Saturday, February 28, 2009
"Our Thoughts Are Lawyers For Our Feelings"

Via the New Yorker's website: the author and Peter Schjeldahl in dialogue on criticism and judgment.

CJB: 1. What does it mean for an art work to “submit itself to judgment” today? I understand what that means in the context of exhibiting an art object in a public museum, commercial gallery, or even as part of an MFA studio crit. But what constitutes judgment of, for example, a digital photograph presented on the Web?

2. Are objects “art” even if they show no inclination to enter the standard art distribution channels? I have friends who make digital photographs, which they present on blogs. The photos only exist as digital images. There are no prints. I think that my friends’ photographs are art, because they are self-reflexively involved with their medium and because they are presented in a public context. But some of my artist friends think that these images are not art, because they have not appeared in an “art context,”—eg., curated presentation in a gallery. My readings of Duchamp and Greenberg make me think that you can’t discriminate against art on morphological grounds: “everything and everything” is potentially art. Even images that deliberately—some would say willfully—circumvent art’s established systems. Do you agree?

3. What criteria would you use to differentiate between digital images that want to be judged as “art” and digital images presented in non-art contexts? Aesthetic judgments are only as good as the criteria supporting them. Intent doesn’t work—you can’t judge intent, only the physical fact of the work. So what criteria do you use? Thierry de Duve once said—I’m paraphrasing—that good artists should feel the presence of dead artists they admire in their studios, gazing over their shoulders as they work and asking questions. I’m writing to you because I feel Kant and Greenberg gazing over mine, and I don’t know how to answer.

PETER SCHJELDAHL: You are thinking too much, so infectiously that you’ve got me thinking too much, too. Here are some spinoffs:

• Art is a word. Something is art when commonly spoken of as such. The designation has administrative and commercial consequences. It bears no exclusive relation to aesthetic experience, which is promiscuous and wordless.

• Aesthetic judgment is an extra step of a mind that has registered an aesthetic experience, from which it may be excited to induce a rule. Kant thinks it is a component of the experience. I'm not so sure.

• Our thoughts are lawyers for our feelings.

• Some people enjoy judging. I’m O.K. with it, but I prefer love.

• Aesthetic criteria are retroactive justifications of formed beliefs. Anyone halfway clever can invent criteria which will be seen as brilliantly fulfilled by just about anything. There is no rational criticism of art, only persuasion.

• Having great dead people looking over one’s shoulder is a haunting familiar to all who nurture creative or intellectual ambitions. You will grow through and beyond it, or you won’t (becoming a professor).

• Someone, I think Philip Guston, said that, if you’re an artist, every artist you’ve ever admired follows you into the studio. One by one, they leave. Finally you leave, too, and the work gets done.

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