#soilpractice + #socialpractice coordinates with (mostly) unrelated notes

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/01/2016



Facebook comment of mine:

And thus the arts are subjugated to the disastrous apparatus constructed by the Enlightenment cleaving of self/other. One of the most egregious examples of this is the forced submission of all manner of creative play to (linguistic) domination in the form of “criticality,” which is a technique of dissociation that replicates the very mistakes that its proponents seek to solve using it as a tool!

“Criticality” as fertilizer

Initial applications lead to tremendous yields while ultimately degrading the ecological substrate. Everywhere the miraculous results are lauded as revolutionary, liberating us from various “externalities.” Criticality/fertilizer is seen as a cure all – making a degraded condition seem easily rectified while masking the fact that said cure alls are the mode of degraded experience itself. Criticality/fertilizer is supplied by large centralized institutions under the auspices of empowerment, but it really means a lifetime of debt and dependency.

against art historical noodling or why social poiesis is more interesting than social practice especially if by social practice we really mean social practice art – Even more stuff I said in blog comments with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/02/2015

I often quote IC-98 on this matter:

“…as a reaction to the restrictions of academic writing…In practice, the world of contemporary art has proved to be the most flexible environment for diverse projects, being a free zone of experimentation within the society at large…[it] offers possibilities to put forward ideas without the preconditions of academic work …the market…or activism…the projects are labeled art only for strategic reasons – the strategy works as long as the concepts of art do not come to dominate the discourse. The same applies to the individuals working in the group: you call yourself artist, just because it is institutionally convenient, [emphasis mine] because the very concept of ARTIST is obscure.”

These “strategic reasons” are part of what ***’s investigation of “practical consequences” would help illuminate. I am extremely sympathetic to this pragmatic (rather than ontological) engagement with categories. But I remain interested in social practice to the degree that it remains social practice, rather than social practice *art*. So when we inquire into the aesthetics of participation for instance we don’t get bogged down in all the art historical noodling that paralyzes so many critics from the old school. It is important to emphasize that all kinds of “problems” are solved by recognizing that art [frieze/e-flux/triple canopy type art], is just a highly specialized and mostly pointless parlor game played with, and within, aesthetic experience. If we remain attuned to aesthetics and aesthetic experience (especially from an embodied, phenomenological point of view) or to “the arts” or “the art of” or “the artful” rather than to Art, we increase the chances of having the “dynamic, complex and difficult dialogues” *** seeks rather than the insular professional tiffs of the Art world. Melvin Haggerty (1935) said it much better:

“Art is a way of life” is a simple statement of short and familiar words. It expresses a way of looking at life that is very old in the history of thought. If it now seems strange it is because we have permitted art to become divorced from the ordinary activities in which men [sic] engage and its cultivation to drift into the hand of specialists from whom the mass of mankind is separated as by a chasm. In recent times this chasm has become very broad and very deep. To men [sic] absorbed in the work of the world artists appear to be a cult and their work and conversation seem esoteric and almost mystical. To artists ordinary folks appear ignorant and unappreciative, and very often their thinly veiled contempt for plebeian tastes has led them to caustic expression. This dissociation is artificial; it is injurious to art and impoverishes life.

[art as a way of life] sees that as the experiences of life multiply, new and varied purposes arise that call for the invention of new objects and new forms of expression and that these, in turn, vastly increase the possibilities of enriching life…This elemental reality that binds into a single pattern all the varied arts is more important for the philosophy of education than is the stress so often laid upon the differences that superficially separate one kind of creative work from other kinds.

We have assumed a way of looking at art that permits no gulf between the simple arts of life and the so-called fine arts. It sees all as man’s [sic] more or less successful efforts to create things that increase the comforts, the efficiencies, and the pleasures of living…This view cherishes not even the ethically tinged distinction between good art and bad art.

The distinction between creation and appreciation is not one between activity and passivity but rather one among different kinds of activity. The realization of this fact should emphasize the essential unity of art experiences.

*** – Long time no talk. I have to call you out though about what a mess you’re making! You keep conflating art and aesthetics. To call something “not art” in no way reduces its aesthetic dimension. And your understanding of what treating something aesthetically does – “increases distance” – is but one (dominant) idea of aesthetic experience. Berleant’s “Art And Engagement” makes all this talk of participatory aesthetics a moot point (not to mention Dewey and the pragmatists among others). All aesthetic experience is participatory, engaged.

