30 July 2006

Zizek Cul-de-Sac

Fell into a reading hole that I can't seem to pull myself out of. Zizek seems important to moving past this Larsen/Berman ChickenLittleism. But how? Zizek is one tricky muthah. Like below, where he is extremely insightful, hitting the nail on the head about western buddhism and its relationship to capitalism...

...and yet he's sloppy enough to conflate buddhism and taoism throughout the essay.

From Self-Deceptions: On Being Tolerant and Smug, by Slavoj Zizek, 2001.

the attitude of total immersion into the self-less "now" of the instant Enlightenment, in which all reflexive distance is lost and "I am what I do," as C.S.Lewis put it, in short: in which absolute discipline coincides with total spontaneity, perfectly legitimizes one subordination to the militaristic social machine. Or, to put it in somewhat simplified terms (which, however, just repeat the central ethical lesson of Bhagavadgita): if the external reality is ultimately just an ephemeral appearance, even the most horrifying crimes eventually DO NOT MATTER.

Zizek's point here is that our late-capitalist phase is stressful on the individual, and that one can either deny that stress or adopt a fetish that mitigates the full impact of that stress. The Western Buddhist or Taoist can fully take on the lifestyle of the late capitalist while at the same time being able to remain distant.

See now, taoism has a political history that is interesting and relevant here, and I am off to go refresh my memory (alas, still sofabound). If anyone who has studied Zizek wants to chime in, that would rule. I love this man's writing but don't quite get his pov yet.

Oh, and this could be a great response to ANGB.

27 July 2006


Dear Unlucky Reader, I have fucked up my knee and am once again sofabound. There will be too much writing, but hopefully not for too long.

Bored on couch, I came across RenGen, which is "an open forum on the rising clout of culture and creativity." I am an optimistic gal. And I want so much to believe the RenGen assertion that "The longstanding belief that we live in a society in decline is a paradigm ready for retirement," and that David Sedaris' ability to fill a room is evidence of our literary future...

...but there doesn't seem to be any content on this website, so I haven't been able to be convinced. While there is the promise of an open forum, there doesn't seem to be one. I see no articles, no names of thinkers, just a hardworking and anonymous "small team of researchers" assembled by an unnamed Overseer Figure who refers to itself in the first person "to investigate the larger implications of the rapid expansion of a creative culture."

What the fuck does that mean? I think it's about marketing.

Can someone go click on the links for me and make sure I didn't miss the portal into the (promised) open forum? The definition of the phrase "cultural consumer" and an explanation of how passive consumers of i-pod books on tape stand as evidence of our pending "rebirth"?

Please? Because if this is a set of marketing tools for shaping that "I think I am smart but I am actually a box of rocks" demographic the way SUV's define the "I think I am rugged and outdoorsy but I am actually a fat, frightened asshole" demographic, then I am going to pull myself off the couch, hobble over to the oven, and stick my head in it.

Back To The Future

The Differance Engine is wistful about Joyce's playfulness and the passage of the seventies, and is questioning the notion (power?) of lifelike art.

The Winkleman discussion on The Lost Lifestyle has prompted A Call To Arms over at Future Modern.

Backward to go forward! There seems to be a sliver of space, a catwalk between Wishing For The Way They Used To Be and Accepting This Reign of Bleh. I don't want to long for a time when it was acceptable to think and read. I don't want to pine for a lost lifestyle, but it seems important to accept that this loss is not just my own, that it's widely perceived, and that it is not total.

Didn't the Renaisance start with a bunch of old books and artifacts? I have been lazybusy about Berman. Have been thinking about Emerson and Thoreau. Must get less busy. Must read more.

26 July 2006

WhiBi PostMordem Tedium

It's hard to read a few more paragraphs about how bad the 2006 Biennial was, especially now that it's over. But read this anyway. Bless Leo Kepler's heart for keeping his eyes in his head, and for going over the catalogue, and figuring out why it's all bullshit. What the bullshit means.

Perhaps it's most appropriate not to say anything else myself, but to quote Kepler, who is quoting Johanna Burton's overly quoteful essay... she is quoting Fredric Jameson.

[In] a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum; even more, it means that one of its essential messages will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past.

