fill in the blanks and move things around (part II) – a wildly partial map of social practice

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/03/2016


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

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/13/2014

What is more, each of us inherits and is partially constituted by a number of sociocultural scripts authored by those who came before us. As roles to be acted out in everyday life, these at times conflicting scripts – for example, of daughter, sister, mother, lover, wife, woman, teacher – can be exceedingly difficult and painful to rewrite, especially for those persons (like “Phaedrus”) who have been relegated to the margins…As even Dewey fails to acknowledge sufficiently, they inevitably constrain the possibilities of personal renewal in very significant and consequential ways.

…Thus begins the process of education between a text-as-friend and the reader wherein the text (as the reader’s unattained but attainable self) calls the reader to his next self.

[note 18]…[Dewey] “poetry teaches as friends and life teach, by being, and not by express intent.”

Like the figure of the poet-as-midwife in romanticism, the text-as-friend strives to arrange a conversational rather than authoritarian scene of instruction. It invites the reader to find that distinctive path to self-realization that the linguistic community he shares with others makes possible for him…we are all educators for ourselves as well as for one another, We are all partial representations of some greater common-wealth.

…in synthesizing human activity through flexible adaptation to the environment, the body’s natural structuring agencies are highly subject to the sense-making structures of the culture it inherits; which is to say that culture, with its complex symbol systems, ideals, values, beliefs, and customs has its roots in the lived body. And as Michel Foucault forcefully reminds us, this makes it a malleable site for inscribing social power.

Whether we like it or not, the body is considerably more than a shadowing “giant” whose agencies can be substantially divorced from the art of living wisely and well. The habitual body, the primary medium of meaning in Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, is prefigured in every mode of human behavior and expression, including linguistic activity. It conditions and is conditioned by our ability to negotiate successfully and act intelligently within all kinds of cultural space, those of work as well as of leisure. To fail to recognize this is to suppose the body to be little more than the intractable vessel of our mental life. To fail to acknowledge it is inevitably to impede the cause of personal renewal.

What kinds of environments and activities are most likely to expand the self and its capacity to find an make meaning in the world?

…In its configuration as a tentative but relatively stable organic unity of many and diverse habits, the poetically fashioned self achieves a balanced movement of energies and impulses. Yet at the same time it also eschews the prospect of any final endstate or absolute perfection. In going forth to meet new situations that present new demands, each stage in its growth becomes as much a stimulating disturbance toward the new as an achieved ordering of the old. The poetic self is, in this sense, both medial and media.

What is more, the poetic structure contributes to the self’s ability to negotiate everyday experience in a meaningful and satisfying way. The breadth and vitality of the poetic self’s working capacities make it especially well equipped to receive, respond to, and integrate imaginatively the meaning-enhancing possibilities of the present moment. Its capacious array of habits provides increased opportunities for finding and creating meaning in the world. In addition, the poetic self has the ability to solve problems in ways that maximize self-growth, establishing new avenues for richly funded experience. But more than that- and I want to underscore this point – it will sense as problematic situations that would otheriswe seem in good order. That is, it will experience some degree of disequilibrium where others likely will not. Vague discordances – such as Pirsig’s increasing awareness of “Phaedrus’s” ghostly presence or his intimation of a slight misfire in his bike – can more easily be detected and brought to consciousness by the poetic self. Its world is one of multiple and intersecting horizons of meaning, ever pregnant with freshly emerging problems and possibilities.

…The other-directed dimension of Emersonian perfectionism is oriented toward self-reliance through our shared linguistic resources. But Dewey’s poetics look to harmonize regard for the self and its internal others with flesh and blood other(s) in the world. The end-in-view of Deweyan dramatic rehearsal incorporates the environing community with its immediate deliberative horizon – looking in to the self and out to the world are not discrete activities, but elements of one continuous process. This means that the questions “Who am I?” and “Who am I to become?” do not arise independent of the question “How should I treat others?” In addition, we have seen that self-perfection through linguistic activity, while indeed a valuable means of personal renewal, can never be an adequate substitute for more overt democratic praxis. We greatly risk falling into a debased perfectionism if we do not remain alert to the fact that undertaking dialogue with internalized others does not guarantee our being answerable for this dialogue in concrete activities of public life. Yet Dewey stresses that it is through such praxis that we best come to understand that we inhabit the world meaningfully only with and through one another.

1. art as experience makes possible the reconstruction of habits (and hence the self) in ways that significantly alter and enhance the potential meaning and value of things;
2. art as experience, in contributing to a poetics of the body, improves both the aesthetic quality and use-value of somatic activity, in addition to the physical culture of our everyday environment;
3. as a form of deliberation or “dramatic rehearsal,” art as experience utilizes the agencies of aesthetic discrimination and poetic creation, conceiving, in imagination, hitherto unrecognized possibilities for thought and action;
4. the procedures of “dramatic rehearsal” assume a narrative structure that helps reveal the shortcomings of our habits of deliberation, furnishing a valuable kind of self-knowledge;
5. the poetic self resulting from artistic engagement in diverse contexts acquires a broad array of habits that presents increased opportunities for finding and creating meaning in the world;
6. the many and diverse habits of this poetic self foster a heightened ability to engage with and liberate the meaning-making capacities of others.

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

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

…To “unweave a rainbow” and treat its components as ontologically superior is, within Dewey’s and Pirsig’s metaphysics to commit *the* philosophical fallacy.

[Martha Nussbaum] Philosophy has often seen itself as a way of transcending the merely human, of giving the human being a new and more godlike set of activities and attachments. [An] alternative…sees it as a way of being human and speaking humanly. That suggestion will appeal only to those who actually want to be human, who see in human life as it is, with its surprises and connections, its pains and sudden joys, a story worth embracing. This in no way means not wishing to make life better than it is. But…there are ways of transcending that are human and “internal” and other ways that involve flight and repudiation.

…If human inquiry is conceived as a natural event- something that goes on in nature – there is not ontological division between self and world in which the skeptic can open a radical cleft of some kind.

…a nonskeptical attitude necessitates that we relinquish the idea that our primary relation to the world is one of knowing or not knowing. The world’s contingent presentness to us, the way it is disclosed to us…is not principally a matter of knowing. Rather, it is a function of those immediate meanings emerging from our shared forms of life…”attunements” or “alignments” – and the intrinsic significance that people and things come to possess over time through the part they play in various life activities.

philosophy is much more a discourse about culture, about the funded meanings of everyday life, than about knowledge per se…these thinkers [Emerson, Dewey, Pirsig, etc.] all perceive the emptiness or even danger of continuing to wrestle with the problems of epistemology, and so they work to undermine the attenuated (skeptical) picture of human experience that helped give birth to, and in some quarters continues to nourish, the convention of asking questions about foundations and certainty. In other words, they do not so much evade what Dewey calls “the industry of epistemology” as attempt to undercut “the claims of its questions.”

Marriage, for Wordsworth, is foremost a way of being in the world. It entails a continuous (re) affirmation and (re) acknowledgement of the conditions of our humanity, something more pervasive and primordial than a scripted rule – or precept-bound relationship. This marriage is not so much an event (like a wedding ceremony) as an attitude toward events – an attitude of care, mindfulness, fallibility, and adventure. And here we can detect strong resonances with Dewey’s and Pirsig’s accounts of artistic engagement…resonances suggesting that aesthetic or high-quality experience is a prominent and recurring feature of this Wordsworthian marriage. It represents the possibility of an ever renewable intimacy with an infinitely meaningful environment, a revitalizing devotion to the everyday. With it, Dewey says, we shed our indifference to the qualitative uniqueness of things. We begin to crack the shell of mundaneness that often accrues around everyday objects so as to “share vividly and deeply in meanings to which we have become dumb.” Such experience also calls attention to the fact that this marriage requires emotional as well as intellectual responsiveness ( a “feeling intellect), and therein it reminds us of the skeptical withdrawal or torpor that can very easily make us feel as though we are not at home in the commonplace world.

…”Ultimately there are but two philosophies,” Dewey concludes, “One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities – to imagination and art”. In short, it takes the limits and liabilities of the human condition and turns them into poetic affirmations. The other philosophy is that of the Cavellian [Stanley Cavell] skeptic.

If this journey is to consist of more than observing, redescribing, and mapping from a distance, it must be an adventure in living no less than thinking, and a personally challenging one at that.

…Thoreau, however, understands reading (as well as writing) as the demanding process of engaging with the complex energies and movements of language.

…Thus do we see the Emersonian poet-philosopher alluding to great scholars, writers, and artists. But they are to be taken more as inspirational progenitors than models to be imitated. Their creations are to be appropriated and put to work, used to expand our present and future horizons of meaning rather than passively assimilated. “Around every circle another can be drawn,” runs the Emersonian credo.

Dewey holds that unimpeded participation in social activities, shared interests, and open communication are the basic ingredients of democratic life, More than that, they are inherently educative. Common, community, and communication are inseparable in his view. A critical-creative culture, along with supporting institutions – educational institutions chief among them – are crucial to obtaining and safeguarding those goods amidst the precarious struggle for a meaningful existence. Taken together they share the responsibility of nourishing and sustaining the conditions necessary for cultivating ***the art of experience*** – the principal measure, as I have suggested, of Deweyan democracy. This means that it is the frutiful practice of democracy in the everyday that Dewey holds most dear, not a specific set of institutions or political arrangements. Deomcracy, he says repeatedly, is something continually to strive for, a never-ending experiment in associated living rather than a static achievement or legacy to be bequeathed. As such it requires strong, educated, imaginative individuals. [Democracy as a way of life – Art as a way of life]

Dewey’s conception of individuality differs frome Emerson’s and Pirsig’s in that it rejects *in principle* the prospect of individuality without sociality…He claims that individuality can only be actualized through a sustained period of overt participation in social life, whether in the form of active approval or disapproval. This means that Emrson’s so-called original unit is really a product of years of varied association. As Dewey argues in Individualism, Old and New:

moving and multiple associations are the only means by which the possibilities of individuality can be realized..To gain an integrated individuality, each of us needs to cultivate his own garden. But there is no fence about this garden: it is no sharply marked-off enclosure. Our garden is the world, in the angle at which it touches our own manner of being. By accepting the…world in which we live, and by thus fulfilling the pre-condition for interaction with it, we, who are also parts of the moving present, create ourselves as we create an unknown future.

***1. art as experience holds out the possibility of an ever renewable intimacy with an infinitely meaningful lived world;
2. the creative impetus of art as experience imbues the things of everyday life with enhanced meaning and value;***

3. in cracking the shell of mundaneness that often accrues around the things of everyday, art an the aesthetic reconnect us with those objects and people that we have come to take for granted, renewing our appreciation for their significance in our lives;
4. the feeling intellect of art as experience allows us to turn the limits and liabilities of the human condition into poetic affirmations;
5. art as experience helps us to explore the creative possibilities of our inheritance in culture, developing new ends and goods (or values) of our own design;
6. in utilizing a both/and logic, art as experience overrides inherited dualistic patterns of thinking, acknowledging the reality of irony and paradox, the contingency and fluidity of boundaries, and the possibility of alternative – though not always valuable perspectives;
7. the general prospects for art as experience provide a measure of attainment of democratic forms of life.

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

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/09/2014

…Moreover, we must recognize that poetic quality “exists in many degrees and forms”. In an effort to drive these points home, Dewey takes the time in Art as Experience to quote verbatim an actual weather report…Dewey freely admits that almost no one would call these lines actual poetry. Yet without modifying it in any way, he presents a bit or ordinary prose as “something poetic” found in an “unexpected place”.