*** – although I quoted IC-98 for one reason (the tactical employment of art as a descriptor), I actually agree more with David Robbins in this quote:

“All the time, though, my sensibility pointed toward and yearned for an imaginative Elsewhere. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the narrowness of art as a formulation of the imagination. This will sound preposterous to many people, I’m aware, given that art offers and represents extraordinary behavioral freedoms, but in “making art” I found an ultimately enslaving formulation. How so? In art, you can do, yes, anything you want so long as you’re willing to have it end up as art. That isn’t real imaginative freedom, in my view. Inquisitiveness of mind will carry you past art, and apparently I love inquisitiveness of mind more than I love art.”

So again I hope social practice delivers us to this imaginative Elsewhere, but art has an insidious ability to capture its escapees…

*** – since I’m in such a quotey mood, I think these snippets from Carl Wilson might get at some of the spirit of criticism I am after (but I am totally down with your criticism as aesthetic experience bit). It’s just that I’m not as fired up about judgment and evaluation as you seem to be:

“What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great…It might…offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.”

“…a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all the messiness and private soul tremors – to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.”

Re: Meta-experience – I find the discussion around this a bit condescending…it implies that people outside art somehow live their lives unconsciously, that they are unable to think about how to sharpen experience or how to craft an endeavor.

Re: Critique – I recently chaired a panel called “Critiquing Criticality” (which will hopefully end up as a book) and we discussed at length how art had sold its soul to be taken seriously in the academy. That is, it was so ashamed of all those “fuzzy” romantic qualities that it ended up jettisoning all the things that distinguished it from “real” academic disciplines. I would argue much to its detriment.

*** –  I would ask you carry your pragmatic reasoning further. Let us accept that it is indeed now “meaningful” for Rirkrit to call pad thai his art. What does that designation actually *do?* The consensus so far in these threads is that it might invite a kind of meta-reflection which I addressed above to some degree. But to put it even more bluntly, let’s stipulate that this is art’s province alone, what social value is there in that? Aside from appealing to the sorts of people who enjoy thinking about thinking about thinking? Wouldn’t this territory staked out by art be rather sad? When eating pad thai, asking whether it is art or not or whether it follows from Fluxus more than it follows from conceptualism seems like a hollow inquiry. Does it taste good? Does it taste like my mom’s version? Does it remind me of the time I visited that city? Was this dish my friend’s favorite? Those questions tie the food to life, to concrete experience, to ordinary people and therefore are more pragmatically vibrant. And, all of those questions need art as much as pad thai needs alfredo sauce!

For me, calling pad thai art accomplishes exactly nothing other than connect it to a pedantic, insular conversation (art history/criticism). The question of calling social practice projects art amounts to a pragmatic (of the simple, not philosophic type) question (I asked elsewhere) – Do I show them in an art context, however imperfectly it addresses my concerns and burdens me with a history I’m not particularly interested in? Or do I explore them elsewhere and suffer from the lack of critical, promotional, and organizational infrastructure that the art context provides?

*** – “Does an artist need to call what they do social practice? do they need to call themselves artists?”

To these questions I have posited time and again that social practice is *already* happening all the time, with or without art and artists. I think that art has some very modest things to offer, but I prefer a more bottom up, less homogenous, and certainly more diverse approach to understanding, and engaging social practice. Urban ecology seems like an ideal strand to add to the web, so to speak. Here is my initial stab at articulating a vision for social practice (preceded by a contextualizing rant) that may be of interest to you:https://randallszott.org/2013/01/18/all-we-have-to-do-is-look-around-toward-a-local-social-practice-syllabus-or-an-idiosyncratic-arty-party-field-guide-to-vermont/
*** –

Maybe I could grab your attention for a moment and ask what you think of Larry Shiner’s “The Invention of Art” or Mary Anne Staniszewski’s “Believing Is Seeing” as two examples of the argument that it doesn’t make sense to talk about Greek or Roman “art” or at the minimum, capital A “Art.” You seem to be somewhat sympathetic in your commentary above. And do we sidestep this (in a productive way) by continuing the discussion in terms of aesthetic activity rather than art? And by aesthetics, I do not mean exclusively the philosophic subdiscipline itself…

*** – I like that you bring up phronesis, but it’s funny because I am an advocate of not limiting social practice to the visual and performing arts (and there is discussion of it in a very different way in other fields) and was going to suggest here before your post that “social poiesis” (despite its even more obscure quality) might be a better term. If we don’t limit ourselves to art, social poiesis (nee practice) could be more dynamic and encompass not only art actions and art environments, but also – urban planning, sports leagues, communes, be-ins, residencies, raves, state fairs, theme parks, cults, encounter groups, chautauquas, even nations…and would also apply to a much broader demographic of participants rather than artists and their audiences…

But ***, much like the recent article in the Onion (http://www.theonion.com/articles/artists-announce-theyve-found-all-the-beauty-they,20973/) the *last* thing I want to do is to provide a framework for expanding what artists consider their “media.” Rather I am hoping to show that what artists and their supporters wish to claim as an exclusive territory, or what they reserve some claim of special ability at, is already done, by all sorts of folks from all walks of life. And, yes I believe that Dewey (and many contemporary scholars developing his work – but NOT Rorty) can be read (in fact *should* be read) as seeing aesthetics as an integral feature of everyday life – “through and through” as you say.

