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.