Lebenskünstler

Further exploration of librarianship as social design.

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/26/2017

Screenshot 2017-03-25 at 12.06.02 PM

Brief notes on librarian as designer.

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/21/2017

designlibrarian

The shift: Library science -> Information Science only tells part of the story. Science is an inadequate model, as is information.

The dominant paradigm:  Information -> Knowledge is incomplete.

Librarians must be attentive to meaning, not just information/knowledge.

Epistemology -> Semiotics but ultimately the core of librarianship is experience design. 

Aesthetics then, becomes a core concern and the librarian’s new pedagogical model should be design school, specifically social design. [1]

libsocialdesign

[1] A case could be made for curatorial studies,  and although insights from the field would surely aid librarianship, it lacks some fundamental skill sets of design.

 

 

My snark is a political act – Wishing intellectuals would talk more and write less – why I never read papers at conferences – Academic culture is dominated by “a flash in human history”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/01/2015

Why Twitter’s Oral Culture Irritates Bill Keller (and why this is an important issue) – Zeynep Tufekci

First Keller talks about how we no longer need to remember everything and how his father used to use a slide rule and now there are calculators and who knows their multiplication table anymore… This is a familiar argument from cognitive replacement and I believe it is worth discussing not necessarily because there is something inherently wrong with machines making certain cognitive tasks easier, but I do deeply worry about what this means for valuing humans. Cheaper computers increasingly capable of taking over human tasks means that we face a profound human problem: how will we deal with the billions of people who will be potentially redundant if the only way of measuring a human’s worth is their price on the labor market? For me, this is an important political question rather than a technological lament. It’s not about what machines can do, it’s about the criteria by which we judge the worth of our fellow human beings, and how advances information technology increasingly leads us to devalue each other.

But this comparison between Gutenberg and Zuckerberg makes little sense unless you realize that Keller is actually trying to complain about the reemergence of oral psychodynamics in the public sphere rather than about memory falling out of favor. If the latter were the case, his ire would be more about Google; instead, most of his frustration is directed against social media, and mostly Twitter, the most conversational, and thus most oral of these mediums.

The key to understanding this is that while writing did displace the value of memory, the vast abundance of printed material it did something else also, something less remarked upon, both to the shape of our public sphere and also to our psychodynamics. It replaced the natural, visceral human oral psychodynamics with those of literate and written ones. Most of us are so awash in this new form that we notice it as much as fish notice water; however, writing is but a blip and the printed from a flash in human history. Orality, on the other hand, is perhaps the most human of our characteristics, and ironically, the comeback of which into the public sphere is the one Keller is lamenting while worrying about losing our human characteristics. What he seems to actually mean is that, with the advent of writing and printing, we *acquired* these new cognitive tools and novel psychodynamic [and I should note that they never took that much root in most recesses of culture and thus remain fragile] and they are threatened by social media which re-introduces older forms which, of course, never died out but receded from public importance.

The oral world is ephemeral, exists only suspended in time, supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory, and rather than building final, cumulative works, it is aimed at conversation and remembering knowledge by rendering it memorable, which can often mean snarky, witty, rhythmic and rhyming. (Think poet slams rather than essays).

What we are seeing with social media is the public sphere, hitherto dominated by written culture, has been more opened up to oral psychodynamics. And this is particularly difficult to deal with for intellectuals who rely on their competence with, and dominance of, the written form as hallmark of their place in society. (As I will argue, there are reasons to be concerned but it is important to separate these issues). Also, television, too, is secondary literacy in that television acts in a way which assumes and implies writing. (I am not going to go into this at length here but there is a lot of work on this topic, starting with Ong).

However, Twitter and other such tools also present a great opportunity to bring into the public sphere, and into important conversations, greater number of people who would otherwise be excluded. Rather than seeing this as a turf war in which the literate classes must defend their turf against the barbarians at the gate, the questions should be how we can preserve the better aspects of the ideal of the reasoned, complex and rational public sphere without descending into elitism. (I say the ideal because, as Dave Parry often points out, usually on Twitter, the Habermassian ideal of the public sphere, well, never really was).

“it is totally white and gold” – Memes, attention policing and play

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/27/2015

#TheDress and the Rise of Attention-Policing

This is a line of logic that will be familiar from most any Meme Event—the logic that says, basically, “don’t look at that; that is unimportant.” It’s attention-policing, and it’s reminiscent of so many other strains of rhetorical legislation that play out in online conversations: You can’t say that. You can’t talk about that. GUYS, the attention-policer usually begins. How can you be talking about a dress/a leg/a pair of llamas/a dancing neoprene shark when climate change/net neutrality/marriage equality/ISIS/China/North Korea is going on?

The world, to be sure, is a complicated and often tragic and often deeply unfair place. It contains famines and genocides and war, births and deaths, Katy Perry and Björk, Big Macs and kale and Bloomin’ Onions, privilege and the lack of it, llamas that are caged and llamas that are free. And we humans—animals who are striving to be so much more—have a big say in the balance between the good and the bad. We should not be glib about any of that. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that, if you find yourself with the ability to use the most transformational communications platform the world has ever known to engage in debates about the color of a dress being sold on Amazon dot com, you are, fundamentally, extremely privileged. And thus in a better position than most to make the world better. Attention is a valuable thing; we have an obligation be selective about where we direct it.

And yet. The problem with attention-policing—besides the fact that it tends to be accompanied by humorlessness and marmery, and besides the other fact that it serves mostly to amplify the ego of the person doing the policing—is that it undermines the value of Internet memes themselves. Those memes, whether they involve #thedress or #llamadrama or #leftshark or #whathaveyou, are culturally lubricating. They create, and reinforce, the imagined community. Last night, we needed each other—not just to share and joke and laugh, but also to prove to ourselves that we weren’t going completely crazy. “TELL ME WHAT COLOR THIS DRESS IS,” I texted a friend. “OKAY, PHEW,” I texted again, when he saw it as white-and-gold. I also, on the other hand, mock-disowned a significant percentage of the people I love in a haze of #whiteandgold partisanship—but even that kind of faux-fighting has its value. Theorists of play, from Huizinga to Piaget, have pointed out how powerful the infrastructures of games can be. They allow us to explore ideas and bond in a mutually-agreed-upon environment. Jane McGonigal, the game designer and theorist, suggests that the alternate universes provided by video games allow us to think in terms of collaboration and problem-solving. Games’ constraints, she argues, are actually empowering.

And what are memes if not games? They are small; they are low-stakes; they are often silly. (Sorry, #llamadrama.) But they are also communal. They invite us to participate, to adapt, to joke, to create something together, under the auspices of the same basic rules. That is not a small thing. That is, in fact, a huge thing—particularly when it comes to the very concerns the attention police like to remind us of. If we have any hope of solving the world’s most systemic and sweeping problems, we will have to come together. Inequality, climate change, injustices both enormous and less so … these will require cooperative action. They will require us to collaborate and compromise and value diversity. The dress makes a pretty good metaphor for all that. Also, it is totally white and gold.

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Art is a prison: Ferran Adrià exploring an imaginative elsewhere

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/04/2015

Ferran Adrià Feeds the Hungry Mind – Sam Borden

A decent example of why art is so boring to me. Once you disconnect aesthetics and creativity from the lame ass chains of art history you can be way more inventive…or as David Robbins put it:

“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 what is his goal? The foundation’s current mission seems to flutter between worldly and chaotic. Consider the activity on a morning in November: One group of employees worked in a corner of the loft on prototypes of a website known as BulliPedia that, when finished, will be a type of Wikipedia for haute cuisine. On the opposite side of the room, a young woman edited pages intended for a multivolume book collection tracing the history of food. At a desk facing the window, three men spent hours researching white asparagus. (It was not immediately clear what this was for.)

“this is a flow chart of a cucumber’s existence”

He also seems uninterested in running his foundation as a typical start-up, and his rigid devotion to his own mantras can occasionally give the entire operation a cultish feel. Additionally, it isn’t obvious exactly how his ideas will make the leap from notion to project. Mr. Adrià has nominally divided the foundation into two main strands: knowledge, which is the group focused on creating BulliPedia; and creativity, which is focused on, in his words, “deconstructing the entire process of creativity.” He calls this group El Bulli DNA.

If the names of the various projects aren’t enough to keep straight, Mr. Adrià adds a few more: El Bulli Lab is the Barcelona-based office where people associated with El Bulli DNA do their work. That should not be confused with 6W Food, which may not get going for a few more years but is expected to be a sort of cross between a science museum, an art museum and a house of culinary innovation. Also in the works is a search engine known as SeaUrching (named in part for the delicacy) as well as a language to describe gastronomy known as Huevo, Spanish for egg. Huevo, it was noted by one of Mr. Adrià’s colleagues, could ultimately be a digital language coded for use by refrigerators or other kitchen appliances.

what do we gain by calling something bad art? – stuff I said on Bad at Sports with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/02/2014

FORGET THE OLYMPICS. WHAT THE SECOND CITY REALLY NEEDS IS FIRST-CLASS ART NEWS

AFC’s post was hardly a “takedown,” more like a differing opinion. Paddy is smug, snarky, and elitist, in other words a typical art blogger. Note that my merely asserting that doesn’t make it so any more than her asserting something is “bad art” makes it true.

What do we gain by calling something bad art? Especially if non-art people like it? Paddy hyperbolically mentions “cigarettes and candy” not being good for you, but please provide plausible evidence of the harm so-called bad art inflicts – actual harm comparable to diabetes, heart disease, emphysema, etc.

