Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Geography of Value

 On a sunny, though mucky, early spring day, while walking on campus between classes, I was startled by something fairly minor, the unlikely proliferation of young women conspicuously wearing boots--most, tough not all, of the tall, fuzzy "Ugg"-like variety that are a fairly common sight at ski chalets and viking clan councels. Apparently, this recent run of hippy-warrior chic has also given rise to an interesting spin off, the preppy farmhand look, jeans tucked into mid-calf rubber waders that have been silk screened in tritiary color schemes and funkygiftwrap patterns.

But my point here is not to be catty or smug-- boot mania is harmless and even fairly chaste when compared to many other recent trends that involve baring more and more tattooed, bottle-tanned, midwestern skin. Ultimately boot mania is neither more or less sensible than any other fashion or fad. I mention it only because the impact of seeing so many pairs in one place got me to thinking about aesthetics and boots-- about their relationship with the land and how aethetics are perhaps best understood as the landscape or geography of value.

When "aesthetics" is used as a synonym fashion or style, this might be thought of as a "weak" conception of the term. A "moderate" conception of aesthetics looks beyond individual expressions of value (fashion). "Ugh" boots are indicators or symptoms of underlying values and qualitative judgements. These values and methods of valuation are not individual, rather they are shared by members of a particular group, subculture or culture.

Paticular styles and fashions are expressions of values that can (and do) change readily, but the underlying aesthetic system that attaches positive value to things or persons who are stylish and fashionable is much more constant. I am arguing that aesthetics should not be understood in its conventional and narrow sense to refer to ideals of beauty but rather in a more fundamental sense to refer a group’s shared notions of precision, consistency, excellence, correctness, and completeness. Particular styles and fashions may be understood to be expressions of values and norms that a group associates with conceptions of beauty. These values and norms are themselves articulations of the underlying aesthetic system. The relative positions and arrangements of various cultural values and norms are free to change with time and tide, and even to cluster asynchronously into distinct subcultures, but not everything is possible, or even thinkable.

Aesthetics comprise the relatively stable (but by no means inert) field that sets limits to the types of relationships, the degree of mobility and range of movement that values might assume relative to each other. Viewed in this way, aesthetics may be understood as the topology or geography of value. Aesthetics constitute the “terrain” that exists between cultural sites. Examples of cultural sites include domains that we label "family", "work", "leisure", "politics", "the body", "youth", "science", etc. The aesthetic "landscape" will encourage or inhibit certain value constructions at specific sites. It will also have important consequences for a given site’s stability, and be an important determinant in the ways in which values can circulate between sites. Aesthetics are intimately tied to a group’s ontology-- its collective, and largely unconscious, understanding of what there is, how things work, what is valuable and what is possible. An Individual’s belief system is fundamental in formulating and negotiating notions of self and world. This belief system is forged in the crucible of group aesthetics.
Mind of course exists in time, but its exitance as a space is much more problematic. There is no actual space to be "in" such as when we say "I'll keep that in mind" or "You're in my thoughts." Thinking isa process or an activityConsciousness is an event, If ,as part of the ongoing e, it turns back on itself, this turning or generates a "space". This turning back on itself is commonly reffered to as self- cousness, awareness, memory, or thought (thought here referring to the activity of "thinking about" as oppsed to "thinking as" or simply percieving/responding .)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Life as a Sponge

So you want to be moved?
Then wring out your expectations.
And bring only a dry carcass
Thirsty for experience.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Places to Stand

Because so much of an our time is tied up in creating the art, it can often be difficult to switch gears and fully recognize the very real ways in which our art is creating us-- molding our values, shifting our attitudes, directing our interests and altering our perceptions.

Primarily these kinds of insights come from looking at our own artworks in ways other than as their author. The most common approach is to try to distance ourselves from the work, ideally adopting a stance of neutrality and cool objectivity. Some approximation of this stance usually what is asked of us in the typical critique setting. While this can prove to be a quite useful approach, it does have some striking limitations, not the least of which is that it is impossible, at least in the purest sence. There is no ideal outside, no rarified alpine summit of reason from which we can objectively survey the landscape unsullied by our subjectivity. Objectivity asks of us that we stand outside of ourselves, outside of our personal history, our culture and its conventions. It asks a lot. It asks no less then for us to stand nowhere. Archimedes, as though realizing the impossibility and irony inherent in the ideal of objective detachment lamented, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”

However, there are, in fact, places to stand, methods of analysis that unlike objectivity do not ask us to relinquish all that we are and know. Critical distance can be achieved in ways other than moving away. It can be the measure of a meander, a total accounting of the terrain that’s traversed, not just the measure of the separation between two points as the crow flies. Critical distance can be established by moving toward, in, around, and through. All that distance requires of us is that we move, that we keep the odometer ticking. All that criticality asks is that we stay alert and vigilant during the trip. Rather then attempting to suppress or limit our mental activity to well worn analytical and evaluative schema wnen we engage in critical dialogue, we can instead expand our subjectivity in the service of a creative imagination that allows us inhabit foreign bodies, intimate spaces, grand vistas and alien viewpoints. While standing in such places might not give you the leverage to move the world, they may provide you with insights that can tip the axis of your own mental universe.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Note to Grad Students: Art? Don't Ask!

