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March 25, 2004

In Defense of Visual Studies

Zeke's Gallery brings to our attention Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies' by Michelle Marder Kamhi [update: see also an older discussion at Artblog.net]. In it, Kamhi's characterization of contemporary art is often on mark, if overgeneralized to a fault and skewed towards the negative (couched as it is in the reactionary language of culture war, presuming to rescue us from a "disturbing though little publicized movement... afoot in American education"). Likewise her call for renewed appreciation for the emotional and cognitive efficacy of art is well received here, as is her apparent desire for aesthetic balance. However, her many otherwise valid points are lost in the rhetorical mire of a crude harangue that takes Visual Culture Studies to task for the various excesses of poststructuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, identity politics, social and political critique, contextual historicism, Conceptual Art, Anti-art, Pop art, readymades, video art, installation art, appropriation, abstraction, fatuous museum wall text and so forth.

(Granted, any project of Visual Culture does take all of this into its broad purview, but this does not necessarily or immediately signal some relativistic flattening of aesthetic distinctions or abandonment of judgment. It represents, rather, the opening up of the discussion beyond narrowly determined categories and the notion that certain categories of images are inherently better than others regardless of relative aesthetic or expressive merit—thus providing a space for true aesthetic judgment as unhindered by rigid a priori categorical values as is reasonably possible. Kamhi, however, would rather we not even discuss such vulgar business and hopes to short-circuit the discussion by way of an appeal to traditional forms and supposedly objective ontological facts that leaves art a slave to categorical logic.)

There is so much to react to here that I find myself getting helplessly carried away with each sentence I read, arguing out in my mind various responses to her flat rejection of just about all modern and postmodern art. I could probably rant incoherently for pages on her rejection of photography as art alone, or on that of abstraction. For the sake of focus, however, and in the hopes of maintaining some semblance of lucidity, I will try to limit my remarks below to reactions to her invocation of the categorical distinctions of 'art' vs. 'non-art' or 'high' vs. 'low' in terms of the range of Visual Culture Studies.

Reading this essay, I couldn't help but recognize a familiar sense of hubristic certainty that I was unable to place until I noticed the full title of the author's book, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, co-authored with Louis Torres. This book, of which the essay in question is undoubtedly an extension or reiteration, represents a monumental effort (539 pages) and by all accounts a superbly researched one (over 150 of those pages are apparently dedicated to footnotes). It is also apparently quite reactionary in tone, self-assuredly anti-modernist and anti-postmodernist, heaving vitriol at anything not resembling mimetic representation (allowing for Romantic notions of expressive intent); indeed a few reviews mention that a better title might have been What Art Isn't. At any rate, and to be perfectly honest, I have no real desire to read it. Mostly I don't think I have either the time or tolerance to read 500-some pages by a pair of authors intolerant enough to declare not only that works by Matisse, Duchamp, Still, Newman, Richter, Sander, Atget, Mapplethorpe, Sherman, Barney (should I continue?) are inferior, but that they are not even art at all. Nonetheless, I mention it because I found an apt encapsulation of my general reaction to Kamhi's rebuke of Visual Studies in this review by Roger Kimball of What Art Is. (Also be sure to read the book's authors' response to Kimball.)

Certainty is a marvelous thing. Not only does it provide a useful carapace against the onslaughts of doubt, but it also does wonders for one's self-confidence. It is perhaps the one mental commodity that everyone, admirers and critics alike, will agree that the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) possessed in abundance. The attitude must be catching, for her disciples tend to be well endowed with certainty as well.
I thought about this when contemplating the title of Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi's book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 2000). As the authors note, the title is "a deliberate inversion" of the title of Tolstoy's didactic manifesto What is Art? Most readers have found Tolstoy's brief for subordinating art to religion and morality sufficiently, not to say crudely, apodictic. But at least he had the delicacy to cast it in the interrogative.
The authors of What Art Is want none of that pusillanimous hesitation. Rand's speculations about art and literature may exhibit some "shortcomings in detail," they tell us. Nevertheless, they argue that "in its fundamental principles" her theory of art is "coherent, substantial, and valid, constituting a major contribution to the literature on the philosophy of art."
The prospect of an aesthetic theory that is not only "coherent" and "substantial" but also "valid" is pretty impressive, not to say intimidating. Of course, "valid" is an equivocal term. It can mean anything from "following necessarily" to merely "sound" or, finally, "compelling." The authors of What Art Is do not specify in what sense they use the word. Several things suggest that they presume a fairly high degree of rigor: their decision to italicize the word, the air of impatient certainty with which their discussion proceeds, and their emphasis on the importance of having "an objective definition" of art. Indeed, it seems that one of the chief things that attracted them to Rand's aesthetic theory was her willingness to provide such a definition. At a time when there is so much bogus art about, they were grateful to find someone who cut through the morass and could tell them—clearly, without any foolish shilly-shallying—that this here is art while that over there just doesn't make the grade. It is nice work if you can get it.
I do not like Andy Warhol or Karen Finley or Robert Mapplethorpe or Marcel Duchamp any more than our authors do. But it is silly to deny that what they produced was art. It just doesn't get us anywhere. This is even true in the case of Duchamp, who intended his Dadaist pranks to undermine the very idea of art. It may be unfortunate that anything can be accorded the status of art in our society. It may token an important spiritual breakdown as well as a massive failure of nerve. But the real issue is not whether a given object or behavior qualifies as art but rather whether it should be regarded as good art. In other words, what we need is not definitional ostracism but informed and robust criticism.

