Drucker @ SFAI: Enjoy in my stead

Readers of this blog will know that I’m quite a fan of Johanna Drucker, which puts me in the new position of sharing an event in San Francisco which I will not be able to attend, as I’ll be on the East Coast then.

The artist, theorist and author presents “Reversing Polarity: Aesthetics and Criticism after Adorno,” her keynote lecture at SFAI’s Art Criticism conference on Saturday, August 14th.

I recommend going with friends, as you will want to have a debate afterwards.


The Object of Art and the Art

This sounds like an AMAZING class — the use of the phrases “symbolic capital” and “artifactual production” suggest the influence of Johanna Drucker’s writings on complicity in contemporary art. I heard Ken Lum speak at CCA a few years back — really bright thinker and artist.

Master Class: The Object of Art and the Art as Object with Ken Lum
The Banff Centre

The relationship between art and life (in terms of the potential collapse of one term into the other or the discursive separation between the terms) has underlined the primary function of the avant-garde in art. The dialectical tension between those objects deemed art or non-art is itself an institutional function of the cultural (social) category of art. How is artistic discourse produced to transform an object into art? In what ways does artistic discourse negotiate the question of the art object as commodity? What role does the artist play in this negotiation?

This Banff Master Class will study the operational functioning of the work of art within the constitution of the art world and in relation to different institutional frames. The relationship of art to the concept of “symbolic capital” and “artifactual production” will also be explored. As interest in art continues to accelerate and spread globally, the aim of this class will be to revisit the most fundamental questions about the status and function of art.

The class will take the form of a bi-weekly seminar. The first class of the week will critically examine an assigned reading. The final class of the week will be an open session moderated by the Master Class leader.

Now if only I had $5k for the class/room/lodging fee and the means to take 6 weeks off of work… Back in my twenties, my roommate would visualize finding a paper bag full of cash, and I think she did eventually did find a bag with like $40 on the street, once — maybe if I start visualizing a grocery bag or garbage bag or sofa stuffed with cash (Would walking distance to my house be too much to ask? OK.), it’ll magically appear.


Summer Reading List 2009

I’ve taken a break from going to shows in order to hit the books. Some of these books are just food for thought, others will be reviewed in due time here. In the meantime, though, here’s my Summer Reading List so far:

Source: University of Chicago Press website

Source: University of Chicago Press website

Johanna Drucker’s “Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity,” University of Chicago, 2005

I’ve become an acolyte, and I can admit that I can barely restrain myself from evangelizing about this book. Drucker’s an American artist, theorist and art/design historian. She’s currently a research fellow at Stanford U., but she’s typically based at UCLA. “Sweet Dreams” presents Drucker’s critical theory with a refreshing methodology: developing critical theory out of contemporary artistic practice, rather than projecting theory onto art. Her thesis is that the academia’s radical negativity (that criticality = opposition) has become orthodoxy, which is rigid and outmoded. She proposes a position of acknowledged complicity that is better suited for the attitudes of affirmation, engagement with material pleasure, and complexity of art of the 1990s and 2000s.

I’ve only read the first few chapters, but I’d recommend this books to artists and curators interested in theory and new ways of understanding recent contemporary practice. I wouldn’t recommend it to artists allergic to aesthetic theory (though Drucker accomplishes a Herculean task of summing up modernism, postmodernism and aesthetic theory in the first three chapters), but she also writes cogently (it’s not a speculative work of philosophy—it’s precise and methodical).

Also on the list, in various stages of completion:

Source: MIT Press website

Source: MIT Press website

Martha Buskirk, “The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art,” MIT Press, 2003

Buskirk’s investigation into “contingency” in 1980s and 1990s art might be a good bridge between Modernist “autuonomy” and Drucker’s “complicity” for art of the 1990s and aughts.

Source: Tal Ben-Shahars website

Source: Tal Ben-Shahar's website

Tal Ben-Shahar, “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” McGraw-Hill, 2007

Positive Psychology from a Harvard University professor. Hands on, concise, useful for reminding oneself of what’s ultimately meaningful in life.

Source: Lucifer Effect website

Source: Lucifer Effect website

Philip Zimbardo, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” Random House, 2008

The psychologist behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment turns towards morality and how humans are highly influenced by their conditions.

Source: Simon & Schuster website, Learned Optimism CD page

Source: Simon & Schuster website, Learned Optimism CD page

Martin E. P. Seligman, “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,” Free Press, 1990/1998.

Much of my inquiry into optimism and pessimism has been shaded by skepticism, so I think it’s high time to embrace the attitude/beneficent delusion of optimism.

Source: Princeton Architectural Press website

Source: Princeton Architectural Press website

Ellen Lupton, “Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors and Students,” Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.

A concise, erudite read; I will continue to employ this newly gained knowledge for a long time.


