“Smart Art” (elitism and emptiness vs. classicism and fear)

Joanna Fiduccia’s article “Smart Art” in the latest Art Lies states that “The erudition exuded by smart art has come to operate as a substitute for technical mastery, as intellectual dazzle that compensates for plastic indifference, or even emptiness. Bamboozling its viewer into passivity, it forecloses critical exchange.”

Falke Pisano, 2010

In this statement, Fiduccia argues against art that she perceives as using dialectic and form (formalism?) as a crutch, and in favor of “technical mastery.” Placing these as opposites, and presupposing that these are mutually exclusive artistic concerns, Fiduccia is talking about a specific trajectory of artistic work, led by Joseph Kosuth and Clement Greenberg, which (if I were to summarize it very superficially) sought to eradicate aesthetics and is, as seen by Fiduccia and others, currently informed, in its recent incarnations, by phenomenological inquiry, namely Hegel, Ihde, etc. Fiduccia accuses this phenomenological work of empowering itself through the exclusion of “understanding,” taking its authority from a mysterious intellectualism.

There is a strange battle taking shape here, on one side Fiduccia and other, (dare I call them?) academic anti-intellectualists, who are reacting out of a fear and anger that I’d very much like to understand, and on the other side, artists who are curious about knowledge, thought, and perception itself, and who take subjective intellectual pleasure from criticism and theory and therefore project those interests and pleasures through their work, are interested in conceptual art because of its political framework, and who want to communicate meaning and ask questions rather than arrogantly and unconsciously expressing their reactive emotions.

At first glance, it seems that these academic anti-intellectualists are disturbed by the use of art as an a tool towards understanding anything other than aesthetic or basic, mimetic emotional concerns because of their own aesthetic alignments and art-history backgrounds, a kind of “purity” argument. Fiduccia writes that by “Deploying philosophical, logico-linguistic discourse as the artwork was thus a two-fold strategy to shift authority of the work from criticism to artworks and the artists who made them, while (ostensibly) leaving no aesthetic remainder. While this can be seen as liberating the watershed works of the 1960s, conceptualism’s “usurpation” can be read not merely as an affront to old-guard critics but as one possible reaction to the “de-skilling” of art through the course of the twentieth century. Where technical skill became increasingly irrelevant, a level of intense erudition and verbal facility became nearly required.”

This disturbance on Fiduccia’s part would be understandable, and I’m not sure either that everyone should need to have read Lacan, Badiou, Saussure, and Lyotard to enjoy art (although I do long for a world in which many people with many different backgrounds are contributing to the sphere in which these theorists exist) but is tangled up in something much deeper than a mere taste for realistic painting or art’s focus on her own emotional experiences, it is also the fact that academic anti-intellectuals are not usually driven by ideology, but by fear and other reflexive emotions and that when Fiduccia’s argument is placed in the misguided socially liberal political context of the kind that was popular whilst she was an undergraduate student we find that Fiduccia (this is a socio-psychoanalytic approach to her article, not an art-historic one) is still linking intelligence/intellectualism to the upper class, and stupidity/anti-intellectualism to a working class (I guess she hasn’t seen Good Will Hunting…oh whoops, “untempered by humor” isn’t supposed to be the way of the intellectual) while criticizing “smart art” for de-hierarchizing the authority to make art, regardless of technical skill. In addition, I am particularly interested in this shift of authority she notes, from the critic to the artist, which I believe mirrors a desirable political shift: from politicians and pundits into the hands of the demos. Why would this be a bad thing and why would it leave no aesthetic remainder? And also wait, I am confused, aren’t these smart artists the ones who are so closely shadowing Greenberg, and wasn’t he a critic?

So the more I research and discuss this Fiduccia article, which I think is very clear and good and exemplary at this moment, and could not be more opposite to my own opinions, the more I am convinced that this is a political issue, returning us once again to everyone’s favorite book. In this vein Fiduccia writes: “Smart art emerged within a generation of artists who were largely university-educated and confronted with the new opportunities and antagonisms of their epoch. These artists began making art in the shadow of critical powerhouses, Greenberg first among them, whose standards of judgment left little margin for new art, particularly art that responded to the society and politics of advanced capitalism and the various headways made in civil rights and progressive social politics.”

This is a tricky assertation, which relies heavily on the afore-mentioned associations of intellectualism with the white, educated, upper class to the point of seeming to not need to explain how being “confronted by the opportunities and antagonisms of their epoch” prevents them from dealing with advanced capitalism, etc. Fiduccia also dismisses the work of “intellectual” artists such as Adrian Piper, a philosopher and conceptual artist, as being an unintuitive proponant of “weak and inconclusive” conceptualism (a la Peter Osborne) thereby betraying her alignment with the conservative critics who have always despised conceptual art for its aims to re-order the world itself.

And that, I am starting to feel, is the crux of this. Returning again to my 21 year old self’s favorite book (Ranciere’s The Politics of Aesthetics of course) we may discover that conceptual work and actionism such as Dread Scott burning money on Wall Street (and on his website one can find detailed documentations and phenomenological/intellectual explanations of his work) operate outside the safely dilineated pseudo-liberal definitions of art as something to be objectively valued and consumed in an orderly fashion (this is so basic, I can’t believe this debate is still raging, and I would be so bored if I wasn’t deluding myself into thinking I am somehow embroiled in it now due to public criticisms of my own work when compared to audience feedback).

Dread Scott on Wall Street in 2010

Basically, j’accuse Fiduccia of hiding behind a useless veil of false liberal doxa, unable to recognize her fear of the merging between art and action and art’s ability to be produced and owned by a wide range of individuals in all classes and regardless of education (and yes, growth of the mediums via the influx of transnational viewpoints and intellectual worldviews drawing on more than just analytic philosophy, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Christianity) and for hiding behind the useless and archaic term “de-skill” which serves merely as an alarm bell for aging economists concerned that they won’t be able to unload their collection of John Currin paintings.

John Currin, Rippowam, 2006

In my mind, the real shame in terms of intellectuality in the art world is that it is limited to anti-intellectuals like Fiduccia, and that no “poor” intellectualism is to be championed, no democratization (via the internet, etc) of deep thought, constructive analysis, and the human drive to understand what is happening and why. I sincerely hope that all artists are thinkers, and that all thinkers are artists. That is my subjectively-constructed and projected utopia, that Distribution of the Sensible should be available as a mode of authorial construction of reality to all individuals, and the possibility and/or making of this utopia, the obstructions to this utopia, etc are valid subjects and forms for artistic work.

I conclude this posting with Adrian Piper’s introduction to Rationality and the Structure of the Self:

“Do we at least have the capacity ever to do anything beyond what is comfortable, convenient, profitable, or gratifying?
Can our conscious explanations for what we do ever be anything more than opportunistic ex post facto rationalizations for satisfying these familiar egocentric desires?
If so, are we capable of distinguishing in ourselves those moments when we are in fact heeding the requirements of rationality, from those when we are merely rationalizing the temptations of opportunity?
I am cautiously optimistic about the existence of a buoyant device – namely reason itself – that offers encouraging answers to all three questions. Without hard-wired, principled rational dispositions – to consistency, coherence, impartiality, impersonality, intellectual discrimination, foresight, deliberation, self-reflection, and self-control – that enable us to transcend the overwhelming attractions of comfort, convenience, profit, gratification – and self-deception, we would be incapable of acting even on these lesser motives.”


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