Friday, 13 February 2009

Autonomy, Collaboration, Place and Craft - Charles Esche Talk

Hello all,
Welcome to our new critical blog – Autonomy, Collaboration, Place and Craft – which will run parallel to the lecture programme we have devised for this semesters Masters in Fine Art course at Liverpool School of Art and Design.

This blog is in direct response to requests from a range of post and undergraduate students who attended the Charles Esche seminar on Thursday 12 Feb 09.

Just to remind you all, we agreed to a rather altruistic blog, one in which we’ll all be able to post and edit – as well as respond. The hope was for people to start communicating their ideas and experiences about the themes and issues raised in the talks and how they relate to/impact on our own working practices and relationships to shows and exhibitions we see, articles we read etc.

Ok, to get the ball rolling I’ll recap briefly on Charles’ talk last night.

Initially, Esche outlined a history of galleries and museums in relation to our contemporary perceptions of art. We were usefully reminded that Art, as we know it in the West, is a bourgeois construct that developed hand in hand with the growth of the very class with which it is most usually associated. From the Louvre onwards, Esche argued that galleries and museums functioned as much as a space for the bourgeois to gather and reaffirm their own class identity and status as they were spaces to appreciate artworks that satisfied the bourgeois’ own ideological world view. This was an important point, as it immediately reminded us of the active role played by art and culture in the inscription and construction of world views – thus guaranteeing a kind of agency for art practice as opposed to a conception of art as a purely passive reflection of a dominant ideological viewpoint (as it became in more crude Marxist analysis of culture).

This instrumentialising role of art re-emerged – all be it in a more aggressive and didactic manner – in the cultural policies of Soviet Russia, Fascist Germany and Communist China. In the Cold War period which followed the Second World War, a Western bourgeois notion of art became enshrined in the white walled gallery spaces of New York’s Museum of Modern Art as the only viable cultural alternative to the intsturmentalising propaganda of Eastern Block Socialist Realism. This was evidenced by the CIAs involvement in promoting the new post WWII culture of Abstract Expressionism. It was at this point – during a period in which arts self-referential guarantee of ‘purity’ was, in fact, the equally instrumentalised rationale for its identification as ideological credibility (in the West at least) – that Adorno began to make claims for the Autonomy of Art. Adorno, however, was acutely aware of the political and bureaucratised role that art, galleries, museums and culture could play in a new consumer driven society. Adorno’s point was to rescue a kind of space for Art which would both guarantee it an autonomous space beyond the insturmentalisation of capitalist culture whilst, at the same time, allowing it to be inherently critical of that culture – even if that critical opposition was simply based on offering a glimpse beyond the kind of society which was rapidly developing in the West at the time. In this case, abstract or non-referential artworks could be seen to ‘negate’ the ‘affirmative’ culture of capital – pointing, in some ways, to the possibility of ‘imagining the world otherwise than it is today’ (to use one of Esche’s phrases). The redemptive faith that Adorno put in Art – its capability, as he saw it, to offer us glimpses of ways to change the world – was to become one of Arts burdens in a postmodern and post-autonomous world. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Art lost its place as an ideological guarantee of freedom against the more obviously coercive social policies developed in the Eastern Block. Instead, art began to take on a new and equally insturmentalised role as a social glue in a new globalised neo – liberal and post-capitalist society. Governments, especially Blair’s in the UK, began to expect art to act as a focal point for social change in an increasingly fractious and under resourced ‘community’. As such, relational, dialogic, socially engaged practices (which had developed on a principal of moving away from the now rigorously corporatized ‘autonomous’ art object) became increasingly embroiled in a Beinnial led world of spectacle and show. Museums and Galleries, for their part, began to be regulated by the demand for audience figures and the high turnover of ‘annual reports’. Artists, art organisations and community groups began to be curated by proxy as the applications they had to make and the funding they received was closely regulated and dependant on particular types of ‘outcomes’.
In this post-autonomous art world, the landscape began to look increasingly bleak.

However, within the last couple of years, the problem with autonomy has re-surfaced (as Esche pointed out, post-autonomy has an indelible relationship to the very term it once wished to exceed). How do artists produce work which isn’t immediately instrumentalised within a globalised culture of specatacle and display? How does art become critical of neo-liberal centralised politics without falling into the trap of seeing itself as somehow separate from (and therefore able to externally critique) this culture? How do we enable artists, both practically and conceptually, to exceed their insturmentalised confines without re-rehearsing the clichés of the artist as shaman – of special individual who is capable of simply seeing the world in a different way? Is it possible to make works which decentre the authorial processes of the individual which, nevertheless, engage full bloodedly with the particulars and generalities of social, political and economic circumstances? Is it possible to revivify Kant’s notion of the Aesthetic (as a kind of experience – not just offered by art) which enabled us to imagine a world different from what it might be today) without merely allowing artists to produce dissociated and dislocated proposals for utopian impossibility? To this end Esche suggested the term ‘negotiated autonomy’ (signifying a concern with both the internal structures of art and a critical relationship to the political realities of its production) as an alternative to the more binary and limiting post-autonomy. This seems an interesting point to start. Is it possible to comprehend (or imagine) kinds of art practice which are capable, sophisticated and dialectical enough to conceive autonomy and engagement as interaction? As necessary conditions of an extended practice?

