Research

Our Times

From Joel Lovell, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” (NY Times, January 3, 2013):

Characterizing the absurdism and affect of our times:

You could call this desire — to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace — the George Saunders Experiment. It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

Saunders, on capitalism and work:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

On art and fiction:

The lesson he learned was the thing he sensed all those years ago in Sumatra, reading but not fully grasping Vonnegut. “I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

Art and interpersonal relationships:

We were talking about the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities. … The universal human laws — need, love for the beloved, fear, hunger, periodic exaltation, the kindness that rises up naturally in the absence of fear/hunger/pain — are constant, predictable. . . . What a powerful thing to know: that one’s own desires are mappable onto strangers.”

At the risk of hyperbole at the end of a story that began in a state of fairly high exaltation, I would say that this is precisely the effect that Saunders’s fiction has on you. It “softens the borders,” as he put it in one of our conversations. “Between you and me, between me and me, between the reader and the writer.” It makes you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experience of other people. …

It’s hard to maintain, the softness. It’s an effort. That Dubai story ends with these lines, wisdom imparted from Saunders to himself: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

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Research

[International Art] English Spoken Here

In “Tip of the Tongue” (Frieze, Spring 2012), writer and translator Vincenzo Latronico asks, “Since English has become the lingua franca, what has happened to art – and to language?”

It’s an interesting question, which was brought to my attention a few years ago during a studio visit. A Lithuanian curator asked why I make my text-based work in English. As a native speaker born in the US, my initial reaction was that it was somewhat essentializing, though now I think he wanted to question any assumptions about English’s neutrality. Latronico delves deeper into the implications of art world English:

On the predominance of English in the art world and its effects:

[When artists switched from writing in their native language to English] The most obvious transformation was formal – short sentences, modest vocabulary, basic syntax…. English has a distinct intellectual style: language-specific criteria for a convincing argument, a well-grounded idea, a strong proposal or a good quotation.

Contrast English with Italian intellectual style, whose description recalls visions of my graduate school readers, scribbled marginalia asking, “What’s the point?”:

Italian intellectual style … has been determined, until very recently, by … 19th-century German philosophy … and French post-Structuralism…. This mixture makes the prose meandering, strenuously long, convolutedly composed of subordinates nested within other subordinates in a smoky mise-en-abîme. To anyone used to English writing, it’s most likely to sound as if no argument had been made at all.

And consider a study by

…artist David Levine and the sociologist Alix Rule…. ‘International Art English’ is exemplified by a large set of English-language, art-related press releases and newsletters. They analyzed the corpus and found a tendency towards overly long sentences, a proliferation of superfluous abstract nouns, the excessively frequent derivation of nouns ending in ‘-ization’ and even a slightly peculiar metaphysics: writers granting agency to inanimate objects – exhibitions, projects, research – when this agency should be ascribed to the people who created them. For Levine and Rule, the cause of these traits lies in a foreign influence: the imitation of French philosophy and theory as read in English translation.

Which the author interprets thusly

The foreign influence makes the language more accessible for a different, wider, more diverse audience than one composed of native speakers only. International Art English … uses fewer words and less varied syntax than ‘high’ standard English; at the same time, the words used are not necessarily the easiest, nor are the syntactic constructions the simplest. Adapted to the needs of non-native speakers, the language becomes at once complex and easy: a combination of convoluted, abstract refinement and down-to-earth directness….

This is a satisfyingly optimistic conclusion, and I hope it’s true.

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Research

read: fine sentences

If I were a purveyor of fine sentences I would stock gems such as these.

In his post comparing jury duty to conceptual art, art critic Glen Helfand wrote on SFMOMA’s Open Space (“Justice Redux,” June 22, 2011):

Here’s my account of the case to which I was assigned: Ms. E drank something troubling, a crystal clear bottle of water with its Harrah’s label intact. It may have been standard transparent plastic, but was corrosive all the way down. She described burning up inside, but not as dramatically as her lawyer, who also relished, in words and sometimes pictures, the horrors of esophageal surgery….

What might be the real costs of a Drano cocktail, in PTSD dollars? It was as if there was a short circuit in my thinking patterns—all of a sudden, this was capital R real. Unlike forming a critical position on the Gertrude Stein exhibitions, our decision would have some measurable impact on someone’s life.

Lots of pleasing word-smithing here. The double duty of “capital”—both financial and figurative—is nice. Plus it’s nice to take the enterprise of criticism down a notch sometimes.

Though critics do articulate fine ideas too:

the seemingly infinite archive of world events produced by photography conflates surface appearance with psychological depth, iconicity with memory, publicity with history….

Eva Díaz paraphrasing critic Siegfried Kracauer in a review of Drawn from Photography at the Drawing Center, NYC (Artforum, Summer 2011). Díaz goes on:

Artists… hand-copy photographs and photo-based media, thereby lengthening the duration of the image’s production and, for the viewer, transforming perception by fastidiously rendering what once presented itself with glossy immediacy.

Also in Artforum, Catherine Wood previewed the Manchester International Festival and this summer’s iteration sounds equally high-brow and low-brow—and totally fun. Adding the MIF to my bucket list.

One more Artforum goodie*: Graham Bader considers Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes paintings. In doing so, he quotes David Joselit, who characterizes painting’s “reification trap” thusly:

maximum prestige with maximum convenience of display

which means, as Bader writes,

[painting] is inevitably and intimately linked to the commodity.

