Thursday 6 November 2014

Questions and Answers.

I've read a few times this week the familiar refrain that art doesn't pose answers but asks questions. This may be posed as a response to seemingly didactic or polemical art, or requests that art be more readily decipherable, or reflections on art that is seen as a call upon the response to provide answers, or as a comeback to art that is read as offering the wrong answers or questions for what ever reasons.
  But it's not my experience of much art, at least the art that interests me, that it asks questions. Art which asks questions supposes an answer - this is the return one gets in the binary that is proper to a question, and I'm not well inclined to reviews that reduce a relation to an artwork to the answer to a question supposed by an artwork, in so far as such an answer sticks. After all what more would need to be said if a question were really answered? What a conversation killer, what a dampener on desire. We can consider ourselves lucky that the answers rarely offer the satisfaction that they imagine they're aiming for. Art is a different kind of call for a response than a question, I think.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

I didn't think it was art when I made it.

Here's a video produced for a show that I organised called Amerika, about the idea of America from the point of view of people who are not Americans.

That show informed the approach to art making that I'm now exploring, and when asked recently by a curator whether the Amerika show might be my art, I couldn't in retrospect say with any confidence that it wasn't. Indeed a friend who'd seen this video told me with some conviction yesterday that he thought it was a piece of my art, regardless of my opinion (albeit that my opinion is that he could turn out to be right). So here's a video which I cannot say with any confidence is not my art.

Friday 12 September 2014

You may ask me what it means, and I will tell you that the meaning is that there is a meaning.

In Plato’s Symposium, a book about the mysteries of love, there is a particularly curious passage. As Pausanias pauses his speech, the humorist playwright Aristophanes who is due to speak next, says that he cannot speak (of love) because his voice is taken with a case of the hiccups, perhaps having laughed so much at the lawyer Pausanias’ speech. With some considerable word play the Symposium relates to us that  Aristophanes turned to the doctor Eryximachus, who was due to speak after Aristophanes, to ask Eryximachus if he might have a cure for the hiccups. Eryximachus offers some possible cures but also to take Aristophanes’ place in the order, so that if the hiccups are cured by the time he’s finished Aristophanes might take his place. Arstophanes takes this offer, and is able to talk after Eryximachus. The reader is left pondering on the meaning of this interruption.

The Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was one of those wondering what the episode of the hiccups might mean. Whilst preparing his Seminar VIII (PDF), on the theme of transference, which is nothing other than love, he sought to find out. His mentor the Hegelian scholar Alexandre Kojeve had been studying Plato, and so Lacan asked him if he had any thoughts on the meaning of this episode in the Symposium. Having not specifically studied the Symposium Kojeve did not have an answer, but offered to Lacan in place of a solution this reply - “In any case you will never interpret the Symposium if you do not know why Aristophanes had a hiccup!” This of course, for Lacan, only makes the matter more mysterious.

In his book A Voice and Nothing More, Mladen Dolar relates this story, adding on Lacan’s behalf a formula which is absent from Lacan’s telling in Seminar VIII. Dolar infers from Lacan that the settlement towards the meaning expressed by the hiccups, as a kind of voice, is that it means that it means.

The formula that the meaning is that there is a meaning, is one that at first glance seems to rely on rhetorical tautology. There are several examples of related seeming logical fallacies which Lacan thought about, for instance, the statement ‘I am telling a lie’, which seemingly if it is true, must be false, and if it is false, must be true, but which none the less we may find a way to understand in everyday conversation. In following the logic of the split between conscious and unconscious, shown clearly for instance in Freud’s short 1925 text on Negation, Lacan seeks to clarify why such statements do in fact work. He proposes that there are two subjects, the subject of the statement, and the subject of enunciation. So there is a subject who states that she is lying, and a subject who indicates in her enunciation through this false statement that she isn’t lying, or perhaps that she is - there are, after all, several ways that such a statement can be enunciated. It is at the level of statement that Aristophanes’ hiccups make no sense - there is no stated meaning. But the manner of Plato’s inclusion of this episode indicates that meaning is there, if never stated, otherwise, why else would the episode be there? The proposal that the meaning is that there is a meaning acts as a kind of meeting of statement and enunciation, whereby the non-meaning of the statement is the condition of its meaning in enunciation as meaning as such.

You may ask me what it means, and I will tell you that the meaning is that there is a meaning.

Thursday 19 June 2014

The guarantees of art.

There's a sense with Matisse of two tendencies at play in different places in his work - a stylist who creates slick and beautiful lines and shapes effortlessly in a trademark manner, as if there’s no possibility of failure - and an artist who struggles with technique and style: the Matisse who can’t draw hands very well, the one who pins, or paints or draws and re-pins, over-paints, draws over, again and again, often tentatively, who after he finds a solution that’s slick, reworks the theme again in a way that is more risky. There’s the Matisse who’s an institution, a guarantee of quality provided in advance, and the Matisse for whom there is no guarantee authorised by a name or style in a generic way, but for which the promise needs to be won afresh, or not, each time. 

With that in mind here’s some really bad Matisse hands.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

art as a sexual orientation

A comment on a friend's FaceBook page said that art might be a sexual orientation - a really disappointing one.

I enjoyed this idea. It reminded me of Lacan's idea of misunderstanding as being the basic orientation of sexual relations, reminded me of the famous phrase there is no sexual relation.

