Wednesday, July 30, 2014

coming back to ugliness (that underrated aesthetic currency)

aLfRedO tRifF

in our last post we explored the possibility that ugliness has been left out from aesthetic discourse.

then, we find this source:

jiang feng (above) was very unhappy with his offspring's facial features. he suspected foul play, but a DNA test proved him wrong. then, he found out that his wife had spent $100,000 in plastic surgery on her face before they had met. jiang divorced her and sued her on the ground of false pretenses.

(i don't care if the story is a fabrication. imagine it as a thought experiment).

how about jian's offspring? are they to blame for expressing their parents' genotype? are these kinds as "ugly" as jiang paints them to be?

is "ugly" essential or conventional?

one could imagine jiang's grown up daughter protesting his dad's aesthetic dogmatism: dad why am i responsible that your trait for "pretty" was recessive? 

wittgenstein's idea of Familienähnlichkeit makes "ugly" conventional. in jiang's case it's fifty-fifty genetic. phenotypic resemblance is like a lotto (there are plenty of examples of "pretty" offspring from "ugly" parents).

publicity campaign for arno, brazil

wittgenstein seems to suggest that "ugly" & "pretty" are just family types. they acquire aesthetic relevance within their type recurrence and accepted conventions. comparing the two, "ugly" ends up as a deviation from accepted conventions.

indeed, but the problem is that "deviation" (a custom established by usage) already begs the question on convention! yeah, in the end "pretty" wins. an expedite solution, but in this case, i'm not satisfied with wittgenstein's answer (the pretty/ugly struggle needs to happen at a more essential level).

it goes way back to plato, the master of form: in the symposium, socrates suggests that eros & ugliness don't get along (aischron is translated as shameless). can "ugly" be reformed?

german philosopher karl rosenkranz, a disciple of hegel, has a whole treatise devoted to hässlichen.

for rosenkranz, ugliness can be: 1- a lack of form (what beauty optimally possesses), 2- an incorrect representation: i.e., illness, deformation, etc, 3- as a moral lack of self-determination or freedom, i.e., (carrying the burden of formal dependence). beauty is independent of ugliness, but not the other way around. (as a result, ugliness generally depends on beauty). aesthetics has made ugliness a slave of beauty.

how could "ugly" become nonradically itself? by giving up its past, i.e., the very notes that stereotype its form. and here one can really fall for a travesty, that is to say, ugly becoming non-ugly.     

what if ugliness' -so-called- form was an axiological fraud?
the ugly duchess, quentin massys 1525-30
above renaissance painter quentin massys' alleged portrait of margaret countess of tyrol, the ugly duchess, in all its ugly-glory. massys revels in the duchess' purported facial unpleasingness (she probably suffered from paget's disease).

rosenkranz comes to the rescue:

can the duchess break free from ugliness' bondage? only by giving up its familial nexus with beauty. 

but how?

(to be continued)

Monday, July 28, 2014

when it comes to damien hirst julian spalding is all over the place

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critic julian spalding drops the bomb in a recent article for the dailymail. 
 I had dared to say what many of my colleagues secretly think: Con Art, the so-called Conceptual Art movement, is little more than a money-spinning con, rather like the emperor’s new clothes. That goes for the ‘artist’ Carl Andre who sold a stack of bricks for £2,297. It goes for Marcel Duchamp, whose old ‘urinal’ was bought by the Tate for $500,000 (about £300,000). It goes for Tracey Emin’s grubby old bed. And, of course, it goes for Damien Hirst.
against-the-grainess is always stimulating. but to prove that con art = conceptual art? 

dumping hirst with duchamp implicitly demotes duchamp at the level of a "con," but conning conceptual art (i.e., that the concept behind the object is more important than its instantiation) is not, by far, enough to convince anybody. i don't know where spalding wants to go with this, but since conceptual art goes back to early 20th century and has three incarnations, one would assume he should discuss (and provide) a historical argument (none of it here).

