Lebenskünstler

I am for an art that needs no manifesto

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/22/2015

I am for an art that tackles the problem of writing.
I am for an art that wages war on words.
I am for an art that stands mute.
I am for art on panels, and not panels on art.
I am for an art that pleads for linguistic absolution.
I am for an art that talks, laughs, or stutters, but spits on the page.
I am for art as the statement, not the artist’s statement.
I am for an art without crutches, without critics.
I am for an art that is nothing but words, yet not “writing.”
I am for an art, any art that puts needles in the eyes of professionals.

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Scott Stroud’s “John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality” – Chapter Five

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/17/2014

…all experience can be experienced as aesthetic.

Dewey advocates the method of the sciences because it seems to him to be the best way to usefully ground philosophy (and reflection in general) **in** experience without doing damage **to** experience. What is damaging of course, is when this description is taken to **be** the experience – for instance, the overly intellectualized and misguided notion that we **experience** “patches of brown in a chairlike shape.” The empirical method starts by acknowledging the integrated unity of primary experience and then applies distinctions in reflection, all the while judging these distinctions as to their value in use and consequences for future experience. This is the general orientation of this approach, and one who takes this empirical method to heart thereby incorporates this orientation to the world and reflection upon it. The question then becomes, how does this impact such an individual’s reflective activities?

…Dewey notes in Experience and Culture as well as in Art as Experience – immediate experience is different in **feel** from reflective activity. To take reflective experience for **all** experience is to commit the fallacy of intellectualism. Knowledge is a reflective endeavor involving conscious thought, justification and propositional statements. Immediate experience is just that – immediate and prior to detailed reflection. If there are discursive elements to immediate experience, it is because the concepts/words have been rendered as habitually meaningful…

…experience **is** specific experience…A definition is different from the experience of something, and while it may be useful, it always exists for a purpose and lacks something of the immediate feel of an experience of some event. No definition **exhausts** the experience of what is being defined.

…The value of criticism for Dewey, including philosophy as criticism of criticism, is in the opening up of possibilities for newer and deeper experience. Aesthetic criticism broadens one’s thinking about the experience of art, which in turn leads to those experiences being even more meaningful.

By “morality,” he [Dewey] “means that kind of expansion in meaning which is consequent upon observations of the conditions and outcome of conduct…It is learning the meaning of what we are about and employing that meaning in action.

The present, not the future, is ours. No shrewdness, no store of information will make it ours. But by constant watchfulness concerning the tendency of acts, by noting disparities between former judgments and actual outcomes, and tracing that part of the disparity that was due to deficient and excess in disposition, we come to know the meaning of present acts, and to guide them in light of that meaning.

The framing of one part of life in a narrative is detached from life in one regard, largely because of cultural institutions surrounding the production, delivery, and reception of such an art object. In another sense, however, it is still vividly engaging in a practical sense as it is a framed presentation **of life.** It frames and focuses the audience’s attention on some part of life, be it a value, action, strategy, etc. and forces the audience to reflect and deliberate on the value of what is presented **for their projects and activities.** One notices this functioning and framing and, more important, attention in Dewey’s reading of the value of aesthetic experience – it is revelatory, and “revelation in art is the quickened expansion of experience” Notice that what art reveals **is** internal to the experience of the art object; life is revealed insofar art it is experienced in the particular fashion that an art object, either intentionally or through the critical orientation of an audience frames it.

…[Richard Shusterman] “art’s apparent diversion from real life may be a needed path of indirection that leads us back to experience life more fully through the infectious intensity of aesthetic experience and its release from affective inhibitions.”

David Granger’s “John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living” – Chapter Two

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/06/2014

…[Pirsig] His treatment of Quality became essentially naturalistic…Quality no longer originated in some pristine transcendent reality, but rather in the dynamic and ineffable existential immediacy of the everyday lived world.

