#778 follows the text. 22″ x 26″ Acrylic on stretched canvas.
Subjectivity in judging art. How does one judge one’s own work?
I see ‘the viewer,’ not as singular, but as a collective–a whole cultural constellation filtered through each individual, so while each sees as an individual, we also see through the eyes and mind lent to us by their culture, in a particular historical moment.
Subjectivity is complex and inclusive, which means it’s possible to develop our capacity to make judgements, which, while not being “objective,’ are much larger than what one usually means by “subjective.” Such judgements are not fixed verdicts–as they change (or rather, what they point to changes), as culture changes, but good critics–rare as they are–know this.
John Berger. Hubert Damisch.
My question speaks to this. In assessing the value of one’s work, doesn’t there cling to our judgement, a remnant of belief (trust, would be a better word)… that we are able to discern a value that is not so limited, that is not chopped and diced into disconnected individual ‘subjectivities,’ the way we are taught to see ourselves in late capitalism, value and meaning that is inclusive, an emergent vision of some part of what it means to be human in the world?
This is how I would answer that question.
What most consistently matters to me is where this piece is taking me, so my liking, or judging a work to be good, is never entirely about that work–but something I see before me, something that doesn’t yet exist–or hasn’t been realized (as in, made real). That may be something I don’t see until later, after I’ve made–maybe–many many more pieces. Finding the almost hidden signs that mark the trail. I find it most satisfying when those are the pieces that others are drawn to — like, ah! they get it!
Imagine having the entire oeuvre of an artist before you, seeing each piece in the order of its making for the first time, and trying to suss out what will come next, or what will represent the apex of their life work, never knowing if that point will ever be achieved, whether the next piece will be a detour, a dead end, from which the artist never returned, but continued to turn out work that failed ever again to realize the promise of what they had done before–it’s like that, only I’m the artist. THAT describes the character of my anxiety about my own work. Nothing that anyone else will see till my work is over.
There’s a Yeat’s quote, along those lines–I believe he writing about William Blake. “In the beginning of important things—in the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of any work, there is a moment when we understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished.”
There’s an invaluable lesson we can learn from the history of black people in this country. Counter to many distopic movies–which play on the assumption that need, and scarcity of resources will set people against one another. An idea planted as a seed of capitalist ideology–by the elite’s fear of the people, fear of real democracy.But if we look a their history, we see how black people, survived by mutual aid, preserving what what was possible to preserve, and so much more– creating a new culture, new music, new art. A history that refutes that dytopic fear. The Lord of Flies fear.If there is violence in impoverished neighborhoods now, it’s not scarcity, but excess that is to blame–the seductive promise of excess wealth and power, the omnipresent propaganda absorbed by living in and under a consumer capitalist driven ideology.Poor people learn how to take care of one another–or they die.The greater the wealth, the more that ability deteriorates. The billionaire elites are damaged–and damaged in ways that puts human survival itself at risk. The disposition that motivates mutual care, is lost. Excess corrupts… and at some point, corrupts absolutely. John Woolman understood this. Few have understood it better.I’m not setting up an argument for the virtue of poverty. That’s not the conclusion I draw. But I am making an argument for the corrosive power of excess, where some have more than they need, and many have less. We have enough food and material wealth to house and feed every person on the planet–and much more. The problem is, and has been since the first neolithic farmers cultivated grains and rice, that could be stored and accumulated, and did not need to be consumed as it was harvested, how to use the excess… other than providing the means for kings and priests and war lords to rule over the lives of others… invariably, over the ones who produced the excess.The problem didn’t begin with capitalism. Capitalism systematized and automated and dehumanized the machinery that had been at work since the first cities in China, the Indus valley, the fertile crescent.What starting me thinking about this, was watching a neighbor caring for an invalid aunt and grandmother.We are good at this, we humans. It isn’t scarcity that is destroying us, but excess… and how to deal with that without destroying those deep rooted communal habits we are so good at creating. Inequality is the symptom… a symptom that itself can destroy us. But there’s a deeper cause. Something we have never been able to learn.I think that the anarchists… some of them, began to get this.I think that’s our way to the future… if we’re to have one.
Walking thoughts… ideas come to mind, walking here and there and back: to the el, the wine store, to the Fresh Grocer. Sometimes they kick off something that comes back to me. A couple days ago, I was thinking about artists—not ART, artists. About making a living (or at least, paying for art materials), in a capitalist system, when one is a confirmed, convicted, solidarity-convinced anti-capitalist. And it occurred to me, that one could look at the problems through the lens of class—that the structures and machinery of class reproduce themselves on particular strata, and this seemed particularly helpful to me in understanding what artists deal with.