24 July 2006

The Conversaton Continues

I have deadlines, I am not going to be verbose this week. But I am reading!

High, Low and In Between is chewing up Moris Berman and delivering knowledge to us like the little baby birds we are in his Alien Intelligence series, and comparing Larsen and Berman is interesting. I haven't had time to crack Berman's Twilight yet, so I might be wrong, but it looks like Berman has a much more compelling explanation for how all this happened, which is great. Larsen has snappy prose and is working from a place I enjoy (one person observing the world), but when he takes on all of advertising, say, it gets a little naive. Kat was vocal the other day about Larsen's take on how advertising works. She says it does not jibe with her insider account of how advertising works, and I hope she writes a post about this because she is insightful and sharp on this issue, as usual.

My vote for Most Relevant Artwork for this New Feudalism: The Yes Men.

Also don't miss Leisurearts' expansion of the word "elitist" and what it does and does not mean. Beautiful.

PS: everybody else probably already knows how this works, but I have been realizing that Amazon.com emails only ever come to me when I am sitting at my computer. They know I am sitting here, don't they?

19 July 2006

Perception and Politics, Empricism and Art

Oh, no! Another picture of Guernica!

An interesting non-argument was happening over on Edward Winkleman about Frank Furedi the nature of politics and art, and this is to perhaps overstate the case, but it sounds overly binary over there... either you are making political art, or you are making fluffy crap that only serves the purpose of pandering to the elite Chelsea Machine.

And don't get me wrong, I see the reason behind this drive to want political art. The number one subject matter rolling through Chelsea is still a listless longing for each individual artist's teenage years, and that, when you look at what is going on in the world around you, is so head-in-the-sand, so not-getting-it, that it's embarassing. Sometimes I do wonder if artists are blind, and I wonder why I make art, and I wonder whether there is a social role for artists that makes more sense...

(sincerest apologies to Ashes, HLIB, Art Powerlines for dragging them into my argument with Eric Larsen about this by taking their thoughts about this out of context)

...And we know that Larsen is totally opposed to this idea, and he has a really cogent argument about why that is morally decent and logically true. To make political art that takes a side is to decide what good is for others, and in a "free democracy" this should be a matter of individual, empirical decision-making, an act of group participation, not a matter of indoctrination. To make political art is to decide what is "good" for other people, and that is tricky business because what "good" means shifts radically from culture to culture. The Greeks thought slavery was good, Kat pointed out to me yesterday. And we live in a culture that uses the Greek Model for many things, including our (ailing) democracy, and yet we are capable of understanding that people who are not landowners should have a vote, for example, or that slavery is not good.

We have made these distinctions based on empirical evidence--we can perceive and therefore test our assumption that non-landowners use governmental services and can therefore logically deduce that these citizens should be active in governmental decision-making.

So what is a moral creature who can't handle this culture of "truthiness", the coup of 2000, our unelected government, denial of empiricical evidence of climate change, shameless pandering to corporate interests and the total disappearance of the middle class to do? While I buy Larsen's assertion that to politicize art is to flatten it, and while the last thing I want to do is to join the idiocy and tell people what "good" is, I cannot stand here in my art tower and passively watch.

Larsen believes that there is no such thing as a social role for the artist as such--that the artist is no different from any citizen. And I think this conclusion is precious and backward-looking, that it is based on a firm wish that this would all just go away. I think there is something specific about being an artist that can be extremely helpful right now, and it has nothing to do with collapsing into political art, which is part of the problem, no matter how well-intended it might be. Larsen wants things to be as they were, and this is impossible.

I had a really good conversation with an artist who's working at Socrates yesterday. And yeah, I promised that I would never write about the park, but this isn't about the park. We were talking about the state of the world and what could be done about it.

Charles Ray, Unpainted Sculpture

See, artists are still trained to perceive the world around them and solve problems. Less and less, sure, but you can be hot right now and be engaged in a perception project, like Charles Ray or Jennifer Pastor or this park artist, who I will name if he says it's cool. Or a makerthinker project. Or some other kind of empirically-based inquiry of the world around you that depends on figuring out how materials actually behave, what the world really looks like, what it really feels like to see the world, that membrane between raw data and what gets perceived by the mind, what it means. And this work can be as overtly political as Jon Kessler's Palace at 4am or as absurd as Charles Ray's Family or as physical as Streb. This dependence on probing the world empirically is still happening, even in a world of Frank. Let's cling to this truth!