…But philosophy as cultural criticism, as a form of applied intelligence, is a no less formidable and momentous undertaking. Among other things, it calls for passion, courage, and imaginative vision if it is to be truly forward looking, a prophetic conviction in the possibility of achieving a “heightened appreciation of the positive goods which human experience has achieved and offers”[Dewey]. Moreover, it insists on a highly receptive and generous mind, one capable of considerable humility and a keen fallibilist sensibility…

…What is more, an unprejudiced mind must acknowledge that any activity, from constructing a piece of furniture in shop class to discussing the literary merits of Crime and Punishment, can potentially become “saturated” with meaning, very often, diverse kinds of meaning, instrumental as well as terminal. As Dewey sees it, then, values must be esteemed in terms of what particular situational contexts call for and make possible as far as growth and meaning enhancement are concerned.

1. all theories presuppose the larger world that must serve as “their ground, their origin, their material, and their true end”;
2. real human progress is possible, but, given the existence of chance, contingency, and luck, not inevitable;
3. there is not, and never can be, an a priori genuine path we are to follow in life as inhabitants of an unfinished world – the ends of nature infinitely varied and variable;
4. “all modes of experiencing[scientific, aesthetic,, religious, moral] are ways in which some genuine traits of nature come to manifest realization”;
5. values are the products of experience and inquiry, and constitute a vital strand in the fabric of the full lived situation – they are not mere psychic entities;
6. facts and values are interrelated existences and cannot ultimately be pulled apart – there is no such thing as pure, value-free inquiry;
7. ideas must be tested in the crucible of lived experience if they are to affirm their worth;
8. human beings must work to understand, acknowledge, and respect the conditions of their existence if they are to live wisely and well;
9. the purpose of philosophy is broad-based cultural values criticism, to “clarify, liberate, and extend the goods which inhere in the naturally generated functions of experience.”

“It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself.” – A world made of stories

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/04/2013

Out of the Wild – A conversation between William Cronon and Michael Pollan

Bill: I think you and I would both say that a traditional experience of wilderness—the kind where you’re living outdoors for an extended period, in a landscape far away from ordinary comforts—is wholly a creature of civilization. It’s an expression of certain cultural values, but it’s still a real experience. It’s still something we can use to take our compass bearings. We can still look to those values for our sense of self in these places.

Michael: I think science can give us a measure, too. When you study how nutrients cycle in a natural environment, for example, you can learn something about how to nourish soil. The study of ecosystems in their untrammeled state can teach us ways to mimic them, and that’s a really important resource for things like sustainable agriculture.

Leaving “wilderness” aside, I do think there’s this wild other —I don’t know what exactly we should call it—that has an enormous amount to teach us. I think the encounters we have with plants and animals are really useful. We learn important things about what it means to be human and what it means not to be human. There is that quality of wildness that’s essential as something to learn from, to reflect on, to measure ourselves against.

Michael: Politics come in as soon as we attempt to define “sustainability.” I think we’re contesting it right now. There are meetings going on now between environmentalists and corporate leaders about how to define the sustainability labels put on products, and that’s a fiercely political argument.

Bill: That’s right. The other trouble with sustainability is that it tends to point toward a future in which the good system is a stable system. But that’s not how history works. History is unstable. Perhaps that’s why the word resilience now gets invoked. Resilience and sustainability together are the territory in which our political and theoretical work needs to be done. We need unstable systems that nonetheless operate within a band of sustainability.

Michael: The idea of resilience—there’s an example of drawing from what we understand about natural systems.

Bill: Correct.

Michael: And there is some role for science in describing those systems and explaining how they work. I find the word useful.

Bill: I do, too.

Michael: The word is useful in many different contexts, because it links to nature qualities we like in ourselves, in our children, and in the social realm, so I think it’s very productive. But where does it come from?

Bill: Out of ecology and climate science. It emerged as more and more scientists began to believe that the effects of climate change are such that we are going to lose ecosystems that we hoped could be saved. As the larger system migrates toward its limits, the question of which systems are going to survive has become more and more compelling.

Michael: But the word also comes out of biodiversity studies, right? The idea that the more species there are in a unit of land, the more it can deal with fire, with changes in temperature, and so on? It’s an interesting measure to apply to certain things. I mean, we need words that constitute value judgments, right?

