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January 30, 2004

On the Air

Shortly before Thanksgiving I resolved myself to get this weblog up and going before the New Year. It was a deadline which various crises—personal and technological—and occupational duties have conspired to delay. But as I continue to massage my templates and finish preparing my feeds and RDF's, and while I continue to fight off a vicious spyware infection, I've been determined to get a legitimate post up before the end of January.

My intention at the outset is for this to be home to my meditations on art, theory and aesthetics (I know, a dirty word). I am a painter (though I haven't painted a thing in over a year and a half—witness the ravages of gainful employment), but I can't imagine this evolving into an online portfolio or anything dedicated primarily to my personal artistic output. Conversely, it will not by any stretch of the imagination become an ecumenical survey of art theory or anything resembling a comprehensive and focused study (neither of which I'd consider myself particularly capable). Rather, I resign myself to the tracking and recording of my fickle intellectual wanderings, subject as much to the pressures of prejudice and accident as to those of sustained critical thought. It is intended as much for myself as it is for the proverbial blank wall in front of me—a personal scratch pad with cascading style sheets.

But, before I finally start offering up the various thoughts I've been gestating for some time (before I get to the business of rehashing what, lacking this stump, I missed the chance to sound off about in 2003), I suppose I'd like to offer an introduction by way of an opening rant and apologia laying out some of my biases and doubts.

In spite of my ostensible focus here, I harbor certain reservations regarding art theory, especially those strong formulations particularly wont to the capitalization of Theory with a T. Nowhere do we find conjecture swallowed as evidence more readily than we do within the domains of art, criticism and theory

I remain skeptical and wary of the easy conflation of theory and practice as well as the conflation of theory with judgment. My current (working) conviction is that any essence worth speaking of in art is to be found in its particularity, whereas the interests of theory demand generality and aesthetic judgment (and I use the term rather uncritically) ought to be established on the post hoc response of the human subject to the particular work.

"Theory-based art," distinguished as it were from conceptual art generally, is a phrase which summons forth for me such distasteful descriptors as "dry", "didactic", "over-determined" and "academic." My aversion here is in part due to the fact that such work often proves thin and over-determined, in part because such jargon often serves as an index for knee-jerk avant-gardism (often surprisingly uncritical). Mostly it's because I've come to realize artists quite often (the key qualifier here) lack the theoretical chops and philosophical background required to enlist theory appropriately and create a compelling construction or response. (I distinguish this from conceptual art in general insofar as the latter does not necessarily rest on some claim to rigorous—that is, not merely thoughtful—analysis.) Why do artists feel obliged to be measured against the claims of a peripheral discourse in which they are for the most part out of their depth?

On his weblog asymptote, Timothy Quigley offers a reflection along these lines. In a critical response to 'I Am an Artist; I Make Beautiful Things: A Credo of Sorts Concerning the New Beauty' by author and critic Curtis White, Quigley diagnoses something he sees as a factor plaguing contemporary art discourse:

I don't want to suggest that White should fully explore elaborate philosophical details in an essay directed toward a larger, non-academic audience. Rather, I would simply like to point out how White's gestural reference to heavily weighted concepts instantiates a more fundamental problem undermining contemporary critical discourse -- what Wittgenstein referred to as "language on a holiday".
It is easy for readers, students, artists, etc. to pick up on the nomenclature used by philosophers and cultural critics. With relatively little exposure, one can begin using terms such as "essentialism", "metaphysics of presence", "deconstruction", and "transcendental signifier", just to name a few of the more obvious examples. One encounters them in college classrooms, galleries, and art journals all the time. But the ratio of understanding to use is low. Why is that the case?
One of the reasons is that there's not enough attention paid to making these concepts clear to one's readers or students. For example, in classrooms across the country, students are often thrown into deep conceptual and linguistic waters before learning how to swim. Too many teachers assume that sloshing around in the writings of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Adorno, and others will provide a sufficient starting point for the novice reader. By immersing themselves in primary texts, students will learn how to forge their own understandings and critical responses.
I claim this approach is misguided and irresponsible. Without both a larger frame of reference and familiarity with an ongoing discourse, including the philosophical background that has shaped the discourse and made certain problems salient, the curious but relatively naive reader of such texts will, at best, acquire a superficial grasp of only the most basic concerns and, at worst, simply add a few more items to their collection of fashionable linguistic accessories. If intellectuals and educators took a bit more time to define concepts and to review, if only briefly, the central arguments in support of, and in opposition to, the theoretical positions encountered in contemporary criticism, readers and students would be much better informed and prepared to use the conceptual and theoretical tools necessary for critical engagement with the cultural world around them.

