Fillip 10 — Fall 2009

Re: Democracy and the Demos

Lawrence Rinder and Shepherd Steiner

Shepherd Steiner: I assume you received the invitation from Fillip to have a conversation on democracy and the demos in art. What do you think? Eggleston’s and Tuttle’s approaches to the problem seem light years away from each other, but perhaps that would serve us.... 

My own investment in singularity is for instance nowhere present in the essay on Eggleston. And perhaps the self-curatorial problems I outline in Eggleston’s photography 
as a mutable narrative without privilege finds a responsive curatorial ear in you. Roger Buergel’s curatorial project may be a halfway house. As a close reader of singular images, I have always been struck by his insistence on a metonymic machinery of presentation that disallows any one work from assuming the dominant and instead institutes the substitute. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you, whatever your thoughts.

Larry Rinder: 
Eggleston has always been a great favourite of mine (William Eggleston’s Guide was 
the first art book I ever purchased). Also, I’ve been working on an essay about Raoul De Keyser and am trying to put forth some thoughts on the “democratic” syntax his work implies. So your essay was reassuring. I hadn’t known that Eggleston had explicit notions about “photographing democratically.” It certainly is clear from seeing his work that to some degree every subject is as good as the next: society lady = hunting dog = parking barrier. Something in this resonates for me with Jacques Rancière’s conception of the aesthetic regime and the homostatization of themes in writers like Flaubert. Tuttle is an interesting case in relation to this since, at first glance, his works seem to be radically homostatized, that is, broken down to the thinnest degree of difference, both from each other and from non-aesthetic things. Yet, as I described in my Fillip essay, his pieces are finally precisely about difference, explicitly in relation to individuation in a capitalist democracy. 

Your text drew for me a clear line between the opportunity to open a “democratic” space in the syntax of an artistic project (i.e., Eggleston’s or, perhaps, De Keyser’s) and the possibility for doing so in curatorial work. My own curatorial practice is strongly influenced by that of Group Material, whose work demonstrated the quite radical possibilities inherent in a multidirectional, nonlinear curatorial approach. In fact, I have just opened an exhibition of works from Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive’s collection that I’ve installed every which way, in clusters that make sense only through their arrangement and are organized more or less without regard to period, medium, or theme. My work with Nayland Blake on In a Different Light was helpful, too, in demonstrating to me the advantage of curating from art rather than from an idea. Nayland, being an artist, gave me a kind of permission to “tune” to currents within and between the works and to draw conclusions from these. I wonder if you could tell me a bit about your own “investment in singularity”?

Your idea of “curating from art rather than from an idea” interests me greatly. In fact, my investment in singularity hinges on my commitment to close reading, which 
I could describe as a kind of interpretation keyed to art rather than keyed to ideas. In a sense, good art history should take place at least partly in the gallery, something that also brings it in far closer contact to art criticism than most academics like. I like to say I use theory rather than apply it, because of this pragmatic approach to the object—the premise being that there is a theory of interpretation or reading built into every object. Essentially, curating under the auspices of a theoretical umbrella—which was a favorite pastime on the biennale circuit, as you know—is of the same order of misuse and abuse that the object receives when under the interpretative gaze of the social art historian or structural linguist. The presuppositions implicit to each of those accounts are what kills the possibility of a reading—reading being a very loaded word for contemporary deconstruction. Rather 
than responding to the work (potentially an ethical orientation given the proximity 
to responsibility), the social art historian or semiotician merely interprets the work (a self-centred orientation shot-through by orthodox politics, or general notions of language). So singularity is an ethical demand that I try to animate. For instance, Eggleston’s Los Alamos, like Tuttle’s work, or any one single example of painting by de Keyser, demands absolutely unique accounts to the extent, I guess, if one were to radicalize things as I tend to do and believe to be necessary, that even the system of photographs in The William Eggleston Guide are radically different from the system implicit to Los Alamos. I think this variable approach to the works—what T. J. Clark or Michael Fried acknowledge as close reading—puts one in the vicinity of democratic-type questions especially to do with language. Ethics is now the terrain of the political, and given the current hegemony of a liberal ethics the world over, one must find ways to work within that general framework, singularity being the principal avenue.

