Fillip

Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

That Thinking Feeling
Juan A. Gaitán

Early in June, less than three weeks prior to the opening of the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, major American artists joined in a powerful action of reproach toward their country’s war escalation in Indochina and the killing of college students by police and National Guard. They supported the manifesto of the Emergency Cultural Government committee of the New York Artists’ strike, calling for immediate boycott of US Government-sponsored art shows abroad until “policies of ruthless aggression abroad and intolerable repression at home” are stopped by the present administration.1 –Beth Coffelt

Think with the Senses—Feel with the Mind is predicated on the conviction that art is now, as it has always been, the means by which humans are made aware of the whole of their being. However, it does not assume that an enduring wholeness is the result, or that art is a magical solution for the conflicts in our nature or in and among differing cultures and societies. That is the domain of philosophy, the social sciences, and politics.2 –Robert Storr

It is rumoured that Félix González-Torres was the only artist “willing” to represent the US in this year’s Venice Biennale. We can’t know how willing. Yet Nancy Spector, curator of this year’s US Pavilion, claimed to speak on González-Torres’ behalf: “I feel pretty confident that he would have felt this was the right time and the right place.”3 Now his work is there, amongst the living artists that represent the other nations. Amongst other possible hypotheses, his inclusion can be taken as a clever way of averting such embarrassing incidents as the New York Artists Strike Against Racism, Sexism, Repression and War (N.Y.A.S.A.R.S.R.W.), in 1970, during which a large group of American artists created a public outcry, attempting to boycott an exhibition in which their work was included (apparently without their consent). Their motion to withdraw was duly interpolated by the bureaucracy, but at the doors of the Museum of Modern Art they managed to produce a workshop conference on racism, sexism, repression, and war. The group was even treated to a speech by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who memorably asked, “What is Sexism? And what does it have to do with art?”— to which a voice from the audience replied, “Ask Mrs. Rockefeller!”4 This episode, today mostly forgotten, hinged on two themes: the escalating war in Indochina and growing oppression within the US, especially in relation to youth movements. Noam Chomsky, the would-be prime advocate of a politics of transparency, became central in US antiestablishment discourse at this time, overshadowing others like Herbert Marcuse, perhaps because, taking one or two steps down from the academic platform, he began to speak “the language of the people”—as he continues to do today—but also because he accepted wholeheartedly the role of the American “public intellectual.” Much-needed, this figure was a sort of civic logician—at the time played either by government officials or by the mystical leader. We can at least mourn the fact that no one today can replace Chomsky, either because they are not willing or because public appearances are now governed and actively forestalled in direct and subtle ways.

One important way in which public debate has been governed, and the standards of good political discourse effectively lowered, reflexive thought has been dismissed as irrelevant, or (and amounting to the same thing) “elitist,” which, notwithstanding the university’s current popularity, appears to be a synonym of “academic.” Though not necessarily representative of this trend, Robert Storr’s curatorial premise for this year’s International Art Exhibition in Venice appears to move in that direction. Think with the Senses—Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense is both the title and the premise. Yet the premise is not, stricto senso, curatorial—or, to be fair to the history of this activity, not in keeping with the curatorial practices of the present world of contemporary art. Even if it is perfectly adapted to the methodologies of large museums in the US and abroad, it attempts to educate or instruct the viewer, rather than offering hypothetical relationships between the works included.5 In its many behavioural strictures, Storr’s Biennale is aligned with the work of many big museum directors like Philippe de Montebello or James Cuno, for whom the museum is most successful when it draws people away from “the troubles” of everyday life. One only need to think of the Blitz, and the National Gallery’s exhibition of Old Masters painting, or immediately after September 11, 2001, when people “raced” to the Met and the British Museum in search of safety from imminent danger.6

Those of us who side with conceptual practices (many of whom are included in this year’s Biennale) prefer the discursive museum, but must, in turn, adjust our attitudes toward art, holding back on our critical impulses and giving in to our feelings. The objection? That this sort of the coupling of feeling and reason led several postwar thinkers to conclude that intuition, which seems to be what Storr is getting at, when not backed by reflexivity, defaulted more regularly toward common sense than toward significant breakthrough, and that, more often than not, the “intuition” of the collectivity was to comply—by choice or fear—with conclusions arrived at from the point of view of power. Besides, the sublime and subliminal idea of forcing our faculties to empathize with each other—that is, to make our senses think and make our mind feel—is, of course, not new, and it sides with a discourse that, at least since the emergence of the critique of modernist science, has turned on Kantian themes of reason as a faculty identical with its potential. In art, the late-modernist (or early postmodern) shift occurred in relation to words such as action, expression, and process—the last being a materialist objection to the mysticism of the former two. Thought, however, is not a faculty, gift, or right; like freedom, it belongs to the world of fatality. This is why Gilles Deleuze argues that thought is rare, that we are condemned to think. Intuition is to be but a method of initial discoveries; to stay within it would only lead to ungrounded or bad speculation.

