Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The meeting of relational aesthetics, Gober's leg and & Glenn Harper's critical platitudes

aLfReDo tRifF

Dear artists and art lovers: What's the "next thing?"*

Here is the situation: positing a "next thing" puts the claim as opposed to the morass of the "now." Bear in mind that there is no "next thing," except for a constantly-moving "now" until "next thing" opportunistically fits. And who outside the "now" can do that?

Then there is the conceptual conflict any "next thing" brings forth, namely, the double duty of simultaneously describing and prescribing (more of this later). This is the problem with The Next Thing: Art in the Twenty-First Century, a catalog edited by Pablo Baler, which presents an interesting constellation of art themes.

Let's take a look at Glenn Harper's ponderous essay entitled "The Critical Art of the Future."

First, the obituary:
Both art criticism and the magazine business are dying, as the popular press (the vehicle that art criticism grew along with) is undergoing a radical transformation in the twenty-first century.   
Why does criticism have to die with "the vehicle that art grew along with?" Were these two always together?  

Methinks Harper is inclined to see a cause/effect link here. We know that "radical transformations" bring change. But that A and B are related doesn't mean that A causes B. For example, speculative philosophy didn't die with the radical transformations brought forth by Gutenberg's invention of the movable type in the Fifteenth Century.

This is a better try:
Art criticism is dying because ... with the explosion of the art fair (and biennials often indistinguishable from the fairs), access to art once again exploding beyond discrete exhibitions into mass market tourist attractions.As Jerry Saltz and others have pointed out, the critic is the one person in the art world who is superfluous in the art fairs.
C'mon, art fairs and biennials are just a cog in the wheel. The art market apparatus is a product of social political and economic forces, which according to Max Weber, develop "authority" (Herrschaft). As the authority raises, the role of criticism wanes.

And why bring up "Saltz and others?"

Just for the fun of it, I googled "Saltz" and "art fairs" and got 41, 000 entries!

This one, with plenty of letters asking Saltz's opinions, here, where Saltz enjoys the Art-Fair, or this one, with Saltz (on facebook) talking about New York's Frieze Fair, and so on.**

You wonder how somebody so irrelevant wastes so much time being irrelevant?
In the art fair the seller has direct and immediate access with the buyer, and publicity takes the place of criticism (as the only remaining vestige of a middleman albeit explicitly not an independent one).
My experience is that contemporary fairs keep a Twentieth-Century business model, i.e., buyers deal with gallerists directly —the presence of the artist being a derivative courtesy, sort of a aesthetic aftertaste.  

Art is pretty much an elevated retail business, its supply-and-demand dictated by Contemporary Art's grandiloquent cultural cachet provided by the art market. But the truth is that art business' current model remains pre-industrial.

Harper zeroes in:
... there has been an explosion of MFA programs graduating hordes of new professional artists every year. These artists are ignored by the galleries... but their presence in the filed is a substantial influence on the size and scope of the art world, and the art professional who sifts through the work of all there new artists is not the critic, but the curator.
True, but let's qualify that:

1- Artblicity has taken over criticism, but not because of publicity.
2- Art criticism never sifted through artists' works. In the heyday of art criticism (New York 1950s-1970s) the profession was elitist, partisan & regional.
3- Critics don't have (in fact never had) the sort of power to shift art trends. Art trends happen because of complex interactions between social, political and economic forces.

Now, meet Harper's art critic,
The art critic was someone with inside knowledge or expertise ... who could write intelligently or at least intelligibly, someone who could interpret and judge and categorize (and also describe for a public beyond those attending the Salon itself). With the rise of contemporary art galleries and museums, the art critic continued as a middle man between the artist-gallery-museum on the one hand and the public (general public or specialized audience).
I have to take issue with this characterization of the critic. After all, Harper portrays himself as critic/editor.

1- "middle man" (a term borrowed from sales?)
2- "middle man" (a gender-centric slippage, coming from Harper-the-critic or Harper-the-editor?).
3- a distinction between writing "intelligently" and writing "at least intelligibly," obviously the latter being a less desirable, merely tolerable form. It seems that the critic can get away with something, but this is not Harper-the-critic talking. Is it Harper-the-editor? The reason being that he'd be basically shooting himself in the foot.

On a different level, Harper feels he has an important advice for the critic —thus, his essay's title. Naturally, the problem is only aggravated by my earlier point of the conceptual tension between describing and prescribing.  

With the critic gone, what's to be done? Recall that Harper is preparing us for the future. So, he brings Damien Hirst as an example of a mega artist who has successfully bypassed (?) the critic:
Hirst is certainly crating a media narrative and a public persona. And it could be argued that his art is minimal in terms of form and meaning, even in terms of being art. So is Hirst the new Duchamp, and is Hirst's diamond skull the new model of art with no need for the critic or the art press... ?
Damian Hirst's for the love of god
I have no idea what Harper means by the sentence in blue, above. Why does he have to compare Hirst to Duchamp, unless he finds the analogy useful for his overall argument. But Harper doesn't pursue this point (nor his diamond skull-analogy) any further. Instead, he goes at length to explore Robert Gober's Untitled (1990).

The strategy is to build a relationality argument with Gober's Untitled.

