Equality in Colors. Dammi i Colori and the Postmonumental Painting of the Community
The aesthetic theory of modernity often legitimated the relationship between Art and Politics by an allusion to a utopian dimension of Art. No matter whether you think of the avant-garde idea of a supersession of art into life or the modernist aesthetics of autonomy which radically separated art from life, modern aesthetic theory conceived aesthetic form of art to have an intrinsic utopian aspiration. Either art was to represent a universal language that would establish an equality in the realm of aesthetic forms or it would help to transform the social world by liberating effects of aesthetic experience. In Theodor W. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, the idea of an aesthetic utopia became most accountable: the autonomous form of art would be the „governor“ for a utopia, or it would not be art at all (1).
From a contemporary perspective, there has been much scepticism about these legacies of modernist aesthetics and its avant-garde, but still there is an ongoing debate on how art could possibly relate to politics without falling back into the traps of the failed utopian legacies of the past. The work of Anri Sala and Edi Rama (Dammi i Colori, 2003/04) offers an example of how to critically re-examine the contemporary practice of painting under conditions of a pos-tutopian perspective which defends the aesthetic autonomy of art while offering forms of aesthetic experience that anticipate effects in the realm of the Political. In their work, Edia Rama, the artist and Mayor of the Albanian Capital of Tirana, inaugurated a post-monumental painting which Anri Sala filmed and transformed into a video installation. Rama used the city of Tirana as a canvas and let buildings of entire areas of the city paint in different colours. He inaugurated thus a public debate about how the colours of a city would not only make Tirana more beautiful, but how they could actually anticipate an aesthetic community. In fact, during Ramas intervention, everyone would debate about the colours of the city, forming a community of taste which would anticipate a political community that was precarious in the post-socialist country at the same time. The artist-Mayor Rama wanted the citizens of Tirana to be part of an aesthetic democracy which was not yet realized in political terms.
In my paper, I will first present and discuss the intentions and ambivalences of Ramas work. I would specifically read his intervention as a post-monumental painting which correlates with a specific shift in contemporary aesthetics in the wake of post-Adornian aesthetics. In this reading, aesthetic experience is not anticipating a utopian form of liberation or utopian subjectivity (2). Rather, aesthetic experience offers a process for establishing an indeterminate aesthetic community of taste which remains essentially precarious and instable. That doesn’t mean that contemporary art would have no link to politics or democracy. But it rather becomes an agent for political action that comes „beyond art“ – instead of anticipating aesthetic utopias. Critical contemporary art could then be considered as a space for indeterminacy while at the same time holding up the promise for a political state of otherness, insisting on the possibility of a non-hierarchical intersubjectivity.
2. Leonhard Emmerling
The political in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory
In 1970, Theodor Adorno’s „Aesthetic Theory“ was posthumously published. In this monumental work, Adorno had tried to come to terms with the question, how the Kantian notion of the autonomy of the artwork could be reconciled with the observation, that every artwork is simultaneously an autonomous and a social fact, determined by historical, cultural, political circumstances and constellations. How can it be autonomous, if it is the product of extrinsic conditions, and how can it be political, if it is autonomous? Does the artwork’s utopian potential as a political potential lie precisely in its status as a semblance, which makes it necessary to position the work of art in opposition to “reality”, separated from it by the aesthetic difference? Or is the artwork’s distance from “reality” the proof of the fact that it is, especially in its form of painting – the paradigm of bourgeois art (Greenberg) -, of no use at all when it comes to the question whether art plays any role in regards to politics. Adorno emphasized the fact that the artwork (as the expression of the “Geist” = Hegel’s spirit) opposes society’s pressure to perform as an object of exchange value. Its irritating abstractness and remoteness makes it unsuitable to be classified as an object amongst other objects of the empirical world. By remaining “useless”, it finds itself in strict antagonism to the homogenizing forces of capitalism. The artwork in its idealistic form, as a “useless” semblance and as an expression of the spirit, never fits seamlessly into the logic of both, capitalism and any form of totalitarianism, as it either overshoots or doesn’t fulfil, what is required, and stands aslant to the demand of serving either the education of the masses, the glorification of power or the production of surplus value. There is a recent “revival” of Adorno’s thoughts in, for instance, the writings of Jaques Rancière and Alexander Düttmann. While in the context of relational aesthetics, the difference between the reality of the work of art as the “reality of a semblance” and the “reality of reality” was to be eradicated as a hindrance on the way to the realization of utopia here and now, the value of uselessness seems to become re-discovered, not at least in respect to the fact, that in the digital era, every communication and transaction produces some kind of profit at some point. The complete capitalization and financialization of life in the digital age give new relevance to the question, whether the work of art as an object of resistance to the exchange value can be read as the result of and as a tool for political praxis. The paper I am proposing will try to trace Adorno’s meandering thoughts along the lines of the artwork’s anti-social uselessness as precisely its mode of being a social phenomenon; its distance to politics as its mode of being part of the political.