One person’s “spectacle” is another’s “value.” There are plenty of folks who haven’t been *trained* to see Jeff Koons’s puppies or his Macy’s balloon as any less spectacular or insubstantial as Johnson’s piece. In fact the question of “value” in an art critical sense is mostly irrelevant to the entire discussion, except of course, for the small group of people who like those sorts of conversations. Why is the Tribune obliged to have paid staff to address them?

I’m not sure I even understand what the complaint is. Not all art requires a “rigorous discourse” does it? Does this piece? If not, why lament the coverage?
It’s “not newsworthy?” Here again, I have to wonder – says who?

The complaint I hear all too often is that ordinary/non-art people don’t “properly” understand art. Art world folks seem to think that a critic can help educate the public and “draw attention to bad decisions and art world folly while at the same time placing new developments within a larger cultural and historical context.” Surely there is truth to this, but it seems to me that the situation is backwards – rather than try to have ordinary folks understand the art world, the art world should try to understand ordinary/non-art world people. Why is it exactly that people like this sculpture or the singing cowboy? Is using the buzzword “spectacle” the best answer? Why not go out and actually ask people – the ones whose reaction is being dismissed as being wasted on “bad art?” I suspect (and will gladly wager with someone)that the word spectacle would rarely be used.

Let me leave you with Carl Wilson:
“The kind of contempt that’s mobilized by “cool” taste is inimical to an aesthetics that might support a good public life.”

Enough with the snarky my tastes are more informed/sophisticated/smarter/cooler/complexly articulated/ stuff. How about a little more humility, a little more curiosity about what makes others like the things they like?

Or quoting Wilson again (regarding music) “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?”

Yes you were implicated in my comment, but the buzzword comment was directed more at the AFC post that you seemed to endorse – perhaps only in spirit and not in tone. And you’re right, spectacle is hardly an intimidating word, but I stand by my speculation that few would cite it as why they like the sculpture. I’ll gladly go down to the site and talk to an agreed upon number of people to count how many times the word is used.

Of course art people interact with non-art people. I never meant to imply otherwise. When looking at this coverage, and the negative reaction, it is clear that either huge assumptions are being made about the subjective experience of others or that experience was being dismissed as “bad taste.” Your implication was that if someone “qualified” had the opportunity to write about the piece they either wouldn’t (the mere fact that people *actually* like it not being newsworthy) or they might be able to contextualize it (explain why it is in bad taste or superficial to “qualified” tastes).

I don’t want to get in a tit for tat thing here but, “entrenched” is a bit strong. More importantly, ask any of the people I’m “entrenched” with how often I talk about art with them. Art is hardly the basis of the relationship. And don’t forget that I literally spend half of my life living with non-art people from all over the country. Granted they don’t live in Chicago, so maybe the point is moot, but they’re not clamoring for more or better arts coverage. In fact, the only people I ever hear clamoring for it are art people. And to this question of yours, “And for that matter, why should you assume the opinions and curiosities of non art world folks would be so radically different?” As above, it is simply my experience. Maybe this is a class and/or urban/rural thing. My small town parents certainly don’t approach art with a “probing” or “critical” mindset and neither do the guys on the boat. It doesn’t occur to them that either of those things have anything to do with art. When it comes to art, they like pretty things. They have “bad taste.”

The fact that your urban “culturally savvy” lawyers, p.r. people, social workers, and stay at home moms do bring those qualities to their art viewing experience doesn’t do much for me because that just means they already share some basic assumptions with you and the capital A art world about what features art should have. For them, you’re probably right that a Christopher Knight sort of critic might serve their interests.

My central question was never addressed – what do we gain by calling something bad art? And to follow up – What does “art” gain by dismissing the taste of people like my parents? Rather than condescendingly attempting to educate them, isn’t it humbler to assume you and I, might have something to learn from them and their taste for “pretty bad art?”

PS For the record, I did not find your post to be snarky, but you did cite two rather snarky sources for your feelings of embarrassment at the Trib’s coverage. If anyone should be embarrassed it should be Johnson and Knight.
PPS Here’s hoping this doesn’t affect Halloween – wink!
PPPS This is too much work. Hopefully nothing egregiously provocative will be said so that I can avoid responding any further…

Thanks for the suggestion ***. Now here’s some suggested reading for you that might “educate” you regarding your, to put it charitably, questionable assertion, “Art is by definition not a matter of taste…”

P. Bourdieu – Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
AND The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field
Carl Wilson – Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
David Halle – Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home
Lawrence Levine – Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
Howard Becker – Art Worlds
Herbert Gans – Popular Culture And High Culture: An Analysis And Evaluation Of Taste
Peter Swirski – From Lowbrow to Nobrow

As to the perspective offered by calling something bad art, there is no doubt that *a* perspective is offered. The question is *whose* perspective? And what does that perspective bring to public life and what does it exclude?

You are also tautologically correct that there is a difference between Britney (not Brittany) Spears and Beethoven. Unfortunately, yes, I would argue that it is largely a matter of taste (and power). Although we might disagree on what might replace it/them, isn’t the rise of the “consensus curator” precisely about the imposition of and/or blind adherence to, a certain taste, a taste saturated by power and the pursuit of cultural and social capital? Obviously you still believe in art’s autonomy and obviously I don’t which may be the crux of the disagreement…To you perhaps, not believing in art’s autonomy means not having any conception of art whatsoever?

You’re right, the difference between art and craft is important here, especially how the two notions are situated hierarchically within and across different social classes and cultures (if the distinction exists at all in some of them). The great variability between cultures appears to be an argument for the inextricable link between art and taste. This is doubly so if you look at how popular/low works morph into “high/fine” ones over historical stretches (See Levine’s (above) analysis of Opera’s transition to “high art” in the 19th century U.S.).
Finally regarding anthropology and art as it pertains to this discussion, James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art is crucial. See especially the essay “On Collecting Art and Culture” which address the West’s appropriation (while “searching out the origins of modern man” as you put it) of artifacts from other cultures and contextualizing them as art.

This diagram of his gives a quick and dirty guide to the fluidity of the categories as he sees them:

Thanks for actually addressing my question, albeit in a snarky, err, *** way.

I am going to skip my disagreement with what you’ve said and focus on our common ground as I’m one of those boring types “attempting to coexist peacefully” with others.

Yes tacit and explicit knowledge. I have a great deal of interest in this. I hate to be rattling off even more reading, but Polanyi’s Tacit Dimension is central here. I even wrote some sloppy blog posts on the notion:
http://leisurearts.blogspot.com/2006/03/mathematics-practice-abstract-systems.html
http://leisurearts.blogspot.com/2006/04/wildenbateson-tacitexplicit.html
http://leisurearts.blogspot.com/2006/04/takeuchinonaka-social-ecology-of-art.html

My thinking has changed a bit as I unfortunately gave explicit knowledge a bit of the upper hand in art practice which you will immediately see is a mistake. I have become far more pragmatic (as in the actual philosophic tradition) since initially writing those posts so let me throw out some “chum” from that school for you that we can also agree on (especially with regard to your de Kooning comment):

Any idea that ignores the necessary role of intelligence in the
production of works of art is based upon identification of thinking
with use of one special kind of material, verbal signs and words.
To
think effectively in terms of relations of qualities is as severe a
demand upon thought as to think in terms of symbols, verbal and
mathematical. Indeed, since words are easily manipulated in mechanical
ways, the production of a work of genuine art probably demands more
intelligence than does most of the so-called thinking that goes on
among those who pride themselves on being ‘intellectuals.’
— John Dewey, Art as Experience

Amen. I would add to that – dialogue that is *only* critical and only takes place among “scholarly chroniclers” and insists that being “deep” is of utmost value, then that too is a problem.

I would take more time to address your thoughtful comments, but I have to go make jambalaya for my crew (jobs – ugh!)

*** – thanks for wanting me included. Given I’m the soft hearted, populist, egalitarian, inclusivist that you suspect me to be, it means a lot.

You seem to have one misperception though. I actually don’t care all that much to write about art and really don’t (care to) know much about it, especially the kind that makes its way into galleries. Aesthetic experience, on the other hand, I have a great interest in. Being the slacker I am writing about it is just too much work.

Allow me an analogy. I see you as an old line Catholic dispirited at the direction of the church (artworld). Angry at the Protestants (post-conceptualists, “bad” painters, etc.) and their heretical relationship to god (art). Now perhaps the consensus curators and the neo-cons are far more deviant to you. So maybe they’re more like Scientologists from your theological perspective. Maybe *** is Episcopalian – a dissenter, but still sympathetic to Rome in form at least. Come to think of it, maybe you’re more Pentecostal, wanting to throw out all of the middlemen (curators, critics, gallerists) between the believers and god. In this ridiculous analogy I would say I’m an apatheist – dismissing the very question of god (art) as irrelevant altogether (but no atheist). Now I must admit that I’m trending toward a more searching relationship with god (art) and maybe I’ll soon be a Unitarian Universalist an appropriately pluralist and personal faith for me. A faith rooted not in the formalities of dogma or ritual, but in personal experience.

So yeah, thanks but no thanks.

Damn you ***. I really thought I might get a chance to watch a romantic comedy tonight and now I find myself responding…

Don’t be so quick to assume my endorsement of solely crowdsourced criticism. My advocacy of pluralism is not a knee-jerk relativism nor is it to say that there are people’s opinions that aren’t worth more than others.

Earlier I was warning against throwing out data (the aesthetic tastes of others) too quickly. Being a pragmatist, it is also important to contextualize epistemic claims, and to weigh their effects – thus questions like what do we gain by calling something bad art? So I always look to see from what position a claim is being made and what how that claim might operate. Of course this is not just something from pragmatism. I also look to feminist theorists like Harstock (standpoint epistemology) and Haraway (situated knowledge). I swear I’m going to stop the name dropping!

