnaud focuses on a work entitled Imposition in which two figures are photographed in the same position, once clothed and once nude. These images are superimposed over each other and the images of a living room containing a couch and an empty living room. In this way, “he concretizes the old fantasy regarding the ubiquity of a time traveler; the narration glides in a multiple moment, and a strange curvature is established between the simultaneousness and succession of different planes.”2 The image is turned on its side so that the viewer must tilt his or her head to view the image right-side-up. A pane of glass in front of the photograph reflects the viewer’s own tilted head which appears to imitate the tilted heads of the figures in the image. As Arnaud explains,

These artifices insert past and present into fiction, and Snow plays on the binocular quality of vision. He creates the illusion of continuous action between a diegetic past and the viewer’s present within the diaphanous space that brings them together. In this deepened moment, the artist exploits the expressive resources of the stereoscopic “tunnel,” and presents a photographic space that can be divided virtually ad infinitum: a temporality of the developing momentdefines Imposition. In the piece, relief and illusion work together to offer the strange experience in which the fictional characters and the viewer share a duration. It is the artist’s intention that the latter continue to be aware of the distinction between appearance and apparition; the space-time experience of this plastic space is paradoxical, for the viewer-actor is integrated into and in between an imaginary space, one that is timeless and arrested and that takes the viewer’s own movements in time into consideration.3

How could we possibly accuse Snow of a merely passive photography? Unlike tourists stealing snapshots of the Statue of Liberty, Snow transcends the haptic dimension of vision and establishes strange curvatures between the simultaneousness and succession of different planes. While a teenager snapping photos of her friends merely produces transient records of the banal, Snow manages to create “the illusion of continuous action between a diegetic past and the viewer’s present within the diaphanous space that brings them together.”4 Finally, whereas a well-framed portrait of a family reunion might preserve a welcome memory for future nostalgia, the works of Michael Snow are “true tools for investigating the real, which is also considered imaginary.” His photographs “determine a singular contact between the fiction of a work-duration and a viewer who experiences himself as a being-in-duration.”5 To my knowledge, no one has ever done anything of the kind with a cellphone camera.

1-5 Arnaud, Jean. “Touching to See,” October 114, pp. 5-16.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Dada and the Ailing Vision of Contemporary Art

I visited the Museum of Modern Art yesterday where I saw a rather interesting exhibit devoted to the Dada movement. It reminded one of the vibrancy and excitement of this and other early 20th Century movements in which the artists became theorists and strove to challenge prevailing conceptions of art through the presentation of some relatively unified vision. Of course, with Dada, there is also a great deal of humor. One of the pieces on display was a replica of Duchamp’s famous “assisted readymade” Fountain. As many of you know, he submitted this work pseudonymously to an organization he helped run to test its claim that it would accept anything for exhibition. When it was rejected, Duchamp resigned in protest. The rationale behind the board’s decision? It was merely a piece of plumbing and not a work of art.

[The joke seems lost on Juan Antonio Ramirez who, in his Duchamp, Love and Death, Even, interprets Fountain as a sexually ambiguous piece, neither masculine nor feminine but bisexual. It is masculine insofar as it is a male urinal, feminine insofar as it is "a receptacle for liquid effusions of different kinds: showers, natural waterfalls, perfumes, etc."1 I'm not making this up.]

After being immersed in the visionary and often hilarious work and theory of Dada, I moved on to an exhibit entitled “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection”. One of the first pieces I saw was a large checkerboard pattern of alternating colors painted by Sean Scully (this is not the one, but very similar). In anticipation of the obvious question, “Why this?” the accompanying plaque explained that Scully did realize the battle for abstraction had already been won but simply wanted to continue it in a “more relaxed, more open, and more confident” manner. This piece, in my mind, managed to demonstrate why, now that the abstraction battle has been won, we ought to have a celebratory drink and move on to new ideas.

