Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Put schematically (and in my favorite ruse of the tripartite division), there are three components here: 1) aesthetic context, or the sum total of all our aesthetic experiences. In some senses, art history is, empirically, the study of the aesthetic context for any work of art; it is the ground of the endeavor, if you will; whatever happens was able to happen, but in retrospect we try to piece together why something happened at a particular time and place. One way of saying this is: what made something not simply possible, but inevitable? 2) aesthetic emphases or responses, or the individualized element -- from that sum total any artist or work of art will be a selection, a response, a combination, a rejection and so forth; the context is a given, the emphasis is a response -- which in turn becomes a given or a part of the given. The interplay between given and response, which then informs new given and subsequent response, is the actual "history" of art history, which is formally the way all successions of taste or manner are classically treated from the time of Hegel onward; 3) the aesthetic regime: a philosophical supposition, arguing that the context and the emphasis have meaning or content, that they determine to a certain extent, as Rancière argues, the visible itself. In other words, we can only see or say or hear as we do within an aesthetic regime. This means that what we recognize as context, what we offer as response, are already under "a given": what has already been deemed intelligible qua art.
From this view, every major challenge to the statement "what is art?" is an effort to rethink the aesthetic regime, to call it into question. Art history then is also the record of these "breaks" or ruptures, these occasions when art -- whether as practice, as object, as intention, as value -- is under critique. But it's also the case that the aesthetic regime of modernism is one that presupposes such breaks without ever dismantling the aesthetic regime itself. In that, the aesthetic regime is much like liberalism in America: sometimes it's more conservative, sometimes a little less so, but it largely functions as "a condition of freedom," or of liberties that can be taken with its driving ideal: individual self-determination through consensus. In the arts, the self-determination takes the form of a response to the aesthetic context that in some way enlarges or expands the regime by allowing "art" to inhabit a new territory or entertain a new conception of itself. The vaunted "self-reflexivity" of art is the playing out of this presupposition: the artist's response, by reflecting yet another aspect of the aesthetic regime, permits the aesthetic regime to remain vital -- but at the same time art ceases to be something the object simply is and becomes something the object does.
On the personal, critical level, I'd like to give more thought to what particular works of art, or bodies of work, do for me -- at the levels of context, response and regime.
I'm not a flasher in a raincoat
I'm not a dirty old man
I'm not gonna snatch you from your mother
I'm an art lover. Come to daddy.--Ray Davies, "Art Lover" (1981)