Monday, December 11, 2006

Gilles Deleuze: Theorist as Artist

Sometimes, the pursuit of theory can seem a cold and unrewarding endeavor. Given the amount of time I spend experiencing and reflecting upon visual art, the very fact that I will always be a mere observer and commentator can begin to fill me with a sense of futility and superfluousness. What do I, the theorist, add to the already rich landscape of actual artworks? Granted, these are only passing moods from which I am thankfully spared for most of the time. After all, my readers are already familiar with my defense of and devotion to the value of art theory. But nevertheless, I am on these rare occasions gripped with a sense of loss that I will never myself become an artist.

You can only imagine my relief upon my recent discovery of an article by Valentine Moulard in a 2004 issue of Philosophy Today in which she holds up a third possibility, the possibility of the theorist as artist. The central thesis of her article is as follows:

To understand Deleuze's "transcendental empiricism" (perhaps the only thought which truly effects the overthrowing, and not simply the reversal of Platonism), we must read Deleuze as a modern artist.1

In other words, not only does Moulard suggest that Deleuze, even as theorist, is himself a modern artist, but that it is only within this framework that we could possibly understand his work. That is, his status as artist is the condition for the possibility of his theory's validity. If Plato, firmly engrasped by a logocentric rationalism, held that it is the theorist's noble duty to banish the artist as inimical to the proper development of reason, Deleuze, the anti-Platonist, performatively renders philosophy as a theoretic-aesthetic discourse fundamentally opposed to the rational erasure of difference, an opposition oriented by a recognition and commitment to the creative and fundamental role of the unconscious in every discourse.

Now, as Deleuze writes in Cinema 2, when we experience a work of art,

we constitute a sheet of transformation which invents a kind of continuity or transversal communication between several sheets, and weaves a network of non-localizable relations between them. In this way we extract non-chronological time. We draw out a sheet which, across all the others, seizes and prolongs the trajectory of points, the evolution of regions. This is evidently a task which runs the risk of failure: sometimes we only form generalities which retain mere resemblances... But it is possible for the work of art to succeed in inventing these paradoxical and hallucinatory sheets whose property is to be at once a past and always to come.2

This point is of the greatest import, as Moulard reminds us:

This transversal sheet of transformation which inaugurates non-chronological time and that the work of art has the power to constitute is none other than the famous third type of repetition which, in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze identifies as the ungrounding, the untimely or the order of Aion, and which, from the point of view of memory or the past, he associates with death and destruction; but from the point of view of the future, it coincides with creation. In this profoundly counter-intuitive third synthesis of time lies the key to the radical novelty and uniqueness of Deleuze's transcendentalism. The important point is this: the third synthesis is the Deleuzian transcendental. I argue that it is there that his thought becomes a work of art, there that the concept becomes indistinguishable from the affect and the percept, that non-sense comes up to the surface so as at once dislocate and constitute sense.3

As a theorist, it is easy at times to simply believe that sense is opposed to non-sense. This supposed insight lies at the center of any bifurcating rationality. Fortunately, Deleuze reminds us of the profound dependence of sense on the more fundamental, unconscious, and immanent non-sense. And, as Moulard helpfully points out, within the Deleuzian framework, even mastery

is rooted in some unconscious, involuntary, non-subjective-in a word, purely immanent-repetition which, as the affirmation of difference, necessitates the creation of lines of flight from within the sterile paradoxes of modernity.4

For Moulard, theory crosses over into the realm of art precisely when "it creates concepts as affects, as percepts, as the sensible out of which thought and subjectivity are generated."5 I cannot help but think of Marion's conception of the icon as always surpassing our attempts to delimit, determine, and cognize its meaning, a surpassing that speaks of the overflowing and unlimited that both constitutes art and stands parallel to the purely immanent in Deleuze.

I am personally tired of the sterile paradoxes of modernity, as I'm sure my readers will understand. I have written on the topic elsewhere, in terms of bifurcating rationality and the theoretical straightjacket of form and content. Little did I know, however, that even I, as theorist, could potentially engage in a fundamentally artistic project whose purpose is to performatively lift us out of this tedious vortex of logocentrism. I wish to reflect further upon these matters, hold myself to account for the disappointing fact that my concepts have so far failed to be either affects or percepts, and make a concerted effort in the future to recognize at a deep level the role of non-sense in simultaneously dislocating and constituting sense.