The dangerous pretension of knowing what’s best

Sarah Vowell shares a look at the roots of American Exceptionalism, tying…

Gov. Sarah Palin
Pres. Ronald Reagan
Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588-1649), who wrote “A Model of Christian Charity”
Jesus and his “Sermon on the Mount”

…in this week’s episode of Studio 360 from PRI.

I suspected that American Exceptionalism stems from the same principles that justified Manifest Destiny — that Americans are ‘chosen’ people, and that non-Americans are rightfully subject to Americans’ will.

So the fact that its roots go back to 15th century — the Age of Discovery, when Christian missionaries were covering the earth — affirms my suspicions. Furthermore, John Winthrop may have been interested in helping the poor, but he was also anti-democratic: he believed that aristocrats had a responsibility to help poor people, but the poor shouldn’t be allowed to have a voice. How paternalistic.

As Stuff White People Like #62: Knowing What’s Best for Poor People goes, “It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them.” If American Exceptionalists believe we Americans are similarly privileged — we know what’s best for the rest of the world — and we embody the universal ideal — that the greatest potential of the world is to become more like us: more democratic, more free-market Capitalist, more Wal-Marts and Whole Foods — it’s an awfully pretentious vision.

I realized that my objection to American Exceptionalism is similar to my position on Activist Art; that the underlying assumption that one is responsible for fixing the world is based on distinguishing oneself from the world. But as Johanna Drucker reminds us, “we are not better than the world we inhabit.” We are part of the world. And that we ought to accept our interdependence and complicity in the state of the world. The responsibility to fix it isn’t ours alone, but should be approached with mutual investment and collaboration.

Art & Development

Dreamy utopian radicalism in art

I find the backwards-looking tendency in contemporary art to be a bit nostalgic, so I was really glad to hear a respected art critic rail against the trend of valorizing the sixties…

[Martha] Rosler’s show is simply mediocre. What is points to, however, is far worse and more widespread. Too many younger artists, critics, and curators are fetishizing the sixties, transforming the period into a deformed cult, a fantasy religion, a hip brand, and a crippling disease. A generation is caught in a Freudian death spiral and seems unable to escape the ridiculous idea that in order for art to be political it has to hark back to the talismanic hippie era—that it must create a revolution. It is sophistry to think that everything relates to Europe and America in 1968. The very paradigm of revolution, of right versus wrong, good versus bad, is a relic with no bearing on the present. Yet artists, exhibitions, and curators valorize the sixties [in a generational cycle of critical writing]…. It’s a trap set by a previous generation in order to preserve its legacy a little longer, or at least until its members relinquish their positions in academe, museums, and media. Many things happened in the sixties, but the period is no more significant, better, or more “political” than today. It’s time to turn the page.

Jerry Saltz, “Welcome to the Sixties, Yet Again,” New York Magazine, October 13, 2008.

Last year I wrote about the sixties trend, but never published it. Here are excerpts…

If art by emerging artists is any indication — recurring images include utopias, rainbows, communes, self-help books and God’s eyes — we’re entering a new New Age.

god's eye
God’s eye

Authenticity is IN. Irony is OUT. And many contemporary artists and curators are looking back at the 1960s and 1970s’ youthful idealism and radical social change.

For example, sixties- and seventies-style collectives were celebrated in Whitney Biennials past, museums all over are taking a look at Feminism, and Sixties poster art shows too. Maybe it’s nagging White guilt, or a feel-good riposte to 1990s Identity Art, or Presidential Regret (Blame my administration—not me! We ARE the world!) towards a more humble, human-scale, wishful we-can-change-the-world movement.

I like the idea of an injection of radicalism. I like cooperation and collectivity over competition and materialism. I like authenticity, not irony and distancing oneself from the world. But artists in their 20s and 30s weren’t there, and much of this recent contemporary art idealizes radicalism. Symbols of hippie communes abound, while images of war, the tumultuous end of colonialism, and the beginning of the Cold War are largely ignored. It seems like the 1960s and 1970s is standing in for an age of innocence. And I think that’s a problem. Why? The widespread politicization of hippies (read: white people) in the 1960s stemmed from two things: the groundwork laid by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s (read: people of color–who took real risks: Where to send the kids to school? Go to work or stare down the fire hoses today? and made real, permanent change in groundbreaking Federal-level legislation–and white allies), as well as a real cost to the middle class (read: the draft).

The 1960s and 1970s wasn’t an age of innocence. It was a time of radical social and cultural change, yes, but it wasn’t the idealized, nostalgic era that many artists seem so enamored of.


Podcast Reviews: Art school lectures

In the studio, I listen to a lot of podcasts, including lectures by contemporary artists, lit, conversations on astronomy, to public radio arts and culture shows. In the past few years a lot more interesting podcasts have popped up, so I thought I’d spread the good word and post reviews of notable podcasts here.

I’ve already mentioned the fantastic artist’s lecture by Kerry James Marshall at SFAI, as well as the really great presentation by Johanna Drucker at SVA.