The first piece in this exhibit that I found particularly interesting was a sculpture entitled Horsefly. I was disappointed, however, to learn from the accompanying text that in this work sculptor Martin Puryear was interested in “mediating between a feeling of massiveness and fragility to reach a point of extreme vulnerability” I discovered another intriguing work, Susana Solano’s In Search of a Landscape No. 1. Again, I was stung by the discovery of the artist’s vision: “In my life I hardly differentiate the space used from the fleeting places, my own objects from those not mine, other people’s thoughts from my own.” She hardly differentiates her works and thoughts from those of other people? Why does it seem that contemporary art often involves this kind of renunciation of thought?

Gone is the rhetorical courage and sweeping vision of the early 20th Century. How is it that reading the Dada manifestos can manage to breathe such life into works that were already interesting in their own right but the explanations for the two sculptures above (and this is no isolated incident) serve only to deflate the impact of the work? If there is no real vision behind a work it is much better left unexplained. That way, at least it has the chance to succeed aesthetically. But I fear that secular art stripped of such vision could never rise above the level of mere design, doomed to be swallowed up by mass culture without any coherent protest.

1 Ramirez, Juan. Duchamp, Love and Death, Even, Reaktion Books Ltd, p. 59

Saturday, June 17, 2006

To Be Jackson Pollock or Warren Beatty?: Art vs. Pleasure

Friday night, I became engaged in a conversation about what made for the best life. As you might expect, I claimed that the best life was the life of the artist, the creative life in which one gives birth to countless children of the mind and soul. This, I argued, would provide a kind of fulfillment and joy that could only truly be understood by one capable of these things. Being no artist myself, I added that second to this life was the one devoted to the study and experience of art in which one is at least brought ever closer to the truth exhibited in the great works.

My conversation partner disagreed with all of this. He put the problem in this way: would it be more desirable to be Warren Beatty or Jackson Pollock? His position was that a person like Pollock actually yearned for a life in which his every physical desire could be fulfilled but, unable to achieve this, gave external form to these desires as a mere substitute. Warren Beatty, the seducer, stood as the true model for his work. I countered that Beatty had never actually done anything, even if his life was filled with pleasure, and that we would be much worse off as a society if we were all just Beattys. He agreed with this latter point but argued that it is only we who benefit and not the artist, who creates these things we appreciate precisely out of unhappiness.

As I see it, provided his arguments are correct, then we would be quite unwise to look to works of art for any kind of truth or profundity. After all, they would be mere images the model for which exists in our very presence. Why study Pollock’s work when you can go directly to the source, read about Warren Beatty, and imitate him as far as possible? The only possible answer could be that you too are unable to achieve that kind of happiness and must engage with the products of unhappiness in order to make this situation more bearable.

First of all, I have my doubts about whether Warren Beatty is happy to begin with. His pleasures are entirely dependent upon other people (I’m speaking of the hypothetical Beatty of our argument here, as I know very little about him) and his accomplishments fade as quickly as they are made. Second, this dependence, in my mind, indicates that Beatty may indeed be more of an imitator than the artist. Is it a coincidence that his livelihood is the very art of imitation? Finally, it seems like the true artist would experience a much more unified life as a whole. Every action in the life of an artist potentially builds toward a common goal, the body of creative work. Accomplishments along the way are not only pleasurable in themselves but also add to the ever-building joy of the freely and independently productive life.

Given these considerations, who would not choose to be Jackson Pollock, at least if it were that or Beatty?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Lichtenstein, the Division of the Subject, and the Royal Academy’s “Mistake”

I was fortunate to have come across an article written by Columbia’s Dr. Graham Bader in the current issue of the Oxford Art Journal. Entitled “Donald’s Numbness”, it raises a number of concerns that we would be unwise to ignore. The subject is what is reputed to be Lichtenstein’s first “pop” work, Look Mickey. To the unobservant eye, this deceptively simple piece is merely a glorified comic strip panel, notable more for its unexpected subject (for a work of art) than its fathomless depths of meaning. If you too fell into this interpretive trap, then I urge you to read on.

