mineralmatters

Tag: Aesthetics

Touching Feeling

Aesthetics is both a body of knowledge and a kind of practice. Either aesthetics designates an active engagement with the work of art, or it refers to the study of the constellation of affective states that directs this engagement. Aesthetics counterposes the spectator’s feelings about the object, with the way she should be feeling about the object. This disconnect derives from the Kantian distinction between the transcendental and the concrete thing-in-itself. By installing an interval of non-contact between our body as shaped in space and space as read by our body, Kant effectively split the phenomenal world into two pools that could be drawn upon to supplement one another, when needed. The first was shiny and perfect while the second was soiled and lived. On a local scale, Kant’s transcendentalism was figured in terms of the free perceptual play of the subject’s intuition and cognition, or reflex and reflection. This original distinction was merely legislative in pointing out the subject’s legitimate relation to the sovereign Form of Law: it was enough to know the balance of one’s behaviour against the moral concepts by which the body in space is circumscribed.

If the subject can position herself mimetically in relation to others through a shared lexicon of moral concepts <in the world of Kant’s public sphere we are all at least the ‘same’>, mimesis devolves to similarity when subject to subject relations are critically replaced by the subject’s relation to the object. If the former connection is figured through the discursive power of legality and legitimacy, the latter can only ever be known through the labouring difference of touch. That is why, when Kant progressed to his third critique and the study of aesthetics, his epistemological program had to account for touch by descending from its transcendental watchtower, to become a real, lived practice in the world. This would be fine, even good, if the bourgeois-homme-citizen was encouraged to spend his lunch hour stroking the cheeks of a Rodin sculpture before returning to business interests inflected by an experience of the beautiful; but instead, and probably with the museum’s red rope and glass panes in mind, Kant erased touch from the subject’s experiencing of the object altogether, and replaced it with a critically ‘disinterested’ distance. The logic for this disavowal was that, if touch continued to govern our relation to the object, we would only ever be able to experience a dirty pleasure, without ever reaching the Beautiful, which itself depended upon the object’s subsumption to the realm of moral concepts from which it could be transcendentally unfolded and impregnated by our understanding of the Good.

But what if we left all our moral concepts behind at the office, before taking a lunch break? And what happens to touching feeling, if disinterestedness straitjackets my body? Kant invested vision itself with touch, so that witnessing was elevated to beholding and looking itself becomes a material praxis. Vision is now the exclusive channel through which Kant upholds his transcendentalism, in the face of the phenomenal world, while touch has been clinically desensitised.

When the eye takes the place of the hand, when perception drags apperception into the room and refuses my squinting nerves, muscles and skin, I want to scream.

Bauhaus

fig86-Robert-Morris-Box-Sound-Making-

Labour forms a metabolic link between humankind and nature. There is our own labour – a labouring through the world that constitutes our everyday – and then there is a kind of labour that we read onto things. It is not very often that we are confronted by a stillness that cannot be overwritten by movement, or process. Function-less form makes no sense to the labouring eye. Some artists have deliberately materialized this vertiginous impulse. Robert Morris’ Box With the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), in which he installed a feedback-loop recording of the labour of constructing the box, within the form itself. Here, form is literalized as a carrier of functions. Some objects, like tools and instruments, give off a greater sense of immediate use, while ‘Do not touch’ artworks fall in at the other end of the scale. Paradoxically, traditional aesthetics has supplemented this distancing from touch by installing our metabolic reflexes within the act of looking itself, whereby mere witnessing is transformed into the act of beholding. This is a peculiarity of aesthetics that borders on a kind of fetishism (insofar as one sensuous domain is recruited to compensate for another’s withdrawal).

Bauhaus sought to rectify this fetishism by shifting the burden of representation back on to the crafts and practices that go in to production. This Modernist project realized what Douglas Crimp would later go on to theorize as ‘cultural practice’. (Interestingly, this shift occurred soon after Wölfflin’s Principles was published. Wölfflin pushed the fetishism of aesthetics to its formalist limit, by investing vision with the sculptural qualities of material praxis (i.e. he posited a vision that was able to penetrate and remodel physical attributes of the object).) Bauhaus failed because, although representation had been shifted on to the ethics of practice – i.e. the School – its utilitarianism was still ultimately subject to the production and display of objects (cf. the recent Barbican exhibition). Attempts to erase the object, to present labour in-itself, have multiplied in every direction since the day Bauhaus lay washed up on the shores of America. Most recently, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and its theorization of participatory art projects presents a move to categorically replace aesthetics with ethics, as the correct backing epistemology for the production/reception of artworks. But even so, the same problem that arose with the Bauhaus remains: how to represent the event after the event and what to do with the audience. Instead, I want to chart and imagine instances where we, as spectators, have moved in the opposite direction. A situation where art objects become the raw materials to kinds of representative practices that take place beyond the gallery space. I want to look at the production of lifestyles as an unintended offshoot to the determinate blurring of the borderland between art and life. We no longer labour to survive; today we labour to look good. I want to locate instances that realize Bourdieu’s attack on Kantian aesthetics, instances where subjects maximize on their social capital. I do not intend to valorise the production of lifestyles from artworks, but instead the hope is that, by recognizing and pushing its methods and labour, we might be in a position to question the validity of practices that seek to redress the ‘fetishism’ of aesthetics with a well-meaning ethical commitment that – as I claim – backfires. By surpassing this commitment, I hope to draw the parameters of renewed possibilities for aesthetics today.

