Monday, January 19, 2009

Not enough Marxism, too much Marxism, or: how avant-garde artists and writers describe their work

Last Thursday, Mark and I headed down to La Jolla to see Sophie Calle speak at the Museum of Contemporary art. I adore her work, and she was fabulous in person--wore heavy floral perfume that still somehow smelled good, was clear and precise when describing her work but still very charming and personable.

Some of her early work made me think about the kinds of demands that writing has to always explain itself and be virtuous. In "The Bronx," she asked strangers in the Bronx to take her somewhere meaningful to them. She then photographed them and wrote down their stories. I immediately thought of Brenda Coultus' A Handmade Museum that a kind of historic documentary/tour in poetry of the Bowery. It's a work that is very consciously investigating how we inhabit space, notions of public/private, and the very real effects of corporate capitalism and neoliberalism etc in a post 9/11 New York and beyond. Calle' s "The Bronx" is also a kind of documentary tour of a New York neighbourhood, albeit a different neighbourhood in a very different time. Unlike Coltus' A Handmade Museum, it doesn't attempt to justify itself as, well, some kind of art that's going to either liberate its participants or combat Capitalism, or even describe the effects of Capitalism.

I wonder if reviewers and Calle's peers ever discussed it in those terms. When briefly describing "The Bronx" on Thursday, Calle said that she wanted to create a piece that 1) highlighted the danger and risk of living in the Bronx (hence putting herself in the care of a stranger) and 2) wanted something that acknowledged the "ghetto" aspect of the Bronx--and it was clear she meant ghetto in the traditional sense of the term--a place in a city where a minority lives because direct and indirect social and economic violence force them to live there and make it difficult for them to leave. I mean, the whole piece clearly does illuminate all sorts of interesting and complicated social, economic and political relationships. What I'm most struck by, I suppose is the fact that Calle clearly didn't feel like she had to describe the piece in the Leftist theoretical terms that reviewers use to describe Coltus' A Handmade Museum.

When I was up in LA for the Cal Arts conference Untitled: Speculations on the Expanded Field of Writing," I saw Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (Marc Voge and Young-Hae Chang) talk on a panel and also present one of their pieces. Stephanie Taylor & Heriberto Yepez were both on the panel, the title of which was "The Concept of Conceptual Writing: What is the relation between conceptual writing and the trajectory of conceptual art?" I bring up YHCHI first because the piece they presented could have easily had direct political implications--it was a very charming comic narrative of someone who buys fake documentation to come to the US, has a series of mishaps, but eventually makes it to the US alright and has a happy ending. I'm not sure anyone on the panel actually talked about the relationship between conceptual writing and the trajectory of conceptual art. However, there was a major difference between the way Yepez presented his work and the way Taylor and YHCHI presented their work. Yepez spoke very directly about the need for overt political engagement in art, Taylor and YHCHI didn't. Marc Voge said, "We have to admit that we haven't considered these issues." Yepez is a writer, Taylor and YHCHI are not.

I'm paraphrasing, but in a conversation I had afterwards with Joseph Mosconi, he said that it was kind of retro or passe for artists to justify or describe their work in direct political terms. (Joseph, is that what you said? Do you remember? I can't remember the specific word that you used).

So, after that panel, and after hearing Sophie Calle speak last night, part of me was thining about how much I'd love to not have to explain myself, and how much more flexible and fun the visual art world sometimes seems. (Or maybe life is just better for artists in France and LA--that's also quite possible).

On the other hand, I confess that I do become frustrated with writers who, for example, can quote Bataille, Bakhtin, and maybe Baudrillard, but they probably haven't read Guy Debord and know almost nothing about the Frankfurt School. Or if they've read Debord they haven't read Society of the Spectacle. They've studied aesthetics or only the most aesthetic political theory without studying any political theory. Fredric Jameson anyone? Monsieur Louis Pierre Althusser? Horkheimer and Adorno? And really, how is it possible to get through, for example, Judith Butler, and not want to go further into both Marxist theory as well as pyschoanalytic literature. Don't get me started on how we need to read more Freud and Lacan, but people who read a lof of Freud and Lacan are often annoying.

