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[In response to the essay Under the Gaze of Theory by Boris Groys (e-flux, May 2012)]
Boris Groys undertakes a daunting and delicate task creating a polemic that appears to be simultaneously aimed at and supporting art theory. What is enjoyable about it lies in his sensitivity to the artist’s plight. He calls attention to a shared awareness that the role of theory has limited power, and the tension surrounding the question of utility that plagues the value of art in all of its tiers of public engagement. The result is a difficult read, requiring on my part several passes and pages of notes, because the essay seems to bounce between each point being made then followed by its opposite. Essentially, he successfully takes us through an anxious artist’s mind. My initial reading noted a collection of points that I frequently encounter as generally found agreeable by artists. So my response is not directly to the essay itself, but that I find in it a suitable, comprehensive ground to pursue my critical interest.
I should begin with an outline of what my objective is – to increase access to what I consider an essential function of the human being, what we generally call art. I am assuming that all human activities are capable of manifesting private and expressive modes. I assume it’s agreed that these activities, along with language, social behavior, desire and necessity, can be shaped, influenced, oppressed, and liberated. My interest lies in the liberation. I want to make it plain that I think Groys has the same interest at heart. So first to make my intentions clear – the sort of liberation I am after is access, specifically access to art. The theory he discusses is as amorphous in its context as its supposed counterpart. In seeking the liberation of art by untethering theory, what is actually accomplished is little more than setting theory adrift, where it will bounce from side to side without steerage. It is in this aimless drift that we find a true obstacle to access. One may gain a nuance of clarity or confusion that aligns with their course of interest, but the writer’s sincere efforts to break through the haze that surrounds access falls flat. To achieve access is a practical concern, and while it is possible to liberate thinking through deconstruction, there is no gain in access by reducing ideas to ineffectuality. For the sake of practice, there must be tangibility.
Right out of the gate, the artist’s concerns are laid out clearly in the essay. Modernity in art is tied to theory, because it is difficult to access, yet the public generally accepts art without the theory, making it unnecessary. But modernity in art is also tied to the acute collapse of tradition, so artists need theory to know what to do with themselves. Theory is needed to universalize art, to liberate it from its collapsing cultural identities, but if theory must come first, then art is over, because art was traditionally opposed to reason. This is followed by a flowchart of famous philosophers that demonstrates the rejection of art as irrational. Well outlined, the anxious ellipse I have heard so often. The author then addresses the problem, built on this structure, by invoking the classic splitting point where reason became self-aware, tradition (usually meaning socio-economic role, synonymous with religious worldview) perished, while art struggles as its attention necessarily remains focused on the inner life. Thus is the perpetuation of the void that has come to replace the metaphysical role in theory, a void awkwardly occupied by art. He considers pre-Enlightenment inner life as subject to the gaze of God, and after, subject to theory, calling it the profane gaze. He then proceeds to seek after something redeeming in all of this, identifying theory as a call to action where, faced with existential mortality, theory asks us to demonstrate that we are alive, but in doing so he takes us into the unclear territory of generalizing theory itself.
What we get in discussions of this type is a collection of specified anecdotes that do not readily apply to the whole, and from this tangled rewiring the author seeks to transmit a relationship between theory and the individual. As he continues, the question of theory appears to dissolve into a critique of purpose, will, and identity; a pastiche of thoughts that are collectively agreeable, but inconclusive. In the end, the writer seems to be aware of being off course, concluding that art is participatory and egalitarian, followed by the caveat that it is not really so participatory, in fact it is necessarily supernal and thus isolating. The reader finds many agreeable statements throughout, and wants to cheer the egalitarian or even supernal conclusion, but is forced instead to acknowledge, though in camaraderie with the author, that little in the way of liberation has been drawn.
Generally there are two early indicators, when reading theory, that it is not going to be of much use for the objective of access. I usually spot the pattern within a few paragraphs.