3. Suzanne Hudson
“Toward a Happier and More Successful Life,” or When Veterans Made Art in the Modern Museum
I will present research regarding the development of occupational and art therapy for veterans within the Museum of Modern Art, New York, during World War II. They assumed that art-making (“inner-directed introspection” in the language of the CFP, which uncannily echoes Museum press from these years) was imbricated within contemporary political realities inversely: insofar as it served to manage them, and to return the citizen-soldier—bolstered through the subjective instantiation through materials, which was also modernism’s dream—to non-combatant life. Far from an aberration, the programs undertaken at the Museum through the auspices of the War Veterans’ Center between 1944 and 1948 confirm ideas that had been developed in the years before the war and similarly realize a template for work thereafter. Thus while under-studied, they represent a crucial aspect of the Museum’s history, with implications for its own development, as well as that of art-making within this and other modern museums, as well as USO Camps and community centers, in the United States. Under Victor D’Amico, the head of Education, it consolidated art making as a principle activity within the Museum, where, after the War, he promoted values of creativity—and thinking through and by making (its sui generis character was here critical)—for a wider constituency. When the People’s Art Center emerged in 1948 from the War Veterans’ Art Center it was hailed in contemporary Museum press materials as a “logical development,” with the new museum school relatively unchanged except in name and population. What was specific about the work done for veterans at MoMA in the 1940s was not what it accomplished but for whom it was intended. The point remained one of the preservation of autonomy through art-making, which in turn supposedly modeled a more fit citizen—an especially critical program in the escalating Cold War. This will this talk additionally pose questions of the therapeutic uses and ends of process within this wartime population, as well boundaries between making for its own sake without the assumption of its utility beyond that event and the nomination of some such experiments as art within the adjacent galleries. It is couched within (and extends from) my book-length study of the practical applications of art making, Better for the Making: Art, Therapy, Process, a study of the therapeutic origins of process within American modernism, for which I am currently serving as a Senior Scholar in Residence in the Department of Marital and Family Counseling at Loyola Marymount University’s program in Art Therapy thanks to an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship.
4. Wystan Curnow
Writing about his 1971 painting Mondrian’s Chrysanthemum of 1908, Colin McCahon noted, ‘it refers back to my lasting feeling for Mondrian and his works’, and is inscribed ‘Greetings to Mondrian’s Chrysanthemum.’ He further commented that ‘it is perhaps a chrysanthemum, perhaps a sunset, quite possibly a bomb dropped on Muriwai.’ Muriwai, on Auckland’s west coast is where the sun goes down and McCahon had his studio. In my paper I will address questions raised by this work, among them: why did McCahon conclude his 1972 retrospective with this work? and what does McCahon’s lasting fear of nuclear warfare have to do with his lasting feeling for Mondrian and his works?
5. Kirsty Baker
Vivian Lynn: a return
To conclude her provocative 2008 essay Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism’, Sara Ahmed writes:
We don’t always have to make a return to earlier feminist work, but if we represent that work as being this or that, then we need to make that return. Such a return would be ethical: we should avoid establishing a new terrain by clearing the ground of what has come before us.
The act of returning – both curatorially and critically – to work made at the height of the second wave of feminist politics is complicated by the exclusions of those very politics.
Vivian Lynn’s sustained and diverse artistic practice is underpinned by an interrogation of the gendered stratification of culture and society. Such interrogations can be conceived as both an inner-directed introspection, and also a vehicle through which to reconsider dominant socio-political ideologies. However, Lynn’s feminist politics are, inevitably, historically and culturally situated. What are the wider political consequences of returning to Lynn’s work, today?
This paper will examine the development of Lynn’s politically informed artistic practice as it moved increasingly away from painting. Rather than simply examining the politics which informed her practice, this paper will centre a critical interrogation of the manner in which those works could be read within a contemporary climate. Particular consideration will be paid to the ramifications of intersectional and decolonial critiques of second wave feminism. This paper focuses upon close critical engagements with three key moments in Lynn’s practice:
- Between 1964 and 1966 Lynn undertook a sustained painterly interrogation of the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. In these paintings she returned repeatedly to trees as subject matter, representing species both native to Aotearoa, and those imported ones which frequently supplanted them. What does it mean for a Pākehā artist to depict both indigenous and imported natural environments? Do these paintings encode colonial ways of picturing place, or is it possible that her brush can transcend these tensions?