Gregory Pappas (Dewey scholar):

“The intelligent and aesthetic characters of democracies are mutually dependent. The community most capable of learning from experience is also the one that has all the features that define aesthetic activity, which for Dewey is the most inherently meaningful type of activity in experience. The democratic way of life is able to maintain the kind of balance and rhythm in its everyday doings and undergoings that, for Dewey, characterize aesthetic experience: a balance of tensions with rhythmic variety. Ideal activity is a merging of playfulness with seriousness that allows richness and flexibility without sacrificing stability. Democracy signifies for Dewey this possibility at the social level. The democratic community is also the aesthetic community because it is constituted by relationships that are neither fixed, routine, or mechanical, nor anarchical, capricious, or arbitrary.”


“Dewey’s work…affirms the potential of ordinary experience (concrete life) to be the source of amelioration, admiration, and inspiration. His metaphysics reminds philosophers that the tangled, complex, gross, macroscopic, and crude things we find in everyday life are real, for example, vagueness, ugliness, fantasies, headaches, illusions, spark plugs, a conversation with a friend, parties, diseases, stones, food, tragedy, a conflict with a roommate, a joke, playing backgammon with friends, measles, and marbles. His aesthetics is a philosophical reintegration of the aesthetic with everyday life that is, in effect, a celebration of lived experience…his ethics is an affirmation of morality as experience.”


“When the thought of the end becomes so adequate that it compels translation into the means that embody it, or when attention to the means is inspired by recognition of the end they serve, we have the attitude typical of the artist, an attitude that may be displayed in all activities, even though they are not conventionally designated ‘arts.’ “

Sorry I’m back to being quotey, but this nugget from Dewey in 1891!!! cuts to the heart of the matter:

“If the necessary part played in conduct by artistic cultivation is not so plain, it is largely because ‘Art’ has been made such an unreal Fetich [sic] – a sort of superfine and extraneous polish to be acquired only by specially cultivated people. In reality, living is itself the supreme art…”

Living is itself the supreme art – social poiesis?

re: politics and aesthetics – I included a quote (from Gregory Pappas) on the other thread that addresses this exact point. The more expansive notion of aesthetics that I think we share (and Dewey et. al. have developed extensively) is inextricably linked with politics. In fact, that is why I am mystified by Claire Bishop getting as much attention as she does as her theoretical house of cards is so flimsy – relying as it does on such a misguided interpretation of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.

re: pleasure – Richard Shusterman is my go to here (although I go to him for many other insights as well!) There is a link to his piece before the quotes I’ve culled: https://randallszott.org/2012/12/30/adorno-the-grumpy-puritan-richard-shusterman-on-art-and-pleasure/
“With these authors you get all modes of social practice: antagonism, pedagogy, community, the dialogic, ethics, morality, the relational, and the political.”

This statement is barely true even with this correction:

“With these authors you get all modes of social practice [art]: antagonism, pedagogy, community, the dialogic, ethics, morality, the relational, and the political.”

If social practice aspires to be anything more than another entry in the art historical ledger rather than say the historical ledger, *** reading list is the *last* place to look. Sadly it is all too reflective of the inbred nature of art discourse (embodying Kaprow’s “artlike art”). I think *** is dead on, but I would add another cautionary note (as I linked to in another comment) – developing a reading list should be an extremely low priority. A looking/experiencing list might be better. My mom ain’t gonna read Claire Bishop and she sure as hell isn’t gonna read Ranciere. But my mom engages in social practice (but has no need to call it that or study it as such) via her gardening club, and her volunteer activities. I love Fritz Haeg, but Crockett’s Victory Garden is more her speed and I would hope we’re not trying to build a field reserved for grad school types or urban hipsters (of which I am or was).

*** – I misunderstood you. I took you too literally when you said “all modes of social practice.” Believe me, I’m all about cutting slack (just ask google).