The first clue: civilization has a reliance on absolutes, this is a symptom of the fixation with (literally, being affixed to) linear time. Linear time here typically means history (the effects on the perception of the accumulated past, especially future perceptions of the past), utility (predicted effects, including profitability, repeatability and prestige) and success (future projections that will not end in failure). Given enough continuity, every timeline fully exhausts its degrees and increments – we fill them in with fact and abridgement, whether the latter is ruinous, mythical or by the simplest of means, omission. The line itself is absolute in all areas of civilized life, because imperialization is not a living experience but one that takes place within the virtual mental framework of time. Because it is a line, two points define time: beginning and end. Because time is experienced as absolute, so too are its beginning and endings. The imperial preoccupation finds its mystical roots in the linear timeline, and produces a closed system in which all things great and small terminate and belong.
The terminal point is the most typical focus (and the negation) of efforts to consider progress. This is the first clue that an argument is fixated and linear: the references to death in art and its theories – death of art, death of God, death of self-knowledge (“I cannot know my own death, therefore I cannot know my own life.”), death in the eyes of the Other, death of objectivity, etc. Often a critic seems only to be equipped with a toolkit of pre-mortem novelties. Groys in his own way rejects this but cannot escape its pull when it comes to formulating an argument for escape. Central to this is the anxious subject of reason’s sad acceptance of the absolute end, after trumping eternity, which is so familiar to artists at this point. We can rest assured nothing further is going to come of it; theory loses all its teeth once the subject denies its own existence.
I will spend less time discussing this, other than to simply refer the reader to this matter of time and perception as a major tenet in the myth of imperial centrality, the solemn origin of its cultural bias. I would rather discuss the possibility that despite bias, there remain matters that are more redeeming and universal in theory, and I will attempt to attack the subject from this viewpoint, better revealed in the following, secondary flaw.
The second sign of imperializing simulation in critique is the omission of the possibility that theory (language) is as a material more organic than it is metallic, or to put it another way, that theory is a crucial method of enjoyment and play between people. This view is generally left aside as it is almost impossible to fold into a structure that relies on objectifiable results for its authority. It is much easier to list a condensed liturgy of historic principals to make a point with cumulative validation, than it is to get in and muddle around with the ideas. Any philosopher worth the mention will have internal disagreements, contradictions, moments of public lucidity and moments of academic rigor designed to put bread on the table. The reduction of philosophy to strictly contextual talking points is a sure indication that it is employed to make a flow chart – not a real discussion. This is also a form of cultural bias, in which ideas, like all forms of territory, are known only by being discovered, with the discoverer being synonymous with idea, and also neutralized by it – no longer an independent, ordinary person (which in this culture is considered desirable).
These two forms of cultural bias are a classic couplet in much that I read on the subject. Yet a more satisfying solution to addressing theory does not stray too far, in spirit, from these entrenched observations – known by many but acknowledged by few, this willful obscurity is a question of eminence. I would like to enthusiastically recommend that this may in fact be a simple matter, in theory: transferring eminence from the authoritarian to the individual. While appealing, this is hardly a new claim, as we are still in decaying orbit around the black hole of linear-time. But the means of admitting a third possibility to this intractable, abstract dispute of theory as good vs. theory as bad is a surprisingly simple dialectic: there is no problem.
The reason we dispassionately embrace this working method, and collect affirmations of anxiety like the milagros of a pilgrimage on a heavy chain, can be summed up pretty simply. We are in love with the problem. The problem creates a synthetic feeling of relation to the distant world, and it is the way in which the distant world can organize itself to contact the isolated individual.
We live in a time of little or no middle ground. Here middle ground means such things as family group, community, region, even nationality. What remains for the completely globalized individual is only the intimate (our lonely core) and the distant (the millions). Attempts at involvement outside the self appear necessarily to face a distant shore. In turn, all appeals to individual minds must occur in the public arena of the distant and widespread, no easy task, underlining the desirability and challenge of access.
Over time we have evolved a universal method grown in the substrate of language itself: the presenting of a problem. I forward the notion that humans as essentially social are motivated by intimacy, and in a structure where middle ground is lacking, methods are collectively developed to bridge the gap. The problem creates a brief context with minimal language, it defines the role of expert as authenticator of the problem, and most importantly it serves to make us feel something like relation. When the other invokes a problem that we too are concerned about, something of our knowledge is validated in that moment, creating the illusion of shared view. We find ourselves placed into context by the problem, in touch, expert confirmed, with no need to look too deeply as we are already aware of the problem. But when the segment about the problem is over, we know that nothing happened, that we learned nothing, and it touched no one. No strength, rather a peculiar feeling of amnesia.