The connecting point in these thoughts, was meritocracy—how, because class is not like castes, frozen across generations for all time, but somewhat permeable, it’s easy to ignore how class, in itself, is as unchanging as an South Asian caste system. That individuals are able to climb the ladder, does nothing to overthrow the range of beliefs that justify class inequalities for those who benefit from them, or to offer serious challenge to the ideologies that use those beliefs.
What beliefs? The ‘natural’ superiority of men… (white men), is way up there at the top: patriarchy and Euro-Anglo-American racism–used to excuse, what otherwise would make what capitalism, colonialism, slavery, have done, and continue to do, to the mass humanity, intolerable. What does that have to do with, meritocracy? With art? With the capitalist class system?
Capitalism creates, maintains, and perpetuates inequality. All the way back to the Adam Smith, this has been acknowledged, and because it so flies in the face of the most minimally developed sense of justice, is addressed in all the ideological variants that would defend and promote capitalism. For Adam Smith—it was the Invisible Hand, which, (grossly misused since) would correct the worst abuses, and prevent capitalism from becoming what it has, in face, become. But nothing has been more useful, or done greater violence, the social Darwinism and eugenics. Here was the perfect foil, the perfect answer, to justify belief in the inferiority of the masses, and if an individual here and there, rose up and proved themselves superior to their birth—the genetic mythology perfectly accounted for it, and supported those who would protect the superior races and individuals, while justifying their suppression, and attempts to control, or better, if they proved less than useful and docile–eradicate the untermenchen.
How perfectly the Art World recapitulates this! With its gallery to investor pipeline, a gatekeeper system, meant to identify the Elite, and (hopefully) erase from memory, if not from life itself all the outsiders! Women! Blacks! Colonials! A Patriarchal system (where are the women from how many generations past?) Where are non-Euro artists and their work, but as appropriated by the (even if late-acknowledged) Masters? There is such thing, as ART, let alone, an “Art WORLD!” … if it is not as varied and multiple as there are worlds and peoples! If it doesn’t crash through and DESTROY the gatekeepers and their system!
Those were my walking thoughts… how, I asked myself. .how is it possible, for anyone who calls THEMSELVES an artist—to accept this system? To define their idea of ‘success’ by it’s terms? To not throw themselves into the struggle to create—to IMAGINE… as artists do.. a new and better world?
I want to post a second comment I left on CLCLARK’s blog on Luhmann’s system theory, Systems Serve only Themselves. This has been a concern of mine for some time, expressed in several previous posts.
I see several problems with art as an autopoitec system. The first being, that ‘art’ is an artificial construct. For this, it might be enough if it were more narrowly defined, say… “Euro/Anglo Art.” It’s been a project of art history to treat art as a universal—even while concentrating almost exclusively on European traditions until the assimilating of Japanese, Chinese, African and “primitive” styles by European artists forced the door open to the rest of the world. This greater inclusiveness, however, was more in the nature of colonizing the European idea of art as a universal, drawing on products, which, in their own cultures, served a wide range of activities, and were in no way part of something, neither their makers nor those who these objects served, thought of as belonging to an autonomous system analogous to a Western idea of ‘art,’ a process not unlike the transformation imposed on European religious objects in the development of the idea (or system) of art in the West.
Also, as autopoitic systems are differentiated from their environment, but subject and responsive to outside perturbations, these responses can be absorbed in their development. With organisms, other forms can be physically absorbed and incorporated: viruses, mitochondria. The point I’d make here, is that what we mean by ‘art,’ is not just a system responding to other systems, but one—perhaps even more than any other—that has incorporated them into its DNA. The Western ‘art system’ co-evolved with capitalism, patriarchal institutions, hierarchical value coding, in such a way that these are more than external systems that use or perturb it, but are embedded in its generative structures. This is what informs my question about finding a place as an artist—outside that system. Escape from the controlling subject: “Art.” Deteritorializaion from the master subject and its self-cloning powers. Thinking of Deleuze… escape from the root, to the rhizome!