1. Moulard, Valentine, Philosophy Today, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 288-298, Fall 2004, 288-289
2. Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2: L’image-temps (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), 162, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 123.
3. Moulard, Valentine, Philosophy Today, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 288-298, Fall 2004, 290
4. Ibid, 293
5. Ibid, 292

Monday, December 04, 2006

TAR ART RAT and the Fragility of Interpretive Equilibrium

The other day I was visiting a friend of mine, an art collector living in Manhattan. I am often surprised by the variety of works he has acquired. On this last visit, I noticed a pair of paintings that managed to strike my interest. I asked him where he'd found them. Apparently they had been hanging in a small exhibition in Seattle in 2005, the work of a local artist known as TAR ART RAT. According to my friend, this artist had founded an organization called the T.A.R. Foundation for the Continuation of Humanity. I will admit that our conversation has influenced the following interpretations.

I discovered a series of works by said artist on the Saatchi Gallery website. He provides the following explanation of his work:

I just like to make stuff. The 'stuff' is a direct conscious-collage/bi-product of being alive in these intensely overstimulating and 'troubled' times... Usually manifests as cartoon-like images with human-plight under/overtones.

This simple series of statements, in my opinion, masks a deeper truth about the situation of the artist at this moment in American history, and perhaps history in general. By diminishing and even rejecting the outright interpretation of his work as "art", TAR ART RAT creates a critical aesthetic distance that opens space for his own "direct" method. Reduced to mere "stuff," the materials of his work and the ultimate product of their combination merge into one larger work, a work which he defines as a "bi-product" of his historical situatedness. I am particularly interested in his claim that his work "usually manifests" in a particularly way, a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the artist in creation and a reminder of the socio-processual vitality of art itself, as a concrete expression of broader social functions, aesthetic presuppositions, and what we might call "aesthetic discharge."

If we begin, for purposes of simplicity, from a structuralist standpoint, we might speak of various polarities (whether aesthetic, social, political, personal, linguistic, etc.) as bearing a kind of ontological-electrical relationship. Insofar as art is an unconscious activity, we might see the vital tension of these polarities as giving rise to sudden discharges, expressions of underlying forces that themselves produce further artistic polarities. Insofar as we consider art as a conscious mode of production, on the other hand, we might see the artist as attempting to "solve" these polarities through recourse to what TAR ART RAT has called "conscious-collage," a directed, higher-order structuring of fundamentally unconscious, given stuffs (this term meant to underscore the apparently neutral evaluative significance of cultural materials prior to their being caught up in the process of creation. Of course, we must remember that all cultural materials are always already interpreted, and so the very attribution of neutrality is itself an expression of the situatedness of the artist, who must view the unconscious as raw material only insofar as he or she attempts to bring certain aesthetic presuppositions to bear on the conscious experience of structuration).

Let's focus for the moment on “Nurturenature," a deceptively simple piece. The first element that struck me was the function of the title, which serves to undermine the natural hermeneutic posture one might take to so fragile and sparse a work. We are confronted with very little: three unnaturally conical trees standing on artifical bases constructed from their own roots. One's first impression might be of simple artificiality. The prominent white space and merely suggestive horizon call to mind the utilitarian reserve of an engineer's sketch. And parallel to the fact that the engineer's blueprint only comes to life for the layperson upon noting the label, we here find our interpretative equilibrium disrupted when bringing to mind the explicit reference to nature-nurture, a tension which is both unrelated to the work at hand, and yet somehow reverberates through its understated lines and tensions. Perhaps it is this dichotomy of dependence/independence that TAR ART RAT means to underscore. But we must be careful here, for he would certainly resist the very idea that the artist can "mean" anything, if by this we understand a kind of communicative intention. Rather, it is the work itself, as social-aesthetic process, that gives rise to whatever "meanings" we might be forced to confront in our experience of it.