I would say close reading helps us begin to neutralize some of the open-ended problems that art in democracy presents, at least one being the individuation of ideas, practices, or ways of painting or photographing things that are unique to objects made by Tuttle, or paintings made by de Keyser, and another being the individuation of interpretative problems focussed in the subject (i.e., respondent) within the context of close reading. I think figural problems or the exchange relation have to be negotiated in both places.

De Keyser’s work at Whitechapel in 2004 was a total revelation for me. He is such a transparent painter that one needn’t be schooled in painting to recognize his impulsiveness at one moment or anger at another. Second thoughts are always right on the surface of his works, and sometimes on their sides, as in _Clochard _, which is a painting I will never forget. One sees traces of the painter’s decision to re-stretch his canvas after beginning. Some order of dissatisfaction prompted him to shift the canvas over a few inches, resulting in a painted overlap. Is this what you mean by a democratic syntax? Or otherwise? I tend also to want to interpret your remarks in terms of relational questions intrinsic to single works. For instance, in _Baron in an Al Held Field _(1964–66), I read the top right corner as a mistake that says, “I can’t get it right, but look at the other corner, it is near perfect,” and, even more acutely, the dialogue between the lower right and left edges of _Dalton _(1990). Along the right-hand edge of the canvas one sees the traces of what seems like a premeditated hatch marking. Lower down the hatching takes on a sharper, forced look where it seems as if colour has been scraped off with a thumbnail. The echo of this intentional focus—as looser swirls of the brush at the left side that do not quite reach the edge of the canvas—looks accidental. It is as if the seasoned Sunday painter suddenly realized that concentration on the right side of the painting was producing something entirely other on the left side and then amended this horrible inequity by staging intention through the exaggeration of hatching at the lower right.

I’m not familiar enough with Rancière’s conception of the aesthetic regime. What do you mean by the homostatization of themes in writers like Flaubert? And how do you see this impacting the question of democracy?

Rinder: Yes, I concur with your call to “close reading.” I totally believe in this, though it is a tough standard to live up to. One is perpetually drawn into generalization. It is a bracing, and rewarding, exercise to resist that and to insist on seeing what is before one’s eyes. That is definitely the path I tried to follow with this current show of mine, which is titled Galaxy: A Hundred or So Stars Visible to the Naked Eye. It’s a show of works from the collection, as I said. Imagine a vessel crowded with refugees, the high- and low-born all together on the deck. That’s sort of what it’s like. Even so, as I put it together, the works seemed to arrange themselves not only into small groups but also into sections that correspond to each of the three galleries. In the first, the works evoke (in aggregate, if not individually) a sense of origin and the mystery of being; in the second, qualities of the mundane: birth, sex, and death; and in the third, some kind of transcendence. It is a rather conventional dialectic that surprised me in its classical progression. But there it is. Anyway, one thing that this raises for me is the utility of categories per se. True, we must read closely each individual thing (an aesthetic as well as a moral imperative), but there is a poetry of groups, and also a power in numbers (speaking politically). One writer whom I’ve been revisiting lately is Guy Davenport. I think of him as someone who deals much more in categories than in particulars, and yet, I think there is wisdom in his work. The academic facility of his historical-philosophical panoramas does trouble me occasionally, and I wonder if there may be something undemocratic about the ease with which he separates the good from the less so. He believes that clear-eyed understanding is the best path to sanity, social progress, and sexual fulfillment. Knowledge, for him, is ecstasy. But knowledge, in his Enlightenment ideal, depends on the capacity to organize a universe of information around general principles. This is where I always catch a whiff of something politically unsavoury in his work. As for Rancière, in his book the Politics of Aesthetics, he identifies three “regimes of art” (speaking of imposing order on chaos!), the last of which he calls the aesthetic regime. This period (these are both temporal and qualitative categories) involves the breakdown of the hierarchy of themes and the introduction (as in Flaubert) of literature in which all subjects are equally valid, equally suitable for representation. The corollary in painting might be Caillebotte or Manet. He also points to the shift in the aesthetic regime away from medium specificity to an approach in which media are blurred, identifying specifically the advertising poster as a space that comes to juxtapose, and even merge, visual and textual elements into a single semiotic-aesthetic fabric. Mallarmé is the high culture corollary. Anyway, Rancière puts forward this argument as a way of sidestepping the past fifty years of debates about modernism, suggesting that they have not been focussed on the most meaningful point, which is how works of art actually operate, that is, how they function in social terms to make reality visible. This work is, to him, fundamentally political, indeed IS politics. I think there is a connection between his thoughts on the aesthetic regime and the almost aggressively ordinary affect of the work we discussed by De Keyser and Tuttle. I have written about his ideas in relation to another favorite artist of mine, Suzan Frecon, in an essay that will be published in Fillip.