- Created in 1973, Lynn’s Book of Forty Images combined silkscreen image with text to build a multi-layered analytical representation of social inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand. Created within a discourse which challenged the authority of language to objectively encode meaning, the Book of Forty Images positioned constructions of gender within a consciously western paradigm of knowledge formation. How might we read such a document today?
- Lynn’s monumental 1986 installation Gates of the Goddess positioned large-scale female imagery front and center. Though seeking to challenge the Eurocentric masculinity of large-scale sculpture, Gates of the Goddess raises a range of problematic issues. Taking discarded tapa cloth as medium, Lynn – a Pākehā woman – decontextualises this material from its cultural origins. Is her use of material innovative, or appropriative? Can a work which centres both goddess imagery and menstruation avoid charges of biological determinism from the perspective of a post-binary understanding of gender?
Through these specific analyses, this paper will consider the ethics of forging a return to Lynn’s practice, from the perspective of contemporary feminist politics.
6. Allan Smith
Cubism as painting beyond and beside itself: slips, shifts, pulsations, and intermittent radiations
Thinking of the cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso between 1910 and 1912 as quietly exhilarated rhythmisations of texture and diagram, and as rehearsals of accented materiality, will ready them for interpretive exchanges with slapstick serialized collisions, improvised finger-tutting, rock-climbing, parkour, Helen O’Leary’s knitting with wood, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s stair crashing Fiat in ‘The Burglars’, Jacques Tati’s rhythmised bureaucracy of ‘Playtime’, – as much as with Paul Virilio’s discussion of the picnoleptic intermittence which scores consciousness and attention with a cinematic stutter.
Following Pascal Michon’s endeavour to recuperate, via Benveniste, the Democritan notion of rhythm as a way of flowing, or the improvisational relay of changing shapes in time, as opposed to Plato’s idealist concept of rhythm based on the coherence of form and numerical organisation modelling ethical and political eurhythmy – the rhythmic alternations and palpitations of cubist painting open up consideration of how we may be variously entrained by, or improvisationally diverge from, the flows of global capital, the digitized evaporation of locale, and the algorhythmisation of experience.
In its explication and corrosion of partial forms – its “ways of producing-reproducing-destroying both [its] elements and the totalities to which they belong” (Michon) – does the activated surface of a cubist painting offer a model for the temporary appearance of new socio-political formations? From its meshwork of simultaneous contrasts, can it signal the rising up of agonistic conflicts? Or, can its scaly luminosity only shore up the compulsion to repeat? Establishing elegantly, economically, ambiently, what Freud called “a mainly quiescent cathexis”? Does the stippled chiaroscuro of the cubist field, promote the percussive energetics that Charles Olson banked on as a condition of field organisations? Do the continuities and discontinuities of the cubist surface model an equalisation of tensions within the psyche? Do they tend to mutually adjust the inconsistencies and excitations of impetus and exteriority? Or do they represent table top territories of restless difference from which partially autonomous and individuated subjectivities can emerge?
7. Raymond Spiteri
Surrealism, Painting, Politics
This paper will consider the configuration of painting and politics in surrealism during the interwar years to argue that painting and politics intersect in an aesthetic of incompletion and failure: that traces of the political ambitions of surrealism are to be discerned in the wreck and ruin of pictorial form. This aesthetic of incompletion and failure in the can be aligned with Jacques Rancière’s notion of dissensus. For Rancière, dissensus is the essence of politics, not as “a confrontation between interests and opinions,” but as the “demonstration of a gap in the sensible itself.” Dissensus thus stands against culture and politics, poiesis and praxis. In relation to surrealism, dissensus can be considered as a manifestation of an oppositional stance that resists recuperation by the established forms of culture or politics: either as a contribution to the development of artistic forms and practices, or the practice of politics by members of political parties or the institutions of political activity. However, this strategy is inherently ambiguous: while surrealism initially refused the autonomy of pictorial form, it was rapidly recuperated as a new cultural form, and soon assimilated into the history of art. The dissensual charge of surrealism rapidly decayed: what initially may constitute an act of dissensus becomes recuperated as a new cultural form—a process that has implication for any understanding of the relation between painting and politics. Surrealism offers two lessons: first, dissensus is always tied to a specific agonistic situation or context, a set of refusals about the nature of painting; and second, that dissensus rapidly decays once this context changes, rendering dissensus illegible as it is recuperated as painting and incorporated into the canon of art history.