*** – where is the damn “like” button on this page? Your response itself was “smartly dark!” There is no denying of course (in fact my wife made the same comment) that reading is an experience. So yes, I should have said something more like “a (nonreading) looking/experiencing list.” It is also true that for many people (particularly of an academic persuasion – and I know, not exclusively) reading and looking are deeply symbiotic, but for many other folks they are not, or are dependent on entirely different sets of “texts.” I do disagree that I am over estimating/underestimating anyone – I was not clear in communicating this though. Because it is very much the latter of your propositions that I support. I do not oppose Crockett to Haeg (as I said I love Haeg!!!), but was pointing out that there are people doing social practice beyond art world/academe/activist circles. And trying to suggest that I think developing a robust idea of social practice needs to be inclusive of those folks. So when you ask “is anyone actually saying that?” I think you mean is anyone privileging the art/activist crowd over the PBS gardening crowd…to which I answer emphatically yes! I’ve been to panel after panel, read book after book, essay after essay, seen show after show, attended conference after conference, read syllabus after syllabus, and there is a clear canon established that charts an all too familiar course. Very rarely is anyone included that isn’t part of the dominant or emerging activist/artist circuit and even then they are usually included as material for, or in “collaboration” with an artist/activist. How do we get out of this? I’m not exactly sure – maybe get more ethnographic (with all its ensuing baggage)? I think *** is suggesting something similar (but in a much less grating tone than mine). As far as understanding/thinking about/experiencing social practice I’ve said before “all we have to do is look around.”

“They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior.” – 40 years of Theory talking to itself

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/30/2013

It’s curtains for the gadfly of the piece… – Mark Bauerlein

Tradition, history and art were subordinated to a collection of thinkers and arguments that went under the name of “theory”. They provided abstract rules and explanations for how human events unfolded and artistic creation happened. Theory had all the attractions of being conjecture-clean, clever, overarching – but it squeezed the vitality and unpredictability from human achievement like juice from a lemon. Instead of reading classic poems and novels, scholars mastered theories of literature. Instead of learning the details of a historical record, they acquired a theory of historical change. Forty years on, the results are in. Learning has declined and the humanities are an impoverished field. The outcome could have been foreseen, for what is the theory of history and art, or of love, gardening or health, for that matter, compared with present and past realities? But the enthusiasms of the moment were too strong.

It didn’t take long to realise that other idols ruled the graduate programmes. Yes, we read Shakespeare, Hume, Austen and Lovejoy, but what we did with them depended on an entirely different group: the theorists.

Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Adorno, Rorty, Paul de Man… they set a powerful agenda for humanistic study. Their work was complex and diverse, but what made all of them theorists was a focus on method. Instead of studying directly the contents of history and thought, they said we should examine the tools of study – terms, evidence, values and practices. Biographers, for instance, aim to record a human life; theorists step back and ponder the narrative structure of that life (or any life), the nature of historical evidence and so on. The sceptical tenor was spreading in schools from Aberdeen to Berkeley to Sydney, and those of us who enlisted out of inspiration had to change our attitude. Theory was hyper-analytical and against common sense, leaving no ordinary enjoyment untouched. The beauty of Keats’s verse, the truth of Nietzsche on herd morality, the heroism of Lincoln… well, you couldn’t esteem such things any more. By their own declaration, the theorists probed the basic elements of language, culture and ego, and to affirm something as conventional as beauty was to be pitiably square and naive.

Some were turned off, but many were intoxicated by the approach. Indeed, it is hard for non-academics to grasp how heady those conversations in the seminars and the student lounge could be. The classic writers were still essential, but the theorists were daring and radical, and the mention of them made the energy level in class discussions jump. If a fellow student spoke about Gulliver’s Travels by borrowing from Swift’s life, one could cite Derrida on how outside materials don’t reveal the meaning of a work but close off multiple meanings to “privilege” just one. Or one could steer the talk towards Lacan on aggression, then apply it to the world of the Houynhnms and Swift’s portrayal of mankind as yahoos. Or one could take a postcolonialist tack and recount Gulliver’s efforts to “go native” (ridiculous, to be sure, but one heard much worse). At that point, the colloquy would turn theoretical, with people taking sides.

Usually, the theorists would win. Traditional scholars fell back on custom and textual evidence, while theorists and their disciples enjoyed the thrill of roguish poses and weighty topics – Derrida on Western thought, Foucault on madness and civilisation, de Man on irony and death. They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior. Think, for instance, how Foucault flattered the student ego. In a series of books, he argued that the freedoms we cherish in bourgeois society, along with the liberal reforms of the Enlightenment, were in fact subtle forms of social control working through heightened surveillance and low-intensity coercions. The compliment this outlook paid to weary junior scholars struggling to find a place in the world was hard to withstand. While the rest of society accepted modern life and muddled through, the clear-eyed minds we fancied ourselves to be understood what was really going on.

When it was a minority endeavour, it functioned as a gadfly, obnoxious sometimes, but useful for testing assumptions. When theory became a dominant habit, it lost its rationale. With nobody around to defend untheoretical positions, it had nothing more to say, no more bunk to debunk. As the numbers of old-fashioned scholars dwindled, theoretical interventions became pointless and predictable. A recent book by another president of the MLA spent pages blaming the poor reading habits of students on the New Critics, figures whose influence waned back in the 1960s. The antiquated target shows how empty theory’s victory was. How many times could you “call into question” a basic assumption or “problematise” a term without sounding like a cliche?