First of all, Bader alerts us to the fact that Look Mickey represents the first example of “painting as an act permeated by textuality—and that through this permeation effects a negation of precisely the integrated bodily experience that Lichtenstein, following Sherman, had understood to be the essence of aesthetic activity.”1 Bader explains,

“However big Donald feels his catch to be, he apparently senses nothing of the yanks at his own backside. This fact, all but ignored in discussions of the painting, is the very engine of its narrative. Donald is an explicitly divided subject, all sensory experience on one end and, literally, numbness on the other (and, visually, all depth and all flatness – for Donald's face is by far the painting's most spatially illusionistic element, while his caught jacket, merged with the schematic waves behind it, emphatically one of its flattest). Indeed, Donald is a portrait of precisely the separation of sight and feeling, vision and touch… What divides vision and touch in Look Mickey, what marks this shift between them, is text: the words that Donald (and Lichtenstein) introduces to the scene, and which the duck's pole-cum-brush passes through before snagging his own back end.”2

If these words brought to mind the objectivist ambitions of Gerhard Merz, then, I assure you, you are not alone. Doesn’t Merz' attempt to present the object free of all interpretation parallel the aspect of this divided subject that is here described as numb, seeing but unfeeling? I myself was left to wonder if Look Mickey could not represent a kind of historical bridge between the twin dragons of Romanticism and this last century’s Abstract Expressionism on the one side and the ethos of Minimalism and Death-of-the-Subject-ism on the other. Was it Lichtenstein’s uncompromising stance that in our world of mass culture we cannot choose one or the other (passionate subjectivity or detached objectivism) but must rather surrender to our fate as eternally divided between the two, both ever-present but never-mingling? At this point, I had not yet paid sufficient attention to another fascinating aspect of the work. Bader writes,

“Donald's words in the painting take looking as their explicit subject and, within this, foreground the necessary slippage between the iconic and symbolic functions of both word and image. In ‘look’ as in ‘hooked’, we see Donald's double-o's hovering as parts of words and as visual echoes of their speaker's own two eyes, as elements to be both seen and read (and that themselves, we could say, both speak and see). Just as Donald's spoken words animate the sudden numbness of their speaker, then, so they blur the boundaries between looking and seeing, and conflate the organs of vision with the symbols of writing.”3

To watch the boundaries between looking and seeing utterly dissolve is certainly a disorienting experience. But these are the consequences of the polarity mentioned above. When such an abyss divides perception from percept, we can have no reliable means for predicting the manifold paradoxes that might arise. And herein lies Lichtenstein’s unique insight, that this image which at first appears so ordinary can reveal such unsettling polarizations. Do we not consider our own lives, beliefs, and feelings to be similarly ordinary and everyday? But in the experience of Look Mickey, we are forced to confront a question that is not without its particular terrors: If even Donald Duck has fallen prey to such thoroughgoing fragmentation, what’s to become of me? And this indeterminate realization too will elicit both the fiery sting of revulsion and the icy anesthetic of disillusionment. As Bader reminds us, “it is precisely this tension—between heightened sensation and absolute numbness, bodily exuberance and the deadening of sensory experience—that animates Look Mickey.”4 Through introspection, we might each discover this very duality within ourselves.

I would hate to leave my readers on such a dark note. For this reason, and for others as well, I would like to direct your attention to a recent article in the CBC News. It turns out that when sculptor David Hensel sent a sculpture of a laughing head to the Royal Academy of Art for a summer competition, the base meant to support it ended up being mistaken for a second submission. The judges rejected the sculpture in favor of the base. Even now that the facts of the case have been revealed, it sounds as if they intend to keep the base for display. Hensel is reportedly still hopeful they’ll choose the sculpture instead.

Personally, I applaud the Royal Academy for maintaining their original decision. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, one so venerable as Eva Hesse (who was discussed in a recent post here) sought to create art that wasn’t “art”. As she said in a 1968 exhibition statement, "I wanted to get to nonart, nonconnotive, nonanthropomorphic, nongeometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point.” We would be very shortsighted if we didn’t see the rationale behind the Royal Academy’s decision. Could we possibly imagine anything more representative of nonart, nonconnotivity, and nonanthropomorphicism than a base that was never intended as an artwork in the first place? Furthermore, this was no ordinary base, but was one crafted by a sculptor. And in this act of creation, we witness the very death of intention. Crafted originally for mere utility, as a thing subservient to Art, the Royal Academy has liberated it from the bonds of tradition and so-called “common sense”, placing it upon the throne once reserved for its master. I urge my British readers to visit the exhibit and experience this historical event for themselves.