Bill: We do—so we can tell stories about them. Environmentalism at its best has been good at telling stories about the connections we don’t ordinarily see in our lives. How what we buy in a grocery store has consequences for the earth, for people, for animals. Taking responsibility for the choices we make in our daily lives: that’s one of the things environmentalism has been teaching all along.

I’d contrast it with the illusion of a transcendent leap, that if we can just embrace the cosmic good, we can have a revolutionary moment in which all is transformed. But the older I get, the more I mistrust the notion of a revolutionary leap. It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself. We have to make daily choices. We can’t imagine one big apocalyptic change.

Michael: Wendell Berry has this great line about distrusting people who love humanity. You can’t love an abstraction, he says. You can’t love a statistic. You can love the person near you, and your community, and your neighbors.

Bill: Use abstractions as metaphors for humanity, but stay close to people.

Michael: I think that’s true. Another very important lesson I’ve learned from Wendell Berry is about the danger of specialization, the fact that we’re now good at producing one thing and consuming everything else. The sense of dependence that follows from the division of labor makes us despair of ever changing the way we live; it encourages us to feel that change can only come from outside—from government, from disaster—because we can no longer do very much for ourselves. That partly explains the power of gardening, which offers a reminder that, in a pinch, we can provide for ourselves. That’s not a trivial thing. It makes us more receptive to imagining change.

Bill: For me, the moral lesson of the garden—and I’m agreeing with you—is that being attentive to the work of the garden leads to greater appreciation for the work that makes life possible, which involves the work of others.

Bill: Right. Ecology, storytelling, history—they all render connections visible. We make that which is invisible visible through story, and thereby reveal people’s relationships to other living things.

Michael: Stories establish canons of beauty, too. There is a role for art in changing cultural norms about what’s worth valuing. One hundred fifty years ago, certain people looked at a farm and saw what you might see if you look today at a nuclear power plant or some other degraded landscape. Part of the reason we tell stories is to create fresh value for certain landscapes, certain relationships.

Bill: And stories make possible acts of moral recognition that we might not otherwise experience. They help us see our own complicity in things we don’t ordinarily see as connected to ourselves.

Michael: Yes, exactly. That recognition can help remove the condescension in so much environmental writing by showing us that, look, these things we abhor are done in our name, and we are complicit in them, and we need to take account of them. It was Wendell Berry’s idea that the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. The big problem is the result of all the little problems in our everyday lives. That can be a guilt trip, but it doesn’t have to be. You can tell that story in ways that empower people.

Bill: Messy stories invite us into politics. They also invite us to laugh at ourselves. And those things together—the ability to laugh, to experience hope, to be inspired toward action at the personal and political levels—these strike me as the work of engaged storytelling in a world we’re trying to change for the better.

Bill: Maybe that’s a good note for us to end on, don’t you think? The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said that “the world is made of stories, not of atoms.” When we lose track of the narratives that human beings need to suffuse their lives and the world with meaning, we forget what makes the world worth saving. Telling stories is how we remember.

Nurturing joyful hate – The hope of bread and coffee

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/29/2013

Alexander Cockburn: The Last Polemicist – Connor Kilpatrick

So yes, Alex’s hatred was most certainly pure. But somehow, for me, that doesn’t really get at what made his writing so wonderful. Because it was a joyful hate that Alex nurtured. An inspiring hate.

For all the talk of his sharp tongue and even sharper pen, we are, after all, talking about a man who once confessed to weeping on an airplane as he watched 1993’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, a film about two talking dogs and a sassy cat trying to make their way back home.

I always thought of this as the Cockburn version of Kafka’s famous dictum: “there is hope but not for us.” Which strikes me as wonderfully optimistic.

So Alex’s hate, ever pure, is just the twin of — and sorry to sound like a total hippy here — his love. His love of America’s lost interior. His love of freaks and weirdos, the dispossessed, the losers and the forgotten.

