« Description fall 2005 | Main | Al notes on Kester »

Elli on Kester's Conversation Pieces

Whiteread Community & Communication in Modern Art
Grant H. Kester

Grant H. Kester is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California, San Diego, and the editor of Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from “Afterimage” (1998).

Kester begins by discussing a series of artists that have adopted an approach, which is performative and process-based.  They provide context rather than content.  The first group of arts, WochenKlausur seeks an intervention in drug policy through conversations on a boat with key political, journalistic and activist communities.  They were able to meet a consensus through the creation of a boarding house where drug-addicted sex workers could seek refuge.  Kester’s analysis of this work’s relevant legacy of modernist art is found “in the ways in which aesthetic experience can challenge conventional perceptions and systems of knowledge.”(#3)  Next is a performance art project, The Roof Is on Fire, by Suzanne Lacy.  This brought together over two hundred high school students in conversations on top of a parking garage in Oakland, California where they held a series of improvisational dialogues on the problems facing young people of color in California.  With more than a thousand Oakland residents and local media present, the youths were able to take control of their image.  These dialogues led to other community collaborations. Finally, Kester discusses the ROUTES project, which was organized around exchanges with bus drivers, writers, photographers, filmmakers, and other artists in 2001 resulting in a range of works.  At the center of the project was a process of listening to and documenting the drivers’ experience in relation to sectarian violence.  All of these projects share a concern with the creative facilitation of dialogue and exchange.  Conversation becomes an integral part of the work itself. Kester uses the term dialogical to describe these and related works which have an interactive character.  Kester seeks to distinguish these projects from political or social activism by presenting them as works of art.

The Eyes of the Vulgar
This chapter asserts an art historical context for the rest of the book through a reading of the way in which value has been assigned to the intelligibility of the work of art.  First, two works are compared to show the differences between a dialogical approach and the avant-garde discourse starting in the early twentieth century.  The first project is Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993).  House was based on the avant-garde recipe of shock, disruption, and ambiguity where consensus is considered insubstantial. It was provocative yet indeterminate, opaque yet open to differing conditions.  Viewers who didn’t gain insight to the work were written about as a lost cause.  Furthermore, House was conceptualized without any direct interaction with the site’s residents.  The second work, West Meets East (1992) by Loraine Leeson of The Art of Change, culminated in a billboard not far from Whiteread’s sculpture.  Leeson worked with Peter Dunn for nearly twenty years as The Art of Change developing collaborative projects with various groups in London.  In West Meets East, dialogues with young women from the Bow School focus on their common experiences in living between two cultures.  Leeson considers herself a facilitator of shared visions.  The two works discussed here represent two approaches to creating art.  With House, the object came first.  With West Meets East, like most of the work in the book, the starting point was a dialogue with the community.  The artistic identity of The Art of Change is based in part on their capacity to listen and to maximize the collective creative potential of the group they work with.  Unlike the situation with House, there is no theoretical framework in place to analyze a work like West Meets East.

Aesthetics and Common Sense

The motive behind the avant-garde rhetoric of shock and disruption is complex.  It seeks to make the viewer more receptive to the natural world, other beings, and other forms of experience; to shock them out of an existing perspective in order to witness the sensitive perceptions of the artist.  Aesthetic experience prepares us for entry into an idealized community of speakers.  However, this utopian vision is threatened by advertising and mass media.  This relationship between art, advertising, and propaganda is a central point of tension in modern art theory.  While art’s function is almost always presented in opposition to a malevolent other that threatens to destroy or compromise it, art’s promises must be deferred as it struggles to survive the mass culture flood.  As a result, a significant feature of the modernist tradition is a meditation on the ruins of discourse.

The Cold White Peaks of Art

Protecting the purified body of the aesthetic from advertising and mass culture requires the creation of increasingly formidable barriers.  The art of semantic resistance becomes an end in itself and a defining point of the avant-garde.  This development first appears in debates by Roger Fry and Clive Bell.  While Bell is critical of artists whose work relies on shared symbols and representation, Fry states that the “truly creative artist” is “noxious and unassimilable” to “social man”.  Fry and Bell tend to naturalize the elitism of art.  There are many contradictions in their writings.  There is the assumption that understanding art is universal, but at the same time an assertion that the masses will never be able to enjoy a true aesthetic experience. Also, they acknowledge that the ability to experience significant form depends on having leisure time to master the complex codes of innovative movements, while denying that difficult art is discursively coded.  Finally, while halfheartedly appealing to a revolution that might one day universalize aesthetic enlightenment, they readily succumb to the resignation that the elitism of high art is inevitable. However, their work does contain many of the key elements of an avant-garde discourse that takes form later in the twentieth century.

