Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Age of Earthquakes: In Lieu of a Review

The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present slipped into the global dialogue nearly a year ago now without much notice, in spite of being a three-person collaboration including a couple of intergenerational culture heroes of the artworld, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Shumon Basar was the name I had to look up, which turns out to be embarrassing since something by him was published in the same issue of Art Papers that marked my return to writing for that magazine in spite of my misgivings about feeling completely out of touch. Self-illustrative intuition.

For persons of a certain age (okay, I really mean “for me”), the book is a vertiginous experience: it is so obviously an hommage to Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s 1967 experiment, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.

The Medium is the Massage was a book about the end of the age of the book, the rise of televisual media; and Fiore’s inspired design escorted the reader, or more accurately the looker, through McLuhan’s dizzying ideas and into the world in which he or she or ze or they already lived. It was above all a lovely physical object about a world that was increasingly immaterial, a labyrinth of moving pictures flickering on movie and television screens and sounds plus spoken or sung words conveyed through wired-up speakers and transistor radios.

I was so unsettled by the visual quotations in Coupland, Obrist, and Basar’s book that I Googled a PDF of The Medium Is the Massage and after being annoyed by the anomalous cover packaging of this digitized version of a later edition (the quintessential Quentin Fiore white-lettering-on-black cover was a key part of the experience—a book about a world of saturated-color images at metaphoric warp speed, in which all the images coming at the reader in fast-paced page succession were in black and white),
I settled into the irritating experience of seeing double-page spreads at what looked to be very slightly less than 100%. (I wasn’t irritated consciously enough to look at the top of the window and see if this was so.) I had scrolled through just enough to confirm my recollection of the startling quality of the original book when the remainder of the pages contained only the text “Whoops! Something went wrong and this page did not download.”

It was one of those glorious bridge moments between The Medium Is the Massage and The Age of Earthquakes that falls into the category of “You can’t make this stuff up.”

In any case, the latter book is also a vertiginous sensory experience, though perhaps twice as vertiginous for those for whom it brings back the experience of being a college senior and holding a book that tried to illustrate the weighty theory, only semi-intelligible, that Understanding Media had conveyed only a year or two before.

For one thing, The Age of Earthquakes is a sexy object. The American edition, anyway; the rainbow-sheen reflection of the silvery-inked cover recalls the cover of the monumental exhibition catalogue for a turn-of-the-millennium show, which show I cannot quite remember, and I am not going to put down the laptop and go hunt for the catalogue. An image search of keywords didn’t reveal the name of it.
In any case, the heft of this little book is quite remarkable; the trio of authors obviously put considerable thought into the weight of the paper stock, because something that looks as if it should be feather-light is quite substantial, in a size that fits the hand. (Again, in the American edition, so I am basing my supposition on inadequate information; but the American hard-copy edition was published three weeks prior to the British hard-copy edition, which I have seen only onscreen—again, at less than 100% of the page size of the physical object. The onscreen preview of the American print edition is more than 100% on my laptop, and each page needs to be scrolled down to see all of it. Interesting…)

Having belatedly discovered the book in late 2015 through the Douglas Coupland page on Amazon (I somehow missed Art Papers’ March 7 Facebook post congratulating Basar on its publication), I am particularly amused by the page spread updating Jenny Holzer’s truism: “Protect me from what Amazon suggests I want.”

So this is a book about the mental habits of a fast-changing age of digital media in the same way that the McLuhan/Fiore book was about the mental habits of a fast-changing age of analog media. And in the same way, it contains a good many trenchant observations alongside remarks that are not meant to be taken seriously, or at least cannot be taken seriously even if the authors intended them to be taken seriously.
This is why I am far more forgiving of the book’s possible flaws than are the reviewers I’ve read thus far online. ARTnews senior editor M. H. Miller takes the authors to task for offering two contradictory opinions about the Internet a few pages apart, even though one of them is more or less documented and serious and the other is obviously written as the kind of preposterous opinion that people write in Facebook posts at three o’clock in the morning—drunk Facebooking being one of several updated social-media versions of drunk dialing.

Miller calls out our boys for the egregiously unfortunate bad timing of a page that reads, “Rodney King was the YouTube of 1993. If it happened today would it be able to compete with everything else?” Although (as Miller admits) the book was on its way into print before the succession of viral iPhone documentations of police brutality, Miller points out that not even the chronology in this remark is correct: Obrist/Coupland/Basar are remembering the year that the Rodney King video was incorporated into the Whitney Biennial, not the year it first burst into public consciousness, which was 1991. In fact, Spike Lee had already used it in the title sequence of Malcolm X in 1992.

I had failed to notice the erroneous date, but it seems to me to resemble the systematic misinformation with which I am bombarded every time I open Facebook. This species of self-confidently wrong and questionably grammatical meme shows up more times per day than I am capable of guessing an average number for.

I might find a book reviewer who gets the point if I kept scrolling through the Google results, but three reviews into the process, I am flabbergasted at how much the reviewers hate the book, and how much they seem incapable of understanding a book about being “smupid” that is so illustrative of its own premise that at least some of it has to be deliberate, even if some of it is just the usual phenomenon of being unable to see our own blindness. (The condition of “smupidity” in which the digital present leaves us is complemented by “stuartness”—the one being “smart+stupid” and the other “stupid+smart.” The book is both at once, or at least in quick succession, which is part of the point. One reviewer wrote, if I remember rightly, “If I wanted something that looked like the Internet, I’d go to, uh, the Internet,” and another wrote “I read books to get away from this kind of shit,” which is so unendurably thickheaded that I would have thrown the review across the room had it not been on my laptop screen, making it a bad impulse to which to succumb.)

The pacing of the book makes visible and forces into awareness all the onscreen phenomena with which we are too familiar to bother to reflect upon them. This is a longstanding practice in experimental literature and design, and I cannot believe that book reviewers not only for a major West Coast newspaper but for a venerable art magazine should be so incapable of comprehending this book’s place in that equally venerable history.

But then, we live in an age of growing illiteracy, don’t we? Visual illiteracy as well as textual. An age in which the information we have literally at our fingertips is only the information that we already know we can have at our fingertips.

The Age of Earthquakes is annoyingly smart-ass and conceptually smug, but that comes with the territory of being part of the artworld, and should be discounted appropriately. I like the moments in which it shakes up my perception more than the moments in which it reminds me of how insufferable a place the artworld really is. (One reason I usually just sit here with my books and my laptop until an art object comes along that makes me want to interact with it in spite of the insufferable social environment that surrounds it.)
Too bad nobody who has had it dumped on their desk as a review copy had their perception shaken as a result. Are even senior editors of art magazines what the McLuhan generation called P.O.B.’s? It is quite significant that the many, many definitions of that acronym in an online urban dictionary do not include Print-Oriented Bastard.

...Okay, update at 4:32 a.m. on December 5, as I go in quest of images to add to this post: Shumon Basar's interview at offers a linear, highly intelligent disquisition on the themes of the book, along with the name of the man who probably made those decisions about the paper stock and page size (although I wonder who decided on the radical disparity between the covers of the U.S. and U.K. editions).

Although his name does not appear on the front cover, Wayne Daly is this book's Quentin Fiore. So now you know.

Friday, May 15, 2015

another note on global and local biennales

Some years ago, I staged a two-artist biennale that existed only in the form of catalogue documentation of an event that never took place, to make the point that this was the only way in which most of us would ever experience the sprawling immensities of the Venice Biennale or Documenta or a host of other global art events. Today I would have to establish a website, but there are so many bogus documentations of all sorts on the internet today that the thrill is gone. We trust (mostly) in the accuracy of the reportage on biennales that few of us will ever visit.