To get back to the “worth” of opinions…If your car is broken you will likely trust the opinion (another way of saying a hypothesis) of your mechanic as to its underlying cause over the opinion of your dentist. The value of the mechanic’s opinion will be tested in experience (a pragmatist touchstone) when you authorize them to fix it. If they turn out to be wrong, the value of their future opinions may very well begin to “fade away” like the font mentioned above. In my example we have a relatively easy test of a problematic situation. In art criticism things get messier no? What is the problem we’re trying to solve when we turn to critical writing? Some possible problems:

1. I have a limited amount of time. Do I want to take the time to see this exhibition?
2. I saw this exhibition and I’m looking for some help making sense of what I experienced.
3. I will be unable to see this exhibition. Can someone give me a reliable account of what it was like?
4. I’m researching “x” and I need some useful thinking on it.
5. I am looking to be made aware of new and interesting things.

There are clearly more. If you break it down in this pragmatist spirit it becomes clearer to me what “quality” is and it also becomes easier to square the two notions you ask about ***. The “quality” of an idea is its usefulness in carrying one through a problematic situation (any of items 1-5 for instance). In the case of criticism, quality can largely come to mean trust – “I trust that Richard Shusterman will provide me with an analysis of a book that will serve my ends.” So *** just hasn’t found Knight all that reliable (despite being a mechanic) in assessing what’s broken with his car, so maybe he’s found that his neighbor (who is a “mere” tinkerer) has done a better job. The neighbor produces higher quality repairs. Of course if the neighbor does this just for *** and can’t do this for anyone else, then the quality is greatly diminished. Correspondingly, if the mechanic fails only ***, but satisfies most other, over time, the quality of his work will reveal itself as tested socially (see below in re: personal truth too).

There are also some forms of crowdsourcing that are better (again meaning more reliable at “solving” something problematic) than others. Amazon reviews are fine, but the structure is difficult to establish trusting (quality) relationships with reviewers. Delicious, Goodreads, and LibraryThing incorporate a social networking aspect that allows you to aggregate and follow a person’s reviews/annotations of websites and books respectively. On delicious for instance you can see everyone that has saved a particular link you find interesting and then you can look at all of their other saved links to determine if this shared interest was an aberration or if there’s a pattern of congruity (also quality). You can then add that person to your network thus adding another curatorial filter (had to make the reference).

Sooooo…one can certainly make claims about quality in my pluralist vision. it’s not the chaos you seem to imagine. It’s just that it limits one to small , not sweeping assertions. To be a properly pragmatist aesthetic populist ones claims must be fallibilistic and meliorist in spirit. The truth of a judgment is determined by a highly contextualized set of qualifiers. That truth is not merely personal however as experience is always part of a social context and will be tested over time. Let’s not forget that human culture has been crowdsourcing a very long time – that’s what capital C culture is right? the judgments of millions of people, some experts, some not coalescing around a set of ideas and practices to create legacies. It’s just that as post-colonialists, feminists, this process is suffused with power and a history of exclusions, thus the need to examine how “expertise” is determined and who is included in the process so that we know how much quality our quality truly merits versus obliges from us out of the laziness of consensus…

Sorry to the two of you still awake after reading my ramble!

I will concede the existence of masterpieces, but let’s not clink our champagne glasses just yet because I do so in the same spirit that I concede the existence of UFOs. That is, there certainly are flying objects that remain unidentified and those UFOs are real in a qualified sense. Masterpieces certainly exist in that there are cultures, and groups within those cultures that discuss and identify them. However there are cultures and groups within cultures that do not. So once again, context is of the utmost importance, you happen to be native (I think?) to a language and culture that has a (constructed) conception of the masterpiece and thus they are quite real to you and whether you accept it or not, I would argue that you have been trained to make the distinction between “schlock” as you called it and “genius.” I prefer Madonna to Bach, and given a certain set of values I can determine which is a masterpiece. The key being what values do I judge by? If you say a masterpiece is something that makes the dance floor fill up consistently and inspires dancing then Madonna’s oeuvre (you must be wincing at seeing those words next to each other) wins. In fact, she now has two decades of the evidence of her “genius.” Again, this leads me to ask though what do we gain by declaring something genius or a masterpiece beyond the emotional satisfaction of declaring our affection? Perhaps in the cause of preservation it is useful…but making these categorical proclamations seems counterproductive unless the ability to exclude some people from recognition is a desired end, which for me is not urgent at all!

Errrgh. Running out of time, so I’m not sure I said this exactly as I’d like…

“No one understands the human heart at all…” – The barbarism of reason

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/05/2013

The barbarism of reason – John Gray

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) has been remembered as a poet who produced delicate verse inspired by a melancholy version of Romanticism, along with some sharp epigrams on the discontents that go with civilisation. This was always a crude view of the early- 19th-century Italian writer. Leopardi’s subtle sensibility eludes conventional intellectual categories and the true achievement of this subversive genius has been little recognised.

With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.

…An anthropologist of modernity, Leopardi stood outside the beliefs of the modern age. He could never take seriously the faith in progress: the notion that civilisation gradually improves over time. He knew that civilisations come and go and that some are better than others – but they are not stations on a long march to a better world. “Modern civilisation must not be considered simply as a continuation of ancient civilisation, as its progression . . . These two civilisations, which are essentially different, are and must be considered as two separate civilisations.”

His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. “Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it,” he writes.

What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.

Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles – a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. “No one understands the human heart at all,” he wrote, “who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.” Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.

…The barbarism of reason is the attempt to order the world on a more rational model. However, evangelists for reason are more driven by faith than they know and the result of attempting to impose their simpleminded designs on the world has been to add greatly to the evils to which human life is naturally prone.

Some will find Leopardi unsatisfying because he proposes no remedy for modern ills, but for me a part of his charm comes from how he has no gospel to sell. The Romantic movement turned to visions of natural harmony as an escape from the flaws of civilisation. With his more penetrating intelligence, Leopardi understood that because human beings are spawned by natural processes, their civilisations share the ramshackle disorder of the natural world. Brought up by his father to be a good Catholic, he became a resolute atheist who admired ancient pagan religion; but because it was not possible to return to the more benign faiths of ancient times, he was friendly to Christianity in his own day, seeing it as the lesser of many evils: “Religion (far more favoured and approved by nature than by reason) is all we have to shore up the wretched and tottering edifice of present-day human life.”

Realising that the human mind can decay even as human knowledge advances, Leopardi would not have been surprised by the stupefying banality and shallowness of current debates on belief and unbelief. He accepted that there is no remedy for the ignorance of those who imagine themselves to be embodiments of reason. Today’s evangelical rationalists lag far behind the understanding of the human world that he achieved in the early decades of the 19th century.

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.

The art of self-fashioning – “Take care of yourself, attend to yourself.” – Crafting disposition

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/15/2013

Self-Fashioning in Society and Solitude – Nannerl O. Keohane

Self-fashioning is part of the age-old purpose of higher education, particularly in the liberal arts and sciences. The key point is to be aware, sometimes, that this is happening—to deliberately engage in fashioning—not just let events and experiences sweep you along without your conscious participation.

There is another thought-provoking maxim related to but distinct from “Know thyself,” also grounded in the Greek and Roman classics: “Take care of yourself, attend to yourself.” This variant was highlighted by Michel Foucault in a lecture called “Technologies of the Self.” Foucault insists that this “taking care of yourself” is “a real form of activity, not just an attitude.” It’s like taking care of a household or a farm or a kingdom. That’s what we are talking about in discussing “self-fashioning”: paying deliberate attention to your “self,” taking good care of it, tending and developing it, not just taking it for granted.

This all sounds appealing, but like most young people, and most people across history, you are more likely to be self-absorbed than self-abandoning. What we may all need most is reflection on the importance of community, of other selves. I’m going to link the two in this essay because I believe firmly that we fashion our “selves” both in solitude and in society.

For most of us—certainly those of us on a university campus—solitude is a relatively rare experience. If we are to fashion ourselves, we will be doing so in the presence of other people, most of the time. We develop as selves through our interactions with other human beings—through relationships, beginning with the family and then the school and the neighborhood, through art, music, language, culture, ideas. Our selves are never, and cannot be, purely isolated beings: we are the products of our experience and our environment, and we need to understand the self in and through society, not as a stand-alone cardboard cutout.

The warnings of Montaigne and Rousseau about how this experience can deform us, pull us away from our true selves, misshape our selfhood, should be in our minds. But we should also recognize that most of what is best about us comes from our interactions with other individuals.

So the formation of selfhood that depends on having someone else shape you like a work of art falls short of forming a successful human being. And it’s not surprising that theories of education since the eighteenth century rely much more on individual choices and taking a significant responsibility for your own intellectual development.

In college, you have an exceptional amount of freedom to choose from the bewildering variety of great courses listed in the catalog, and the amazing proliferation of extracurricular activities, including both those that are already established and those that you might help organize, as so many Harvard students do. If you sometimes think, as you make these choices, about what kind of self this seminar (or this sport, or this club, or this office) will help you to become, you may find guidance here. Does this activity promise to make you a deeper, fuller, more interesting person? Does it expand your life in new ways, or build on what you have done before in ways that make you stronger? Does it challenge you to develop new mental or emotional muscles, so to speak?

According to these pieces of advice, you should think about society not as a kind of zoo or curiosity shop where you can pick up a persona that suits you, but as the source of inspirational exemplars, diverse possible ways of shaping yourself, fascinating models. This means reading biographies and history, novels and essays, and paying attention to how people you admire handle challenges as they come along.

