Outside the Gallery
(partial) Marcel Duchamp, Portrait de joueurs d\‘echecs. (1911)
Martha Graham’s statements about beauty and practice in dance might have made for a productive tension against Duchamp’s readymades (both rely on gestures were we to think of the activity of Duchamp), rather than Arthur Danto thinking through Warhol. Debates about Duchamp and Warhol certainly dominate the institutional criticism of the century, and so those unfamiliar with this will feel the weight of their work and learn the outlines of a long-running conversation, but one feels a certain claustrophobia here. Certainly beauty isn’t the preserve of a single art form, and its force in our lives happens, thankfully, more often than not outside the confines of a gallery—arguably artists of sound and movement are perhaps more sympathetic to this.
The third section of the anthology, “Positions”, provides a wide range of statements and interviews from both critics and artists, many of them provoking and resonant without being completely worked out. The artists here bring an openness and affirmation that almost no critic could aspire to.
Aesthetic Theory (Theory and History of Literature Series)
(University of Minnesota Press; US: Dec 1998)
The painter Agnes Martin can say, contra Adorno and other modernists, “I don’t respect their negative art, I think it’s illustration. I consider exaltation to be the theme of art and life.” Though one must remember that her works are almost all paintings of the most austere grids ever put on canvas, a kind of silent art that one imagines Adorno had in mind in his theory of a negative beauty. Rather than try to make sense of these as movements in a larger argument, I think they are better read as a series of aphorisms or observations that create fantastic moments for reflection or insight.
For instance, painter John Currin says, “you can’t preserve the violence and freshness of your ignorance.” Painter Gerhard Richter notes, “letting a thing come, rather than creating it—no assertions, constructions, formulations, inventions, ideologies—in order to gain access to all that is genuine, richer, more alive: to what is beyond my understanding.” And here we see something of the problem.
For artists and critics who cultivate beauty, the practice is one of sensibility and sensation, risk and development—they live beauty from a profoundly affective and totally subjective vantage. To the theorist of beauty, this won’t do. Editor Dave Beech hopes the anthology might chart a way out of this: “The result is not the rejection of beauty or the death of taste but the need to learn to love beauty without the kind of social endorsement or cultural authority that it once enjoyed and wielded. What would that be like?”
The question is intriguing, but none of the selections here really make that synthesis. If it is possible, it is left for the readers themselves to undertake it, something that these theorists who have devoted their lives to the problem seem unable or unwilling to do. Moreover, emerging aesthetic theory is coming from an entirely different line of thinking not at all represented in this book, evolutionary science.
Chaos, Territory Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth
(Columbia University Press; US: May 2008)
Such recent work in just the past year includes intriguing theories of narrative art and evolution by Brian Boyd, and affect, art and sexual difference in Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory Art. These new Darwinian perspectives make the institutional and critical debates of the t20th century feel suddenly like moments of something truly past, and again it suggest this anthology is really a kind of bookend to a period of art and ideas that have passed.
Beauty is the latest addition to The Documents of Contemporary Art series brought out by Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT press. Other titles in the series include Appropriation, The Everyday, The Cinematic, The Archive and more. Each installment is an anthology of the major critical statements and debates animating contemporary art, though the emphasis on the contemporary is perhaps misleading since each volume seems to frame issues that begin with 20th century modernism and arguably end with our networked world.
The series is lively, eclectic, and mercifully brief. The disciplined editors heroically condense issues and arguments that overstuff library shelves into less than 250 pages. Reading any one volume in the series is a map to the major artists, critics, triumphs, and anxieties of art in the long 20th century.