The idea of a biennale that one has no option
but to visit, however, appeals to me. One with no curators, a self-organizing biennale within the parameters of a conceptually vague theme, is a commentary on the DIY aesthetic that may not have been intended when the definers (not the organizers) created the idea of the Mardin Biennial.

Of course, the project has a website, but I am not sure how one goes about documenting the event comprehensively. The notion of the carnivalesque, the site-specific that can only be experienced, but on a more intimately local level that demands total immersion and cannot be exported—unlike the video and sound pieces of the global biennials that can't be captured on a website but can be restaged in the world's museums. The Mardin Biennial sounds to an outsider like a hybrid between the critical deglobalized biennial Ali Artun calls for and Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence—a place where ignored or forgotten everyday objects become the stuff of fictional biographies or biographical fictions.

Here is the entire content of an email about it that I received from one of the only non-local artists in the biennial. Given the caveats I have just recited, I have no way of determining the authenticity of all this other than getting on a plane to the city in question:

3rd Mardin Biennial
15 May – 15 June, 2015

Opening 15th of May at 6 pm

3rd Mardin Biennial organized by Mardin Cinama Society. The conceptual frame of the biennial was set up with reference to Ali Artun.

Within the conceptual framework of ‘Mythologies’, the most essential aspect of the biennale is that it will have no appointed curator. Instead, the biennale will be realized with the contribution of local people in Mardin as well as other volunteered individuals including:

Döne Otyam, Ferhat Özgür, Fırat Arapoğlu, Mehmet Baran, Claudia Segura Campins, Sait Tunç, Mesut Alp, Fikret Atay, Hakan Irmak, Özge Ersoy, Ferhat Satıcı, Hülya Özdemir, Canan Budak, Can Bulgu.

Mardin is centrally located within a geography of antique civilizations, stretching from Egypt to India. It still retains noteworthy traces of the symbolic world, the universe of icons and myths, the art and literature it has created, amassed and, in turn, benefitted for centuries. These traces still survive in the daily lives of Mardin’s inhabitants, in their living environment as much as in the ethnographical and architectural heritage of the city.

The talismans, amulets, icons, jewels, garments, books, pictures, photographs, pots and pans, glasses and dishes, rugs and carpets accumulated in houses, shops, workshops form what can be called ‘cabinets of curiosities’: private ‘museums’ where objects form mysterious relations with one another and write unspoken myths. In these ‘museums’, antiquities and ordinary objects, as well as various times that are inscribed in them, constantly bestow new significations upon each other. You may come across such dream worlds on the workbench of a knife-sharpener, or the counter of a coppersmith’s; at a pigeon-trainer’s stall; in a church or a bar as well as in the nooks and crannies of houses. The objective of the 3rd: the poetry and magic to these cabinets of curiosities that have long ago abandoned them. It calls on artists to explore their memory, to write their mythology.

The 3rd Mardin Biennial is curated by a collective, constituted mostly of locals. Likewise, many of the artists are also locals, among them also artisans and craftsman. Hence, this version of the Mardin Biennial suggests an alternative approach by questioning the prevailing biennial procedure where a single curator, who is unfamiliar with the context and setting, single-handedly decides who to exhibit, what to exhibit, and how to exhibit it. This Biennial vehemently opposes the reduction of the local cultural milieu to an exhibition décor and the Mardin Biennial is to return identification of the locals with an exhibition forced on them, in other words, to the branding of Mardin by an autocratic curator who imposes a certain view upon the city, its memory and its history. Instead, the proposal is to conceive the Biennial as a Mardin carnival, therefore evoking such concepts as game, chance, spontaneity, serendipity, intimacy and collectivity as means for political resistance. Such a biennial will undoubtedly be more captivating for the locals who had previously been alienated from art events in their own city as well as for the visiting outsiders who will be exposed to exhibits that truly engage with their context. More importantly, it will give the artists that will participate in the Mardin Biennial a chance to experience this city and bond with its unique imaginative and poetic world.


Mor Efrem Manastırı, Alman Karargahı, Keldani Kilisesi, Mardin Müzesi, Videoist , Açık Hava Sineması (Sun Cinema), Mardin Bazaar.

Participating artists

Ahmet Elhan // Aikaterini Gegisian // Alban Muja // Ani Setyan // Antonio Cosentino // Aysel Alver // Babak Kazemi // Canan Budak // Claire Hooper // David Blandy // Deniz Aktaş // Dilan Bozyel // Dilara Akay // Eda Gecikmez // Elena Bajo // Erick Beltrán // Ethem Erkan // Evrim Kavcar // Fani Zguro // Fırat Engin // Gabi Yerli // Hakan Kırdar // Halil Altındere // Haris Epaminonda // Iratxe Jaio & Klaas Van Gorkum // Işıl Eğrikavuk-Jozef Erçevik Amado // İbrahim Ayhan // Iman Issa // Isabel Rocamora // Juan Del Gado // Khaled Hafez // Krassimir Terziev // Lena Von Lapschina // Mehtap Baydu // Melih Apa // Metin Ezilmez // Miquel Garcia // Mike Berg // Murat Akagündüz // Murat Germen // Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz // Nadi Güler // Necla Rüzgar // Nezir Akkul // Nooshin Farhid // Oriol Vilanova // Özlem Günyol-Mustafa Kunt // Pedro Torres // Romain Kronenberg // Sait Tunç // Stuart Brisley // Şefik Özcan // Thierry Payet // Ursula Mayer // Yavuz Tanyeli // Yaygara

Videoart program curated by Claudia Segura Campins and Özge Ersoy (with the collaboration of Loop Fair 2014)

Anne-Valerie Gasc// Antonio Paucar// Levi van Veluw// Oscar Muñoz// Zhou Tao

For more information:

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"And all directions I come to you": not a review of a preview, please

Wild Beast Zero: Some Reflections (Perhaps in a Funhouse Mirror; That, I Know Not) on an Encounter in a Preview of glo’s “And all directions I come to you”

Jerry Cullum

I have been looking recently at a good many books from my youthful years…some, like Goethe’s Faust or Charles Francis Potter’s The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed, from really, really youthful, as in age fourteen. “Looking at,” not “reading,” because I am trying to sort through more than a lifetime’s worth of accumulated detritus. (I inherited things from my parents’ own early lives, like elegantly designed sets of playing cards and bridge tally sheets, things I can neither use nor discard. Kind of like personal memory in that regard.)

One of the books I have thus encountered is the first volume of Erich Neumann’s Jungian text The Origins and History of Consciousness, a book that set my future course rather firmly when I read it in my senior year of college. It wasn’t an assigned text at my experimental interdisciplinary school; in fact, I had to smuggle an in-depth study of depth psychology into my personal curriculum by way of a seminar in literary criticism in which I proposed to approach criticism through phenomenology and “a theology of consciousness.”

So imagine my delight back then at the synchronistic encounter, in the secondhand copy of Neumann’s book that I found at Haslam’s bookshop, with what now seems to me to be an unintended work of conceptual art; the happy accident certainly reflected the ironic visual and textual juxtapositions I had produced the year before in a wall-filling collage in my dorm room without knowing that the genre had a name.

