Archive for April, 2010

Response to Peter Nielsen Comment

April 26, 2010

Peter Nielsen

Executive Director Of Institutional Advancement

Vermont College Of Fine Arts,

            Your comment was posted on my small blog (as was this response). It is part of the process, so it appears though it may not enhance my position.

            One questions the value of being a strict constitutionalist. After the surreptitious dismissal of the program director, claiming to be a continuation of G. Roy Levin’s pedagogical initiative is suspect. “Being open and truthful can lead to a better understanding for all involved” appears to have incorporated exceptions exercised through institutional discretion for the sake of expediency. “It is in this sense that we must read Said when he himself speaks of exile not as “privilege,” but as a permanent critique of “the mass institutions that dominate modern life.”” (Mufti quoting Said, part of the blog posting).

            I have no problem with the brochure’s mission statement. Nor with a studio art pedagogy that promotes itself on that basis. VCFA is not unique in that regard. Many schools do. In the light of Edward Said’s work, and the “networking” emphasis that has evolved (since G. Roy Levin’s passing) and become dominant today (in politics and business, it was always affectionately referred to simply as “the good ole boys” network), I have difficulty with the association of that statement with being critical. That statement is not about being critical. It is about the art making process. Today’s networking economy may embrace “critical” as just another cliché of exclusivity, but as Mufti elaborated, there is some substance and history to the critical approach. The mission statement does not reflect that. My blog posting was about one person’s (Said’s) understanding of being critical. And why, given the nature of secular criticism, the marketing department at VCFA should revisit where art becomes critical.

            All for the best,

            Stanley Wrzyszczynski

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Where Art Becomes Critical

April 26, 2010

            Hot on the heals of the Program Director’s dismissal, a promotional brochure for Vermont College of Fine Arts appeared in the snail mail box. Its mission statement reads:

“Where Art Becomes Critical   Guiding Principles   Artist =Thinker Artist = Speaker Artist = Community Maker   It is the Program’s hope and belief that our students are radicalized by their time in the Program. Radicalized in the fundamental sense of having gained a more complex and confident view of the world as artists and as people. Students learn that making art doesn’t have to focus on being better than, or isolated from, others. That it can be a cooperative, mutually-beneficial venture and that being open and truthful can lead to greater understanding of all involved. They realize that the real rewards in making art come from struggling with the process and not from the perfection of a shiny, fashionable, salable object. And perhaps most crucial, they recognize that art is not simply about art, and artists are not lone geniuses, but both exist and take on their significance through a relationship to the world. Both the art and the artist are part of the social, cultural, political, and economic context that partially influences and defines them, and therefore they help to influence and define. All artists have an obligation to understand and struggle with these extra-artistic issues.”

Enough said about “being open and truthful can lead to greater understanding of all involved” (3/21/10 posting, Tribute to Jessica Lutz) except that a comma is needed after “venture” (or is that intentional?). Let’s consider where art becomes critical!  

