[-empyre-] art and ethics

Johanna Drucker drucker at gseis.ucla.edu
Thu Jan 28 01:55:45 EST 2010

I don't think the art world is evil. It is a world, and part of the  
world, and like all worldly realms, runs on money, people,  
personalities, power relations, lobbies, coalitions and so on. To  
imagine otherwise is naive, of course, and none of us is that naive.  
That said, the wonder of it all is that works of art appear that  
change my mind about what art is, what the world is, what being human  
and thinking and being and feeling and sensing are all about -- as a  
sentient, cultural, social, sensual being.

Unfairness abounds. Silly things get praised. Fine things are  
sometimes overlooked. Competition for attention is fierce among the  
many, spotlight accorded to the few. This is the state of celebrity  
culture in all realms of our current existence. But I don't think  
there are many extraordinary artists whose work gets ignored or  
slighted, though many very good ones vie for the same spots and there  
the whims of fortune can be truly whimsical.

I think the Deitch appointment is rather exciting, actually, and may  
have some interesting ripple effects. At least he takes chances.

Anyway, as our month here drains away, I am thinking of the whole art- 
and-politics debate that we've engaged in. A new acquaintance here  
showed us some pulp paper paintings of zombie hostages, war ravaged  
heads, and also a small book on a recent political event. Both were  
interesting, but the book will, I think, vanish from view as its  
conception is limited by its reference frame while the paintings have  
a force that resonates across the still too real and ongoing reality  
of damage wrought by destruction in human cultures. Aesthetic power  
and political force combined in the heads, they were tremendously  
powerful works. One saw that and felt it, viscerally. On the same  
weekend I went to the Norton Simon to see the portrait exhibit. You  
look and look, at displays of virtuosity, skill, technique, style, the  
tastes and expressions of eras and epochs, and then there are three  
things that knock you over -- Cezanne's Uncle Dominic, a Van Gogh  
portrait of an old woman, and a self-portrait by Rembrandt, and you  
are never done with looking at them. You can look and look again and  
again and you keep having a new experience of eye and mind. Politics  
is no where in view, though of course, the setting, the institution,  
the circumstances are all constructions shot through with ideology.  
But then, there is the looking, and the work. These things do not  
cancel each other out. THe ability to live with contradictions seems  
central to awareness in all arenas.


On Jan 24, 2010, at 5:44 PM, simon wrote:

> Dear Empyreans,
> Having just picked up a copy of Philosophy in the Present (Polity,
> 2009), from its pages Alain Badiou announces incommensurability as
> constitutive of the philosophical situation, the situation in which
> philosophy can create problems (or concepts). This would seem to be
> pertinent to the turn this discussion has taken, to the potentials for
> complicity between the corporation and art - perhaps I am reading it
> wrongly. But then again perhaps this turn can in turn be characterised
> in terms of its Kantian inflection, specifically an inspiration to
> consider ethics as a shared ground upon which complicity eventuates:  
> on
> the Law. So, then, just asking for it, for a critique that goes to
> unground this implicit and unhappy co-incidence of art and ethics by
> this simple and easily repeatable formula: the time of art is not that
> of power; the ethics - on which, the Law or from which, the Law - the
> rules - of the power are incompossible with those of art - with those
> little laws of difference, that immanent Rule, which in making art is
> the only one worth listening to - and may just as soon make us  
> outlaws;
> in short, what we are dealing with here are incommensurables. So,
> Badiou, invoking Mizoguchi's /Crucified Lovers, /particularly the
> lovers' "withdrawal into the smile" as they are led to the punishment
> which the law against adultery has conferred upon them - crucifixion -
> says:
> "Well, in these magnificent shots, Mizoguchi's art not only resists
> death but leads us to think that love too resists death. This  
> creates a
> complicity between love and art - one which in a sense we've always
> known about." [trans. P. Thomas & A. Toscano]
> He is led here himself by Deleuze quoting Malraux to the effect that  
> art
> is what resists death and in this situation will not give that the
> lovers are happy to meet their fate but that in a sense they have
> already overcome it. So in a similarly philosophical situation - one  
> in
> which disinterest can possibly prevail - Badiou relates the story of
> Archimedes's summons to the Emperor Marcellus's court; wherein the
> soldier sent to collect the great scientist on behalf of the great  
> power
> of the victor is ignored and eventually takes his sword and ends the
> former's life: Archimedes has asked for time to complete his
> 'demonstration,' a drawing in the sand of geometrical figures. Badiou
> glosses this confluence of incommensurables in terms of time: the
> impatience of the Emperor's emissary and the artist's time's  
> otherness,
> an internal time, created with the problem in the act of describing  
> the
> problem, or in the act of the problem's expression.
> However, I have followed this discussion with interest, because of an
> experience of a complicity which I haven't yet found here, and which
> I've ever since thought of as the complicity of the artist... with the
> destruction of the institutions on which the artist depends. In the
> early eighties in New Zealand theatre workers went out on strike,
> nationally. All seven professional theatres closed. Actors had voted  
> to
> back technical and backstage workers, against the management, at that
> time a loaded word. And words, it must be said, were at the cutting
> edge, not of the dispute, but of the problem: the co-option of the
> language of the artform by the language of industrial relations.
> Productivity replaced productions. Industry displaced theatre or art.
> Artists redesignated themselves workers, workers all. The unforeseen
> outcome was that the formerly egalitarian theatres were stratified:
> where pay parity had existed between backstage and acting company,  
> where
> in fact unity of the company had been the unofficial prejudice as it
> included back- and front- of the house, on-stage as well, demarcation
> made it thereafter almost impossible that an actor might, say, hang a
> light, and the theatres slipped back into star-systems, into British  
> rep
> style hierarchizations, into, therefore, older formations. One step
> forward, two back. Could actors have envisaged that by their  
> industrial
> action, by their complicity with, well, their ideological complicity,
> they would reposition themselves at the top of the industrial  
> hierarchy
> and of the pay scale? positions of which the industrial action was
> intended as abrogating?
> And, to clarify what may appear a contradiction: yes, the actors top  
> the
> payscale, but professional theatres as institutions bankrupted -
> ideologically and fiscally. Who are here the artists? Theatre is
> possibly not an indicative demonstration or example; but it surely  
> goes
> to illuminate something in the sense that collaboration has been  
> talked
> about, particularly online?
> I present this sense of complicity for interest and diversion only.
> Best,
> Simon Taylor
> www.brazilcoffee.co.nz
> www.squarewhiteworld.com
> _______________________________________________
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> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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