Yet because we think about what we see, and we become what we think, this is an organism of language that may be introduced in public and reproduced in private. It becomes powerful, a way of bridging the middle distance, and makes the problem a desirable pool of language to bathe in. This cycle was admirably recorded in George Trow’s deconstructive essay Within the Context of No Context. Trow captures the essential paradox of exploring our/media’s use of the problem to create a false connection between the distant and the intimate, to bridge the gap well enough that it might serve its ultimate resource-driven function to influence choice. Reading this essay you may find yourself nodding in a different sort of agreement, one that is uncomfortable, and there’s a sign that a critic has something to offer.
So here’s a test question, to see if this is compelling ground – how does one approach theory without a problem?
Let’s loop back to the classic ellipse that defines the problem of theory identified by Groys. It hinges on the idea that philosophy rejects art. The reason for this rejection lies with philosophy’s reliance on the rational, and the assumption is that art is in opposition to reason. He quotes as evidence Hegel as saying art was over. Yet Hegel’s original quote is, “The universal need for art… is man’s rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes his own self.” Hegel is in fact saying the need for art is rational. Arthur C. Danto wrote about Hegel’s End-of-Art Thesis:
“…the thesis makes no prediction as to the future of art. It is not primarily a thesis about art so much as a thesis regarding our relationship to it. It is a thesis about human beings, whose progress in self-understanding means that we can never again relate to art as our predecessors did. [..] Thinking has risen above and beyond what art is capable of. Art belongs to a less evolved mode of thinking than what the mind, not only ideally but actually, is capable of – and we find this higher capability only in philosophy. [..] He saw art as a staging area in the epic of self-knowledge.”
So the idea that Hegel rejected art because it was not rational is an oversimplification. He found it to be less rational than philosophy. I would propose the possibility that the mythic objectification philosophy applies to reason necessitates the objectification of its subjects, creating a mythic objectified concept of art. Just the way theory is being treated here, as some graspable totality, which can only be addressed with an objectified view of philosophy. What really happens on this road is that art is no longer remotely in view – instead we are discussing a theory of philosophy. Danto’s critique identifies Hegel as regarding art to be a less evolved form of thinking, placing the burden of proof on a belief in evolution, in other words, the material accumulation of history. For philosophy to address art in this way, it must consider itself historically superior, meaning it must be more contemporary on the timeline. This is why it is assumed that art has a need to prove its own modernity. I contend that this is not a necessity at all, but an act of submission.
As with any good flowchart true to the myth of Western centrality, any theory of philosophy begins with Plato. “In the beginning,” we are told Plato rejected imagination in favor of truth. Yet how far this is from Plato’s belief that truth was a sort of perfect intangible imperfectly attained to by human senses, mind being regarded as one of the senses. This makes truth something to be arrived at through recognition, as though truth were a destination that each individual must journey to in order to verify its existence.
With Plato we find that the mere suggestion of ideas is a nod towards their ideal existence, essentially describing all ideas as simulations representing their idealized state. In my reading, this serves to permit a rational coexistence of opposites and contradictions. The tremendous irony of the Western myth of centrality, with its nativity story of reason overcoming the irrational is the necessary destruction of the irrational. Viewed from a perspective of language as a living organism, we have little more than a subspecies of the same genus that produced the Iconoclasts in its own religious history. Jean Buadrillard observes in the opening pages of his Simulacra and Simulation, that the iconoclastic response is one of fear, seeing in simulacra the ability to fascinate and suggest the pure idea gives them the power to distract from pure idea itself. The danger of the symbol to imperialization lies in a material representation that simultaneously serves as evidence that the absolutes symbolized do not concretely exist. The danger, still present in art, is the capacity to deliver the opportunity to experience independent response. Baudrillard notes that the Iconoclast’s thirst for destruction of these visual and symbolic intermediaries would be softened by a better grasp of Plato’s speculation, “If they could have believed that these images only obfuscated or masked the Platonic Ideal of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them.”
Saving further comment on this for later, Plato brings to mind my answer to the possibility of a theory that is free of problem based context, namely a means in which theory is approached outside the paradigm of authority we are trained with today.