…shared life and experience is for him the great miracle of human existence. The democratic attitude is the religious attitude; democratic values are religious values…The substantial emancipation of the religious from religion, he firmly believes, is the only way to heal this destructive and unnecessary chasm between “the live creature and ethereal things”…

to emancipate the aesthetic, as an adjective, from the artworld’s acquisitive treatment of art as a noun substantive. Both the aesthetic and the religious are to be interpreted as qualities of a larger experience, latent in any number of situational contexts.

****…For all of these figures [Wordsworth, Emerson, Dewey, Pirsig] the aesthetic and the religious are variations of a common theme – the ideal of life as the realization of the poetic possibilities of everyday experience.****

…Dewey locates imagination not in the mind or some other part of our intellectual equipment, but rather in the dramatic field of self-world interaction. Imagination is a way of being oriented toward things, seeing and feeling them, as they constitute a unified whole…[imagination is not an individual possession] it is a phase of natural events capable of extracting from existing conditions unrealized possibilities for meaning.

Aesthetic experience for Dewey, culminates not so much in vertical movement – transcendence to a higher level of being through a tighter and more comprehensive unity. It is instead better described as horizontal – a movement outward toward an ever-expanding horizon of meaning and value.

Aesthetic experience emerges with the aid of intelligence from the manifold rhythms of everyday life, wherein all things pass ineluctably in and out of existence. This is the sine qua non of Deweyean pragmatic naturalism. There is no hidden and self-identical “higher” reality to be unmasked, no permanent haven for which to strive; there is only the body and mind working together in and through the natural and sociocultural environment to create and recreate meaning.

…A metaphysics that increases our understanding of the possible relationships between our sociocultural practices and the various traits of the lived world is, from this perspective, indispensable to philosophy as criticism.

1. both aesthetic and religious experience are latent in any number of situational contexts, and not exclusive and autonomous things-in-themselves;
2. the aesthetic and religious, taken together, manifest the ideal of life as the realization of poetic possibilities of everyday experience;
3. expressive (or aesthetic) meaning is wholly inseparable from its conditioning medium – there can be no such thing as “impulsive expression”;
4. all forms of expression are ultimately as much a function of the body as of the mind;
5. the self or its emotions are not what art expresses, but rather the sensed meaning arising from purposeful interaction of self and world;
6. the goal of interpreting an art object is not simply to “get it” by reading the artist’s mind – there is considerably more meaning to be gleaned from openly exploring the expressive potentialities f the object and its medium;
7. the aesthetic imagination is fundamentally intentional rather than free floating or disinterested;
8. imagination is not a discrete faculty or power, but rather a whole contextual orientation toward things capable of disclosing alternatives to present conditions;
9. art does not reveal the essence of things or achieve higher levels of being – it is a means of expanding one’s everyday horizon of meaning;
10. a unified experience should act as much as “a stimulating disturbance toward the new as an achieved ordering of the old” – to strive for a perfectly harmonious, inclusive unity is inevitably to stifle growth and possibility.

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

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/08/2014

…The more the meaning of an experience is carried through its immediate qualitative dimension, Dewey argues, the more conspicuous the limits of language become.

this separation of art from the objects and events of everyday life have very profound, and often very pernicious, consequences.

[footnote 4] Aesthetic attitude theories maintain that a person must be essentially unconcerned with the practical utility of an object if this object is to be experienced aesthetically or as art. [<—note distinction between the two!] In short, they view instrumental and intrinsic meaning as inherently opposed. Commentators on Art as Experience tend to overstate the extent to which Dewey accepts this idea.

"Tangled scenes of life are made more intelligible in esthetic experience: not, however, as reflection and science render things more intelligible by reduction to conceptual form, but by presenting their meanings as the matter of a clarified, coherent, and intensified or ‘impassioned’ experience“. This is one of many statements of Dewey’s belief that in human life knowledge is largely subordinate to the direct qualitative meaning of things. As a matter of tracing out existential relations, its value lies primarily outside itself, in some external end. The intelligibility that it provides is meaning “for” rather than directly “of,” we might say. Nonetheless, the desire to treat art as if it were a mode of knowing or an embodiment of the “truth of things” has long been a prominent theme within Euro-American aesthetics.

Thus conceived, art is eminently practical; it is about refreshing and enhancing everyday lived experience, not escaping to the pristine sublimity of theoretical abstraction or disinterested beauty

…the aesthetic suffers immeasurably when cognitive meanings are granted a monopoly in experience.”

…Add to this the idea that art is a mode of practice, he [Dewey] continues, and “the only distinction worth drawing is not between practice and theory, but between those modes of practice that are not intelligent, not inherently and immediately enjoyable, and those which are full of enjoyed meanings“.

…[Richard] Shusterman contends that Dewey’s use of “aesthetic experience” can help us to remember that qualitatively enriched experience, and not national/class privilege or the collecting of precious objects, is what makes art an incomparable source of personal and cultural renewal…The more we learn, and then teach others, how to fashion life itself into art, as Dewey says, the less we will feel the need to treat art as “the beauty parlor of civilization”.

What then is artworld art? As the term is used here, it refers to art that is largely created to respond, either positively or negatively, to the particular concerns, values, and practices of those institutionally enfranchised persons who constitute the artworld. This means that its audience and presumed context of interpretation are more or less predetermined.

They tend to promote the creation of reflexive art-about-art, art that demands that its audience be familiar with the specialized and routinely abstract discourse(s) circulating within the artworld

…Treated in this autonomous fashion, the artworld is effectively removed from any wider normative context from which its values and practices might be critiqued and reconstructed…That which is not accepted by the artworld as a candidate for appreciation is unceremoniously dismissed from the “family,” enabling the possiility for art to become “increasingly alien to the lives and joys of most people.” [<–Shusterman] With this we can imagine Dewey, a tireless proponent of shared experiences and practices, being greatly disturbed. His guiding concern is to direct us toward more and better aesthetic experiences, not legislating as to what is and what is not a “genuine” art object.

It is crucial for Dewey that the parameters of art be neither definitively marked off within the aesthetic dimension of lived experience nor limited to certain prescribed institutional or cultural contexts.

Dewey and Pirsig would, I think, join someone like Wittgenstein in having us question whether we ever can or need formulate any such conditions (especially outside academe). [necessary and sufficient conditions for what constitutes art]

“The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged. The difference between such a worker and the inept careless bungler is as great in the shop as it is in the studio.” [Dewey]

Unlike the dualistic posture of the disinterested spectator, this mindful, “feeling intellext” is invested emotionally in its affairs, like a mechanic who is “caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection”. There is a fullness of participation and sense of purpose that is, again, receptive without being passive. What is undergone is experienced in all its fecundity.

Then we are led to ask not only “Does it work?: of a given technology, but also, “What kind of experience does it afford?”

1. aesthetic experience is a human achievement involving intelligent thought and action – it is not a spontaneous, unguarded event;
2. aesthetic experience, qua aesthetic, is an enrichment of the immediacy of experience in which knowledge plays a chiefly instrumental role – it is neither a mode of knowing nor an embodiment of the “truth of things”;
3. aesthetic experience is marked by its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency and is composed of an organic unity of interdependent parts;
4. aesthetic experience is not predominantly mentalistic, but is instead rooted in the biophysical rhythms of the lived body;
5. a mindful “feeling intellect,” rather than a restrained posture of disinterestedness, facilitates the cultivation of aesthetic experience;
6. any distinction between the aesthetic merits and use-value of things is ultimately a relative one in experience – the two are not inherently opposed;
7. experiences involving some degree of pain, loss, or even the conventionally “ugly” can have palpable aesthetic quality insofar as they heighten our appreciation of the intrinsic meaning and value of those things that make up our everyday lifeworld;
8. art objects are frequently a potent and ready source of aesthetic experience, but not the sole or even principal medium of the aesthetic;
9. the arts can be of deep moral significance inasmuch as they help to reeducate and enhance our habits of perception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/03/2014

…The thoughtful reconstruction of experience, which shapes and guides it toward desirable ends through intelligent action in the world, is thus perceived as the quintessential human project.

…They [poets] have urged us to recognize that directly”had” or felt meanings manifest the genuine traits of things no less effectually than does cognitive experience.

…all experienced qualities are ultimately a function of situational wholes…

…[Pirsig]”One seeks instead the highest quality intellectual explanation of things with the knowledge that if the past is any guide to the future this explanation must be taken provisionally; as useful until something better comes along.” Dewey would eventually term this fallibist conception of truth “warranted assertability.”

1. the everyday human world is the proper ground and point of reference for philosophy;
2. the world is preeminently qualitative in character, and immediate sense qualities are what we live in and for;
3. the world is marked by a regenerative mixture of flux and stability (or the dynamic and the static), and along with other “generic traits” including continuity (or association), novelty, pluralism, potentiality, contingency, and temporality;
4. all existences, material and ideational, are best viewed as events rather than substances;
5. every existential event is theoretically capable of an infinite number of possible meanings, including aesthetic meanings;
6. the conventional dualisms of subject and object, mind and body, and reason and emotions are functional distinctions ensuing from reflection – not a priori existences;
7. “situations,” the immediately experienced wholes or constellations of meaning within which we think, feel, and act, constitute the basic human lifeworld;
8. experience originates in the continuous interaction of an active, purposive organism with its environment;
9. our chief mode of interacting with the world is through the body, and the body is the primary medium of meaning in experience;
10. experience is not composed of discrete bits of sense data, but rather “the sun, earth, plants and animals of everyday life,” which is where inquiry must ultimately both begin and end;
11. human thought is “a natural event occurring in nature because of the traits of the latter” – it is not an imposition from without;
12. meaning in experience can be immediately “had” or felt as well as known – knowing or cognizing is but one mode of experience;
13. knowledge is inherently anticipatory and inferential in nature, denoting the ability to reconstruct a given situation in a desired way – the idea of certain knowledge beheld as an immediate presence by a detached spectator is sheer fantasy;
14. truth is born of ideas verified in experience and is always provisional, open to change in light of future inquiries.

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

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/02/2014

…In learning to conduct more of everyday experience in an artful manner, we increase our ability to liberate and expand the potential meaning of things…

…As a creative transformation of our everyday lifeworld, this experience [aesthetic for Dewey, high-quality for Pirsig], they argue, provides the means and media for an everyday poetics of living.

[Martha] Nussbaum takes from all of this that the structural form of philosophy – its use of language, method, exposition and argument, and so on – is organically connected with – and actively conditions – its content. Style itself, that is, makes certain claims about the world and about what matters in life. This leads Nussbaum to conclude that “there may be some views of the world and how one should live in it – views, especially, that emphasize the world’s surprising variety, its complexity and mysteriousness, its flawed and imperfect beauty – that cannot be fully and adequately stated in language of conventional philosophical prose, a style remarkably flat and lacking in wonder – but only in a language and in forms that are themselves more complex, more allusive, more attentive to particulars.”…

…that vital link to future possibility necessary to sustain the poetics of personal and cultural renewal – what Dewey conceives of principally in terms of imagination (“the chief instrument of the good”) – is in danger of being svered by interpretive practices that, whether purposely or not, tend to blunt our sense of the ineffable mystery and wonder of the lived world by rendering everything either readily explainable or of no significant value…”

…each theory [analytic and Continental] discounts the possibility that literary texts refer in some way to concrete human readers (and therein to the world), readers who are not ontologically weightless abstractions, but who have practical interests and needs that often change and grow significantly through their encounters with literature…

…the proper aim of philosophy is not the creation of a logical system of thought, but rather the enhancement of the quality of life and experience through conscientious cultural or value criticism…Immaculately reasoned arguments and grand systems mean little if they have nothing to contribute to the art of a life well lived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill: Correct.