8. Helen Westgeest
Delegated Painting Performances as Visualized and Materialized Sociopolitical Discussions
Action-reaction processes are important drivers in sociopolitical spaces, but they usually do not leave any immediate visual or material traces. Delegated painting performances appear to be an intriguing new medium that visualizes, materializes, as well as critically interrogates sociopolitical interactions. In delegated performances, the artist delegates the artistic production process to the public, turning passive spectators into actors (Bishop, 2012). In some of these projects, painting plays an essential role. Whenever political issues also feature prominently in these delegated painting performances, they provide insightful case-studies for debates on “Painting Politics.” This paper focuses on two artworks: Artur Zmijevski’s Them and Paweł Althamer’s Draftsmen’s Congress. These two Polish artists incited active and critical responses from passive consumers of art and politics by inviting them to discuss their ideologies visually, through painting. How should we consider these artworks as functioning in political philosopher Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic model of public space (Mouffe, 2008)?
In 2012 Althamer developed his Draftsmen’s Congress project in the St. Elisabeth Church in Berlin. It consisted of a continuous meeting of people who discussed politics by means of creating images instead of words. The assistants invited visitors to join the collective painting performance, and to react to issues such as current politics, symbols of power, religion, economic disasters, etcetera, thereby suggesting that it was perfectly okay to cover images created by others about which one was unhappy. As Zmijevski commented on the work of his colleague: “the use of visual language is democratized in a mass conversation that only looks like an exhibition.”
Draftsmen’s Congress may be considered an extension of Zmijevski’s Them, a painting performance which took place in 2007. According to Jakub Majmurek (2012), it involved an exploration of how tools of political expression other than striking, voting, and street protest can be put into people’s hands. Zmijewski had invited representatives from various social groups with contrasting ideological views in Poland to participate in a painting workshop. They were asked to paint murals and banners that represented their values and beliefs, in order to elucidate their disparate beliefs and political convictions to the other participants. In this visualized political discussion they were allowed to add to the paintings created by the others.
Althamer and Zmijewski produced relational spaces as artworks (Bourriaud, 1998), articulating political interactions in “social studios” by means of painting workshops. As I will argue, these delegated painting performances visualize and elucidate Mouffe’s agonistic model of public spaces, marked by the critical juxtaposition of different hegemonic projects without any possibility of final reconciliation (different from liberalism’s belief in universal consensus). These artworks foment dissensus, demonstrating that other possibilities are repressed which can be reactivated, and thus they contribute to the construction of new subjectivities. In doing so, they may provide original contributions to political thought and action.
9. Laurence Simmons
A Vegetable Politics
The language of plant life and phytological vocabulary is so deeply rooted in our idiom for talking about thinking that we may not even notice it. However, with the recent turn to human-animal studies plants have become the unremarked and abjected other of western philosophical thought. This paper aims to take seriously theories that plants communicate, feel pain, but most of all that they offer us a critique of our concept of individuality because they are entities more or less adequately described as communities, or entities formed by different types of symbiosis. Plants interrogate through their very structure, the frontiers of individuality. Starting from Foucault’s notion of biopower, Derrida’s queer botany of Genet in Glas, and Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus, it is proposed that plants constitute good models to think about desire, power and potentiality. The radical uncertainty posed by the plant is taken up as a constant riff in the work of New Zealand artist Richard Killeen. It strongly guides his practice of paintings as ‘cut-outs’ that break with the framed identity of the artwork, and more recently his composition of random sets of computer-generated images from his database. Indicative of this process is a large cut-out work of 332 pieces entitled A Vegetable Theology (1997). Are we are all ‘walking plants’ in the sense that our stomachs function as a kind of internalised, portable soil formed by the reunion of many different species? It would seem so if we take into account the fact that, like plants, we are made up of many different entities, different species, so integrated that they form the individual that we are. I argue for Killeen’s phytophilia as part of a subversive artistic as well as ecological discourse on this ‘vegetable politics’.
10. Alex Bacon
Painting’s Minor Present
In recent years the death notice issued to painting in the 1960s and ‘70s has finally been rescinded. What remains is an anxiety about what role the venerable medium, still reeling after years of critical assault, might play within the ever-broadening field of contemporary art. One sign of painting’s latest “return,” as well as a possible route to its viability, is its emergence in certain recent artistic practices as just one of its components, rather than its totality. A situation often present in a single exhibition, which may find works on canvas alongside sculpture, video and installation. Some (certainly not all) younger artists are no longer held up by the notion that they must choose one medium or another, but rather see the value of activating multiple, different formal vehicles, each selected because it is the one best suited to express a given idea.