By their own account, Kamhi and Torres consider theirs a common-sense question: is this stuff really art? The 'but is it art?' question, quite common in the popular press, is rather depreciated in critical art discourse. Is this simply an elitist reaction to the specter of 'Philistinism'? I'd argue it's more than that: for my part, I find that the question misses the point. Defining, in hard and fast terms, the immutable nature of art (theory and criticism to that effect notwithstanding) is simply not my primary interest. Specifically, such categorical nominalism doesn't take me where I want to go: I don't care so much what it is (be it 'art' or 'non-art') as I care how it is (that is, in terms of quality and efficacy).

In our contemporary discourse on art then, we've more or less settled on a quaint and mostly useless tautology (be it 'art is what artists do' or any of the various institutional or nominalist theories) as our primary working definition, and we have done so mostly for matters of procedural convenience: what is of interest is how an artwork defines and delimits itself in its own particularity, not some pretense of imperative categorical prescription. Thus when we say that 'art is as art does', or whatever, it is not to uncritically accept whatever crap is being shoveled today as being the equal to masterpieces of centuries past, nor to blithely reject the values of earlier generations, but rather to allow that a work of art exists and to then judge it on its own merits rather than against the rigid formulas of a dubious essentialism.

The issue here is related in many respects (especially in terms of value and judgment in the debates of the 'culture wars') to that of pluralism and relativism in wider political and ethical debates. Liberal tolerance values pluralism for the purposes of free and open dialogue. In rejecting closed, predetermined values, the ideal is to open the discussion as wide as possible; this is not to prohibit judgment, but to minimize prejudgment. Consideration or discussion of something is not, as a matter of course, acceptance or celebration of it (as some conservatives might have it), nor is the exploration of novelty necessarily and in itself the rejection of tradition (though it may open the door to that possibility). Certainly in the extreme this can lead to the rejection of judgment altogether—to relativism—or to knee-jerk radicalism, and (on the flip side) many liberals are no doubt guilty of their own blind dogmatism, but none of this follows necessarily from tolerance of a plurality voices. Indeed, such open engagement is necessary if we are ever to honestly presume to pass judgment. And not only is the presumptive closing of dialogue unhelpful towards the ends of judgment, it is in fact a hindrance to it.

Similarly, in the domain of art and criticism, reproachful rejection of certain things as unworthy of critical consideration merely serves, through prejudgment, to avoid the issue of judgment entirely. If we have a convenient formula or petrified category by which we measure anything that purports to be art, we can declare out of hand anything that doesn't fit to be illegitimate or worthless. If, on the other hand, we wish to truly engage our art, we must extend our inquiry to search out affinities in the wider realm of images.

This is not a matter of dialectically reversing the terms of the debate, but of disavowing them altogether. 'Switching' the terms or otherwise revaluing them is not the way out, as doing so maintains the problematic distinction. Indeed, it is problematic itself insofar as it reifies the divide further, leaning on it for the sake of critical legitimacy. Every time, for example, a work of art transgresses the apparent boundaries of the 'high' and 'low' it is something of a victory for the freedom of the aesthetic over outmoded taxonomies. And yet, every time an artist or critic construes it instead as a victory of the low over the high, that victory is soured as the ossified dialectic returns home to roost once more. My sense is that the sooner we let go our obsession with such classification, the sooner we get around to discussing the art itself. If 'low' art is to have any value beyond its contrariety to the 'high' and, likewise, if 'art' is to have any value beyond the virtue of simply being called 'art', they must be considered without recourse to such tidy categories.

