Monday, January 26, 2009

following up on the art instinct

I reviewed The Art Instinct months ago (though I don't remember if I did so on this blog or on the joculum LiveJournal) but now the newspaper reviews are coming out, and of course Arts and Letters Daily is linking to them immediately (I wonder why?!), so here is an extract from the review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, more uncritically celebratory than mine was, though I was impressed ("the best-equipped thinker in the world to explain"? one of the better ones, I would say...but Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano presents a nuanced enough review for a general audience):

"Paleolithic cave painter, Renaissance madrigalist, New Guinea carver, urban hip-hopper - each confirms us, Denis Dutton writes, as 'a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate and enrapture ourselves, from children's games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens.'

"Why do we create art and beauty? Dutton may be the best-equipped thinker in the world to explain.

"An American who serves as professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and founder and editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, Dutton used to run a contest to identify wretched academic prose. He then launched and still curates, an international digest of sophisticated cultural pieces that the Guardian named the 'best Web site in the world.'"

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

a few self-deleted posts later...promises of more to come re art shows

Cultures are complicated things. This is one of those firm grasps of the obvious that seem to elude the scholars as much as the general populace.

We have long since outgrown some of the stereotypes about cultures with which we grew up in the days before multicultural children’s books, but there is still a great deal of nonsense abroad regarding the immutability of cultural characteristics and the importance of maintaining cultural ownership of said characteristics and the objects that accompany them.

Two exhibitions currently in Atlanta weren’t designed to disprove that scholarly assertion, but they do demonstrate the paradoxes of hybridity and globalization.

“Walking to Guantanamo,” the photographs of Richard Fleming on his 2000 walk and hitchhike across Cuba, is presented at Whitespace in conjunction with a book recounting his experiences (with a book of photographs to come). Fleming undertook his on-the-ground exploration of the state of Cuban society armed with only a couple of cameras, a fluent knowledge of Spanish, and a few thousand dollars in small bills to last for several months.

He acquired firsthand experiences that ought to provide valuable information for sociologists, but the anecdotes alone are brilliantly written (and Fleming performs them beautifully in his readings, incidentally).

He ends up traveling at one point with a man who channels one of the orishas of Santeria, and repeatedly encounters the general practice of Afro-Caribbean religion. This hybrid practice, co-existing with anything and everything including Communism, is the adaptation of traditional West African practice to the circumstances of life in the Caribbean and the Americas after the Middle Passage from Africa to slavery. It has not only survived but evolved ever since.

So it was peculiar to be talking to people at the opening who projected their own issues into the photographs in the ways that they did. It isn’t unusual that people project their own issues into artworks; that it what the aesthetic encounter is all about; it is always already relational, a world of words to the end of it no matter whether the work be formal image or conceptual text.

And in truth it took a good deal of caption-reading to begin to understand what was going on in the photographs. There was an inevitable quantity of exoticism simply because anyone visiting another place sees the exotic first and foremost; it is why we are used to seeing the same exoticizing photographs even of Atlanta, photographs that frequently echo the images beloved of the Chamber of Commerce but just as often echo remembered pictures out of Walker Evans or, for the sophisticated, William Eggleston.

But Atlanta artists exoticize their own city, romanticizing down-at-the-heels spots that look cool but are nevertheless not particularly happy. As one friend quotes the joke of someone regarding the clichés of the Great Depression, “Growing up then, we didn’t know we were poor. We just knew we were plumb miserable.”

Anyway, Fleming has broken out of the mold of gorgeous-architecture-of-old-Havana or other genre photos. And it would be useful to compare and contrast, in the good old-fashioned essayistic way, what he has seen and what he has overlooked or chosen not to put in the show, versus the exhibitions of other photographers whose work has been seen and written about at Jackson Fine Art or Fay Gold Gallery. None of them will ever be confused with travel photographers, and it is the dramatic difference between the images they give us that makes them useful starting points for thinking about the conversations between cultures.

For as I pointed out on opening night, the world’s cultures have been mixing and matching for a very long time, and disparities of power do not change that fact. We are in the midst of immense change at the moment, and have been, and pieties about autonomizing and empowering cultures will not change the fact that all of our cultures are being altered by external factors, the empowered as much as the powerless.