The test of time was undeniable. The simple truth was that the accomplishments of theory mocked its claims. Derrida and the rest spoke in grandiose terms about the implications of theoretical acumen, and their votaries echoed the tone in portentous statements. When de Man declared that “the linguistics of literariness is a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations”, his followers repeated it as if it marked a leap in the course of human intelligence. But nobody appeared to benefit from the insight except its practitioners. Theory infiltrated the humanities, theorists found jobs and changed the curriculum, new journals and programmes were founded. But the effect beyond the campus was negligible. A few psychiatrists remained Lacanians, and some architects practised a version of deconstruction, but the influences were scattered. To proclaim theory’s social impact was nothing more than a pretence.

Still, theory’s influence in the university has been enormous. Even among people who’ve pulled away, certain axioms remain a matter of principle – for instance, the notion that sexual identity is a social construct with no biological determinants. In the absence of support from the outside world, theory has become an insider activity. And with the anti-theorists routed long since, all theory can do is rehearse the arguments made 40 years ago, the same interpretations and same conclusions. The pretexts change – Milton yesterday, Buffy the Vampire Slayer today – but the outlook doesn’t.

Professors have profited from theory for a long time, and they’re too comfortable and invested to have second thoughts.

The arrogance was self-defeating, of course. Theory couldn’t sustain the humanities by itself, and the exhilaration that brought us into the habit struck outsiders as a self-congratulatory joy carried out in an affected tongue. With the public estranged from our practice and with younger scholars not replenishing the reserves of knowledge, the humanities are a guild imploding. Theory is dead, but it has taken something much more valuable with it: higher learning.

Criticality as rearguard defense of capital – The “purity” of critique is the metaphysics of irrelevance

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/28/2013

Hal Foster’s Art and Architecture Complex – Stephen Horne

The Art – Architecture Complex is a book concerned with contemporary architecture and design, a subject I am vastly underqualified to critically pursue. How I could venture into this task without the requisite specialization is best explained by my conviction that marginality with respect to such specialization is sometimes preferable to expertise. And it may well be that both art and architecture are fields too important to be left to their professional defenders. And anyway, if Foster’s observations are accurate, architecture has itself been dissolved, our ways of building and dwelling transformed into cinematic encounters under consumer media’s management.

With this title, The Art – Architecture Complex, Foster invokes that sense of capitalist conspiracy first expressed in the 1960’s phrase, “military/industrial complex.” The book is massively informative but characterized by the author’s trademark polemic with regard to the pluralism that is post modernity in general. Foster has long made clear his preference for purity over plurality…

This metaphysics, the foundation for Foster’s criticism in general, is oppositional in form. He typically opposes resistance and transgression to complicity, outside to inside, the real to the illusory, and the virtual to the actual. This marks a limit to his analyses, and for some would render his conclusions helplessly conservative, even when his objections to “capital” might seem necessary. This is the crux of his situation; critical for his historical consciousness, conservative for the same, his oppositionality leaving him without traction with regard to a historicity of experience now re-composed by way of electronic “abstraction.” In this new situation, Foster refuses to acknowledge how antiquated his use of “the image” and “spectacle” has become, clinging as this does to some notion of an objective foundation, a reality that would offer an external standpoint from which critique proceeds. His fervent conviction that there is an “outside” from which criticism can orient itself and from which critical attacks may be mounted, that distance is definitive of criticality, fails to account for and integrate the pluralizing impact of electronic communications media with which the post modern is to be identified. Even a likely sympathizer such as Bruno Latour asks, “Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?”

…Baudrillard, informed by the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, developed a more “performative” vision of architecture’s relationship with new media. Although the literary character of his thought has often been anathema to traditionalists such as Foster, his observations are acute if expressed in apocalyptic language. His willingness to embrace the media as environment means he spends less time spinning his wheels on a positioning of critique now no longer available as it was in the nineteen eighties.

Perhaps what is needed, following Foster’s denunciations of design as mere consumerist manipulation in the service of greater efficiencies for capitalism, is recognition of a more general outline. That would be one that attributes the root of the problem more deeply in a description of the rationalist prejudices that dominate our thinking and being. For the style of critique demonstrated by Foster and his colleagues this would be bad news, leaving them revealed as a part of the problem in so far as their project is itself inextricably dedicated to the founding of criticality in a modernity already itself a practice of instrumental rationality. In this sense, the critique mounted from Foster’s “leftist” optimism has become a rearguard defence inevitably and finally supporting and requiring those elements of purification and linearity so essential to the drive of technics (including capital) for ever greater efficiency.

