INTERROGATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS: Rethinking the Language Around Art
was a panel discussion with Mira Dayal, Tom McGlynn, and Seph Rodney, mderated by Taney Roniger on Saturday, October 26, 2019, 5-7pm at the Cue Foundation. Roninger promises further discussion, so stay tuned on her Facebook page. She writes,
"With the rise of hybrid practices, interdisciplinary collaborations, and various modes of art as social engagement, the language in which visual art is framed has become increasingly didactic. Today we’ve come to expect every press release and artist’s statement to offer a litany of ideas that the work purportedly “advances,” as if visual art were nothing more than a vehicle for discursive content. Riddled with the turgid prose of academic dissertations, these texts often seem intent on explainingthe work – and, obligatorily, its relevance to the larger culture. But as visual art becomes ever-more discursive, there is a growing concern among many that something is being lost, that despite whatever cultural capital the rhetoric might seem to grant it, visual art is losing sight of its very reason for being.
With this panel we will have an honest discussion about the ways in which current art language has affected our field and what artists in particular might do to initiate a change. With an eye toward promoting a more subtle approach, we will discuss what constitutes good art writing and what the latter can (and cannot) achieve. Audience members will be encouraged to offer thoughts and suggestions in an extended question-and-answer session after the panelists’ presentations."
To further ground the discussion, a previous essay by Roninger is here: Stop the Interrogation: A Modest Proposal for a More Modest Art
What came up in this presentation was a shocked awareness how caught up we are in a culture industry that shapes the way we speak, think, even make. Each panelist, most successful, working artists and all experienced, published writers, delivered thoughtful, considered presentations. Dayal's embodied instructions invited artists to engage their work for purposes of more direct writing, a presentation worthy of a separate workshop. Rodney spoke of the class issues imbedded in artistic aims and writing reflecting a complicity borne of desire to belong in the art world. Tom McGlynn mused on the benefits of disinterest allowing discourse to flourish free from dogma or earnestness. His paper, published below, demonstrates the quality of discussion that night. Many thanks to all for a great discussion.
Dissembling Disinterest: Writing on Art, Cultural Confinement, and Poetic Fugitivity”
By Tom McGlynn
Delivered on the occasion of the panel: “Interrogation and its Discontents”
Organized by Taney Roniger at the Cue Art Foundation, NYC. With Mira Dayal and Seph Rodney. October 26, 2019
If what is at issue here is the current knee-jerk use of art jargon that engenders a despair at generating any real communication and workable content, then I think it important to first break down exactly how things got to this point of “dis-content”. Earlier philosophical and aesthetic writing could assume a certain shared understanding of 18thcentury Enlightenment principles of reason. Vis, there was assumed a certain mechanical “fit” between aesthetic understanding and critical inquiry that elaborated on such, thereby extending both a discourse and a sense of logical decorumfrom which to derive critical judgment. Immanuel Kant, one of the foremost philosophers of the Enlightenment, proposed that the aesthetic sense derived from afaculty of disinterested judgment. Such disinterest can be posited as a decorum for common ground, or an prior agreement that human intuition is independent from objective reality. Kant’s notion of disinterest actually honors the independent nature of objective reality at the same time it implies that human opinion can similarly remain independent. Critiques of this Kantian method of determining independent judgment might say that this disinterest and inter- independence is itself the conceit of a transcendental will. Critics of Enlightenment reason (and its philosophical progeny) can aptly point to its origins in bourgeois European “men of letters” and all of the exceptionalism and privilege that that implies, yet there is a truth to the notion that a “disinterested reason” might be able to maintain a modicum of independent judgment in a capricious, ever- changing (art) world of “taste”. What’s important is not that this notion of disinterested judgment is fixed like some sort of immutable template, (and certainly not a rigid self-entitled disinterest), as much as it allows for a shared agreement to suspend pre-conceptions of criteria of judgment and taste and therefore allow for a free play of signification and mutability of meaning.
