Posts Tagged ‘Critical Inquiry’

From The Archives: Making The Signifier

December 3, 2009

            I met the art professor in the bank over summer break. Small talk is not my forte so I let him speak about what he is up to (he appeared very excited though it also could have been described as nervous). He is off to Jordan. It is a conference of Iraqi bookmakers that he has been in contact with. He is learning Arabic. The plane ticket will be on his own dime! He wore these things as a badge of honor, a distinction of his commitment to the process. At the same time there was a hint of unease in the conversation (dis- ease). This was a high cost to impress, and both of us knew that the trip, et al would mostly look great on a resume. Though I didn’t let it show, the word fashionista immediately sprang to mind; this week it is Iraq and Arabic, next week it may be Iran and Farsi, perhaps the following week it may be Columbia and Spanish or North Korea and Korean. Then I thought of it more as this is what he is doing to make art. This IS his art. What a curious thought.

            In a Critical Inquiry essay (The Idle Idol, or Why Abstract Art Ended Up Looking Like A Chinese Room) Robert Morris stumbles along, page after page considering theoretical explanations for the state of abstract art today (Morris has taken to making outdoor labyrinths). The last two pages are memorable. Here he dispenses with theory (though he knows that what he writes is still theory). He describes what he considers to be the current art scene in the NYC area where he resides (the real reason for the state of abstract art today). My own interpretation of his description would be that the scene is a group ethos without the “idol” of authorship. The individuals contribute to what is taking place within the group, with the entire group participating as well as experiencing (celebrating) the outcome ( the outcome being the participation or rather, the act of participating). Morris describes it as singing. Artists sometimes are curators or show organizers, and curators are considered as artists. There is a fluidity, a constant exchange and interaction with an emphasis on the connectivity of networking. It is curiously analogous to the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy (if you can stretch your imagination enough). It “sings” its art, its message, its ideas, etc. But there is no claim to individual ownership or origin. It is in a communal sense (much as the chorus embodies the community within Greek tragedy) with a heavy emphasis on networking and belonging (which can only be done by actively singing; singing along with everyone else, not counter, questioning or critiquing, but going with the flow). To sing with the chorus is to go with the flow, one way only. The chorus is univocal though it may be polyglot. 

            Recently I returned to the mundane process of casting with all the mold making, etc. that it entails. Making the original to be reproduced was an adventure in itself, with its anguish of materializing something that doesn’t exist to the intense concentration (almost meditative) on the refinement of surface and detail for the final outcome. Then came the mold making and casting, etc. Here the term process really made itself apparent- its association with learning, experimentation, research, discipline, commitment, etc. It became very clear why the emphasis on process is such an integral part of American studio art pedagogy.

            I think Morris makes some accurate insights. The emphasis on process within studio art pedagogy over multiple generations has created a slippage into a disappearance of product. There is no longer any need for the idol. The art professor was quite correct in trusting his intuition with regard to continuing his art practice down this corridor of the labyrinth. He was likewise quite justified in his dis-ease. Saying the process is the art (and what is produced is totally superfluous) dispenses with any distinction between art and non art (he does, after all, earn his living as a “professor” of art). A process, any process, is generic and ubiquitous. Historically, it has been the outcome of a process (the effect) which has helped determine its character, its significance. This outcome is now considered of no import. Taking part in the process (singing as part of the chorus) is what makes the signifier. As Morris points out, the signifier is not if it is not continuously made. What a curious thought.

The Saint

November 20, 2009

            For quite some time I’ve sensed this kind of cloned nostalgia for the 50’s beat perspective, when there were still bookstores, authors spouted their poetry in coffee shops that didn’t require a second mortgage for a cup of joe (and weren’t called “trendy”), and musicians/visual artists critiqued work with an eye to the authentic and genuine. Being the digital age, it is all cloned (of course) since it can only appropriate, not originate. Something was going on then but the only acceptable description is a digital one which means it must be objective (or should I say, all meaning is only found with the objective). Sigh. It is lacking some “Je ne sais pas.”


The Saint

            I was very surprised to find the spring 09 edition of Critical Inquiry to be totally devoted to The Saint. What a drag! Why are they doing this religious inquiry? Totally irrelevant! In the spirit of committed perversity which makes one a subscriber of such journals, I started reading some of the articles. For starters, St. Elvis (first protestant saint, patron saint of the American Dream), written by a non writer, a photographer, chosen at random and easily digested. Eventually I moved on to more weighty fare (Patron Saint of the Incongruous: Rabbi Me’ir, the Talmud, and Menippean Satire). I went through the essays categorically.

            In their version of the traditional religious song, Run On For A Long Time, the Blind Boys of Alabama sing the lyrics “Some people go to church just to signify, trying to get a date with the neighbor’s wife…” This seems to be the status quo when it comes to most people’s commitment or involvement with religion. It is totally mediated, a part or segment of an otherwise preoccupied and multi interested/involved life. The Saint (at least from what I surmise from reading all the various essays in this journal) is someone who has a very direct and unmediated relationship with the divine. Depending on who is doing the analysis, the Saint is found in all cultures, religions (though some religions or sect’s eschew the notion of anyone being a saint). This may be all very fine and interesting to students of religious studies or multi-culturalism, but what in the H does it have to do with us, with now, with the current culture?

            There is a very curious correlation between the cloned nostalgia for the authentic and genuine, and the topic of the spring Critical Inquiry. If one shifts, or “translates” (the preferred academic term these days) the religious connotation (definition) of the Saint to a secular one, one having to do with  what was formerly ascribed to Humanism- the pursuits of literature, music, and visual arts- one finds a surprising relevance and insight. The Saint is this individual with a direct and unmediated relationship. The current digital culture yearns for just that. Yet mediation is precisely what defines the current digital culture. What is unmediated, is not; cannot be described or reproduced. Critical Inquiry spending an issue to deal with the imaginary of the Saint is to speak the unspeakable, to think the unthinkable (one of the consequences of critique, critical thinking, according to Judith Butler). To cut to the chase, to speak of someone involved with literature, music, or the visual arts who isn’t producing “just to signify” (assure themselves a place in heaven by advancing their career) or “get a date with the neighbor’s wife” (networking to get some for themselves) is to speak of a Saint- something totally unimaginable (unthinkable), something indescribable (unspeakable) within the current mediated culture. Like Elvis at the dawn of rock and roll, Michael Jackson becomes the de facto patron Saint of the current digital culture (was there ever a “Michael Jackson Unplugged” performance? Even his singing with his children is “remembered” through videos). Indeed, the hermaphroditic qualities found in Michael Jackson “embody” his direct and unmediated relationship to the nascent mediated, digital culture.