Guest Post by Faye Kahn
Every Sternberg/Semiotext(e)/Verso volume with Yale Design School layout is an impenetrable brick of ostensible magic that’s going to save the human race. I really think this for a range of 10 minutes to 10 years per book. Yet even though I have been reading October every day for three years on every NYC Transit route there was only one time I was ever confronted about it & the guy was laughing! Still, the mystery of the text is irresistible, though after chatting with other arts writers, there seems to be a concern about the future of art criticism; that it’s not as integral a part of the structure & motivational force of the art world as it used to be, & furthermore, there is confusion in identifying an audience. The source of this anxiety is varied & not everyone subscribes to it. Still, through my personal experience with theory I can understand why a frustration exists, both for authors & audience.
It’s difficult to read art theory & criticism. It’s impossible for me to know how other people interpret text, but as an a person of average intelligence I can describe a sensation of mental aimlessness & meandering when trying to parse an uphill paragraph. Putting on blinders & focusing intently on the words the I gradually collect rewarding instances of realization & perspective. This is enough of a carrot to keep me reading. Still, the going is slow. Theory is slow, the contemporary is fast: it’s entirely possible that this is the final conclusion. Like most professional fields, the barrier of slowness is a mental hazing method but the rewards here don’t seem to pay off enough for large-scale generation-defying fraternities. However, if it’s true that it’s losing connection or usefulness to its own field, the effort can start to seem myopic.
Barnett Newman famously said that “aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds.” Birds are not only not interested in ornithology but they are incapable of being interested in it. Such a terse reading of that quote might be a little unforgiving, but it’s interesting to revisit this notion from late-Modernist times today in regards to the perceived identity crisis of art writing. All artists are certainly not unaware of it, but it is easier today to be an artist without a knowledge or involvement in traditional art theoretical discourse. Faster modes of communication than text (images) are more conducive to conversation today. The image response, as the most expedient & accurate modes of communicating quickly, is a much more handy tool. ASCII, Unicode, & Emoji: day to day communication is condensed (& the phrase “hard to follow” now refers to twitter), alienating the dry over-enunciated walls of text that make up theoretical contributions.
As Hal Foster points out, during ArtForum’s heyday in the 60s & 70s,”late-modernist criticism made fine distinctions on which the fate of art was thought to depend—the difference, say, between a ‘deductive structure’ by Frank Stella and a “specific object” by Donald Judd—and often it presented these differences as absolute.” This necessity for theoretical discussion is not totally absent today- but art dependent on by critical analysis has become a genre of sorts. Boris Groys says that
“A work of art is traditionally understood as something that wholly embodies art[…]When we go to an art exhibition we generally assume that whatever is there on display–paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, readymades, or installations, must be art. The individual artworks can of course in one way or another make reference to things that they are not, maybe to real-world objects or to certain political issues, but they are not thought to refer to art itself, because they themselves are art. However, this traditional assumption has proven to be increasingly misleading. Besides finding works of art, present-day art spaces also confront us with the documentation of art.” 
Although Groys is referring to the position of the artwork in the exhibition space as the documentation of the art itself, the statement is haunted by the situation of an exhibition space with placeholder artworks that function solely as referents to outside documentation & unstable explanations to be determined by later analysis. Movement away from aesthetic to conceptual merit is now common practice, though certainly more in some cases than others. Aesthetic attractiveness is more often seen now as a measure or capability of capitalist valuation of the object rather than an agent for a deeper social commentary or revolution. Thus, birds interested in ornithology & birds uninterested.
Lately I have found art theory exhaustingly cynical. I suppose the word “criticism” has a lot to do with this, however much of it seems to only a self-serving end. Often as a reader I approach the text with wonder & leave it feeling like a fluorescent light has been turned on to reveal all pleasant things have poisonous blemishes. A person can only take so much of this before becoming fed up or hopeless or annoyed that something prescient about how to live life is being ignored because the art community is busy circle-jerking to their exclusive & privileged (negative) perspectives on the world. That said, art theory ensconces beautiful ideas within its heavy labyrinthine walls of referential grandiloquent & excessively punctuated & footnoted jargon (“International Art English”?), & somehow this keeps me (us?) going. However, more & more, it has been exceedingly reassuring to go to the exhibition & realize that art has been growing & still grows around you when you & intellectuals aren’t looking.
