Archive for January, 2010

The Persistence Of This Semblance Of Persistence

January 31, 2010

            To say the words “Wexner Center For The Arts” in conjunction with “tradition,” “the arts tradition,” or “traditional art” doesn’t come trippingly to the tongue. Indeed, the mind recoils at the thought of the Wexner being implicated with traditional art (say it ain’t so, Les). The Columbus Museum of Art, no problem. But not The Wexner. The Wexner Center For The Arts continues a long line of institutions who pride themselves precisely on being distinguished from the traditional. When New York MOMA began, it originated the line of institutions dedicated to including only the current within their exhibition space. The opening of the Wexner Center coincided with the “updated “ versions of the MOMA original- the plethora of Museums of Contemporary Art (MOCA’s) that sprouted like Starbucks all over the place in the past 30 years. If it’s happening, if it is now, it’s us.

            But a short distance down the road from this international center of current culture is the Roy G. Biv Gallery For Emerging Artists. Their monthly exhibitions exclusively feature only recent work (1-2 years old). Even a shorter distance away (also on the same street) the Ohio Art League shares a gallery space. Its upcoming spring juried show requires that work submitted be done in the past 3 years. Here’s how The Wexner describes one of their current exhibitions (Hard Targets, running January 30 thru April 11):

            “70 thought provoking artworks created over the past 25 years by 21 different artists”

            25 years! That is more than a single generation, a quarter of a century (roughly the time from J. Pollock’s emergence to A. Warhol’s ascendency). It is not difficult to imagine the Wexner Center For The Arts describing their show as being 70 thought provoking artworks created within the past 3 years by 21 different artists. After all, the Roy does it all the time.

            “It may be that the continuity of tradition is mere semblance. But then precisely the persistence of this semblance of persistence provides it with continuity.”

Quote attributed to Walter Benjamin, page 486 of The Arcades Project, appearing in an essay entitled The Schmittian Messiah In Agamben’s The Time That Remains by Brian Britt, Critical Inquiry, Winter,2010

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Emptiness And Jouissance

January 28, 2010

            The notion of emptiness is most intriguing. Though definable, like the empty set in Math, it still leaves one with a “miffed” sense of understanding (like the old saw about the two sailors on lookout duty upon the open water. One asks what the other sees. “I see nothing” she answers. “You see a lot” replies the interlocutor). Folks involved with meditation will often promote emptiness. Many texts on historic Eastern Philosophies (Chinese, Japanese, etc.) include it. Creative folks recount being empty, dry, “in the desert.” Emptiness and creativity do not appear to exclude each other. Rather, they appear to be intimately entwined. Emptiness seems to involve the in between, being without interest, without meaning or significance, detached. Within our positivist culture, these descriptions would be enough to immediately find oneself located among the depressed, lonely, or sad. That would be misunderstanding emptiness completely, as emptiness does not bear any taint of emotion (for then it would not be “empty”).

            Within Kant’s aesthetic, disinterest plays a major role in the consideration of beauty (quality). This was seized on by postmodern cultural theorists. Perhaps Kant was trying to say that emptiness was requisite to the apprehension of beauty? Assuming that Kant would have flat out come and said this (if that were the case) isn’t necessarily so. After all, the zero was never part of the historic Roman enumeration, and thus wasn’t able to be described as such at the time. Perhaps it was his way of trying to posit the necessity of emptiness (being without interest, in between, without meaning) in order to generate a space for quality. Perhaps it was a way for him to indicate that what is involved with the apprehension, let alone critique, of beauty is without meaning, without the incentive, the itinerary and agenda of interest. This as opposed to the sublime, where an event or experience is contained, limited by nature, but is unable to be explicated; explicitly, precisely defined (The Perfect Storm comes to mind as well as the current “too big to fail”). The relationship of jouissance to Kant’s sublime is that, by nature, it also is contained, limited, occurs within an envelope of space and time – yet it cannot be explicitly, completely, precisely or adequately defined. This lack of consistent definition makes it appear “like” it is without meaning, “like” it is disinterested (leaving one miffed as to its understanding). This is not the lack of meaning, in between-ness, or interest found with emptiness. Jouissance is never detached.

Quickie Opening Review

January 23, 2010

            Denison Museum opened a contemporary art show on January 22 which runs through the 22nd of March. It consists of two shows, Close Encounters 2: Acts of Social Imagination (Curated by Donald H. Russell and Niels Van Tomme) and reimagining the distaff toolkit (Curated by Rickie Solinger). The first originates from Provisions Library, Resources for Arts and Social Change, Washington D.C., the second is from Wakeup/Arts.

            The Denison Museum is housed in Burke Hall and originally co-inhabited that part of the building with what was the Denison Art Gallery. The art gallery comprised several spaces, one of which was a very large, multi story, open room that served as the main gallery. Overtime the museum overwhelmed their contemporary art co-tenants and utilized all the spaces (the Denison Art Gallery vanished mysteriously). With this show the formerly large space is now utilized as a solely contemporary art venue.