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

Bill: I do, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

“Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either?”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/25/2013

Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades – Helen Molesworth

[There are a host of problems with this piece –

A sloppy conflation of work, labor, and effort which leads to an incomplete analysis (isn’t the representation of work as work that Molesworth describes generating from Taylorism part of what she herself engages in with regard to so called domestic labor/maintenance work? Isn’t she ceding too much to the object of her critique (by accepting the very basis of its representation)?

A little more fleshing out of laziness, leisure, and idleness would be nice and perhaps adding in slacking which has, to my mind, even more relevance with regard to a cultural point of view.

Duchamp, of course, serves her ends a little too neatly with regard to the impossibility of doing nothing. In order to validate Barthes she preordains failure at a “complete cessation of artistic activity,” but this might have been true for Duchamp, it needn’t be true for everyone (this could simply be a misreading of what she is claiming of course). There are less tidy examples of quitting art if Molesworth cared to look…

And why is being “romantic” so terrible?

Despite some of these problems, this piece is still “useful.” Nice “work,”]

These photographs provide us with a context to view the readymades, but one characterized by blurred boundaries. The home, traditionally conceived of as a space of rest, is here crossed with the studio, historically understood as the primary site of artistic work. Adding to this confusion is yet another smudged edge, because work (making art in the studio) and leisure (not working, which takes place at home, or art making as a form of leisure) are brought into extreme proximity. The lack of a hard-and-fast divide between work and leisure is emphasized by these images of functional maintenance objects-objects designed to aid in the cleaning and tidying up of places and people-rendered deliberately dysfunctional. Duchamp’s ambivalence toward work did not only relate to artistic production, but he resisted the labor of housework as well.

In his critique of the everyday, Lefebvre sought not simply “entertainment” or “relaxation” but the articulation of different forms of knowledge, knowledge that could aid in the potential and/or intermittent process of “disalienation.” It is not in leisure as such where a critique of capitalism is to be found. Rather, a critique may emerge in those moments when the relations between elements of the everyday are made evident or challenged. Duchamp’s presentation and arrangement of the readymades exhibit a desire to foil the functionality of these objects, whose usefulness resides in their ability to aid domestic and maintenance labor. Yet in foiling work, the readymades do not offer leisure as work’s simple antithesis (nor do they offer art as pure leisure). Instead, their placement in the home/studio tangles the categories of both work and leisure. This presentation of nonwork and leisure has a social and historical context larger than Duchamp’s studio, for Duchamp’s refusal of work (both maintenance and traditional means of artistic labor) happened alongside one of the most profound shifts in twentieth-century conceptions of work: Taylorism. Just as the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio have not been adequately theorized, the sociohistorical conditions within which the readymades came into being in New York are absent from much Duchamp literature.8 As Duchamp’s work of this period appears concerned with the terms of work, an examination of the contemporaneous shift in the practice, conception, and representation of work seems necessary.9

In Bodies and Machines, the literary critic Mark Seltzer argues that Taylorism not only altered the work process (by making it more “efficient”) but also invented new forms of work. He contends that “the real innovation of Taylorization becomes visible in the incorporation of the representation of the work process into the work process itself–or, better, the incorporation of the representation of the work process as the work process itself.”20 The representation of labor–graphs, flow charts–became a form of labor in and of itself, with manual laborers represented by their newly established managers. We can see clearly the irony of a Taylorized household, as women were asked to represent, manage, and alter their own manual labor.

… By stymieing the “work” of looking at art, Duchamp transformed the gallery into a version of his mazelike studio, a place where humor and play were encouraged-work discouraged. In both instances Duchamp represented forms of labor (or alternately leisure), be they making or looking at art, but he did so by disallowing such labors and/or leisures to take place.

We have already seen the confusion between the spaces of work and leisure in the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio. We can also see that the arrangements of the readymades interject an element of play among a set of otherwise fairly banal functional objects. Additionally, the objects blur the boundaries between home and work (typewriter cover, comb, shovel) in that their functions are all bound to the labor of maintenance, a stratum of labor structural both to the space of the home and more traditionally conceived work spaces. Not only has Duchamp blurred the traditional boundaries of work and leisure in the studio, but the readymades are functional objects rendered playful through their humorous appeal to slapstick.

While Marxism offers us the most sophisticated theoretical account of labor, it has also concerned itself with work’s dialectical other, play or leisure. For many Marxist thinkers play has an idealistic, almost utopian dimension, in that it is posited to exist outside the rules and regulations of everyday life. Herbert Marcuse has focused more of his philosophical energies on play than his Marxist contemporaries. He writes that play is a dimension of freedom, a “self-distraction, relaxing oneself, forgetting oneself and recuperating oneself.”27 If for Marcuse play is a dimension of freedom, then he enables play to serve as a critique of society, because of its position outside the conventions of the everyday. One hesitates to instrumentalize play in this way, turning it into a philosophical lever in the service of some utopian vision, but in Duchamp’s slapstick-infused readymades, the idea and the actuality of play offer possibilities for examining the tangled knot of work and leisure in everyday life.

In 1913 Duchamp jotted a note to himself: “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?” Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either? In such a formulation, art and play exist in an analogously tenuous realm of (im)possibility. Marcuse states it thus: “On the whole play is necessarily related to an Other which is its source and goal, and this Other is already preconceived as labor.”28 But, if play can only be seen in relation to work, and it is seen as the lesser component of this dialectic in that play is enabled or made possible by work (“its source and goal”), then play, in its officially sanctioned role as nonwork, becomes a form of work. (One need only think of the regimentation of “the weekend” or each summer’s obligatory Disney movie.) Lefebvre argues that one ramification of this interdependence between labor and play is that “there can be alienation in leisure just as in work.”29 Duchamp attempted to use play, in the form of slapstick, not as a reprieve from work but as a means to stop work. This is where play’s potential utopian or critical dimension (a utopia free from labor and a critique of capitalism’s dependence on alienated labor for profit) can be seen most fully.

Lefebvre observes that “there is a certain obscurity in the very concept of everyday life.” He asks, “Where is it to be found? In work or in leisure? In family life and in moments ‘lived’ outside of culture?”35 He suggests that family life has become separate from productive life and that leisure has become as fragmented as labor. Ultimately, he concludes that the three constitutive elements of the everyday-work, private life, and leisure-have become discrete, alienated from one another. Yet Duchamp attempts, through humor and slapstick, to hold these three elements together. The readymades show that these categories are not discrete in experience but rather in ideology, for Duchamp’s practice presents domestic or private life as neither outside nor separate from the category of work. He uses leisure, in the form of slapstick and play, to expose domestic space as filled with work (be it maintenance work or art work) and in turn transforms that work into leisure or play. In the end, the readymades propose a space filled with neither work nor leisure; instead, they offer a kind of laziness. Characteristic of the readymades’ complex relation to both work and leisure, laziness operates as a third term, triangulating work and leisure, offering a criticism of both.

Duchamp’s laziness was the subject of many of his contemporaries’ responses to visiting his studio. Robert Lebel described Duchamp’s studio as “a large room with a bathtub in the center which Duchamp used for his frequent ablutions, and a rope an arm’s length away which allowed him to open the door without getting up.”36 Georgia O’Keeffe, reminiscing about meeting Duchamp in his New York studio, recalled one of his domestic work stoppages: “it seems there was a lot of something else in the middle of the room and the dust everywhere was so thick that it was hard to believe. I was so upset over the dusty place that the next day I wanted to go over and clean it up.”37 This refusal to clean was memorialized in Dust Breeding (1920), a section of the Large Glass photographed by Man Ray after it had accumulated several months’ worth of dust. But nowhere is Duchamp’s laziness more evident than in the readymades, where he produced art with the least effort possible–buying it already made. For Taylor, Duchamp’s dabblings with play and laziness- his experiments with not working-had a name: Duchamp was soldiering.

Taylor described soldiering as “under working, that is, deliberately working slowly so as to avoid doing a full day’s work.”38 For Taylor soldiering had two causes: first, the “natural instinct and tendency of men to take it easy”; and second (considered to be more dangerous), “intricate second thought and reasoning caused by their relations with other men.” Taylor called this “systematic soldiering.”39 Workers have two modes of foiling the factory: laziness exhibited in the form of individual soldiering and organized resistance in the form of strikes. Taylorism proposed to eliminate both. Striking and soldiering are extremely different critiques of work, one organized, systematic, and social; the other a private rebellion (refusing to dust). But in maintenance work in the home there can be no strike. Duchamp’s readymades operate more closely to the second form of soldiering; they are not a strike per se, so much as they are a work slowdown. They temporarily stop or stall activities such as cleaning and tidying by turning housework into slapstick. Likewise, the studio as a place where art is made is suffused with a kind of laziness.

Laziness is mostly figured as a parasitical form of work avoidance. It runs the risk of being aristocratic (not working because others work for you) or primitivist (native peoples as unfettered by the work ethic). There are two theoretical accounts of laziness as a philosophical position, and both maintain a similar utopian dimension to the previous discussion of the function or structure of play. Paul Lafargue and Roland Barthes argue that laziness is an attempt to completely escape the logic of work. They do not offer leisure as the antidote to work, but laziness as the refusal of work.

Lafargue, a Cuban-born ex-medical student, wrote the radical pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” in i88o-a tirade against work that infuriated his father-in law, Karl Marx.40 Originally printed in French, the tract was translated into English and published in the United States in 1917 (the same year Duchamp purchased the urinal that would become Fountain). Lafargue’s polemic against “progress” belongs to the primitivist side of laziness, extolling unindustrialized native peoples who do not toil for a capitalist exploiter. Lafargue writes: “It [the proletariat] must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and sacred than the anemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution.”41 Lafargue sees the advent of industrial production as enabling time for leisure, as opposed to the increased profits envisioned by Taylorism. But he never posits that “free time” should be used for “productive” or “creative” forms of leisure. Instead, he insists on feasting and sleeping as the “Rights of Man.”42 The most indelible image from the tract remains a quotation that perversely describes Duchamp’s infamous decision to give up art for chess, his relinquishing of a working life as an artist for the life of a game player: “Jehovah, the bearded and angry god, gave his worshippers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for eternity.”43

In fact, Duchamp never stopped making art. He designed magazine covers, made the Boîte-en-valise, and, ultimately, worked for twenty years on Étant Donnés (1946-66). The problem exposed by the “untruth” of the abandonment is how terribly difficult it is not to work. Roland Barthes addresses this point in a short interview entitled “Dare to Be Lazy.” Barthes describes two forms of laziness, one born of the struggle to get something done, laziness as procrastination from work, or “marinating” in order to work. Barthes says: “Obviously, this shameful laziness doesn’t take the form of ‘not doing anything,’ which is the glorious and philosophical form of laziness.”44 The philosophical form is precisely what is at issue. Barthes asks, “Have you ever noticed that everyone always talks about the right to leisure activities but never about a right to idleness? I even wonder if there is such a thing as doing nothing in the modern Western world.”45 Yet Barthes realized the potential nihilism in the concept of doing nothing. For laziness, he notes, is a problem for the subject: “In a situation of idleness the subject is almost dispossessed of his consistency as a subject. He is decentered, unable even to say ‘I.’ That would be true idleness. To be able, at certain moments, to no longer have to say ‘I.'”46

Duchamp came closer to doing nothing than most artists. But he was lucky. Generously supported by his patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg, who paid his rent and living expenses in exchange for artworks, and hired by the wealthy Stettheimer sisters as their French tutor-although since they had been raised in France, all three sisters were completely fluent and obviously needed no tutor-Duchamp largely managed to avoid working.47 He lived an aristocratic leisurely life, his idleness made possible through the wealth of others and a frugal life-style. Yet while Duchamp may have courted laziness, and let laziness infuse his art practice, ultimately the complete cessation of artistic activity was impossible. Impossible, as Barthes suggests, for it would mean an abandonment of the first person pronoun.