“The fact this volume is being used as a textbook does not mean that the University endorses its contents from the standpoint of morals, philosophy, theology, or scientific hypotheses.” Think these thoughts, in other words, but do not believe them.

Study consciousness, read books that claim to give an analysis of how consciousness operates, but hold fast to your verbally expressed opinions even if everything in the book suggests that you should mistrust your verbally expressed opinions.

I laughed at the idea of a fundamentalist university having to offer a course undermining all its presuppositions, whereas my religiously liberal college offered a smattering of this opinion in our freshman year alongside Freud’s demolition of religion, and never mentioned it again.

I wanted to understand why human beings do all the incredibly strange things that they do, and here was a system that explained it all from the Paleolithic caves onward. All of it, visual art, warfare, erotic obsession, egomania, altruism, pyromaniac barn burning (I’m borrowing that one from the late James Hillman, whose books I also discovered in that year), and whatever else you can give a name to or fail to find a name for.

The only thing that bothered me was that C. G. Jung reported some very strange occurrences in his life in the autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections that his system apparently failed to explain. He didn’t seem to notice the contradiction.

He did express the opinion that empirical research would eventually establish the relationship between the verbal and nonverbal behavior that he analyzed so convincingly and their neurological underpinnings.

All these years later, I remain baffled by why human beings do all the things they do; since all cultures seem equally alien to me and all of them seem to be doing no more than establishing provisional reasons for responding to their physical surroundings in the way that they do, it should come as no surprise that I now find all the psychological explanations to be grounded in the personality types of the people who espouse them. Lacanians have Lacanisn personalities, and I don’t like most of them very much. Jungians have Jungian personalities, and people who believe that consciousness is entirely computational have the kind of personalities you would expect people would have who believe that sort of thing.

It all seems extremely odd. The sciences of human behavior and human culture are constantly claiming to have a degree of certitude that confers predictive value, but they never quite manage to describe the entire empirical situation satisfactorily.

As Erich Heller wrote about Nietzsche’s philosophy, and I quote from fallible memory, “Some philosophies are like mountains; you climb them, or they are too tough for you. In either case, you can be certain of your relationship to them. Other philosophies are like longstanding cities; to ask ‘Do you know Nietzsche?’ is like asking ‘Do you know Rome?’ The answer is simple only if you have never been there.”

By and large, we exist in that latter relationship to our own minds and bodies, and to the surroundings in which we operate. We are strangers to ourselves.

Which, and I swear I was not trying to go there, turns out to be the word (“strangers”) that is operative in the creation of gloAtl’s new dance performance “And all directions I come to you.”

I have about as alien a relationship to dance as I do to human cultures or human psychology; dancers are, whatever else they are, at home in their bodies, which given the right kind of prodding will pretty much do what the dancers want them to do. (I seem to recall a passage from the Apostle Paul about all of this, but I am trying to repress that digression.)

This particular six-hour performance is going to be presented nomadically in parts of Central Park, courtesy of Nato Thompson and Creative Time. I once had an argument (actually, more of an indignant shouting match) with Nato Thompson when he dissed an artist in the audience who just wanted to sit in her studio and make artwork, rather in the way that I am sitting alone in my apartment writing and revising this reflection; I yelled that only an extrovert could possibly view with disdain persons who wanted to sit in seclusion until they had prepared a face to meet the faces that they meet (a “face,” a.k.a. an artwork, and I am quoting T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in that last phrase). All that would have taken too much time to say, so what I yelled was, “Spoken like a true extrovert!” and I don’t remember what I said after that.

For all of that, even introverts have to show up in public occasionally, however much they associate public interaction with past embarrassments. (Public interaction is not the same thing as appearing onstage, where they are not interacting with an audience, they are performing solo.)

Thus did I find myself an audience member at a private preview of the artwork that Lauri Stallings and dancers had been preparing in seclusion in the studio and were now activating for persons whom Lauri considered friends before trying it out on complete strangers. I knew Lauri but not the dancers, being as how I don’t interact with folks after their performances, not if there is a side door through which to avoid face-to-face encounter.

I knew in advance that the piece would require quite a bit of perambulation by the audience, having become rather proud at my capacity to follow the wrong trail and be seduced by the sideshow being performed by a single dancer while the spectacular stuff was taking place at the opposite end of the piazza or the skatepark or wherever. Since I have long noted my tendency to zig when a passerby from the opposite direction is sagging, thus creating mutual immobility and the occasional collision, it came as no surprise that I was constantly occupying the vacant space that an entire troupe of dancers was about to traverse at top speed.

Hence my attempt to get out of the way when the entire group came sweeping by me in what seemed like yet another unintended path-blocking on my part. I continued to retreat, trying to get out of the way, until I realized I was the way.

At that point there was nothing for it but to freeze in my tracks and assume a neutral position, facing the audience but looking neither at them nor at the dancers. It is a posture I have mastered over the years after great effort.

[Photo © Catherine Wilmer and used by prior permission.]

And I stayed frozen and immobile until it became obvious that the dancers were also trying to establish eye contact, a strategy well known from previous gloATL appearances and one of the reasons I try to stay in the back row at anybody at all’s performances known to include audience interaction.

It is one of those introvert’s moments in which it becomes apparent that this is probably the greatest amount of intimacy they have experienced since some rather distressingly distant time, if ever, after which they embrace the artificiality of the situation and go with the flow. (I was too much in the moment to remember it then, but I know from the one scene in which I co-starred in Carol Lafayette’s video based on my poem Skateboarding in Sarajevo, the intense gaze of the performer is accompanied by counting off the seconds.)

We now know, thanks to the notorious New York Times article of a few months ago about how to fall in love with one another when you can’t seem to make it happen, that mutual gazing makes oxytocin levels rise regardless of your opinions in the matter. I loved the whole experience. And the later delectable, deliberate anomaly of the way in which the whole audience was eventually brought into personal communion was fascinating because it worked when I have been in so many similar situations in which it did not, including ones in which I very much longed for it to happen.

I have no idea how all this is going to play out in the company of total strangers* together in Central Park. It would be charming to see some of it happen.

I have omitted, because I was not asked to write about it (this is my response to some other audience members’ request—not glo’s), the actual subtext of the whole performance, the burden of Southern history and the endless task of creating union where there has never, ever been unity. (“The burden of Southern history” is the title of a once-famous book, as I find it necessary to state explicitly before I get credited with coining a phrase.) See the Facebook page for ‘And all directions I come to you.”

The title of this essay comes from the name of the swarming maneuver that forms the central focus of this narrative; “And all directions I come to you” is composed of something like 138 “systems”—not sure of the number—that are invoked in sequence, thus breaking up a very long event into manageable units of movement that can be changed in response to circumstances.

*This phrase is a semi-quotation from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” to which I listened obsessively during my loneliest periods of isolation at age twenty-two in Santa Barbara.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

My manifesto regarding art reviewing landed with a predictable dull thud, garnering a tenth of the response from the Facebook link than the reaction to my Facebook posting of an icon of the Entry into Jerusalem with a comment on Byzantine objects in context, a post that was universally misinterpreted but I haven't had time to explain what I was actually talking about since the responses that it did elicit were right on target, just on target about a parallel topic.

So given the lack of excitement about the topic of why there are no art reviewers, I shouldn't spend too much time bewailing again the fact that art reviewing is mostly limited to people who don't have a life, or who have sufficient predictable income so as not to need to hold down two day jobs and one night one. The problem is that there are not enough people who can write, are motivated to write, and don't have a life or are able to allot their limited free time to make space for art reviewing in it.