And the truth was that despite my supposed socialism, it made me a snob. Alex however, despite a healthy love for folks like Marx, Engels and even the dreaded Lenin, never became a snob. He never turned his nose up like I did at the Red States. Whenever I’d read him talking about his encounters bumping along the ex-Confederate hinterland, I’d find myself saying “goddamnit it, Alex. Don’t you get it? These people are racist, theocratic, quasi-fascist bastards. If you weren’t from Ireland, you’d totally get this.”

And it’s in this sense that Alex played what I think was his most valuable role for the left, though as a staunch anti-militarist, he’d probably hate the metaphor: he was like our drill sergeant. He hurled abuse at us — but beautifully stated and almost alway hilarious abuse — from every possible direction. “Oh, maybe if Hillary — SLAP!” “Oh, maybe if I buy organi — SLAP!” “Oh, if only the Democrats — SLAP!” “The Kennedys were the last true — SLAP!” But why was he doing it? Because he was mean? No. Because he wanted us to survive. He wanted us to win.

And honestly, we needed it.

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.

“Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something.” – Generous criticism for perilous times

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/25/2013

Burying the Hatchet – Lee Siegel

Criticism was socializing by other means. And since socializing in those narrow literary and intellectual precincts consisted of egos battling for position, status, friendship, and love, it was inevitable that the criticism embody and sometimes exemplify what Delmore Schwartz—no mean takedown artist himself—once called “the scrimmage of appetite.” Pulverizing reviews were not taboo because the victims could always make their retort at the next social gathering, or on the pillow, or in one of the journals that served as kitchen tables for the extended family of writers who published there.

In the popular imagination, the intellectuals—especially the so-called New York intellectuals—were hugely influential, but this is a distortion. Hannah Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” published in Commentary in 1959, caused few ripples outside her own circle, even though Arendt’s argument that the United States was wrong to pursue integration at that moment was incendiary. By contrast, her article “Eichmann in Jerusalem” caught on in the larger culture because she published it in The New Yorker, one of the dreaded “middlebrow” magazines that was then in the process of making intellectuals like James Baldwin, Dwight Macdonald, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, Alfred Kazin, and Harold Rosenberg prominent national figures.

The insular, hothouse atmosphere of postwar intellectual combat is where, about twenty years after it disappeared, I schooled myself in the dark art of the takedown. I can now see the irony of my situation—or, as those bygone critics would have said, my “position.” My awareness of my own ineffectuality in the world also led me to seek out the power conferred by words. But the world had changed. I was not practicing a shared style. I was cultivating an idiosyncrasy: I was one of the few critics who carried a hatchet.

What had once been nicely divided into highbrow and middlebrow culture—even at the time a crude formulation of a complex reality—had become a wildly eclectic place where “high” and “low” and everything in between existed side by side. A critic I admired as I was starting out was Robert Hughes, who reviewed art for Time, ruminated more deeply on culture in the New York Review and in the back of the New Republic, published serious books on serious subjects, and introduced people to art in television series on PBS. His style was gripping, elegant, and, above all, popular. Though I didn’t share his fierce aversion to much contemporary art, I thought that the way his career blurred the distinctions between “high” and “low” was exemplary.

Authority is a slippery thing, and its nature is going through yet another permutation in literary life. There are plenty of young, gifted critics writing fiercely and argumentatively in relatively obscure Web publications. But they are keenly aware that, along with the target of their scrutiny, the source of their own authority is also an object of examination. Macdonald simply took for granted the fact that membership in a community conferred on him a certain accredited brilliance. This is what, for me, makes reading him now an incomplete experience, because the group that certified his judgments has disappeared. Literary criticism on the Web, on the other hand, draws whatever authority it has by renouncing any claims to authority. The Web critic relies on his or her readers for attentiveness and approval. A social style is gradually replacing an idiosyncratic one—whether it’s n + 1’s collective tone and worldly references to literary coteries and cliques or Choire Sicha’s slyly self-deprecatory exclamation marks.