Duchamp’s readymades are an attempt to think outside the logic of work, a logic in which “the goal of labor is the full reality of human existence.”48 Not to work-to be lazy-is then to deny the full reality of human existence, to deny the category of “I,” at least the form familiar to bourgeois capitalism. Duchamp experimented with this idea by evoking the involuntary laughter within which the “I” is no longer central, and by transforming his studio, a place of work, into a site of play. The studio became a place where he could be, in Bergson’s term, “absentminded” or, in Marcuse’s, “self-distracted.” This questioning of the “I” runs throughout Duchamp’s work. After all, this is an oeuvre marked by a proliferation of aliases; a deliberate use of linguistic shifters; an emphasis on language and the self as both shared and constructed49), and a dismantling of perspectival vision (with its creation of a fixed subject), all concerns that point toward a consistent questioning of the category of “I.” Duchamp toyed and played with the possibility of nonwork-the right to laziness-the ability not to say “I.” That this position is impossible (or worse yet, romantic) should not deter serious thinking about laziness. Duchamp, by saying that he abandoned art making without really doing so, was perhaps pretending to be lazy, acting at not working. Lefebvre suggests that when “acting explores what is possible” it adds “something real: the knowledge of a situation, an action, a result to be obtained.”50 If what is to be obtained through such play is knowledge (and disalienation), then what knowledge is potentially garnered through laziness? Is it the suggestion that there can be no alienation in laziness, for there is no “I” to separate from or be identical with?51 Or is laziness a conduit to bring us back to the most fundamental of Marx’s demands, a demand designed to alter the terms of alienated life under capital: “The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”52

Duchamp’s challenge to the primacy of the category of work largely took the form of a protest against maintenance labor, pointing toward the changing historical conditions of housewifery, domestic space, and work in the early twentieth century.53 Duchamp used the readymades to foil maintenance labor, which resulted in a limited artistic production, for maintenance labor permits all other work. The readymades stymie a subject whose identity would be bound up with, and structured by, the phenomenon of work. Instead, they offer humor and laziness, slapstick and play, modes of experience that gesture toward a different set of possibilities for how we might conceive of the everyday and how we might inhabit it.

Claire Bishop and Nato Thompson as two sides of the same art worshiping coin – Some notes on a review

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/19/2013

Social Works – Sara Marcus

It goes by several names and takes a range of forms, but as with so many protean phenomena, we know it when we see it. Participation-based art, social engagement, social practice: Art that takes relations between people as its medium is currently ascendant, with specialized MFA programs, new social-practice art prizes, and biennials all attesting to its rise. This past spring’s Berlin Biennale, which gave the city’s Occupy activists free rein over an exhibition hall in the Kunst-Werke, is only the latest prominent example. Works like Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, 2001, a weekend-long event during which historical reenactors and Yorkshire locals rehashed a 1984 clash between police and striking miners; Phil Collins’s They Shoot Horses, 2004, in which a handful of Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah danced to Western pop hits for eight hours; and any number of arranged social interactions by Tino Sehgal have for some years been staples of museum exhibitions and art-magazine exegeses.

Yet if we’re now several decades and theoretical upheavals too late to still be asking whether or why these projects are art—embedded as they are in the networks, conversations, and institutions that make up the art universe—discussions about how they are art, and what this means, are arriving not a moment too soon. They have surfaced most recently in a pair of divergent yet overlapping books, a quasi exhibition catalogue and a scholarly volume, that illustrate some of the tensions and problems that this kind of work brings up.

[Asking *how* they are art is just another way of sneaking in the question of *whether* they are art. This, of course, is the least interesting question one could ask. The notion of these activities being art-embedded is odd, as the very notion that something is a “project” and not say, a mode of living (living as form), indicates immediately that they are merely art after all.]

The former book, Creative Time’s Living as Form, is a kitchen-sink survey of art and activism, profiling over a hundred social projects, from canonical artworks (Francis Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002; Suzanne Lacy’s The Roof Is on Fire, 1994) to those whose status is more contested (Women on Waves, a group that sails a mobile abortion clinic around Europe) to, most provocative of all, projects that seem to have never made any bid to be included in such a context: WikiLeaks, Pirate Bay, the Tahrir Square demonstrations. The idea here is not so much to expand what can be considered art as it is to think beyond that category altogether: “If this work is not art,” Nato Thompson, who edited the volume and curated the fall 2011 exhibition of the same name, writes in the title essay, “then what are the methods we can use to understand its effects, affects, and impact?” He has described this project’s approach as a “cattle call” and quotes Donald Rumsfeld: “If you have a problem, make it bigger.” In other words, if artworks that look a lot like activism continue to give some people pause, then, Thompson proposes, we should bring we should bring projects that look even less like art into the mix, and see what happens., and see what happens.

[Thompson is given way too much credit here: “The idea here is not so much to expand what can be considered art as it is to think beyond that category altogether” Living as Form, barely pushes beyond art. When it does, it stretches ever so cautiously into art world comfort zones of activism. So Thompson makes an elitist form of culture making *slightly* more inclusive and for that he gets credit, but he falls far, far short of articulating a vision of cultural production that makes more than a cursory effort to include “projects that look even less like art into the mix, and see what happens.”]

The Living as Form project seems tailor-made, at first glance, to get art critic and scholar Claire Bishop’s eyes rolling. She is an integral participant in the conversations this book seeks to register and advance—in fact, she spoke in the program’s lecture series last year and contributed an essay to the present volume—but her approach differs dramatically from Thompson’s. For while Living as Form is largely celebratory and expansive, preferring to pose enormous questions rather than suggesting how to answer them, Bishop’s new book, Artificial Hells, takes the field to task for a certain critical and aesthetic sloppiness she sees arising from a reluctance to draw aesthetic distinctions, articulate a critical framework, or venture to discuss matters of quality. For the better part of a decade, Bishop has been arguing that a great deal of the art that travels under the label “social practice” (or other related designations) is neither politically efficacious nor aesthetically compelling, yet is given a sort of pass—exempted from critical rigor because its heart is in the right place. “It is . . . crucial,” she wrote in a much-debated Artforum article in 2006, “to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art.” This is a 180-degree turn from Thompson’s gleeful aside in a Living as Form–connected talk he gave last year: “We’ll call them ‘artworks’ for now; we will destroy that as we go.”

An expanded version of Bishop’s Artforum piece serves as the first chapter of Artificial Hells, her bid to introduce precision and skepticism into a conversation that frequently tends toward the impressionistic and the utopian. It’s a capacious book, organized around a general argument that will be familiar to anybody who has read her major critical writings: Discussions about social practice tend to reject individual authorship too reflexively, while overvaluing collectivity and consensus; art that is antagonistic, that provokes difficult feelings (“unease, discomfort or frustration”), often yields a richer experience for viewer-participants than works that solicit cooperation; the failure of much social practice to attend seriously to the aesthetic experience of secondary audiences, who are not present as the work initially unfolds, is a grave liability.

[Bishop though, is especially useless and conservative. She is one of the last great dinosaurs of criticality. You have to respect her, for she is absolutely shameless in seeking to cling to the last vestiges of the academic aristocracy. One of the delicious ironies of her position on social practice, her fetish for antagonism, is that the work that seems to *actually* make her uncomfortable is work that is too nice, friendly, or uncritical. So while she allegedly favors work that provokes “unease, discomfort or frustration,” what she really means is work that provokes those feelings in a comfortable (intellectual) way. She too, it seems, wants to stay within her comfort zone.]

Although Bishop’s and Thompson’s books are plainly in conversation, they also talk past each other, the authors attempting to cast the discussion in their own preferred terms. Living as Form is interested in social and political intent, while Bishop focuses on “participation”—a term that overlaps significantly, but not entirely, with the purview of Living. Bishop wants to talk about durable artistic “results” over ephemeral “process,” while Thompson is invested in how to change the world—the less said about art qua art, the better.

In Artificial Hells—the title comes from Andre Breton and refers to the difficult works Bishop favors—she develops her argument against an “ethical turn” in art criticism, in which artworks are judged based on how much they involve and empower non-artist “participants.” Empowering participants sounds far less stirring than changing the world, and her choice of the former wording highlights what she identifies as a constrained, NGO-ish cast to discussions about social practice. Such discussions, she argues, too often reflect the positivism of impact statements and grant proposals, social sciences and community development—angles that are not necessarily compatible with memorable art or radical social change. Bishop’s approach draws on the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière, particularly The Politics of Aesthetics, in arguing that since the realm of the aesthetic is inherently political, it’s misguided to think art must be directly topical or model inclusive democratic activity in order to be engaged in politics. Throughout Artificial Hells, she offers a welcome dose of theoretical seriousness to the field. But her rhetoric occasionally distracts from her argument. At times, she frames issues in a way that nobody could agree with without sounding naive—she suggests, for instance, that certain (unnamed) politically minded artists are “upholding an unproblematised equation between artistic and political inclusion.”

Would the guilty artists please stand up? Those readers who already find social practice wishy-washy or tedious will likely nod in assent, but anybody who needs convincing—which will no doubt include much of this book’s audience—may be as skeptical as Grant Kester was of Bishop’s 2006 article on social practice, to which he retorted, “One would be hard pressed to find many contemporary artists or critics involved with politically engaged practice who would espouse such a simplistic position.” Yet in the best-case scenario, this approach will goad people who believe in social practice and its transformative possibilities into clarifying their own views, if only to free themselves from the positions Bishop sets out for them.

[This reading of Bishop takes us deep into the theoretical funhouse. Here we have Bishop using Rancière to argue about the inherent political nature of the aesthetic – fair enough. But most of the force of Bishop’s position rests on the inverse – failure to recognize the inherent aesthetic properties of the political. She also fails to see that meeting her demands with regard to aesthetic properties therefore forecloses certain types of political possibilities. That is certainly “an unproblematised equation!”]

In Artificial Hells, she pieces together a history of twentieth-century artworks that have employed participation for a variety of purposes: support of state socialism in the public pageants of the Soviet Union, proto-Fascist bellicosity in Italian Futurism, the promotion of individual experiences of privatized consumption in later Communist bloc settings, dramatizations of autocracy in Argentina under military dictatorship. She aims to show that participation and democracy are not eternally linked, and furthermore that feel-good social art is not the only option. But to claim that participation is a valuable way to make progressive art, as many advocates do, is hardly to deny that it could find a place in other projects across the political spectrum. Still, such a prying apart and opening up of concepts and conventions is undeniably helpful, and the history Hells traces is an interesting, if only seldom galvanizing, patchwork of projects. Proposing that participation-based art has periodic heydays at times of political crisis and transformation, Bishop focuses on three such moments: 1917, the lead-up to 1968, and the aftermath of 1989. Her examples range from the well known (Dada, Happenings) to the more specialized (confrontational art events in Argentina, whimsical street art in Paris) and extend to recent formations such as the Artist Placement Group and the community arts movement in the UK.

Bishop’s overall schema opposes “a realm of useful, ameliorative and ultimately modest gestures,” preferring “singular acts that leave behind them a troubling wake.” (Who, after all, would opt for art that could be described the same way as flossing one’s teeth?) Confrontational art, Bishop argues—such as Christoph Schlingensief’s 2000 Please Love Austria, in which detained asylum seekers were boxed up in a shipping container, broadcast via webcam, and voted out of the country in pairs—does valuable work by making abstract oppressive social and political forces immediate. Moreover, she asserts convincingly, the tooth-flossing stuff is easily folded into the Western status quo, since art that aspires toward social problem-solving risks simply “mopping up the shortfalls of a dwindling welfare infrastructure”; and the network-based, volunteer-dependent character of this art reflects, rather than challenges, contemporary capitalism, which feeds us precarity dressed up as freedom.