            In an essay entitled Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, secular criticism, and the question of minority culture (From Edward Said and the work of the critic: speaking truth to power, edited by Paul A. Bove’), Aamir R. Mufti elaborates on Edward Said’s “secular criticism” and its unique and integral association with exile. Referencing Said’s emphasis on Erich Auerbach’s compilation of Mimesis while in Istanbul during the Second World War, Mufti writes (pg. 236): “Said therefore reads Auerbach’s exile, and the composition of Mimesis during that exile, as questioning received notions of “nation, home, community, and belonging” (World, Text, and the Critic pg. 12)”. Later (pg. 237) he writes: “The German Jewish critic in (“Oriental”) exile becomes, for Said, the paradigmatic figure for modern criticism, an object lesson in what it means to have a critical consciousness: “The intellectual’s social identity should involve something more than strengthening those aspects of the culture that require mere affirmation and orthodox compliancy from its members” (WT 24; emphasis added).” On pg. 238, after quoting an essay by Emily Apter, he follows up with: “The form of cultural “literacy” that Said calls secular criticism makes an ethical imperative of loss and displacement. It holds, with Adorno, that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” (Theodor Adorno Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life 39) It sees minority as a permanent condition of exile and requires that in our affiliative efforts at critical community and comprehension we assume the posture of minority.” On 239 he emphasizes what he takes to be Said’s meaning of secular criticism: “Secular implies for Said a critique of nationalism as an ideology of hearth and home, of collective Gemutlichkeit; a critique of the “assurance,” “confidence,” and “majority sense” that claims on behalf of national culture always imply; a critique of “the entire matrix of meanings we associate with ‘home,’ belonging and community” (WT 11). It contains the charge that the organicism of national belonging, its mobilization of the filiative metaphors of kinship and regeneration, obscures its exclusionary nature; it can be achieved only by rendering certain cultural practices, certain institutions, certain ethical positions representative of “the people” as such. Secular criticism seeks continually to make it perceptible that the experience of being at home can only be produced by rendering some other homeless.” Finally, on pg. 240, he summarizes: “Said’s insistence on the critical imperative of the secular can appear elitist, and hence paradoxical, only if we forget the haunting figure of Auerbach in Turkish exile that he repeatedly evokes. It is in this sense that we must read Said when he himself speaks of exile not as “privilege,” but as a permanent critique of “the mass institutions that dominate modern life.” Saidian secular criticism points insistently to the dilemmas and the terrors, but also, above all, to the ethical possibilities, of minority existence in modernity.”

            Today, many artists, as well as their art, describe themselves as being nomadic. Nomadism shares many of the same characteristics as exile. Indeed, it would not be difficult to conflate the two. They are not the same. What Mufti is describing is a position in regards to the world rather than an economy of networking as “a relationship to the world”. The nomadic economy is underwritten by tribalism. One could almost say it is an essential condition of the nomadic. The tribal may not appear to be a “nationalism” that is tied to place (a “hearth and home”) but it is about belonging, being identified as part of a group. VCFA’s mission statement may not promote tribalism as such, but marginalizing the “isolated” or “lone” artist certainly does implicate that. Considering such an adumbration of collective art making and artists, and the excluded minority thereby rendered “homeless,” VCFA’s marketing department should revisit “Where Art Becomes Critical.”

Another Peek At The Contemporary Nude

April 19, 2010

The 11-8-09 posting, The Contemporary Nude, referenced Francois Jullien’s historic interpretation of the nude in western culture to consider the non existence of the nude in contemporary western art. Given Jullien’s association of the nude with Being, and the popular notion of Being as process, it was no wonder that the nude is not. Well this past week, NY MOMA made the news with its nudes. They are staging a Marina Abramovic retrospective which involves live nudes. Seems folks were touching the art (and getting the boot for it). Please don’t touch the art.

This throws some ambiguity and ambivalence into the approach taken by Jullien. That approach assumed the nude as representative, not as performative. Now we are made to ask whether the performers in Abramovic’s show can be considered as “objects.” This is touchy ground. Part of the non existence of the nude within representational art today is that it is claimed to “objectify” the human. But at the MOMA, things are as they are, object or subject (or both). One thing is for sure, touching the art results in expulsion from the garden.

According to one network reporter, most of those who had attended, and were interviewed, said they had no interest in touching the art and strenuously avoided making contact.  This would lead one to consider the inviolability of the nude as opposed to that of a person sans clothes. Images (representations) of a person without clothes can, and do, evoke vicarious feelings of voyeurism or lasciviousness, as well as empathy or horror (such as the iconic Viet Nam War image of the young girl fleeing the napalm strike). Performance-wise, the response is for the most part the obverse of that given by the interviewed gallery attendees. Confronted with a naked person, most people look for some way to assist, to provide shelter, and help the person cover up. It is within the criminal disposition that the person without clothes is “victimized.” It is the association of the MOMA nudes with this particular aspect of people having no clothes on that results in touching the art being considered as a transgression.