This has to be the reason some of the shows not yet reviewed have gone unreviewed. Case in point would be "Gathered" at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia: some stunning works by artists we previously didn't know about (and whoever took up the challenge, I now realize, should have limited themselves to discussing artists they had never heard of previously). Seventy-seven artists makes for an unreviewable show, the more so in that the work ranges from pleasurable surprises from artists we thought we knew well already to pleasurable discoveries to the inevitable seeming missteps that were probably made for perfectly defensible reasons. One person's misstep is another person's stroke of genius. These will be the works that other people would regard as the best things in the show. Maybe Andy Warhol was right when he commented something to the effect of, "I like the type of critic that just puts people's names down."

Other shows require so much question-asking and thought about how to present them that by the time I know how to talk about the show, the show's over. Item: Katherine Behar at Eyedrum, where we'll have to wait for Meredith Kooi's review for Art Papers to get the scoop on how well Behar handles the well-worn trope of machines that keep replicating themselves and performing functions designed by humans long after the species that designed them thus has gone extinct. Behar's functioning machines, based on underlying parts from already existing kinetic tchochkes, are as impossibly cute as the robotic critters of several well-known sci-fi movie fantasies; they include an actual 3-D printer turning out plastic jackets for the adjacent population of machines that do something or other; whether these are the ones that emit the Morse-code cries of "Mommy! Daddy!" I'm not clear on.

Ryan Coleman's reworkings of a familiar visual genre at Sandler Hudson, but incorporating his past expertise with turning out animation cels, is another case of something not getting written about unless someone has stepped forward since the last time I checked. I could go on, but I have already had arguments with people in the community (not with the legendary gatekeepers, who keep the gate much less stringently than people imagine) about which of the many other unreviewed shows deserve to be first past the post.

Since Nicholas Adams prodded me to go look at the Georgia State MFA shows, I should say you have one and one half more days (I think) to see some remarkably accomplished work by Adams, Lauren Gunderson, and Kelly Stevenson, but I have to rush off to an appointment at the Papermaking Museum where there is a historically and aesthetically important exhibition of a seventeenth-century (I think) atlas with revealingly colonialist border illuminations. Post links to your pics in the comment thread, people. Unless comments have been disabled and I don't know about it.

More later, I would hope.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and the Dissemination of Art Information

Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and Crowdsourcing

I have recently had a conversation about “good bad art” and “bad good art,” by which I mean several different things in both categories.

“Good bad art” can be art that has everything wrong with it except faultless technique, or art that is unselfconsciously wrong in terms of genre or subject matter but that approaches that genre or subject matter in a way that redeems the artwork from the status of kitsch, or shades off into what I call defensible guilty pleasures—art that has such egregious problems on certain levels that its virtues do not really redeem it, but we love it anyway because it touches the parts of our personality that were formed prior to the age of four.

“Bad good art” is to be found in many galleries—art that meticulously rehearses well-worn strategies without contributing a scintilla of personal passion or imagination to the process, or art that imitates current passions and fashions in ways that work well enough, but really do no more than play with ideas and visual themes for which other artists metaphorically and occasionally literally are sweating blood. And there are many other kinds of bad good art, not based on passionless reproduction but nevertheless falling short in some way or another, difficult to define except on a case by case basis—one case in point being pompously meaningless or unnecessarily opaque conceptualism proclaiming its superiority. (What one person perceives as pomposity is another person’s deep seriousness, as any working critic learns very early when she or he praises something as being deeply serious.) Middlebrow art being inflated to conceptual greatness by insertion into a framework of ideas that can barely support it would be another commonplace type of bad good art—but anyone who claims that this is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes had better be prepared to back up their claim with acutely reasoned assessments.

The problem is, as I have implied above, is that people have perfectly valid reasons for liking every one of these things, even the ones they think they ought not to like. We are all shaped by our personal experience before the age of four, and we are all shaped by the social context in which we live and move and have our being. When we are overwhelmed with excitement by something that may on reflection turn out to be not all that great, what drives our excitement is usually a combination of personal factors.

Plenty of people dislike “good good art”—in fact, there are subgenres of it that do nothing for me, and I have to labor very hard to muster the enthusiasm to discuss just why this art is as good as it is on every level. Even more people (or at least it seems that way to the cognoscenti) like “bad bad art.”

Lowbrow is distinguished by the wish to find the good bad art out there in genres awash in bad bad-artmaking, and to show rather than say why it is good. Just as with every other genre traditional or transgressive, there is good lowbrow and bad lowbrow, and the genre itself has fallen out of fashion, I think, because its point has been made, just as nobody wanted to use the term postmodern any more once it was recognized that what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity was a different social and aesthetic environment from the sets of assumptions and economic conditions under which modernism flourished and in which what we called modernity took on its distinguishing shape.

But I digress.

The point I actually wanted to get to is that art criticism ought to be devoted to contextualizing and whatever degree of objective evaluating can be done—and I am not sure how we assign relative proportions of success to people whose art fails because they meant to do that, people whose art succeeds because (not “even though”) they have no idea why their artmaking is successful, and so on. There are semi-objective standards of comparison that seem to obtain across many cultures and subcultures, but they are modified in each cultural context, and comparison is a difficult business. There is even good kitsch and bad kitsch, although there the points of comparison are so challenging that it takes something like Tyler Stallings’ fabled exhibition tracing the birth of black velvet painting to make us contemplate why there ought to be, and is, an art history book about black velvet painting.

Art reviewing or art journalism is something else again. It sits somewhere between critical analysis and consumer guide, usually with the extreme discomfort that comes from being positioned between opposing categories.

Most artists and galleries would like to have their two-thousand-word analysis, preferably with the good stuff parked up front like in an old-style newspaper story, not like academic articles where the argument is made step by step and what journalists would call the lede is buried at the very end, where we discover at last the fundamental insight that all this analysis has been preparing us to realize. (This is why academic journals frequently insist on the inclusion of a hundred-word précis, introducing the conclusions to which the article eventually comes.)

The real artworld desire, though, is for a vehicle for marketing, whether it is called that or not. How many shows do we wish we had seen (whether we are art buyers or only art viewers), had we only known that they were there, and how to get to them in a time that suits our crowded schedules? But that we wish we had known existed, first and foremost.

Art reviewing sites are wedded to the older model of recommending the best of the best, and more realistically, whichever parts of the best of the best can be gotten to and be written about by a limited pool of art writers. Increasing the number of art writers decreases the number of brilliant shows that go unreviewed, but does nothing to solve the problem of the greater number of shows that go unmentioned.

Art reviewing sites also are confronted with the problem of discerning what on earth “the best of the best” really means, when “best” is defined so differently in different communities. We might well be left with the problem of wishing to write about the best good bad art, for example, in some month when it is more interesting than any of the bad good art that is out there. At best, we write occasionally about why good bad art deserves attention, and why bad good art is sometimes so unremittingly bad.

But then other communities, some of them quite well informed indeed, will insist that we are writing nonsense, although they are much more likely to say that we have our heads inserted into an anatomically impossible orifice.

Subcultures create critical discussions of their own, of which the dominant culture (if it deserves to be called a culture at all these days, rather than a consensus) is usually unaware. This permits feelings of superiority that are not just an unjustified hipper-than-thou, but it means that there are all sorts of shows and events that go unpublicized outside of social media. There are an equal number of traditional shows and events that are well publicized, but never reviewed, because they will generate a traditionally minded audience without the necessity of being written about.