SFAI’s podcast features world-class artists, but is rarely updated, and seems under produced (it’s just an audio recording of the lecture, but the levels aren’t balanced, and some of the Q&As should be cut or filled in). Likewise with CCA on iTunes U, except CCA’s recently hired some professional with a broadcast voice to conduct interviews. Though, with a podcast of first-year students seems more like an enrollment tactic, rather than intellectual endeavor.

SVA’s got a better-produced series of podcast lectures. As I mentioned, the Drucker lecture from the MFA Art Criticism and Writing department is great. I also tried listening to Barry Schwabsky present a paper on the ontology of painting — but had to stop due to a fatal flaw: the lecture was presented bilingually (English and French), but the levels were not balanced, and the translator was blasting my ears while I could barely hear Schwabsky. Too bad.

But SVA really excels with their Graphic Design lecture videos, including a Paul Rand series with notables like Milton Glaser, as well as a series presented by the design genius, Steven Heller. I haven’t got a portable player for videocasts, so I’m just scratching the surface of the design lectures, but they seem better produced. Learn more at the nicely designed web site, of course.

Community, Research

White stuff I like, more or less

I have always liked Lindsey White‘s photos. Her new photos and videos make up a nice show at Partisan Gallery, somebody’s house on Guerrero. Endearingly earnest, like her previous portraits, but less quirky-cute, and more chance-magic (in the end, it’s just about personal taste: arty vs. Art). The new works are about light, and veer between optimism and the pathetic/mundane.

A bad pic of a great photo by Lindsey White, of a spear of light on a pillow. She shoots digital and 120mm, if you wanted to know.

A multi-channel video installation; each video is a single shot of a single thing. It functions like a sequence of photos in a book, only with slight movement and minimal audio. Great!

Also liked Richard T. Walker‘s two-channel video installation at Iceberger. More instruments, letters to nature, human projection onto the romantic ideals of nature. His English accent adds something; for no good reason, I assume that it suggests more of an awareness of the Romantic period than if he were American. Maybe my visit to Cumbria, the land of all those English Lake writers, has something to do with it.

It was a nice summer evening, and I enjoyed chatting with artists and meeting some guys showing with Little Tree Gallery, but I couldn’t shake my self-awareness of the New Mission, as youthful gallery-goers drank Pabst on the sidewalk for hours on end, just like during First Fridays in Oakland. What’s at stake is so different for different people, isn’t it? Earlier in the day, I found a kindred iconoclast willing to challenge hipsters’ endorsement of dingy ethnic restaurants in rough neighborhoods like Tu Lan and Shalimar. WTF? Thanks to the digital age, there is a source to explain this behavior: Stuff White People Like. See #91: San Francisco and #71: Being the only white person around.

Another thing White People like is critical theory (see #81: Graduate School). I must be White, because the podcast of Johanna Drucker‘s lecture at SVA blew my mind. The artist and author challenges Adorno’s 20th c. aesthetic theory and explains her notion called aesthesis, a specialized form of knowing (through art), characterized by knowing grounded in central experience, emergent experiences and co-dependent relationships. In contrast to Adorno’s assertion that art is autonomous, Drucker suggests that art is complicit and co-dependent; that it is in fact a form of commodity production, even if we don’t like to think of it so.

A tasty morsel:
She classifies low-brow pop paintings and drawings that reference comics or media as:

combinatoric mass culture kitsch production

And on the meat of the matter, for me:

To dispute Adorno’s assertion that because art is removed from the world of utilitarian objects, they are inherently resistant, Drucker says:

The notion of resistance [inherent to art] will die hard because it is the last link to the kind of utopian belief that … has a long history with modernism, and certainly gets reformulated again in mid-19th century with the coming of political philosophy…. The shift to political philosophy from ‘regular’ philosophy is that rather than understanding or describing the condition of knowledge or sensation or the mind, the political philosophy said the point is to change it. So the task of change — which again, the world is broken, we do need to fix it — … comes to be identified with the avant garde and … the role of art assumes a moral hierarchy and a moral high ground for the artist and the work of art. And that seems to me to be highly suspect. And that’s where I come back to complicity. We are not better than the world we inhabit….

The notion that difficulty, in and of itself, is a form of resistance that performs some sort of political efficacy—it’s just not true. It’s what I call magical politics. It’s like, where exactly does the transformation of power relations and political agency actually occur in those difficult works? It doesn’t….

I make difficult work. I write really obscure things. But I don’t imagine that they are making a transformation of the political structure. I do imagine, and I do believe that they transform the meme world. That’s what we do. We are meme makers. We transform. We reimagine. We remodel. We offer new models of cognition and new models of experience. And we produce that as an effect. We don’t produce that inherently in objects. It is an effect of what we do.

I had similar feelings of caution around the sense of artists having a moral high ground in the process of developing new work for Activist Imagination. So it’s great to hear Drucker put a historical framework around the conditions of art-viewing that we are subject to, and available for displacement if we choose.