For a different inflection, I turn to a recent aborted read (which I quit reading some time ago a few chapters in, but still plan to finish off at some point), Social Theories of Art: a Critique by Ian Heywood. In a chapter devoted to Howard Becker's theory of art worlds, Heywood rounds out a discussion on the ethics of the sociological critique of the art world with a more positive formulation of the same disconnect noted above:

Becker also attacks the discourse in which much art criticism, practice and pedagogy have been conducted, and in this he takes it both too seriously and not seriously enough. He takes it too seriously insofar as he does not see that members use concepts—often derived from specific theories—eclectically and practically. He does not recognize that a language which includes philosophically rooted discriminations and notions of transcendence, which he believes threaten the social, may help members to bring about their sometimes extraordinary achievements in the midst of everyday social concerns. In this way he fails to take the sociologically impure discourse of art worlds seriously enough, he does not see its paradoxical achievements (p29).

Take as an example discussions of beauty and sublimity. Must the average artist's notions of beauty and the sublime be articulated in terms of Kant or Burke or Lyotard to be legitimate? I would say, quite emphatically, no. While such formulations may not be viewed as philosophically and analytically rigorous, they remain of value (are perhaps they are thus all the more valuable in the artistic domain). Generally speaking I'm not so certain of the value of so rigorously distinguishing such notoriously unstable concepts, of ever thinking we've pinned them down for good, but that is, equivocation aside, the nature of the beast. (For an example of an interesting but, in my opinion, over-extended analysis of contemporary beauty and sublimity see Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe's "Beauty", which additionally makes me question the purpose or meaning of seriously theorizing "frivolity"—see also his Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime.)

Regardless: as an artist, insofar as these concepts matter to me, it is not so much as a part of a rigorously analytical program as it is a practical matter of feeling, through the movements of creation and response. Beauty and the Sublime need not, for my purposes, be conceived of as inimical opposites, dialectical complements, or modulations and variations of one another—in fact, pursuant to aesthetic sesitivity, I want to suspend the analytic urge to divide what often constitutes for me one and the same nebulous experience.

Should I admit an interest in (or even love for) beauty however, I'd imagine I might be accused in some corners of obeisance to some status quo and an abandonment of criticality (I lack at the moment the appropriate straw men to flesh this out further). But are these really the proper metrics? I might compare this (somewhat awkwardly, I'll admit) to the reaction greeting someone who, faced with a sense of wonder at the miracle of life and creation, affirms a belief in God. The vanguardist might choose to view this person as either victim or fool. The skeptic might dismiss the affirmation as an uncritical "argument from design"—misconstruing something which is not really an argument at all but an honest statement of faith and feeling. The former displays narrow-minded contempt while the latter unfairly applies an improper standard.

None of this is intended to hypostasize the distinction between philosophical and artistic languages or to propose that artists and critics can not or should not philosophize—or, worse even, that critical reflection on art and aesthetics is inappropriate or pointless. It is rather to suggest that certain theories of art which misplace the authority of "theory" itself at the heart of artistic activity are, at the very least, misguided. I'd like to think of this as a statement of resistance to the annexation of art by theory, to the model which continues to view theoretical conceits, method, and contexts, or the theoretical or critical mode as such, as the ultimate arbiter—and source—of artistic and aesthetic legitimacy. Can we really find any satisfaction in that domain of theory which sees some vague (ie, uncritical) notion of "criticality" as such as the true essence of art? In a world in which wall text is normative, artists must reclaim the prerogative to think aesthetically.

And indeed my interests are ultimately bound to the aesthetic, something which I might define provisionally as that portion of our experience of image, text and world alike which is sensuous in the most positive sense of the word, deep in the flesh of feeling and whose objects are those dense and inexhaustible texts which are neither separable from context nor reducible to it, amenable to exegeses but always exceeding description. The aesthetic experience is that mode (or portion) of all thought and feeling to which experience itself is fundamental. It is in fact at the very heart of experience and is what allows one to hear the continuing echoes of "a voice unutterable, and very mournful, but inarticulate, insomuch that it seemed to have come from the Light"—that voice of the Light heard at the birth of the divine Logos. And it is left to us to give that word Flesh.

"On the Air"
Posted by Dan at 03:01 PM


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Posted by: Furniture The Best on February 26, 2006 at 08:44 AM

Referenced in this post:

Asymptote (Timothy Quigley)
Asymptote: Curtis White and Contemporary Art Discourse
Corpus Hermeticum: Poemander
Curtis White
Howard Becker: Art Worlds
Ian Heywood
Ian Heywood: Social Theories of Art: a Critique
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: Beauty
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime