“…passion as the basis of a life well lived.” – The last curator strangled with the guts of the last gallerist? – Against the moderate Enlightenment

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/12/2013

A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon – Philipp Blom

But things aren’t quite as easy. First of all, Diderot has been denied this honour multiple times, most recently in 1913. He was, still is, thought of as an intellectual troublemaker, someone all too fond of Eros and erotic passion, an implacable enemy of the Church, an incorrigible skeptic when it comes to power and the right of individuals to decide over others. These difficulties could perhaps be overcome in our tolerant and republican age. After all Voltaire, who has preceded him in the sacred site of French national memory, was also not a friend of the Church.

Condemned by the Church and hated by the Court, d’Holbach and Diderot were beacons of free thinking and directly inspired the America’s Founding Fathers. Franklin is likely to have participated at the dinners and ensuing discussions; Jefferson, whose personal library still testifies to his interests, read and admired Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Raynal, as well as their intellectual predecessors. For the Declaration of Independence, he transformed the Lockean formulation for the pursuit of life, health, liberty, and property into the more properly Epicurean and Diderotean “pursuit of Happiness.”

Diderot saw the truest and the highest goal of human nature not in reason, but in lust. Humanity’s existence is driven by Eros, by the search for pleasure. This sensualist approach had an important metaphysical consequence: in a world without sin, a world in which no wrathful God has condemned all lust and demands suffering from his creatures on this earth in order to soften the blow of eternal punishment, the goal of life becomes the best possible realization of pleasure, the education of desire in accordance with natural laws. In a society without transcendental interference, this chance, the chance of the pursuit of happiness, must be given to all.

These views were anathema to just about everyone who sought to maintain or gain power, from the aristocracy to Revolutionary dictators such as Maximilien de Robespierre and Napoleon, all the way up to the Catholic Restoration that followed. “Men will not be free until the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest,” wrote Diderot—not the kind of message to appeal to the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. Laissez-faire capitalism allowed a self-proclaimed Christian middle class to profit from the misery of the working poor, at home and in the colonies. They could not argue for their position with Diderot, who became ever more scathing about the justification of power, privilege, slavery, and colonial expansion. It was Voltaire’s moderate Enlightenment that offered them the necessary vocabulary and allowed them to see themselves as the guardians of civilization, Enlightenment and religious values, put above the ignorant masses by divine providence.

The radical Enlighteners had understood and condemned this emergent power structure, as a ‘conspiracy of priests and magistrates’. Their thought was evolutionist long before Charles Darwin; they defended the rights of slaves before William Wilberforce and of women before Mary Wollstonecraft. They wanted to see individual fulfillment in a morality built around lust and social justice in a society built on pleasure and free choice, not on pain and oppression. Their potent ideas were unsurprisingly intoxicating discoveries for latter-day revolutionaries; among d’Holbach and Diderot’s ardent readers were Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.

The grand narrative of a rationalist Enlightenment that freed humanity from superstition only to subjugate it once again, this time to the dictates of reason and rationalization, suited the interests and self-image of an economy driven by entrepreneurship and fuelled by a cult of efficiency and cheap labor. Our own time dominated by the fiction of the market that needs to be obeyed and placated like an ancient deity and a society optimized for maximum consumption are a direct consequence of the Enlightenment cult of reason without the Diderotian emphasis on empathy. We have inherited the truncated history and repeated it to one another, tacitly encouraging a narrowness of thought that bears little resemblance to one of the freewheeling exchanges over candlelight at d’Holbach’s salon. The existence of a second, more radical Enlightenment tradition is not denied completely, but two centuries of historical bias have done their work, slowly but surely.

But while his role in this magnificent mammoth work was important for the eighteenth century, it is Diderot the philosopher who can still speak to us today. His advocacy of a passionate life, of social solidarity and empathy as the foundations of morality, his interest in science as the basis of all knowledge and in art and Eros as ways of creating meaning have lost nothing of their freshness, or their necessity. The real potential of the Enlightenment, he says time and again, is not the absolute rule of reason, but the rehabilitation of passion as the basis of a life well lived.

The comfortable absurdity of artistic “experimentation.” – Toward an expansive “we” (hint: mom and dad are invited) – Some more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/22/2013

Mental Prototypes and Monster Institutions. Some Notes by Way of an Introduction – Universidad Nómada (Nuria Rodríguez Trans.)

Well, after sorting through all of the theoretical gobbledy-gook, I find myself in some agreement (with the intro “Mental Prototypes and Monster Institutions.”) with the spirit… But then I get to the conclusion in which they call for 4 circuits (not feeling all this 90s grad school lingo – “circuits” “monsters” “hybrids” “swarming”). These circuits sound an awful lot like they will need to be populated (and led) by artist-academics. How convenient! Their description does not seem to align with the stated ambitions:

“struggles and forms of social existence that some would accuse of being non-political or contaminated or useless or absurd ”

“monstrous, because they initially appear to be pre-political or simply non-political in form”

“another politics, that is, another way of translating the power of productive subjects into new forms of political behaviour”

I *wish* the proposed circuits, were not circuits at all and were more “useless” or “absurd.” Absurd that is in a way that academics would find uncomfortable rather than the comfortable absurdity of artistic “experimentation.”

I wouldn’t characterize my reaction as “phobia.” Rather, I would call it allergic.

The problem with the notion of hybridity advocated here is that the multiple layers don’t really seem all that “multiple.” So describing this writing as “technical” might be right…it is a field manual for the already converted, the ones who already speak the same way, the ones who always do all the speaking and not enough listening. Communication isn’t just about finding the right rhetoric. It is also about developing the proper dispositions right? I would be far less suspicious of the circuits if the notion of collectivity they proposed didn’t seem to place academic/activist/art types at the center (or at the very least, the sorts of programmatic structures they have such an affinity for – educational projects, research projects, media/publishing, and institutes/foundations). In other words, let the monsters rise, but not be created, educated, published, and exhibited within the comfort zones of the academic/activist/artistic industrial complex! Screw their mental prototypes.

