Catch and Release

My last column yielded a kind of editorial statement from The New Inquiry -- and then, in response to that, a note from Geoffrey Kruse-Safford on where aesthetic categories belong in the ongoing cultural conversation.

So a good week, all in all. But I need to clarify something. In regard to the column, Geoffrey writes:

Scott praises Warhol's mimesis, yet also cites without criticism a review of one of his early short films that calls Warhol out for nihilism.

Actually I don't really praise it so much as emphasize it. Or rather, to be more precise, note how Danto emphasizes it -- in part because this stress intrigues and puzzles me given Danto's larger argument, which is that Warhol's work is the End of Art in some more or less Hegelian sense.

It is the point in art history at which the problem of what constitutes the artwork, or the artworld, is posed in a radical way that exhausts the question while exploding the range of objects or practices so designated.

So says Danto, as I understand him. And this leaves us back at mimesis-gone-wild? A situation in which it becomes more or less impossible to distinguish between critique and celebration? What a long strange trip it's been. Was it worth it? I'm not sure. Danto's argument feels plausible but that is troubling.

So the fact that I then went on to quote -- without dissent -- a very negative commentary on one of Warhol's films (assessing it in a very un- or anti-Danto-esque manner) is, in large part, a matter of being awfully ambivalent about both the artist's work and the philosopher's interpretation.*

To begin to work out a lucid account of the terms of that ambivalence would require an essay, at least. With hindsight it feels like I have been avoiding that effort for about twenty years, ever since Phyllis Jacobson invited me to write something on postmodernism for New Politics. (My response was to go try to read every single thing published on the subject, which was impossible even in 1990.) The effort would also involve revisiting Sontag.

Oh hell, this is getting complicated. Anyway, it is good to have readers who catch the moments where you've tried to drive certain complications into hiding.

* Another aspect being that I try to explore the flexibility of the column form as such. The article on Warhol in an underground newspaper from 1966 came to my attention by chance as I was writing the piece. It wasn't research, just luck, that this happened. Likewise with the passage from Edmund White quoted near the start.

On the one hand, I do as much long-term planning as possible with respect to topic, subject, and method (interview, review. etc.) -- and any given column involves a lot of revision and rewriting. On the other hand, I do want to leave the process as open as possible, both to unanticipated developments and to the voice of someone besides the columnist. 
February 28, 2010 9:58 AM | | Comments (4)

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I'm always embarrassed when you take notice of me, Scott, but thanks. Even criticism from you is an honor.

Well, a clarification isn't a criticism, really.

"It is the point in art history at which the problem of what constitutes the artwork, or the artworld, is posed in a radical way that exhausts the question while exploding the range of objects or practices so designated."

Scott, this topic is the sand on so many crackers over here. I have one friend who's (by sheer luck) a massive Art star; two who are struggling mid-listers; and then at least a half a dozen who'll be killing themselves soon. This stuff gets discussed often in this city (Berlin).

Art remains as "deep" or "important" as it ever was if our contemplation of it does; to stare at a Warhol litho/piss painting with the same openness (and gratitude, even?) in the face of one's mystification as with [name your canon master] is what's needed: an open mind and some spare time. What Art requires is something from the Audience, too.

This old "But is it Art?" debate never switches perspective and investigate/prosecutes an audience that's just as blasé in the face of [name your canon master] as a Warhol or a Chris Ofili. Where is the good-faith symbiosis of Artist and Audience? We always blame the Artist (and in very capitalist terms: if your product doesn't sell, change-or-repackage the product). But imagine slapping down one artifact/gesture/concept after another for a crowd with a bored "impress me!" look on its face.

I know so many Artists who work hard, work well, talk and work long into the night. They won't get anywhere without either kissing a magic ass or getting a serious PR budget. They show in neighborhood galleries: people wander in from the twilight and wander back out again without breaking stride or adjusting the distracted smile. "Funny" or "shocking" Art slows them down a little. Subtle Art... stuff you have to *contemplate*... forget it.

The "end of Art" is out happily watching The Hurt Locker tonight; it will come home and watch porn or do facebook. What constitutes the audience?

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