The problem of power is a problem of politics, not culture. Cultures find their own ways of asserting power, and they slip between the barriers built by the guardians of official culture.

And the exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art from the Rubin collection, at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, is particularly illuminating in that regard. It’s also a larger and to some degree better show than the pioneering one presented at Emory University (in the art department gallery, which is not to be confused with the Carlos Museum).

How the artists of Lhasa become marketed in London (at Rossi & Rossi) and elsewhere, sometimes alongside the artists of the emigration, is a story worth pursuing, and apparently the Rubin Collection has full documentation. But for starters it is illuminating to look at what is being created inside Tibet as well as in exile.

Gonkar Gyatso’s setup self-portrait photos depicting himself as a Mao-suited cadre painting standard-issue socialist realism, a tangka painter celebrating the Dalai Lama, a New Age émigré, and an artworld celebrity are the only works that appeared in both the Emory and Oglethorpe shows (since most of the work in the two shows were paintings, there couldn’t have been overlaps of actual work otherwise). They illustrate, of course, the ironies of Tibetan artists of a certain age.

But there are curious biographical details about which we would like to know more (or I would, anyway). Tsering Nyandal, born in 1974, was educated in the exile school in Dharamsala from 1985 to 1993, then returned to Lhasa to work as an artist. This does not fit the expected models in any respect.

And the entire exhibition deserves an extended review, which I hope to give it one of these days. The conversations between tradition and innovation are more complex than we would anticipate, and it would be interesting to know just how much of this art is ever seen in Lhasa prior to export…and by whom. We would need on-the-ground observation to know what the composition of the art scene is in Lhasa and what role it plays in the society as it exists in 2009.

Friday, January 16, 2009

and this totally refers people to joculum.

I have long had an interest in how cognitive packages get delivered.

Also how physical packages get delivered, or presented, anyway; a long-ago exhibition of the exquisitely crafted boxes used for delivering ceremonial gifts in traditional Japan left me with a fresh appreciation for the role of etiquette as secular ritual, so that how the gift is presented or the artwork staged takes on a surplus energy that other societies pour into religious activities as well as their secular parallels…all this is commonplace stuff, but I always wonder why there are not more anthropological studies of, say, the taken-for-granted worldviews of those who consume the wares of the late Oscar de la Renta versus those who not only can only afford Wal-Mart, but like its stuff better than the high-end knockoffs that Target markets, giving us the style but not the designer label.

Probably the question is too inconsequential to be investigated, which is why it always interests me. I drop in on schlock fiction of various descriptions for similar reasons, if the subject matter interests me even if the manner of presentation does not: I want to know why people choose methods and objects that are not only less complex but less emotionally comforting than some of the available alternatives. (A large part of officially received culture, whether classical or contemporary, is actually neither complex nor comforting, and would be worth revisiting beginning with Derek Walcott’s famous closing line “The classics can console. But not enough.” But that would take us off into critiques of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, one of the beasts I find more noir-ish than most such books we love to hate.)

Anyway, I have several parallel tracks that would take a few two thousand word essays to do properly, so be forewarned. I am going to post this general note on both Counterforces and joculum, because the topic pertains to art and aesthetics as well as to anthropology and religious practice. One of the advantages of being congenitally unable to negotiate the ways of the world is that everything seems equally strange, and amenable to scholarly investigation.

So now we will begin a several-part investigation of cognitive packages, and marginal practices of all sorts, including the investigation of same. We (no, actually, I) shall begin with re-reading a classic text and go to a couple of pieces of previously mentioned scholarship and a curious new piece of popular fiction.

about joculum posts, plus.

This is a piece I wrote some time ago that is unashamedly about the past. I seem to be writing so many thousand words on that I find it hard to focus on turning out Atlanta art reviews. This is about art that was (sort of):

As a devotee of the intricately argued concept and the physically intricate art object, I am intrigued when something that appears to have been a physical object turns out to have existed only conceptually.

In the age of Photoshop, we are used to seeing entire buildings and indeed entire cities that exist only conceptually, but that’s really just an extension of photocollage and indeed of painting and drawing, where what never was on land or sea nevertheless appeared to our wondering eyes.

