Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Morality and responsibility, by, for and to whom?

Hello everyone!

Jeremy Biles (writer, editor, SAIC grad advisor) has written a wonderful response to Kathryn Hixson's Trash/Spectacle talk. Anne Wilson and I agreed that this would frame a new blog and be a conversation starter. The first part of the blog is Jeremy's
text which is followed by my response to his. LOts of contested ideas about what is 'good' art, morality, experience and questions of taste. Enjoy and get scribbling in those ideas while the summer explodes into just too much heat. AND I understand that Shinique Smith podcast is now on-line so no excuse for not getting those comments in. Happy writing,

From Trash to Spectacle

I enjoyed Shannon Stratton's and Kathryn Hixson's "From Trash to
Spectacle" lectures, not only for their many insights, but also
because they each provoked so much afterthought in the weeks since
their presentation. For the moment, I want to focus on Kathryn's
talk, and in particular her various definitions and characterizations
of "art." They raise a variety of interesting questions that I hope
others might take up and respond to.

I think we can discern in Kathryn's lecture at least five distinct
ways of defining/describing art that should be kept in mind in
considering the questions I raise below:

1. Art defined by its location: "art itself lies in the continuums
existing amongst all of these polarities" (that is, the polarities
"between art and craft, tradition and the new, art work and the
commodity product, modern and postmodern, the disciplines and the
post disciplinary" and "BETWEEN the concept, the materials, the
process, the art object" and "the mind and the body").

2. Art defined by its constitutive activity: "art is the very
creation of those continuums."

3. Art defined along ethical lines, according to its moral
potentiality: art is "the possibility of responsible confluence...."

4. We also find not a definition of art, but a description of a
specific kind of art, namely "satisfactory" or "successful" art:
"What we parse out as art's constituent elements -- concept,
materials, process, craft, making, context, and content --
in a satisfactory or successful art object come together, are
aligned, fall into place, make 'sense' -- viscerally, conceptually,
emotionally, and above all RESPONSIBLY-responsible to the individual,
the social, the historical" [my italics; I've also altered the
punctuation slightly for clarity].

5. Finally, a description of "Good" art according to its
constitutive activity: "Good art is that which directly engages with
the moral complexity of life, now." [Is "Good" art synonymous with
"satisfactory or successful" art?]

This rich variety of definitions and characterizations of art raises
a host of questions. The ones I want to raise here have to do with
placing the concept of "responsibility" within a definition of art --
or at least Good/satisfactory/successful art. So here are a few
questions to which I'm hoping readers might be willing to respond:

1. In precise terms, what defines responsibility? And in relation
to this, who adjudicates responsibility? Responsibility, according
to Hixson, is an essential component of satisfactory/successful art,
and thus presumably Good art -- but what precisely defines
responsibility? What criteria need to be met to count as
"responsible"? Who gets to decide on these criteria?

2. Who is to take responsibility for art (who is the responsible
moral agent)? The artist? The audience? What about the
market/museum complex? Or curators? And must the artist remain
"vigilant" (to use Hixson's term) after the creation of his/her work
and its release into the world? And what about once the artist is
dead? Who takes responsibility then? Is the artist responsible for
his/her work for all time? Should the artist only create and release
into the world work that he/she is certain is and always will be
"responsible"? (Is the artist in any way morally obligated only to
produce responsible work?) See question 5, below.

3. How exactly does responsibility relate to "moral complexity"? Is
it the case that responsibility is simply (which is not to say
merely) an engagement with complexity as opposed to, say, the fascist
eradication of complexity?

4. Good art may engage moral complexity, but that doesn't mean it
will lead its audience to do so. (E.g., just because Holzer's art is
morally engaged doesn't mean its audience will engage it or the world
morally.) Who is responsible for this? Surely the artist can't
ensure that the audience, through a given piece of art, will engage
life in all its moral complexity, even if the art itself does. So
where does this leave the artist with regard to the moral imperative
to create responsible work? Is good art intrinsically good, or good
only insofar as it stimulates a certain kind of reception? Is
good-ness in the art or its audience?

5. "Good art is that which directly engages with the moral
complexity of life now." I'm interested in how the word "now" works
in this definition. "Now" is what linguists call an "indexical"
term, as it points to a particular state of affairs. And of course
"now" changes each time it's uttered. (The "now" I uttered 10
minutes ago is not the "now" I'm uttering now.) So what does it
mean, precisely, for a work of art to engage the moral complexity of
life "now"? Does that mean in the moment of its creation? Or does
it always refer to the present moment? Is it possible that a work of
art might engage with the moral complexity of life at the time it's
made, but not a decade later? (Probably.) If so, is that work no
longer "good"? Is it possible, on the other hand, for a work to be
not good at the time of its creation, and then, someday, to become
good? And how exactly does the concept of responsibility relate to
this "now"?