The Consolation of Philosophy. I’m not a philosopher. But I like to think about stuff. I like to think about… about how to be able to find ways of understanding my personal, intimate, most subjective feelings/experiences… in such a way that I can fit them into a more inclusive meaning. Being one who is periodically subject (right word) to depression… interesting… was going to say, “significant depressions” … though ‘insignificance’ is more the root of their… whatever.
But this habit…compulsion, of writing about, and describing, and thinking about… has, while it has never made the depressions less miserable or shortened their duration… it has probably saved my life more than once. And late in my stay on the planet–helped to make them, again, while no less pleasant–something akin to the rhythm of waking and sleep… the depression being… what? A waking nightmare, that I know I will awake from.
Surfing the mind… the Big Wave can kill you. but you gotta do it. And you get better at it. And you never know…
Is it worth scrolling back to Hegel who argued that art would gradually become displaced by philosophy as we, as it were, grew up intellectually unlike those Greeks who had to take important truths in intuitively through their art. I see this as the beginning of a road that leads to conceptual art, a progress from the sensual, tactile, visual (visceral?) enjoyment towards abstract contemplation of the idea or Geist. The critic in this scheme becomes less a servant of art, an explicator and evaluator, than a fellow-creator, whose intellectual function is equal to that of the artist. Critics who argue that authority comes from being a creator are in the rearguard of this movement. The “space” identified by this blog I take it to be one in which both kinds of mind meet and explore things together, ultimately abolishing the distinction. I am warming to the idea having been a bit of an artist-knows-best fundamentalist hitherto.
I began to reply as a comment but it kept growing, and thought it would be better as a free standing post.
I asked Nicholas: What do you mean by “together?” As one thing? Or in conjunction–in dialog, in relationship? If conceptual art marks a progress toward something like abstract contemplation of the idea, would one not expect this art, not only through its appropriation of abstract ideas, but in itself, to be a kind of philosophizing? I certainly don’t find that to be the case. Conceptual art, rather than becoming more like philosophy, seems rather to be challenging philosophy and abstract thought on its own ground, appropriating ideas to its own, quite different ends.
I think you go wrong when you view this as an issue of authority, or rather, as a competition for authority, as though there were One Sort of Authority, and artist and critic were fighting for its blessing–Jacob and Essau at the feet of Isaac. Authority as Nobadday.
The authority of philosophy is not that of the artist, and the authority of the artist, not that of philosophy (the definite article with ‘artist,’ but not for philosophy) Through art, we orient ourselves in relationship with others, individually and collectively: collectively, because I don’t think of individuals (us) as discrete units apart from our relationship with others, but as beings who build a world we can have (and know) in common, a world (like the gorilla fashioning its arboreal nest) as a humanly habitable place in space and time.
What happens to us when we read stories, stand before the images we make, listening to the ordering of time and tone in music? What do we do when we experience art? We orient ourselves in reality, by selecting out of the incomprehensible totality, what we need to paint a picture of the world, to tell the story that–does not tell us, but places us–such that we “know” where and who and what sort of creatures we are.
Neither philosophy nor science do that. They can’t give us a world to live in. They examine and explain and take apart what we believe we know and experience. They can show us the artifice of our belief–in what we are, in the fabricated world we inhabit.
Art emerges from the primal effort to live as conscious beings in a reality that knows nothing of our existence as we experience it: whatever it is that drives the brain to integrate the competing and separate systems of perception, memory and interpretation into an unshakable belief in the semblance of our Selfhood.
Science can name the parts and explain their mechanisms; Philosophy can remind us that it is a semblance, that what is real lies outside our power to possess, by either experience or knowledge. Art happens. As our sense of Selfhood happens. The difference is, that art is a happening that we make. It happens in relation to a natural world filled with the many other worlds we have made. That is, it uses whatever materials it needs to give us what we need, natural and humanly fabricated: the Romantic painter using the colors of sunset and sunrise, the conceptual artist using the ideas of philosophers and critics. And here is exactly where the critic comes in. It’s not as if the critic has only one authority, one opposed to or other than that of the artist. Rather, the critic draws on multiple authorities. He examines, disassembles, names the parts–so we can better appreciate the artifice, the art that went into the making. But he also–if he is a good critic, an honest critic, enters into what happens, into the happening, and draws on that in what he writes. In this, in his drawing on what happens, he is like the artist, is an artist, and at the same time, remains other, secured to a way of knowing that frees us from the illusions we cannot help but make and need, lest we vanish into our own dreams, even as the subversive power of art frees us from the chains of knowing.