Jon Kessler, Palace at 4am

Stay tuned for a thorough treatment of why this sustained looking, this refusal to be soothed, this looking past and understanding of Larsen's media aesthetic, this continual need to dream by solving problems is the most powerful political act one can be engaged in, and why I think there is a specific social role for the artist as empiricist, as perceiver, as makerthinker. It doesn't mean campaigning in the streets, or painting kid's faces, or even Art Powerlines' Art For The People. It's not Marxist, it doesn't require a revolution. It just requires making some good fucking art and being a part of a community that is willing to tell one another the truth about the empirical, perceptual importance and impact of work. That community can push out a whole culture of looking, a whole culture of problem-solving that does more than look backwards and long for what it was.

This kind of artmaking is elitist. It's more important than popular culture. It takes more time and you get more out of it, and that's okay. In fact, it's critical.

The most political thing an artist can do right now is create something that requires, elicits and rewards sustained viewing, that celebrates problem solving. This is true because the only things to do to a culture of lies are to find and expand what is not a lie, and examine and understand the lies thoroughly.

12 July 2006

Oh yeah... Art.

Yves Klein, Leap Into The Void, 1960

The question that I need to keep coming back to, which is also High, Low and In Between's, Ashes', and Art Powerlines' question, is about the social role of the artist. Sure, Eric Larsen can come in here and get everyone all whooped up about the Age of Simplification... but what does it mean to art?

I don't know. But HLIB has started the conversation nicely:

"I’m increasingly concerned with the notion of survival – my beliefs, my preferences and my prejudices and what these mean for an artist. Who is the moral personality behind the work? Do I have the ability to be virtuous in the face an ideology of debasement or what Larsen calls simplification? Can I understand beauty and justice?"

And Ashes takes HLIB's question and smacks it right out of the park:

"The point of course is to understand beauty and justice independent of the ideology of debasement and simplification."

Beautiful, just beautiful. But where is this independent place where moral artists can understand beauty and justice? Between people's blogs? Can it exist elsewhere? Out in the real world? In art? And is it independent, or does it depend on a community of similarly independent folks? I'm going to go make some dinner, and I know what I'll be thinking about...

Eric Larsen Recap

Nonprophet Art is calling this conversation a blogging revolution. High, Low and In Between is getting all over the existential ramifications of Larsen's condemnation of the whole Age. I just want to get the damn thing fixed. Catch up on the conversation:

My Kneejerk First Impressions of A Nation Gone Blind with great commentary by Larsen
Review of The First Essay with great commentary by Larsen

Oh, and just to provide context, here is an article about how few college students can still read, and a brilliant sendup of this by Differance Engine. Oh! And I know nothing of this, but might prove interesting later. Seeds for future thought: A review of Frank Furedi's work, again by Differance Engine.

Seriously, big huge thanks to Eric Larsen for masticating his book with us, and stay tuned because we have only dealt with the first essay! His second essay, The Death of Literary Thought is raising eyebrows here on Freeman street. This is only the beginning of the conversation.

11 July 2006


Note to self: write everything in a text file and not blogger, so that when your browser crashes, you will not lose an hour of work!

I have to go to work. I can't recreate this now. Eric Larsen, stick around and thank you for your generosity. Geoff, thanks for calling it a revolution. I have more to say, but later.

09 July 2006

Screaming in the Canoe

I read the first essay in Eric Larsen's book, A Nation Gone Blind last night. No, I devoured it. I started it on the subway and was so excited about it that I did that thing I hate, I attempted to walk on the street and read at the same time. And then I started reading it aloud to Joel, and neither of us wanted to do anything but read it.

You should read it. It's a sharp, precise and wickedly funny grading of the State Department’s Writers On America series of diplomatic essays, and there is so much about what he is saying that is so true. I am willing to take on Eric Larsen precisely because of this truth, precisely because he understands that to find truth is the moral imparative of cultural production.