Steiner: You are right about being drawn to generalization—it can’t be helped, but at least it is a specific kind of generalization that emerges from the object; Lacan calls it orthodoxa in his Second Seminar. I guess you could call it a species of knowledge production—which has a pretty rough institutional history—but which needs to be continued, though not without an acknowledgement of its problems. (That is what I intended to flag by spotlighting the problem of individuation of interpretative problems focussed in the subject or beholder within the context of close reading. The freeing up of truth from an objective history and seating it in the subject is a paradigmatic problem in the democratic crucible.) Donald Judd’s art criticism is a good example of this kind of generalization. He constantly poses the specific in tension with the general. I would argue, in fact, that “Specific Objects” for Judd is a general phenomenon, something I am writing about. He says somewhere that the object is a rock that needs to be confronted. It’s all very American and pragmatic, as well as having deep roots in the New Criticism. In a sense, I see his recourse to the specific as an antidote and response to Greenberg’s global account of modernism. In any case, the general can and must be negotiated, as must its binary the specific. Each are negative moments in a dialectic. Something that Judd touches upon at moments, and which radically alters the interpretation of his work. In any case, in negotiating the temptation of this species of generalizable knowledge, which can be a substitute for the merely theoretical, and its antipode, one gets into the vicinity of singularity, or at least as Spivak would put it, it puts one in the right vicinity to stage an encounter with the other.

Which brings me to your show. I like the sound of it. Galaxy: A Hundred or So Stars Visible to the Naked Eye is a very poetic sounding title, and it seems that your approach to selecting and organizing the works builds upon metonymic correspondences, a very poetic mode in itself. The question that immediately pops into mind, when you mention the dialectic that emerged from your show, is the real content that the show reveals: something of an institutional history of collecting. Do you see the show in those terms? Do you see the collection having been built around those, as you say, very considered categories? One thing that is always true of knowledge, in its pragmatically derived sense that concerns us, is its tropological nature, which, for me, alleviates the pressure of producing new knowledge. It will be new, however conventionalized. And in the case of your show, it might speak to the accumulated practices of the institution over the years.

I’m not familiar with Guy Davenport, but I would tend to shy away from “his Enlightenment ideal ... of ... organiz(ing) a universe of information around general principles.” This seems an unfortunate given in any production of knowledge, a question of epistemes and power. Thus, my knee jerk move toward singularity, and the notion of discontinuous and discrete fragments of knowledge, which is ultimately allegorical, while Davenport’s notion of knowledge maps out a symbolic universe that is well known to Anglo-American art, literature, and philosophy. I don’t think the symbolic can adequately think the nature of the democratic crucible, which is broken up, fragmented, or individuated. Accommodations have to be made for this. And I think Judd was trying to make them, and certainly Greenberg was trying as well. I have recently written something on Greenberg from 1950 to 1960 that makes this claim. He does it, I would say, by rethinking his relationship to T. S. Eliot and the New Criticism in general. Greenberg is an example of someone attentive to singular works, but preferring to generalize, and this implicates his broader notions of culture. His cultural theory is massively misunderstood. I read the opening paragraphs of “Modernist Painting” as potentially open to film and other cultural phenomena, not necessarily closed to them ultimately because they can be modernist in his terms. In the end, or at least I think in the margins of his thoughts, he comes down on the side of championing a medium-specific approach to each cultural phenomenon. Where he goes wrong is in thinking that Enlightenment logic unifies these various poetic or grammatical instances of language. His mistake, in other words, is in mapping out a symbolic landscape. From my perspective, modernism is uneven, overlapping, discrete, discontinuous. I stick with the Paul de Man of _The Rhetoric of Romanticism _and the Theodor Adorno of Minima Moralia on these points. And, of course, what makes Greenberg a real test case for thinking through the questions of democracy and the demos is that the American post-war period is that moment when liberal democracy as we know it first establishes itself on a firm enough footing to produce satellite economies elsewhere and in the short period before the fall of communism.