The curious thing is that there is something quite different at play here. The inviolability of the nude is NOT what this is about. This is not about stuffing bills into a non existent undergarment. Those that would appreciate (and benefit from) such a gratuity are not considered as nude but rather as “naked”. Setting up a “Gentlemen’s Club” within a gallery space like MOMA would not make the performers any less naked than they are outside the art space. Rather, it is the categorization of the space, setting its content apart as “Art,” that makes those performers “nude.” What IS at play here is the inviolability of the form within the gallery space. That is what gets you excluded if you touch the art. The irony of this (or should I say “the curiosity of this”?) is that it implicates a self censorship, a carte blanche repression, as the price of admittance to the show. To hoot and holler, cry out, or shout “Amen” (as is found within some culture’s reception of performance) would be considered as inappropriate as loud talk in a library. You just don’t do it. Culturally, it speaks of the MOMA  retrospective’s tacit embrace of a Kantian aesthetic of disinterest (as opposed to, say, the everyday aesthetic adumbrated by Saito). Indeed, like the performers themselves, the viewer must totally commit to a particular outlook in order to “experience” the art. This brings to mind the hypnotic single mindedness required by late 19th century séances and Ouija board interactions rather than the open ended art experience promulgated by late 20th century art.

Occupied Territory

April 11, 2010

            I wondered “What am I looking at?” I had seen this form many times before. Two points make a line and two lines make a plane. Pairs of transparent fish line were strung between opposing walls. The paired lines were arranged one over the other so the plane formed was vertical to that of the floor/ceiling. On this plane, attached to the lines, were small colored panes, of random shapes with “organic” coloring (free form with no linear design component). These likewise were not opaque but had random degrees of transparency. It was all arranged at approximately eye level, the height we all learn to hang work on gallery walls. Though it was composed of 2D, this was not 2D since the pairs of lines were staggered both in depth and height. People stood before it exactly as they did before the 2D work on the other gallery walls, and were likewise careful not to touch it or otherwise interact with it.  Nothing new here with this particular elaboration of a currently popular form. This form appears a lot, especially commercially where the 2D component images are of product or message.

            What was I looking at? OK, so the creative decided to make 3D into 2. We, the viewers, could not walk behind the piece to the other side unless we wanted to limbo low. Sighting down the fish line was also verboten to all but the fly on the wall. Unlike a 3D “object” or most installations, this 3D space could not be negotiated. The longer I looked, the more it became like a wall. Even Serra’s walled work, though impedimental, still allows for access. This form does not. In terms of being like a wall, it was more like the little “courtesy”, knee height, velvet rope barriers that museums put up around historic room installations or furniture. Your eye was entitled to take flight within a space originally intended for the body, though in its present condition, occupancy by a body was taboo. One could likewise have considered it to be like a hologram or three dimensional screen projection (virtual sculpture). It presented an image within the 3D, yet the image could not be circumscribed, “entered into”, or manipulated. Again, unlike the hologram or virtual space sculpture, it could only be viewed from a very limited perspective (and a managed one at that).

            Within the context of our culture, where does such a form come from? How does it achieve credibility? That bit of space was not for me, the gallery go-er, viewer, even though the gallery walls, ceiling, and floor were contiguous with where my body was found. That form masquerades as a discrete, “frameless” work of art within the greater gallery exposition (Is such a thing even possible?). It is a space that is utilized in redundancy and excess, a single perspective that tightly manages “how” the image (space) is to be apprehended, and the discreteness and exclusivity of passage into this space (not for everyone). How is this part of our distribution of sense? A ubiquitous term within the contemporary American lexicon begins to well up and be felt. That term is “occupied territory”.  Describing the American west of the 19th century as “occupied territory”, or the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan as “occupied territory”, is only outrageous to the native inhabitants. Were I, wine glass in hand, to have entered into this fish line defined space, to view it from the other side, or to sight down the length of its suspension, I would have been immediately considered a transgressor, an insurgent, someone trying to disrupt the predetermined inviolability of this form. This is occupied territory. Reception is only as provided by the occupier, to be understood only from that given perspective.