I wasn't going to write anything until I had gotten through all three essays, but a blog is an expressly serial format and it was all just too satisfying and scary and the one problem I have with Larsen's thinking is too important not to start in on it now. Besides, reading Frank Rich on Sundays always has a laxative effect on my mind, and it was so satisfying to read Rich after spending last night with Larsen.

Larsen and Rich are busying themselves in a similar way: they are doing the hard work of dissecting each lie as it's told, thereby exposing the whole tapestry of lies for what it is. This is the intellectual work that makes sense right now, and both Larsen and Rich are being pretty generous about the whole enterprise, writing some of the most pointed expository writing that I have come across in awhile. Where they diverge, however, and where I am going to pick a bone with Larsen, is that Rich has this infectious optimism that is often tried and isn't always expressed openly, but always lurks in the background of whatever he writes. His dissection of the "perilous time" we live in springs from his faith that he has the power to do something about it. This is true: he can expose it. I have long loved Rich because he is the ultimate optimist. Despite his incredible negative capacity, he manages to be light. He frames every lie he uncovers as more evidence that this government built on lies is structurally unsound, and therefore must fall apart if we can just keep our eyes focused on all three rings of lies that jump through hoops of lies under the big top of lies. His writing is an invitation to do the work with him, to notice and make connections.

Larsen has significantly less faith in his readership, and does not extend the same invitation. And while reading his first essay last night was like having drinks with your best friend, I can't countenance his pessimism. Not because he's wrong. He is delightfully careful and precise in his condemnation of American thought. Rather, his pessimism is inappropriate because he is so right, and because the stakes are therefore so high. The times we live in are too perilous to collapse into pessimism, and there is too little truth going around these days to squander some on a fallacious delaration that truth is a thing of history.

I want to begin with the end of his first essay, Watching America Go Blind, where he quotes Marilynne Robinson:

"The literature of expostulation, of Catastrophe, is taken to be very serious. But among people carried along in a canoe toward a waterfall, the one who stands up and screams is not the one with the keenest sense of the situation. We are in a place so difficult that perhaps alarm is an indulgence, and a harder thing--composure--is required of us."

Larsen includes this paragraph in order to provide continuity, and the larger point is Robinson's choices about language. But this thought, not Robinson's wistful longing for control over language, is at the heart of understanding this larger project of truth-telling and Larsen's role in it. There is a very basic indulgence in the way Larsen structures this Age of Simplification, in the way he dooms everyone under sixty to think in half-truths and to be incapable of more.

Framing this as a historical problem, an Age of Simplification that is merely a byproduct of total power of media to change may seem pretty accurate, but it doesn’t fucking help. Rather than believing in his and others’ power to tell the truth, he wastes his truth on history, delcaring that the State Department essayists who got good grades from him did so because of their age.

I want to be very clear. Larsen argues that there were bad essays and truly bad essays, which are simply evidence of a larger Age of Simplification and that the essayists were obviously doing the best they could. And there are well-written, literary essays, who were written by people old enough to still write well. When turning to the group of essays that received good grades, he writes:

It’s not really surprising that one finds oneself suddenly back among literary people and no longer stifled by the Age of Simplification. The reason for this is--age.

The only thing I can take from this is that I am blind or will become blind, and just as Larsen rightly excoriates Robert Olen Butler for telling him in his state department essay what he (Larsen) thought and felt on 9/11, I resent and reject the way I cannot help but be included in Larsen’s Twilight of American Thought, simply because I was born in 1971 and not 1947. This is absurdly simplistic--as simplistic as Butler’s assumption that because 9/11 was a big media event, we must therefore all have the same experience of it. This utter dismissal of any thinking body under age sixty that is willing to tell the truth in its entirety baffles me. How can someone be so interested in the truth as a moral enterprise, and yet not grasp that nostalgia is an incredibly inappropriate response, that it slams the door on anyone who wants to fucking fix it?

Is Larsen writing to be a part of the solution, or to wash his hands of a problem?

To find the truth is not the only moral imparative of the writer. What one does with that truth is incredibly pertinent. I want to know what Larsen thinks he is doing with the truth he finds, what he thinks the point is in declaring truth to be a thing of the past.

What am I supposed to do with this truth, except join Larsen in giving up?