[“Who, after all, would opt for art that could be described the same way as flossing one’s teeth?” – Well, I would. And so would Allan Kaprow. See: Art Which Can’t Be Art.
And maybe I’m reading a different Bishop, but it seems like she once again smuggles in a position to support her point of view that, if applied to her own position, actually undermines it. She faults social practice for reflecting rather than challenging capitalism, but surely in all the time she spends in the library she must have stumbled across at least one article/book detailing the relationship between ideas of the avant garde and capitalism. Isn’t guerrilla marketing’s raison d’être in capitalist society to create “singular acts that leave behind them a troubling wake?” Or, shock and awe anyone?]

Self-styled progressive art is an inadvertent running dog of the neoliberal state? These are fighting words, and one might have hoped Living as Form would come out swinging. But that’s not what the Creative Time book is up to. Primarily it’s a sourcebook, a starting point for further research, and a snapshot of critical conversation about the field. Its optimism can be infectious—look at how many different ways there are to do this stuff!—yet it’s a compromised vehicle. Many of the project descriptions that constitute the bulk of the book speak in vague grant-proposal language about mission (“doual’art invites contemporary artists to engage with the city of Douala in order to mold its identity and to bridge the gap between the community and contemporary art production”); often we must read between the lines to get a sense of what relations, or forms of living, come out of this work.

Meanwhile, the book’s images—which occupy nearly half the real estate in the “Projects” section—run the gamut. Some canonical works, such as Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, are represented with expertly shot photographs of striking acts; at the other extreme, photos of Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, 2011–, merely show a sign hanging by some elevated subway tracks, dim placards on an indoor clothesline, a clutch of people standing near a table. Allora and Calzadilla’s Tiza (Lima), 1998–2006, falls somewhere in the middle: In the photographs of the massive sticks of chalk placed by the artist duo outside the Peruvian Municipal Palace of Lima, of the political messages people marked on the plaza, and of the impromptu protest that arose, we can see something of the openness and expressivity of the action. Yet the photos carry little aesthetic charge.

They’re not meant to, of course. Much social practice is geared toward resisting a hypertrophied art market that commodifies everything it touches, and these artists rarely seem to prioritize the visual impact of the documentary traces their activities leave behind. Still, when Bishop laments that the open-endedness of innovative participatory exhibitions “is frequently experienced by the viewing public as a loss, since the process that forms the central meaning of this work is rarely made visible and explicit,” one can’t help but see her point. Living as Form supports her proposition that as social practice enters the world of exhibitions, books, and documentary websites, the question of how to communicate its essence to secondary audiences needs to be more seriously considered.

[As mentioned above with regard to embeddedness, social practice (art) does not enter “the world of exhibitions, books, and documentary websites.” It arises *with* them. It seems clear that Marcus is only talking about social practice (art), not social practice more generally (or what I might call social poiesis). In this sense then, social practice is no different than any other art genre. What Living as Form *could* have “seriously considered,” but failed to, was what would a truly expansive idea of social practice look like? What would it mean to *actually* “destroy” social practice as an art genre?]

Commenting on this year’s politically minded Berlin Biennale, its curator, Artur Żmijewski, wrote of his hope “for a situation in which artists’ actions would become not only art, but could also reveal a political truth—something with the potential to change selected aspects of our shared reality, so that art would possess the power of politics but not its fear, opportunism, and cynicism.” This characterization of politics as a besmirched domain recalls Bishop’s astute observation in Artificial Hells that the rise of political art bespeaks “a lack of faith both in the intrinsic value of art as a de-alienating human endeavour (since art today is so intertwined with market systems globally) and in democratic political processes (in whose name so many injustices and barbarities are conducted).” Politics and art are two realms that largely need their constituents to believe in them, and Bishop rightly allows for the importance of continuing to revise these categories in light of such crises of faith. Her call for reconstituting the boundary between them may raise eyebrows among certain radical stakeholders, such as Thompson, who aims to eliminate that boundary entirely. Bishop argues that such an obliteration would leave us barren of evaluative standards, but it could also be argued that her approach limits the possibilities of what the relation between politics and art can be. What we need is a conversation about art and politics that is both rigorous and expansive. Bishop and Thompson each take us only part of the way.

[I would again note that Bishop wants to eliminate the border between aesthetics and politics when it suits her, but indeed wishes to police it vociferously when it sullies her position. A boundary that actually needs clarification though is the one between art and aesthetics. They are often used interchangeably, but dislodging art’s stranglehold on aesthetics dissolves much of the force of many of these “debates.” Thompson is not nearly the “radical” Marcus imagines, or maybe we mean something entirely different when using that word. A more radical exhibition would not have even been one. At the very least, the full title might have been changed from Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 to something likeLiving as Form: Strategies for Meaning Making in Everyday Lives. In the latter, art is not Art, not merely a profession, but a widely available and employed endeavor of collective human activity. Social practice then is not just more grist for the art historical and curatorial mill, but a vital, imaginative field. One practiced not just by activists, academics, and artists, but by bankers, moms, and mechanics. So yes, Bishop and Thompson take us part of the way, but one wonders if it is the right direction?]

” When art is finally worthless, it will be free for everyone to make and enjoy.” – Destroying art in order to save human creativity

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/17/2013

Creative Tyranny – Rob Horning

[I tend to think of Ben Davis as a useful idiot and this critique of his work spells out some of the reasons for that.]

Artists’ self-important claims for their work makes them worse than useless for political activism

Can you call yourself an artist and an activist at the same time? Or is the artists’ personal brand always in the way? 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis’s new collection of essays, addresses these questions and other similar ones with an admirable clarity that invites debate. In these pieces, Davis, a Marxist art critic and executive editor of Artinfo.com, shows little overt interest in policing the boundaries of art—there are virtually no assessments of the aesthetic value of particular artworks. Yet he ends up preserving a nebulous view of “great” art’s supposedly objective appeal that undermines his apparent political concerns. Art accrues meaning via its audience, which is inevitably structured by social relations. To imagine that its value can come from anywhere else is to obfuscate the centrality of class that Davis is otherwise eager to bring to light.

This makes artists inescapably individualistic, concerned chiefly about differentiating their product. As Davis notes, “an overemphasis on the creation of individual, signature forms—a professional requirement—can as often make it a distraction from the needs of an actual movement, which are after all collective, welding together tastes of all kinds.” Artists must produce their reputation as a singular commodity on the market, which makes their chief obstacle other would-be artists rather than capitalism as a system, regardless of whatever critical content might inhere in their work. When artists patronize the working class with declarations of solidarity, their vows are motivated less by a desire for social change than by the imperative that they enhance the distinctive value of their personal brand.

According to Davis, the artists’ class interest “involves defining creativity as professional self-expression, which therefore restricts it to creative experts”—the artists. Contemporary visual art, then, is a “a specific creative discipline that arrogates to itself the status of representing ‘creativity’ in general.” Rather than being a common property developed by the “general intellect” of workers in collaboration and social interaction, creativity becomes the intellectual property of certified artists alone, who, for their livelihood, administer it for the rest of society. That is, “real” creativity becomes the preserve of a specially trained elite rather than the evolutionary inheritance of the entire human species.

Whether or not it correlates to distinctions in talent, this distinction between the fake creativity of ordinary people working in common and the certified creativity of appointed artists working alone or atop a hierarchy allows those artists to make “artworks” with a value on the market. The point is to give only artists a true property stake in their creative ­activity—only their creative work has inherent value. Everyone else’s creative effort is just plain old “labor,” which is worthless ­until purchased by capital. Limiting authentic creativity to proven professional artists makes creativity both aspirational (it models how nonartists should structure their leisure) and vicariously accessible (nonartists can absorb creativity through awed exposure to properly certified art objects). It is thus that artists “represent creativity tailored to capitalist specifications.” Artists become the designated exemplars of the form liberty can take under an economic system that prizes innovation and glorifies ideologically the dignity of the small proprietor. Though Davis recognizes this, he also tries to give it a dialectical spin, arguing that the artists’ model of freedom demonstrates what autonomy looks like and why it might be worth struggling for.

…The structure of the entire art milieu is meant to forestall the broader appreciation of art and protect its capability to signify status. It is meant to allow rich people to recognize the fruits of their wealth in their exclusive access to the world’s finest things. The glory of the view lies primarily in its being private-access. Ordinary people’s appreciation of art attaches to works like so many barnacles, ruining their meaning for collectors. As with any luxury brand, the wrong sort of audience for an artist can sully their market value completely.

This is why so much of the discourse that surrounds contemporary art is so nauseating. It deliberately aims to destroy the confidence of nonelite audiences in their own judgment; it wants to make their potential pleasure in art depend on a recognition of their exclusion from the realm of art-making. We get the joy of knowing there’s some consumption experience beyond us that can remain forever aspirational, which gives us cause to cherish whatever brief peeks we get over the wall.

The same could be said of the world of literary journals, creative writing, and the “intellectual milieu” in general; each serves as a catch basin for those eager to transcend the ordinary economic relations that largely determine the lives of ordinary people. Often fueled by inherited privilege and a nurtured sense of entitlement, the up-and-coming cadres of the “creative class” seek ways to transform their yearning to be extraordinary into a career, and if that fails, into a politics based mainly on the demand for lucrative self-expression. All the while they imagine themselves exemplars of unsullied, disinterested aesthetic aspiration.

But it’s impossible to say artworks are “great” without also implying that those who can see that objective greatness are in a superior aesthetic position to those preoccupied with consumer junk. In wanting to preserve the traditional transcendental quality of art, Davis is arguing for the very same rarefied aura that critics and collectors and museums and art schools and all the other art-world ­institutions have always counted on and used as an alibi.

Far from working arm-in-arm with workers to liberate them from the forces that restrict their expression, artists are more likely to work to protect that aura and intensify the qualms ordinary people might have about thinking of their activities as art. Creativity must be held apart from consumerism, protected in the hands of a particular elite with the appropriate training to keep expression “authentically meaningful” rather than commercial. At the same time, authentic art production must be left in the hands of the professionals, who have been endowed with unique talent and have made a series of special sacrifices to develop their artistic gift. Ordinary people are endowed only with the ability to consume, and while they may think that’s creative, they’re kidding themselves.

…But that justification hinges on the idea that culturally recognized opportunities to be creative are scarce. It’s not that too many people are labeled artists then expected to work for less, as Davis suggests, but that not enough people recognize the artistry in what they are already doing and live with a sense of social inferiority and self-doubt. If they are to protect their own cultural capital, professional artists (and curators and critics) must endorse the standards that pronounce some people as uncreative.

Who cares about the sanctity of the “official culture,” which has a class-based interest in restricting that endorsement to a select few? The opportunities it provides and the self-realization that might stem from them are already poisoned from a political point of view. Davis won’t surrender the idea that “official approval matters” and that there is an objective basis for determining “legitimate self-expression.” Such official approval may matter to professional artists, because it is the source of their livelihood, and Davis seems eager to defend the right of a select few to make a living through art. To the rest of us, it is the stifling source of delegitimization. It is a reminder of the concrete reality of that solipsistic, insidery “art world” that Davis is otherwise so eager to see dismantled. Shouldn’t those excluded from the official art world create their own opportunities, according to their own communal standards, pitting their values against those of the official culture, and the social order that supports it, if necessary? Shouldn’t they destroy art to save it?