SCAD had (it’s been years since I looked for them, so I don’t know if the experiment was abandoned) interview-based videos surveying art shows. The problem with interview-based videos in general (which have continued) is that they are also time-based, and few people have the time to sit and listen just to find out whether this is something in which they would be interested.

Facebook friends (I have no idea what is evolving on the other social media sites) seem to be posting individual images from current exhibitions, and short videos devoid of commentary. This makes it possible to tell at a glance whether this is something in which we personally would be interested, without producing the impression that we have now found out enough about it to know that we are happy that it exists but do not feel the need to see it in person. (This latter perception is usually wrong—non-digital work usually needs to be seen directly, not via a digital reproduction—but understandable. That is, however, another subject entirely.)

I now reach my long-deferred conclusion. Just in case you are skimming this, as well you should.

Oughtn’t we to have a single go-to site that incorporates this sort of information? Yes, yes, yes, I know it would be cluttered with personal puffery in no time if it were not hedged about with crowd-enforced rules—but unspoken rules of behavior have already evolved in the friends network to which I allude. People seldom post every single work in their exhibition; they pick and choose, and discreetly provide a URL for more information. Friends and other strangers (I quote Bob Dylan with that phrase) who are enthusiastic about a show are even more credible sources, but there are many occasions when we would not know about very good work if the artist were not engaging in a species of self-publicizing that is more than braggadocio.

Some friends (not on Facebook) plan their weekends by investigating the gallery websites and looking at works by the artists having openings (not necessarily the works to be exhibited in the upcoming show). These folks already self-edit because they know what they like, and they do not expect to find anything that interests them at certain galleries—but these ipso facto uninteresting exhibition venues are different galleries for different folks (sorry to echo the wording of the late Fritz Perls’ annoying maxim).

When I suggest that these folks might be missing something and ought to be given a more comprehensive way of rapidly perusing the available options, I am told that there are link-based arts calendars for that. But bare lists of names with clickable ways to get more information require more patience than most folks have. We have nothing in between listings and, if I may allude to a literary reference I have been trying in vain to track down, more than we wanted to know about penguins.

Right now, one-sentence verbal summations combined with something like Terry Kearns’ short exhibition videos seem like an excellent way of accessing basic information that can then be followed up on. (I assume the gallery URL could be embedded in the video caption.) Terry Kearns has said that although he is fulfilling a perceived need, he doesn’t want to take it up as a profession.

We have new ways of accessing information; we ought to figure out how to use them in ways that benefit communities with a wide variety of interests, technological savvy, and attention spans.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Nick Madden's "I'll Die High" at Eyedrum

One of the greater artworld injustices is the lack of attention paid to Nick Madden's "I'll Die High" at Atlanta's Eyedrum. A major reason for this may be the show's bizarre violation of categories: cartoonish kinetic sculpture is not supposed to be an appropriate vehicle for thoughtful consideration of death, especially the death of one parent by cancer and the inner death of the other parent via dementia.

Waiting features a crank allowing viewers to make the figure's teeth chatter, a strange, excellent metaphor for the isolated nervousness of kin in hospital waiting rooms everywhere. The show continues in this vein, ending with a marquee-like sign reminding us that one day we will die.

The meaning of this exhibition isn't entirely clear without the information provided by Eyedrum staff, and that may be its chief problem. Viewers have had no trouble making up stories about things like this figure about which we are invited to pull gently on the cord until we see the light (which does eventually appear, for the patient viewer).

There is only one day remaining in the exhibition as I write this, but a closing reception is scheduled for Friday evening, March 27.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Note Regarding the Artist's Talks for Two Atlanta Exhibitions, March 21, 2015; a non-review even more non- than usual

Space, Time, and Gender: or, why you should go to Pete Schulte’s talk at Whitespace at 2 p.m. this coming Saturday, March 21, and then get over to Meredith Kooi and Nicole Akstein’s similarly structured talks at Kibbee Gallery at 3 p.m.

“Imbued with history and memory, the objects inhabiting our world breathe and vibrate. These objects and their surroundings are constantly on the precipice of becoming strange to us.” So writes Meredith Kooi in “Enstranged Spaces,” her half of “Close,” the two-person show at Atlanta’s Kibbee Gallery curated by Chanel Kim.

The work of defamiliarization (cf. Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt as both distinct from and related to Shklovsky’s defamiliarization or ostranenie) is different in each generation, and right now it seems as unexpectedly phenomenological as anything else, although Kooi claims to be incorporating history in a way that only existential phenomenology ever managed heretofore—Merleau-Ponty being a case in point, perhaps.

But biology has lately also come into play, thanks to the momentarily famous debate over “What color is this dress?” wherein the distortions imposed by poor lighting in a cellphone photo and online viewers’ wildly variant screen quality combined with randomly reproduced jpegs led to an argument that then led to the realization that we see differently not just because we have different histories but because we have different retinas. Take that, Louis Althusser.

I am engaging in wisecracking banter instead of getting down to cases because in this case, I am not quite sure what the case is. Still less am I sure in the case of Pete Schulte’s Whitespace and Whitespec exhibition “Light a Fire,” an incredibly site-specific evocation using things/artworks that are the opposite of site-specific; or rather, they transform the site in a specific way and would do so on whatever site they could be placed in this particular order.

Schulte’s objects and Kooi’s deploy geometry to opposite effects. The fact that I cannot say quite what those effects are is the reason I am writing this, the most non- of all the non-reviews I have thus far posted, for I cannot review work that I in no way claim to understand, only experience. The “wow” effect is positive in both cases, more so in Schulte’s because of the cumulative impact of the repetition of geometric forms in a minimal palette combined with a recording of evocative tonalities presented in the illusion of an antique playback medium (the vinyl record on a turntable has nothing to do with producing the soundtrack emanating from the machine’s embedded speakers). Something is going on that is reminiscent of what is going on in the best of Russian Constructivism, a body of work in which the archetypal qualities of the form and color subvert all of its would-be debunking rationalism. Schulte isn’t claiming to debunk anything, but what he actually is claiming to do is beyond me. The same goes for the specifics of Kooi’s installation, where the interplay of, for example, the transparent screen and video image on Kibbee Gallery’s famous stairs that lead nowhere produces a spectacle that is genuinely spectacular but elusive as to artist’s intent.

I think I am equally puzzled by the specifics of Nicole Akstein’s “Mother, Mae,” the other half of “Close.” Theoretically, I get that these photographs conceal or mystify as much as they reveal about Akstein’s actual mother. Her previous documentary work that documents events that are more staged performance than slice of life would lead me to conclude that. But I don’t know what the performances here are supposed to add up to, or even if they are supposed to add up.

Thus I can hope that it is physically possible to get from Schulte’s artist’s talk on Saturday March 21 at 2 p.m. to Kooi and Akstein’s talks at 3 p.m. the same day. Whitespace and Kibbee are not that far apart, but.

P.S. —I am confident that the artists have left sufficient clues for sufficiently committed viewers to puzzle out far more than I have been able to. I count myself as a casual viewer, always, except when a work of art so stops me in my tracks that I could commit the rest of my life to understanding it. Which works of art those are will differ for each human being on earth, and not only because of their biology and social history; the accidents of individual biography count for much, as well.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Few Hybrid Notes....