Yet society is not only a source of inspiring examples: it is even more often, as Rousseau said so well, a source of profound pressures to behave in certain ways. Society will surely shape you, the opinions and preferences and activities of your family, your friends, your classmates and professional colleagues, everyone with whom you spend any considerable amount of time. But too often the pressures are negative and will not help you in your self-fashioning, as all of us know when we reflect on peer culture, websites, TV shows, and movies. For worthwhile self-fashioning, you need a surrounding society that speaks to what is most importantly human, and brings you together with others in rewarding collective activities.

In the fifth chapter of her powerful work of political philosophy, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt discusses the connections between individuals and political communities. She notes that each human being is “distinguished from any other who is, was, and ever will be”—which is a vivid way of thinking about selfhood. Yet precisely because each of us is a distinct individual, we need speech and action to communicate; I cannot just sense instinctively what somewhat else is thinking. In speaking and acting, we “disclose ourselves” and thus expose ourselves to possible misunderstanding or exploitation by others, but also to the rich possibilities of communication.

Speech and action, in Arendt’s sense, cannot exist in isolation; they are meaningful only within human relationships. By the same token, “human nature”—as distinct from our more animal qualities—depends precisely on our capacity for speech and action: it is in fact through speech and action that each of us constitutes our self. This is Arendt’s distinctive contribution to our discussion of self-fashioning: the self is created not by each of us as individuals in isolation, but through the activities we share with other human beings—language, creativity, striving, politics. If your goal is to fashion a worthwhile self, you should be mindful of your surroundings and choose companions and activities that will give you opportunities to develop your language, creativity, striving, and politics in more depth.

…But if you are to have a whole, integrated, complete self, you must resist becoming totally immersed in private spheres. You must see it as part of your self-interest and your moral duty to play your part in society, to give something of yourself away to others who are in need, to help sustain the common structures that make up our public life. If you fail to do this, you will become a shrunken and diminished self. Recognition of this fact is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood,” or “enlightened self-interest”: not pure egoism or selfishness, but caring for yourself in the context of acknowledging your responsibilities to others, which brings with it significant moral commitments and deep rewards.

So whether they have too little solitude or too much, women have often had a different experience of solitude and society from men. Men can leave the house and go off on a journey in many societies where women can never travel alone. Women in most cultures have had much less opportunity than men to explore the world, follow their adventurous inclinations. And they have been less likely to have a place or time where they can enjoy solitude. It’s worth keeping this in mind when you read authors who write about self-fashioning. You can sometimes stop and ask: Would this advice have worked for a woman in the society this author is describing? Or are these generalizations accurate only for the men? What, after all, were the women doing in this society?

Let me close with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance”: “It is easy to live in the world after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

This is the image I want to leave you with: developing the ability to maintain “with perfect sweetness” the independence of solitude—the integrity and wholeness of the self—in the midst of the crowd. Your education should give you the capacity to shape and sustain your selfhood. It should both furnish richly the back shop of your mind, and prepare you to be a productive member of whatever society you live in. And at best, it should also give you the ability to retreat into yourself even in the midst of a busy life when you need to get your bearings, refresh your spirit, reaffirm your integrity, and confirm what is most important to your self.

“Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/09/2013

Beauty will Save the World – Jeffrey Bilbro

I want to reflect today on the title chosen for this gathering, “Beauty will Save the World.” That’s quite the assertion, and I don’t know if I can convincingly support it, but I’ll give it a shot. My tentative thesis today is that the best way to cultivate healthy local cultures is to celebrate their beauty. It’s not to pass laws, it’s not to develop rational or economic arguments for their benefits, it’s not to start some new program. All these might be needed subsequently, but if we don’t first bear witness to the beauty of a healthy culture, then other approaches are doomed. It’s in this way, by enabling us to see the truth and goodness of healthy way of life, that beauty will save the world. So I want to think with you about the beauty of local culture, why that beauty is important, and how to cultivate it. I’ll begin by describing a beautiful, and I think saving, activity that I’ve had the privilege of participating in this past year.

Rather, our hope is that the students and staff and faculty who participate will see and experience how beautiful it can be to grow and eat our own food. This rich, practical connection with our food is what Wendell Berry calls the pleasures of eating. These pleasures are complex, and they are nearly impossible to quantify, but if you’ve ever eaten a sandwich with tomato slices still warm from your garden, you know something of these pleasures. When you plant a seed, water it, weed around the delicate seedling, try to protect it from deer and bugs, watch it blossom and set fruit, and wait for that fruit to ripen, the act of eating the fruit is not merely an input of calories and nutrients. Rather, eating is just one part, perhaps the climax, in a whole narrative that we’ve embodied and lived out, a narrative that connects us to our fellow gardeners and to the place in which we live.

To call something beautiful in this sense is to speak about its material shape or form, and also about the meaning or splendor that emerges from the form and makes it desirable. And as von Balthasar goes on to argue, when we see a vision of the beautiful, when we see the contours of its form, we are enraptured by its splendor, caught up in a desire to participate in the radiance that beauty grants us to see as love-worthy. So to call this narrative of our community garden beautiful means that the whole way of living that the garden enables us to glimpse, in which we work together and share the fruits of this work, is desirable and love-worthy.

And yet oversimplification leading to disease marks nearly every aspect of our fragmented, modern lives. Our corporate medical system does not aim for health, but rather isolates various parts of the body and treats particular abnormalities. Hence our medical establishment has been particularly unhelpful at offering preventive care and treating complex problems such as obesity. Our monoculture agriculture is merely another instance of our propensity to isolate and specialize, and I’m not sure that our biculture of corn and soybeans here in Michigan is much of an improvement. We still don’t have complex polycultures that include animals and a true variety of plants. Such simplification works itself all the way down to our lawns, which we spray with toxic chemicals just to have “beautiful” grass.

In their false simplification, such specialized visions and the ways of life toward which they lead inevitably contribute to disease. These narrowly-focused ways of life become insipid, losing the splendor of beauty, and yet they define much of our lives as we search for quick and easy solutions. Wendell Berry notes the irony in our culture’s stereotypical view of country life as “simple,” noting that in actuality, it is urban, specialized living that is simple:

When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of “simplicity” (since I live supposedly as a “simple farmer”), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here. In New York, I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place. (The Way of Ignorance, “Imagination in Place” 47-48).

My point, then, is that our culture’s tendency toward reductive specialization is intrinsically un-beautiful, that beauty arises only from complex, harmonious forms, that health is beautiful. Currently, our cultural aesthetic is, in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, sickly and pale: we too often confuse the pretty, the mere appearance, for true beauty, hence our acceptance of lush green lawns that cause water pollution. But perhaps beauty can save, or at least salve, our world by giving us a richer imagination of health and thus causing us to desire ways of life that, as von Balthasar might say, carry the splendor of truth and goodness.

How do we actually see such forms whose beauty might inspire us to find more healthy ways of living? I think there are at least two conditions for perceiving such visions of beauty. The first is that we see beauty on a local scale.

We have to be able to see the whole to perceive beauty (again, note the connection between beauty and health). Analysis of the beautiful, if it does not begin with a vision of the whole and keep this vision constantly in mind, quickly devolves into an abstract rummaging through dead parts. It becomes what von Balthasar calls “anatomy,” which “can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements” (Seeing the Form 31). This is the way the “industrial mind,” a term that Berry derives from the Southern Agrarians, sees the world. Such a vision, precisely because it is too narrow and specialized, inevitably leads to disease and deformation. In his essay “Solving for Pattern,” Berry argues that solutions based on this sort of specialized vision always worsen the problem—he gives the example of addressing soil compaction by using bigger tractors, which only compact the soil further, leading to the need for even larger tractors (The Gift of Good Land 136). So while a bad solution “acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained,” “a good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns” (137). In order to see the beauty of these larger patterns, and thus perceive what modes of life would harmonize with these patterns, we need to be able to see the whole form. When we try to imagine a beautiful whole on a global or even national scale, the difficulty, if not impossibility, of this task makes the temptation to perform a quantitative analysis of isolated parts almost irresistible. And yet such a fragmented gaze can’t see the living, beautiful whole, which is precisely the form that can give us the vision of health and beauty our imagination needs.

The second condition for perceiving this vision of healing beauty is a personal experience or encounter. We don’t see the whole form of beauty when someone describes it abstractly.
I can tell you about the Sistine Chapel and describe its scheme and what the various parts depict, but you won’t really see its beauty unless you stand in it yourself. The same holds true for a Bach fugue. This is so because of the complexity and richness of beauty; there is a qualitative difference between an experience of the beautiful and an abstract description of that experience.

…Every morning the local bakery draws a group of men who drink coffee, eat pastries, and talk about the work that awaits them in the day ahead. Their conversation is punctuated by oblique references to stories they all know and by the habitual phrases of friends absent or dead. The community’s memory lives in such conversation. But it’s hard to quantify and analyze what makes this community a healthy one; merely listing its attributes does not convey the beauty of its form. We perceive its beauty as a whole, when we experience life in such a community.

…So we all need to practice creating beauty. It’s remarkable how counter-cultural this participation might be, since we now live in a society that thinks “beauty” is meant to be produced by professionals from big cities and consumed by the rest of us.

We may not all be gifted artists like Kathleen, but we can still all be involved in creating beauty. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his “Letter to Artists,” “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” We all have an opportunity and a responsibility to participate in this task of culture, and our “sub-creation,” as Tolkien calls it, should be guided by the contours of the beauty we’ve perceived.