Similarly, in a postscript to his essay “White Walls, Glass Ceilings,” Davis urges we fight for “a world where art’s value escapes the deformities imposed upon it by an unequal society.” Davis wants there to be generalized social practices that can certify art’s value without somehow stratifying a society in which art has economic value. Yet if artistic ability is unequally distributed by nature, that fact alone will generate an unequal society as long as art is singled out for special cultural significance. Art is so complicit in structuring cultural hierarchies, it makes more sense to argue that art’s value never precedes the existence of those deformities and to agitate for a world where art is granted no alienable “value” at all.

In the collection’s last paragraph, Davis comes around to something like this position, that from the perspective of a future communist society, the idea that “great art was something rare and precious, a triumph that had to be scratched out against all odds, a privilege that needed to be defended with boundless righteousness and walled off in its own specific professional sphere will likely seem strange.” There is no reason to regard it as less than strange now. We can start by rejecting the need to identify “great” art and the class victors it nominates. When art is finally worthless, it will be free for everyone to make and enjoy.

The despotism of theory and careerism – Slackers, the humanities, and understanding the difference between laziness and leisure

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 08/27/2013

Deinstitutionalizing the Humanities? – Peter Augustine Lawler

[This addresses a piece by Lee Siegel that I posted earlier. Sometimes I roll with conservatives.]

Siegel reminds us that literature wasn’t taught in our colleges until the end of the nineteenth century because reading novels and poetry “were part of the leisure of ordinary life.” That’s what an educated person did, and not, of course, for college credit. Thoughts and imaginations were shaped by literature as much as anything else. Sometimes they may have been silly thoughts and romantic imaginations—such as the chivalrous southerners who were moved by Sir Walter Scott to choose a very bloody and very optional war. And sometimes, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible almost all alone were enough to discover and “communicate” both the urgency and poetic/theological significance of the seemingly prosaic American proposition.

There was, as Siegel suggests, a kind of “existentialist” moment that began after World War II and persisted through part of the Sixties. The focus on one’s personal destiny in a world distorted by technology and ideology—a world that produced unprecedented mass slaughter—privileged literature over other forms of “communication.” Insofar as philosophy was existential—and so obsessed with Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre, even it seemed more like literature than a technical or “theoretical” discipline. The goal was to save reflection on the truthfully irreducible situation of the particular person from the clutches of theory. The predicament of the person born to trouble—or at least a brush with absurdity—is what novels are about. And the insufficiency of philosophic prose to display that predicament explains why Sartre, Camus, and Walker Percy, for philosophic reasons, wrote novels. It is close, at least, to why Plato wrote dialogues and why St. Augustine wrote his Confessions.

As the great critic Lionel Trilling pointed out, it might have been near-ridiculous to teach books that should make us radically discontent with our ordinary lives in the newly standardized format of American higher education in the 1950s. And it increasingly became doubly ridiculous to have those books taught by careerist professors with the souls without spirit and heart of specialized scholars. It might be triply ridiculous to expect administrators, bureaucrats, and other certifiers of competencies to be able to understand—much less articulate—a credible defense of “the humanities.”

The existentialist point of “the humanities” is to experience the mysterious singularity of the particular being stuck for a moment between two abysses, born to love and die, to be moved by the sometimes inexpressible suffering of the being who must love and die, to experience the joy of “insight” with others, an experience that has nothing to do with “collaborative learning.” …

…They were about concerns that should animate one’s whole life. But today, we sadly say, the humanities aren’t typically a refuge from either the despotism of fashion or the despotism of theory, much less the despotism of careerism. That’s one reason among many they seem like a boring waste of valuable time for most students.

Given what most of our institutions of higher education are really like today, Siegel celebrates their abandonment of the humanities. Now literature is free to flourish somewhere else. It’s true enough, I can add, that Socrates never taught for money. And he never could have gotten tenure. He didn’t publish, and his student evaluations would have been uneven. It’s far from clear why it would help a great writer to get any degree at all, and certainly not one in “creative writing.” Someone could argue, of course, that things were different when people routinely read real books outside of class. But there’s no reason why they can’t do so again.

There is probably something to Siegel’s perception that the effort to defend the humanities everywhere in our educational system might be misguided. Maybe the focus should be on “countercultural” (which doesn’t mean all about the Sixties) institutions that exist in a communal context and that have what it takes to resist standardization, trendy theory, and the understandable but still excessive focus on techno-productivity. Maybe they can in some indirect way elevate us all.

Or maybe we should ask that there be just a lot more celebration of the diversity that still characterizes higher education in America, even in particular institutions and sometimes within particular departments. The enemy of this diversity is standardization—what comes from shamefully intrusive accrediting agencies, government bureaucrats, the use of “branding” and various forms of management-speak to describe liberal education, the adoption of the skills-and-competencies model (which is okay for tech schools) to evaluate higher education, and the insistence that the standard of productivity should drive all educational funding.

One advantage of standardization, of course, is that it holds slackers accountable. But we shouldn’t work too hard to get rid of all those slackers (such as those “tenured radicals”). Otherwise, we’ll too often mistake leisure for laziness. We might even mistake metaphysics, theology, poetry, and so forth for self-indulgent pursuits that don’t prepare students for the rigors of the competitive twenty-first-century marketplace. More than ever, it seems to me, it is essential to hold members of our “cognitive elite” to a standard higher than productivity. All Americans’ lives would be less pathological—and so, for one thing, more productive—if imaginations were, once again, filled with “real books.”

“…everyday life will then become so full of beauty that it will become art.” – No, it already *is* full of such beauty, but thankfully is *not* art

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/02/2013

Changing Places – Dan Fox talks to Nils Norman, Timotheus Vermeulen, Anton Vidokle and Sharon Zukin

DF: One of the problems is that the ‘art world’ superstructure has grown so large that it’s difficult to navigate our way through it with a clear perspective on our own roles. How do you stay independent or achieve agency amid such a tangle of institutions and businesses? One option would involve leaving the ‘art world’ altogether, although most people would be reluctant to do so. I also think cognitive dissonances can be identified amongst those who Nils says ‘are critical of how they are inscribed within gentrification processes’. For instance, artists who claim radical political positions from within the support structure of major museum or commercial gallery exhibitions, and who speak in visual codes legible to those in the specialist subculture of art. But it’s tricky; even having this conversation is complicated by whatever its host context may be, whether that’s an art magazine, not-for-profit venue, or wherever.

AV: Economic dependency on the art industry is probably not the only thing that keeps artists from just walking away: you can also support your art practice by doing something else and many do just that. All of these institutions you mention control access to audiences, be it the professional audience of your peers or a broader audience interested in art. This is also probably one of the main reasons why artists tend to live in cities: to be a part of a community, a conversation. Cities are not merely markets.

There have been several moments in recent history when artists tried to move out of cities for various reasons, most recently in the ’70s. It seems to me this was unsustainable and most have moved back since then. Martha Rosler, in her 2010 essay ‘Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism’, cites Chantal Mouffe’s suggestion that artists should not abandon the museum – meaning the art world – and adds that we should also not abandon the city. I fully agree with this.

AV:…While as an artist you may think that you are free to do what you want, in order for it to be economically sustainable, critically acknowledged or just even to bring it into contact with the art audience, it needs to conform to certain network protocols that dictate what sort of production can enter circulation. With the ever-increasing professionalization in the arts today, and the economic restraints of the art world, it seems that the field is moving towards restoring a more prescriptive position towards the artist.

TV: I agree. Artistic sovereignty is a discursive construct, perhaps even a myth, that is always negotiated through cultural, spatial and historical parameters.

There is a more cynical take on the relation between art, cities and capitalism, which is that the city always already allows for numerous areas to adhere to the possibility of alternate rhythms. In this view, it doesn’t make a difference whether artists or institutions are the canaries in the mine. After all, the mine is owned by the same people that own the canaries …

AV: This resonates strongly for me. It could be interesting to try to describe this ‘artistic rhythm’ you speak of. We seem to inhabit this sort of flattened, urban, capitalistic time, in which each tick of the clock is a potential investment, because we use time to make money. That’s a really monotonous rhythm.

Someone like the Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic´ comes to mind, and his photographic series of himself sleeping or thinking in bed: ‘Artist at Work’ [1978]. In his writings from that time, he suggests that Western artists are bad artists because they work too much, and that a good artist is a lazy artist. That’s a different rhythm: syncopated by a certain refusal to perform, to be productive. Very different from, say, flexible time in creative industries today.

NN: Discussions around gentrification tend to romanticize the subversive and autonomous agency artist’s projects have in these processes – the tactics, the skipping, the interventions. This is combined with an idea that somehow everybody wants to live like artists, a theme heavily exploited by Richard Florida.

SZ: What about Marina Abramovic´, who plans to convert an old theatre in the newly gentrified Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, into an arts centre named after her and focused on her long-duration performance pieces? In The New York Times [7 May 2012], she said: ‘The concept is very clear. I’m asking you to give me your time. And if you give me your time, I give you experience.’ Has she found a way to market Conceptualism that seems to compensate for our time-starved modernity?

AV: Sounds frightening. Does one have to be naked the whole time there too?

DF: To me, Abramovic´ reinforces a stereo-type of the artist who has access to mystic truths; that crypto-religious thing, whereby if you make the pilgrimage to the temple to sit in front of the oracle and stare into her face, you will access some profound emotional core of your being, because the oracle has endured extremes of pain and discomfort (and spent large amounts of free time) on your behalf. It’s another version of the skipping game: the artist as an individual with a direct line to some higher level of knowledge/experience.

SZ: …

Any artist who wants to sell their work must apply to the gatekeepers of one or more of these hierarchically arrayed districts, a point graphically made by William Powhida in Oligopoly (Revised) [2011]. These gatekeepers are curators, gallerists, critics, journalists and, above all, entrepreneurs. They may be entrepreneurs for economic reasons, or for cultural reasons: to provide goods and services for people who share their aesthetic tastes. And for social reasons: to create a community. In brief: many art-world entrepreneurs are artists.

SZ: How can we create alternatives to the mainstream market economy? By trying to withdraw from it – say, to a mountain in Utah or Nepal? By changing our individual awareness of consumers’ effect on the cosmos – and consuming slow, or less, or not at all? By developing diversified networks of exchange like Ithaca Hours or community-supported agriculture or barters? Or by making structural changes to eliminate over-production, to tax those who consume too much, or to turn the production of toxic goods to goods that benefit collective well-being? And how does any of that apply to the production of art?

AV: Well that’s the economic aspect of production, but as an artist one also has to produce meaning and affect. It’s not only about working with minimal damage to the environment or to others. How do we talk about that? How do we account for it?

SZ: Consumption takes in the production of meaning and feelings, it’s not just economic or environmental. There’s a deep spiritual longing – for the good, the beautiful and the true, as I discovered when I did research on shopping a few years ago; for authenticity, if we use that to mean what is good both inside and outside the self; for communion, community and satisfaction – all longings that are often pursued through consumption. Artists express these longings, and we who are not artists sometimes manage to craft something – a loaf of bread, a specially knitted scarf, a self-built table – that expresses them too. How can we make it possible for everyone to develop means of expression? Or are critics, artists and writers going to remain in opposition in every form of society?

AV: My favourite passage in Karl Marx’s writings is where he describes how life can be organized without narrow professionalization: one day you can be an artist, next day a cook, then a ‘critical critic’, and so forth. Identities in such a society will be fluid and alienation will disappear. I think that everyday life will then become so full of beauty that it will become art. In such a society, artists, critics and writers will not remain in opposition. But, until then, opposition is ok with me …

I can’t stand (for) art – Dear Dan Fox – “energy, dedication, love”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/08/2013

[The following is a response to the piece highlighted and linked to below]

Dear Dan,

Thank you so much for this update. I think you might be the most interesting person in the art world – or I should say the “capital A” art world. Since you asked “What kind of art do you stand for?”, I thought I would endeavor an answer. Thanks for the opportunity to consider this.