OK, Let’s open it up but step back a bit. In 2008 questions about what is or is not art have become a bit of a red herring. In 1970 maybe the question “What is art?” meant something. Up to that point art had been more or less a monolithic institution that needed to be shattered. Probably since the Renaissance, but certainly since the crushing rise of the Academy in the late 18th century the term “art” had served as a kind of heavily policed border, a cultural Berlin Wall. On this side of the term “art” was Art, largely defined along conservative disciplinary traditions, (oil paintings are art, stone or bronze sculpture are art, etc.) On the other side of the term “art” lay all the rest of human activities that were clearly not-art. Along came minimalism, conceptualism, pop, feminism, earth art, “happenings”, art brut, fluxxus, and installation art, all building on skirmishes that Dada, and to a lesser degree Futurism and Surrealism had fought, to little real impact, in the opening decades of the century. In the 1970’s artists tried all manner of strategies to whittle away at the barrier between “high” and “low”, between art and life, and this time with some measure of success. So much so that by the late 80’s “art” as a term had to a large degree collapsed, and simply fractured into commerce in the same way that the Berlin Wall was reduced to rubble, packed into zip-lock baggies, and sold by the ounce. If artists weren’t selling out or trying to work the system in ways that were much too clever or Machiavellian for anyone’s good, then they pondered what it meant to be an artist.
But this is 2008. I mean, now some 40 years down the line, to use the vernacular, “It’s all good.” Right? Now we are painfully or giddily aware that there is no activity that de facto cannot be considered art. It’s all dependant upon the context of production and the context of reception. So, I urge you to skip the question, “What is art?” altogether and ask instead something a little more direct, and less academic: WHAT IS AT STAKE?

In your choice of materials, practices, subject matter, audience etc. What is to be gained, what lost? And for whom?

What is at risk? If nothing, then perhaps, just perhaps, you have recovered a limit horizon for what should be considered art—and, unfortunately, you have come down on the other side.
How would you reinvent your discipline? What is at the core of your practice? What materials? Practices? Assumptions? Who could lead you out of your world as it is now given? In the novel of your life, who or what would play Beatrice (your muse, inspiration) or Virgil (gritty no nonsense guide) to your Dante and lead you the hell out of, well, Hell—remember that for Dante Hell was not so much about fire and brimstone as much as it was simply being doomed to eternally repeat the same activity over and over again. Without risk, choice becomes meaningless- one option serves just as well as another. Without meaningful choices there is no real freedom.
Define your risk.
Push it to its edge.
Share your mania, (A three-word sentence that is about as good a definition of art as I can formulate.)
And reclaim your freedom.

You are an art student after all.

Telemetry is a Curse (word)

Telemetry- the technology of remote sensing and data transmission

"Because we have these weapons, we can [use them] to take the easy way out rather than put guys on the ground with eyes and ears who can see the real situation."
- Ivan Oelrich, strategic weapons analyst

I recently heard Dr. Phil bluntly admonish a mother for dropping the ‘F’ bomb all over her house in front of her children. Not being one to dwell excessively long on the moral dimensions of anything I encounter on daytime TV, I was soon carried off by his metaphor, entertaining myself with visions of words dropping from mouths from great heights guided remotely to their targets and transmitting back fuzzy, phosphor green images like the precision munitions that became so familiar to us after the first gulf war. I saw descending waves of nouns and adjectives indiscriminately carpet bombing the visual landscape, leveling the lush jungles of sensory experience into arid plains of small talk. I saw art critics deploying their pointy, honed critiques like bunker busters to seek out and excavate meaning wherever it may be hiding deep below the surface of perception.