Painting that emerges from such a context retains a degree of autonomy by remaining a stand-alone work, rather than necessarily having to—as it did a generation ago—stretch the conceptual and material limits of the medium so as to evince its “expanded field.” At the same time this painting abdicates its traditional role at the top of a perceived hierarchy of artistic mediums. Such paintings makes their own statements, while also being clearly and unavoidably contextualized and amended by what surrounds them, both literally and conceptually.
This dehierarchizing enables painting to engage new political valences. Without bearing the burden of establishing conviction through formal means that transcend the material and contextual conditions of the painting, but by still focusing our attention through the conventions of viewing and contemplation that such painting retains, the medium is allowed to address the politics of its materials: whether those traditional to the medium, or new materials that are brought into its orbit. For example, Pamela Rosenkranz’s Sexual Power paintings, which she paints under the influence of Viagra, question the gendered politics of both painting and also sexuality in society more broadly. This also brings the issue of labor into view, where the process of making the painting is laid bare, and as such allows us to consider the alienating conditions of production more broadly. Finally, artists like Jacob Kassay use this condition of painting to address the work’s circulation through economic and digital circuits, as is his most recent paintings, which are correlated to the conditions of the digital camera in a negative sense, such that they register in images either as an empty, mute non-image, or a blurred mis-registered agglomerations of nonsensical pixels, an action that highlights painting’s transactional nature.
Some of the contemporary artists whose use of this approach will potentially be considered include Kassay, Rosenkranz, Christodoulos Panayiotou, and Ann Cathrin November Hoibo. Some attention will also be paid to the directly preceding generation, which includes Cheyney Thompson and Jutta Koether. These artists, while incorporating some elements outside of painting, especially by creating environments through exhibition design, still foregrounded painting in their practices, developing an approach David Joselit has influentially termed “painting beside itself.” Other artists of that generation, including Merlin Carpenter and Gedi Sibony, cross over between these two modes, at times highlighting painting, while at others downplaying it.
11. Luke Smythe
A Thin Blue Line, the Sheer Opacity of Pigment, and Fairy Villages: Insulating Painting from Politics against Stiff Odds
In the current social climate, it seems to me that it is harder to keep politics out of painting than the reverse. With this thought in mind, my proposed talk considers whether and to what extent painters can make their work into a space of aesthetic refuge (in Marcuse’s sense) from politics, at a time when responses to seemingly any object or event can and will be politicised. They can do this to a limited extent, I argue, by taking steps to increase the chances that a viewer of their work will adopt an aesthetic attitude toward it, and only an aesthetic attitude.
Conventionally enough, I think of an aesthetic attitude toward a painting as one that allows the viewer to attend as fully as possible to the painting’s aesthetic attributes, undistracted by other considerations. For the purposes of this talk, these attributes needn’t be precisely specified, beyond saying, firstly, that they’re purely formal and, secondly, that when they’re well-configured they facilitate aesthetic experience (two claims I believe are true). I roughly define aesthetic experience as a heightened or refined form of perceptual experience having no necessary connection to anything in the real world, in which we are able to become happily absorbed. Once such absorption occurs, we can find refuge from worldly or practical concerns, like politics. This can only happen, however, if the work’s content isn’t seen as political. If this happens, then its aesthetic properties can wind up serving politics, or the viewer can become so distracted by politics that they fail to respond aesthetically to the work.
Bearing in mind these concerns, I suggest, with reference to painters like Gerhard Richter, Amy Sillman, Thomas Kinkade, and the anonymous creator(s) of a highly controversial blue line painted on the main street of Warwick, New York in 2016, that there are several, interlinked steps that apolitical painters can take to try to insulate their work from politics: The first is to paint with enough abstraction that obvious social references are kept at bay. The second is to make one’s work as decorative and complex as possible—decorative to enhance its sensuous appeal, complex to enhance its cognitive appeal, while also limiting its predictability, the two together making the work potentially more aesthetically absorbing than either would in isolation. The third, and hardest, is to try, as best one can, to position one’s work within networks of influence that through their shaping of the work’s public reception can mute potential political readings of it (a concern David Joselit has explored). None of these tactics can guarantee a painting won’t be viewed as political by at least some viewers, if only by virtue of its apoliticality. Together, however, they can increase the chances of it being seen and read aesthetically and thus becoming able to offer aesthetic refuge, an experience I think is endangered today.