Let’s get back to that canoe that is going over the waterfall. To stand up and scream is to give up, and giving up means not seeing the branch dangling down, the rock, the rope at everyone’s feet. Eric Larsen may have the luxury of giving up, but I've still got some McGyver in me.

07 July 2006

The Blog: Everything and Nothing?

A statement and a question for Friday:

First, High, Low and In Between rules! Check out the Top Ten Reasons to Ditch Your Artist's Statement For A Blog, a collaborative effort between Highlow, Geoffrey and yours truly.

And let me ask you. What kind of writing do bloggers do, and what does it mean? Seriously. I can only speak for myself and the folks I read... but I see a lot of opinions and exploration, and very little authority, and I like this because it keeps the stakes low. High stakes are constipating.

But am I mistaken that the stakes are low, and that I am just one lone asshole with a habit? What are the ethics of blogging? The ethics of having an opinion? How does one have an opinion responsibly? Lovingly? What is one blogger's opinion worth?

Anyone care to weigh in?

05 July 2006

Artists Who Write

Art Soldier is ahead of this curve today, with a great post pointing to Martha Rosler. Martha Rosler is exactly the kind of artist I want to talk about. So is Richard Serra. Robert Smithson, Sophie Calle, Eleanor Antin, Donald Judd. Gerhard Richter.

I want to talk about artists who write because this practice is different from pumping out a statement. A statement is a bad format for two reasons. Of course it is stupid to write a statement because it does the viewer's work for them. But there is an insidious side effect to this extra work. To make a statement is to know, and there is nothing more boring than artists who cleave to what they know. Statements set an expectation that the artist is an authority on her own work, and I cannot imagine anything more stultifying, more blinding, than authority.

To begin, here's yesterday's definition of the Statement Format:

The artist's statement as taught in school asks me to tell you what my art means. It answers the questions: What is my art doing? How is it doing it? Why is it doing it?

And just to flesh this out, I would characterize an artist's statement as a helpful document that asks the artist to take the point of view of the viewer, frame the meaning of one's work in a linear, logical format, and pre-emptively answer any questions the viewer might have.

Let's set aside the indignant footstamping--what the fuck is wrong us that this spoonfeeding has become convention--and focus on the cause and effect relationships here. It is easy to see that audiences quickly could become accustomed to just being told what the work means. But what about the artist? Does Joe MFA get accustomed to the expectation that two times a year or so he needs to step outside his practice and assign meaning to the totality of his work as an authority? And if so, what does that do to the work?

The writing artists I mentioned above never positioned themselves like this, and yet they wind up doing all this insightful writing and artmaking. That, I believe, is because there is a real difference between writing as an explorer and writing as an authority. The statement has a point of view problem. Could you imagine Eleanor Antin sitting down to tell us what Eleanora Antinova was about in a half-page statement? No way! The act of walking around New York, pretending you are a black Russian ballerina when in fact you are a smallish Jewish woman with no formal dance training is too absurd, too loaded. It's about too many things, and the way they interact.

And that is why it is good work. Eleanor Antin did not know what would happen when one walks around the city, pretending to be black, a ballerina, and Russian. And so Being Antinova is not authoritative. It is exploratory, and there's its strength.

Similarly, Richard Serra's essay Weight is nothing close to the last word on Serra's work. It's more like a stone thrown on one corner of a tarp on a windy day. Serra's work has a lot to do with weight, but it has even more to do with empty space. Does putting a fine point on weight--defining it, listing examples of it, figuring out when it became so important--help the Serra enterprise? Sure. But it sure as hell does not define it.

Artmaking is a confusing, mucky, non-linear excursion into the unknown, and the artist is charged with bringing something back that affirms our existence and experience--that is at the same time totally unknown and completely of us. Writing can help this enterprise. Writing propelled Robert Smithson into the unknown by recasting his known world (New Jersey) as a new source of mystery. Writing, and the way it slows thoughts down and makes them behave, allowed him to bring that mystery back. He made connections in his writing that make my bones cry out for dirt.