Yet, if Storr’s premise in fact participates in a move against the more conceptual approaches in contemporary art, it does not do so by opposing an academic and historical rigour to conceptualism’s exploratory truisms (i.e., Benjamin Buchloh), nor by exploding it from within by pulling mystical and/or historical threads from (and sometimes against) conceptualism’s self-satisfied discourse (i.e., early Jeff Wall). Instead, he apposes intuitive reason against conceptualism, and in doing so he embraces a more general movement in the contemporary world of art.7 Take, for example, the following passage:

To “make sense” of things in a given moment or circumstance is to grasp their full complexity intellectually, emotionally, and perceptually. That effort does not promise that our grasp will hold for long, or even much more than the instant in which we awaken to the fact that such fleeting powers of concentration and transformation are ours....By inverting order and logic the artifact created paradoxically holds fragmented consciousness in suspension so that its contradictions can be clearly apprehended.

If we could go as far as to glean a program from the above, it would be that art should establish a regime of “aesthetic confusion” in order to suspend the state of total confusion in which all of us, represented by the contemporary art audience, generally live. Storr calls this state of confusion “troubled times,” and hopes that it will be mimetically present in the works as they appear to the viewer.

In an interview conducted before the Biennale, Storr explained that the exhibition is pitched against a division between the conceptual and the perceptual. Were we living in the 1970s, we might assume this to be a critique of Lippard’s “dematerialization of the art object,” but now we may assume it is even more directly reinforcing the recent reinstitution of the picture, familiar to us, for example, through Jeff Wall’s more recent practice. This oppositional attitude stands for two apparent problems: art’s loss of aesthetic criteria, and a fear that the art fair will prevail over the museological exhibition, throwing the museum “back” into the abyss of historical irrelevance. This fear is neither unwarranted nor new: it is the fear that the aesthetic act will be indistinct from the economic exploit. Against one plausible conclusion of the dematerialization proposition that in the future the aesthetic act may be identical to everyday activities—not only politics, work, and leisure, but also economic entrepreneurialism—the new museum orthodoxy proposes the nourishment of aesthetic criteria for art. In other words, for these museologues, art must be safe from everyday life. This may explain Storr’s deployment of the term “epiphanies,” a Joycean term popular around the time of the New York School (“the history of art is a fabric of epiphanies woven by many hands at different speeds”). For the term “epiphany” is a prime example from the modern secularization of the religious lexicon, and in this sense it is an excellent analogy for a program most major museums in the world hold on to: to place art at a safe distance from the world or worlds of toil, war, and politics.

Notes
  1. Beth Coffelt, “For a US emergency cultural government,” Studio International 180, no. 924 (July/August 1970): 11.
  2. Robert Storr, “Thoughts on the 52nd International Art Exhibition,” 6 March 2004, http://labiennale.org/en/art/ exhibition/en/73808.html.
  3. Randy Kennedy, “With a Wink, Felix Gonzalez-Torres Slips into Venice,” International Heral Tribune, 6 June 2007, http://iht.com/articles/2007/06/06/arts/venfest.php.
  4. “N.Y.A.S.A.R.S.R.W.,” Time, June 15, 1970.
  5. Granted, this is almost impossible to achieve successfully in an exhibition of such scope. Yet, to fall back on such orthodox aesthetic categories seems unnecessary.
  6. See James Cuno, Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), especially Cuno’s own essay, “The Object of Art Museums,” 49–76.
  7. This is not exclusive to the art world, for it finds its counterpart in the most unexpected places: the popular media, for instance, where criticality has either been banished or reduced to puerile judgments of personal taste and style, or to a pantomime of political humour which. But also in the University, where interdisciplinarity—not to mention the social-sciences model of funding—has become a rhetorical method for neutralizing the effect that “traditional” areas like philosophy, history, literature, or art may have.

Image: Photograph by Jan van Raay. Courtesy of the artist

About the Author

Juan A. Gaitán is a curator and writer. Recent exhibitions include I, YAMA (Istanbul); The End of Money, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam); Models for Taking Part, Presentation House Gallery (Vancouver) and Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (Toronto); and K, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (San Francisco). His writing has been published in AfterallThe Exhibitionist, and Mousse, among others. Gaitán currently lives in Mexico City.

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