I like what you are telling me about Rancière. It sounds like a modeling of the aesthetic that I get out of Alain Badiou’s The Century, where Badiou argues for the aesthetic as act and instances his notion through a series of readings. I actually curated a small show at the Van Abbemuseum that brushed up against the act as dialectical remainder—is this what you mean by saying arguments about modernism have sidestepped the crucial or epochal point? But I’m interested in hearing more of how Rancière helps you think about these questions, because obviously while he has a tremendous command of global questions I rarely see him engaged in the close reading of art—texts, of course, but.... Catherine David introduced me to Rancière a few years ago, and I am still amazed at how she was able to use his notion of the aesthetic for mileage in thinking a number of documentary-based photo practices. I think the work she did while at the Witte de With, which has since been publicly denounced, was an absolutely fresh and utterly path-breaking approach to thinking the efficacy of long-term documentary projects (like Allan Sekula’s Fish Story, but also Lucas Einsele’s One Step Beyond, Ytro Barada, Pedro Costa, etc.) and their ability to capture the minutiae of ideological creep.

Rinder: Symbolic order is viscerally satisfying. For Davenport, as I noted, even sexually so. To the extent that there is a possibility for positive, generative politics in his work, it is to the degree that he believes the status quo has the symbolic order wrong. He’s a Fourierist, so he welcomes all sorts of libidinally expansive enterprises. But, all the same, his is a symbolic order and, therefore, trouble from the get go. Somehow I hadn’t ever made the connection between minimalist specific objects and the kind of eccentric scrutiny of particularity that we’ve been discussing. The minimalists’ emphasis on mass production and essentially identical forms seems to run counter to a more open-ended play of forms, as one finds in De Keyser, Tuttle, et al. I suppose the specificity of minimalism resides, finally, not in the individual piece but in the relation between the piece and its context. I wonder if the works themselves do enough work to generate this experience? Some do clearly, such as The Lightning Field (albeit inseparable from its context), but a Judd stack or an André floor piece in a Chelsea gallery, I’m not so sure. (Ken Baker has just published a rather remarkable, and quite depressing, meditation on The Lightning Field.)

Your question about Galaxy is interesting. It’s very hard to say whether my process revealed an institutional/cultural disposition or a personal, idiosyncratic one. I think that another curator could have come up with a thoroughly different narrative. Perhaps less than the collection itself in this case, the show may have been influenced by the museum’s architecture, a double helix, designed by a dyed-in-the-wool mystic by the name of Mario Ciampi who believed that the spiral form would bring immortality to those who worked within. It hasn’t worked out quite that way, but the form is a bold embodiment of a powerful cultural paradigm. I should point out that my show sets up a number of counter-tendencies, such as in the topmost gallery, where I placed Warhol’s Race Riot side by side with a Reinhardt black painting, or a fourteenth-century Sienese painting of Judas betraying Christ adjacent to a large blue monochrome by John Zurier.