Repin’s Peasant
For Clement Greenberg, art differs from kitsch in its ability to frustrate simplistic translation.  The artwork asserts its difference from, and resistance to, mass culture by refusing to communicate with the viewer.  The only refuge for the artist disenchanted with socialism and disgusted by capitalism was to withdraw into a resistant subjectivity and reject comprehensibility entirely.  A group of New York School artists made a statement criticizing a critic’s writings about their work as being “program notes” for the “simple minded”.  According to the artists their images contained an “intrinsic” meaning that resisted translation.

The Elegiac Image

According to Mark Rothko, the only appropriate response to a world filled with vulgar eyes is silence and withdrawal.  This is a withdrawal from meaning itself.  Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit effect an important transition in avant-garde discourse by linking the critique of representational art (Bell & Greenberg) to a broader set of philosophical assumptions regarding the constitution of human subjectivity.  So Rothko’s refusal to produce readable/understandable paintings opposes not merely kitsch or representational painting, but the very coherence of the viewer as a speaking and reasoning subject. Rothko takes a position of superiority over the viewer.  The artist is a privileged subject who will teach the “ungifted majority” how to grasp the illusory nature of the real.

Politics of Semantic Labor
Greenberg asserts that the work of art must emphasize the “opacity of its medium”.  This opacity operates in two ways.  First, one cannot look “through” the medium of the painting to something that it represents in the world.  The second use of the term suggests the viewer’s desire to penetrate beneath the surface to a hidden significance.  Greenberg’s notion that the experience of art is physical raises the question of how art can directly impact the viewer (bodily) without becoming “easy”.  However, Greenberg recognized that difficult art rapidly becomes part if the tradition against which new work must rebel.  Also, the opposition between complex art and simple mass culture was difficult to sustain in a world where advertising began to employ the mainstays of avant-garde art practice.  Thus the core avant-garde principles were freed from theory and put to other uses.

The Prostitute and the Palace Guard

Michael Fried is possibly the best- known contemporary critic to elaborate on the critique associated with Greenberg.  In Fried’s writing, rather than an attack on kitsch, there is a threat posed by the profusion of new art movements in the 1960’s – especially minimalism.  Fried responds by differentiating authentic art from inauthentic art.  He uses the concept if theatricality to describe artists whose works reference contextual factors.  Theatrical work agrees to conform to the viewers’ expectations.  Thus the aesthetic meaning is not immanent in the physical object, but is created in its situation in space and time.  Works of authentic artists are indifferent to the viewer’s presence and preconceptions.  These works have a presentness that is experienced as a kind of instantaneousness.  There is no dialogue between the authentic work and other art forms or the viewer.  The authentic work of art is tested by a preanalytic chance response that corresponds with established norms of artistic excellence.  Thus there are no contingent forces of history, culture, or politics in regards to the definition of quality.  The authentic work teaches us to respect the unique and anomalous nature of things.  This openness to the world runs throughout avant-garde discourse in Bell and Fry’s rejection of representation, Greenberg’s attack on kitsch, and Fried’s criticism of theatrical art.  However, it is assumed that this openness comes at the expense of an indifference to, or assault on the viewer.

Duration, Performativity, and Critique
The twentieth-century formalist avant-garde approach associated with the criticism of Bell, Fry, Greenberg, and Fried relegates transdisciplinary deviation to the category “not art”.  Here, Kester explores the historical background of dialogical art, using the conditions of duration and visuality to differentiate it from the normative model of avant-garde art.

Duration and Opticality
Thomas Crow seeks to challenge the modernist insistence that art is defined primarily by an optical effect.  He focuses on works that emerge in the 1970’s and 80’s that challenge modernism’s “fetish of visuality”.  These works are associated with the rise of conceptualism characterized by the “withdrawal of visuality”.  Here the viewer is called on to complete the work of art in a process of collaborative interaction.  This movement toward direct interaction shifts the locus of aesthetic meaning to a social and discursive realm.  Fried (according to Stephen Melville) presents the aesthetic experience in a way that brings the viewer and object into a “harmonious communion” (57) without the mediation of speech or language.  Art should overwhelm us with its natural authority, not talk us into acceptance.  What is important to Kester’s analysis of Fried is his insistence that the authentic work resists interpretation and that our awareness of discursive conventions spells the end of authenticity.  Rather than art compelling conviction or casting doubt, Kester suggests a third possibility.  The work of art can enact community through a process of physical and dialogical interaction.  He argues that dialogical art practices are more than supplements to authentic works; they possess their own positive aesthetic content.