A Few Hybrid Notes on What Used to be Called Hybridity (What Do Folks Call It These Days? I Am So Out of the Academic Loop)

Jerry Cullum, asserting whatever Creative Commons rights seem relevant, as usual

I have just ordered a copy of the catalogue of the new exhibition from New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, which I learned about from Hyperallergic’s essay by Allison Meier, “Afterlives of Mesopotamian Artifacts, from Flapper Fashion to de Kooning.”

As usual, the books are piling up faster than I can find time to look at them, since I still haven’t done more than page through the highlights of my copy of Jennifer Y. Chi’s earlier ISAW volume Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos. Dura-Europos has been an interest of mine ever since graduate school, when E. R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period made much (if not too much) of the wall murals in the Dura synagogue. This garrison town was a unique site of contestation between Roman, Parthian, and Persian empires, a crossroads where cultures blended and co-existed even as the political boundaries shifted; today its excavated streets are endangered by the shifting boundaries of the contemporary wars in Syria.

This is one strand of the stuff that interests me in this department—that which Homi Bhabha used to call hybridity. (Whatever happened to Homi Bhabha, anyway? Twenty years ago you couldn’t open an art magazine without reading references to his books, usually citations of the same one or two paragraphs, as is the wont of the art world.)

Given half a chance, cultures seem to borrow extravagantly from one another, even as they are endlessly being reined in by ideologues of a cultural purity that is frequently largely mythic; whether the culture doing the borrowing is economically and politically dominant or subordinated (God help us, not the military-colonial metaphor “subaltern”!) doesn’t seem to matter as far as the simple dynamics of hybridization are concerned. It matters a great deal as far as the self-perception of the hybridizer is concerned, but that’s another story.

The story told in From Ancient to Modern is a specific case study of hybridity, the typically whacked-out response of European and American popular culture to objects excavated in Mesopotamia. The exhibition also traces the influence of the Mesopotamian discoveries on modernist and contemporary art, a line of influence that is usually subsumed under other art historical rubrics—so we have something new to discuss in that regard. However, that line of influence needs to be set in context.

The enthusiasm for newly discovered Sumerian artifacts followed upon the King-Tut-inspired manifestation of Egyptomania, a much older cultural phenomenon in America and Europe that is interestingly traced in various books with that word in their titles, including Scott Trafton’s Egypt Land: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania. Trafton’s book follows only one thread of global Egyptomania, the uses of Egypt in the ethnic dynamics of nineteenth-century American society; some of the other Egyptomania books track the phenomenon’s influences on the birth of eighteenth-century Freemasonry in Europe (and what happened to it later in the United States), the many styles of fashion and design that borrowed from Egyptian antiquity, and too many other traces of the ancient in the modern to summarize comfortably.

Egyptomania long predates Napoleon’s expedition that gave Europe the Rosetta Stone and a generation of Egypt-themed mantelpieces and dinnerware; the Renaissance, for example, made much of it thanks to the prestige of the Hermetic documents and the supposed wisdom encoded in hieroglyphics. But archaeology changed the terms of discussion, and it did it again and again. One could argue that the re-erection in the Vatican of the Egyptian obelisk that once adorned Nero’s Circus is a terminus a quo for mythic dreams based on material culture, but to confirm that would require better knowledge than I have of the history of the obelisk that Theodosius erected in Constantinople. The extraction of mostly imaginary mysteries from exotic objects long predates the different discovery of the phenomenon in the Gothicism of eighteenth-century England, although the cultural penumbra associated with it were more often a matter of sensing the presence of deep symbolism rather than experiencing the pleasurable shudder associated with it in the wake of the Age of Reason.

I digress. Not really, however: the point is that objects brought by trade or by imperial conquest had consequences in the cultures into which the objects were imported, whether the objects were African sculptures in the flea markets of Paris, Japanese prints used as wrapping paper for the ceramics shipped to a Europe as mad for japonerie as an earlier Europe had been for chinoiserie, or furniture of the Pharaohs, golden artifacts of Troy and Mycenae, and statuary from ancient Sumer brought back by successive generations of archaeologists. All of this found its way into design, painting, and sculpture, but differently depending on the influence and whether the artist was Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, or Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Henry Moore.

And that spins us back to hybridity, about which John Boardman’s two-decade-old The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity is still an excellently provocative starting point for reflection. Tracing the migration of motifs from locations as close to the Greco-Roman source as Ptolemaic Egypt to places as distant as the farthest Central Asian outposts of the Silk Road, Boardman’s survey demonstrates the wondrous destinies of objects when they are detached from their originating culture, or are sent on the road accompanying their culture, whether the road is traversed by merchants or by missionaries or by armies.

That in turn brings me back to Dura-Europos and to Mesopotamian artifacts, but also to the present-day destinies of cross-cultural hybridization. Is antiquity in its archaeological incarnations ceasing to be culturally influential? The flotsam and jetsam of Asian and African cultures that show up in tattoo art and graphic novels, and the frenetic exoticism found in various video games, either replicate fragments of still-living cultures or reproduce the flavor and texture of entire bygone societies; as far as I can see, they don’t borrow motifs from museums. In the cultures for which the artifacts in museums are part of their own direct heritage, there seems to be relatively little creative influence of such objects on contemporary culture; when they are noticed at all, they are used as emblems of national pride or rejected as symbols of an outworn or unacceptably decadent past.

It would require more online research than I have time or inclination to pursue to confirm this impression, but I am wondering what the impact of the digital revolution has been in this regard. I think there are cases in contemporary art around the entire planet in which the legacy of antiquity is incorporated alongside the lessons of biology and the influence of everything from...well, one might as well say everything, for I am thinking of artists from Alexander McQueen to Björk to Matthew Barney to Pipilotti Rist, and many, many others. The lines of influence are multiple and distorted, of course; the costume and set design departments of the Star Wars sequels and prequels are a case in point, since the artists in charge plundered the resources of half a dozen ancient cultures to come up with the styles of a galaxy long ago and far, far away—a tendency that has long been regnant in the movies, and in science fiction at least since Forbidden Planet purloined midcentury modernism and electronic music to evoke a world of the distant future.

It would be wonderful if I had time and mental energy and publication venue to produce a genuine piece of scholarship on this whole topic, but I don’t, so I’m just putting this out there in hopes that somebody will fill in the missing pieces. Anyone curious about the books I have cited off the top of my head—and way too many others, for typing in just one search term yielded six or eight seriously interesting titles of which I hadn’t been aware—can easily pull up the bibliographic information and ways to acquire the books in question.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Stuck (Sort of) in the Middle with You and Almost Everyone Else: Thoughts About "Middle" at Gallery 72, Atlanta

The ordinary-seeming concept called “middle” is a major puzzle.

For one thing, no matter what the dictionary suggests, “middle” is often almost the opposite of “center.” The center is ordinarily a place of honor or at least of organization. Even in ordinary usage, one wouldn’t normally say that the sun is the middle of the solar system. In the history of religions, “Center” is a word to conjure with, even in Meister Eckhart’s (and/or others’) definition of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. “God is a Middle”? Not so much. Postmodern philosophy sought to decenter Eurocentrism; less disturbed by terms and operating assumptions that happened de facto to be in the middle of things.

The middle term of a syllogism gets a certain amount of can’t get from Point A to Point B without it. But in general, middle-ness is in-between-ness, a point midway on the way to somewhere else or from somewhere else. The middle is also, as is increasingly recognized, the midpoint in a gulf separating two established terms. There is a continuum, or a spectrum, but we don’t know that, not yet anyway: out there in the void that ought to be a bridge, comes the interstitial middle term.