Twenty years ago, Robert Hughes might have taken up the subject of Andy Warhol with a demon barber’s gleam in his eye. Instead, this article by Nick Faust in the online journal The New Inquiry, though its occasion is a reflection on Andy Warhol, captures the new spirit of criticism. It is a positive critique of the genre’s social possibilities, and it is expressed in a social tone:

    Likewise, art writing must attempt to draw new connections, weaving in unpublished, hushed talk that always gets spoken but generally not on the record. The documentation of the piece, the Facebook posts, tweets, and vines that surround such work, the gossip about the work in the bathrooms of the gallery and outside during the smoke breaks and back in the patios and bars after the opening, the press releases both in unchecked email and listserv format, and the 10,000 art-opening invites that networked artists receive each day on social media, the write-up of the work, the studio visits, the sketching out of the ideas, the conversations that influence and sustain the practices—all these are rich and evocative and can provide tremendous energy and meaning to a work and extend its life out beyond.

In other words, the critics will leak the total secret context surrounding a work of art—Edmund Wilson meets Edward Snowden! The French Annalistes wrote history in such a way, characterizing a moment in time by reconstructing its finest, most mundane details. Why not a criticism that draws from the same energy? I have no idea whether it would be successful, but I love the possibility of it.

Applying old standards to a time when everyone is throwing everything they can at the proverbial wall to see what sticks is like printing out a tweet, putting it in an envelope, and sending it to someone through the mail. The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim. The very largeness and diversity of present-day audiences make less and less relevant the type of review that never gets beyond the book under review. It’s the critic’s job nowadays not just to try to survive and flourish amid ever-shifting modes of cognition and transmission, but to define new standards that might offer clarity and illumination amid all the change. Quite simply, the book review is dead, and the long review essay centered on a specific book or books is staggering toward extinction. The future lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once. You might have, say, a review of a novel by Rachel Kushner that is also a reflection on “Girls,” the art of Marina Abramović, the acting style of Jessica Chastain, and the commercial, theatrical, existential provocations of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Or not. In any case, it’s worth a try.

New demands for new times are the big-picture reasons I’ve lost the taste for doing negative reviews. I have smaller, personal ones, too. Having become an author of books myself, I now find that the shoe is most definitely on the other foot. I once dismissed as maudlin the protest that one shouldn’t harshly disparage a book because the author poured the deepest part of herself into it. What, I replied, has that got to do with defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking? Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.

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Why art critics need to be DTF – Or why it is fine if reading e-flux is more like Ok! Magazine or facebook and less like The Book of Mormon

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/03/2013

Get Off – Nick Faust

[I think there are plenty of artists that are guilty of the same things he accuses critics of, but he has the spirit right.]

Art criticism, like an upset parent, often passes moral judgment on this promiscuity, scolding, judging indiscretions. There are attempts at keeping art pure, delineating what is what, and who is who, and where the boundaries are. Or in the attempt to redefine the boundaries, there is a tendency to violently sabotage what came before if it doesn’t smoothly fit into the new regime.

But it’s crucial to encourage brief ­brushes, longed-for encounters, and magical moments that pass into the night to be brokenly remembered in the hungover daze of the next morning. Flings, one night stands, and vacation hook-ups are just as ripe. For artists who tie the knot—explosive divorces, whimpered muttering and weepy withdrawals, quiet bitter unspoken tension.

Likewise, art writing must attempt to draw new connections, weaving in unpublished, hushed talk that always gets spoken but generally not on the record. The documentation of the piece, the Facebook posts, tweets, and vines that surround such work, the gossip about the work in the bathrooms of the gallery and outside during the smoke breaks and back in the patios and bars after the opening, the press releases both in unchecked email and listserv format, and the 10,000 art-opening invites that networked artists receive each day on social media, the write-up of the work, the studio visits, the sketching out of the ideas, the conversations that influence and sustain the practices—all these are rich and evocative and can provide tremendous energy and meaning to a work and extend its life out beyond.

I think of people getting made up and fabulous, ready for a night on the town, scoffing at such prudes who advise a more “natural” and “authentic” way of ­representing themselves—their elaborate play and fluidity as they cycle from situation to situation, conversation to conversation, adjusting on the fly and letting themselves take in the experience while also manipulating it.