Artists need to be making these deep connections, probing these existential weirdnesses and bringing back strange, affirming artifacts and anecdotes. Artist's statements do more than just don't allow for that exploration. In my own studio, the artist's statement sometimes sits on my shoulder and keeps me from being comfortable with the unknown. And while I cannot speak for any other artist's internal dialogue, much of the reality-based, artist-as-researcher, artist-as-curator, lameass neo-conceptualist twaddle out there reads to my eyes like it already knew where it was going before it began. Why should any artist do the hard work of keeping steady in the realm of the unknown when the artist's statement and its call to authority is lurking in the back of your head?

This is the danger of artistic authority. I don't want to look at anything an artist feels comfortable encapsulating in a half-page authoritative statement that tells me exactly what to make of it, because there is nothing there.

03 July 2006

Fuck The Artist's Statement!

It all started innocently enough. Tyler Green was interviewed by somebody over at the Walker, and had this to say about the infernal artist's statment:

When an artist receives his/her BA or MFA, he/she should be required to burn anything resembling a written artist’s statement. An artist’s statement is his/her work.

This resulted in fist pumping here, but twisted knickers over at AFC, where Paddy fired off two in a row: First, a defense of the statement, and then a little blurb about how she's requested 100-word statements from her emerging artists this summer.

And with all due respect to Paddy, I think it's entirely possible to write well and be an artist while actively hating the artist's statement.

The thrust of the AFC argument is that statement-writing clarifies "artistic objectives" and helps artists to build effective arguments. But art is not a term paper, and great art is great because it denies one clear argument or objective! To frame one's art verbally, with an artist's statement, is to close doors that could remain open, and to depend on verbal explanations of visual and spatial expressions dulls the potential for art to actually do that voodoo that it does so well. Visual and spatial expressions of ideas are non-linear, non-hierarchical. Multiple reads can co-exist in time. Writing doesn't kill this. But writing an artist's statement can.

The artist's statement as taught in school asks me to tell you what my art means. It answers the questions: What is my art doing? How is it doing it? Why is it doing it? And these are great questions for a viewer to ask themselves when looking at a work of art, but my relationship to what I make is different, and these questions are uniquely unimportant to me. These questions privilege one meaning, expressed in a linear fashion, over the tapestry of simultaneous and interlocking meanings that compel me to create visual art. The whole reason I make visual art and don't write for a living is because of this tapestry and what it can do, and the very nature of this love affair I am having with this tapestry of meaning is that it is impossible to verbalize with anything other than the most hackneyed, imprecise, insufficient metaphors.

Like tapestry. Tapestry for chrissakes!

I make art specifically because I am trying desperately to understand something that my verbal self can't touch. Writing a statement about what my own work means is therefore an unhelpful enterprise. This is not because I am an illiterate artist, but because I am compelled to make visual art for specifically nonverbal reasons. I want to embrace paradox, not resolve it. I want to ferret out all those fat spaces of uncertainty and becoming that an essay cannot get at.

It's not that art is better than writing an essay. They are simply different. Writing is beautiful and clarifying for all the reasons AFC describes. It privileges linear argument, and therefore is the ultimate tool of rational thought. I am not an enemy of rational thought! It's just that I don't like it in my art. I don't like art that makes one honed argument... unless of course it admits that it's propaganda. And frankly, the day I can just state my artistic objectives is probably the day I will finally stop hurting my body and ruining my clothes and be able to join Clean Society once and for all. I don't know exactly what I am doing, I can't quite put my finger on it, and that is the whole point. The problem with the artist's statement is it argues that I should know, and that nagging feeling that I should know is at the root of every stupid choice I make in my studio. Every time I force a quick conclusion, flirt with political art, close a form before it closes itself, cleave to the middle (ugh, the worst!)... it's because I am afraid that I don't know exactly what I am doing and am searching for a quick answer. I am writing my statement in these stupidest moments, when I am most off the mark. This is why I believe strongly in everything Tyler Green has to say about 'text love'. My art is at its strongest when I am mute.

Writing is an integral part of my practice. More and more, I need it. But this important writing is never a statement. There is a difference between being a writing artist and being a good writer of statements, and next time I will write more about what I think that difference is.

In the meantime, Paddy, I humbly admit that my statement is bullshit. It has little to do with why I make art, even though as someone who loves words I do try my hardest.