The training required to work with ideas in this fashion – for their application, accessibility, and even pleasure – relies on the skilled practice of discourse. Generally regarded as archaic, the term has devolved to mean something like a long speech, or worse brings to mind Frisbee golf. But discourse should be remembered, in the same breath as Plato and his teacher, Socrates. These ancient names are dropped at the theoretical starting point of subjects that are quasi-metaphysical, such as art has become, just as Aristotle is the patriarch of subjects that journey into speculation surrounding science. But the way in which this patriarch of the Western myth arrived at reason was the result of a very human, very immediate method of inquiry.
Some have been exposed to Socratic method, and if fortunate enough to have experienced it in action rather than reference, one can learn instantly that as a form of discourse, much of what is lasting and brilliant in Plato’s records has its source in the art of the public discussion of ideas. Indeed, the conversational records of Plato are behind many centuries of learning institutions, where the intersection of imperialization and religious concretion was forged, quite possibly including the intentionally synthetic, syncretic development of Western religion.
Socrates was not some brilliant mind cloistered in a dark smoky room, instead he disciplined his intelligence with a methodology of asking questions and making use of public discourse. The Socratic method is a public discussion in which the moderator asks questions that guide the students to their own conclusions. If there is truth in what is being taught, and the moderator is skilled enough, the student arrives at these truths on their own, through their own total comprehension. There is no rote memorization of facts, it is a teaching method based in access. The objective is not to test knowledge already possessed, but to guide the participants to arrive at knowledge on their own. Any knowledge that can be taught this way, by asking students questions until they have arrived at the same conclusions possessed by the teacher, proves a number of things at once. The teacher has wisdom, already seeing where to place the right questions. The student has wisdom, arriving at answers from within their own grasp. Most importantly, the whole transmission of wisdom is participatory and consensual. We have mythically formed a reverence for Socrates, but the correct source is communal, that a group of people gathered in public discourse (which is something more than spectatorship or discussion) is a fountain of immediate authority and strength. I would suggest here that art and its theory is one area where discourse actually does occur.
How different from the modern idea that one solitary mind works to lay out their unique insight in a work, and another works to incorporate this into their solitary collection of knowledge, and further to place it on the linear timeline, as though ideas were fixed by reading them. Any idea, fixed to a static line of inquiry, faces its own absolute end. With this thinking, that authority is pre-determined as a point in time, no idea can be consensual, effectively erasing the concept of shared wisdom. How different from the arrival at knowledge through discourse! We teach, train, instruct, but we do not often pursue knowledge in a forum. The reason is very ordinary, as a forum is not an efficient use of time.
Discourse is not how we teach thought today. Thought is taught as packages, linear elements with a beginning and end, and generally the end is the final word that makes the thinker notable, and ideas reducible to a name. The imperializing organism that claims the bust of Socrates also claimed his head, and he was executed. The schools, libraries and institutions of Plato’s apostles were likewise burned routinely until they produced a system compatible with the growth patterns of empire, at which point they became a major branch of it. Authors do not need to employ the ideas of other authors, they need only answer correctly the coordinates of ideas, and fit them together like puzzle pieces. This has, perhaps accidentally, achieved much loss of comprehension, or has incurred something resembling collective mental fatigue.
How curious that theory, especially for art, is so easily presumed to be the work of history and lineage, and not as the subjective recognition of universal principles. How quickly this conceals the pleasure of working with ideas, the pleasure of making them audible, graspable, experiential and overturnable. We intuitively sense the potential in ideas to reverse and transform our view, indeed history is loaded with stories about this. In our central myth reason overcame the irrational, but in our history we also know people are capable of being overcome by their own realizations, and many of us are haunted by the desire, but absence of fulfillment, of this experience of the transformative idea. I think this is not the fault of the ideas, but of the objectification of reason. It is the process of active, intimate and interpersonal comprehension that transforms, not submission to the established and cumulative objects we consider rational. We are deprived of experiences we intuitively know to be human – conversion, ecstasy, invigoration, possession – because we cannot take our eyes from the line, and from the termination of the line.
As an autodidact, I did not attend the seminary for art, and as a result I am somewhat disconnected from linear perspective, having arrived at art with my own concern for access. I have observed in my lifetime the rise of artforms that are accessible to the public, and I forward the proposition that they are the result of theory that is consensual instead of authoritative. Because they are disjointed from the chronicle, their theory is considered vulgar. I do not encounter an absence of theory among craftspeople, street artists or ‘low-brow’, on the contrary one encounters theory that especially involves the rejection of chauvinism.