We learn the following:

1- Gober's leg suggests a still life, or reliquary in the form of a crime scene,
2- Gober's realism is disturbing but also ordinary,
3- there's a narrative attached to the work (Gober is inspired by his observation of a crowded airplane returning from europe)...
4- Gober's mother told him her first experience working in an operation theater was an amputation,
5- the leg is macabre,
6- the leg suggests a phallic or birth symbol,
7- the leg suggests the phenomenon of the uncanny

Harper's Conclusion? Art is meant to unsettle the eye.

See that #1, #2 & #4 are presented as descriptive, but they are not. Once Harper uses an adjective to qualify a thing he's in normative terrain, which brings the is/ought perennial problem. #3, #5, #7 are clearly prescriptive (they evaluate the art object).

Harper states that his analysis is not about the object's meaning, but instead about the object's relational role (what it does). So he asks this rhetorical question: "Does the critical superstructure that is possible to construct around that mute leg really help?"
I would argue that the impact of the the work is outside of (even in spite of) the biographical and interpretive matrix of the critic or the museum label. The partiality, the ugliness, the mere "there"-ness is where the viewer meets the artwork, rather than through a side trip through criticism.
Quite obscure. Perhaps Harper is saying that "critical superstructure" the rantings of this hypothetical criticfail when compared to the "there"-ness (thereness means, I guess, the thing's objective qualities). His point is that "experience" is superior to the "side trip" offered by the critic.

But how does one build "experience" without any previous conceptualization? 

This is what he wants to get at:
But the point is not that the object means something but that it does something. It is an experience that the viewer participates in (...) a palpable experience... The aesthetics of the last hundred years, from Russian Formalism to Relational Aesthetics has argued that art is not an object but rather an encounter, an interrelation.
Remember: the object does something. And yet, when Harper writes that the leg is this or that, he's talking not about his "experience" he's definitely not doing phenomenology but referring the object via grammar, semantics and so on.

How does Harper conveying "there"-ness is any different from an ordinary critic backing up her views using concepts clothed in grammar and semantics? I don't buy it.

Before we go on, we should discuss relational aesthetics:
A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space. (RA, p. 113)
Ok, Harper's relational aesthetics strategy makes me think of this cheesy French-Italian film from the 1970s where a young nerdy guy tries to get closer to this young and pretty nouveau-rich girl, who is always glued to a book. "What are you reading?" He asks. She tells him that she is reading Boredom, a novel by Alberto Moravia. "What is it about?" The girl goes through the most minute details: It's about Dino, a young italian artist who has everything. He has a love/hate relationship with his rich mother and has since abandoned painting. Dino tries to find love with a younger woman who had previously been the lover of his neighbor (and perhaps even caused that neighbor's death). This woman is a person of astounding superficiality, which seems to hide some mystery that threatens to disrupt the very boredom to which the narrator has become so attached. As the girl goes on chatting, the nerdy guy becomes more alienated from her narration. When she's done he avers: "I don't have to read 300 pages on boredom to know what's like to feel bored."

Here are two impromptu possibilities to apply to relational aesthetics:

1- Did the girl fail in conveying boredom because of the impossibility of conveying boredom's "palpable experience"? or,
2- Did the girl succeed in showing that Moravia's novel is a "side trip" for the "palpable experience" of boredom?

Harper is not far from the nerdy guy in the movie. He falls for a self-imposed redundancy by failing to prove his point the moment he tries in vain to explicitly play at failing.

This is not the place to discuss relational aesthetics. But for a critic prescribing the future, appealing to relational aesthetics on the basis of it having being "argued" (defended, legitimized or what not) for the last hundred years...

Doesn't that seem odd?

Harper is so taken by relational aesthetics that he forgets art's hardware: the art-object!

Here comes his prescription:
Foster... is wrong to lecture artists about how to reach a critical moment of experience... the critic risks irrelevancy even in a world more open to the critic than today's, if he or she predetermines the tools that artists can work with. 
Now Harper plays art censor (?)
One of the few things I've refused to allow writers to do in the magazines I've edited is to lecture artists about the direction to go with their work (something Rosalind Krauss has done in her categorizations of the "open field of sculpture" and in her more recent comments on material, stating that artists are abandoning their role as artists if they don't concentrate on developing a single medium to its limits.  
On what grounds is using normative tools to evaluate art "lecturing"?
A critical art in the sense that I mean to propose doesn't offer reassurances about the perception or accepted truth of authority. It doesn't accept the role of decorating the halls of power or wealth.
In his essay, Harper doesn't really address "the halls of power or wealth." It's only when he objects to the critic's "lecturing" (in passant) that he becomes aware of his blind spot. Why? Because the relational approach he defends is meant to explain & theorize the very role of (as he mentions) "decorating the halls of power."

Harper is clueless that when he plays the censor with critics who dare to "lecture," he's falling for the very prescriptive role he denies the critic. 

To top it off, Harper closes his essay under a seventh-seal-of-obscurity:
The critical art of the future is suspended at that knife-edge and offers us a momentary suspension of our onrushing but socialized and codified everyday life.
(a post addressing relational aesthetics is forthcoming)
* As we all know, Relational Aesthetics had its heyday during the early 2000s. **Let's add here that Jerry Saltz fell big for the relational aesthetics spell. He bombastically declared about the 2008 Guggenheim "theanyspacewhatever" show of the relational aesthetics gang that "they created the most influential stylistic strain to emerge in art since the early '70s."  

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