H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
1. Foster, Hal. “Critical Condition,” Artforum International, Sep2012, Vol. 51 Issue 1, p147-148
2. Groys, Boris. e-flux, December 2009, Issue 11, p1-11
In the fall of 1985, when I read that Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield was going to sign autographs at a Long Island Hilton, I decided I would execute the most exactingly perfect Ticonderoga No 2-on-paper portrait of him that had ever been produced. I had the paper and the pencils, but was forced to buy packs of baseball cards to find an image of him. I went through a month’s-worth of allowance before I finally found the card in a Topps wax pack. Over the next four nights I completed what I still consider my masterpiece. And if you doubt its quality, I’ll have you know Mr. Winfield himself told me it was “astounding” when he signed it on a Saturday morning in November 1985. That cultural treasure has hung in my father’s office for more than 20 years.
Last Tuesday, I was wondering what a mature Bot Fly looked like. I Googled it, and in 15 seconds I knew. And what blood fluke, hook worms and intestinal amoebas looked like. All collateral infections from my search, these organisms now freeload in my visual memory like actual parasites might in my gut.
Twenty-seven years ago I couldn’t locate a picture of a celebrity for the better part of a week and today I can pull up twenty thousand of an obscure protozoan or a flesh eating fly in a few seconds.
When I sketched Dave Winfield at my family’s kitchen table two-and-a-half decades ago, the tide of cultural criticism about the information age had already crested: Jean Baudrillard’s “Hyper-Realism of Simulation,” Hal Foster’s “Subversive Signs” and “Learning from Las Vegas,” were all in the ether. And the work of the artists of the “Pictures Generation”—Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Prince, et al.—were all established and hanging in Eugene and Barbara Schwartz’s living room.
After reading about worms that would enjoy living in my digestive tract, I revisited a little of Fredric Jameson’s “Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. It was the bit about Van Gogh’s peasant boots versus Warhol’s diamond dust shoes. It’s amazing how prescient he and the others were about imagery, media and accelerated culture. It seems as if they felt the Internet waiting to split civilization at the seams. But, in much the same way the overdetermined, everything-will-be-made-of-aluminum pulp science fiction of the 1950’s, the look-and-feel of those “Pictures” artists, and the accompanying media theories, expired before the more substantial part of the message was absorbed.
Now, as hyper-reality prevails in earnest, and all the futuristic amenities predicted in the Jetsons, save for household robots, arrive, we seem to have normalized and adapted to the vertigo of image overload.
Finding an photo of Dave Winfield was half the battle for an artist in 1985. Now the finding is meaningless and the editing is primary. Some consider this condition visual emancipation, but in time most will see it as visual paralysis, a massive amoebic whole leaching the power of helpless individual pictures.
Without trying I can name artists who make images whose content is sourced from diseased organs to supernovae to shopping carts to movie star pets to NASCAR crashes. I saw a collage recently that featured images of emus, James Taylor, Hubble telescopes, Sesame Street characters and gyrating porn stars, and still it hit me softer than the shimmering highlights on the evening gown of one of Sargent’s ladies. I can yawn in front a Ryan Trecartin…which proves his point and his value as a cultural commentator. The frisson once evoked by the uncanny juxtapositions enacted by Kurt Schwitters or James Rosenquist have been neutralized by the white noise tidal wave of the internet and the spigot that is the search engine.
This condition makes Richard Prince’s cowboys and Sherrie Levine’s Edward Westons look extra profound to me in 2012, and forces me to consider if society is capable of putting good commentary to use, or if even at its best, well-aimed cultural criticism will be processed as good taste. It also makes me look at my Dave Winfield and wonder if my children will ever know what it’s like to thumb through a pack of baseball cards one by one, reading each image, recording every graphic detail with butterflies in their stomach. My guess is that the orgiastic charge that coursed through me when his card appeared in that pack had something to do with the mystery of limitation and the magic of scarcity.
Someone once said with knowledge goes magic, and with magic goes knowledge. I think I know a place where where that scarcity and limits still exist. To be continued…