Very Taxing

April 9, 2010

            “Ideas don’t exist anywhere.” He was taken aback. He wanted my input on his idea. I remained rooted to my chair. He recovered and we eventually travelled to his studio to look at the piece he was working on.

            Ideas are everywhere since they don’t exist anywhere. The role of the critic is to remind people of that and relocate the imagination to the material presence that confronts us and away from the ideas to be found everywhere. This definitely opposes and separates. It is the opposition and separation of the material from the multiplicity of ideas that populate the world but don’t exist anywhere in particular.

            The latest “news” fact is that over 40% of Americans will pay no taxes. That’s a cut and dry statistic. Ideas will swarm this statement like flies on dog do. Pros and cons of who and what should be taxed, or who and what government services should be eliminated, etc. The irony of this “fact” statistic is that it parallels the worth of Bill Gates at the tail end of the 90’s (“Bill Gates was worth more than 45 percent of the entire population of the country combined” Dark Ages America pg. 59). Here the critic steps in and asks “Is wealth to be taxed?” or “Are taxes the price of admission into active membership in the organization and governance of our society?” If the former, then the “news” fact is right on as a barometer of our society. If the latter, then the “news” fact indicates a disparate skew in the organization and governance of our democracy.

            Art within contemporary American culture eschews the individual critic (and criticism itself). We prefer the “idea” of art, that it enriches our lives, enhances our pleasure, and provides meaning where there is none. To critique it is to critique the idea (oh ya gotta luv the repercussions of the conceptual!). Since ideas don’t exist anywhere, they can be found everywhere. Hence the “idea” of beauty, harmony, pleasure and meaning can be found everywhere, from the morning’s box of cereal to the evening news. Put a representation of a flower on it, bright colors, or a smile, and it purports to contribute to the everyday production of pleasure and meaning. To question this status quo is to be a spoil sport, to not embrace the art we have going on here. Besides, that responsibility has already been claimed by the professionals themselves. Just as medicine and the nuclear industry have managed to establish themselves as “self regulatory”, so art now monitors itself. How often have you seen the account of an academic’s ouvre include the wonderful line “this work interrogates…” Is the individual work of art to be critiqued? Or is criticism (or lack thereof) the price of admission to membership in a culture of “Consume, Conform, and Keep Quiet”?

As A Gesture Of Separation

April 5, 2010

            In an essay entitled Criticism Between Opposition and Counterpoint (Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: speaking truth to power, Edited by Paul A. Bove’, 2000) Jonathan Arac quotes Said (from Representations of the Intellectual): ] “It is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me, because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them.”

            What if this were said regarding art? In this blog, we have looked at possibilities for Post Warhol art as well as the fatigue of conceptual art (which has strained its credibility with the intellectual). What if we said that “It is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation,” that creates works of art? The essay goes on to modify and define opposition as well as the nuanced contrapuntal interpretation unique to Said. Arac himself states that “opposition is hard to imagine except as a gesture of separation.” Separation can be projected as fragmentation and disassociation. It can also be considered as distinctive or defining; this as “opposed” to that. Within the various media traditionally employed and associated with works of art, opposition is fundamental, resulting in the materialization of image or object. Without the “this” of the dark, as opposed to the “that” of the light, drawings and prints would not materialize imagery. Distinguishing sky from water may or may not be done with a line, but a separation is essential. Opposition, “as a gesture of separation,” is instrumental of difference. Art that is made through “a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation,” may be indicative of difference with what is the status quo. What is the status quo? According to the precepts of the Post Modern, the status quo could only be various. Art made through “a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation,” one that is indicative of difference, would likewise be various. Opposition is not foreign to what constitutes art. Its presence may be indicative of “a spirit in opposition.” How would one know, since here we are dealing with spiritual matters? It seems almost tautological; the presence of opposition being indicative of a spirit in opposition. Given the various-ness of the status quo and dissent, the presence of opposition would need be an essential quality. Positivism and the group ethos of the chorus (found with “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”) do not share this essential quality. Indeed, they are opposed to it.