Saturday, March 16, 2013

An Interview With Jeff Wall on Patrick Faigenbaum

"At the Vancouver Art Gallery I am presenting the work of artists who make images in a more or less conventional way – painting, photography and so on – they aren’t doing moving images or any kind of ‘live’ art involving motion. Essentially the depictive arts as they’ve been known for centuries. Not young artists, but ones who have been around for a while and who have some substantial body of work by now. And of course artists who haven’t been seen here before. Patrick’s show is the fourth in this series, which started with Kai Althoff, and this summer we’ll present sculpture by the German artist Martin Honert. I think there are now two basic kinds of contemporary art – the newer forms based on the idea of the readymade – and the older ones like painting and sculpture. You could also think of these newer forms as ‘post-conceptual’ whereas the depictive arts don’t depend on conceptual art. I don’t think there’s a conflict between the two kinds of art but there is a distinction to be made there. So it seemed to me that people in Vancouver ought to be able to see depictive art done by very distinguished artists from different places, all of whom are akin in their devotion to the image, or the picture, or the sculpture. Artists we may have heard about but haven’t actually had a chance to see. There is no substitute for seeing the work itself. Part of what we are trying to achieve is to create circumstances where the audience here can satisfy its desire for images, and through that develop a taste for depiction and develop its own taste in terms of encountering, appreciating, and judging works of serious quality."

This is a good interview, and makes a strong case for Anthony Hernandez and Martin Honert, whose works I know and admire, and maybe for Patrick Faigenbaum, who I've been less interested in, at least so far.  Maybe Jeff's exhibition will change that.  Maybe that's why we go to exhibitions, in hope of being changed.  Maybe that's a side effect of the process of "encountering, appreciating and judging works of serious quality."

I'm curious about the distinction Jeff draws between the depictive arts and conceptual art.  This distinction, the subject of his 2006 Hermes lecture, "Depiction, Object, Event," is not quite real to me.  The short version of his argument, as I understand it, is that intermedia and/or conceptual art is less good, less aesthetically successful, than the depictive arts, because the depictive arts are subject to, and in fact invite, judgments of quality, whereas intermedia and/or conceptual art are not and do not:

Burdened by their own notions of quality, the depictive arts have been able to question their own validity only in order to affirm it. To practice these arts is to affirm them or fail at them, even though that affirmation may be more dialectical than most negations. The emergence in the past 30 to 50 years, of a contemporary art that is not a depictive art has revealed the depictive arts as restricted to this negative dialectic of affirmation.

This is the price paid for autonomy.

Contemporary art, then, has bifurcated into two distinct versions. One is based in principle on the suspension of aesthetic criteria, the other is absolutely subject to them. One is likewise utterly subject to the principle of the autonomy of art, the other is possible only in a condition of pseudo-heteronomy....

Jeff stresses this point repeatedly in recent interviews, pointing, like the late Greenberg of the Bennington Seminars, to how his philosophical extrapolations are rooted in personal aesthetic judgments; his "honest" sense, for example, that Walker Evans and Atget are better, more aesthetically successful, photographers than, say, Robert Smithson or Ed Ruscha.  That's probably true.  But because I, like Jeff, enjoy "encountering, appreciating and judging works of serious quality," that process then impels me to ask a further question: are Walker Evans and Atget better artists than Smithson or Ruscha?  If so, why?

Here the depictive art v. conceptual & intermedia art dichotomy breaks down.  Judgments of aesthetic quality can't be rooted in the specificity of particular media any more than they can in genres, or subject-matter.  Case in point: Marcel Duchamp, who was an adequate painter, at least to my eye, but a great artist.  I suppose you could make the strained and somewhat goofy argument that Duchamp's urinal is actually a sculpture, responding to sculptural precedents and the "aesthetic criteria" of sculpture, but that sounds too much like Greenberg on "flatness": too dry, too chalkboard-and-seminar-room, and, ultimately, reductive of the complexity, beauty, and humor of Duchamp's best work.

I think that conceptual and intermedia works are subject to judgments of quality, just like depictive works of art.  Any useful theory of aesthetic judgement needs to be able to account for comparisons between these two great streams of contemporary art, the kind of comparisons that everyone already makes in practice, thereby producing judgments of great subtlety and complexity. 

There is already a flexible and useful theory that can account for these problems, outlined by a friend of mine and currently hidden behind a JSTOR paywall.  Anyone with a little ingenuity should be able to find it.

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