Wall on the Readymade, Azoulay on the Museum.

“The Readymade did not and was not able to address itself to depiction; its concern is with the object, and so if we were to classify it within the canonical forms it would be sculpture. But no-one who has thought about it accepts that a Readymade is sculpture. Rather it is an object that transcends the traditional classifications and stands as a model for art as a whole, art as a historical phenomenon, a logic, and an institution. As Thierry de Duve has so well demonstrated, this object designates itself as the abstraction ‘art as such’, the thing that can bear the weight of the name ‘art as such’. Under what de Duve calls the conditions of nominalism, the name ‘art’ must be applied to any object that can be legitimately nominated as such by an artist. Or, to be more circumspect, it is the object from which the name art cannot logically be withheld. The Readymade therefore proved that an arbitrary object can be designated as art and that there is no argument available to refute that designation.”

— from Depiction-Object-Event, Jeff Wall’s Hermes Lezing lecture, 2006.

It’s useful to consider Wall’s argument here in the light of an essay entitled “[Art] Museum” published by Ariella Azoulay in her book Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy:

“The prevalent assumption is that the value of exhibits is determined by other cultural agents, with the museum at most complementing or validating the process of consecration. In other words, there is a structural division of labor between the museum and other agents. (…) The museum itself conducts three institutionalized practices of representation that are the condition of existence of this division of labor: reproductioncatalogue, and artistic discourse. These practices of representation take an active part in confirming the exhibit’s standing as a closed unit of meaning and in reproducing the relation between themselves and the exhibit. They endow the exhibit with an additional dimension, as precise and faithful as possible, but this dimension always stands in relation to the original unit and must therefore remain eternally damaged, lacking, and thwarted. The museum space, reproduction, catalogue, and artistic discourse are institutions that by their very nature engender the exhibit’s standing as the original. But these practices and the museum space also function, as I’ve already noted, as a dwelling or instrument in the hands of the exhibit, and they present themselves as if they are subject to its mastery. According to need, walls shall be demolished or new ones built (to reorganize the museum space), photographic techniques will be improved or lighting systems installed (to preserve the faithfulness of the reproduction), enormous budgets will be raised (to produce a catalogue), or ancient writings and esoteric theories ransacked (the artistic discourse) — all to provide the exhibit with the appropriate conditions of visibility, display, and expression. The exhibit commands.”

Azoulay stresses here the discursive and customary nature of art – its fundamental relation to traditions of display and signification, which together help to produce the subject ‘Art’ as a discrete object of study. This object of study then engenders a stream of examples or ‘exhibits’ according to the conventions she outlines, so that reflexively anything can become ‘Art’ which follows the rubric of reproductioncatalogue and artistic discourse within the institutional framework of the museum. This last part is plainly pivotal: within the institutional framework of the museum, which establishes itself as the arbiter of the category it simultaneously creates and explores. The act of creating something as art is foreclosed by the techniques of its display, so that the art becomes a self-evident autonomous category and the essential determination of the museum appears to be in service to the object ‘which commands’. Azoulay continues:  Continue reading

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Steinberg against Formalism

“Given the complexity and infinite resonance of works of art, the stripping down of artistic value to the single determinant of formal organization was once—in the nineteenth century—a remarkable cultural achievement. The attempt was to discipline art criticism in the manner of scientific experiment, through the isolation of a single variable. Art’s “essential purpose”—call it abstract unity of design or whatever prevents buckling and wobbling—was presumed to be abstractable from all works of art. And the whole range of meaning was ruled to be disposable “subject matter,” which at best did no harm but which more commonly burdened the form. In the formalist ethic, the ideal critic remains unmoved by the artist’s expressive intention, uninfluenced by his culture, deaf to his irony or iconography, and so proceeds undistracted, programmed like an Orpheus making his way out of Hell.”

— Leo Steinberg “Other Criteria” in Other Criteria [1972]

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Crow on Modernism & Mass Culture

“The sign of manufactured culture is empty diversity, an eclecticism resulting from market expediency, targeting consumers, and hedging bets. Modernist practice sustains its claim to autonomy by standing in implicit opposition to the diversity of material glut, the evident shape of the work standing in critical contrast to the shapelessness of human life subject to production-rationality. My argument has been that modernism has done this successfully when it has figured in detail the manufactured culture it opposes, put it on display by shifting boundaries and altering received meanings. (…) Continue reading

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On Jeff Wall.

An excerpt from the series Contacts 2: The Renewal of Contemporary Photography, dedicated to the work of Jeff Wall.

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Galison on Modes of Scientific Seeing.

“In the eighteenth century, the most appropriate scientist to draw or depict the world was a kind of sage, or a genius, who could part the curtains of experience and draw the basic form of objects as they should be — to see the platonic forms, if you will, that lay behind any particular oak or clover or cloud. In the nineteenth century, there was a different ideal of what the scientist should be. Not a genius or sage, but rather a kind of trained, self-restrained worker. The workers of the era were supposed to know enough to help keep the machines running, but weren’t going to interfere and, say, customize a bullet or a fork that was coming off of the metal presses of the time. You didn’t want somebody making by hand his or her particular idea of what an ideal item should be. In fact, there emerged in the machine age an aesthetic fascination with the identical quality of machine-produced objects.

