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Re: Book Art vs. Book Arts



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OK, let me try this one last time. But, I will not be "egged on" by the
contumelious tone of my correspondant. Rather, in the spirit of that
lovable gamin, Richard the Third, I will "weigh it but with the grossness
of this age."

For those of you who wish to weigh into the discussion, but fear this has
become a private affair, I humbly invite you in. The issue is, I think,
what is the best relationship of art and criticism. For those more
technically inclined, who may be wearying under this thread, I request
your forbearance. No need for catcalls. I seem to recall that short,
tense, theoretical, discussions often precede long, light-hearted and
delightful talk of technical and tactile topics. There is a really
informative and useful discussion looming on the horizon.

I originally critized Jules Siegel's characterization of abstract art as
"meaningless," based on the following paragraph, which I have lifted from
the BOOK ARTS L ARCHIVE (and many thanks, once again, to Peter Verhayen
for making the archives, and this truly splendid discussion list,
possible).

Jules Siegel wrote, "I think we should be very suspicious of art criticism
in general, and always be aware of its economic and political context. Art
has always been an instrument of power. Our church is industrialism and
our Medici are corporate power brokers. When realism becomes heresy and
abstract expressionism is enshrined because it is meaningless, we do have
to think about what those choices imply."

Siegel urges a mode of suspicion regarding art criticism with which I
agree, but with reservations. A certain good will should be accorded
critics if one is to begin to understand their experience of art. One
should remember, of course, that it is *their* experience about which they
are writing, and not necessarily *yours* or *God's,* and, as such, it is
grounded in their own subjective, empirical experience, and filtered
through their own precritical, a priori, beliefs and intuitions, not
yours.  Accepting that, realize, too, that the whole vast enterprise of
criticism is a dialogical component of all art making, unless you are
ready to accept that art is merely solipsistic play. That way madness lies
(or, perhaps, thoroughly enjoyable amateurism). Often it is the case that
criticism forms part of a heuristic, incremental and dynamic process, a
contact point between language systems. If the artist is overly cynical
about the process, or feels compelled to control the reception and
interpretation of his or her work, he or she will only produce art that
winds up weeping upon its own headstone.

What I originally rejected in JS's post was the ad hoc insinuation that
abstract expressionism is "meaningless", and the paradoxical assertion
that criticism would "enshrine" the meaningless. The refusal to conceive
of criticism as a disinterested search for meaning in art seems to me the
crippling limitation of an us/them ideological bias, which inevitably
reads its own worst fears into the texts it sets out to interpret. I
consider the tedious and (to me) offensive speculations about my political
motivations with which I have been peppered as evidence of this failing.
Just as Jules Siegel cannot conceive of my disinterestedness he cannot
conceive of criticism's disinterestedness. I must be with him or agin him.
I personally confronted this kind of polemical nuisance in the early
seventies. Protestors barred the way to the library, chanting that if I
was not part of their solution, I was part of their problem. What a drag!
Well, history shows I was part of neither.

Although JS has softed his stance in his concluding remarks (just "raising
doubts about the validity of restrictive definitions of art that often
have political rather than aesthetic motivations"), I still disagree
with its fundamental anti-critical bias.

If we strip away the rhetorical "often" and the redundant "restrictive,"
what we are left with is a statement that posits aesthetic motivation and
political in a binary opposition. Aesthetics/politics as a binary that
holds interpretive force in any general way for understanding art or art
criticism is particularly hollow. By opposing aesthetics to politics, JS
ascribes to aesthetics, or our disposition toward forming and
intellectualizing taste, a privileged status as an exemplary,
pre-existing, a priori, condition: kind of form as platonic form.

In other words, "aesthetics" serves as a sign for the sacred, and,
"politics" (which he reduces to mean self-advancement or opportunism) a
sign of the profane. This is not an argument in the classical,
rationalist, sense, but an unfalsifiable premise--one, I will suggest, in
which we find reinscribed the old Marxist--what one might "joshingly" call
"pinko"--couple, namely production/consumption: Production is good and
consumption, oh so wicked. This opposition is crucial to JS's thinking, as
we have it. It is centerstage in his original, Polonian admonition that
artists should "always be aware" of criticism's economic context, and his
rodomantade about the Medicis and the "industrialists." And its
ramifications are on telling display in the primordial scapegoating of
Clem Greenberg (qua political/art consumer/critic).

I was surprised to see Greenberg defended in this group on the grounds of
his political naivete rather than his brilliant critical insights. Let's
not forget that he did not succeed as a critic and influence modern art
history because of any involvement with the CIA, nor, certainly, because
of a totalitarian regime repressing through terrorism and violence
alternative points of view, but because of his hyper-education, his
sustained critical attention to the work of unique and extraordinary
artists and the developing discourse around their art, and his iron
determination to put his ideas on the firing line. (And I will risk
incurring JS's Olympian disadain, or his Marcusian disgust, by observing
that Greenberg could do this in a country whose "animating idea,"
according to John Higham, in *Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in
American Culture,* remains "a belief in the equal rights of individuals in
the interest of maximum personal autonomy.")

Parentetically, I was thinking about our Greenberg discussion earlier in
the week when I came across a defense of yuppies (of all things); it noted
that the P stood for professional, that young lawyers did need to wear the
right clothes and make the right references either to wine or travel to
get ahead, but that those things in themselves did not make them lawyers.
Education, passing the bar exam, intelligence and 14 hour workdays did.

Rather than reducing politics to a hateful symbol (a symbol of the
meaningless), it might be more productive to consider for a moment the
similarities between politics, broadly conceived, and aesthetics. Both
function as integrative mechanisms for social cohesiveness.  On the social
level, political systems and aesthetic movements can both can be usefully
studied as social constructions, as reflections of their time, of the
Zeitgeist. On the personal level, the underlying personal predilections
toward individual aesthetic and political choices are commensurable,
reflexive and mutually conditioning. Indeed, up through a fairly high
level of conceptualization, aesthetics and politics are as alike as stem
cells. Why else would art tend toward socio-political commentary, whether
subversive or hegemonic? How would Rivera's statement that "all art is
political" even be comprehensible to us? Without the commensurability of
taste and social organization, how could we perceive the rhetorical skill,
the artfulness, even the performative virtuosity in political gesture,
whether in the logophilia of Bill Clinton or the praetorian protectiveness
of The Great Communicator, or understand how artists as dissimilar as
Norman Mailer, Vaclav Havel and Mario Vargas Llosa could attempt political
careers. How could TV be so definitive in national and local political
campaigns unless voters were predisposed to interpret aesthetic virtue as
political virtue. If JS had written that we should be CRITICAL about ALL
definitions of art, even the ones you, yourself, frame, because ALL
definitions are to an extent repressive, I could agree.

Finally, what can we make of JS's caveat about political motivation in
light of his obsessive privileging of his own political position.
Considering his obsessive rage with the Rockefellers, and his hilarious
bumper sticker art, perhaps it is liberal politics or a surrogate of the
liberal establishment he is intending to denounce, not political
motivation tout court. Perhaps his advice represents an odd displacement
of a rage against the so-called repressive tolerance shown by liberal
democracies (i.e., criticism represents the historical modifications that
pose a threat of repression to the artistic instinct.) Isn't your
denouncement of political motivation somewhat akin to deSade preaching
sexual abstinence, Jules?


Michael Joseph

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