Duration and Critique in the Work of The Artists Placement Group and Helen and Newton Harrison
The Artists Placement Group (APG) was formed in the early 1970’s and sought to place artists in advisory positions in government, industry and the media in the United Kingdom.  The APG experienced a moderate degree of success.  Co-founder John Latham asserts that the artist can, by the forces of her alternative time sense, overcome bureaucratic inertia, and self-interested major corporations.  APG’s vision of critical insight, derived from the aesthetic and embodied through consultation and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, represents an important breakthrough in Kester’s attempt to define a durational and dialogical art practice.  This critical time sense is evident in the work of Helen and Newton Harrison.  Their projects, which respond to the ecological condition of specific regions, are premised on a process of dialogical interactions in which the artists interview environmental activists, scientists, policy makers and others.  The Harrison’s working method encompasses “conversational drift”, wherein unanticipated new images and knowledge are generated by open-ended dialogue.  The Harrisons envision more comprehensible solutions than individual specialists by reframing the meaning and potential of a given site.  Their plans have generated considerable support from both governmental and nongovernmental organizations.  Key to their work is the spatial imagination necessary to envision the interactions of vast ecosystems as well as an imagination that allows them to envision long-term impacts on a given ecosystem.  They are able to present their work in a way that allows viewers to see problems differently.  John Latham (APG) cites two limitations on specialized forms of knowledge or expertise.  The first is the limitation of specialization itself.  The second is the limitation of a short-term time sense in the context of a capitalist system of production.  Kester approaches the problem of defining dialogical practices from two points of view.  The first defines art through its function as an open space in contemporary culture where interactions can take place that wouldn’t be accepted elsewhere.  His second approach to analysis involves identifying works’ salient characteristics and linking them to aspects of aesthetic experience abandoned or redirected during the modern period.  This includes a critical time sense, a form of spatial rather than temporal imagination, and a concern with achieving these durational and spatial insights through dialogical and collaborative encounters.

The Problem of Other Minds: Adrian Piper’s Catalytic Converters

Adrian Piper is an artist and philosopher who is concerned with the limitations and the possibilities of dialogue across boundaries of difference.  Piper’s artistic and philosophical research is important to Kester’s analysis of dialogical art because it provides a description of the process by which we become more open and receptive subjects, as well as the mechanisms that can hinder that process.  What brings Piper into proximity with Kester’s other dialogical practitioners is her interest in the viewer’s response as the material of her work.  She describes the kind of person who could most successfully participate in dialogical exchange as someone who is open and vulnerable to the shaping influences of new ideas and subjectivities rather than defensive and critically reflexive.  She compares this “Kantian subject to the “Humean” subject who has a self-interested desire which is future oriented.  This subject is a “slave to passions” seeking fulfillment of desires.  While the Humean subject is individualistic, the Kantian is social and ethical.  Kester states that one of Piper’s most important contributions to contemporary philosophy is her attempt to link Kant’s ethics to his account of epistemology.  She argues that Kant’s model of epistemology leads us to treat others with respect and to recognize their “complex specificity as human subjects” (74).  However, Piper makes the assumption that we naturally seek an accurate, honest account of others and that we cannot tolerate differences in our mental image of the world and the world itself.  However, Piper argues that our cognitive concepts that we use to understand the world are not fixed, therefore, we “welcome anomaly as a means of extending our understanding our understanding” (76).  She contends that rather than using this otherness to reinforce our fixed identity, we can think of ourselves differently.  Piper’s work seeks to encourage such transformations.  Dialogical art requires empathetic identification and a formation of solidarity based on shared identification. Empathy is key to expanding our sense of humanity, but Piper suggests that there must be a balance between “self -absorption” and “vicarious possession” in empathetic identification.  Furthermore, Kester feels that a dialogical aesthetic requires that we must conceive of others as co-participants in the transformation of self and society.  Piper, however, approaches the viewer as though she is a teacher rather than a co-participant.  She says that she is confronting the “sinner with evidence of the sin” (79).  This somewhat dogmatic stance from a position of moral high ground has elicited criticism. However, Piper asserts that she wants to challenge what she refers to as “Easy Listening Art”.  In doing so she has provided an important resource for artists working dialogically to cross boundaries of racial, cultural, or class difference.