And this brings me back to the very subject of Kamhi's initial flogging—"Visual Culture Studies" and its apparent ignorance of qualitative distinctions. Her opening objection to the treatment of masterpieces of antiquity as being "on par with" common commercial refuse seems initially quite reasonable. She makes the mistake, however, of conflating traditional categorical distinctions with aesthetic judgment. But such conflation is just as common among the advocates of the avant-garde as it is of their detractors—rejecting traditional notions of beauty, for example, the radical mindset often presumes to reject aesthetic judgment tout court—and so Kamhi's formulation does hold some truth, insofar as many advocates of Visual Culture do adopt the extreme position she accuses them of. However, such excesses are not the necessary products of the expanded purview of Visual Culture and are thus not sufficient grounds for its rejection.

If we discuss a Caravaggio in the same breath as a Gucci billboard, it does not necessarily hold that we are denying the status of the former as a masterwork or of the latter as sensationalist trash—we may merely be admitting the obvious, namely that both are images and that our cognitive and perceptual apprehension of both are far more similar than they are different. To treat (taking Kamhi's examples) the Nike of Samothrace or David as phenomenally similar to Barbie and Ken is not necessarily to treat them as qualitatively equivalent.

And this is precisely the broad program manifested in the idea of Visual Culture: we adopt an inclusive notion of the image so as to allow the comparison across media and categories on the basis of phenomenal similarity (rather than to reject such comparisons under the banner of categorical difference). Due to their shared existence as images, perceived as they are through the same cognitive faculties, members of the various categories share far more in common than essentialists like Kamhi would care to admit.

But the essentialist might defend her distinctions on grounds of practicality, as does Kamhi: "In any discussion of this kind, it is of course important to recognize that, although the boundaries between categories of things in reality may not always be clear-cut, identifying prototypical characteristics for each category is nonetheless valid and useful." Should we admit then that such categories are "valid and useful" for the sake of discussion? Absolutely. Discussion would in fact be all but impossible absent such provisionally practical distinction (indeed, under the aegis of Visual Studies we do not abandon distinction at all but rather demand that it be critically considered rather than a prioristically assumed). Should such categories be taken to the point of being ultimate and determining? Hell no. And make no mistake, this is what Kamhi would like—exhaustive and inflexible definition. But to what end? All we gain from such an approach are hypostasized categories based on the supposedly objective ontological basis of technological distinctions (repeating the mistake of the Modern essentialists)—the erstwhile labels of 'art' and 'non-art' that hinder rather than enable legitimate qualitative distinction.

What we need is a developed phenomenology of art and images, not more categorical essentialism. An art theory no longer preoccupied with searching for some chimerical essence of art or a priori categorical distinctions will be all the more able to concentrate on the far more interesting matters of efficacy, quality and aesthetic experience. While I don't claim to possess anything in the way of a proper theory of aesthetic judgment, my suspicion is that aesthetic merit is by no means a matter of fitness to any formal set of rules or logical principles, and that aesthetic judgment—in some sense, taste—is something more akin to the mundane judgment that allows one to assess the quality and meaning of ordinary experience, the touchstone for which is not found in abstract formalisms but in the very flesh of experience itself.

Such propositions aside, the simple point is that the categorical and the qualitative are separate (albeit related) questions, the former being of primarily historical and taxonomic interest within the domain of critical discourse. The latter is ultimately what interests me as an artist and as a viewer—in both respects a perceiving human subject—concerned with a particular aesthetic experience and its significance in relation to others. This is a distinction that both reactionary essentialists like Kamhi as well as many of the postmodern anti-traditionalists she assails fail to recognize, but it is the fundamental distinction on which a discipline of Visual Studies should rest. Adopting the mantle of Visual Culture, we grant ourselves license to abandon traditional categorical boundaries and move beyond their determined limits for the sake of a sturdier ground on which to draw affinities and distinctions within the domain of the image.

"In Defense of Visual Studies"
Posted by Dan at 03:12 AM


Referenced in this post:

Aristos: Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies'—Michelle Marder Kamhi
Aristos: Response to Public Interest review—Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi
Artblog.net: Visual Culture
Louis Torres, Michelle Marder Kamhi: What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand
New Criterion: Can Art Be Defined?—Roger Kimball
Zeke's Gallery: Visual Culture Studies