Sticking with the feeling of being annoyed: I get annoyed with art and poetry that can only define itself in terms of a very narrow version of Marxist liberation, and I get annoyed with art and poetry that doesn't address social and economic conditions. I get annoyed with art and poety that addresses social and economic conditions but then can only talk about them in terms of Marxist theory.

So, what to do? Is anyone thinking about these things and fascinated/annoyed with them?


Catherine said...

While I'm not really familiar with either work you mention (although I own A HANDMADE MUSEUM), one can see some crucial differences just in the titles

for example, no matter how marxist, or how socially engaged Coultas' work, she does conjure the idea of a museum, a curator, and sculptures: a revision of the institution/idea, but a construction of one; the world is evaluated; items meeting these values are made into art objects and institutionalised. these things, museums, curators ("special" among observers), art objects do have a relationship -- not perhaps to capitalism per se, but to markets, consumers, sponsors, and empire. the effects of capitalism are enshrined.

on the other hand, not knowing the work The Bronx, just the place (which is *not a ghetto* although the area around the CBE is certainly grim), it seems that one of the things a direct, personal relationship has diminished is a more complex view of history.

btw, it is just as annoying when writers have only read debord and adorno and are all high and mighty about it : )

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Catherine,

"btw, it is just as annoying when writers have only read debord and adorno and are all high and mighty about it : )"

Oh, totally--part of what I am ranting about is a kind of either/or dynamic.

I think the Bronx was more of a "ghetto" in the sense that Sophie Calle described when she did the project there in the early 1980s.

Your comments about Coultas' book are helpful--there is, as you say, a curatorial aspect to the work she's doing in the book. Of course visual art has a "markets, consumers, sponsors, and empire" (and Capitalism, I'd say) just like writing does. What I was musing on in my post is the way that (albeit in my limited experience) visual artists seem to talk about their work versus the way that poets seem to.

Joseph said...

Hmmm...I don't quite remember the conversation we had, Lorraine, but if I did say that, I was probably talking out of my ass -- because it's obviously a big generalization. I mean, I guess it depends on the artist; there are visual artists, definitely, that make overtly political work -- though I don't know that they would necessarily feel the need to back up their work with theory: just off hand, I can think of Paul Chan, the Speculative Archive, Emily Jacir, even Thomas Hirschhorn to a certain extent. I just don't think there is the same sort of pressure in the visual arts as there is in certain strains of (forgive me) "experimental," "innovative," "post-avant," what-have-you poetries to be oppositional or overtly political. Not many people are going to fault Laura Owens, for instance, because her paintings fail to critique America's nefarious influence on third world economies.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Joseph,

Thanks for your comment, and for being gracious about my rather hazy memory of our conversation that was probably either more complex than I related it (or maybe I was drunk). At any rate, you noted "Not many people are going to fault Laura Owens, for instance, because her paintings fail to critique America's nefarious influence on third world economies." Yes, that's exactly the kind of thing I've been thinking about.

I don't think I'm totally making it up that sometimes we poets are challenged to justify what we're doing with theory. Not that I think it's *entirely* bad either. All of this has been on my mind again after revisiting our dialog that Mark posted, and as I mentioned, hearing Sophie Calle speak and thinking, basically, that I could never, ever get away with doing what she does as a writer.

Am I being to narrow and pessimistic? It is Monday, after all : )

Catherine said...

".. there is [pressure] in certain strains of (forgive me) "experimental," "innovative," "post-avant," what-have-you poetries to be oppositional or overtly political."