So it makes sense, in an era celebrating neither-nor more than both-and, and the provisional more than the firmly established, that a show called “Middle” should have been mounted at Atlanta’s Gallery 72 courtesy of curator Candice Greathouse.

Unfortunately, as I just now implied, we are in a bit of a muddle over “middle.” I am not entirely sure that Greathouse’s show, which runs through February 15, has cleared up the issues of “inbetweenness and potentiality through material and process” that she says the show addresses.

That definition manages to narrow “middle” down a little. We are looking, we might think, at formalism, at the roots of provisional painting, perhaps. But we would be wrong in thinking that, or at least I think so.

For one thing, there is the almost grotesque marriage of Freud and Marx in the video gallery. Meta Gary’s Enterchange depicts the endless loop of earthmoving equipment in late capitalism’s ceaseless logic of demolition and development, as framed in the vaginal opening of a leftover piece of concrete, or more likely one that hasn’t been put in its place yet. Brittainy Lauback’s Hole keeps inserting digits or foamy materials into openings of one sort of another, never quite attaining a perfect match nor truly filling the unappeasable voidness. Patricia Villafane’s multiple-image video of Target and its target-shaped store logo (talk about a center versus a middle!) presents a different sort of unappeasable desire and irremediable deficiency, a process of exchange in which none of the parties can ever be completely satisfied even if the transaction is regarded as open and above reproach.

That leads us, logically I suppose, to Christina Price Washington’s Thoughts on the (excluded) Middle, in which a vague pictorial or non-pictorial image set well below eye level on a movable wall (we learn from her statement that this is a picture of a helium filled balloon) carries a great deal of conceptual and openly philosophical weight along with it. “The privileged position of the isolated photograph” is indeed “destabilized,” and we can’t help (or I can’t, anyway) but think of Max Nordau’s Luftmenschen, people left floating in air by the circumstances of modernity, people whom Rilke characterized in the Duineser Elegien as the “disinherited children to whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs”—humans perennially in between times and places. This isn’t, however, Price Washington’s major point, as she finds herself “exploring the photograph as the subject and the information in the making.”

This exploration places Price Washington’s work firmly in the middle between the Law of the Excluded Middle and the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle, the former being the assertion that a proposition is either true or not true, no other choices available, while the fallacy considers “only limited alternatives...while in fact there is at least one additional option.” (These definitions open to discussion, because Wikipedia.) One could argue productively, if hyperbolically, that in a world of spectra and continua the law of the excluded middle is always already the fallacy of the excluded middle.

That leaves us with Margaret Hiden’s and Trevor Reese’s mysteries, as well as a couple of other in-betweens courtesy of Lauback, who offers a photo of a set of parallel fluorescent tubes that once held a lighted sign but holds one no longer, and that presumably will hold one once again—another product of late capitalism which belongs no longer to what’s been, and not yet to what’s coming. Hiden’s digital recapitulations of damaged slide photographs exist in a space between past and present, if not future, but only if you know what you are looking at—although I suppose one could also make up stories about the obliteration of recorded memory and the role that lack and fragmentation plays in the interpretation of history. In that sense, they are interstitial, neither unambiguous visual documents nor outright fictions.

Trevor Reese’s sculptures, I suppose, exist on the trembling interface between settled history and the shorthand with which we capture or configure it, although his de-wheeled hand truck set in concrete in in storage seems to have made a fairly firm transition from practical instrument for moving things to symbolic monument to the moving of materials. His lava rocks interspersed among existing rocks in the outdoor decor feels more like an unnoticed supplement to an architectural element that could be supplemented indefinitely. (One could, for example, put one or more pieces of old-fashioned public ‘plop art’ on top of the rocks.) Reese’s statement to the effect that “My interest in vernacular architecture and folk psychology is influencing my current thought on literal relationships, the different types created by people and things. I find myself navigating an increasing index of interpersonal and ‘mechanical’ connections” is headed in an extremely productive and correct direction, even if I personally can’t quite get what he’s driving at in his concrete (as it were) metaphors.

That’s about as far as I can push this provisional midpoint. There is just under a week for those who happen to read this non-review right away to go confirm, disconfirm or, preferably, correct and expand upon my intuitions.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Analog Revival Considered as an Occasion for a Seriously Misweighted Consideration of Much, Much More Than That

This is structured after the precedent set by George Steiner in his years of writing book reviews for The New Yorker, wherein the reader would learn, five thousand words into an erudite disquisition on the urgent need to rethink the aesthetic and economic legacy of the Dutch Golden Age, that the review was based on a few paragraphs scattered throughout a book that was primarily about how to plant the right kinds of tulips in your garden. See the footnote herein regarding productive digressions, or analysis terminable and interminable, but mostly interminable.

Following the example set explicitly by Jeff Kripal, after I woke this morning feeling that the essay of yesterday could land me in too much controversy to be worth it, instead of deleting that essay, I wrote another one.

Analog Analogies: Or, Revivals in the Age of Digital Reproduction

There is a reason, other than the simple vagaries of students’ notes, why Wittgenstein’s lectures on art and religious belief are collected in the same thin book. Aesthetic experience and religious experience are both marginal cognitive situations, open to divergent interpretation, even though the subject of the one is typically quite different from the subject of the other. (We leave to one side, or bracket as Husserl would have said, whether what Wittgenstein had to say has any meaning or usefulness, which two things are not the same thing.)

I hope at some point to offer an analytical review of Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Comparing Religions, a textbook designed to offer students a useful set of cognitive tools with which to undertake a more comprehensive examination of religious phenomena and religious functions than is usually the case in present-day discussions.

It is indisputably the case that aesthetics and religion always arrive in social contexts, even if the contexts lead people to kill one another over the question of whether the context is part of the prerequisite package.

This was the case long before Bob Dylan’s use of electric instruments brought unfortunately termed cries of betrayal from the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival. It has only gotten worse since then, although the fortunate rise of systematic cynicism beginning with the appropriationist art of the 1980s has meant that the largely silent sneers of the terminally hip at the phenomenon of lack of cool has spread far beyond the coffeehouses of the 1950s to encompass a whole culture in which tolerance is largely a matter of studied indifference to foolish opinions about which we could scarcely care less.

So it is a matter of some fascination to note the re-emergence of formerly hip phenomena in new contexts, and sometimes for reasons very nearly opposite to the reasons they were considered hip the first or second time around. The same thing happens in the history of religions, of course, but we shall not here consider the repeated iterations of the religious experiences sprung from the Burned-Over District of western New York.

Rather, we shall consider Chris Fritton’s scheduled appearance on February 15, 3 - 5 p.m., at Atlanta Printmakers Studio. And we shall consider it because Fritton, former studio director of the WNY Book Arts Center, has undertaken a project titled “The Itinerant Printer” as homage to the revival of craft letterpress printing. Letterpress is back, after having been in full flower some forty years ago (partly because letterpress fonts and presses were being discarded by commercial printers, who saw that nobody cared about the physical texture of printed material in an age when even linotype was being replaced by pasted-up photomechanical printouts). But it is back not because of the easy availability of cheap remains of outdated technologies, but because, says Fritton, of the analog revival, of hands-on maker-machine interaction in the age of digital reproduction. (This is not quite the same as the handcraft revival, in which the machines are a few centuries older and in some cases several millennia older. The machines of what I think of as the analog revival—someone please correct my use of the terminology if I’m delimiting it wrongly*—range in age of invention from the Renaissance up to as little as a half century ago.)