Dialogical Aesthetics
Orthopedics and Aesthetics
The poets, photographers, and filmmakers of the post revolutionary period establish an important distinction between mass media and pop culture or revolutionary art made by or for the working class.  Mass media promotes ruling class ideals in the form of entertainment and journalism.  Thus mass media is condemned because it suppresses working-class consciousness of the operations of social power. Avant-garde artists of the 1920’s employed mass media techniques in a way that promoted the experience of “shock” to counteract the false reality conveyed by these dominant cultural forms.  This is an attempt to create a heightened presence of mind in order to overcome the effects of modern life.  This relates to Greenberg and Fried’s definition of the aesthetic as an immediate shock or epiphany that is made sense of in terms of an existing discursive system.  The artists creating dialogical projects, on the other hand, conceive of the relationship between viewer and work as one that is a movement outside of self, extended over time, through the use of dialogue.  Therefore, Kester sees it necessary to explore the resistance of discourse more thoroughly through the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Lyotard and the Sublime

For Lyotard the shock of the sublime is in and of itself valuable.  Thus the task of advanced art is to represent the unpresentable.  This work is the site where that which is beyond discourse (the differend) takes refuge.  According to Lyotard, the artist “wins” when the viewer is deprived if as much if the framework of shared discourse as possible. Kester has identified two general modes within the tendency of modern art and theory towards antidiscursivity.  The first is indifference and the second is engagement and theatricality (wherein the viewer is a flawed subject).  This leads to two assumptions.  The belief that the viewer’s orientation to the world is defective, and that the artist can recognize and fix this defect.  This framework set up by the avant-garde tradition does not suit dialogical art practices because it promotes a reductive model of discursive interaction, it defines the aesthetic experience as immediate, and it is based on the interaction between viewer and object.

Dialogical Practices
Here, Kester offers an alternative approach; to locate open-ended possibility not in constantly changing objects, but in the process of communication that the artwork initiates.  This requires two shifts; a more nuanced account of communicative experience, and understanding the work of art as a process of communication rather than an object.

Stephen Willats and the Audience as Rationale

Willats is concerned with identifying and facilitating modes of resistance and critical consciousness among the residents if public housing.  In doing so he shifts the focus of art from the object based to the experience of his co-participants in their daily lives.  Willats argues for an aesthetic exchange wherein the artist’s presuppositions are possibly challenged through a dialogical encounter.  Aesthetic distance is achieved through the collaborative production, which develops an interrogative statement developed with a group of participants leading to a framework fir critical reflection.  In this type of dialogical practice, what emerges is a new set of insights.

WochenKlauser and Concrete Intervention

WochenKlauser describes a specific problem and then brings together resources to facilitate its resolution through “concrete interventions”. (98)  Their projects are divided between collaborative and advocacy-based works. Both types of work involve an intensive process of discussion to determine the appropriate form of intervention.  In response to those who equate their practice with social work, their founder, Wolfgang Zinggl states, “interventions are nonetheless based on ideas from the discourse of art.”  This includes the capacity to think creatively and critically across boundaries, and the facilitation of unique forms of discourse.

Jay Koh and the Art of Listening

It is necessary to shift from a concept of art based on self-expression to one based on the ethics of communication to understand Jay Koh’s work. The act of establishing networks of Asian artists, writers and activists across national boundaries constitutes a kind of aesthetics of listening.  The philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara argues that Western philosophy and art must, rather than concentrate on assertive saying, begin to acknowledge the role of listening as a creative practice.  Koh agrees.          

Aesthetics and Alterity
Kant asserts that in aesthetic experience our “cognitive powers are in free play”.  Also, there’s a commonness of cognition, with knowledge produced at the site of the viewer and the object.  As viewers we achieve universality by ridding ourselves of self-interest.  Kant's account of the aesthetic offers that the individual has the potential to view the world as an opportunity for experimentation and self-transformation.

Habermas and Discourse Ethics

German theorist Jurgen Habermas differentiates discursive forms of communication from hierarchical forms.  His concept of an identity is one formed through social and discursive interaction, which suggests two differences between a dialogical and a conventional model of aesthetic experience.  The first concerns claims of universality while the second concerns the specific relationship between identity and discursive experience.  Habermas defines the public sphere as a space of contending interests wherein the clash of argumentation results in a winning position that compels the assent of others.  The authors of Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986) have a different approach.  Their procedural form of knowledge is defined by two elements.  The first is to recognize the social context from which others speak, judge, and act.  The second constitutes a connected knowledge grounded in our capacity to identify with other people.