            Admission to the show was like entering a Barnes and Noble, or Borders Books. As with these commercial spaces, one could visually take in the offerings but only partially. Physically one was challenged to negotiate a maze to approach the works themselves. This felt even more so given the crowded conditions of the opening. The residue of the vastness and continuity of the former gallery space could only be found by looking up at the ceiling. Below, renovation had “updated” the facility with room dividers, magazine racks, couches and coffee tables. The first show literally “was” all the vertical surface of the front section. Close Encounters 2 is a large show, both in physical space, innovation, and artists. It is comprised of celebrity art stars like Jenny Holzer, Cory Arcangel (14 in all). These folks believe themselves to have a lot to say and insist on being heard (obviously at that). This was accomplished through an “internet” format (one page after another with no neutral space in between); one artist’s presence immediately next to the other artist all along the walls and dividers without a break of any kind, each practically elbowing its neighbor for attention. The interactive component of so many of the works seemed to incarnate the lines “Eat me. Drink me.” cried out in Firesign Theatre’s How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All.

            The back section of the remaining contemporary art gallery was divided up into even smaller spaces. Here was the object culture part of the two shows – reimagining the distaff toolkit (in the first show, that media appliances are “objects” is “conceptually” elided). This show is comprised of discrete objects – found objects and memorabilia reprocessed, reconfigured, re-contextualized, rearranged. Because of their very nature (as objects) there is a separation, an innate neutrality between the individual works though they are confined in a much smaller space (the neutrality being that which is not the object). There are more works by twice the number of artists (27), none of whose celebrity has achieved celestial stardom as of this writing. Only a few of the works were interactive, their demands quite modest at best.

            Overall impressions: Folks were “socializing” (talking about career opportunities, family achievements, holiday vacation experiences, etc.) in the midst of the Close Encounters 2 presentation. Things were a bit subdued with the distaff toolkit, almost reflective (“how would this be with me, my life?”). I had the sense that the wallpaper of works by distinguished artists in Close Encounters provided a background distraction (like the TV being on all the time in so many American households), a sort of mall Muzak scenario that comforted people into visiting while the distaff section was visceral, and thereby keenly attuned to sensual resonance. Here textures, object histories, and the residue of human interaction connected immediately without the demands of extensive texts to read or interactive commitment found within the former show. The format of the first show invited, enhanced, and practically demanded solo interpretation (due to the preponderance of signifiers) while the distaff show allowed for a dialogic understanding of the works presented (by being grounded in the visceral).

            Final impression was sadness for the loss of the large, open, undivided public space where each viewer could autonomously prioritize and partition their experience according to their curiosity, interest, and disposition; evidence indeed of the passing of “the commons” in our culture.

House Haunting

January 21, 2010

            We all learn it early. It is a primary survival skill prerequisite of liquid modernity. One of the few determinations of perception we all hold in common. The ability to pick out the essential from the camouflage forest of advertising enables us to negotiate our way through a vampire world of print ads, infomercials, junk mail, spam, etc. It brings to mind the art of Liu Bolin.

            Recently I had the opportunity to briefly peruse the latest copy of Sculpture magazine.  I deftly navigated my way through the pages focusing my attention only on what the International Sculpture Center currently considers significant (at least prior to publication); that is, what entices the viewer to part with their money as opposed to what the ISC has deigned to include in order to get vendors to part with theirs. Later, I couldn’t remember seeing anything that was figurative within the magazine’s specific “content,” yet I distinctly remembered an image of a Marylyn Monroe piece, and of several other figurative works prominently presented. I double checked. Sure enough, within the category of works deemed currently significant in the estimation of this esteemed international organization, there were no figurative representations to be found. Yet the vendors of materials, services and educational opportunities gushed forth profusely in representative splendor, primarily hominid.

            This all evoked the spirit of House. House is often confronted with the fact that he doesn’t even know (or care to know) his patient’s name. When his recovering patient expresses personal gratitude, House has been known to say he doesn’t find the patient interesting anymore. Here, in stark contrast on the pages of the International Sculpture Center’s publication, is the clear dichotomy of the professional disposition regarding contemporary art, and everyone else.  Just as House is obsessed with diagnosing the problem through the efficacy and efficiency of science (and logic) while “humanity” swirls around him in the subjectivity of Cutty, Wilson and the various patients with their families, so with this issue of Sculpture, we find professional, “problem solving” 3D art surrounded by the subjectivity of human form. Our communally shared “survival skill prerequisites” inconspicuously entrap us and promulgate this distribution of sense (that the understanding of certain matters must always necessarily be deferred to those designated as “professionals”). It does this by dismissing anything with a face or a name. This separate “professional” aesthetic swims within the subjectivity of the vendors with their de facto preference of promoting their wares and services through human representation.

            One reading of this issue of Sculpture would have the viewer believe that representative figurative sculpture is simply not done within the contemporary. Another reading would have that it is done, but it is plebian, too uncouth for patrician tastes. A third reading, the one haunted by House, is that within culture, the arts can only reveal what is already integral to the culture, what comprises the distribution of sense. The International Sculpture Center’s publication clearly reveals this within the contemporary aesthetic, what is promulgated as “real” art and what aspires to be considered as such.

