Sunday, June 15, 2008

Re: Relational Aesthetics

The social 'linking' function of art? (I clearly don't share any hesitancy to write on a blog about art, whether written in Microsoft Word first or not. And don't see why one would.)

I don't believe that a critical response to art must derive pleasure in correcting the opinions of others. People have ideas that differ and clash, and that's both good and inevitable. (Contributing to this blog is one manifestation of my interest in that clash of ideas.) That isn't necessarily a pleasure in correcting other people—I don't think it is—but if it were, that isn't entirely relevant. The point as I see it is not to say that there can't be a pleasure found in correcting someone (the conceit being, one could actually set "right" another person) it's to argue that hopefully a pleasure can be found elsewhere.

You hit on what's nice (for me) about Woolf's conception of a common reader, which is the necessarily non-social pleasure of reading. I'm skeptical of the contention that art has a social mission—it can, and the conversation around it certainly can have a "social linking function"—but like reading, making art and often looking at it (my favorite museum trips tend to be alone) fulfills a very solitary and personal need. The idea that there can be a pleasure in art that is found in solitude runs alongside the idea of art for arts sake, or reading for the sake of reading, both of which I agree with.


Relational Aesthetics: a response to The Common Viewer

With every post on I sit down with Microsoft word and write a page or two, but then discard them having decided that my thinking is pretentious and/or grandiose. I often write a clipped, shortened version that misses whatever it was that got me excited in the first place, but at least I look like slightly less of a douchebag, right? One way or the other, I always feel ill-at-ease copy and pasting 2-3 Microsoft word pages worth of thoughts into a roughly 2.5x3 inch comment text field. It becomes painfully obvious (and very embarrassing to me) how far I tend to let my thoughts run away with me, 'but damn the torpedoes!' I say (this time):


The distinction between the common reader/viewer and the un-common(?) one seems vague to me. I understand that quite a few people read (and write) in order to correct the opinions of others, but it's important not to forget, too, that this activity is its own sort of pleasure and is its own way of creating for one's self 'a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age' or 'a theory of the art of writing.' In the same way I would say that even the most critically engaged (non-common[?]) viewer has pleasure at the root of his or her desire to look at art. I would even go as far as to say that a vast majority of those who view art do so for the same kind of pleasure, though the pleasure is exercised and manifested in different ways.


You're right that museums are spaces removed from the everyday (olafur eliasson's 'take your time' at ps1 and moma comments on this by transplanting naturally-occurring phenomena like waterfalls and rainbows into the 'un-natural' modernist setting that the white cube of museum/gallery spaces is); it is this schism that is imposed between the viewer and the space one must enter in order to view art that encourages the pleasure in imparting and correcting, I think.


In my second year of high school I had a humanities professor (whose teaching style was not unlike litia perta's, actually, now that I think of it) who said she was only teaching the class and me the things she did so that we would be 'interesting at dinner parties,' and, though I generally dismiss the sentiment of her statement, the social attributes of learning/art shouldn't be underestimated either. I tend to side with Nicolas Bourriaud when he posits 'the work of art as social interstice' in his book 'relational aesthetics;' this social 'linking' function (as he calls it) of art combined with its spatial inaccessibility (when it's in a museum or gallery) lends support to the indisputably most common art experience in tourism: the viewing of things in order to add such experiences to a resume-like personal history cache, often with photographic documentation (which also often features the tourist in question, verifying for others a proximity they had to the work of art pictured). I think that the inaccessibility of museums—that a special trip or tourist journey/pilgrimage is necessary to enter them—in this way makes the vast majority of art experiences an exercise in preparing one's self to converse with others, 'impart information,' 'correct their opinions' and glean the pleasure of each from these activities.


In looking back over what I've written now, I see that I've mentioned a museum show I've been to ('take your time') and a book I've read ('relational aesthetics') and, though I did receive some enjoyment solely from the localized elements of both experiences, I think that it would be critically irresponsible to exclude the prospective pleasure of talking to others about them later from my decision to read the book and see the show. The theory of tourism that I'm laying out here and implicating myself in comes as a failure on the part of the viewer (and me), but I think that it is a failure facilitated by what it is to go somewhere to look at art. It might even be an inescapable failure, but I should be careful of applying my personal failures to the rest of humanity (as I'm certainly doing here).


I guess I would conclude that an art experience can't or shouldn't be forced into the binary of enjoying experience or experiencing academically and, even if I don't excitedly chat up someone at a museum, I've never been alone in one.





(p.s. I highly recommend 'take your time' if it's still up and you're in the city)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Common Viewer

Saturday night and I'm watching the formidable John Updike (wondering, how many things are younger than John Updike?) on C-Span talk about the colonial New England painter, John Singleton Copley. Updike describes Copley shortly before the Revolution in romantic longing for what he imagines to be the bold and free painting of England, and cites a letter in which Copley complains that his new world compatriots consider painting to be as useful a craft as say, carpentry or shoe-making, but not to be, as Copley believed, one of the noblest pursuits. My first thought was, is painting even as useful a craft as carpentry or shoe-making? Or as useful a field as say, biochemistry or mechanical engineering? (Not craftsman, but autoCADsman). Maybe that's a slightly ridiculous question. And "useful" is a tricky word here. But as someone who cares about painting, and also as someone who asks myself fairly regularly, "why care about painting?" it's interesting to consider Copley's complaint. What is so noble about making art?

What kind of audience for painting existed in the pre-Revolutionary colonies? I'm not sure. (I'm also not sure what kind of audience Copley had in militant Boston as a pro- English Tory sympathizer.) It does make a certain amount of sense, though, to believe that art in general held a similar position that it does now—as something somewhat esoteric and something very, very important within an extremely small niche of people.

In a small book I read recently, Anne Fadiman talks about The Common Reader, and quotes Virginia Woolf, who writes, "The common reader… reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole—a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing." Art certainly commands a following, and certainly has an audience that is not scholarly, an audience that looks at art because it's pleasurable. But I'm not sure to what extent there can be a common viewer under the definition Woolf lays out for the common reader. This is in part because art is simply not engaged as readily and as easily as a book. To see art usually means going to the museum, or to a gallery, or looking at reproductions in print or online. Books are everywhere, and collecting them is not necessarily for a select few.

Still, I very much like the idea of a common viewer in the terms Woolf lays out for reading. And this idea of the reader gleaning different pieces to create some kind of whole makes a lot of sense in my formulation of approaching text, but also art, and in my formulation of learning in general.