One must attend seminary in order to become a priest, in the same sense an autodidact is unable to become an academic teacher. The autodidact finds no reward promised to them in the distant global forum. That the modern university system was developed as a religious institution is worth noting, proving itself very successful in the imperializing growth model. Priests engage in intensive critique and theory, but are functionally trained to enforce the rejection of autonomy in favor of the authority of accumulation. The objective of rejecting autonomy is crucial to the maintenance of faith in a closed system, and relies on using theory to demonstrate nothing outside of it is tangible. Yet this dependency on the use of didactic theory is the inertia at the heart of authority, and is therefore the perennial weakness of empire. Let me restate that: exploiting the weakness of the imperializing drive is found in consensual learning, and theory that can be understood outside the context of history. Engaging in the sort of theory that is based in autonomy is instead an approach of comprehension, as one must demonstrate there are tangibles outside of the closed system.
It could be said all theory is based in comprehension, but the definitions are vastly different. For the institutional, comprehension is the way theory fits into the complete, global view. The global view is ‘comprehensive’. For the individual who is unaware or not motivated by the global view, comprehension becomes literal – the accessibility of the theory, the ability for a given individual to understand it. It is too difficult to fully embrace an institutional theory. The imperializing desire to modify the entire timeline by inclusion faces an effort of self-organization that is overwhelming to the individual. The options to accomplish this are effacing: simplification, omission, self-destruction – reductions of self to symbol or simulacra – but the general experience of the effort is mental fatigue, which clouds comprehension. This is not access, it is submission.
By putting the problem-based theory aside, I find that to the individual neither art nor its theory are distant. With a small amount of visual coaching, even difficult art is approachable to anyone. This is not to say theory is not useful for addressing or alerting to problems, only that this makes such a role incidental. Problem-free theory is a form of comprehension, one that the individual, the inner being, is after when looking deeply into art. Art becomes an open system, in other words a living system, when the theory is similarly open and compatible. It delivers comprehension that satisfies, has strength, and scuttles the cumulative view of time on which bad theory relies. Bad theory will always cannibalize its subject, because the institution cannot totally contain art, sourced as it is in the individual’s inner life. It is not art and theory that are at odds, but individual mental freedom and institutional authority.
When I interview artists I am seeking ideas the artist might have about their work and the theory that exists behind it. Even having no working theory is a theory. Because I work for a nonprofit, and have my own aligned views, we have our own operating theories that we pursue, for example: art is good for community, for individual growth, or for mental health and ability. Because the subject is specific, namely the work as it is performed and understood by the artist, the interview is conducted with the artist as the embodiment of the art’s theoretical framework. To incite a response that will draw out our own theories, I ask questions that lead to our own agenda. Does art lead the artist towards individual growth? Can art help the community? The artist is invited into discourse, with the results being the artist’s own conclusions. Sometimes, after the interview, the artist will comment that they had not previously considered what they thought about a particular subject. They become aware that they do possess theories regarding growth or community, through their relation to the process of making art.
It is a shame that the rational myth rejects religion, resulting in a lack of knowledge about that branch of the humanities. It is the territory of the common, a record of many of the trials (and outcomes) we still face in the discussion of art theory today, on many levels. It has left art with a child’s reputation of heir-apparent, in line for ascension to the throne of the irrational. Surveying religion as a system of theory and living language in its own right produces a dense record of useful parallels: bureaucracy, synthesis, corporatization, the individual in the context of totality, as well as difference and exception, and another view of the preoccupation with timeline (our cultural obsession with apocalypse, source of the ceaseless slogans for the ‘end of ____’). Not to mention being able to grasp the context in which many often quoted philosophers are operating. There in a long and still steaming record is the history of the individual and the distant, both in the metaphysical sense, and the concrete, human designed institutional reflection of that tension.
I offer the idea that there was no ‘dramatic shift’ from religion to reason during the Enlightenment whatsoever, just more of the same operative impulses, a mutation of viral language, and another middle ground fallen away. Language, in my estimation, makes no less use of the problem as the basis of connection in our ‘age of reason’ (compare economy or terrorism to the subjects of sin or the savage), no less preoccupied with beginnings and endings, than we were in the middle ages from which we supposedly enlightened our way out.