1 Bader, Graham. “Donald’s Numbness”, Oxford Art Journal 2006 29(1):93-113
2-4 Ibid.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Hiroshi Sugimoto and the Overcoming of Tautology

Today I'd like to take a look at the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto through the lens of a recent Artforum review by Carol Armstrong, professor of art at Princeton University. Before reading on, take a look at some of his work at the Robert Klein Gallery website. Rather interesting, if you ask me. But let's ask Professor Armstrong instead:

"These photographs do not freeze the living moment or capture life; like mummies, they are monuments to the already dead and to the eternity of death. Manatee, 1999, is a beautiful photograph, but the most living thing in it is the light that streams through glass and embalmed water onto silver emulsion. The manatees it depicts may be "real," as Sugimoto asserts, but the reality they materialize is not that of life, for they appear never to have been alive in the first place. Theirs is not the "that-has-been" of past livingness or the future anteriority of death about which Barthes wrote so poignantly. Theirs is rather the evermore of the always-was, the eternal presentness of the tomb that is shared by painted portraits and stone sculptures alike. The materiality of Sugimoto's photographs is very evidently photographic, yet in the matter of time, they have no specificity of medium."

I admit that my reaction to this photograph before reading these words had been somewhat different. I had taken the manatees to be in a state of stasis, but one within time, a liminal time, however, drawn toward the surface of the eternal through the immaterial illumination of an otherworldly sun. I must thank Professor Armstrong for correcting this impression, based, as it was, upon an unfamiliarity with Sugimoto's work. I had mistakenly assumed that the manatees were poised directly between their past livingness and the future anteriority of a death that, like the sun in the photograph, stands beyond the world they'd come to know. A novice in matters Sugimoto, I had failed to take account of the following considerations:

"Why do I like the sublime seas and the snow-white screens so much? Well, precisely because they are so very perverse in their feats of photographic unfeasibility. Which is to say, not because they are so very beautiful, which they are, and not because they were so very hard to do, which they were, but because their emptying photography of the photographic is so very contrary in the way it ends up showing what makes a photograph a photograph."

None of this had occured to me, I must hesitantly admit. I dare say I'd considered them within the boundaries of photographic feasability. Furthermore, I had entirely failed to notice that they had emptied photography of the photographic, a point which one must surely understand in order to perceive that the temporal character of those manatees exhibited the evermore of the always-was. If I had never had the great fortune to stumble across this analysis, I may never have been compelled to reconsider what does make a photograph a photograph.

If you recall my earlier discussion about a possible hierarchy of the arts, I must add that my friend had placed photography as the lowest of the static visual arts, calling it the most passive, propagandistic, and superficial of all. I think an artist such as Sugimoto reveals the error in these arguments as he has clearly gone beyond some kind of mere point-and-click. His photographs are certainly compositions in every sense of the word and serve to challenge the sharp distinction between photography and painting. After reading Professor Armstrong's review, however, I have also been led to wonder whether they do not also challenge the internal line between photography and photography. In dividing temporality between past and future on the one hand and the evermore of the always-was on the other, do they not also point to a dissolution of the tautology "photography is photography"? Do they not call into question all statements of identity?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Food vs. Art

Reader Jim_3655 e-mailed me the following question:

"mr. silverthorne, how can you say we should start up a discussion about art writing? isn't it just like food writing? whatever the writer thinks?"

