Monday, June 30, 2014


One thing I've noticed is that amateurism is distinctly not an American aesthetic. I think this is the flip-side that informs American taste for Formalism (professionalism), and I think it relates to the distinctly American distaste for central planning.

I think the bottom up anti-centralism of the US casts everyone a priori as an entrepreneur, and likewise "skill" and legitimacy is not associated with public institutions per se but rather with the successful entrepreneur. If we were to take art for example, then the MOMA, Guggenheim etc exist as private non-profit organisations with a board of trustees. It is ultimately a creation of successful industry.

On the other hand, this constructs the amateur as a failed entrepreneur, which is to say merely unskilled or inferior. That is, if everyone is constructed as an entrepreneur, the distinction between the amateur and the professional is only quantitative ie in terms of skill and talent and how much money you make, rather than qualitative. Here Mike Smith is probably a good case, representing the entrepreneur as amateur, and especially since his work was neglected for too long and dismissed as amateurish.

In cultural contrast, we might take the English amateur (the hobbyist) who represents the idiosyncratic over the socialised / normalised / public sphere. Here the amateur represents the inner private life of the domestic as against public life (not the market), which is the personal and the biographical ie what is not fit for "public" consumption. Grayson Perry being a good example. 

Perhaps this isn't borne out by the facts? - particularly with reference to Institutional Critique and how it regards institutions. But to me the collector, a figure steeped within 19th C naturalism and the European public institution, makes Mark Dion's work seem very British. Perhaps I'm wrong.

The Australian amateur is probably related to the Australian artist which I long argued comes out of the DIY man in the shed. Here the amateur is opposed to the consumer (why buy something when I can make a perfectly good (imprecise and wonky) version myself?!) Perhaps this relates to a historically ingrained respect for labour, and has persisted in an amateurish maker culture. So does this make the Australian amateur primarily opposed to industrial production?

I started thinking of this because of some lukewarm responses by music writers here to BSR releases, particularly those releases with an interesting sociological context. Here, where everyone is expected to have a jazzed up personal narrative (..and from that day on I knew I was born to X) and be an a priori producer of sorts (I'm a singer/ novelist / artist, yes can I take your order?) any interesting conditions of production are levelled out. The idiosyncrasies in the music don't come across as formalising and illuminating a particular context in which it was produced, rather, it just comes across as another amateur  who can't make to spec. Here spec not being mass expectations, but niche, being an equally formalised domain. 


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Void

So I finally got around to reading the McGowan piece you recommended, and like you I got a lot out of it. I think my thoughts over the past 6 months have circulated around a very simple binary to do with politics and art centering on the relationship between autonomy and engagement. I really like it when writers apply theory to really simple, pop cultural examples because it helps me understand them in very simple terms, which is probably why Zizek is so popular.
So, the concept of the void, or missing signifier or the absent female binary didn’t make terribly much sense to me in the way McGowan and Roger spoke of it until he applied it in his reading of the DaVinci Code showing how the missing signifier of the female in Western culture proposed in the suppressed figure of Mary Magdalen in Christianty refers to two approaches to dealing with the void, one is to repress it and deny the existence of a void at the center of culture, thus creating a totalizing master signifier or trying to restore or fill the void and thereby suggesting that the fundamental lack is something that can be filled the result of which will be a restoration of a perfect order of things and again denying the limits of symbolic representation.
I wasn’t entirely sure of his assessment of the agonistic politics and radical democracy of Laclau and Mouffe. Presumably, their argument that the heart of politics and democracy is a constant agonistic push and pull between left and right, in that sense preserving the void by suggesting the gulf between the two poles cannot be overcome and that, contrary to a radical Marxist politics, in a radical democracy the goal is simply to exist to be antagonistic against the Right rather than to become a dominant, totalizing system in itself (which presumably would lead to a dictatorship of the proletariat a la Leninist-Marxism). Yet McGowan’s reading of them is negative, though I kind of see agonistic politics as an acknowledgement of the productive possibilities of the void in politics.

In relation to autonomy versus engagement vis a vis politics in art, McGowan’s argument is useful for me in not conceiving of the tension as a problem to be overcome. In other words, I was consumed with the question of whether its better to sit in a studio divorced from reality and produce autonomous utopias as alternatives to the real world, or to go out and apply aesthetic practice to the world as a form of direct political action. In these terms, conceiving of autonomy and engagement figuratively as two opposing poles, with a tight rope stretched across the void which one traverses every so carefully back and forth as the spectacle itself. The balancing act between autonomy and engagement is the dialectical productive potential of the void in art. One must pull the rope tight between these poles to produce enough tension which allows one to be productive and it is not ones purpose to bring those poles together. So this all also relates back to that old Gillick chestnut of looking at the gaps in culture, which now reconceived as the void, can be interpreted as looking at the ways in which the void is variously repressed or filled in culture to create false totality. When artists look at and become attracted by these points, they are interested in showing how these are the voids in culture which the culture itself attempts to ‘paper over’ because they point directly to how the entire system functions at, which is as a construct. Again, I guess it totally comes down to the void being the idea that everything is constructed, but looking at it from the point of view of artists, we are attracted to the void not only because it pulls away the shroud to reveal how everything is false, but because the void is the space around which we begin to build symbolic systems (which is all art is), in other words become creative and construct reality in the productive, positive sense of the word. I’ll rewatch Roger’s talk and write some more and revise my opinions no doubt, but this is what I’ve got out of it so far.

Cancelled talk on honour killings

I guess whats interesting for me is that I didn't really realise that the Western liberal position sees itself as transcendentally moral rather than cultural ("moral progress"). Its interesting also that in the same way as it sees non-secular culture as ultimately and irretrievably grounded in god as the good in itself, it doesn't see an equivalent in how it constructs life as the ultimate good in itself (ie the biopolitical / modern life as bare life) - and after all isnt that a cultural position. I guess this is always a hinging point between traditional epistemologies and modern ones, in that modern ones are utilitarian and can't see how it is possible that a human would prioritise the symbolic (meaning within life/ the social/ meaning within community / life as worthy only if meaningful) over the utilitarian (empty time / life for life's sake / the world of private meanings ) . 

It seems to me to be a pretty central clashing point and in practice, like all oppositions, if one scratches the surface you would probably find that the opposition falls away to reveal something much more complex. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

circular history

re earlier comment on borges vs teleological histories

"For the materialist historian, every epoch with which he occupies himself is only a fore-history of that which really concerns him. And that is precisely why the appearance of repetition doesn't exist for him in history; because the moments in the course of history which matter most to him become moments of the present through their index as "fore-history," and change their characteristics according to the catastrophic or triumphant determination of that present." 
— Walter Benjamin (The Arcades Project)