--Jeremy Biles, May 2009

How does responsibility relate to now?

There are several ‘types’ of experience that may or may have already characterized the dominant modes and discourses of contemporary creative art practices. There is a new moment for the conception of spaces for exhibition, of assemblies, and of public demonstration as well as public display. This includes the idea of the spectacle. Who is taking part, who are the things that will be exchanged or will invest and divest of the transfer? What is at stake in their being in the moment of the art situation? How do we measure their effectiveness as an evidence of our partcipation and potential interactivity? How do we subscribe to an ideal responsibility for such artwork situations and to whom are we appealing to take this responsibility.

Therefore, how do we measure the responsibility of the viewer, an assembly, of a crowd?

What we are witnessing, what we are constructing, are parallel systems of the artist user and the audience user. They are users of some shared, and some distinct entities. On the part of the artist, he or she is engaged with the institutional host and the limitations of the platform that the host presents to them. In the extravagances of the production budget and the network of supporters, critics, and various patrons are disillusioned to such limits.

In the case of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Tate’s Turbine Hall we might imagine the rotation of sitters across from his brunch table in the Tate Modern staff room. The emergence of the Turbine Hall with the Weather Project concerns the assembly as a crowd and no longer only a single spectator and no other. This also situates Eliasson as an event-a stage-a spectacle. Who was asking what questions and at what point in the duration of preparing the installation did these conversations take place? It distinguishes his own risks and triumphs from those who use and enjoy his work. It locates the various aesthetic or conceptual issues as in the work, or conversely, from the work. It creates for us as spectators the elimination of all but the working of the human subject in the space of the encounter. It provides an opening into such a space where we decide upon the human subject to become a subject-or-rather-to enter into the composing of a subject and in the event in which we are asked to perform.

The people have come. Do they know what they want, and do they know what to do? For what is the art task that needs to be completed? It needs the validity and the articulation to construct active subjects through a directed transmission of the conditions for production (a sensation of the conditions of production). With this the political task of art practices co-produced in relation to the visitor or viewer can go through a constant process of renewal. For sociologist and curator Bruno Latour (1993), the art encounter is an entaglement with the nature of human subjectivity, for Pierre Bourdieu (DistinctionA Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), it is about taste.

"Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed."

Whose responsibility is this now?

I don’t think this has anything to do with morality but rather how we become human, social subjects who make judgements, not according to scientific experiments in a lab, but in the strange environments of spaces and spectacles which mingle with our bodies, mess up our minds to betray what we think we know.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Altermodern: Movement or Marketing?

How was the last lecture yesterday in the series? Hope there will be some comments to share.

I am looking forward to hearing the podcast so I can engage with the content of the talk.

In the meantime today's contribution is to get us all to think about is the thought provoking
essay called

Altermodern: Movement or Marketing?

By Nickolas Lambrianou

Is the concept of 'The Altermodern', which organises Nicholas
Bourriaud's Spring art blockbuster at Tate Britain, anything more than
re-spun curatorial spin? -- asks Nickolas Lambrianou

Here's the link

Notice the number of textile metaphors used.

An interesting challenge to what is becoming an increasingly dominant orthodoxy in what to show and how to show
a diverse range of contemporary practices.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Textures of the everyday and the paradoxes of survival

It is great that Syvnia's comment and response to the blog of today notes the paradox and the excitement of re framing the everyday and the overlooked, the organised chaos and the textures of how 'we' might live (and indeed survive) in a our globally anxious world.

Any other comments here? Seems to have touched a nerve?. What do our anchors become? How do we maintain them?

continuing the blog but not the bog of yesterday

Shinique Smith's "Good Knot" exhibition was shown at the Yvon Lambert gallery in London, UK last December. I was interested in press release which announces that the ways in which she uses twine, ribbon, and string attempts to compress the lives of the objects she ties together—clothing, textiles, shoes, stuffed toys, and other materials often overlooked within the canons of high art and culture. It appears that some of these materials may also have sentimental value for the artist, who has spoken of taking elements such as sheets or handtowels from her grandmother’s house in Baltimore, USA. Perhaps she will speak about these experiences in her lecture tomorrow? I observe from the images of her work that, Smith’s bundles range in scale from human-sized towers to smaller and more portable assemblages. The assemblage gathering connects to yesterday's citation of Sze and Wilkes. Does anyone agree?