I am afraid that what often keeps us from embracing the quotidian work of sustaining the “little platoons” of which we are a part is the sense that this local work can’t affect the national and international problems over which the news media continually obsesses. But while such local work may seem futile in our current political and economic environment, it may actually be the most consistent and effective way to cultivate health, given the farce that national politics has become. This is why Berry believes that our “Our environmental problems [as well as our other diseases that afflict our society] are not, at root, political; they are cultural” (What Are People For, “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey” 37). Dreher echoes this sentiment in an essay on Wendell Berry in which he considers him to be “a latter-day Saint Benedict”: “I am convinced that conservatives have placed far too much stock in political action and far too little in the work of culture” (The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry 281). Dreher hopes that Berry has begun a sort of monastic cultural movement, where instead of pouring their energy into national politics or the culture wars, individuals work to form healthy, beautiful communities in their homes. These communities might then preserve and sustain culture, providing beacons of hope that stand in stark contrast to sick society around them.

I do want to qualify this politics/culture distinction. Politics is indeed part of culture and a shaper of culture, but my point is that it shouldn’t be the primary arena in which we try to affect cultural change. Rather, fostering healthy and beautiful cultures will inspire others to participate and cultivate the communities of which they are a part. Representative democracy too often relies on the slim majority forcing everyone else to do the majority’s will, whereas culture relies on beauty to foster a robust conversation about the common good, and then to persuade others that this common good, that health, is desirable.

This distinction provides, perhaps, the clearest insight into the unique power of beauty: whereas political power ultimately relies on force, beauty simply invites others to perceive the splendor within its form. Beauty is an invitation, a gift, and thus it is always vulnerable to rejection. This is its weakness, and this is why beauty is often overlooked as a salve for our contemporary problems. But its weakness is also its strength. In our cynical world, where people are jaded by political posturing over truth and strident demands that some particular way is the only right way to live, beauty simply puts itself on offer. And if its form reveals truth and goodness, then those who behold beauty may find it love-worthy. Once our affections are moved, right action and truthful speech will follow.

of things too important to be left to “professionals” – Amateurs and culture

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/24/2013

Amateurs: Wherein I am advised to ‘get some’ – Steven Poole

It may be ironic that a professor of “language studies” uses the term “amateur” as an insult, since he no doubt knows that for most of its life it meant someone who did something for love (Latin amo) rather than for money, and only acquired its dismissive sneer during the bureaucratic twentieth century. George Orwell, of course, was an “amateur” in the field of analysing political language, and even recommended that more of his regular work, book-reviewing, be done by “amateurs”:

Incidentally, it would be a good thing if more novel reviewing were done by amateurs. A man who is not a practised writer but has just read a book which has deeply impressed him is more likely to tell you what it is about than a competent but bored professional. That is why American reviews, for all their stupidity, are better than English ones; they are more amateurish, that is to say, more serious.

Of course, “amateurs” are not everywhere to be celebrated. I would not like to have root-canal surgery performed on me by an amateur dentist. Not everyone has a valid opinion on medicine. On the other hand, we are all language-users. Very many of the “amateurs” who have attended my talks on Unspeak think in careful and sophisticated ways about language, and their opinions are not to be dismissed simply because they haven’t had the right sort of academic training. My view, indeed, is that the analysis of language in politics is too important to be left to “professionals” who murmur among themselves in the diagrammatic glades of “discourse analysis” and other subdisciplines. Professor Salkie surely knows, to be blunt, that nowadays, “amateur” is most often the kneejerk insult of the salaryman who desires to protect his own turf.

“the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry” – Keith Ansell-Pearson on Peter Sloterdijk

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

Philosophy of the Acrobat: On Peter Sloterdijk – Keith Ansell-Pearson

The thesis that religion has returned after the alleged failure of the Enlightenment project needs to be confronted, Sloterdijk argues, with a clearer view of what we can legitimately consider as “spiritual facts.” Such a consideration shows that the return to and of religion is impossible since, so goes Sloterdijk’s initial contention, religion does not, in fact, exist. Instead, what exist are only misunderstood spiritual regimens. All human life requires the cultivation of matters of body and soul, and all philosophies and religions have attended to this fundamental feature of our existence. By this view, any clear-cut dichotomy of believers and unbelievers falls away. In place of this dichotomy, we should distinguish between the practicing and the untrained, or those who train differently.

…He wishes to give a new truth to the insight developed by Marx and the Young Hegelians in the 1840s that contends that “man produces man”: in short, the human being is never given to itself or to anything else, but produces and reproduces its own conditions of existence and as a project of personal development, even an adventure. Sloterdijk, however, differs from Marx and the Hegelians in not wanting to place the stress on labor or work as the key category by which to understand this self-forming process of man. He proposes that the language of work be transfigured into that of “self-forming and self-enhancing behaviour.” We need, then, to go beyond both the myth of homo faber and of homo religiosus and to understand the human being as a creature that results from repetition. As he notes, humans live in habits, not in territories. If the 19th century can be viewed as standing under the sign of production, and the 20th century under the sign of reflexivity, then we need to grasp the future under the sign of the exercise. None of this refining and purifying work is without significance for our understanding of the human animal, since it holds the potential for unlocking anew the secrets of the human animal, including a reinvigoration of the key words by which we understand our so-called spiritual life, words such as “piety,” “morality,” “ethics,” and “asceticism.”

For Sloterdijk the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry, the “human in training” as he puts it, or which we could call shaping and self-shaping. Not only is the earth the ascetic planet par excellence, as Nietzsche contended, it’s also the acrobatic planet par excellence.

Sloterdijk contends that human beings are always subject to “vertical tensions” in all periods and in all cultural areas: “Wherever one encounters human beings, they are embedded in achievement fields and status classes.” I take Sloterdijk to be referring in general terms to the self-surpassing tendencies of the human animal, or its perfectionist aspirations. Thus, he recalls at the outset the Platonic Socrates, saying that man is the being who is potentially superior to himself. He takes this to indicate that all cultures and subcultures rely on distinctions by which the field of human possibilities gets subdivided into polarized classes: religious cultures are founded on the distinction between the sacred and the profane; aristocratic cultures base themselves on the distinction between the noble and the common; military cultures establish a distinction between the heroic and the cowardly; athletic cultures have the distinction between excellence and mediocrity; cognitive cultures rely on and cultivate a distinction between knowledge and ignorance; and so on. There is thus in humans an upward-tending trait, and this means for Sloterdijk that when one encounters humans, one will always find acrobats. One great modern “myth” of our time that captures this, and the idea of verticality in general, is that of Nietzsche’s tale in Thus Spoke Zarathustra of the being that is fastened on a rope between animal and superhuman. What model of vertical perfection and “progress” is encapsulated in this idea?

This is where matters get controversial in Sloterdijk’s study since he is dealing with matters such as training in the sense of “breeding” that have a highly dubious history. However, here he endeavors to be dexterous in his appreciation of projects that aim to fashion new human beings. On the one hand, he takes seriously Nietzsche’s seemingly fantastical ideas about the ?bermensch; on the other, he is severely critical of the “Soviet” attempt to create a new human and a new society by means of large-scale social and technological engineering. In reading Nietzsche, Sloterdijk does not find a biological or eugenics program (in spite of all the talk about “breeding” in Nietzsche), but an artistic and acrobatic discourse in which the emphasis is on training, discipline, education, and self-design. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, one builds over and beyond oneself — but to do this well one needs to be built first “four-square in body and soul.” The human subject needs to be seen as a carrier of “exercises,” made up of, on the passive side, an aggregate of individuated effects of habitus, and, on the active side, a center of competencies that allow for some minimal sense of self-direction and self-mastery. Should we thus not calmly agree with Nietzsche that egotism is but “merely the despicable pseudonym of the best human possibilities”?

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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“…like libraries, without the party atmosphere.” – Why I hate museums

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 08/26/2013

Opinion: Why I hate museums – James Durston

[Fun to read this in light of this piece wistful about good old fashioned museum experience and this one defending the new “participatory” experience. But I do take issue with condemning the exhibition displaying an “old brick, an old piece of rock, some hair and a napkin.” Sounds pretty great.]

Graveyards for stuff. Tombs for inanimate things.

Their cavernous rooms and deep corridors reverberate with the soft, dead sounds of tourists shuffling and employees yawning.

They’re like libraries, without the party atmosphere.

I’ve always hated museums.

Yet twice or three times a year, I somehow find myself within one, shuffling from glass case to glass case, reading the little inscriptions, peering closely at the details, doing what any “good traveler” does.

Two hours later I walk out bored, hungry and far less glad to be on vacation than when I went in.

The main thing you learn in museums, it seems, is how not to run a museum.

Worst of all, there’s a climate of snobbery surrounding this whole industry.

Confess that rather than stare glumly at an old beer chalice on a plinth you’d prefer to drink happily from a shiny new one in a pub, and you risk being outed as an ignoramus.

Well, I’m outing myself. I’m a museo-phobe.

They provide an umbilical link between our planet and our history to the future.

But inside these crypts of curatorship, the connection to humankind falls short.

Last year I visited Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art — a landmark at least as celebrated, if not more so, for its architecture than its contents, and no wonder.

After the 200th glass case containing an old bowl — or was it a plate, or perhaps it was some more cutlery, who knows, who cares — I decided the photo opportunity across the sea was the best thing about the place.

Where’s the “muse” in all these museums? Where’s the theater?

Fair enough, I don’t question the wider benefits of museums, economic or otherwise.

But the collect-and-cage policy that defines the visible exhibits, much of which is not even visible most of the time, is anathema to an engaging experience.

This smacks of the most smugly provocative modern art, which insists that anything the curate deigns to put inside the building inevitably becomes “interesting.”

Where’s the relevance? Why, in places designed to celebrate life and all its variety, is there such a lack of vitality?

My trip two years ago to Hong Kong’s Science Museum convinced me that if there were a World Championship for Most Dreary Things To Do On Vacation, museums would be disqualified for going over the top.