It would be worthwhile to look into this question since it ultimately leads to the greater question: Is there something like truth in art, or is it all just a matter of taste? Let's take a look at an excerpt from a recent New York Times review of Cafe' d'Alsace in Manhattan written by Frank Bruni. The first line refers to an appetizer:

"The tender cubes of potato and melted cheese formed an ideal partnership, with or without the fervent orange and fugitive clove in the brew beside them. And this terrific dish kept company with many other winners: a goat cheese tart as sumptuous on the inside and flaky on the outside as you could wish it to be; a plump, moist wedge of fresh salmon smoked to order and surrounded by dark lentils…"

Now let's compare it to an excerpt from Joseph R. Wolin's Time Out New York write-up for an Eva Hesse exhibit:'

"Sans II hangs on the wall in five parts, reassembled from museum collections around the world. The35-foot-long piece must once have once caught the light effervescently, but now its resin and fiberglass surface appears clouded with age; its individual units range in color from light beer to caramel, according to their histories of storage and display. The long, double row of boxes comes straight from Donald Judd, but Hesse’s boxes defy uniformity. Their edges crumple like pastry crusts and their sagging forms embody vulnerability. Hesse disrupted the impersonal, serial repetition of Minimalism by invoking randomness and chance. In doing so, she helped topple the dominance of Minimalism in the art world of her day…"

There are in fact some similarities. Both describe the sensory qualities of the experience and both aim to use evocative language. However, the food review stops there. As for the art write-up, we hear more strongly evaluative language. The boxes "defy uniformity". Their forms "embody vulnerability". The artist "disrupted the impersonal, social repetition of Minimalism". The implication is that whereas the food merely provides pleasure, the artwork somehow acts. That appetizer sounds appealing, but once you've finished it, all you have are your memories of the experience. Eva Hesse's sculptures, on the other hand, "changed the shape of contemporary art," or so the subtitle of the article tells us.

Let's compare the respective descriptions of the chef and the artist. Bruni explains that Cafe' d'Alsace is "the creation of Simon Oren, who knows a thing or two about successful brasseries. Refusing to cede the city to gnocchi and gnudi, Mr. Oren has made a career of colonizing needy neighborhoods with the likes of steak frites and crème brûlee." The chef does show a certain kind of defiance, and doubtless the existence of his restaurants add to the choices for Manhattan diners. But we never hear anything along the lines of Wolin's final reflection on Hesse:

"It is tempting to cast Hesse in the role of feminist artist, softening the sharp edges of masculine Minimalism, tempering it with handcrafted technique and lived experience. But this denies the rigor of her investigation and the authority of her results. Ultimately, Hesse interests us for the very reasons her story might not translate to Hollywood: Her work remains complicated, profound and provocative in ways that resist resolution."

Hesse's "investigation" and authoritative results are described as profound and provocative. Clearly, Wolin means to imply that she has investigated more than the superficial sensory qualities of sculpture (in a way analagous to what we would find in the creation of food). Rather, these qualities serve a greater purpose, the transformation of the audience through its experience of the work.

Wolin tells us these things, but why should we take his word for it? This brings us to a final interesting comparison. Food writing such as Bruni's serves to describe the sensations experienced in eating a certain dish, but does not necessarily alter our own experience when we get around to trying it for ourselves. We will either like the tastes described or not, regardless of Bruni's palate. Wolin's article, on the other hand, could well serve to shape the evaluative aspect of our experience of the artwork described. After reading his article, we go in with the idea that we are experiencing something influential, profound, and provocative. Whether we find the work beautiful or not, we might see it as meaningful, and articles such as Wolin's could create or at least reinforce this assumption.

Finally, there is the more or less factual issue of Hesse's influence on contemporary art. We must note that before we have accepted that art is intrinscially valuable, it wouldn't interest us in the least how someone such as Hesse might have changed its shape. We must be careful to distinguish claims that someone has subverted such-and-such-ism and radically rethought this-other-ism from claims that this same person's work is profound. Something analogous to the former is true of anything, from water's "defiant reorganization" of fire to a kid's "subversion" of the expression "cool" through the use of, say, "bombastic". Everything affects its context, of course, but sometimes it seems, when people are speaking of art, that this in itself is supposed to represent something profound, and profound certainly implies some connection with truth.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Hierarchy of the Arts?