I totally agree!!!

tmorange said...

hi lorraine,

your examples notwithstanding, i'm not terribly comfortable generalizing too much about various arts and the extent to which one can/must justify or theorize one's work therein or not. i think we have to admit a lot of latitude into discussions of the "necessity" of "justifying" or "theorizing" one's "work," by which i mean these terms in scare quotes have entail a lot of variables.

yes, there are fascinating differences (tho i suppose also some similarities) between visual and verbal arts in these regards. visual artists trained in the writing of "artist's statements" are probably used to this requirement that they explain, justify, orient the work somehow. but that does not necessarily mean that they are trained or used to doing it well. (having taught writing in art school you know this better than i do i'm sure.) but it depends on what the evaluative criteria are.

i don't think we have a similar genre or exercise in verbal arts unless it be the "poetics statement" which i don't think is quite as consistently common for poets (who might have a few poetics statements over a lifetime that pretty much cover or account for their entire body of work, as opposed to a new artist's statement for each show that a visual artist might have).

i've often felt the vizarts approach to theory to be pretty fast and loose, lots of name-checking and quote-dropping without necessarily a sustained or "rigorous" engagement with the material. go back through some random issues of artforum from the 1980s and 1990s and you may see what i mean.

though even there, poets get criticized for "soft theory" -- there was a big to do years back, i think coming out of that page mothers conference or even the barnard lyric/language thing before that (this was late 1990s) that ms perloff took contemporary women poets to task for too much "soft theorization" in their poetics statements. (!) this as you can imagine did not go over well, and rightfully so.

because to me it's less a matter of theory/justification versus none at all, but what degree kind or manner of theory/justification is adequate to the work. or not even what is necessary but what is sufficient. and here in part you're getting at the question of how self-sufficient or self-evident should a work be on its own and how much additional or external explanation, justification, theorization does it need. obviously you don't want to do all the reader/viewer's thinking for her. but overdoing it or doing it halfbaked haphazardly whatever can also be a problem, perhaps even moreso. obviously we can't all know or anticipate all of the thought-resonances that are going to be struck in all readers/viewers who happen upon our work. but if your work is claiming to explore the unconscious and you have no knowledge of freud whatsoever, that may be a problem. (may, because there are those kinds of outsider or otherwise raw unschooled etc practices that i think can be really successful without the whole thought-apparatus behind them.)

because we all also only have limited time and reading attentions with which to study up on everything that we should be. just the other day rob h was talking about kenneth burke and i remembered how highly i think of burke and how useful his thought and writing can be and how little use people make of him. oh well, add him to the long list. i actually just picked up hannah arendt's the human condition and am going to have a go at her work for the first time ever.

and i think there's work now that completely speaks for itself even when it is almost altogether silent (e.g. laura e's piece at the KSW conference) and that there is work that almost demands discussion and even heated argument afterwards because it seems so conflicted or ambiguous in what it's trying to do. and that there is room at our table for these types of work and everything in between...


p.s. joseph i think some of the above addresses this in part, but yes when you say "I just don't think there is the same sort of pressure in the visual arts as there is in certain strains of (forgive me) 'experimental,' 'innovative,' 'post-avant,' what-have-you poetries to be oppositional or overtly political" i find myself partly agreeing but i also want to go further and ask WHY? has the visart world come to terms with irrelevance, or commercialism, or something else, in ways that our poetries have not? and i'm not sure i'm finding answers to the question dependent on, say, theory.

i dunno. anyone?

K. Lorraine Graham said...

@Catherine: yes, I agree, as you agree, with Joseph's point that ".. there is [pressure] in certain strains of (forgive me) "experimental," "innovative," "post-avant," what-have-you poetries to be oppositional or overtly political." Hence this post--after several events, and especially the Sophie Calle lecture I mentioned above, I was noticing the same thing. Part of me is irritated by that pressure, and part of me requires it. The poetry I'm interested in, as I noted, frequently engages social or political issues. I become frustrated with the narrow range of aesthetics that "political poetry" often demands.

@Tom: You said "because to me it's less a matter of theory/justification versus none at all, but what degree kind or manner of theory/justification is adequate to the work." Yes, that summarizes what I was trying to articulate. The theory has to be adequate to the work, as you say.