But for now let us leave these as mere suggestions. I will for the time being call this my first TAR ART RAT installation, as I would like to study his work more closely and see if his organization hasn't produced any writings of which I'm currently unaware. I hope to write more on the subject in the near future.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Notes on Some Possible Future Entries

I have received numerous requests over the past year to introduce my readers to lesser known artists, the kind one would not likely found written up in the major journals of aesthetics, or at least not yet. As the primary task of these writings is to engage with the critical literature on its own terms, I have tried to stay away from venturing out into independent critical musings. Nevertheless, I do believe that it might provide some useful contrast, particularly if any of my readers are interested in my own positions apart from my reactions to the experts. Let me mention, however, that I am in fact no expert and that I hold no graduate degree in art theory. Furthermore, I have never been published in the British Journal of Aesthetics nor any equivalent periodical. Finally, as I am also no artist myself, I am hesitant to put too much weight on my own intuitive responses to genuine works of art. It is worth noting, nevertheless, that I strongly believe that the more we engage in critical reflection on the meaning, function, and possibilities of art in our times, the greater our appreciation of the field will become. And, I would hope, perhaps even the independent arguments of theorists such as myself might someday serve to inspire a younger and more artistically-inclined generation. These are high hopes, but not without an obvious value in maintaining my enthusiasm for my endeavors in writing.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tacita Dean and the Death of Analogue, the Death of our World

'Analogue, it seems, is a description,' the artist writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, 'a description, in fact, of all things I hold dear.'

So begins James Quandt's ArtForum review of Tacita Dean's recent Schaulager retrospective, and so begins my first entry in quite some time. The review reminds those of us in the know and introduces the rest of us to Dean's near religious devotion to the texturally "real," her

adherence to analogue--a precise and palpable "thisness" in a world increasingly dematerializing in a blizzard of pixels.

Dean is not one to be easily fooled by the ease, ready availability, and lowered costs of digital production. She is well aware that these glossy fruits mask a core of deeper superficiality, detexturalization, and even, perhaps, inhumanity. Quandt adeptly sums up the raison d'etre of Dean's defiantly analogue work:

the materiality of the medium seems a bulwark against a fast-advancing future where imagery is insubstantial, endlessly transmutable, there but not there. Dean is no loon or Luddite in her lost-cause allegiance to celluloid. As the poet of imperiled sites, abandoned dwellings, defunct technology, and architectural relics, she is at once an English romantic, an aesthetic descendant of Turner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Michael Powell, and a recalcitrant materialist. She adheres to the concrete and quantifiable even as her artworks often proceed from found objects, chance events, and coincidences, and her films rely on evanescent, unpredictable nature for their mysterious beauty.

Tacita Dean, as you have surely noted, is an artist with integrity. And I would suggest that what undergirds her fascination with "analogue" has everything to do with integrity. The integrity of the real. The integrity of immediate sensation. The integrity of the kind of image that, so long as it is there, it would surely be false to suggest that it is not there.

I have heard arguments put forward in defense of the digital media. These futurists, blissfully unaware of the immediate visceral power of the tactile, have suggested with straight faces that the advent of digital media is a boon for the arts, that it is the first step toward a society in which wealth and status are not the primary indicators of one's success in the arts. They go on, and without so much as cracking a smile, to suggest that the ready availability of digital technologies will translate into a situation in which every young person can explore aesthetic creation and continue to do so unhindered by the overwhelming costs of traditional materials.

I do not deny that this rhetoric has threatened to sway me from time to time. But the work of Tacita Dean has managed to open my eyes to its thinly disguised implications. For, I ask you, would you give up integrity, sensual beauty, and aesthetic depth for the mere "ability" to produce works of far lesser worth? Why, these futurists have already contradicted themselves before they left the gate. But alas, the futurists are correct on one count: their struggle will end in victory. And Tacita Dean more than any living artist has faced this dark truth unflinchingly, with integrity.