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine about whether the arts could be organized into a hierarchy. He not only believed that they could, but also believed he knew the correct ordering and its justification. He placed the static visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) at the bottom. Above that was art film. Above that was art music. At the top, he placed literature. His reasons were as follows: Most people believe that art reveals some kind of truth. As a result, they are prone to trust that artists base their work on insight and understanding that goes beyond that of the average person. It would seem, then, that a correct hierarchy of the arts would not be based on their inherent potential (this friend of mine did not necessarily think that visual art lacked the possibility of standing on par with literature) but rather on the level of knowledge and understanding of the respective artists. He believed that artists working in the static visual arts tended to work from instinct and taste, and that they were least likely to call their own beliefs into question. Thus, you would often hear them explaining how art shakes the masses from their assumptions, but not how the painter continually challenges his or her own ideas. Furthermore, he felt that paintings had a tendency toward superficiality because they are still images, fixed in time (though, again, this was only a tendency.) For the sake of brevity, I'll skip to his ideas on literature. He believed that great writers were more generally well read than other artists and that their goals tended to revolve around the improvement of their own ideas more than that of the "masses". Furthermore, he felt that literature of its nature tended to demand greater complexity of thought and execution. Finally, he felt that of all the art forms, literature was the least likely to become propaganda. As for art film and art music, they stood somewhere in between these descriptions. [It should be noted that he left all popular forms out of account and placed them together beneath static visual art that aimed to be art. The popular forms include popular music, blockbusters, and pulp fiction like Dan Brown. They had no internal hierarchy, so far as he was concerned].

Before giving my response, I must point out that my interests are primarily in the visual arts and I cannot write with equal confidence about the others. This means, first, that I was not at all happy to have them placed squarely at the bottom of his hierarchy (if such hierarchies are even possible). Second, I will have to come to their defense without being able to sufficiently humble the others. Perhaps some of you could aid me in the effort if you happen to have more general expertise.

I must admit that there was something convincing about his arguments. However, it is generally believed that art aims to reveal the kind of thing that goes beyond the boundaries of language and knowledge (of the ordinary kind, anyway). What this suggested to me was that perhaps his entire hierarchy was upside down. We can all agree that, in general, scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers probably have a greater level of knowledge than artists. However, we do not therefore conclude that they create the greatest art. In fact, artists will often disdain their kinds of knowledge as lacking the kind of insight that is properly called artistic. Could it be that, in fact, the further a type of artist is from scientists and philosophers, the greater their artistic insight? In other words, the fact that literature has more in common with these pursuits may actually work against it. Perhaps visual artists are less likely to seek out knowledge of all kinds precisely because their artistic insight is that much sharper. Perhaps what my friend called the superficial nature of paintings is merely a theoretician's misapprehension of their more directly revelatory nature.

My friend was not altogether satisfied with my response and held to his theory, telling me that based on my premises I should have concluded that the popular arts were the highest. However, I would simply exclude them altogether. I still maintain that his order is upside down and that, insofar as Art is concerned, the static visual arts are the most revelatory and the closest to artistic truth.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Objectivity, Gerhard Merz, and the Return of “Image, Truth, Art”

As my many readers will have noticed, it has been quite some time since my last installment. During this period, I have immersed myself entirely in reflection on the nature, scope, and meaning of Aesthetics. Fortune has shined on me and I have come away with a share of what was once called “wisdom”. In our time, of course, this quaint notion has been subsumed under the more important category of “expertise”. Terminology aside, it is now possible for me to resume my work here, in the hope that, together, we may resuscitate meaningful dialogue concerning the value and future of Art.