The short answer is I can’t stand (for) art. Or rather, I am tired Dan, too tired to stand up (for art). I am tired of all the fretting, all the “legitimizing footnotes” and the curatorial pomp and circumstance. I look around me and see creative people everywhere – some of them wear white caps, a lot seem to wear sports jerseys, but almost none of them seem to have an opinion about documenta. And it seems to me that this is okay, that people make meaning where they are, whether watching Seinfeld reruns, gardening, arranging their Ikea furniture, or writing for frieze.

I agree that setting aside big claims like ‘This show challenges your preconceptions’ is probably for the best. And I think we should do our best to put art in its place – as one form of aesthetic enterprise, one form of meaning making, with no special purchase on fascinating ideas. If we focus on the “energy, dedication, love” rather than “the art fairs, biennials, mfa programmes, magazines, dense jargon and newspaper articles about how to make it in the art world,” I think we’d be off to a great start.

So I said I’m tired of art, but that was only because of the wording of your question. Looking closely, I notice that you engage in a kind of sleight of hand, asking what kind of art someone stands for, but then talking about Claes who advocates for an art. You too close your piece advocating for an art, rather than art. The “an” implies one among multitudes rather than a singular field, this I fully support. I stand for the art of things – the art of cookie decorating, the art of writing letters, the art of fly fishing, the art of comedy, the art of mixing music, the art of playing poker, the art of the cocktail, the art of kayaking, the art of knowing when to share a story at dinner…

I even stand for the art of making art, as long as it sees Jesus in a piece of toast not as a sign of the Second Coming (as you rightly suggest), but as one miracle among many – the miracle of people, even ones that don’t have clean drinking water, pressing on, finding beauty in small things. Or the miracle of folks making meaning from the clouds, their mom’s laugh, a reality TV show, or a gossip magazine. I stand for an art engaged in by everyone. I stand for any art of “energy, dedication, love.”


Randall Szott

Dear Claes … – Dan Fox

‘I am for an artist who vanishes, turning up in a white cap painting signs or hallways.’ A sceptic might call you out for indulging that middle-class fantasy of the artist as blue-collar worker, but I reckon you’re too savvy for that. Perhaps you meant it as a reminder to take pleasure in things in the world and not fret about their pedigree as ‘Art’. You’re certainly reasserting the old avant-garde desire to dissolve art into life, and although that’s an act of self-erasure few seem to chance nowadays – what would happen to all the free dinners, institutional glory and symbolic labour for urban gentrification? – it’s one that nevertheless begs the question of art’s influence beyond art; grubby questions about taste, audiences and who this whole game is for.

Art has obviously developed fascinating, complex ideas, but it’s had to work hard to explain them and to prove their worth in society. Yet nobody quite knows how much reach these ideas have beyond specialist circles. The industry superstructure is today so noisy we can’t tell whether it’s the structure or the art that’s having the effect. From outside, the art industry looks like a rarefied cultural activity. Newspapers like to portray it as a place for extreme shopping for the one percent. Neither of these views is entirely wrong, but nor are they entirely correct either. So much energy, dedication, love – entire lives – have been put into art’s hard-fought battles over identity, appropriation, feminism, abstraction, institutional critique, Conceptual art, Pop, Op, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, De Stijl, Arte Povera, Fluxus, Mono-ha, Postmodernism, Happenings, Abstract Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, realism, photo­realism, painting, sculpture, performance, installation, video and so forth that we crave a sign that it’s all been worth it. (The legacy of Minimalism can’t just be ikea tables.) The problem is that the art industry longs to have the mass appeal and legitimacy of pop culture– the same stripes awarded to cinema and music – but it still has to sell itself with some ingeniously gussied-up new angle on ‘high culture’ to justify its extravagances. We want the person in the white cap painting a sign also to have an opinion about this year’s documenta.

Big claims are made in our industry that leverage contemporary art as a form of salvation-cum-revolutionary-gesture such as ‘This show challenges your preconceptions’ or whatever toothless assertion of radicalism you wish to name. And still the world turns. Nothing changes. We’re quick to see a Jesus-shaped silhouette in a piece of toast and declare it a sign of the Second Coming. Cognitive dissonances have developed that allow for all kinds of mental contortions: a hair-shirt criticality that sees artists decrying capitalism in their commercial gallery shows, for instance, or artists having successful ‘practices’ making work ‘about failure’. All the pr, all the iconic museums erected in the hope of instrumentalizing art as an economic adrenaline jab, all the art fairs, biennials, mfa programmes, magazines, dense jargon and newspaper articles about how to make it in the art world – look at all that from outside the art industry, and it doesn’t add up to what we think it does. The signal-to-noise ratio is out of whack.

Our noses are pressed too close to the screen. We fret so much about the legitimizing footnotes – the art-historical lineages, the curatorial contexts and paradigms – that we forget to measure the proportionate importance of our discussions as they intersect with ‘social life’. I am for an art that knows where it stops and life starts. I am for an art that doesn’t see Jesus in a piece of toast.

Dan Fox

Tagged with: , , , , ,

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.

[from the LeisureArts archive] – Art A Way Of Life (1935) – Melvin E. Haggerty

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/08/2013

Art A Way Of Life (1935!!!) – Melvin E. Haggerty

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

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

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

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

Activists, academics, and priests – The failures of critique – New Age experiential, pragmatic, somatic practices and the disenchantment of intellectualism

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/01/2013

Specialists With Spirit: New Age Religion, English Studies, and the ‘Somatic Turn’ – Kurt Spellmeyer

Imagine for a minute that you not only work in English but that you also believe in God. If you did, you might lead a double life, engaged five or six days of every week deconstructing master narratives or tracking knowledge/power, and then on the seventh day, at least for several hours, doing something altogether different. Even if those hours were your most important ones, you would probably keep the secret to yourself – for reasons best explained, I’m inclined to think, by the history of higher learning in the U.S., which began with religious ties but then moved aggressively, over the last hundred years or so, toward secularism, science, and specialization. And given the academy’s astonishing growth, who would want to argue now against this move? By abandoning our claim to “ultimate values,” by becoming producers of specialist knowledge, our forerunners won a privileged place in the emerging social order, an order that no longer needed values anyway, premised as it was on “rationality” in the administration of its human subjects. With so much to gain from this process, and so much to lose – a process, as Max Weber would have it, of progressive “disenchantment” – English studies climbed aboard reluctantly, though since then, we have done pretty well. Yet who can help but notice, in our darker hours at least, that something’s missing from our professional lives, something rather like religion, after all.

…If the humanities have tried for a hundred years to imagine themselves as a science of some kind – of myths and symbols, signs and codes, a “political unconscious” – I believe that they can never get entirely free from concerns and practices they have always shared with religion. Like it or not, we’re in the business of constructing inner lives, and the sooner we admit the need for an inner life, the sooner we can see why religion still counts – and why English studies might count in the same way.

At the outset I should add, however, that our problem is somewhat more complex than the overt suppression of an inner life already there for everyone: the problem is precisely that an inner life has become difficult to argue for on the terms defined by the critical spirit of our day. And given this predicament – this relentless annihilation of interiority – Weber’s description of the modern world as an “iron cage” of meaningless routine strikes me as an understatement.

…practices that range from simple prayer and visualization to yoga and possession by the Holy Spirit. The truth produced by these practices, however, has less in common with the “truth” of philosophy or theology than it does with the knowledge made by scientists, since its merit lies not its propositional character – in claims reached by a purely deductive reason – but in its capacity to produce real-world results – in the self and in one’s relation to others. At least for those who follow the new religions, truth of this kind enables one to act: it frees one from ambivalence and so produces health as well as wisdom, at least ideally.

Yet the pursuit of such a truth paradoxically returns its pursuers to an older, premodern kind of knowledge. Knowledge in the modern sense separates the object and the observer from the larger world that contains them both. We say, for example, that we “know something” when it stands out vividly as a thing-in-itself, amenable to an analysis designed to expose the object’s internal logic – its parts. To know a poem, for instance, is to know how it is “put together,” and the same might be said of knowing a flower or a style of architecture. But the word “knowing” may also denote a kind of fusion, as in the King James Bible: a collapse of the boundary between thou and that. To know a poem in this sense is to see a world “through it,” so that the world, far from receding, becomes intensely present as a whole, and as a part of one’s own self-perception, memory, affect, and so on. This kind of truth feels true, and it feels true in a special way – by dissolving the knower’s sense of isolation. Precisely because such a knowledge extracts the observer from the grip of discriminating judgment, it runs the risk of appearing useless and purely fanciful – just as alleged by early empiricists like Descartes and Bacon – but this older path to truth offers something that our textualist knowledge cannot reliably provide: an experiential solution to the problem of multiple paradigms, which ordinarily intensify our alienation, and it does so without resorting to the authoritarian ideal of a single truth applicable to everyone.

…For them, a more compassionate and useful response to difference is a synthetic exercise of imagination. The point is not to decide who was right, the Buddha or the Christ, or to see the real itself as a simulacrum, but to construct a way of living inclusive enough to accommodate both claims as truth.

…While poststructuralists have correctly understood that encounters among cultures are often “relativizing,” they have generally failed to understand that the “relativity” of “incommensurable” paradigms cannot remain a permanent condition: their view, too, is an illusion of the scholar’s training – the neat divisions of academic labor and the card catalog, which owe far less to the process of understanding than to the logistics of storing and retrieving information.

Syncretism violates the logic of the library, but it makes sense as an ethics of engagement with the “Other” when alternative forms of life have placed in doubt one’s own beliefs. To praise, as Butcher does, “the Tao” that “becomes flesh and dwells among us” is to not to overturn the Gospel, but to renew its inner dimension through the encounter with Chinese tradition. And it would seem that this recovery of a meaningful inner life is the reason many followers of the new religions have embraced a syncretic hermeneutics. If syncretism sanctions all beliefs as potentially true, it also makes each person responsible for creating a private truth, which is true not because it can be universalized – that’s the textualist formula – but because it restores the knower’s sense of connectedness to the world and to others…

While we tend to believe that the best response to an oppressive public image is an energetic critique, the practice of critique may overturn ideas while leaving unchanged more fundamental structures of identification. As we all know, even brilliant social critics can be desperate for approval, and in the theater of political action, quite committed liberators can exploit, manipulate, and even murder the very people they set out to liberate. Those of us committed to critical consciousness have too readily assumed that criticism alone can compensate for relations of power that make it impossible to think or say certain things in public forums where the wrong sorts of speech often carry enormous penalties – the high regard of one’s colleagues, for example, or the possibility of publication in, say, a prestigious journal. Nor, it seems me, have we given much thought to the mechanisms of “inner censorship” – if I can use the language of the new religions.