There's a truism that good art changes the way we see the world. This initially seems plausible, and perhaps as an experience of art in general it might work, but in my experience the extreme rarity with which particular art works could be described, even in a weak way, as changing the way I see the world, implies that it's not true in the particular. Art works, it works as an orientation, it has its objects (whatever they might be) around which it is oriented - but not in the way that it is represented as working, which may be to do with what is not representable about the experience of art.

Here's a PDF I've been reading on the meaning of the term "there is no sexual relation"

Sunday 5 January 2014


Here's a short essay I've written for an exhibition I've organised about what America means for people who are not Americans. The essay doesn't explain the exhibition, but is rather a side piece to it, a play on this fantastic Sergio Leone quote from an interview he did in the June 1984 issue of American Film magazine.

Amerika: idea / fantasy / dream / myth / image.

"America is really the property of the world, and not only of the Americans, who, among other things, have the habit of diluting the wine of their mythical ideas with the water of the American Way of Life. America was something dreamed by philosophers, vagabonds and the wretched of the earth before it was discovered by Spanish ships and populated by colonies from all over the world. The Americans have only rented it temporarily. If they don’t behave well, if the mythical level is lowered, if their movies don’t work anymore and history takes on an ordinary day-to-day quality, then we can always evict them. Or discover another America. The contract can always be withheld.” -- Sergio Leone (1984)

America has from its inception had a powerful mythic pull, not just for Americans, but for the world beyond. America, as well as being a place - a reality - the US - is a heady, swirling abstraction of ideas, fantasies, dreams, and myths. Forms of the imaginary and of the symbolic which belong no less to the world than to Americans, and which are not the same things for all.

A nation is always something made up of more people, places, and ways of being than can be remotely accounted for by an identity. In this way there is much about a ‘national identity’ that never fits the particular circumstances to be found in a nation. A nation is never a totality, and a national identity isn’t nearly as substantial as that - it’s a thing of vapour.

America has long been a particularly diffuse idea, no less now than ever. This idea, which is also the stuff of American identity, is not made of a myriad American images, sounds, and words, which we associate with it. It is made, rather, of some libidinal attachments, surpluses of excitation around those many moments of Americana. America in this sense is made of demands and desires - the pursuit of happiness, perhaps, but not it’s capture.  Americana is special not for what it is, in front of us, but for what we do with it, for its excitement of demands or desires for what we don’t have.

The idea of America can allow people from the US to be held in place in their sense of being Americans. It can offer a comforting semblance of fullness, that the nation is more of a totality than it is, and is something more which makes them who they are. A person can feel more well located (in more than one sense) through their national identity. The person of the US can look at their imaginary reflection in the idea of America, and see something of themselves transformed in the mirror, intimate, and yet set at a distance. They can make of themselves American subjects. This kind of imaginary settlement is one that in fixing things in place, may delimit a subjectivity. A subjectivity that demands what it thinks it needs of what already exists, and holds its subject in relation to demand.

To the extent that the mythic idea of America is about the progressive possibility of change for the better, for the well fixed American that possibility isn’t of a change in subjectivity. There is thus a limit on the radicality of America for such American subjects. Theirs is an idea of progress, only so long as subjective orientation is fixed in an imaginary fullness. A fullness that is likely to paper over the limits, the iniquities, the cracks, and the banalities of the US.

Of course the ephemera of Americana, and the possibilities to which they allude, by which people of the US interpolate themselves as Americans, are hugely varied. There is great variety in well fixed Americans. Furthermore, America is not only the stuff of an identity that might mask what is troubling in relation to the US.

A large part of the idea of America is in an appeal that is not specific to the people of the US. An appeal to those for whom America is not principally the mooring of an identity, fixing them in relation to the US. An appeal to those for whom America might be more purely a relation to ideas, fantasies, dreams, myths, and images. For many (including many Americans), the American idea in it’s affirmative, radical dimension, disrupts the sense of inevitability of the limits of the state we’re in - it is a challenge to the problems of our realities. It can be seen for an American instance, in the extended appeal to the American Dream in Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, and is not less for other people of the world than for the disaffected of the US.

This other America, rather than masking the limits of our circumstances, highlights them, and opens another space, a space aside, an object cause of our desire to actively better our circumstances, whatever they be.

There is a commonplace liberal idea now that America is synonymous with American corporate influence, but that American corporate influence is no longer that of the place of the US, since corporations are no longer nationally bounded entities. In this way we are all, in part, people of a US reality. This proximity may make the idea of America feel threatening. Threatening to engulf those around us as an identity, to fix them ‘properly’ in relation to the US. Threatening to take away their capacity to see things in other ways, ways that don’t accord with an American identity. Threatening to ‘Americanize’ them. But if we are more fervently disappointed in the failures of the US, perhaps this is because on some level we still believe in the idea of America.

America does not belong to the US, it is not contingent to the immediacy of US influence. It belongs to we the people of the world. If we of the world feel threatened by the imminence of the US, then it is all the more meaningful to take up the challenge that our America can present to its iniquities. Less than a mask, for us the radical potential of America is as a cause of our desire to refuse the restraints of what we are offered in our status quo. Not merely to demand what we need of existing conditions, but to desire what does not yet exist.