Instead, the proliferation of work on the Internet makes it easily digestible and citable. New practices, in Sanchez’s view, instantly devour themselves. I think it is necessary to flip the destructive, gluttonous connotations of devouring and focus on the more positive connotations of the word, that emphasis on avid enjoyment. What is so appealing about such fast distribution is how the institutionalized approaches that once suffocated, purified, cleansed, and straightened up the circulation of art are now infused with the chitchat and gossip of social life, and the work is tossed out onto the dance floor, knocked down from the balcony overlooking the frenzy. It isn’t, “Oh my, check out that stoic hottie—that removed, super-distant installation at Kunsthalle Wien. Man, I wish I could ask him if he wants to dance, but I’m so nervous, and he’s so up there.” Instead, in both the quick-feed call and response and riffing and sharing, it is shooting a flirty raise of the eyebrow, adjusting your posture accordingly, and striking up a conversation and making the advance. The stilting and privileging, the attempts to put one group up above another, are falling apart. Everybody is fucking everybody.

Artists don’t have to sign a mortgage with the things they work with, and it is perfectly normal to kind of hate the people you’re attracted to. Gosh, she’s so wonderful and smart and well-read and funny, but she’s a horrible drunk and she farts in her sleep. Or: he’s such a belittling and abusive asshole, but I kind of need that deprecation in my life right now, it is hot, I can’t help myself, I know it isn’t “normal” but it is working so well right now. Please keep the stories coming, and the encounters memorable.

Music hasn’t traditionally been as reliant on proximity to or participation in certifying institutions in the way visual art has. A producer from the middle of nowhere can throw up a track on Soundcloud after being inspired by some other, more-well-connected artist and quickly enter into the dialogue.

Visual art should be jealous of this fluid accessibility, these leveling maneuvers. Kids far from the art capitals can give themselves a playful legibility that is constantly up to be teased out and undermined. It isn’t realistic for young would-be gallerists to acquire a space like the De Vleeshal, but with a little paint and lighting know-how, they can transform their crappy garage, bombed-out basement, or parent’s attic into their own gallery space that is gonna look great all done up and out there.



Why privilege one level of the art speech act over another?
Sure, some work might be underwhelming in person, in comparison to the space that looked so big onscreen, but the work is just as true in the studio as it is in the gallery, as it is on a website, as it is in a book, as it is on a phone, as it is during pedicure and manicure parties, as it is when barely remembered and floating as an example to be used in a conversation that never quite makes it out, as it is in a minuscule press clipping that some art historian will dig up a hundred years from now while writing a dissertation. Each new iteration allows for an unlimited amount of possibilities for artists to use, to extend and pause and speed up and burrow in and rewind and cut and paste and reverse and queer and undo and build upon, and as such, none should be shut down.

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I am for a criticism that is in love with something other than itself – Alex Ross – Listen to this

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/18/2013

Listen to this – Alex Ross

For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre élitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider some of the rival names in circulation: “art” music, “serious” music, “great” music, “good” music. Yes, the music can be great and serious; but greatness and seriousness are not its defining characteristics. It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, “The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.” They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate. They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.

What I refuse to accept is that one kind of music soothes the mind and another kind soothes the soul. Depends on whose mind, whose soul.

All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of other genres, I often get a warm sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz, for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed. First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the era of bourgeois grandeur: the high-class swing band parallels the Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image, echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of “The Rite of Spring” into “Salt Peanuts”). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at which the vanguard loses touch with the mass and becomes a self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton Marsalis’s attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular mainstream. Jazz recordings sell about the same as classical recordings, three per cent of the market.

The same progression worms its way through rock and roll. What were my hyper-educated punk-rock friends but Stage 3 high modernists, rebelling against the bloated Romanticism of Stage 2 stadium rock? Right now, there seems to be a lot of Stage 5 classicism going on in what remains of rock and roll. The Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Stills, the Thrills, and so on hark back to some lost pure moment of the sixties or seventies. Their names are all variations on the Kinks. Many of them use old instruments, old amplifiers, old soundboards. One rocker was recently quoted as saying, “I intentionally won’t use something I haven’t heard before.”Macht Neues, kids! So far, hip-hop has proved resistant to this kind of classicizing cycle, but you never know. It is just a short step from old school to the Second Viennese School.