The declining institution of Theory – Kurt Spellmeyer – A future beyond the university

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/28/2013

“After Theory: From Textuality to Attunement with the World” – Kurt Spellmeyer

Theory, in other words, has outlived its own “death,” but its survival gives cold comfort to all the former converts who have irretrievably lost their faith. For those of us no longer charmed by the magic, by the myth, of the pursuit of signs-what other path remains if we want to be more than perpetually “post-“? What we need is nothing less than a paradigm shift: turning from the threadbare ideology of “the text,” we might start to explore an alternative so mundane that we have passed it over time after time in our scramble for sophistication and prestige. That alternative is ordinary sensuous life, which is not an “effect” of how we think but the ground of thought itself, or so I want to argue here. At this late hour, when theory’s successors can teach us nothing really new, what prevents us from returning to the idea of “the arts” by a long-forgotten path-the arts imagined as traditions of experience that intensify our sense of living in and with the world? If the humanities have, as I believe, very nearly lost the battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, then the future of English may well lie with those arts and the worlds they open up.

Yet there has been, I think, more to theory’s success than the lure of celebrity can explain-and this “more” has to do with the character of theory as a resource for preserving our profession’s prestige. Like every other form of information dignified with the name of “knowledge” today, theory gets produced by specialists. But theory differs from a piece in Harper’s or a report on the CBS Evening News, whose writers are no less specialized than we are, because theory is uniquely the discourse of privileged and declining institutions whose concerns have grown so distant from everyday life that a sense of crisis overtakes the specialists themselves. To justify the privileged status of their work, these specialists must show that their thinking is somehow superior to common sense – more inclusive, more penetrating, more rigorous. But theory wins the battle at the cost of the war, since the discourse that strays too far from the everyday world runs the risk of losing its lay clientele as well as the confidence of neophytes, who no longer see themselves figured in its ghostly narratives.

But think, if you will give yourself the freedom to, about the different kinds of pleasure people get from their most mundane involvements with the world – watching leaves shake in the hot summer wind, listening to the sound of rain, tracing the smooth, wet curve of a child’s spine with the palm of a soapy hand. And think, if you can stand it, about all the essays written ten or fifteen years ago that began with the claim to be writing “on the margin”; or of all the works today that call themselves “genealogies”; or of all the dissections of cinematic gaze that open with a summary of the mirror stage. The writers of these works are not simply sycophants or opportunists. To write in this way is to become Derrida, to become a second Foucault or a little Lacan. In the same way, Madonna’s fans dress like Madonna, walk and talk like her, and read books about her life.

For all our celebrations of resistance and revolt, no alternative is more revolutionary than our resistance to disembodiment and the pursuit of wholeness in our immediate experience. But how might such a wholeness lie within our reach, when theory and critique have unmistakably become the preeminent forms of knowledge in our time, as highly valued by Peter Drucker, the Wall Street savant, as they are by Marxists like Etienne Balibar? If theory and critique free us from nothing finally, but contribute to a routinizing of expression unparalleled in our history, then perhaps the way out lies in a domain that the “linguistic turn” has caused us to overlook: I mean the domain of “the arts,” understood not as the cunning lies told by an elite, nor as the property of specialists whose goal is technical virtuosity, but as traditions of attunement with the world, available to everyone everywhere but also now diligently suppressed.

What our society needs most urgently is not another theoretical “advance” – toward a new discipline called grammatography, let’s say, or psycho-dialectical materialism – but a better understanding of the practices through which everyone might enter the open space where Cezanne felt himself at home. Yet, in order to discover and protect such practices, English studies needs to undergo a change more profound than many people might like. We will need to become ethnographers of experience: I do not mean armchair readers of the “social text,” but scholar/teachers who find out how people actually feel. And far from bringing English studies to a dismal close, the search for basic grammars of emotional life may give us the future that we have never had, a future beyond the university.

[from the LeisureArts archive] – The “as art” gaze

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/22/2012

[I would obviously state some things differently and use some modified examples, but this post is still mostly on the mark and relevant to many ongoing conversations I’m currently having]

Baudrillard – “as art” relational art – Kaprow [September 2006]

In The Mirror of Production, Jean Baudrillard writes about the colonial intellectual impulses of the West. Concerning the criticality of Western culture he notes:

…it [Western culture] reflected on itself in the universal, and thus all other cultures were entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image. It ‘estheticized’ them, reinterpreted them on its own model, and thus precluded the radical interrogation these ‘different’ cultures implied for it.