Condensation

Hans Haacke, Condensation cube, Acylic plastic, water, 1963-1965, © Hans Haacke:VG Bild-Kunst

Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube, 1963-65

Condensation Cube is not a ‘sculpture’, but a hermetically sealed plexiglass box measuring 30x30x30 cm and containing a shallow, one-centimetre deep pool of water. In 1971 Haacke described condensation as a ‘real-time process’ designed  to relegate the viewer to the passivity of a ‘witness’[*]. He desired a situation in which the insentient ambience of nature’s ineluctable flux reveals citizen x’s Kantian ‘disinterested’ criticality to be nothing other than an interested compact with the ‘cultural frame’ lurking behind the work (which is itself always bracketed). Condensation here functions as a trigger, alerting the witness to the bland fact that her judgments can only slide off the work, which remains as disinterested as the world itself. Haacke targets the way in which citizen x normatively enforces her social capital by ab-using object x, via what Pierre Bourdieu has termed an act of ‘aesthetic distancing’[*]. By outsourcing the living object, citizen x feels herself as really belonging to the institution < I look over your shoulder>. Something, however, feels wrong with this Institutional Critique: it’s too good looking. The problem, as Robert Smithson declared, might be that ‘confined process is no process at all’[*]. This is not to say that Haacke unintentionally intends to sabotage his own critique by adhering to a central Minimalist motif, but that his refusal to acknowledge the iconographical presence of the Cube could be taken, by the selective vision of citizen x, to be a reverse encouragement of a Kantian disinterestedness.

According to Marx, labour is the metabolic process through which ‘man’ is connected to nature. It is only by labouring through the sensuous exterior world that we are able to realise [verwirklicht] our life ‘purpose’. I think, in order to salvage this critique, we must stop and think about what happens to form when it enters the gallery space. If labour is truly a metabolic process, it is also a mode of purposive movement we read into and onto still things. There is real living labour, and then there is labour that we presuppose through a kind of metabolic vertigo: we need labour to exist for things to exist. Function-less form makes no sense to the labouring eye. We depend upon the tactility of hard edges, of rules. As soon as the machine displaced labour’s sweat, and Capitalism supplanted nature as the world’s noise – at least that’s what the noise on the street feels like – our basic metabolism was re-calibrated, I would argue, to occlude labour, and to promote instead frieze-framed representations of one’s lifestyle as the process to which we must succumb in order to make sense of the sensuous exterior world. From the dissolution of the barrier between art and life, this new metabolism has been legislated and furthered by aesthetics and then communications to such an extent, that we now know nothing else: We no longer labour to survive, today we labour to look good. Could it be possible that an upwardly-mobile, interested citizen x might intentionally assume the lackadaisical face of disinterestedness so as to be artfully transmogrified into the object’s laboured nucleus, knowing that the distance between object and body in space instantiated by classical aesthetics diffuses any ethical commitment to labour? It is my claim that Condensation Cube points up a lack of labour that exposes the witness’ metabolic rift. If aesthetically ‘lobotomized’ form acts as a carrier and compensation for our lack of physical labour, then what happens when that form starts to breath and sweat through its own aesthetic confinement? It is precisely because a ‘real-time process’ is launched at the viewer from the seat of aesthetical power – the cube – that it works, because it lures one into a Kantian disinterestedness that is then divested of its ‘neutrality’ and exposed to be nothing other than a bid to get out of work. Here the bourgeoise-homme-citizen is forcibly alienated by nature’s détournement on one of Aesthetics’ most valorised motifs.

It is only once we face up to ourselves as ‘non-beings’, as living lives without agency in the world, that we can start to collectively labour for the greater good of all.


[*] Hans Haacke, ‘Provisional Remarks’ (1971) from Institutional Critique: an Anthology of Artists’ Writings ed. Alexander Alberro, Blake Stimson (Cambridge MA: MIT Press 2011) p. 120

[*] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction trans. Richard Nice (London: Routledge, 201) p. 26

[*] Robert Smithson, ‘Cultural Confinement’ [1972] from ibid.

Questions

Through tracing the unique ontology of the art object as it persists now, I hope to address such aporetic questions as: What is the value of aesthetic value today? What kind of universally normative conditions can still be asserted as a priori for the situation of aesthetic engagement, when the self-critical artist increasingly seeks to engineer specific conditions for the reception of her work? Could (the labour of) spectatorship be shifted from the sphere of reception to the sphere of production whilst maintaining the aesthetic distance of non-participation? How can we restore the haptic to visuality – thus grounding an appearance long ephemerized through mechanical reproduction and smart phones – whilst refraining from actually touching what is there in front of us? Could the epistemological categories of Kant’s 3rd Critique be reworked and relativized to account for the specific social subject, by engaging recent developments in the field of queer phenomenology? Can the ‘aura’ be salvaged by moving away from a conception of the object as a moment in the life of the sovereign subject, to a situation whereby the subject is countenanced as a moment in the processual life of the object, (in line with Adorno’s theory of reconciliation)? What kind of material and formal properties might adequate to Hegel’s outlining of a Synthesis that suspends the moments of its negations; of a Being and Becoming entwined in Stasis?

Mineral life obliterates scale. Is mineral life therefore powerful enough to smash through the subject’s sovereign gaze, and if so, how can we put this natural force to use?