…The symphony became a fragmentary, unfinished thing, and unfinished it remains. It becomes whole again only in the mind and soul of someone listening for the first time, and listening again. The hero is you.

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Faith in the Human Touch – Julian Baggini

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/05/2013

Joy in the task – Julian Baggini

[In a very roundabout way, this cuts to an important problem with “the critique” as commonly practiced in which students and instructors are asked in some way to talk about the work as if they were conducting a blind taste test. Forget that you know the person that made this painting, forget that you had dinner with them last night, cut all affective ties and speak solely of the work. Galleries perform a similar severing function, much like supermarket displays, turning the entire process of aesthetic experience into a branding exercise, with a carefully constructed history devoid of anything truly human.]

Surely we appreciate the handmade in part because it is handmade. An object or a meal has different meaning and significance if we know it to be the product of a human being working skilfully with tools rather than a machine stamping out another clone. Even if in some ways a mass-produced object is superior in its physical properties, we have good reasons for preferring a less perfect, handcrafted one.

…We live in a world of humans, other animals and things, and the quality of life depends on the qualities of the relationships between them. Mass production, like factory farming, weakens, if not destroys, these relationships. This creates a kind of alienation, where we feel no genuine, human contact with those who supply us with what we need.

We are not simply hedonic machines who thrive if supplied with things that tick certain boxes for sensory pleasure, aesthetic merit, and so on. We are knowing as well as sensing creatures, and knowing where things come from, and how their makers are treated, does and should affect how we feel about them. Chocolate made from cocoa beans grown by people in near slave conditions should taste more bitter than a fairly traded bar, even if it does not in a blind tasting. Blindness, far from making tests fair, actually robs us of knowledge of what is most important, while perpetuating the illusion that all that really matters is how it feels or seems at the moment of consumption.

This might seem a simple, even platitudinous point. But it has profound political implications. For if it is true, then the whole way in which efficiency is usually measured is fundamentally flawed. Take agriculture. Proponents of organics and other non-intensive, less petrochemically dependent forms of farming are often drawn into the game of defending their approach only by measurable, objective results. So the battle becomes a statistical debate over yield, water usage, carbon footprint, soil erosion, and so forth. The trouble is that the kind of human-scale farming that people like does not always win when judged by these metrics.

…it is legitimate to prefer forms of trade and artisan production that maintain links between individuals, communities, land, and animals.

…because what matters is not just the result, but the process by which you get there. Humans are imperfect, and so a world of perfection that denies the human element can never be truly perfect after all.

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.

Qualities of Thinking – Scholarly Virtues

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/28/2009

“At present research focuses on the scholarly virtues: accuracy of reference and care in drawing conclusions. These are valuable because they counteract our normal sloppy thinking. However, there are many more qualities of thinking: grace, charisma, intimacy, spontaneity, wit, depth, simplicity, grandeur, warmth, openness, drama, intensity and generosity. [emphasis mine] These vital and passionate qualities are linked to the power of ideas, the ways in which ideas get inside our lives and come to matter in everyday existence.” – John Armstrong as quoted here.

Carl Wilson – Love – Criticism

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/11/2009

Some quotes on criticism from Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson:

“A few people have asked me, isn’t life too short to waste time on art you dislike? But lately I feel like life is too short not to.”

“I cringe when I think about what a subcultural snob I was five or ten years ago, and worse in my teens and twenties, how vigilant I was against being taken in – unaware that I was also refusing an invitation out. In retrospect, this experiment seems like a last effort to purge that insularity, so that the next phase might happen in a larger world, one beyond the horizon of my habits. For me, adulthood is turning out to be about becoming democratic.”

“The kind of contempt that’s mobilized by ‘cool’ taste is inimical…to an aesthetics that might support a good public life.”

“I would be relieved to have fewer debates over who is right or wrong about music, and more that go, “Wow, you hate all the music I like and I hate all the music you like. What might we make of that?”

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.”