1 comment:

  1. It’s A Doing Think

    Here are a few thoughts and questions of my own in response to our seminar with Charles Esche and John’s opening comments. They are just the beginnings of some threads of ideas prompted by our talks, which I’ve tried to break down into bite-size chunks.

    Beginning with the question:

    Is it possible to comprehend (or imagine) kinds of art practice which are capable, sophisticated and dialectical enough to conceive autonomy and engagement as interaction? As necessary conditions of an extended practice?

    My first question is what do we understand by ‘autonomy’ and ‘engaged practice’?

    What is understood by ‘Autonomy’

    Based on our recent discussions, it seems to be generally accepted in current thinking that the modernist ‘privileging’ of the autonomous artist or autonomous art as being something outside the realm of everyday life (something on a higher plane) is an undesirable myth. Post-modern thinking, it seems, has sought a more direct involvement at grass roots with the world in which we live.

    Questions around the accessibility and inaccessibility of individual and collective vision and thinking seem to be what are at play. Thinking about the impossibility of seeing through the eyes of another, as well as the impossibility (and undesirability) for the artist to be positioned outside the environment in which he works, I am reminded of the thinking of Michel Foucault, who was at pains to point out that we cannot deny the impact of the environment (cultural, political, social, emotional, intellectual) in which we operate – and the limitations that that can place on our vision. This takes us all down a peg or two, and points out to us that, although we might be aware of the existence of ‘the bigger picture’, as individuals, we will never actually be able to see it.

    “The thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.” (M Foucault ‘The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences’ 1970)

    I think that as an artist, I am always looking for the ‘blind spot’ in my own vision – as a means of improving that vision and my scope for thinking. The idea does, of course, have the de-stabilising implication that I might not know what I think I know – Always a tricky one to deal with!

    The positive flip-side to this is that is offers us the awareness that there are very many different individual visions to enrich our outlook and potential as a society.

    Autonomy and Authorship

    Another question which arises (which hasn’t been touched on directly but which is linked I think) – is how questions of authorship link with developing ideas of autonomy. I am thinking of contemporary artists operating anonymously (Banksy) or as collectives of unidentified individuals (Guerilla Girls) or under pseudonyms. In these practices the identification of the individual artist ceases to be important. In fact it is important that it is absent – as a strategy for operating beneath the radar?

    A Sense of Self

    Perhaps for the individual practising artist (whether operating independently or collaboratively) the focus needs to be on personal integrity, rather than autonomy. It is important to remain focused about our own motivations, what drives us to work (in private and in public) and be clear about the rules we make for ourselves in practice. Some sense of conviction is vital, whilst remaining open to whatever the experience of our practice might reveal to us.

    Maybe in response to some of the criticisms levelled at the perceived insularity of artists in the past (?), Barbara Hepworth commented (1937): “[Art] is no escapism, no ivory tower. It is an unconscious manner of expressing our belief in a possible life.” This speaks of what motivates and engages the artist in his/her practice - Surely for art practitioners that engagement between the artist and the work must be the starting point of any consideration of an engagement beyond this between the work and the wider world? Our discussion so far does not seem to have touched much on this consideration of ‘engagement’.

    To what end does the artist work? It seems to me that the view of Hepworth here is looking to some kind of engagement with the wider world as essential for there to be any point in doing the work (or, rather, in making the work public). Maybe it’s just how we now think that the engagement with the wider world might be achieved that has changed?

    Art & Politics

    To my mind, meaningful work is always politically engaged if it calls into question our thinking. I distinguish between work which is political in the sense of being motivated by a personal conviction which challenges established thinking and that which is overtly issue based. For example, Cornelia Parker makes a point of saying that she does not do issue based work, but I would say that her work is politically engaged because it tries (albeit subtly) to unsettle accepted ways of thinking. Her work ‘Brontëan Abstracts’ at the Brontë Museum in 2007, for example, simultaneously attaches itself to and challenges the cultural institution in which it is located, challenging our accepted perception of the role of the museum.

    On the Question of the ‘Instrumentalisation’ of Art

    By the term ‘instrumentalisation’ I understand ‘ab-use’ or manipulation. According to Charles Esche in our seminar, art (or anything else for that matter) is always open to manipulation to some extent by social/political institutions or others. It is the inevitable consequence of putting anything into the public domain. Once it is handed over, its original control is lost. The material might be used by others with their own quite different agendas. Robert Smithson makes some interesting observations on this issue in his essay ‘Cultural Confinement’, first published in 1972 (pp.970-1 Art in Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas Ed. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood): “Some artists imagine they have got a hold on this apparatus, which in fact has got a hold of them”.