But where’s the equivalent for adults? Why should over-16-year-olds, who still make up the significant majority of museum-goers, be subjected to stiff, dry, academia-laced presentations as if fun were a dirty word?

Where’s your joy gone, museums?

“smartly dressed and supposedly knowledgeable” – Professional curators, who needs ’em?

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 08/23/2013

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What happened to the expert curator? – Daniel Blight

A space has now opened up – both physically and online – where anyone can give curating a go. If you are part of culture, then you are qualified to contribute to the arrangement of its artefacts. The practice of curating now occupies museums, public and commercial galleries, project spaces and, of course, the internet.

Within these contexts, the act of arranging objects, images or sounds into an order that may or may not have meaning has proliferated throughout the creative and cultural industries. The curator is now a producer: you might curate your Flickr feed, your mates playing records at a bar or festival or an exhibition in your own apartment – a trend showcased by the Serpentine Gallery’s co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist, a master orator of what he calls a “global dialogue… in space and time”.

While the practice of curating within cultural institutions may have changed, the elitism and sense of privileged access remains – abundantly. Even now, you can walk into a museum or gallery and be overwhelmed with the feeling of being in a place where meaning is inaccessible to the layperson, other than through spaces specifically created for audience participation.



What, then, if we’re looking in the wrong place for qualified, ground-breaking curators? Perhaps they are no longer in museums, galleries or cultural institutions, but instead in front of a screen – sociable and connected.
Curating in the age of the internet is the act of responding to social and technological developments: their usability, instability and the various networks of communication in which they are presented online.

In this, we return to the movement from expert to amateur. The sheer quantity of material being collected and curated on the internet, and indeed the rate at which this activity can represent culture and form social networks, is staggering. Institutionalised curators are, along with the institutions themselves, being left woefully behind.

In fact, their attempt to keep up may soon become their authorial downfall: people are creating meaning themselves – online, inside, outside and in rings around the snail-paced bureaucracy that has come to characterise most cultural institutions.

Whatever our response to this, one thing is abundantly clear – we cannot do it by bandwagoning internet art, nor will it be helped along bythe ostentatious character of the curator in itself. The cultural institution, tied in the UK to the wider governmental logic of the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, may need to shift its priorities structurally and ideologically. In times where money is harder to come by and people’s access and thirst for knowledge is more readily satisfied via the internet, curators need to play a much more transparent and far less haughty game if they are to stay ahead.

Social practice must be broad, or not at all – Some stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/10/2013

Hasn’t much of “radical politics” been co-opted by a similar set of strategies? Isn’t there a similar profession of activism? Institutionalized “radicality” has had a pretty good run – around 50 years of theory and critique. But where is the payoff? Aside from all of those theses gathering dust in universities across the US? Obviously, I am implying that I don’t see radical politics (as imagined and practiced in the academy) as being any less susceptible to charges of elitist (or specialist) irrelevance than art. It’s all well and good to be conversant with Negri, Ranciere, Zizek, or Badiou, but construction workers in Arkansas or farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley aren’t really helped by any of this are they? (I’m not trying to be a hater here!)

I would argue that any politics not engaged with aesthetics is doomed (and really it is always engaged – it is a matter of how attentively). Art [frieze/e-flux/triple canopy type art], on the other hand is just a highly specialized and pointless parlor game played with, and within, aesthetic experience. The hope I hold for social practice (fading though it may be), is that it will keep staking a claim beyond art, after art, without art. If it returns to the historical roots you claim for it, I fear it ensures its futility. To become wed to a critique of art plays art’s game. Or am I doing the same thing by writing this?!? Ugh.

My immediate objection here is that you make a claim for ” a political movement broadly defined” which is itself completely false (the idea of it being “broad”). The academic/activist class has an incredibly narrow idea of what “politics” is – especially Bishop for example. The “sweetness” of many social practice projects has invited much scorn from the cool kid ex-punker crowd that wants a days of rage approach to social change. Being a good mom, being a good dad, being a good neighbor – these things are every bit as urgent and political as self-consciously being “radical” no? Picking up trash along your street or bringing cookies to the school teacher are every bit as “socially engaged” as AIDS activist billboards, fossil fuel divestment die ins, or WTO protests. To me, politician, artist, activist are all professional designations (or always on the verge of being used in that manner) that certain activities are best left to those who identify as such. And that masks the political and aesthetic value people create (or destroy) in their everyday lives…so I totally agree that there are grandiose claims made for social practice, but this is no different than those made for radical political activism which also could be said “to ignore its increasingly professionalizing aspects while simultaneously insisting on its relevancy” All power to the people, even the dopey, unradical ones, even the cheese ball hug circle social practice do gooders, or the Wal-mart greeter that despite all the farcical theater of the smiley face low prices , is truly enthused and upbeat while greeting you.

To me it is the politics of avant gardism and heroic gestures that reeks of liberalism. “Service” as you put it, or “neighborliness” as I was advocating for, needn’t be liberal, and certainly not about “personal” responsibility. I come at it from a conservative (old school), communitarian, decentralist place. I dare not call it anarchist – especially if I want to avoid academic discussions or want to have some modicum of engagement with people like my mythical Wal-Mart greeter. And I have to say, your critique of social practice is striking in its normativity (not that I am not also making normative claims)! It seems social practice must be “radical” or not at all. I at least stake my normative claim for an expansive social practice one that isn’t owned (exclusively) by art, academia, or activists. Something like – Social practice must be broad, or not at all.

Draining the Swamp of Art – John Zerzan – The Case Against Art

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/11/2013

The Case Against Art – John Zerzan

Frequently compared to play, art and culture – like religion – have more often worked as generators of guilt and oppression. Perhaps the ludic function of art, as well as its common claim to transcendence, should be estimated as one might reassess the meaning of Versailles: by contemplating the misery of the workers who perished draining its marshes.

Today culture is commodity and art perhaps the star commodity. The situation is understood inadequately as the product of a centralized culture industry, a la Horkheimer and Adorno. We witness, rather, a mass diffusion of culture dependent on participation for its strength, not forgetting that the critique must be of culture itself, not of its alleged control.

The avant-garde has generally staked out wider claims, projecting a leading role denied it by modern capitalism. It is best understood as a social institution peculiar to technological society that so strongly prizes novelty; it is predicated on the progressivist notion that reality must be constantly updated.

But avant-garde culture cannot compete with the modern world’s capacity to shock and transgress (and not just symbolically). Its demise is another datum that the myth of progress is itself bankrupt.

Occasionally critics, like Thomas Lawson, bemoan art’s current inability “to stimulate the growth of a really troubling doubt,” little noticing that a quite noticeable movement of doubt threatens to throw over art itself. Such “critics” cannot grasp that art must remain alienation and as such must be superseded, that art is disappearing because the immemorial separation between nature and art is a death sentence for the world that must be voided.

Adorno began his book thusly: “Today it goes without saying that nothing concerning art goes without saying, much less without thinking. Everything about art has become problematic; its inner life, its relation to society, even its right to exist.” But _Aesthetic Theory_ affirms art, just as Marcuse’s last work did, testifying to despair and to the difficulty of assailing the hermetically sealed ideology of culture. And although other “radicals,” such as Habermas, counsel that the desire to abolish symbolic mediation is irrational, it is becoming clearer that when we really experiment with our hearts and hands the sphere of art is shown to be pitiable. In the transfiguration we must enact, the symbolic will be left behind and art refused in favor of the real. Play, creativity, self-expression and authentic experience will recommence at that moment.

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The real question is: How good does art have to be to qualify as karaoke?

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/20/2013

How Good Does Karaoke Have to Be to Qualify as Art? – Dan Kois

“Karaoke makes regular people rock stars, and rock stars regular people,” explained Caryn Brooks, the communications director for Portland’s mayor. Sometimes the singers are actual rock stars. Brooks has a vivid memory of the time in the late ’90s when, at the original Chopsticks, she saw Elliott Smith sing Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”

…We looked at Brophy, who shrugged. A tall young man in a puffy jacket swayed up onto the stage, then kicked into the lyrics — but instead of imitating Jack White’s rock ’n’ roll keen, he sang in a rhythm-and-blues croon. The song was instantly transformed from dirty garage rock to bedroom soul. It sounded incredible, as if the song were written that way in the first place. When it was over, Justin bowed, accepting our applause, then replaced the microphone in its stand and walked out the door, never to return.

“Here’s the important thing to remember about Portland,” she said. “No one’s here to get rich. Unlike everywhere else in America. There’s a critical mass here of people here following their passions. Oh, it’s my turn, hold on.” She polished off her beer, jogged up to the stage and began what was, by a wide measure, the most amazing song I heard in my Portland karaoke odyssey: “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a 1972 epic written in gibberish by the Italian performer Adriano Celentano, supposedly to mimic how English sounds to the Italian ear. It is like four minutes of “Jabberwocky” with a Continental accent and a mod beat. The karaoke version is a Baby Ketten original, of course. Addie nailed every syllable, then high-fived her fellow Kettens all the way back to our table. “So, yeah,” she said. “People from Portland do stuff like that.”

Portland isn’t just the capital of karaoke, I was realizing. The Japanese influence, the small-business climate and the abundance of bands don’t really matter. Portland is the capital of America’s small ponds. It’s a city devoted to chasing that feeling — the feeling of doing something you love, just for a moment, and being recognized for it, no matter how obscure or unnecessary or ludicrous it might seem to the straight world. It is the capital of taking frivolity seriously, of being silly as if it’s your job.

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[from the LeisureArts archive] – A David Robbins Trifecta – The Art/Life Conundrum Solved!