Without bias, they have attempted to ‘relocate’ these ‘works’ [so called primitive art] into their magical and religious ‘context.’ In the kindest yet most radical way the world has ever seen, they have placed these objects in a museum by implanting them in an esthetic category. But these objects are not art at all [Emphasis ours]. And, precisely their non-esthetic character could at last have been the starting point for a radical perspective on (and not an internal critical perspective leading to a broadened reproduction of) Western culture.

This critique can easily be applied to the critical appropriation of any number of new “art” practices, most notably relational art. We see quite clearly how a variety of activities and modes of research that began to stray from the flock were quickly recuperated under the banner of “relational aesthetics.” This needn’t apply necessarily to the stars of the movement (Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija are obvious) as their work was never really intended to offer a radical perspective on anything, but Oda Projesi (who are not nearly as gallery friendly, and don’t engage in the same sort of faux art institutional critique) has certainly become a bit of a flashpoint. The debate surrounding them provides an interesting model as Claire Bishop begs to read their activities “as art,” making sure they are safely inscribed within the known parameters of self-criticality that the museum Baudrillard describes above tolerates. Maria Lind, however, prefers to read their actions without preemptively applying critical classifications.

Allan Kaprow in his essay “The Real Experiment”describes the “as art” impulse as well:

‘Look,’ I remember a critic exclaiming once as we walked by a vacant lot full of scattered rags and boxes, ‘how that extends the gestural painting of the fifties!’ He wanted to cart the whole mess to a museum. But life bracketed by the physical and cultural [emphasis ours] frames of art quickly becomes trivialized life at the service of high art’s presumed greater value. The critic wanted everyone to see the garbage as he did through art history, not as urban dirt, not as a playground for kids and home for rats, not as rags blowing about in the wind, boxes rotting in the rain.

We see here the application of the art historical gaze, the “as art” gaze. And not unlike the “male gaze” (although obviously the parallel is in how it operates, not in its social effects) it becomes a way of subjugating the world to a particular critical regime and seeks to infiltrate the self-perception of others, so that they see themselves and their activities through the “as art” lens.

We return in closing to Baudrillard’s critique of Marxist anthropology which can be seen to possess the same impulse to universalize its history, its criticality:

…because the system of political economy tends to project itself retrospectively as a model and subordinates everything else to the genealogy of this model…Thus in the strict sense, it analyzes only the conditions of the model’s reproduction, of its production as such: of the separation that establishes it…By presupposing the axiom of the economic, the Marxist critique perhaps deciphers the functioning of the system of political economy; but at the same time it reproduces it as a model.

It is evident that the “as art” perspective functions to accept as a given the art model, thus binding itself to merely reproducing the logic of art production rather than challenging it in any substantive way. It presupposes the axiom of the artistic, and shields itself from the messiness of rotting boxes, leaving us in the “internal critical” hall of mirrors, trapped in the “as art” aesthetic fun-house.

Cyndi Lauper – Criticality vs. Pleasure, or Being Awesome is Better Than Being Cool

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/04/2012

‘Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir’ – David Hajdu

There seems little doubt that Lauper would be held in higher esteem if she spoke so directly not to girls and the women they become but to the men who dominate the critical establishment in pop and rock — or if she hung out with artists and writers like Robert Mapplethorpe and William Burroughs instead of the pro wrestlers Captain Lou Albano and Hulk Hogan, or if her music weren’t so catchy and pleasurable, or if she wore plain black clothes instead of the Day-Glo outfits she concocted from the racks of Screaming Mimi’s in the East Village. That is, if she acted more like a radical instead of being one, by exulting in the value of juvenile pleasure.

Introduction to 127 Prince – The journal that never really was

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/12/2012

[As I mentioned before, 127 Prince was a journal intended to deal with “the art of social practice and the social practice of art.” It had some amazing content, but never really got rolling. The domain has now been usurped by a porn site, but it is still viewable here. This is the introduction I wrote for it.]

“Try to see it my way, Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong.
While you see it your way”
-The Beatles

In all honesty, I find journals, in the academic sense, mostly boring. If by calling this thing a journal we mean a peer reviewed and scholarly contribution to the professional field of art, count me out. Or maybe I mean if that is all it is, if the only sense of journal we embody is the academic one, then like Bartleby, I would prefer not to…

If however, we mean by journal a record of observations, a place for inquiry, a venue for conversation, or what the art set now calls a “platform,” then by all means, please include me. My dear friend Ben Schaafsma (now deceased) had a blog called Center for Working Things Out. That economically describes my ambitions for this enterprise.