I would like to close with Quandt's apt description of the last scenes of Dean's 2006 film Kodak:

Dean’s elegiac intent appears in the film’s finale, in which ruination displaces celebration. Unpeopled, drained of color, shot in steely or matte tones, Kodak’s closing images focus on the abandoned and broken—smashed spools, hanging wires, tangles of crumpled film—as if the factory, now bereft of its true function, had turned into Tarkovsky’s entropic Zone. Dean’s shorthand may seem a bit literal, but the finality of the last blackout is moving: It represents for her not merely the end of her film, but of all film, the end of analogue.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


As my loyal readers have undoubtedly noticed, it has been a while since my last entry. Actually, I am out of town presently and will not be able to return to a regular writing schedule until early August. Good luck until then.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Author or Forger? Sherrie Levine and the Shackles of Innovation

I have received several e-mails challenging my very project: the search for the relation of works of art to artistic truth. I was surprised to find that on a few occasions, the specter of appropriation art was invoked, apparently in the hope that I would reject the artist’s role as author and look elsewhere for an explanation of an artwork’s ontological status. I must admit that appropriation has tempted me to draw this conclusion numerous times before and it was only from fear of its consequences that I resisted. For this reason, I was happy to run across Sherri Irvin’s article in the April 2005 issue of the British Journal of Aesthetics entitled “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art.”

First of all, I should explain my previous position vis a vis appropriation. Let us distinguish (as is conventionally done) between the use of readymades (as with Duchamp’s Fountain) and the creation of appropriation works such as Sherrie Levine’s photographic reproductions of works by Walter Evans. In order to avoid the odious consequences of death-of-the-author-ism, I once simply concluded that the latter kind of appropriation is a form of charlatanism and, at best, second-rate work. In other words, I held that it didn’t really qualify as art at all. But Irvin quickly disabused me of this quaint notion:

“One common-sense reaction to this work would be to deny that it is, in any meaningful sense, Levine’s work and thus to deny that she is, by virtue of making it, an artist. But it’s a bit late for that. The work of the most radical appropriation artists has been accepted as art, and they have been accepted as artists, receiving every form of recognition for which artists and artworks are eligible: Levine has works in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Glenn Brown has been short-listed for the Turner Prize, the appropriation artists have been discussed in Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art and other major art criticism venues, and so on. Moreover, the kind of recognition the artists have received suggests that the art world takes them seriously as the authors of their work. If Brown were not considered responsible for his works, however derivative from Dali and John Martin, what would be the point of considering him for a prestigious award? If Levine were not taken seriously as an author, what would be the point of interviewing her in major art magazines?”1

In my muddled thinking, constrained by the fear that art might turn out to be little more than an empty concept, I had overlooked these undeniable facts. But Irvin does not leave us with an authorless world. Rather, she goes quite far in establishing the surprising claim that even in appropriation (which we must now accept as genuine art), the artist is author. If I were an artist, then if I were to take a photograph of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, it would not be a mere forgery. Indeed, the process by which I produced my work (let’s call it The Persistence of Dali’s Persistence of Memory) would be quite different from that of Dali himself. But these considerations are not sufficient to establish my authorship, as they apply equally to forgery. Irvin solves the puzzle by turning to the appropriation artist’s relationship to the conventional understanding of innovation in art:

“While they have often been seen as challenging or undermining notions of artistic authorship, the appropriation artists in fact accomplished something quite different, wittingly or not. By refusing the demands of originality and innovation that had come to seem criterial for art by the mid-twentieth century, these artists demonstrated that even originality and innovation are expendable: there is nothing in the nature of art or of the artist’s role that obligates the artist to produce innovative works. The demand for originality is an extrinsic pressure directed at the artist by society, rather than a constraint that is internal to the very concept of art. As a result, it is up to the artist to decide whether to acquiesce in this demand or not. By revealing this, far from throwing off the mantle of authorship, these artists have actually reaffirmed the artist’s
ultimate authorial status.”2

From this, we are forced to conclude that The Persistence of Dali’s Persistence of Memory is no work of art at all. I had hypothetically set out to create a generic work of appropriation art and had never considered challenging the indispensability of originality and innovation. Nor had I considered society’s role in forcing these criteria upon the artist from without. But then, I never claimed to actually be an artist. The fact that I apparently cannot even create art hypothetically underscores the wisdom of my reluctance in doing so in reality. Let us leave art to actual artists like Sherrie Levine and rest assured that the artist can still legitimately lay claim to the authorship of his or her work.

1-2: Irvin, Sherri, “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 45, No. 2, April 2005.

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.