Lebenskünstler

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

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

The barbarism of reason – John Gray

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

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 The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Best,

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.

Regards,
Dan Fox

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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.

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.

MOMA – Gourd Museum

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/31/2009

“I would much rather be in the Charles and Mary Johnson Gourd Museum in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. I’d rather be there because I have no familiar categories to make sense of it. I’d rather be there because it unnerves me, and reminds me that there are things in life too strange for knee jerk irony. I’d rather be there because it will never have a mass market or become a ministry of culture.” – Immanent Domain via Suggested Donation

Carl Wilson – Love – Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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