Regarding Joseph's comment that now, Catherine, you, and I have quoted: well, yeah, of course I want to know why. That's the puzzle that started this post in the first place. I think it's possible that the visual art world has come to terms with commercialism in a way that poetry hasn't. No one with extra money invests in poetry, really.

mark wallace said...

Having the theory be adequate to the work is certainly an excellent principle to live by.

It's probably less useful, though, as a way of understanding how theoretical statements get produced in various fields, which also has as much to do with the social conventions of those fields.

I've been asked by editors for at least as many statements about poetry as I have about poems themselves. I'm sure that's not true for everyone, but I bet it's true for people other than me.

Poetry may be a field in which people become energized (or at least appear to) by statements about it as much as by poems themselves. I don't say that happily, and I certainly include myself as part of the problem. Poems are often met by silence, but discussions about statements about poetry can go on and on and on.

Like my comments here.

Catherine said...

Well, I think part of it springs from there being a heck of a lot of readers and writers of poetry who don't realize langpo is by and large a political poetry. Even when I wrote a review of Rachel Loden's first book (second one coming out very soon!!!!!), it was about how political poetry in the public is torn between occasional verse and Milocz. There's just no non-identity, non-recitative politics in some worlds.

These are all items, that when conscious, pose certain challenges....

Joseph said...

I think there's a conflation here between "theory" and "politics". It's one thing to have theory be adequate to the work; most visual artists operate under some sort of theory and so do poets. Like Tom says, "visual artists trained in the writing of 'artist's statements' are probably used to this requirement that they explain, justify, orient the work somehow;" this is certainly true, and if the artist received his or her MFA at an art school like CalArts, UCLA, USC, Otis or Art Center (just to name the Los Angeles schools) they almost certainly were trained to defend their work on theoretical grounds. But I don't think there is any overwhelming pressure to be political or oppositional if it doesn't fit the work. It's simply a different concern: a sculptor for instance is going to be concerned primarily with objects and space -- and while I can certainly imagine a political sculpture or installation (Sam Durant for instance), politics doesn't have to enter into it if it is not something the artist is exploring. But an intention definitely needs to be stated.

This weekend I went to a talk at MOCA that involved the artists Mary Kelly, Charles Gaines and David Bunn. The first two artists are fairly overtly political in their work and they each had extremely dense theoretical "defenses" of their work (Kelly admitted that she doesn't usually like to be so expository when describing her work but that the circumstances seemed to call for it). David Bunn is not so overtly political, more of a classic conceptualist. He was given the LA Library card catalog when they went digital, and he makes most of his art and "poetry", as it happens, from the language of the card catalogs. (A lot of his poetry is very similar to what Ara Shirinyan does). As David Bun was describing his turn to poetry in the mid-80s, he mentioned that he had a lot of trepidation because by writing poetry he would be working in a discipline that had been totally discredited, maligned and marginalized by visual artists due to its perceived subjective affect, uncriticality and notions of "masterliness." He claims he was partially able to get around this problem by using totally appropriated language and creating an objective, material poetry. Later, Charles Gaines echoed Bunn's reservation by claiming that he could have no commitment to poetry for pretty much the same reasons -- poetry isn't critical, its all subjective affect and emotional effusion. "You can't think and have feelings at the same time," he said.

Now, I found this pretty weird -- they obviously have a very outdated idea of what's going on in the field of poetry.

Later, talking to some artist friends, they told me they feel no pressure at all to be political or oppositional in their work; on the contrary, they feel pressured to be indistinct, fuzzy, formless, unfinished, unpolished, to use cheap materials, to make their work seem casual and tossed-off, etc because that's what's popular now and that's what's currently selling in the galleries!

Catherine said...

is that the guy who did the inside of the lapl elevators with old card catalog cards?

actually, the same strange view of poetry held at the hammer, where the text art curator had no knowledge or respect for non-visual artists' text work, and no sense of how that might be even comparable quality art

I started a thread on the la art girls listserv; will try to blog over