Cultural Car Crash

January 18, 2010

            We’ve just been through an economic “crash” that is not called a crash (thanks to the financial sector being subsidized by the tax payer in which case we all feel better calling it a recession and not a crash). Culturally, the US is positioning itself for a crash sometime in the future. Whether it will be called a “crash” or something else is anyone’s guess (I doubt any of it will be subsidized by the taxpayer. That entertains a bizarre scenario: a consumer culture subsidizing itself would be cultural cannibalism!).

            The imperial outlook maintained by American culture that we have enjoyed for the last half century is unsustainable. Getting what you want, when you want it is becoming passé. Right now the illusion of this paradigm is being maintained by communication technologies (both hard and soft ware). Many news/entertainment outlets have characterized the past decade as the decade of Now. I guess Now has come of age. With the turn of the century (remember the millennium bug scare?), communication technologies evolved and were propagated that provide access to information instantaneously- from navigation devices to real time video imaging. The imperial demand is well served by such devices. But can the same be said for the “non” information sector? Can you get “what you want when you want it”? Or are choices limited to “this is all that is available” (different store or source, same stuff), what is currently in stock, or “that is not produced or sold by us anymore”? In much of the “non” information sector of the US economy, the immediacy of communication technology appliances has not contributed to the availability of goods or services that are “what you want, when you want it” (try getting something repaired, whether it is a pair of shoes, a highway bridge, your car, or yourself). The aesthetic of these (the making and doing) is growing increasingly out of sync with the imperial demand. Part of the popularity of online shopping is that you can’t get the particular goods or service anywhere else. Then again, the appeal may be because the “what” is immediate but not the when. Recent catastrophe’s like the Indonesian Tsunami, Katrina and New Orleans, and the current quake in Haiti deny the comfort of considering a $10 text donation as an “immediate response.”

            The crash will occur when the disparity between the videos/games distraction provided by communication appliances and the necessity of everyday consumption becomes too great. You can only stomach so much substandard food and watered down drink in a strip bar before it becomes “imperative” that you are not getting what you want, when you want it; that you are paying too dearly because your attention is on the fascination with something else. I guess one now needs to update the old saw about the used car for sale – “doesn’t run but the On Star works just fine”.

            The imperial outlook is fostered, cultivated, and reproduced by the schools, with its full fashioning found in the overriding “time is of the essence” pressure of undergraduate and graduate scheduling systems (learning divided up into quarters and semesters and 4 year programs, etc.). Because this outlook is so deeply engrained, it will not be gradually displaced or replaced, not even with a “crash”. Like the current shell game of information technology appliances (under which shell is the development of tomorrow to be found?), what is displaced or replaced after a crash may not be known as an imperial outlook, but it will still maintain many of the same characteristics. Cultural affinities have an uncanny ability to retain their core “ethnic” characteristics long after those exigencies have become outdated.

Holiday Odds and End

January 14, 2010

            The year ended with some telling anecdotal descriptions of our culture. There was the couple in Oregon who found themselves stranded by their literal embrace of the virtual. Sure, old Garmin gave them the shortest, most fuel efficient route. On the screen, it looked like a straight line. Unfortunately it didn’t include topography (or meteorology). One can only imagine them as art students in the late 90’s stressing out over the importance of context. Indeed, that has left its mark with studio art pedagogy. Sculpture classes have now been updated to “Sculpture in Context.” 3D doesn’t exist in the virtual, or does it?

            Dick Cheney was real quiet in the run up to the holidays. You’d think that in the spirit of the recession and all, he would have gotten the word out that he wanted everyone to be happy, a kind of season’s greeting. The last time we heard from him was during the president’s visit to Asia. Seems the president wasn’t “imperial” enough in the presence of the Japanese emperor for Dick’s taste. Like a hasty, last minute bad conscience Christmas card that arrives after the holiday (the kind you quickly mail out the day before Christmas after the mail carrier has left well wishes from someone not included on your list), Dick reminded us of how fortunate we are to be alive, and that under his and George’s administration there were no terrorist attacks; the dots were always connected.

            It’s the carryover in all this that resonates; the residual form which technology just doesn’t embody, let alone convey. In the first instance it is the residual preference of being mindless once the tickets are in hand and all contingencies accounted for with their purchase. With Dick, it is the residue of imperialism. One would like to believe that with any change (like upgrading to a GPS over the old paper Rand McNally) everything would become different. Yet the same imperial outlooks and expectations remain, though the faces have changed and the names are different. The current brouhaha with Harry Reid illustrates this nicely. Racial stereotypes once were used to perpetrate apartheid dispositions. These are now deployed in TV, movies, and popular advertising as representative and promotional of complete integration. The stereotypes remain, only what we call them and how they are to be visualized has changed. We celebrate a New Year, but we are ever so careful to elide any reference to the residual forms, the carryover that is our culture.