Aesthetic Judgment and the Power of Poetic Indeterminacy
“The term of information, which assumes a kind of objective truth, entails the exhaustion of the forms of metamorphosis, whereas writing is on the contrary one of the places where there is always something that escapes you” Jean Baudrillard, 1994 interview with French press.
“Ambiguity is not dangerous in itself. It does not change the principles of identity and equivalence in the slightest, nor does it change the principle of meaning as value; it merely produces floating values, renders identities diffuse, and makes the rules of the referential game more complex, without abolishing anything.” - Baudrillard,Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage Publications Limited , London, 2017. p 216
“Aesthetics, (that) most faithless of the sciences” Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p 123
Penguin Publishing, London, New York ,1985.
Addressing the problems with current art writing from a critical writing perspective has its obvious pitfalls. Literary criticism has related challenges. One has to gingerly put themselves simultaneously in the place of the reader as well as the writer. One way to do this is to establish, from the start, that the genre of art writing is a distinct genre and not necessarily meant tosimply transfer “aesthetic information”. Clarity of concept and vision, in other words, doesn’t necessarily equate with a normative facility of style in art writing. The distinct genre of the best art writing historically is often cultivated by an indirect and indeterminate reason. This intention is one of poetic indeterminacy. The writer on art can cultivate a kind of half-attention (clearing their self-consciousness away) in order to make room for a more attentive “listening” to what the work of art (or artist) has to present or to say. Meaning in their critique is therefore derived from a certain disinterested perspective. The writer can then creatively respond from a place of poetic indeterminacy, a place where they can eavesdrop on the artist’s own thinking by adopting an indeterminate identity of their own. In effect the writer agrees to enter into a game of sliding signification with the artwork or artist in which the outcome is not a summary win, but a creative extension of the signifying game. I intend to present a few historical and current examples of such an approach in critical opposition to the kind of “bad” or obfuscating art writing from the point of view that it is, ironically, too vested in a kind of pedantic administrative speech: the half-attention of poetical indeterminacy versus the pedantic (non-attention) of “bad” art writing. In other words, in order for an artistic (or any) concept to maintain its autonomous meaning it often has to be insincere to the mere denotative meaning of words. Connotative language can be much more productive and sincere to the artist’s concept.
Examples of strong writing on aesthetics from oblique perspectives:
Harold Bloom, Map of Misreading, Oxford University Press, 1975.
Robert Smithson, “Climate of Sight”, in The Writings of Robert Smithson, NYU Press, 1979.
Fred Moten, Black and Blur, Duke University Press, 2017.
Institutional (Administrative) Indeterminacy
Interestingly, tendentious, administrative language also has its own way of understanding itself by objectifying its ostensible rationality.
“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know. “
Thus the “Johari Window” is a technique of breaking down institutional thought processes into somewhat “pragmatic” terms. Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek says that beyond these three categories there is a fourth, the unknown known, that which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know:
"If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns', that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the "unknown knowns" the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.” From Rumsfeld and the Bees, The Guardian, June 2008.
Zizek’s last statement refers to intentional institutional obfuscation that relates to the “plausible deniability” of political doublespeak- yet there are certain traits that the Johari Window technique shares with how an artist might productively describe their work or how a critic might describe an artist’s concept. And within the critical awareness of the obfuscation of institutional, administrative language might be found the crux of the dilemma of artists identifying with such pretzel logic unintentionally, why they might mimic this type of language in statements about their own work. An artist’s relation to their own work will always contain a blind spot, and often an intentional unknowing of self. This doesn’t mean, however, that their description of their work can’t me made more specifically unspecific, more accurately abstruse.
Post-Post Modern Conceptualization : Living with Self Contradiction and The Connotation of Concept.
The objective consideration of mere denotative language of course has its interrogators. The objectification of language and its impossibility to approximate experience is seen in the post-post modern writing of Kathy Acker and Lynne Tillman. Acker’s genre appropriations (substitutions for authority inGreat Expectations, 1982) and Tillman’s profound skepticism at the denotative possibilities of words, language (problematized narrative denouement in Living with Contradictions also, 1982) are good examples of writers reimagining the expressive potential of connotative meaning via an aesthetics of indeterminacy.