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/08/2013

[This is a three in one post of material (in reverse order)  I did for LeisureArts on David Robbins. Although I might choose another word than “production,” I think Robbins asks a question that still needs much contemplation – “who are we when we pursue a larger field of production, some of which is art?”]

An initial stab at a semiotic square [David Robbins]

Note that “High Entertainment” is a category Robbins describes as “…works and artifacts that retain fine art’s complex ambitions for the culture while eschewing the specialized language of fine art in favor of mass accessibility – [it] can be manifested in games, toys, fashion, public sculpture, books, hoaxes, indeed in any product that has contact with the public.” p. 311

Art/Life – David Robbins – LeisureArts

The old art/life distinction.

The “triangulation” theory of David Robbins.

This notion is worked out in various ways throughout his book The Velvet Grind, but the essay “On Talent” spells things out pretty directly:

That something might stand outside art and report on it, comment on it, editorialize about it in an iconic language of its own – this was, and apparently still is, disorienting. The reason, I submit, is that it instantiates a complication of the modernist dialogue between life and art. Talent suggests that the old binary model has been superseded by a triangulated model whose points are life, art, and entertainment – a competing communication system no less madly self-sustaining, self-referential, and self-celebratory than art. “Showbiz” adds another category that’s neither Art nor Life. p.24

Robbins’s triangulation is an important step to finding new forms and languages for what he calls “imaginative practice” – creative, funny, thoughtful forms of invention that are not art. We at LesiureArts find Robbins incredibly useful [We hope to write more, but being the slackers that we are, this might be as far as we get]. He also writes about inventing experience which he distinguishes from producing culture. This is a welcome relief from all of the talk about cultural production, as invented experience resonates nicely with John Dewey’s aesthetic theory which is in dire need of being read by the legions of curators and artists who are reinventing the wheel of experience based practices.

The LeisureArts modified model.

As we mentioned, the triangulation theory is an important step, but LeisureArts is interested in expanding the terrain of inventive practices and theory to cover a host of other activities that Robbins’s triangle can’t account for. That leads to the above modification. In leisure, we have a broad field of activities that fall in between the various oppositions, some closer to one vertex or the other, but the field itself exists in a kind of equipoise (ideally). Adding leisure to the model allows for the inventiveness of car customizers, tea cozy makers, coat hanger collectors, home cooks, and others to mingle on equal footing with so called “high” forms of culture be it entertainment or art.

David Robbins – The Velvet Grind

Some excerpts:

…the pertinent question is no longer “what infinite variety of materials, strategies, concerns might we include in the context of art?” It isn’t “what might we map onto the coordinates of art?” These were the questions of modernism. The more contemporary question – tomorrow’s question – is “who are we when we pursue a larger field of production, some of which is art?” (p.29)

The maximum site of invention, now, is one that forces the culture of criticality into direct and continuous contact with its strongest and most radical cultural alternative, the culture that thrives despite art’s low regard for it, the culture, ladies and gentleman, that actually expresses respect for lives conventionally led, the culture that doesn’t need art: entertainment. (p.167)

For (A Broad) Social Practice – A Reply to Daniel Tucker – Bring on the Arty Party

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/03/2012

The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest recently launched a blog and this piece caught my eye: Against Social Practice – Daniel Tucker

The title is somewhat misleading as Tucker is not arguing against social practice per se, but the way it is being institutionalized. I also have reservations about the professionalization of social practice, but for very different reasons. He opens with a troubling assertion about the rise of social practice programs and the connection to neoliberalism:

Education in an era of the neoliberalization of capitalism has placed a premium on choice. The opening up of new markets is key to this expanded choice, exemplified in charter school expansion at the primary and secondary level, the growth in distance and online higher education, and newly specialized affective fields like social practice art, social justice, social entrepreneurship and community partnerships in higher education. Realistically, all of these examples produce new choices at the expense of old choices.

What I would note here is that there needs to be a healthy skepticism towards this zero sum assertion. Some new choices may well come at “the expense” of others, but it isn’t necessarily so. More importantly, we need to asses the qualitative dimensions of those choices. It may well be that social practice programs siphon students from say (sympathetic) sculpture programs, but this might also entail opening access to those sculpture programs for students that are a better fit. It may also be that social practice will turn out to be better suited to ask certain types of questions or explore certain types of experience and thus the “expense” incurred by older forms could be justified.

Tucker then worries, “Far from a conservative cry to preserve the past, I am concerned that our educational choices have already been made for us by forces more human and corrupt than any mythical market could concoct.” This begs the question – Have the previous educational choices somehow been exempt from this corrupting influence? If so, how? And if not, Why are we holding social practice programs to a higher standard?

He then moves on to a series of questions and issues that he feels social practice programs need address before winning his support. He acknowledges that these programs might be uniquely situated to foster “specific conversations that deal with the ethics, logistics and aesthetics of organizing people,” yet cautions, “the traditions of art have a lot to teach social practice, as they have mastered the translation of the social into material resolutions that provide necessary and different points of entry into complex ideas.” Maybe. But it is curious that there are so many who feel dissatisfied with this alleged “mastery.” Perhaps he is right that this new academic “market” is merely a neoliberal consumer choice, but that seems implausible. It certainly is cynical to dismiss the apparent desire of these students to find a better home for their curiosity than what the traditional art disciplines offer – are all of them chasing an art world trend? most of them? Or could it be that the arts are not the masters of translation Tucker imagines?

My foremost concern though is with the limitations he sets out for the field of social practice. Obviously we all bring competing agendas into this discussion around such a burgeoning field. But I feel Tucker’s questions, as interesting as they may be, are symptomatic of a deep desire to prescribe an intellectualist and activist agenda for social practice:

Can it retain the gains of the past movements for educational representation while moving beyond representation to a politics of redistribution? Can it respect truly complex social world from which it borrows and in which it intervenes without relegating the social to an image—a fixed commodified version of the everyday? Can it experiment with social relations in a way that builds new insights into what we can do together that acknowledge the inherently political nature of that act, while also proposing (socially or materially) ways to work through inadequate politics of the past?

I have argued again and again that there may well be incredible opportunities to address these sorts of questions in social practice programs, but it would be a mistake to desire to limit ourselves to them. There certainly are, and will continue to be, people who have no interest in such questions. They may not have any interest in antagonism as a social form, maybe they want to make people happy- gasp! I hope we can reserve a place for fun, sweetness, and love amid all the smashing of capitalists. I don’t like the idea of a litmus test or the obligation to make every walk a dérive. The “the old academy” Tucker invokes certainly has its strengths, but one of its biggest shortcomings is the narrow band of  human experience it has focused on – the intellectual. There is more to being human than being book/theory “smart.” And rather than settle for the truly “false choices” of exploring the world from different positions along that narrow band, I argue for a social practice filled with activists and intellectuals, but also party people, hippies, malcontents, and maybe even a few capitalists. In short, I argue for the social practice program that many in the academy and the critical establishment fear.

Addendum to: Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/14/2012

Socially engaged art at UCSD provides food for thought in La Jolla – Will Bowen

The article above is quite timely given my recent post – Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.” It illustrates some of the issues I raised in that post (and many others) and might be interesting to break down. I will acknowledge at the outset that this article no doubt presents a caricature of surely more nuanced and complicated thinking by the people cited. The quotes presented though are in no way outliers – there is an academic orthodoxy around social practice (and art in general) and this material is emblematic.

First we have Michelle Hyun offering her definition of socially engaged art:

“Art that is made from the social mediation of social relations. It’s closer to real-life experience than regular art and often has a protest or politic aspect to it.”

The first part of the definition is puzzling in that all art involves the mediation of social relations. So it must be that it is social mediation of those relations that is essential, but I’m not particularly clear on what that even means. In the second part, she makes a claim that it is also “closer” to real life than “regular” art and this begs the questions – does painting or sculpture exist in real life? closer in content? closer in form? and what is “regular” art?

Next we have the author of the article providing a definition:

“…socially engaged art is work that has a social meaning, purpose, or motivation, and is meant to call attention to some facts about society or encourage a change in perspective or behavior. Socially engaged art can be anything from text, poetics, image, performance, theater, film, activity or demonstration, etc.”

This really doesn’t clear much up – As we still can’t seem to eliminate painting, or at least, didactic painting given that socially engaged art can be “image” and given that painting certainly has “social meaning” and “purpose, or motivation.” If we leave it here, socially engaged art is starting to sound like a new name for activist, or political art.

Next up is Mariana Wardwell:

“Socially-engaged art is inbred by a political-economic condition and it acts to intervene in, displace, and dislocate the political environment where it is produced.”

I love this definition as it embodies many of the clichés of contemporary art education. As I mentioned in the above linked post, in many corners of academe we find an incessant call to do things like “intervene in, displace, and dislocate.” The hegemonic noose is tightening around the definition of socially engaged art (or social practice) with every new paragraph in the article.

Ricardo Dominguez:

“To be effective, socially-engaged art must have a bit of ‘toxicity’ about it, meaning that it cannot be easily digested, assimilated, or appropriated by the dominant political structures. It must make them a little sick!”

Now that its aims have been sufficiently circumscribed, we move on to having its methods penned in as well. The only way to be “effective” is apparently to re-employ the strategies of the avant garde, something which was supposed to be out of fashion and or/critiqued into oblivion. Few artists and critics today openly advocate a return to that model of art making, yet it permeates much of what they say and do – their rhetoric betrays them. Notice here though that we find the ambition scaled back and maybe this is the thing that distinguishes the contemporary sensibility from the old avant garde. No longer is the aim to shock but merely “make them a little sick.”

In using the ideas offered so far, it appears that art projects cannot be “socially engaged” if they: are convivial, lack overt political content, disdain critique, embrace “the political environment where it is produced,” or otherwise fail to be properly radical in ambition.