I suppose the installation art I’m thinking of is more parallel to the intentionally deceptive photocollage or piece of Photoshoppery, such as pictures of political figures consorting with unsavory types who were never even in the same room as the figures in question.

The pieces I’m thinking of were offshoots of the wedding of art and technology, wherein the technology frequently never delivered the aforementioned art, or did so only long enough to take a photograph.

Though one local artists ambitious uses of virtual reality eventually paid off in installations that worked a good deal of the time, I used to joke that an installation by so-and-so consisted of the artist flat on his back under a table full of equipment, shouting to listeners to explain what they would be experiencing if everything were working, which it was not and never would.

Likewise, there was an interactive installation by a nationally known artist that consisted of a photograph of the component parts and an article written as though the piece had actually worked, which it never did.

And one of the site sculptures in Piedmont Park back in the day of the Arts Festival never functioned at all, except when the circulating-water component was replaced by the flow from an off-camera hose long enough to allow a photographer to document the piece in operation.

All of this was back in the day when Jean Baudrillard was enthralling the art world with talk of simulacra as copies without an original. I wonder why the idea resonated so well.

Nowadays, of course, it is taken for granted that the image probably does not correspond to anything in physical reality, but as recently as twenty years ago, the faith in the veracity of photographs still lingered. One would have thought that the notion would have gone away in the wake of the Victorians’ photos of fairies dancing in the garden, but faith in fakes (to borrow the British title of Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality) seems endemic.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

in the era of fictions about fictions

Umberto Eco may have been among its theoreticians and Joan Fontcuberta one of many artists making full-blown art out of fictitious history, but for most Americans the website for The Blair Witch Project really popularized the concept of apparent reality created out of nothing but visually-convincing false documentation, providing an elaborately presented back story for a work of cinematic fiction that by itself was a rather slender production.

Lately, the concept of the acknowledged work of fiction accompanied by riddles with a real payoff has been revived, having been pioneered by Kit Williams' children's book Masquerade. The Da Vinci Code was one of many books that carried into the twentieth century the sort of solve-the-riddles-before-the-characters-do fiction from the nineteenth century that never went away completely (if you count the detective novel as part of the genre, but there it is the plot that is to be disentangled, not riddles intended as stumblingblocks rather than clues).

So Jay Wilson is right on time with "The Middle Chapters of O. M. Norling: The first half, what was left behind," currently at Jill Celeste Gallery and Palate Wine Bar through February 21. The fourteen paintings, signed O. M. Norling, are visual riddles, the first half of an oeuvre intended to be a message for someone (but who?), as the owner of the cleverly named Hölderlin Gallery observed in his notes and sketches from 1932, translated on the website and in signage in the gallery. Whether the Hölderlin clue is at all relevant, I can't say.

Other signage in the gallery / wine bar indicates that this is chapter 3 of the O. M. Norling saga, and that more chapters will be made available late in 2009, with exhibition to follow in 2010.

Details are available on and, were it not for the very real paintings hanging on the walls, one would think this a completely digital work of imagination. Where it is all going, and why, we shall see, if Wilson carries out his original plans and we live long enough.

The strategy has been insufficiently used over the years, and I hope the conceptual framework provides an adequate payoff for the patience involved.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Bookforum online: a recommendation

I am left with the feeling that the Dec/Jan issue of Bookforum ought to be worked through in a seminar. To say the least, it is one of those opportunities to be brought up to speed on a whole host of figures about whom one hasn't thought recently, or hasn't thought at all. Of course, I like it because I already agreed with most of the revaluations, but not thought them out as clearly. I shall leave undiscussed the question of which revaluations I disagree with. And now that I have italicized part of a word, I should answer the question asked by the reviewer of William Spanos' book on Edward Said: Spanos italicizes the "ing" in "be-ing" because he wants to emphasize (I think) the individual events (what the classic philosophers would have called "becoming") within the whole shooting match known collectively as "being." Next question.

I should note, since this is Counterforces and not joculum to which I am posting, that there are some nifty reviews of William Eggleston, Marcia Tucker's memoirs, and the ill-timed Seven Days in the Art World, which posts its story in bright colors just as economic collapse paints its grey on grey, and Hegel's owl of Minerva hoots in the tree before taking flight at nightfall. Also a review of new books on Tarkovsky, for those of us who adore his movies.