After such a lengthy meditation on Aesthetics, you can imagine my surprise when I ran across a blurb for a 1997 exhibit written by Professor Gudrun Inboden, curator of the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, in which he refers to Kasimir Malewitsch’ description of aesthetics as that “deceitful sentimental concept”. In fact, we learn that at this exhibit, German “archi-painter” Gerhard Merz had made it his very objective to “surmount” aesthetics. Here is Professor Inboden’s explanation:

“The art of Gerhard Merz represents a quest for the premises of art which can be objectified. The artist places them under the concept of "ARCHI-PAINTING", with which he performs a critique of the tradition of his trade and especially of modern art. Merz criticizes the aesthetics of modern art which places the subject at the centre of attention; after a meticulous reflection on modern art, he formulates the ‘objectified’ law of "measure, form and light", which is always immanent to art in that it is its presupposition. In Venedig, the modern ‘topos’ of the sublime – which is given as a "filled void" – meets with the corrective of the "real void". The German pavilion contains a concentration of this century’s political and aesthetic spirit, which must be temporarily evacuated every two years. The space of Gerhard Merz is not at all disconcerting; rather, it is delineated in a precise geometrical manner, suggesting in this context a Becketian "vacuum". In its luminosity, this space leaves no possibility for the observer to interpret, showing instead only that which is objectively visible in his work. Through a formal reference to the "Architektona" works by Kasimir Malewitsch which were shown at the 1924 edition of the Venice Biennale, Venedig underscores the artistic ethos of Gerhard Merz: that is, how he succeeds in surmounting aesthetics, that "deceitful sentimental concept" as Malewitsch called it.”

We must salute Merz’ bold attempt to show “only that which is objectively visible in his work”, turning art back in on itself and revealing to us the “real void”. After all, it has often been noted that the subject has too long been regarded as central to aesthetic theory. I assume this is precisely why Malewitsch rejects the very notion of aesthetics as deceitful and sentimental. At long last, Merz presents us with a luminosity that excludes all interpretation, that does away with everything subjective. I am tempted to suggest that no contemporary artist could afford to employ any other luminosity, provided it is the truth that one seeks.

But Professor Inboden does not tell the whole story of Gerhard Merz. Fortunately, art writer and independent curator James D. Campbell, in an essay written for Philadelphia's Lawrence Olivier Gallery, opens our eyes to another facet of Merz' work that illuminates our understanding of his unique objectivism. We are told that Merz "operates under the aegis of Mnemosyne, the muse of memory and recollective appropriation”. This should come as no surprise, given his devotion to the objectified. But let’s look more closely at Campbell’s helpful explanation:

“[Merz] reopens the text of memory for us- one very different from what we might anticipate. His species of 'memory' is fundamentally different from the voluntary, quotidian memory we all know. It is the memory which reveals, in its very dislocation, the true vision of something past as it vaults temporal strata and inverts its own significations…

…In terms of the actual subjective experience of the work, it is clear that an installation institutes a zone of indetermination that is unthematized and perhaps unthematizable. Where the remembering of his viewers begins and ends is impossible to judge or predict with any certainty. It is precisely because it is unthematized that this zone has such singular efficacy. A context is created so laden with remembering- with the measured aura and immeasurable atmosphere of memory -that the viewer finds himself in the buried archive of Mnemosyne that Merz is excavating. That archive becomes our archive, just as much as it is Merz's, his memories become our memories, Mnemosyne our Muse as much as his. This is, to use an overworked but apt superlative, his specific genius.”

When we first encountered the idea, we were surely suspicious of the possibility of an experience in which interpretation is made impossible, regardless of the luminosity involved. But Mr. Campbell has provided the clue to understanding this unexpected reality. Overwhelmed by remembering, we are unable to make any concrete determination regarding the unthematized zone in which our subjectivity is compelled to capitulate to the uninterpreted Object. Art becomes its own subject (in more than one sense of the term). Furthermore, our subjectivity dissolves into that of Gerhard Merz as his memories become ours. If ever one could be excused for applying the term “genius”, the work of Merz surely demands its employment.

Merz the Memorious. Merz the Archi-painter. Merz, the surmounter of Aesthetics. Gerhard Merz, the midwife of the Objective. Right when I had come to believe I had found an impervious aesthetic theory, my encounter with his work (as described by Professor Inboden and Mr. Campbell) literally shook me to the core. Could it be that art can only reveal the truth precisely when it makes interpretation impossible?

[If you'd like to take a look at another work by Merz, you could visit this site. His apparent debt to fascist architecture raises more questions than it answers, so I hope it gives each of you pause for thought.]