Here, the author is quoting Nato Thompson:

“Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) is an opportunity to cast a wide net and ask: How do we make sense of this work? and in turn, How do we make sense of the world we find ourselves in? ‘Living as Form (The Nomadic Version)’ will provide a broad look at a vast array of practices that appear with increasing regularity in fields ranging from theater to activism, and urban planning to visual art.

Again as I point out in Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.”, there are indeed a “vast array of practices” out in the world, but they are not to be found exclusively in art or its academic cousins. The fields cited here fall pretty neatly within the confines of the education industrial complex and leave out diverse practices and constituencies. It would be instructive to find out who the “we” is mentioned in the two questions above – especially this question –  “How do we make sense of the world we find ourselves in?” It appears the “we” speaks of activists/intellectuals/artists of a particular stripe which is fine, but for a field with such grandiose ambition, it seems important to make sure to acknowledge that this is a very small, and rarefied “we.”

I’ll return to yet another post for another angle on this – Common Culture – Paul Willis Some key quotes in case you don’t care to follow the link:

“In general the arts establishment connives to keep alive the myth of the special, creative individual artist holding out against  passive mass consumerism, so helping to maintain a self-interested view of elite creativity…Against this we insist that there is a vibrant symbolic life and symbolic creativity in everyday life, everyday activity and expression – even if it is sometimes invisible, looked down on or spurned.”

“There can be a final unwillingness and limit even in subversive or alternative movements towards an arts democracy. They may have escaped the physical institutions and academies, but not always their conventionswe don’t want to start where ‘art’ thinks is ‘here’, from within its perspectives, definitions and institutions.[emphasis mine]“

“Ordinary people have not needed an avant-gardism to remind them of rupture. What they have needed but never received is better and freer materials for building security and coherence in their lives.”

Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.” – One side of of a facebook conversation on art and culture

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/12/2012

An addendum to this post is now here.

[The following is my end of a multi-participant and mutli-themed conversation. I did not include the names or comments of others (save for a few unattributed quotations) as I did not ask for their permission. The content is essentially unedited.]

*** – The language I prefer to use in describing what you call “antiquated infrastructure” is more in line with Sholette (and Baudrillard). Perhaps art is an exploded star (maybe in the 60s) and like astronomical ones, what we are seeing now is just the last light to reach us from that “long gone” event…

“the madness of making things matter” is a really lovely phrase although I wonder a bit about who you see engaged in such a thing. As you probably know I am quite skeptical about folks that utilize the label “cultural producers” being engaged much in making things matter. Or rather to whom and for whom does it matter?

I feel like despite your half-hearted attempt to leave art behind (at least as you hint at in the comments here), you still want to reserve a place for some sort of special individual (or collective). Someone who stands out as a “meaning maker” or “cultural producer,” thus merely shifting the dynastic reigns to a newly labelled vanguard.

Oh ***, I know you don’t care one whit what my “point” is, but I appreciate you pretending to. It is true that a certain kind of skepticism is my disposition, and that skepticism generally finds its manifestation at (perceived) claims of specialness, elitism, etc. I support radically democratic culture making (pretty sure you do too) and thus find the term ‘cultural producers’ a bit weird. Who is *not* a cultural producer? Who *doesn’t* “make meaning?” I guess radical inclusivity is my point and thus the idea that critics (radical or otherwise) should be writing about activist art true enough, but why do we keep limiting ourselves to the most obvious forms of meaning making, and while obvious, also the least accessible to vast segments of the population?

So again when you say:
“That is why I use the phrase “cultural producers” only as a way to imply forms of culture making outside the tight constraints of an art infrastructure.”

I have to wonder why, given your curatorial history, it seems you want to look outside the art *infrastructure*, but not outside *art* (or activism when you stretch a bit). It gives the distinct impression that “cultural producer” is just a euphemism for smart art/activist types, but does not appear to include car customizers, church knitting circles and the like. I mean if we’re really looking at culture, not *intellectual* culture, not *urban* culture, not *activist* culture, etc. Why does everything done in the name of cultural production feel so constrained?

There is indeed an “entire other universe” being ignored (but not necessarily the one you speak of) and my “point” is to be vigilant in calling that out.

I am certainly not against being interested in one thing over another either. The reason I spout off (aside from having no life) on these issues periodically is that there is a HUGE disconnect in the art world between what people say they support and what they *actually* support. I mean your **** show didn’t cast a wide net (at least from where I sit). It explored a well worn groove, an interesting one, but very few surprises (of course I’m also guilty of considering the title too literally – wanting something beyond its aim, hoping to have seen an exhibition of people living creatively, whose lives explore the art of living more than the art of living (as art)). Time and again, curators claim to be interested in everyday life, the ordinary, cultural production, etc. – yet whenever they put an event together art/activist types are almost all they include (unless one of the artist/activist types brings in some non-art person). So if the statement were everyday life – as interpreted by artist intellectuals, or cultural production as generated by artist intellectuals or others they deem interesting, or *** – as practiced by art/activist types, then it would at least be honest…

So, what *do* I want?

…more grandmothers, more South Dakotans, more gearheads, more fan fiction writers, more karaoke queens, more street performers, more Sunday painters, more NASCAR fans, more tailgating, more collectors (of barf bags, not art), more gardeners (not “radical” ones), more lipdub dreamers, more Civil War re-enactors, more whirlygig makers, more surfers, more conservatives, more stand-up comics, more DJs (not Spooky!!!!), more roadside Americana, more people who have never been to college, more fiddlers, more people who have never left their hometown, more taxidermists, more people who don’t give a shit about art aside from liking pretty pictures, more of all the crazy, delightful people making (and doing things) that mean something, more folks engaged in, as you put it, “the madness of making things matter.”

Not only would critics of art from other disciplines be interesting so too would artists. One of the reasons I gave up on undergraduate art education was that everybody was busy making stuff without any foundation to drive it – except art. They were all living in an art school bubble (not unlike a Fox News bubble). Making art completely within the framework of art and only questioning it within its own terms.

Sure there were other courses than studio ones, but they were those dumbed down “math for artists” sorts of classes. I would love an art world in which there was no such thing as an undergraduate art degree. Art created from a vantage point of something in the world other than art would be so much healthier and relevant than the inbred mess we have now.

And don’t bother telling me how art education has changed, how people read from urban planning, architecture, etc. The professionalization of art, the specialization, still has a very tight grip. Look at how successful Claire Bishop has been at having people take seriously her efforts to reign in social practice, to bring it back to the fold, to let all the old ideas and frameworks be the starting point – criticality being the greatest bugaboo. Oh how the art world LOVES its criticality! Looking to other academic disiciplines, is fine (as **** suggests) but let’s not confine ourselves to academia.

Surely we can hope for a more interesting and diverse art world than one dependent on academic experts, one that includes pleasure (not “jouissance”), one that thrives in places like Galveston, TX, or Butte, MT, one that thrives outside cities, one that ordinary people (ordinary people are the sort of people that wouldn’t ask “what is an *ordinary* person?”) want to see, one that doesn’t always have to interrogate, deconstruct, critique, or examine, one that is radically inclusive, democratic, local, and in which critics are one, very small part.

The Primal, the Modern, and the Vital Center – Living Places – The Cultural Errors of Modernity

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/12/2012

The Primal, the Modern, and the Vital Center – Donald Oliver, Julie Canniff, and Jouni Korhonen

…authentic face-to-face communication may not be necessary in the short run, but in the end it is a requisite for a compassionate and balanced culture and society.

…What one is or what one will be “worth” is determined [in modernity], not by some inner connectedness to the people one cares for, or the natural world that sustains one, or a transcendent reality that unites all being, but rather by the price a product or even one’s own being can “command” in the market place [also by how well one performs within the highly reductive and specialized arena of institutionally defined “cultural production.”].

Actions such as bonding with a mate, playing with children, or eating a meal with friends are not generally characterized as “progress,” while constructing a new airport or highway is [or say making a “significant” or “critical” art work].

What happens when the specialization and fragmentation overtake a society to the point that only verbally complicated and clever people can function and adapt well to the pace of novelty and change generated by innovative engineers? And what happens to the more primal qualities of life for everyone under these circumstances?

…as the larger and more universal forms of social structure (governments, economic corporations, media, schools and universities, etc.) gain virtually monopolistic control over the livelihood and information provided to common people and their meaning-making organs of communication, the opportunity to participate in constructing and negotiating one’s culture and identity within local to middle level settings is reduced and with it one’s multilayered and authentic relational identity. The world then comes to be constituted only by powerful corporate places populated by really “significant people” in “important but distant places” who appear in the newspapers or magazines or on the TV screen or even the internet who drive rapid changes. And all of this drama is virtually inaccessible to marginally significant or insignificant “local places,” i.e. one’s private dwelling or neighborhood or church or coffee break at work.

This organic view of society…associates goodness with health – but not necessarily with continuing progressive change or improvement…It is important to point out that our theory includes balance between deeply encultured traditional institutions and modern, novel, pragmatic modes of functioning. It is, in fact, the compulsive modern use of our rational pragmatic gifts as we engage in the constant effort to “improve” things which may undermine the quality of life and sustainability of many “living places.”

David Robbins – The Problems of Art – Inventing Contexts

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/29/2012

“Forming Fun” – Hans Ulrich Obrist with David Robbins

It’s more about inventing a context. It’s not about bringing things into art, that Duchampian thing. Instead it’s about making a new context for cultural production and presentation. I’m not really interested in the problems of art anymore.

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More Tailgating, Less Curating.

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/27/2010

More Tailgating, Less Curating. – a little something for Bad at Sports.

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