    First published in Artforum in 1970, ‘The Artist and Politics: a Symposium’ (pp.922-6 Art In Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas Ed. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood 2003) offers very varied responses from different artists to the question “What is your position regarding the kinds of political action that should be taken by artists?” The variety of responses here might offer some openings to what might be understood by ‘engaged practice’. I’d like to see it kept as broad as possible.

    Robert Smithson responds to the question in terrifically graphic terms: “Sooner or later the artist is implicated or devoured by politics without even trying. My ‘position’ is one of sinking into an awareness of global squalor and futility. The rat of politics always gnaws at the cheese of art . . . One keeps dropping into a kind of political centrifugal force that throws the blood of atrocities onto those working for peace.”

    How is this managed by the artist, who, up until this point in the process, largely makes up all his/her own rules? One response has been to try and engage directly with the public, rather than via the medium of the gallery, agent, critic or other middleman.

    Engagement of Others

    In thinking about how our practice might engage others, what is the risk for individual art practitioner that, rather than opening up possibilities, we fall into the trap of simply working on the terms of others? “The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist.” (The Soul of Man Under Socialism in The First Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde, 1908-22) I think the idea of ‘supplying the demand’ is the critical bit to take on board – as something to be wary of.

    The Shifting Locus and Understanding of ‘the Work’ – Participation/Creation beyond the Artist’s Control

    Traditionally, when we talk about ‘an artwork’, we understand the locus of the artwork to be in the product of the creative process undertaken by the artist: ‘the painting’, ‘the object’, ‘the film’, ‘the performance’. It has also been suggested that the work (or maybe I need a different word here?) also continues, or is re-invented, in the reception/perception of that product – in the eye of the beholder, if you like. Germaine Greer has commented: “The true field of art is the mind of the beholder . . . You can only remember it. You can’t collect it . . .” (Guardian Newspaper 23 Oct 2006: ‘Here’s a message for the art mafia in their black Bentleys: the really good stuff is uncollectable’). So, the viewer/recipient is necessarily implicated at some level in the work itself.

    Ryan Gander made similar observations in a presentation of his work which I attended last year, after which I was left far from certain whether ‘his work’ was what appeared as imagery on the slides he showed, or was in the dialogue which took place during the actual presentation, or was the seed of some other thought which I took away to develop myself. When asked about the audience with which he seeks to engage, his response was to say he believes he has ‘a good one’, by which I understood a receptive and responsive one. (It was notable that in the same presentation he also spurned the political agendas underlying Arts Council and other public funding).

    Perhaps the next logical manifestation is the actual participation of the public. The viewer becomes the participant. This was highlighted in the talk by Peter Gorschlueter, curator at Tate Liverpool, about Tate’s “Ideas Taking Space” on 17th February. Where does this leave the question of autonomy? Maybe what we end up with is a very large melting pot of individual outlooks? Or is the artist really still directing the participation of others (from a distance)? The fact is somebody is still making the rules for participation, aren’t they? And the participants (knowingly or not) are falling in with those rules.

    ‘Engaged Autonomy’ or ‘Negotiated Autonomy’

    As far as the idea of “engaged autonomy” (to use Esche’s words) or “negotiated autonomy” (John’s term) are concerned I think they go right to the core of how we understand ourselves as individuals and how we position ourselves in society as a whole. What contribution do we have to make as artists? The conundrum of how we exert our sense of individuality and all rub along together is one of life’s perpetual dilemmas and riches.

    Personally, I think that the stand up comedian offers an illustration of what might be termed ‘engaged autonomy’. Something akin to the Shakespearean Fool (but without the tag of insanity or stupidity), he/she is very much part of the fabric of our popular culture, simultaneously entertaining us and holding up to us a mirror which at times can reflect some uncomfortable home truths. It’s a fine line to tread. He/she gets away with subversive observations by making us laugh at ourselves. Perhaps we have something to learn here?

    And Finally

    To come back to John’s question.

    I am struck by how much these debates come down to dealing with a definition of the parameters of our understanding, when those parameters are changing all the time. This is what makes such discussions so slippery – and more productive of questions than answers!

    I don’t know that it is ever possible to say in advance how art practice might evolve (ie. conceive in advance of doing), though I guess we can have some objectives in mind. At the core of my own art practice, I am conscious of a making, an undoing and a re-making process, which goes on ad infinitum. There is critical intellectual parallel but the outcome in the practice is very much the result of some action or experience on my part. It is a ‘doing think’.

    Any thoughts anyone?

    Kathryn Oubridge
    18th February 2009