Both Robert Smithson and Fred Moten filter their denotations through a connotative “content as genre.” This tack is taken in order to incorporate in their creative expression a critique of the inherent “cultural confinement” (Smithson) of language and its potential for “fugal fugitivity” (Moten). They both will often actively mock (or at least ventriloquize) administrative language within their own administration of concept, in order to destabilize the reader from rushing to pre-judgment themselves, to disarm the reader’s own resistance to being ad-ministered to. This combination of eluding/ eliding pre-determined meaning Moten refers to as the “Fugitivity of the Gest/ure.” Like Smithson he also shares an abiding interest in the creative potential of the historical picturesque (ruins contemplated in the present), which Moten wonderfully terms “paraontological remains.” Smithson deploys the meta/real-context of geology to analogize his concepts of evading cultural confinement:
“The strata of the earth is a jumbled museum. Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade rational order, and social structures that confine art.” – from The Climate of Sight, in The Writings of Robert Smithson, NYU Press, p. 88.
Fred Moten aims at an intimate political specificity in his deployment of discursive vernacular to describe the Middle Passage of the slave trade as analogy to the diffusion of its legacy in the logic of logistics, or the administrative impulse to constantly impose a controlling metrics on the “fugitivity” of the real:
“Logistics could not contain what it had relegated to the hold. It cannot. Robert F. Harney, the historian of the migration ‘from the bottom up’ used to say that once you crossed the Atlantic, you were never on the right side again.”-from Logisticality or The Shipped in The Undercommons Minor Compositions 2013 p. 92.
Cultural institutions such as graduate schools and museums typically adopt the broad language of “knowledge assessment” pretty much uncritically and often done automatically, unknowingly with the best intentions. This type of language becomes the “capital” that perpetuates institutional knowledge. And institutions, especially art institutions, will adopt the language of a vague liberal relativism, or what I’d term a “Bad Generic” An example can be seen in the recent wall labels that accompany the revamping of MoMA, NYC. For example, there is a room introductory label entitled “Worlds to Come” which reduces the rich and contradictory history of modernist utopianism to a bland social affirmation. This tendency has been accelerated recently due to the almost wholesale critique of “classic” liberal principles in the culture at large. This has the effect of aestheticizing the politics of liberal relativity and therefore culturally confining those same principles and somewhat neutralizing their potential for real social change in the so called “real world” of contemporary world politics which itself has increasingly (or has it always been thus?) taken on the aspect of a Dada farce.
With regards artists writing about their own work, in artist statements for instance, the intimacy with which the artist realizes their work should be an aid. Yet to the extent that the artist actively and usefully dissembles their ego in order to court inspiration, to clear away on overweening self consciousness as a way to inspire their work in the first place, they might not be the best suited to consciously describe their own work in purely informational terms. With this dilemma of knowing- yet not “knowing”- artists can fall prey to the insecurity that they don’t actually know what they are doing because they are unable to adequately describe the meaning of their work. The process of making is fundamentally beyond words for the maker in the moment of realizing their conceptions. This anxiety of unknowing often occasions the falling back on an arch, administrative voice in their statements, a super- ego command, long- enculturated by art institutions like graduate schools and other educational and cultural institutions. Unfortunately, by “giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, artists pay tribute to a obliterative institutional dominance at the cost of paying attention to their own creative coinage. There are alternatives to this endless capitulation to institutional imperatives. If one can learn to understand that the play of signification, a poetic slippage between base information and projected meaning, can be effectively deployed in the navigation of such necessary hurdles as grant application decorum and exhibit press releases, one can come to realize a real sense of aesthetic empowerment and freedom- and translate as much to those who might be reviewing such applications and exhibits. Ultimately, poetic play (and the free, radical indeterminacy that it can cultivate) is significant not only in the rich potential of ground gained between words and meaning, but in creative territory that one can claim between institutional dominance (cultural confinement -Smithson) and an expansive recurrence of artistic freedom (fugal fugitivity- Moten).