I am allergic to missionary fervor – to being “saved” or “helped” by those in the know. As you have already guessed, I got nothing. But, yes, folks out there do have something, and I will not lead them. It is true we don’t read the same way, but I am happy to have at least put our readings in contact.

I have been hearing/reading big plans and big ideas from academic art types for quite some time and the track record here in the US is pretty paltry. Until they figure out a form of (non, anti, new) political engagement that has them at the margins, that has small ambitions, that isn’t predicated on “producing knowledge,” that stops thinking only in terms of urban space, that advocates diversity without being dismissive of *actually* dissenting points of view, that accepts pleasure (especially “unhealthy” sorts), and especially gives up the romance of avant gardism – I too feel like I’ll be waiting for them to work their “magic” forever…

Happy 4th of July!

I would say to your last question that *not all* art criticism, cultural theory, and yes, even urban planning is technocratic. And I would add that the technocrats have had ample opportunity to use their “expertise” to manifest something good and have very little to show for it…

Yes “we” have art, “we” have culture, and “we” have education – but a point of contention here is how expansive that “we” is. From my 20+ years around academic/art/activist types it has become clear to me that the “we” is pretty narrow. My white heterosexual middle class mom who has no interest in overthrowing capitalism, or has much clue what heteronormativity might be is pretty clearly excluded even though she might agree in spirit with the notion that a fairer allocation of resources might be a pretty neat idea…I am for a “we” that isn’t the hollow fantasy of grad school romantics, one that includes their moms and dads and all the unironic mall shopping conformists they think they are so much better informed than. I am for a “we” that includes gun owners and people who don’t have a clue who Zizek is (or even Chomsky). And I have no problem at all with attempting to “contribute towards the emergence of a non-centralized liberatory culture.” I just wish for a little more humility a little less grandiosity and maybe less occupying of parks (which is indeed useful) and more strolls. And I do think you sell short the power of the stroll vs. the dérive, or what I might call (thanks to Scott Stroud) artful living vs. art. Here is a snippet from him that may or may not help (asterisks added for emphasis):

“***Life is always lived in some present, and it is here that the battle of life is fought***; one can come armed with habits that foster engagement with that present, or one can bring in ways of viewing the here and now (be it an art object or a work task) as a mere means to achieve something in the remote future. Both of these approaches will affect and tone the quality of lived, transactive experience. Dewey’s point, which I will explore at length in this work, is that the former approach is constitutive of artful living.”

Adorno the Grumpy Puritan – Richard Shusterman on Art and Pleasure

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/30/2012

Come back to Pleasure – Richard Shusterman

Up until modern times, to identify art with the pursuit of pleasure was not at all a way of trivializing art. For pleasure was anything but a trivial matter, not even for philosophers. The ancients (most notably the Cyrenaics and Epicureans) often defined pleasure as the prime good and usually saw it as an essential component of happiness. Even Plato, to make his case for philosophy’s superiority to art and other practices, needed to argue for its superior joys. Looking back on the ancients at the very dawn of modern thought, Montaigne confirms the primacy of pleasure.  “All the opinions in the world agree on this — that pleasure is our goal — though they choose different means to it”. Even, he adds, “in virtue itself, the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness”.

The pleasures of meaning and expression point to another crucial dimension of art’s enjoyment which is often obscured — its deeply social dimension.  Too often it is assumed that art’s enjoyment is subjective, hence essentially private and narrowly individualistic.  But even if one feels one’s aesthetic pleasure in one’s own mind and senses, this in no way precludes the shared character of our enjoyment, nor the fact that our enjoyment is heightened by our sense of its being shared.  Whether in the theatre, the concert hall, the museum, or the cinemateque, our aesthetic experience gains intensity from the sense of sharing something meaningful together, of communicating silently yet deeply by communally engaging the same potent meanings and visions of beauty, and experiencing shared pleasures. Art’s power to unite society through its enchanting pleasures of communication is a theme that resounds from Schiller to Dewey, who boldly claims that “art is the most effective mode of communication that exists”.  By creating and reinforcing group solidarity through the sharing of communicative pleasures, art’s entertainment performs a crucial social function whose evolutionary role in the development of human culture and society should not be overlooked.

With this sacralization of art comes the rigid hierarchy of high and low (a counterpart of the sacred/profane distinction). Entertainment is automatically relegated to the sphere of profane lowness, no matter how aesthetically subtle, sophisticated, and rich in meaning it may be. Even in the realm of high art, Hegel introduces a rigid hierarchy of art styles and art genres, based on their level of spiritual truth and their remoteness from materiality. The plastic arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting lie at the bottom of the ladder because of the physicality of their media.  Poetry, in contrast, stands at the top because, through its ideal medium of language, it approaches the spirituality of pure thought.

  I close with a cautionary reminder. Advocating art’s pleasures should not mean substituting them for the pleasures of life while also neglecting those victims of injustice whose lives know more misery than joy. Nor should we forget that even arts of radical social protest gain power from the zest of righteous anger and the thrill of common struggle, pleasures that enhance or complete (in Aristotle’s sense) the activity of protest.  To think that prizing pleasure means condemning art to frivolity and narcotic escapism is one more fallacy based on presuming all pleasures to be uniform and shallow, but it also rests on the trite but deadly dogma that opposes art to life.

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

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

‘Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir’ – David Hajdu

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