Fritton intends to print postcards using the random cuts of images, idiosyncratic typefaces, and other bric-a-brac that clutter letterpress enterprises, thus “reviving a sense of adventure in printing, along with the analog sharing of information.”

It is somehow utterly appropriate that it is possible to track the details of this hundred-venue crosscountry trek at


*I websearched “the analog revival,” in quotation marks, to confirm my vague impression, and very quickly found myself at the threshold of a 2006 book titled Postphenomenology: A Critical Companion to Ihde, an anthology that revealed a philosophical discussion that had gone on for the better part of a decade and apparently is still be going on in a major way, based on Don Ihde’s Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context, which upon its 1995 publication was blurbed as “a fascinating investigation of the relationships between global culture and technology.” The essays by several authors in Postphenomenology, the critical companion (which is not to be confused with Postphenomenology, the Ihde essays), have to do with, among other things, crittercams (“Compounding Eyes in NatureCultures”), embodied health-care practice, “ontology engines,” and other mixtures of real-life tech and real-life metaphors about machines and the persons who inhabit the embodied minds that interact with them. (And I do mean “inhabit”; as Nobby Brown wrote half a century ago, person is persona. Fifty-page digression about everything from the history of religions to currently fashionable gender studies could follow, but will not.)

Although a glance at the “Don Ihde” entry in Wikipedia reveals a whole body of work of which I was unaware, it is so far distant from the original question of why letterpress printing is newly popular that I decided it was time to stop climbing Mount Analog and come back down to base camp.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

An essay on aesthetics that may or may not clarify why I have written the kind of art criticism I have written for decades now

This essay comes out of left field, but it does not come out of a vacuum, which would be an environment not very hospitable to left field players. It comes in part out of many years of reviewing art that I felt should be defended passionately even though I often had no personal enthusiasm for it, and another trigger was probably James Elkins’ Facebook post about his upcoming lecture in a general series titled “Failure,” a post in which he says, “I’ll be emphasizing things that don’t work (perhaps never did),” in this case with regard to a still-popular aesthetic theory. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is one of the great untrue statements of all time, but it is untrue only because the words themselves don’t quite fit the phenomena they are meant to describe; their meanings are elastic, but they are not meaningless even if they are slippery enough to give rise to Shakespeare’s memorable aphorism. Linguistic philosophy is not much help here, and perhaps never was, so we might as well start out:

The Festival of Insignificance, or, Trying to Get At the Question of Good Bad Art, and a Good Many Other Elusive or Paradoxical Types of Art, Besides

At the moment when Captain Obvious finally grasps why he will sometimes cross the Atlantic to re-experience a completely unimportant painting or video but has long made it a point to avoid some of the world’s greatest works of art, word comes that an English translation will soon be published of Milan Kundera’s new novel titled The Festival of Insignificance.

That has nothing to do with what follows, except that the probably meandering meditation I am about to write has to do with grasping why insignificant things so often seem more worth celebrating than significant ones, even if we accept the greater significance of the things we find uninteresting.

You can argue, and most arguers do, that “there’s no accounting for taste.” This is equivalent to saying that taste is completely a matter of things that happened to us before we were two years old—if we are irresistibly attracted to or repelled by some currently fashionable sophisticated phenomenon (whether in art, fashion, cuisine, music, movies, whatever), it is a logical development of some pleasurable or traumatic simple experience in early childhood. And thus it is not worth analyzing how our later experiences turned this happy or unhappy moment into our present passionately or casually felt aesthetic position, unless it is somehow going to help us clear up our psychological messes.

Most people don’t think it’s equivalent to that; they just think that aesthetic preferences are too weirdly arbitrary to make sense of, even though they can be pushed in one direction or another if you try hard enough, just as most of us learned to like spinach or rutabagas after a childhood spent detesting them.

The “ingrained preferences” versus the “pushing in one direction” don’t seem to be sufficiently analyzed most of the time. And indeed, a good many preferences seem to be ascribable to quite elementary forces: no matter how we tart them up, our transient “likes” actually come about because everyone else is liking it, or the flavor appeals to the hard-wired inclination towards sweet or salty, or the event turns us on sexually for the ordinary evolutionary reasons that drive us towards reproducing our kind.

But there are so many preferences that are not so ascribable. And these too are ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, because everything human is ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, including our responses to gods and angels if such happen to exist. On that level, anything that happens is natural, but some things happen so infrequently, or lead to such dysfunctional or destructive consequences, that we cannot help but call them unnatural in one case or supernatural in another.

This is a very strange definitional detour to take en route to getting at the phenomenon of “art that’s so bad it’s good,” or of completely unimportant artworks we’ll cross oceans to see again, while we’ll make it a point to avoid the world’s greatest art if there is any way of doing so. This reaction varies according to transitory moods, of course (John Berryman’s line of acedia-laden verse about “literature bores me, especially great literature”) but there must be a combination of psychological and neurological underpinnings to this that are also based in the way the world itself works—the objective environmental structures that have resulted in our responses surviving instead of the responses mostly killed off in previous generations of our particular lineage, even though they survive robustly in other particular lineages wending their way through the world.

It would be good if we could get to the point of being able to argue out the dimensions and meaning of that general insight, if we can ever agree that it is an insight; we are always going to have to disagree about whether culture or nature plays the greater role in all this, because sometimes it is one, and sometimes it is the other, even in the same person at almost the same moment.

At a certain level of self-awareness, I can make a rational argument that an artwork has what they used to call “significant form”—that the component parts of the aesthetic machinery function together with enormous and consistent complexity—but that I hate everything about it. I can also confess that although some artworks have no redeeming aesthetic qualities, I love them anyway, because I’m just that kind of guy. (That’s the phenomenon of which we can say we probably don’t want to go there, to use the idiom we apply to “not wanting to delve too deeply into causation in this particular case.” See also: the general problem of “fast and slow thinking,” and why there are cases in which there is no point in trying to swap one for the other, although it is worth considering why there is no point in doing so.)

Hence it would be really interesting to approach the development or refinement of aesthetic taste in terms of expanding the range of consistent aesthetic operations to which we respond positively. (Historically it has been a matter of replacing one set of preferred operations with another, or narrowing the number of operations to which we respond, instead of learning new ways of evaluating the success of the operations. This is not a good thing, in my view. Neither is the unreflective assumption that there is no way to evaluate sets of operations and one set is as good as another. Indoctrination and indifferent relativism both suck.) There are an immense number of consistent operations, and it is what allows us to argue over whether a graffiti wall is a good one or a bad one at the same time that we argue over whether an example of Japanese calligraphy is successful or unsuccessful, or over why some kitsch is unendurably awful on all fronts while other kitsch has such intriguing underlying compositional elements that it is actually worth keeping around us in spite of being appallingly sentimental or exploitative of stereotypes. (In such cases we do have to keep our wits about us to avoid being pulled helplessly into the responses to which evolution predisposes us. Incidentally, it is interesting that in this year’s lingo we would probably just say “because evolution,” which is a locution that is used both for things that are too obvious to be worth spelling out and things that are too complicated to spell out without completely losing your train of thought.)

E. H. Gombrich floundered around on the edges of such questions, but that was an awfully long time ago, and the floundering was immense. The few books that have been written more recently on such problems of causation, or even of straightening out our systematically misleading terminology and categories for such problems, have been as unreadable, and mostly as wrongheaded, as this essay most likely is.

But hey, I had to write it anyway.