Aug 29, 2008

Invited to attend Chashama North


I've been invited to attend the chashama North artists residency. I will be in upstate New York for the month of September.

I am looking forward to see the first wave of fall colors. The fall foliage is spectacular (see here). I'll post photos and an update when I arrive.

Aug 13, 2008

Are there any big debates left in art?

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about "big debates" in art. It started from the observation that, when you read statements by curators, you often see references to the "multiplicity" of art practices today. e.g. here's one from the Whitney Biennial 2008 catalog:
Today there are more artists working in more genres, using more varieties of material and moving among more geographic locations, than ever before. ... this is a moment - a rather extended one at that - in which art has come to be characterized by heterogeneity, dispersal, and contradiction, rather than unity or orthodoxy. -- Adam Weinberg,

Weinberg is claiming that art today is pluralistic. It is a big muddy pool with no common denominators or clear divisions. Naturally, this is a good thing as far as curators are concerned, since it gives them more work to do to interpret and assign meanings to art.

But is this true? It strikes me that big rifts remain in the art. I want to discuss two in particular.

One large divide is between relational and non-relational art. What is "relational art"? This question has been most famously addressed by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book Relational Aesthetics. Bourriaud says relational art comprises "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." In other words, relational art is art that focuses not on the art object but on the kinds of social engagements that occur around art.

Anyone who doubts whether there is such a thing as relational art, or wonders whether there is a divide between relational and non-relational art, need look no further than the Whitney Biennial 2008 itself. The vast majority of works presented by the Whitney in the Armory portion of the show are best characterized as relational art. Audience participation, interaction, and social happenings are high on the agenda. By contrast, the works shown in the main Whitney building are of the strictly "look, don't touch, don't talk" variety. The Whitney curators demonstrate that these two categories of art exist, and that they require different conditions, even separate buildings.

A second large rift is between "political art" and "non-political art". Some artists believe art should align itself with clear social or political agendas. Art, in this scenario, is seen as a progressive political tool, one that can help achieve political ends. On the other end of the scale, some artists reject any straightforward political agenda for their art, claiming that art and politics are separate. At stake are the definitions of both art and politics. These two antagonistic positions are in a delicate dance with each other (see here for more).

Of course, conceptions of relational art and political art overlap. Relational art, with its social investment, is often transparently "political art". However, in human terms, binary oppositions rarely ever operate as such. It is here that Adam Weinberg is correct: There are large zones of confusion.

I'd be happy to hear opinions about other large rifts in the art world.

Aug 11, 2008

Artists writing about visual art


Recently I've been looking for books that contain writing by artists. That was how I came by Letters to a Young Artist, a small pocket sized book that is ideal reading during those short breaks in a day - a bus ride, a lunch... It contains two dozen letters by artists such as John Baldessari and Adrian Piper. Many offer words of wisdom and encouragement. If you are an emerging artist feeling a moment of doubt about the art world, this is a great pick-me-up. Highly recommended.

I would really love to find a book that contains text by artists before they become established - I'm interested in what strategies work well when it comes to filling in application forms with their inevitable "write 200 words on your art." A collection of early statements from emerging artists that later did well would be really valuable. For instance, my friend Jen recently told me that she has had success with art applications which she wrote quickly, the day the application was due. Is spontaneity or informal writing a better strategy than a more formal essay? Any opinions?

Aug 5, 2008

Rancière's Fountain


Fountain, Marchel Duchamp, Image from Wikipedia.

A few months back, I went to a talk by Jacques Rancière and W.T.J. Mitchell titled The Future of the Image. One audience member asked both presenters the difference between an object and an image. Mitchell gave a quick response - saying essentially that an object is something you hold, an image is something you see. Rancière's response was more nuanced. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, that an object is something of a certain size, whose use-value or function is recognized and understood, like a razor or a bowl. As soon as that use value is called into question, or becomes unstable or indeterminate, the object becomes an image. It is precisely through a displacement into indeterminacy that an image is created.

I immediately thought about Duchamp's Fountain.

Many interpretations of Duchamp's toilet stress the Dadaist conceptions of author and artist. "Since Duchamp, the artist is the author of a definition", says Broodthaers. Bourriaud writes "when Duchamp exhibits a manufactured object as a work of the mind, he shifts the problematic of the 'creative process', emphasizing the artist's gaze bought to bear on an object instead of manual skill." The focus here is on the change in the role of the artist.

If instead we follow Rancière's idea of image, the importance of Fountain is the way it clarifies the fundamental relationship between object an image. Duchamp took an object with a known use and positioned it within an art context, establishing a question around its use value - destablizing its meaning and thereby creating an image. With this reading, you could say the artist is not so much "defining" art, declaring "This Is Art", but rather dissembling - creating questions and uncertainty by displacing objects into images. Fountain not only changed the role of the artist, it also shifted the conversation to focus on the subjectivity of representation.