never mind, with the audience stunned at the critic's courageous declaration, it's time to his thesis:
But why is it art? ‘Because it makes you feel something.’ When I asked what it makes them feel, most referred me to the guidebook explanations. What quickly becomes apparent is that it is like a religion.
(i have my doubts with "feel" as a reliable aesthetic broker) the reason is that different people normally offer different responses to a given stimulus. on the other hand, as vague as it is, explaining one's feelings is a start. do i seem a little impatient? let's give spalding his time.
I found out what propels people, many of whom rarely visit art galleries, to queue for 60 minutes for this marketing circus. ‘Is it art?’ I asked and pointed at a shark preserved in formaldehyde, a wall of dots, and flies feasting on a dead cow’s head.
"i found out what propels people"?

when i read this i think of actual empirical evidence. do you picture spalding polling, i.e., taking the time to furnish each person in line to see hirst's exhibit with a scripted quiz and then proceed to tabulate the responses for this article?
Everyone is strangely committed to the cult of Hirst – but few can articulate what is fantastic about a soggy, sad-looking shark, preserved in a vitrine with all the menace of a sagging sofa. 
spalding's ad hominem is not doing the best job at explaining why hirst' "art" is really not art. even if vitriol has its place -19th century french and british critics like barbey d'aurevilly & wilde used it sparingly. yet, the critic should (for the sake of his own argument) try to keep his/her bias in check.    

Created by a Turner Prize winning artist, the dead tiger shark, grandly named The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, should be one of the great artworks of the last century, yet most visitors spent less than three seconds looking at it. 
and so many visitors could equally -totally- ignore this mondrian,

or this rothko,

which doesn't suggest that there's a problem with the paintings -nor for that matter with the people's lack of attention. people go to museums for different reasons: to see and be seen, to partake of so called culture, to validate their taste or distaste, etc. standing in front of a painting is as fuzzy as a politician averring his honesty.

in fact, with a lot of modern art, one must develop predispositions to understand what one sees. for instance, one may need different abstract glasses for the mondrian and the rothko above (they belong in different styles).

let's come back to spalding:
Traditionally, in exhibitions of ‘real art’, visitors cluster around the paintings or sculptures while the rest of the gallery is empty. The Hirst exhibition is another matter. People mill about like unmagnetised iron filings. Why? Nobody is engaged. One enormous spot painting is half hidden behind a formaldehyde-preserved cow. Smaller vitrines containing skulls are dumped on the floor at random.  
once again, betting on people's "attention" to discuss aesthetic evaluations is -at best- chancy.
But it is the rotting cow head, called A Thousand Years, that I can’t bear to look at. Blood trickles out of it, swarms of flies feast on it and the horrific stench is pumped into the gallery. ‘It’s very macabre,’ says Craig Thurlby. What an understatement. ‘I interpret the flies and cow as life and death, so I guess it has meaning and stuff,’ says Craig.
is spalding not begging the question of whether hirst is a con artist by appealing to his own feelings to establish the very conclusion he's set out to prove? it's like saying: "the reason i hate your work is because of the way it makes me feel."

in parenthesis, why should one eschew the macabre?

can you smell the rot & hear the hellish quavering inside this boschian nightmare?

i expected much more. i've read spalding's the eclipse of art and found his arguments against contemporary art quite interesting. here he's just cerebrating in circles.

at some point, the critic explores a promising angle:
I’ve long believed him to be a money-hungry charlatan but as the richest living artist at the age of 46, he must be doing something right.
then he misses his opportunity with this platitude:
It was at Goldsmiths that he met Charles Saatchi, who would propel him from chancer to millionaire before they parted company in 2003 after a disagreement over the way Hirst’s works were staged at Saatchi’s gallery. Around that time, Hirst admitted: ‘I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.’ Which raises the question: is he consciously playing us for fools?
what's spalding's point really? we get a philippic against conceptual art buttressed on what? "feel"? people's attention? the macabre?

spalding is all over the place & hirst is just a cog in the machine!

