Friday, 9 November 2012

You, Me, Contemporary Art, Yeah! (Tribal Artspeak vs. the Language of Research)

J ames Elkins has used a statement from the 2012 Documenta(13) exhibition in Kassel to raise the question: 'does art research make sense?'[1] Elkins means art "as" research; as something that can be evaluated as a knowledge pursuit in the academy (I'll use 'art-as-research' here). I am not sure the Documenta(13) statement is typical of writing associated with art-as-research, although it might be. Here I respond to Elkins's question by considering the likely purpose of the Documenta(13) statement, and what it might show about the place of one kind of art writing, in particular, among all writing that aspires to 'make sense'.

I'm generally a fan of the Documenta approach to art and its uses, so the statement cited by Elkins is a test of my faith. In form, it hovers ambiguously between research brief, public relations script, and tribal credo. It reads as though it might have been written by a committee (or a cult) over a well-lubricated dinner. I speculate that at least two stages of translation are involved: from the disciplinary language of a particular part of the art world into "public" language, and from one or more national languages into English. Sense could be a casualty at any of these junctures.

Elkins asks why some find it necessary to write in the manner of the Documenta statement. I suggest that it's an example of "authenticatory" writing. It declares allegiance with a set of ambiguously-defined commitments or beliefs (e.g. about art) in the expectation that others will signal agreement. The text functions as a kind of intellectual "high five" gesture; or an opportunity for the mutual authentication of both writer and reader. Its sense content to those outside a particular circle of belief is of secondary importance.

This is different from saying that such "artspeak" is used simply to show off, or to browbeat those who don't understand what's being said. Alix Rule and David Levine have made a thorough study of 'International Art English'.[2] One of its characteristics, they say, is that it 'demand[s] to be recognized'. I'm saying that such language is one part of an ongoing performance around art; a device via which some protagonists recognise each other.

One contributor to the Elkins thread, Andrei Molotiu, argues that authenticatory writing is quite new, and should be critiqued. Were this to be done, it might be interesting to consider how a broad spectrum of writings have been used on behalf of art. I mean 'used' operationally, around art in its various realms of reception: for example, when leveraging art's conceptual value in an "educated" art market, or legitimating art in a wider public realm. I think we would find an emerging mutuality between the art world and certain kinds of philosopher or intellectual (whose ideas find mobility through attachment to suitably ambiguous objects or practices in the world).

Under the terms of this mutuality, artists can "get on with practice", placing coolly ambiguous objects into their close realm of reception whilst passing questions about the intellectual aspect of art to agreed mediators. The arrangement plays out in the form of an intellectual culture of art, in which we find a variety of more or less literary products which are not art itself, but are deemed supportive or affirmative of art. The contents of this culture are selectively taken to heart or dismissed by artists, perhaps depending on levels of confidence in what art can be with or without its intellectual culture.

There is, however, a widespread acceptance that art can be written about in terms of ideas which impinge on it tangentially, strengthening the license under which artists need not be explicit about ideas or thinking in their work.

Not only is this license not universally adopted, but settlements under it are a matter of degree. There are conceptual artists who don't want formularised aesthetics; curators and critics who want historical groundings but not current theory; Marxians who need to explain why they don't want spectacle; artists who want academic theory but don't want history to show that their latest idea was already worked through in the 1960s. A particularly striking contrast exists between makers of strongly aesthetic art with market potential, and artists (like me) who have barely ever sold an art object. The latter probably work in parts of the art world where something other than self-justifying capital legitimates their practice.

(The ascription of tasks to different agents in the art world is not quite as straightforward as I have implied. Artists also adopt the role of intellectual mediator, although in doing so they often try to adapt bodies of theory and types of language less familiar to them than the art-making part of their practice. Conversely, some theorists, tired of 'writing after art' are attempting to frame their writing as artistic practice.[3])

When artists cede to others the task of locating, teasing out, or mediating truth claims or knowledge gains present in art, they also cede a degree of power to speak of their own practice. Higher degrees in art (such as doctorates) might present an opportunity to challenge this distribution of power. However, another question now presents itself: given the opportunistic use of various kinds of thinking (logical, scientific) in response to operational contingencies around art practice, how far can the intellectual currency the art world be trusted as a body of knowledge? Is it the task of art in the academy to rebuild its intellectual frameworks? Where might it seek models for this work?

In a multidisciplinary academy, where arts and sciences are subject to common administrative scrutiny, there's an implicit requirement for art to be able to account for itself as a discipline (one of its legitimatory trump cards in the social world - the financial success of art in the art market - cannot, generally, be played[4]). In this context, higher degrees in art, and art-as-research, bring out some general, foundational questions about art, especially around the balance of its intellectual and aesthetic aspects.

Further operational contingencies are in play, too. These include a lack of time, and limited training in framing ideas in writing. Most of all, though, there is an overriding necessity to facilitate what, for many art students, is a strongly practical, aesthetic activity, associated with an exceptional period of personal growth. In an environment where all these conditions prevail, rewards are few for questioning the terms on which bodies of academic theory are habitually co-opted on behalf of art.

I wonder if artspeak has become supercharged with extra complexity via the academy, where art has been beset by the tangle of contingencies sketched above. Some of them are to do with changes in the relationship between art and society; others are just to do with maintaining art as the intellectual equal of other disciplines in a latterday, intricately managed academy.

Arts and sciences all seek institutional assurances in a competitive academy, and cultural heft in a contested social world. Scientific disciplines have an ideal - the objectivisation of the laws of nature - at their very origins, and this both guides scientific practice and serves as a source of legitimation. Artistic disciplines have no equivalent ideal.

Art's uneven relationship with intellectuality is partly to do with its constant search, in the present, for ways of saying what it might be about (in addition to aesthetic affect). These explicatory turns are offered as sources of legitimation for as long as any marriage of convenience between art and theory remains strong. However, given the intractable nature of some art writing it is arguable that legitimacy is the last thing it brings to art.

The main thing I notice about the Documenta(13) text is that it struggles to infer a certain depth or multiplicity of ideas in art, without reference to too many specifics. Of course, if its primary purpose is the kind of mutual authentication described above, then it's not surprising that it demonstrates a weird set of standards for making sense. In the public context in which the statement is exposed, though, this is a gift to critics intolerant of any kind of rationality that is not conventionally scientific, and it reinforces perceptions of pretentiousness in and around art.

I find myself now resisting two temptations: to embrace an anti-intellectual notion of what art is (revel in the practice, follow the aesthetic, etc.), or to adopt any fashionable meta-logic of the moment (even if I can't quite figure out what its gains are).

The comments thread following Elkins's post points to a lecture text by Simon Critchley.[5] Crtichley says that 'we should never underestimate the vanity of artists or their desperate need for legitimation from philosophers and theorists', but also that 'art needs a theory that needs art'. Well, the presumption of artists' vanity may be a little one-sided, for surely philosophers and theorists can also be vain. Critchley's second remark, though, elegantly sums up the difficulties facing artists driven by a mixture of affinity and desire, aesthetic sensibility, and intellectual reflexivity.

[2] Alix Rule & David Levine 'International Art English. On the rise—and the space—of the art-world press release'
[3] Irit Rogoff, 'What is a Theorist?', in On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, ed. by Maria Hlavajova, Jill Winder and Binna Choi (Utrecht: BAK, c2008.), pp. 132-158.
[4] Art schools whose ex-students do well in the art market can play the "market" card. It's often done by sleight of hand, via lists of alumni who, as all insiders know, have enjoyed commercial as well as other kinds of success.
[5] Simon Critchley 'The Infinite Demand of Art'

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated before publication.