Groys seeks conclusion with a finding that in the wake of rationality, theory’s strength is that it is inevitably a call to action, which he calls at times urgency. This call to action appears personally, validating his sense of individual existence, making art participatory. I venture a different conclusion, that any call to action stemming from theory that relies on distant, outside authority (the same authority that claims to have created our stalled condition by exposing us to reason) is essentially draining for our spirits. It is another flavor of the largely democratic use of the problem to create social context (described in George Orwell’s 1984 as the governing virtue of perpetual war). The conclusion is not enough to qualify as redemption from a linear self-view, as it still strives for the universal-imperial, and the faith in objectified reason as evidence of the possibility of a closed system. I do not believe there is such a thing as a closed system.
In all, very little happens in this elliptical loop to further access to art. I recommend the possibility that the way out is in, that theory needs not be linked to art by instigating participation at all, but that consensual theory and art alike are the outcome of participation. I recommend theories on noise, quantum mechanics, and immersion (such as Joseph Nechvatal’s book, my next target for critique and an inspiration for this one), biology, social mapping, neuro-diversity, psycho-ecology, places to consider alternatives where art theory is arising of its own accord, structured by attraction and description, where art is not motivated by theoretical self-preservation. To put it another way, as with the passing of the Newtonian myth of clockwork laterality in the face of Einstein’s curvy relativity, let us forget the authority of timeline history and return to an interest in the spontaneous particles themselves, especially the mystery of their conditional tangibility. Let us simulate autonomy in order to theorize what it looks like. Let art be made by those who would make it, and let language out of the box.
This is how we sharpen each other, with discursive theory rooted not in prestige or lineage, but in a living, immersive dialogue chained to human experience. Theory poured forth from the individual and the work, in response to the art, and the inquiry of another theory – all these are discursive. In practice its rules are not finite. Infinite, meaning that the rules may be changed, and there is no winner and no center. We are already poised on the enduringly popular grasp of the methods of deconstruction. Having learned to demonstrate what rational things are not, we are ready to face language as the mutable ecosystem that it is, where diversity is the source of vigor and even beauty.
One of the greatest lessons art can teach is tolerance. An appreciation for the diversity of theory and comprehension, the bizarre unhinged reflection of creativity, is a lesson in individuality that has no parallel. It is ample evidence that the individual is well provisioned with the faculties of immediate, capable perception. It is demonstrated that this is activated not in isolation, but in a suitable proximity of examples of fellow individual’s expressions. Being discursive means attention is on smaller audiences, with less attention on total outcome, which makes for the reconstruction of middle ground. This leads to the reconstruction of access, comprehension and clarity. Evidence of this departure is not originality in the sense of unique in contrast to the whole, but originality as the expression of an individual that has managed to distinguish their own identity, by devaluing the weak reflection present in the whole. This can be promoted consensually using the strong reflection of genuine intimacy achievable within the immediacy of a middle ground.
Much of this rests on the skillful identification of thought’s organic behavior, arriving at my final challenge to the classical anxiety related by Groys, who rejects contemplation as a denial of the call to action he finds implicit in theory. In my opinion it is only through contemplation, through observing the self and the organic behavior of thoughts, and their relationship to language, that we are able to discern the autonomous from the cumulative. Add to the individual development its compliment, consensual and participatory contemplation through discourse that allows for external observation of the organic growth patterns of language and their relationship to ideas, in which I find art to be a serviceable forum.
Theory that is rooted in the historic timeline suffers from being absolute, finite, and ultimately drives people away from engaging it – after all, it arrives encapsulated and will be replaced or terminated. Theory that is produced in discourse does not know boundaries, its access is guided entirely by the level of participation, which ultimately is limited only by personal comprehension. As such, it welcomes – requires – the contemplation of language structures, with the concern for truth and eminence safely removed to the theoretical state of the Platonic ideal. Approached in this sense, liberated from the timeline and a need to provide meaning to the myth of accumulation, the individual is freed from the infatuation with the problem and can proceed towards independent participation.
There is no such thing as too much art theory, only its willingness to provide access, and the depth of its wisdom: with these come a capacity to energize – to develop affinities, appreciation, and personal autonomy.