(to be continued)

Friday, July 11, 2014

"culture is like oil in the ground" -- stefan simchowitz

image, via vulture


i find this article on art space, on collector, producer, maverick & arthoodicator stefan simchowitz.

remember, what we're after here is oil in the ground. we'll find it soon.

as with all myths, there is always a "before" and "after"

(...) you had the emergence of small galleries, expert writers and critics, academics, curators, and small groups of artists—many of them emigrants escaping the bleak landscape of Europe—that led to the expansion of the art business, both demographically and geographically. And over a 60-year period, as dealers like Leo Castelli guided artists’ prices to grow in a linear fashion, art was given its value by the people who wrote about it in journals and more traditional media.
Then the Internet occurs, you have the browser, and in 2006 you have the emergence of what is essentially the mainstream social media, and you begin to see the distribution of imagery and artworks begin to expand online at the same time that you see the rapid expansion of the art business, because essentially there’s much less friction for the spectator to experience the artwork. More people see the art, more people can consume it and engage with it, and, more importantly, many more people have started taking and sharing photos and describing what they’re seeing.
"when the internet occurs, you have the browser." could one assume a more blatant reduction? you smell simchowitz's spielerisch rap from afar. but let's not fight over peanuts. art has become a "cultural spectacle" not because of the internet, but because of the market. the market is the source, the internet one of its conduits.

here's the proof, coming from "the source":
I think that when it comes to art and culture, as opposed to having singular authorities that define it, you have what you could call amplification nodules—people who for some reason have cultural integrity and a following that they address through a social-media structure. And it’s not so much about speaking to a mass of 10,000 people, but rather being followed by key decision-makers, players, and collectors in that network.
"amplification nodules," "key decision makers, players, in that network"? now simchowitz just contradicted his not-so-naive initial point on the power of Internet & social media's massive aggregations in shaping contemporary art's reception. do "amplification nodules" get amplified through social media or in the private innards of the system?

this is why simchowitz calls himself "cultural entrepreneur".

more importantly, will he be able to reverse his aporia? that is to say, convincing us that his denial, i,e.:
I think art advisory is very banal in that it generally simply involves someone who has access to several rich people and who, relative to those rich people, has slightly better taste.
is actually what happens.

as expected, now comes a deception disguised as know-how:
(...) there are a lot of people who are trying to do what I am doing because I have done very well, and there are outsized returns. But people who think, “Gee, I can buy a piece of art from a gallery for $5,000 and sell it for $25,000” don’t understand the complexity of thinking necessary to get to this position. It requires research, knowledge of the canon, knowledge of the past.
really? "the canon,"? "the past"?

could there be something else, for doing "very well"?
I’ve managed to build an extraordinary following in the art market that is very unique. I work with Sean Parker, Steve Tisch, Orlando Bloom, Guy Starkman, Enrique Murciano, and Rob Rankin, who is the head of investment banking at Deutsche Bank worldwide.  I think you need a very widely distributed clientele, with everyone from the very rich to people who need to stretch to buy an artwork. 
c'mon stefan. you are a very successful flipper. you have enviable market connections. in fact, by part-to-whole mereological extension, you are the market!  

which is why you can render this canonical definition of culture as (gosh, could one think of a more obviously non-renewable, non-biodiverse source than) petroleum?
You have to think of culture like it’s oil in the ground: it needs to be mined, refined, and it needs to be distributed.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

concerning nicholas powers' article for the indypendent: wrong! art "guidelines" suck

aLfRedO tRifF

critic, poet and professor nicholas powers writes for the indypendent about kara walker's A Subtlety, an imposing 40-foot tall sculpture made out of 80 tons of sugar! @ the soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar Refinery in williamsburg, brooklyn.

