Tag Archives: Theory

Censorship and Arts: a commentary

"Study drawing shows the allegorical figu...

Do we applaud the reading or censor the nudity? A censor’s job is never done!

In Art of England magazine (Issue 78, February 2011), I wrote an opinion piece exploring arts censorship in the context of WikiLeaks.

The WikiLeaks saga is important for a number of reasons I have explored on my policy blog (The Cognologist) in particular what I call ‘digital exceptionalism’. This simply means that for arts, an art show in a bricks and mortar gallery is not the same thing as the same exhibit on the Internet — images in a gallery can be pulled from the wall, while once on the Internet, they are there ‘forever’. Authorities and lawmakers are grappling with this distinction, which in my view is fundamentally specious, but which is driving a considerable amount of excessively intrusive conduct by governments and enforcement authorities. Of course, there are sensible reasons for this: mainly the ease of access to the material, frequently by vulnerable and impressionable or young people. But such illiberal conduct in the past has been justified on similar grounds.

The real reason for concern lies in an observation by Nicholas Negroponte in his book Being Digital: the Internet facilitates the one to many relationship between an individual and the rest of the world. Individuals have much greater social reach and with appropriate search engines, just about anything can be found within a reasonable period of time. Contrast this with the pre-Internet world, of bookstores which stocked only so many books and you had to specially order some, or libraries with paper-based card catalogues — if you didn’t understand the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal filing system, you might not find what you were looking for.

So in this brave new world (Huxley said it first) the censors have found new energy. The real problem is that in the Internet WikiLeaks type world, it is becoming harder and harder both to hide and to keep secrets. It is almost like living in the film The Invention of Lying, or Liar Liar. It used to be much easier to be duplicitous — the chances of being found out have escalated considerably.

In the article I note that the arts have always attracted the attention of officials particularly during times of crisis (now, perhaps?). Artists in the UK during the 1914-18 war were viewed with considerable suspicion — marine painters were virtually banned as the paintings of ships might aid the enemy, as might a landscape painting reveal the relationship between buildings and the lay of the land. We are perhaps a bit beyond this today, but the censorship of artists remains a real concern in some countries where freedom of expression is curtailed.

While I have always held the view that some artists seem at a loss for something to say, and produce appropriately poor work, other artists express deep political and social commentary, threatening to regimes depending on terror and repression. And some art is just socially challenging and fall foul to political correctness, a socially enforced form of self-censorship.

We are not yet free — even Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn, the most banned book in the US, has had a rewrite to remove his use of certain terminology which today is seen as unacceptable. The Soviet Union used to rewrite history like this and were justly criticised. While the faces have changed, the objectives remain the same.

Physics Envy: or why art theory isn’t

The September issue of Frieze art magazine is all about ‘theory’ or what appears to pass for theory in the art world.  The whole issue reads like some undergraduate magazine or

Confucius 02

He understood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

papers prepared by graduate students with too much time on their hands; political polemic blends with obscure language, which even core Frankfurt-school-istas would find hard to follow.  All this is to be regretted, as underlying this enterprise is an important problem, namely what are the theoretical, as opposed to philosophical, underpinnings of art itself.  Unfortunately, what might have been an informative examination of the problems of theory and art is really just another barrage of intemperate criticism.  But is anyone listening or is this just so much solipsism?  What’s an intellectual to do?

Physics envy is the desire to have the theoretical rigour that characterises physics.  Many will reject this in the art world, but why else would they confuse theory with philosophy if they didn’t see theory as bestowing rigour, logic, structure, and deep meaning?  The whole issue of Frieze waffled back and forth between the two terms, citing as theorists people who wouldn’t recognise the word, and citing theorists whose theories lack any basis for verification or falsification.  The leap from philosophy to theory is a big one, taken by science years ago when it ceased to be called ‘natural philosophy’.  Politics got rebranded ‘political science’,  and economics has always had ‘physics envy’.  What now for art?

The other distressing theme running through the issue is the Western-centric mind-set; they are still fighting the tiresome battle between Continental philosophy and Anglo (sic) analytical philosophy.  In this myopic battle they miss wider philosophical progress. Readers may enjoy the challenges ranging from Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature to VS Ramachandran & William Hirstein, The Science of Art: a neurological theory of aesthetic experience, Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(6-7, 1999):15-51.

What we have is something vaguely called “critical theory” even more vaguely a “theory of artists’ minds”; I guess the word ‘critical’ suggests serious self-reflection when it really is quite empty. The ‘theory’ it ain’t.

But perhaps cultural studies sounds more scientific, (physics envy?) and less, well, less philosophical, and its practitioners more legitimate (in the sense Habermas would use it).

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What is ‘altermodernism’?

Tagging: Maldives Style
Image by nattu via Flickr

The inmates have escaped again and flooded the world with another wind egg.  Called ‘altermodernism’, a term as ugly as its definition, we are now to be persuaded that a new improved artistic sentimentality has burst upon the scene.  Some people really do have far too much free time.

Coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, who is occupying space at the Tate in London, we should not be surprised, given his past association with Flash Art.  Perhaps the term will take a clue from the magazine and be merely a flash in the pan; but oh dear, perhaps that itself will be evidence of altermodernism?  Such self-referential nonsense is hardly helpful and perhaps premature.  But Bourriaud seems to be in the business of naming, having brought us relationism, too, but someone’s got to do it. (Relational art is perhaps just the art ones finds juxtaposed in, wait for it, art galleries, where people and artists relate, but perhaps not….).

My view is that the term describes the breathless arguments put forward by those advocating globalisation, better defined through economics than culture.  Despite this, we will continue to live in small worlds, and with the recession we are now enjoying thanks in part to globalisation, enjoy a new localism, live more compactly, more locally.  In that respect, his argument for creolisation is misguided; the counterargument from NB would be that I am simply trapped in my own binary world, but I’ve worked in too many cultures to fall for that.

But we must recognise that some global context is emerging as people connect to each other through the simplifying technologies of YouTube, and Facebook; these may lead more to superficiality, than depth and in the end be less emotionally satisfying.

Perhaps the faddism that seems to characterise Bourriaud’s thinking reflects a surface grasp of the world, seen from a helicopter, rather than lived in its earthy reality? Certainly the works assembled to illustrate altermodernism were superficial and vacuous, art for the Twitter generation?

NB has said: “It is an idea that was actually the core of Relational Aesthetics already, the Marxist idea that there is no stable “essence” of humankind, which is nothing but the transitory result of what human beings do at a certain moment of history. I think this might be the cornerstone of all my writings, in a way.”

That does seem to be his point.

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Constancy, Consistency

The challenge in anything creative is getting bored and trying things that don’t work.  This leads to frustration in many cases and out go the brushes!  Desire for creative growth is normal, frustration (and undernourishment, too) are normal for some.  Others learn from the experience, reflect that it may have been a premature move outside of a comfort zone that is at fault, perhaps a too-rapid jump in their creative insights.

Consistency is the price we pay for creating work that others like to a standard.  Constancy is the search for the ‘other’ that defines who we seek to become.  Since this is essentially an unlikely arrival, we can only marvel that we continue to strive.