Empathetic Insight in Lacy and Manglano-Ovalle

Empathetic Insight can be produced along a series of axes.  The first is in the relationship between artists and collaborators.  The second is between the collaborators themselves.  The final is produced between the collaborators and other communities of viewers.  These three functions rarely exist in isolation.  This can be seen in the work of Suzanne Lacy and T.E.A.M. and in the work of Manglano-Ovalle.  Both artists’ work has an afterlife, which is an important feature of dialogical projects.

Conclusion: Levinas, Bakhtin, and Performative Identity 

Lavinas describes intersubjective ethics in terms of the “face to face” encounter.  Bakhtin describes a subjectivity that is formed through dialogical interaction , ultimately expanding the authoring subject. Levina’s concern with “concrete” others differentiates  him from Bakhtin, for whom the other still functions as a vehicle for self-realization.  However, Levina’s analysis of encounters leads to the power of the ego, while Bakhtin holds hope that this tendency can be undone.

A Critical Framework for Dialogical Practice
In this chapter Kester applies his theory to contemporary community art practices that are based on dialogical art practices.  There is an assessment of new genre public art that has the tendency to be responsive to local contexts and cultures rather than focusing on the object.  As such artist Dawn Dedeux is presented within the context of the historical and ideological context of community art.  Dedeux worked with prisoners in New Orleans to create a large-scale multi-media installation.  Her relationship with Wayne and Paul Hardy gives an example of her power of aesthetic transcendence.  The Hardy brothers are a pair of notorious drug dealers and gangsters who were willing to work closely with Dedeux to create videos and wall sized prints.  The videos showed other prisoners that their “heroes” were ready to give up the lives that had given them their notoriety.  Thus her relationship and work with the Hardys gained her much respect with other inmates. Ultimately her work with these tragic heroes gives great insight into issues of race, class, and poverty.  Pierre Bourdieu suggests two stages in the process of such political representation.  The first involves electoral procedures wherein a community appoints an individual to speak its collective will.  The second stage occurs as the delegate exhibits the community in the form of protests, demonstrations, and other political performances.  The spokesperson is legitimized through their demonstration of those who have delegated him.  Ultimately, active listening and intersubjective vulnerability play a central role in projects created in collaboration with communities.

Community and Communicability
Jean-Luc Nancy, in his book the Inoperative Community, attempts to put together a concept of community.  For Nancy, our identities are always in negotiation through our encounters with others.  Negation of others is impossible. However, Nancy’s process of “being–outside-self” conflicts with dialogical practice in several ways.  Still his work has influenced recent discussions of community-based art.  Art Historian Miwon Kwon criticizes Kester’s concept of a “politically coherent community” as being reductive and essentializing.  Kwon argues that politically coherent communities are more, rather than less, vulnerable to appropriation because they use collective identities.  Kester shares a concern with Kwon of the compromises involved in the “bureaucratization”  of community-based projects.  However, Kester shows that unanticipated forms of knowledge can be produced through dialogical encounters with politically coherent communities.  This is shown through examples of work by artists such as Cristen Crujido who works with Mexican farm laborers.  Some of the artists Kester discusses illustrate the limits of his concern with dialogical aesthetics.  They suggest “dialogical determinism “ which is the belief that all social conflicts can be resolved through the power of free and open exchange. This is problematic because it overlooks the differences in power relations that precondition participation in discourse.  Also, dialogical determinism overlooks the extent to which political change takes place via discursive forms.

Kester’s book is bold in its desire to challenge the formidable set norms of art criticism in order to acknowledge a new form of art. Kester shows that he is well studied in the theories of the avant-garde before he begins to dismantle some of its core assertions.  He makes a strong argument for the placement of dialogical projects amongst discussions of contemporary art.  As an alternative to tired formal analysis of objects, Kester makes a call to invigorate the community through creative, empathetic means. In his favor, he does not attempt to promote dialogical art as flawless in this process.  He recognizes problems that can arise while still forging new ground for a new form of art.  He does this in a way that is accessible and informative.

Submitted by Eli Pollard

References/ Recommended Reading

I also think the same as the genius commenter above.

No references for this section.