he opens with a critical salvo:
"You are recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique," I yelled. The visitors lowered their cameras. Just seconds ago, they had been aiming their lenses at the sculpture of a 40-foot tall, nude black female sphinx. Many posed under its ass; some laughed and pointed at its vulva. As I watched their joking, my thoughts spun and I walked into the crowd, turned to face them and began yelling. It wasn’t my rage, it was our rage. In early June, I went to the exhibit. The anxiety increased when I saw the factory — in line, nearly everyone was white. The alarm rang louder.
powers feels these (white) folks were not getting it. by "it" i mean the idea, message, content, that walker's A Subtlety implies.
The "alarm" is a reflex most minorities have, it's a rising anxiety that signals you are surrounded by people too privileged to know they're hurting you. Or who would not care if they did. It can beep quietly.
point taken. what powers refers to rings true. he's right to feel upset. but things get more complicated when powers revises his own feelings:
Anger shot up my body like a hot thermometer. Face flushed, I walked to the Mammy sphinx. Couples posed in front of it, smiling as others took their photos. So here it was, an artwork about how Black people’s pain was transformed into money was a tourist attraction for them. A few weeks ago, I had gone to the 9/11 museum and no one, absolutely no one, posed for smiling pictures in front of the wreckage. 
if the science of psychology makes any sense, a feeling is a lingering response to a stimulus. if so, one should take into account that different contexts (artworks?) elicit different responses. how could powers prevent a person's misinterpretation? (& is not any mis-interpretation an interpretation?) more technical, but not less fitting, how could one accurately attribute a certain behavioral disposition to a supposed mental state?

i think a more "subtle" point is that walker's sculpture evinces asymptotic layers, which make for a variety of responses. for example, this mammy is actually white. what i'm saying is that walker "whitefaces" black, a daring inversion, which ultimately honors the piece's title. why does powers miss walker's conceptual "teasing"? another asymptotic layer is that in the space of analogical histories sweet/sugar plantations becomes bitter/slave trade --this latter analogy is observed by powers.

now it's time for history:
I caught the eye of the few people of color, we talked and shook our heads at the jokey antics of white visitors. We felt invisible, and our history was too. It stung us and we wanted to leave. I forced myself to go the backside of the statue and saw there what I expected to see, white visitors making obscene poses in front of the ass and vulva of the "Subtlety." A heavy sigh fell out me. "Don't they see that this is about rape?" I muttered as another visitor stuck out his tongue. What is the responsibility of the artist?
one thing is to "feel" invisible (i.e., not being considered present) and another to imply that that automatically renders one's whole history invisible. why does powers have to assume this self-centered, emotivist, conclusion? i can agree that the piece is about rape, but certainly it's not solely about rape. it can't be. this is an artwork (not a history of a people, which can only be partly, limitedly conveyed by the piece). and this mammy doesn't look defeated or miserable by her long, painful history. in fact, A Subtlety presents us with a riddle: for example, the mystery behind her hermetic & proud sensuality.

an artwork's meaning --by definition-- cannot be univocal, otherwise it wouldn't "mean" anymore. if meaning is transparent we wouldn't have to negotiate for consensus anymore, provide valid reasons, etc, which is precisely (luckily!) what powers does in his engaging piece.  

so, what's really going on?
Something snapped. I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes. 
powers was right to feel angry at some stupid white people & what he did was even necessary. this is what good art is supposed to do, to elicit discussions --and learning.

now, what follows is baloney:
People are going to bring prejudices and racial entitlement into the space. Duh. Instead of challenging the racial power dynamics of white supremacy, Walker and Creative Time, in their naivety or arrogance, I don't know which, simply made the Domino Sugar Factory a safe place for it. Thanks for nothing, Ms. Walker!
"thanks for nothing ms. walker?" from rightful indignation, powers now -ironically- shifts to self-pity. in other words, not only he has "unveiled" walker's "intentions," but expects art to become a didactic medium to challenge (racial stereotypes?). the "walker & creative time" binity --as if they were a Co. is a despairing ad hominem. and why is walker to blame because some white folks (or some black people, let's not rule out that possibility, though powers didn't witness it) don't get it?

it gets worse:
(...) but the sad thing is that thousands of visitors are still seeing a sculpture that symbolizes the history of racial violence with no guidelines on how to interpret it. 
which "guidelines"? who would construct and provide such criteria? the sponsors? the curators? powers?

and what is the distance separating "guidelines" from, say, mild censorship, even zdhanovism?