So what is it I’d like to be working out? First, I’d like to release aesthetics from the stranglehold of art discourse and philosophy, to explore as widely as possible, and to think about what a truly inclusive, democratic approach to aesthetics might look like. To take advantage of the tools Katya Mandoki and Yuriko Saito have provided for coming to terms with everyday aesthetics. It is worth quoting from Mandoki’s Everyday Aesthetics at length to give a richer sense of my ambition:

“We will consequently have to veer 180 degrees the traditional approach to aesthetics by focusing not on the aesthetic effects of social practices such as art, fashion, or design, but on the social effects of aesthetic practices performed throughout a wide array of social institutions such as the family, the school, religion, the State, prison. The nature of specific aesthetic practices within each of these institutions is precisely the question that prosaics [her word for the aesthetics of daily life] will have to answer. The purpose is, thus, to study aesthetics not as the effect of art and beauty, but as constitutive of social effects.”

Secondly, I’d love to keep the messiness of the human condition front and center, not the sort of messiness proponents of agonistic models of art and community champion, but the simple messiness of embodied human experience. I’d especially like to challenge what I call the theoretical fundamentalists and those who worship at the altar of intellectual criticality, and the aforementioned agonistes to loosen up, to have some fun, to remember that they eat, have sex, laugh, and cry. These things are rooted in the body, but so are the soaring scholastic temples they build in the intellectual aether, and forgetting that repeats the follies of Cartesianism that so many feminist scholars have pointed out. This isn’t about being anti-intellectual, or against criticality per se, it’s about trying to find some balance in a field that is mercilessly anti-sentimental, and seemingly obsessed with critical forms of avant-garde-ism that try to adopt the coolest pose possible, to avoid, as Carl Wilson puts it, being taken in and missing that this often means refusing an invitation out. I’d like to think about the benefits and drawbacks of cultural criticism based not in revealing hidden complicity or finding theoretical flaws and inconsistencies, but that begin, quoting Grant Kester, “with a passionate attachment to a thing: a sense that the practice you’re writing about matters in some way and isn’t just a specimen awaiting dissection on the examination table of your intellect.”

Finally, I want to put love and “common” aspirations back in the mix. I would love for my mom to be able to read this journal, but given the field we’re staking out, I realize this is probably not realistic. The very language I’m utilizing to champion the vernacular and the everyday is not a language she speaks. So maybe this journal is not for my mom [to read], but it is for her. It’s my salvo in appreciation of my mom and the members of her garden club that have staked out (literally) a piece of the world for conversing, sharing, and creating. They are engaged in something very much like what the art world calls “social practice” and yet also something very different. What they do might not be as “cool” as Rirkit Tiravinija’s The Land, but I think what they do is awesome, So, yes, let’s be a little less cool and a little more awesome, or let’s at least create a space for both. Let’s try to find a mode for working things out.

Claire Bishop – The Humpty Dumpty Approach to Aesthetics and Ethics

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 08/25/2012

Art for Politics’ Sake Claire Bishop on Social Practice – Corinne Segal

Claire Bishop (I know, I know, I really thought I would never write another word about her, but the interview above found its way into my RSS feed reader) desperately needs to read Marcia Eaton, the Pragmatists, and/or the Greeks – hell, even re-reading Foucault would help. Of course, if she did, her critical house of cards might come tumbling down. This is because her whole schtick regarding social practice rests on the (false) separation of the aesthetic and the ethical. Now I know she tries to qualify it a bit and even calls for a “double analysis” and tries to employ Rancière, but the pattern is clear – art is for aesthetics and aesthetics is for art. The “regime” of the aesthetic is far more broad than the narrow slice of experience she wants to chain it to (art).

I do agree with her though about the “blind spot” of social practice, although it is important to be careful with wording. She claims social practice denies its “artistic character” and she also claims that  it does “not want to be conceived as visual art.” I would argue that these are two distinctly different things. Kaprow’s use of “artlike” and “lifelike” is useful here. Something may be lifelike art or artlike art, but also artlike non-art. So social practice may indeed have an “artistic character” without being “visual art.” To deny one needn’t entail denying the other.

Throughout the interview the worship of criticality reveals itself (and also her infatuation with strategies of agonism, opposition and “radicality” – all the good old avant-garde stuff). It is a symptom of this era in art education/theory. I’ve commented elsewhere that we moved from art for art’s sake to criticality for criticality’s sake and we are no better for it. It is funny to me that the one thing intellectuals don’t seem to care to be critical of is criticality itself. When Bishop speaks of the aesthetic, it appears to mean a critical/intellectual position regarding art and not a holistic human experience. So when she criticizes social practice for having an “allergy to the aesthetic,”  she may be right, but only vis–à–vis a very specific employment of the notion of the aesthetic. Her woefully hollow idea of it certainly gives me hives.

Love – Education – R.R. Reno

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/10/2009

“Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment…What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.”  – R.R. Reno