Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On Thursday one of the panels I attended was "Painting and Plurality: Schisms, -Isms, and the Difficulty of Definition." Barry Schwabsky was the discussant. Most of the talk focused on the problems of pluralism, of contemporary painting as winking, self-conscious pastiche, of most young painters' heavy reliance on irony and self-parody--the usual stuff.

Robert Mertens from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, presented a paper on corporatism in art. Mertens is a big fan of John Ralston Saul's book, The Unconscious Civilization. Here's a taste of what he had to say:

[Corporatism produces] not wisdom or goodness, but cleverness. The currency of corporatism is that of power, secrecy, efficiency, accounting, competition--but above all, certainty. Its systems are constructed from the assumption of correctness. It focuses on managerial methods, and rewards productivity over creativity...It assumes that all functions are alike and can be subjected to universal managerial standards.
Like Arthur Danto, Mertens seems fond of Hegel; he spent some time talking about art as a sort of midway point between nature and reason. But Mertens definitely isn't a fan of Danto's formulation of the art world. In his essay, "The Art World Revisited: Comedies of Similarity", Danto concludes that whether or not an object can be considered a work of art depends upon the "discourse of arguments"--historical explanations generated by the jostling of people engaged in the field of cultural production. Whether or not something is or isn't fine art is decided by a set of explanations, and those explanations relate to one another historically.

Mertens doesn't like this. He described Danto's vision of the artworld as a closed system dependent on the verdicts of specialists and experts--a result, then, of corporatism in the arts.

This is exactly the opposite of how I've always thought of Danto's essay. The discourse requires participation and a baseline of understanding of the terms involved. But that participation happens at many levels, and is directly opposed to what Danto calls the "institutional theory of art"--the idea that museum professionals impose art judgements and hierarchies by fiat, and that those judgements are infallible, immutable.

Danto talks about Warhol's Brillo Box, and how it came to be considered art. In that story, in 1965, Dr. Charles Comfort, the director of the National Gallery of Canada, declares that the work isn't art. Yet Danto, a philosopher trying his hand at writing criticism, and Warhol, a graphic designer who decides he wants to be a famous artist, prevail.

There's definitely something unnerving about the idea that art requires explanations--and that almost no other factors will assure correct judgements. Yet those explanations aren't set. Like history, they form a fluid dynamic, shifting, uncertain, subject to revision. Again, to me, this seems hopeful, and makes participation in the conversation important, meaningful.


Blogger Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Obviously, the discourse of art is necessary since "meaning" cannot be found in the artwork. This brings to mind the Derridean “supplement.” Old Jacques provided an elaborate articulation of the supplement (apparently expanding on Rousseau's definition of "an inessential extra added to something complete in itself") as a definitive component of things that are “lacking." If something is “complete,” it would not need to be added to. Thus, supplement occurs whenever there is this "originary lack."

One could argue that artworks are "complete" experiences in and of themselves. Yet unless we are willing to accept the indefensible premise that art history is composed of episodic, anecdotal, art "events," then we absolutely require the supplement of discourse to establish "meaning" in contemporary art.

10:20 PM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

See? This is why nobody wanted to talk to us last Friday night. ;)

9:36 AM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

Seriously, though, for some folks--particularly artists from an earlier generation--this "lack" is an objectionable idea. I like to have my students read some of Ad Reinhardt's "Art as Art" sermonizing to give them a taste of what precisely this belief--in an art that fully explains itself, and exists only as an academic discipline working towards its own ends--led to.

Which is, of course, a bleak, circumscribed sort of territory, not without its pleasures or intellectual interests, but not someplace you'd want to live.

And some folks are unnerved by the idea that these judgements are subject to revision--they dislike the feeling that postmodernism pulled the rug out from under them, and prevents them from definitely knowing anything. I think of Foucault, and the Archaeology of Knowledge, where he basically decides that what can be examined and fully known are not the arguments, but the societal, cultural and professional/institutional structures that produce them. So it's a different sort of knowledge.

At least that's the way I like to think about it.

9:54 AM  

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