And so it was for scientists, too. Mid-to-late-nineteenth-century scientists didn’t want to know what you or I or somebody else thought a clover should look like. They wanted to see an image of a specific clover with as much fidelity as possible to the actual object. They wanted by any means possible to transfer a particular entity — a skull or a skeleton, whatever it was — to the page. You say: “Well, does that have to be chemical-based photography?” No. It could be tracing. It could be inking a leaf and then pressing it onto a piece of paper. There were many other mechanical modes of transfer. “Mechanical” back then meant any process that did not involve personal intervention. Continue reading

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The Uncertainty of the Poet, by Giorgio de Chirico.

“The Uncertainty of the Poet” by Giorgio de Chirico, (1913)

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Stallabrass on the complicity of Art and the Market

“Art overruns the borders of local particularity, aiding the transformation and mixing of the world’s cultures and economies. The progressive and regressive aspects of this process are inextricably related. Local resistances are defeated and, in many places, conditions worsen as a result. Equally, art prepares the way for greater integration, and for the emergence of wider solidarities, so compellingly laid out in Hardt and Negri’s book Empire. Even so, any progressive aspect to the art world’s support of neoliberalism is the inverse of its own view of its actions, which are fixed on the particular, the personal, and the non-instrumental, and certainly not on the sacrifice of particularities on the altar of global homogenization. It is just this mismatch that constitutes art’s main contribution to what is, after all, far more effectively carried on by mass culture: an appeal to sections of the elite that stand above and aside from their local cultures, and a particularly effective ideological cloak for the actions of that audience in their complicity with global capital.”

— Julian Stallabrass “Contradictions” in Contemporary Art – A Very Short Introduction [2006]

Damien HirstFor the Love of God, The Diamond Skull” (2007) © Damien Hirst. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

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Die a Millionaire, by J.H. Prynne.

The first essential is to take knowledge
back to the springs, because despite
everything and especially the recent
events carried under that flag, there is
specific power in the idea of it

what is known can be used to pick up
or more usually to hold on and develop
as what for the econometrist is
“profitable speculation”-the intellect
on the trigger once more, as those
poor seventh century Irish monks (being
sentimentalists) would have believed
if they could.

If there’s any need
for proof & it can be kept from
running to violence (to which ex-
tremity it should anyway perhaps
be swooping homewards) the twist-point
is “purchase”-what the mind
bites on is yours

the prime joy of
control engineering is what they please
to denote (through the quartzite window) “self-
optimizing systems”, which they like
to consider as a plan for the basic
living unit. And thus “accelerating the con-
vergence of function”, we come to our
maximal stance.

Imperialism was just
an old, very old name for that
idea, that what you want, you by
historic process or just readiness
to travel, also “need”-and
need is of course the sacred daughter
through which you improve, by
becoming more extensive. Competitive
expansion: if you can designate a
prime direction as Drang nach Osten
or the Western Frontier, that’s to
purify the idea by recourse to History

before it happens. Envisaging the chapter-
head in the historical outline as “the
spirit (need) of the age”-its primary
greed, shielded from ignominy by the
like practice of too many others.
Continue reading

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Foster on Pluralism and the ‘Return to History’

“Modern art engaged historical forms, often in order to deconstruct them. Our new art tends to assume historical forms — out of context and reified. Parodic or straight, these quotations plead for the importance, even the traditional status, of the new art. In certain quarters this is seen as a “return to history”; but it is in fact a profoundly ahistorical enterprise, and the result is often “aesthetic pleasure as false consciousness, or vice versa.”

This “return to history” is ahistorical for three reasons: the context of history is disregarded, its continuum is disavowed, and conflictual forms of art and modes of production are falsely resolved in pastiche. Neither the specificity of the past nor the necessity of the present is heeded. Such a disregard makes the return to history also seem to be a liberation from history. And today many artists do feel that, free of history, they are able to use it as they wish.”

— Hal Foster, “Against Pluralism” in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics [1998]

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Mitchell on The Image & Women.

Roe Ethridge “Maya with Column” 2008 © Roe Ethridge

“What is the moral for pictures? If one could interview all the pictures one encounters in a year, what answers would they give? Surely, many of the pictures would give Chaucer’s “wrong” answers: that is, pictures would want to be worth a lot of money; they would want to be admired and praised as beautiful; they would want to be adored by many lovers. But above all they would want a kind of mastery over the beholder. Art historian and critic Michael Fried summarizes painting’s “primordial convention” in precisely these terms: “a painting… had first to attract the beholder, then to arrest and finally to enthrall the beholder, that is a painting had to call to someone, bring him to a halt in front of itself and hold him there as if spellbound and unable to move.” The painting’s desire, in short, is to change places with the beholder, to transfix or paralyze the beholder, turning him or her into an image for the gaze of the picture in what might be called “the Medusa effect.” This effect is perhaps the clearest demonstration we have that the power of pictures and women is modeled on one another, and that this is a model of both pictures and women that is abject, mutilated, and castrated. The power they want is manifested as lack, not as possession.”

W.J.T. Mitchell What Do Pictures Want? [2006]


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