Quoting the Lambert gallery press release, "The sculptures reflect on the economies of excess and need within objects from 'everyday' life". Do people agree with this? According to Michel de Certeau, everyday life is distinctive from other practices of daily existence because it is repetitive and unconscious. His most well-known and influential work in the United States has been 'The Practice of Everyday Life' in which he develops a theory of the productive and consumptive activity inherent in everyday life. de Certeau makes the claim that, "everyday life works by a process of poaching on the territory of others, recombining the rules and products that already exist in culture in a way that is influenced, but never wholly determined by societal rules and products".

This got me thinking about the themes of the lecture series and the blog. If there are art works, like Smith's, that refer to 'everyday' life, how conscious are 'we' in our making of poaching and raiding the territories of other practices, like craft to shift the rules of what can be overlooked?

Returning to Smith's ' Bale Variants' series of works, do they refer to the inequities of a global economy? How far does the throwaway clothing from First World countries shipped in bales to the Third World countries, make a political statement?. How readable is this? What kinds of knowledge production might we need in order to decode the message or is it obvious to all?

Is it possible to say that there is an aesthetic combination which results in a controlled chaos in Smith’s work?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Everyday Trash

I have been quiet with my blog contribution since April not least due to family moves in London. The last lecture of the series is 22nd so hope there will be lots more posts after the talk.

In the last discussion on April 7th there were lots of observations about the value of skill and crafting which may seem to be in opposition to the idea of trash and spectacle. We talked about Mathew Barney and his spectacular, interdisciplinary work. I would be interested to know what other bloggers thought about Sarah Sze and Cathy Wilkes. Sze appear to make something marvellous out of everyday trash. Precariously towering and sculptural structures are constructed from the stuff some of us might chuck in the trash can: lengths of old rope, paper scraps and all manner of plastic containers. There is a childish sense of fun in her work; as her forms appear just about to topple, they also start to levitate with all kinds of mischief. Perhaps the uncertainty of what she makes is as thrilling as it can be dreadful. It is something we haven't touched on in the blog before, the ideas of fun and mischief? On the other hand last year's Turner Prize nominee, Cathy Wilkes picks up detritus and carefully arranges it to form sculptural assemblages. Could look like a monumental disaster has occurred but we don't know why or where from.

So, are we talking about skill as a set of conceptual moves through the selection of the right kind of trash to be made into assemblage form? How far does fun and mischief enter the work? For a very different set of ideas about skill see: Fort example see Peter Dormer, ‘Thoroughly Modern Making’ in Arts & Crafts to Avant Garde: essays on the Crafts from 1880 to the Present, published in 1992 by the South Bank Centre, London, to accompany the exhibition, Arts & Crafts to Avant Garde, held at the Royal Festival Hall, London, UK, 1-31 May 1992 and David Pye, designer and woodcarver, analysed the confusion between moral and craftsmanly principles in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

David Pye’s 1968 text, which struggles with the meaning of “handmade” and “machine made” and opts instead for the “workmanship of risk” as opposed to the “workmanship of certainty.” Williams argued that Pye sets out , unconsciously, to propose many possibilities and starting points for critical making practices. This is embodied in the application of process and material revealing core territory of debate. Pye’s ideas led him to consider that extreme cases of the “workmanship of risk” are those in which a tool is held in the hand and no jig or any other determining system is there to guide it”. What is being drawn on here? Perhaps it is Pye’s notion that work depends on judgement, dexterity and care as opposed to predetermining results in advance of something being made.

Another set of ideas about skill and the arguments that it causes can be found in Christopher Frayling and Helen Snowdon in the UK magazine called "Crafts" No. 56 in. 1982. All the essays are republished and can be found in Harrod, ed; Christopher Frayling and Helen Snowdon , 'Perspectives on Craft," ... Craft Classics, UK Crafts Council, 1997.

What do people think?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

From Trash to Spectacle

This has been an interactive session to contribute to the blog. Questions, comments and images have come from the 12 advanced and material studies class at the Art Institute Tuesday 7th April 2009. The questions emerged from the lecture series and round table sessions that have happened over the last week in the School. It has been a great and informative session which we hope will continue with new posts and comments, web links and other images so that this interactive and collective enterprise continues.

With thanks to Amy Honchell and Karen Reimer for engaging in this process and to all the fibre students who directly participated.

Brain drain: Interdisciplinary Fashion/Fiber studies in the US

Why do conceptual fashion/fiber students have to leave the country in order for advanced wearable studies? Why is New York our only domestic option? Why are fiber and fashion departments so segregated at US art schools?