The Brushstroke paintings are Ben-Day dot paintings depicting painterly strokes. Very cheeky. They are funny and interesting because they’re quotations, and I can’t help but think about Jerry Saltz’ recent rant against tired postmodernism:

The beautiful, cerebral, ultimately content-free creations of art’s well-schooled young lions…

…many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.

in his reaction to the Venice Biennale on Artnet. (Though he did like some things, including an installation by Argentinian Adrián Villar Rojas, who made a massive beached whale for Moby Dick at the Wattis in 2009. Congrats to AVR, and to his collaborator Alán Legal!)

The June 27th issue of the New Yorker is a good reminder of why I’m a subscriber. Rebecca Mead’s profile of Alice Walton, the Walmart heir opening a major museum in Arkansas, is quintessentially New Yorker. It’s about an individual of influence, yes, but the story is far from the stuffy Upper East Side. That I’ve yet to hear about this museum via typical art channels makes it even more intriguing. I’m also looking forward to reading Adam Gopnik’s essay on drawing. But in the meantime, Ian Frazier’s Talk of the Town contribution counterposes events in Harlem: a mostly-POC poetry reading and a mostly-white Socialist film screening. The description of the latter setting will ring a bell among radical buddies in Berkeley:

At a counter by the entry, racks of densely printed leaflets, the left’s traditional accessories, sat near new paperback editions of books by Leon Trotsky….

“O.K., everybody, can we all sit down…?” The last words were pronounced in the hopeful, rising tone that might be called the Leftist Exhortative….

The watchers in Freedom Hall roused themselves for a lusty booing and hissing of Dick Cheney when he came briefly into the frame….

…even the familiar pleasure of hating horrible things didn’t seem to buoy the Freedom Hall crowd. In the flickering dark, a palpable gloom.

Having been to a few gatherings like this myself, I found Gopnik’s humor winsome. The activists’ pessimism in the final couplet is too close for comfort. I suppose whatever inspired me to make the Activist Complaints drawings in 2007 still resonates with me.

*This issue of Artforum is called “Acting Out: The Ab-Ex Effect.” Talk about tired of Ab-Ex.

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News

Shop Talk feature in Art Practical, and conversation @ SFMOMA

Shop Talk is a series of articles in Art Practical and conversations at SFMOMA about artists’ survival strategies.

MY FEATURE IN ART PRACTICAL

I’m a proud contributor. I had the pleasure of interviewing artists Tattfoo Tan, Amanda Curreri, and Torreya Cummings and collaborative Earthbound Moon to develop a feature story for “Portrait of an Artist, Wily and Engaged,” published on Art Practical today. The feature focuses on strategic optimism, bridging some of my research in the ongoing Positive Signs series on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog.

5/12: CONVERSATION

And, if you’re free, talk about the issues at SFMOMA next Thursday…

Thursday, May 12, 7pm
Shop Talk: Part Three
“What are the economic realities that artists face?”
With presentations by the artist team Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert, artist Cheryl Meeker, and writer Lara Durback.

Please join Open Space and the online journal Art Practical on May 12th for the final installment of our three-part series of conversations considering the survival strategies artists develop and adopt to further the social reach of the aesthetic and critical capacities of their work, as well as gain recognition and financial viability.

Koret Visitor Education Center
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA

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Research

Schjeldahl on Rist

In “Feeling Good” (New Yorker, September 27, 2010; abstract here ), Peter Schjeldahl reviews Pipolotti Rist’s show at Luhring Augustine in NYC, and in the process, extols the singular artist and her commitment to pleasure.

I savored the subject and the conveyance. I admire Rist’s work for it fearless optimism and exuberance. She manages to make massive installations that are friendly and participatory. Schjeldahl’s words brim with enthusiasm, and he also contextualizes Rist’s work with a preternaturally long view.

A few of my favorite passages are:

The first two lines:

The Swiss video- and installation-maker Pipilotti Rist is an evangelist for happiness like no other first-rate artist that I can think of, except, perhaps, Alexander Calder. Like Calder, she is immune to solemnity, and her work appeals to more or less everybody.

This gem:

Color is more than the keynote of Rist’s art—it’s practially the theology.

Her pop cultural affinities don’t unite high and low so much as make them seem like interchangeable engines of pleasure. Rist resolves no critical problems of contemporary art. She just makes you forget there are any.

(I wondered about this same dialectic—this addiction to criticality as radical opposition—in my show Irrational Exuberance, and it was discussed in the closing dialogue, As Is: Pop and Complicity.)

…not that thought is allowed much traction. There’s a steady state of wonderment at having a body right here, right now…. Imagine, as Rist makes easy in the show’s main room, being a sheep in a lush meadow entirely surrounded, as far as you can see, by what you like to eat. Life surely vitiates such sublime contentment most of the time, but numbness to it seems an optional tragedy.

Just as positive psychologists want you to know: Optimism is a choice.

Schjeldahl takes a strong position in the course of explaining Rist’s significance:

Pleasure is a serious matter in and for art, which must justify itself continually in a global culture of mass entertainments. Glumness is an understandable but self-defeating reaction of people determined to somehow make a difference. Rist is remarkable for having insisted on bliss in an era, which peaked in the nineteen-nineties, when a parade of artists ambitiously expanded art’s physical scale and social address only to burden it, self-importantly, with theoretical arcana and political sanctimony.

As a critical writer, I aspire to this level of expertise and confidence.

Proof that writing about art need not be burdened by art-speak, pretension, or obfuscation:

Responsible as well as responsive to contemporary art’s enlarged public sphere, she maintains standards of craft and sincerity—outward discipline, inward necessity—that speak for themselves, without critical gloss or winking irony.

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