If equality is our concern, and if the minimum requirement for a relation of equality is the power to say “no” to the other without fear of retaliation, then the making of a “strong” interiority becomes absolutely indispensable. As long as I depend for my self-worth on the powerful, the learned, the wealthy, the famous, and so on – as long as I locate outside my own control whatever I define as the highest good – words like “equality” and “freedom,” “liberation” and “truth” are little more than empty abstractions. And for this reason, a central tenet of the new religions is a return to the idea that “the kingdom of god is within you.” The valorization of the everyday has many dimensions, but the existential and the political seem inextricably related in much of the writing. As J. K. Bailey reasons in Already on Holy Ground:

“For too long we’ve reserved the divine presence for a coterie
of bishops and cardinals, sadhus and gurus, self-appointed
preachers and brilliant philosopher-scholars – as if they were
the guardians of our religious experience. Perhaps we believed
we weren’t smart, holy, or committed enough, or we pre-
sumed the core of spiritual life lay in some grand future awak-
ening. But in waiting for the blinding light to strike us, we
ignored the tiny sparkle of a star in the night sky that could
bring joy to the heart and help us to remember the Divine.
In experiencing this presence, no event is too minute for our
attention. . . . The potential for light is as present with
mechanics amid the grease and grime of the neighborhood
Amoco station as it is with Zen monks at a monastery in

It would be easy to point out, of course, that even the askesis of self-fashioning must be socially constructed and that the self is therefore “social” through and through. Yet to adopt “the social” as our master metaphor is not to get to the “real” bottom of things, but only to choose a bottom of a certain kind, since bottoms too are inescapably underdetermined: they are, in other words, political, if we consider politics as Aristotle did to be the realm of possibility, not necessity…

If religion as a practice may trouble us, the “New Age” has taken a still more alarming turn, though it may ultimately prove to be a miracle in its own way: a turn toward arts as practice, toward the making of art and away from its consumption, critical or otherwise. As we know from the historical record, the idea that a poem or painting exists primarily to be “analyzed” is actually quite recent. English departments, for example, were created to “teach literature” before anyone actually knew what “teaching literature” might concretely involve…As the sociologist Eric Livingston alleges, our critical practices serve primarily to preserve qualitative distinctions between the “informed” readings of experts and the “misreadings” of ordinary people, who generally read for pleasure or “life-lessons.” And as other observers have pointed out, criticism helps preserve the boundary separating lay people from the august ranks of “real writers.”

The rarification of the arts – their sequestration from everyday life and their metamorphosis into objects of abstruse expert consumption – typifies the very essence of disenchanted modernity as Weber described it, and this development corresponds quite closely to other forms of political and social disenfranchisement. But the academy’s appropriation of the arts may have social consequences more important in the long run than even the plummeting rate of voter participation or the widespread dissatisfaction with, say, the public school system. Fundamentally, the lesson of all the arts is the same: ways of seeing, ways of thinking, ways of feeling can be changed, and each of us can change them. The arts, we might say, dramatize the human power of “world making,” to take a phrase from Nelson Goodman, and they do so by freeing the artist from the ordinary constraints of practical feasibility, empirical proof, and ethical uprightness. Once the arts have become nothing more, however, than an object of specialist inquiry, they often cease to teach this crucial lesson and teach instead exactly the opposite: ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling might be changed, but only by exceptional people.

Once again an insight from the “New Age” may be more truthful than we wish to admit – the insight that the arts share common ground with the kind of experience we think of as religious. It seems to me, in other words, that unless English studies can offer people something like an experience of “unconditional freedom,” we have nothing to offer at all. If a poem or painting is always only a product of social forces, an economy of signs, or some unconscious mechanism, then why not simply study sociology or economics? If all we have to show for our reading and writing lives is a chronicle of ensnarements, enslavements, and defeats, then why should anybody tramp so far afield – through, say, the 600 pages of Moby Dick – when we can learn the same lessons much more easily from People magazine or the movies? In itself, the forms of activity we speak of as “the arts” can be put to countless uses for countless reasons, but we might do well to ask if ideology critique is the best of those uses. Does it seem credible that the millions of years of evolution which have brought forth humankind’s marvelous intelligence have now come to their full flower in our disenchanted age? Was it all for this? Or could it be, instead, that disenchantment, the failure of all our narratives, is now impelling us toward the one encounter we have tried for several centuries to avoid, having failed, perhaps, to get it right the first time around: I mean an encounter with the sacred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nel Noddings – Shelling peas and inquiring about God – Liberal education

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/27/2013

Conversation as Moral Education – Nel Noddings


…We do not think that studying the Great Books or any other canon will necessarily make our students better people, and we reject the haughtiness of those who think their knowledge is Knowledge. However, confusion arises because the questions raised in traditional liberal studies still seem central to human life. We feel that education — real education — cannot neglect the questions, Where do I stand in the world? What has my life amounted to? What might I become? … What is the meaning of life? Is there a God? What is my place in the universe?

It is true that these questions arise and are explored in impressive ways in the great works associated with liberal education, but they may also be asked and explored in other settings. Zane Grey’s cowboys ask them while riding the range under starry skies. Old ladies in their rocking chairs, shelling peas or knitting, ask them as the evening cuts off the light of a summer day. Lone fishermen standing on rocky jetties in the Atlantic twilight ask them. Moreover, studying what great thinkers have said about immortal questions is no guarantee that one will be more honest, decent, loving or even open-minded. Without mentioning names, I can easily think of four or five superbly educated persons (all of whom deplore the condition of the American mind) who are themselves incapable of hearing or responding generously to views that differ from their own. Again we have a performance gap.

Thus I believe a grave mistake is made when we argue for the traditional liberal studies as the arena in which immortal conversations must take place. Specialization has killed much of what was liberal in liberal studies…. But the questions remain, and teachers today should muster the courage to discuss them.

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.

Edward Mooney – Lost Intimacy in American Thought [Part I]

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/08/2012

Lost Intimacy in American Thought – Edward Mooney

[Thoreau and Bugbee] write ‘salvations’ that raise life from decline; they are philosophers who write intimately, personally, for love of the world.

He [Bugbee] proposed that philosophy was “a walking meditation of the place.”…a philosophy that brings life to things, a lyrical philosophy that finds plenitudes in them.

To test a world by theory, we retreat from the-world-to-be-theorized and size it up in terms of that theory. Thus the detachment of theory is the detachment of the theorizer from an intimate immersion in the world…this stance of ‘looking at’ (rather than beholding) destroys the wider intimacy that a religious sensibility seeks and sometimes finds…To know a sunset intimately is in part to bask in its presence, which is to find ourselves basking – not theorizing.

His [Thoreau’s] walking is an exercise in weaving the world, weaving the self, weaving contacts that occur as revelations of the world as a place overflowing with meaning – even holy, so deep is its significance.

…philosophy becomes identified less with a saving journey, and more with a cognitive grasp attained through abstract products – explanatory or critical schemes…thinking theoretically vaults one above or outside the fray in an aspiration to motionless onlooking that freezes that onlooker in a narrow slice of the significant range of life’s wider plenitudes. To cut back from the immersions and submersions, passional and practical, that are the tissue of life is to cut adrift from opportunities for self-knowledge. A knowing contact with oneself cannot come about through distancing oneself from vital contacts.

…One travels, with baggage, passions, and commitments. Sometimes the wondrous is not in the remote valley or mountain top, or distant heavens but in the local. One finds the astonishing as one moves with and around parochial passions, promises, and practices. Then philosophy [or social practice] can become a quasi-religious journey toward the intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of  family or neighborhood life, of rock-climbing and cooking, of the ups and downs of walking a friend through cancer, or of swimming away from catastrophe.

…the uninterrupted ‘eternal’ standpoint of theory, or of the benefits of impersonal theory-production, a detached stalling that occludes our particular immersions in local pains and delights, family ties and occupational demands…his [Bugbee] condition clarified, not by argument or theory but by moving ever deeper into his condition.

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.”

Introduction to 127 Prince – The journal that never really was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewey – The Art of Life

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/05/2012

From Outline of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891!!!) – John Dewey

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

Tagged with: ,

In Search of the Mundane – Ordinary vs. Extraordinary – The Unremarkable

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/30/2012

Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary – Alina Tugend [See this as another example. Also see this dealing with this theme.]

As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and author of the book “The Gifts of Imperfection” (Hazelden, 2010) said, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.”

And that’s a problem. Because “extraordinary is often what the general public views as success,” said Jeff Snipes, co-founder of PDI Ninth House, a corporate leadership consulting firm. “You make a lot of money or have athletic success. That’s a very, very narrow definition. What about being compassionate or living a life of integrity?

The problem is that we have such a limited view of what we consider an accomplished life that we devalue many qualities that are critically important.

She didn’t have a great job, she wasn’t married and never had children, so she wasn’t successful in either the traditional male or female sense, Ms. Porter said. But people would keep telling stories about her kindness.

She had a lot of magic in her life, and that’s reassuring,” Ms. Porter said. “That you can live a full, interesting, ordinary life.

“Ordinary has a bad rap, and so does settling — there is the idea is that we should always want more,” she said. “But there’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have.”

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Tagged with: ,

Art’s Future is Not Art – Jerry Saltz – Post Art (or invisible art, spy art, escape art, unart, or the He Said of He Said She Said, etc.)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/17/2012

Jerry Saltz is hitting awfully close to home (or just about all the art ideas I ramble about):

The best parts of Documenta 13 bring us into close contact with this illusive [might he have meant “elusive?”] entity of Post Art—things that aren’t artworks so much as they are about the drive to make things that, like art, embed imagination in material and grasp that creativity is a cosmic force. It’s an idea I love. (As I’ve written before, everything that’s made, if you look at it in certain ways, already is or can be art.) Things that couldn’t be fitted into old categories embody powerfully creative forms, capable of carrying meaning and making change. Post Art doesn’t see art as medicine, relief, or religion; Post Art doesn’t even see art as separate from living. A chemist or a general may be making Post Art every day at the office.

Philosophical Dinner Party – Frieda Klotz – Everyday Philosophy – Plutarch

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/28/2012

The Philosophical Dinner Party by Frieda Klotz

Plutarch thought philosophy should be taught at dinner parties. It should be taught through literature, or written in letters giving advice to friends. Good philosophy does not occur in isolation; it is about friendship, inherently social and shared.

Plutarch begins “Discussions” by asking his own philosophical question — is philosophy a suitable topic of conversation at a dinner party? The answer is yes, not just because Plato’s “Symposium” is a central philosophic text (symposium being Greek for “drinking party”); it’s because philosophy is about conducting oneself in a certain way — the philosopher knows that men “practice philosophy when they are silent, when they jest, even, by Zeus! when they are the butt of jokes and when they make fun of others.”

…it’s now more than ever that we need philosophy of the everyday sort. In the Plutarchan sense, friendship, parties and even wine, are not trivial; and while philosophy may indeed be difficult, we shouldn’t forget that it should be fun.

Gregory Pappas – Dewey’s Ethics – Democracy as Experience [Part I]

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/30/2012

“Just as he objected to the ‘museum conception of art’ that isolates the arts from lived experience, Dewey warned against separating morality from relationships…”

“…moral life is a process of creating or transforming value, and not merely of accepting and living by given or former values.”

“As Dewey says, ‘It is not experience which is experienced, but nature – stones, plants, animals, diseases, health, temperature, electricity, and so on.’ My valuing experience of an act of injustice as wrong is about value that I find in the same world where I also find plants and stones. To dismiss the importance of valuing in inquiry because it is merely subjective or a mere psychological reaction is to assume a dualism or to presuppose the supremacy of the theoretical standpoint in revealing what is real.”

“Dewey used science and art as metaphors to understand moral deliberation. This served the purpose of highlighting the continuity between morality and other modes of experience, and it provided a description of moral deliberation as an experimental, emotional, and imaginative process.”

“When experienced, the frightening noise is as real as the eventual knowledge-experience of the cause of the noise. ‘Empirically that noise is fearsome, it really is, not merely phenomenally or subjectively so. That is what it is as experienced as being.’ [quoting Dewey] Insofar as the eventual experience is not misleading it is more true, but this does not make it more real. Similarly moral problems are not experienced as internal or subjective. insofar as a a situation is experienced as morally problematic then it really is problematic. this situation might be transformed into one in which there is no longer a problem, but the second, transformed situation is no more real than the first one.”

[quoting Todd Lekan] “the pragmatist approach maintains that morality is more analogous to non-moral practical skills and arts like medicine, cookery, and baseball than has been acknowledged by most of the tradition of moral philosophy.”

“..the pragmatist is concerned with knowledge only insofar as it is a means to enhance our lived present experience.”

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