I’m sure I project Rancière’s views on visual art at my peril. But it is fun to extrapolate. I must say that I find his engagement with some recent instances of so-called relational aesthetics less compelling than what I imagine would be his take on the corpus of twentieth-century abstraction and the identification of works that resist, in their facture or institutional framing, the seemingly un-resistible forces of the political status quo. Not in terms of overt content, but in terms of their uncontainability, their hesitancy, and their melancholy, the art of De Keyser, Tuttle, Frecon, and Eggelston seem to be kindred projects to Sekula’s marvelous way of evoking “ideological creep,” perhaps less as the perceiver than as the perceived. 

Steiner: I think you are right about the experience of minimalist works in general and Judd’s in particular. In his new book on photography, Fried says something like Judd’s 
objects are too general as well. But I also think of the ceiling of the general as 
a peril for Judd that Fried refuses to see. Perhaps the works in which the specific 
really counts are his one hundred untitled works in mill aluminum in Marfa, but then 
I think if it counts there, then it must also count in the stacks, the boxes, etc. I spent an unusually long time looking at Untitled (progression)(1969) to see if anything specific mounts up, and it does, slowly and through labourious description, but perhaps that’s enough? The curious thing is that for Fried the kind of differences I’m talking about matter in the Bechers’s water towers, where presumably one has the typology at hand to test out identity and difference, but not in the context of the single work where generalizable repetition exists merely as an insubstantial horizon. I guess I’m still uncertain in the end, but I am willing to pursue the possibility.

I think that if your curation in Galaxy or any other response to a work, object, or painting produces only an idiosyncratic and personal interpretation, then the project of close reading is definitely over. And what you or I have been describing loosely as working with associational or metonymic regimes rather than metaphors of likeness based in medium or period is merely a fantasy of projection. I don’t think for a minute you have seen familiar faces in the works you have grouped together, though I do wonder endlessly about my own confabulations and sanity when I forge correspondences between works. Anyway, I don’t think the project is over: the working, unprovable hunch seems to be that the idiosyncratic response takes you places where the object or painting or collection demands. It seems one acts on an ethical imperative that is not one’s own in these situations. And I like that because it takes you places that are otherwise unimaginable, which cannot be reduced to the language of the other, as the current regime of ethics and politics dominating global democracies would have it, but at least orients one’s analysis in such a way as to make the staging of an encounter with the other (whether as seen in the eyes of the other as figured by the institution, the text, or image) possible. I think this ethical posture—that ethics—is now the political. The problem as Badiou nicely spells it out being that the other is no longer “ontologically guaranteed,” that the subject cedes its place to the other in liberal democracy. In other words, we can’t go directly to the object anymore as classical metaphysics or astronomy, with its trust in vision, as the paradigmatic metaphor would have it; we have to find a worm hole to your _Hundred or So Stars Visible to the Naked Eye_. And it seems that your idea of the poetry of groups and power in numbers begins the burrowing precisely because it is idiosyncratic and based in a metonymic and not metaphoric regime. In the end, I would say democracy is a dialectical system and so has its fingers on metonymy already, and even a handle on the act as dialectical remainder. Badiou says something to this effect when he notes that modernism is a project that will have killed many. These seem to be further perils as we hurtle toward your stars today....

Image: Andy Warhol, Race Riot, 1965, and Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, No. 3, 1960–63. Photo by Silbila Savage, courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

About the Authors

Lawrence Rinder is Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. He is Dean of Graduate Studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Shepherd Steiner teaches Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Florida. Recent publications include Snow Changes Everything: Unfinished Form in the Filmwork of Ibon Aranberri (Funadcio Tapies, 2009); “(Art and) Democracy | Hegemony (and Anarchy),” in Becoming Dutch (Eindhoven, 2009) and “Curatorial Formalism and Tinkering with the Political on the Far Side of the Subject at Documenta XII” (Journal of Visual Culture, 2008). His curatorial project focussing on American painting and video art, titled Acts of Non-Agression: 1960–76, opened at the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, in September 2008. He is currently finishing a book on Modernism titled Mnemotechnical Bodies: Close Readings in Modernist Painting, Sculpture, and Criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy
Mailing ListSubscribe