As fanciful as my imaginings may have been, they highlight the telemetric aspect of language that permits us to compress our visual experiences of the world into the relatively narrow bandwidth of words. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in typical text/image relationships it takes only one or perhaps a handful of words to completely alter, spin, or inhibit our perception of an image. In fact, it is much more likely that the worth of a particular image is directly related to the ability of its caption to reign in its multiplicity of signification and wealth of visual information. The same kinds of telemetric impulses that persuade a pilot to reduce an entire town into a target or that permit a doctor to simplify the intricacies of a beating heart into something as stripped-down as a simple pulse encourage us to reduce the profound ambiguity, polysemia and richness of the visual world into its linguistically encoded surrogate- its meaning- thereby demoting visual experiences to the status of illustrations or visual aids.

There are ways to construct text/image relationships that attempt to minimize the telemetric effects of language, particularly the degree to which texts inhibit the full exercise of our visual perception by over-determining the ways in which we assign significance and meaning to images. In paintings such as Flaying Rasputin I have played with text/image relationships in which language is no longer privileged over the visual, words becoming simply another signifier among many in a process of meaning creation based on visual logic rather than linguistic signification. By using strategies such as re-embedding the text within the image, emphasizing the visually associative aspects of text forms, and purposely thwarting the text’s linguistically denotative functions, artists can in some small measure restore the primacy of (relatively) direct sensual experience over the removed, highly mediated, and restricted telemetric translation of visual phenomena into language.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Body Knowledge

This is Tiresias, my cat of fourteen years. Or rather it was until the other night. He died quietly of kidney failure just as the lunar eclipse was about to begin. Looking at the picture, it is, admittedly, an ignoble end to what was, by feline standards at least, a pretty full life. But here in Ohio the ground is still too frozen to provide him with a proper burial. Perhaps in a few weeks spring will arrive to soften the brittleness of winter and the earth will once again be prepared to absorb its small and arbitrary misfortunes.

Predictably, my daughters, ages three and five, did not take Tiresias' passing well. They were distraught and tearful, quite heartbreaking really, the way that only weeping children can be. Sorrow as reflected in a child's large, red-rimmed eyes is always magnified by a factor of ten. For them, loss, any loss, (My youngest was equally inconsolable when the dog ate her favorite puzzle), is experienced as truly irrevocable, and its undiluted finality is compounded by upswells of confusion and fear that, as adults, they will learn to filter and repress. In a couple of years faerie stories of "cat heavens" and "happier places" and eternal souls will actually help to take the edges off the inevitable deaths of our quckly declining menagerie, but for now there is only their grief whose depth and purity I can only barely recall, and their wailing punctuated by sniffled questions and sobbed entreaties that my wife and I can only stumble over...

By an odd coincidence the day after I slid Tiresias' broken body into the Hefty bag, I was to introduce a course project in which I ask my students to confront their conceptions of "the body" specifically to rethink their relationships to their own bodies, to think of them not as physical objects but rather as a mental constructs, to envision their bodies as defined not by the limits of skin but rather by the relationships that bodies strike with the world. If the body is defined by its relationship to the soul, then it might be envisioned as a temple, or a vessel or a prison. If the body is defined by its relationship to biology then we might think of it as a machne, a lump or flesh, or as a process-- lived bodies as events. The body as imagined in its relationship to the universe might be thought of as a mere speck, or as "star stuff" or as a microcosm...

Anyway, as part of this overall discussion and to illustrate a point which I now cannot recall I brought up Tiresias' death and the sobbing children, and their fascination with his lifeless body, and segued into Americans' fear and revusion toward anything that proceeds from living bodies, and of the dying and rebirth of the moon, and its imagined baccinalic tethers to mideaval bodies... and at some point I must have trailed off because the next thing I was aware of was silence and the buzzing of the flourescent lights, and twenty pairs of eyes staring at me, some with looks of genuine sympathy, and others with puzzled impatience. I suppose they thought that I was verklempt over the loss of a pet, lost in some moment of rembrance or sadness. I don't know. Perhaps I was. But as I reconstruct the moment now, I believe that in that pause I had tickled loose some arcane bit of knowledge from my physics training. Up floated the thermodynamic concept that defines bodies as a localized pockets of negative entropy that feed parasitcally on the energy surrounding them. Although bodies generate order and structure within themselves, they do not add to the overall orderliness and structure of the cosmos. On the contrary, bodies actually accellerate the overall entropy or "heat death" of the universe hastening the inevitable march from cosmos into chaos.

I guess that this can be taken to be some sort of nerdy, detached approximation of grief: The simple death of a cat transformed into Mortality with a capital "M", death at a cosmic scale, a scale so grand that while it can be thought, it can't actually be felt anymore-- at least not by me.

So maybe my more sypathetic students were right. I had simply skidded into an unexpected moment of sadness. But I think that I stopped talking because in that moment I suddenly realized that I knew absolutely nothing about bodies.