THAT: A conversation on art that isn’t art (but maybe really is) and on non-art that is art (but maybe shouldn’t be) What the hell does it mean to consider something *as* art vs. as *art*? And should anyone even care?
This conversation between Randall Szott and Shannon Stratton is published as part of a series of conversations on social practice, criticism and the professionalization of art that took place between Randall Szott and a group of artists, organizers and collaborators over the course of several years.
Randall Szott conducts mystic experiments in divination (writing), conjuration (design), evocation (aesthetics), transmutation (cooking), illusion (philosophy), and enchantment (regenerative agriculture) in a small grey house in a small Vermont town. He was a merchant mariner for nearly a decade and now is the Chef and Farm to School Coordinator for a tiny village school. Szott is currently developing a ten acre parcel of land into a functioning agroecological system and as a possible site for ongoing seminars in #soilpractice + #socialpractice.
Shannon R. Stratton is a writer, curator and artist with an interest in the materials, processes, practices and objects at the margins of traditional art practice. She co-founded Threewalls, an contemporary art venue in Chicago in 2003, was a co-founder of the Hand-in-Glove Conference and Common Field, and is currently the Mildred and William Lasdon Chief Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. If she had to pick her favorite project, it was her class Party As Form, at Ox Bow School of Art in Saugatuck, MI.
Randall: I fell asleep all too early after having gorged on pizza. I woke up three hours later amid a deluge in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I had been meaning to watch the video of a presentation you did at Cranbrook as part of your responsibilities as their Critical Studies Fellow, and given the obvious fact that the rain was going to keep me awake worrying about the brook that runs through my property, I figured it was as good a time as any to do so. I then discovered that you had posted an additional video and rather than one hour, I was now committing to two hours of time. Of course, with you this is not something I endure, the way I would read an art historical essay, knowing that I “should” read it only to be familiar with why everyone thinks in such a misguided way about some art world kerfuffle. No, I would watch them for insight, to see how someone that shares many interests with me thinks at a different angle about them. One obvious distinction about our perspectives is that you are better mannered than I. You sit with things longer and are more careful about what you say and who you say it about. This is likely due to being Canadian, but also due to our second distinction – you are an art world insider. It probably shocks you to hear someone say this, given the precarious nature of your various practices, given how hardscrabble your “insider” life must be. So, no, you are not an insider’s insider, but compared to me, compared to the path I’ve chosen, I believe it is fair to say. In fact maybe you are as shocked to hear that as I was to see you close one of your talks with a rather strange description of me as an “artist.” When I originally asked you about it, you said it would take a whole other talk to talk about “THAT.” So I’m hoping to drag you into a conversation about that THAT. And really it isn’t an interest in me (a topic I’m already quite familiar with). I’m actually hoping to see how the different prisms through which we see a shared laundry list of issues (amateurism, leisure, the professionalization of art, the tyranny of the work ethic, ethical commitment as form, escapist fantasies, DIYism, counter/anti/alternative/non-institutions, social practice, utopia, public culture, and on and on) resonate and/or diverge. So, do you want to talk about THAT?
Shannon: I need to work on my manners. I need to undo them a bit; deprofessionalize my manners and be a little less afraid of being on the outside – which is where I feel like I am anyway (you register my surprise correctly). I have felt like that my whole life though – on the outside of some social club, so I suspect I am one among legions of artists who still believe they are “outside” the “inside” or have maybe no idea where the boundaries lay. My concentric circles of barriers are something along the lines of: craft, fiber art, feminist, not radical enough, class, not commercial enough, not conversant enough in the right theory. We have talked about behaviour before though, comportment, something I talk with my boyfriend Joe about all the time. How there is an acceptable comportment for “inside” and it is kind of nice to have a relationship to that boundary that challenges proper comportment. That fucks with it, is messy, shits on it a bit. Not that I’m saying you shit all over the art world, but you are willing to participate in some pretty messy combat. In any case, I do see your engagement as form, and you therefore, as an artist. But this is of course where we can begin the conversation about THAT – which is the WTF is an artist problem that has you facebook-debating (facebating?) Nato Thompson about the missed opportunity to curate a Living as Form exhibition around the ways “form” are developed and articulated in a variety of life practices.
So does this require first an outline of the argument of Amateur vs. Professional? And the boundary maintenance that happens to protect Professionals from the taint, rather than the patina, of amateurism? I have always understood Amateurs as folks that are not seeking a public audience, but have found that most people define Amateurs as folks who lack intention or criticality of their work. I think that is the first thing up for debate: do Amateurs really lack intention or criticality? Or does the distinction just not protect the investment the Professional has made in elevating themselves – a distinction that at one time was classist and racist (the Professional borrowing heavily from the expressions of “primitive” makers, who were framed as innocents) and is now solely about money? I mean, people who invest in the “real” thing are also invested in rooting out imposters, defining them as “lesser-thans”?
There is something interesting to me here about how at one time a distinction was drawn between parties based on mind-body dualism, intention vs. instinct; and now that distinction strikes me as being solely about capitalism and ownership: buying the right to be named Professional, even if you never deploy it. [this statement may require some finessing]
I really want to start a museum of fakes, imposters, rip-offs.
Randall: A museum of rip-offs? Isn’t that what just about any contemporary art museum already is? Oops. We were talking about manners…
I am puzzled a bit by your understanding of amateurs. I see amateurs seeking out audiences all the time – garden clubs, school and holiday craft fairs, fan clubs, car shows, etc. With regard to art specifically, amateur artists seek and find exhibition venues in waiting rooms, coffee houses, banks, libraries, online, etc. I would argue there is also an entire other class of amateur artist – the amateur professional. This sort of nomenclature only applies from within a certain context. While the Frieze Art Fair/e-flux/Whitney Biennial art world might recognize that there are many art worlds, they believe that there is only one that really counts. So despite the many artists that make a living selling their work in places like Fairhope, AL or in coastal Maine towns, they are not true professionals. From the ArtForum point of view, it is more professional to have a day job and make work that finds its way into a group show that they might review than to actually support yourself as an artist in some god forsaken small town making “trite” landscape paintings.
As you may know, I am particularly annoyed at the way the academic art world uses criticality as the great bugaboo of distinction. It is far too complicated to get into here, but I would argue that the obsession with being critical is a MASSIVE over correction from the escape from Romanticism. Part of the price the arts paid via their professionalization within the academy, was to mimic the other disciplines and become increasingly subservient to linguistic analysis. I am in the company of many conservative critics of the arts in this matter and don’t mind being so. I feel like all of the theory worship in the arts is basically an anti-emotional Napoleon complex. Thus, I think you missed something in referencing the historically racist and classist components of professionalism – it is deeply tied to sexism as well. I am always shocked at how often feminist scholars seem to accept the (historically male) privileging of theory over expression, mind over body, and thought over emotion that dominates art pedagogy (as well as the academy in general). The great sin of an MFA student is to want to make pretty things, or to not care about reading theory (although that might be acceptable if it was an explicitly critical position on theory!).
Back to manners for a moment. Do you know the song Take This Job and Shove It? Or surely you’ve quit a job before. I bring this up to illustrate a certain kind of freedom – the freedom I experience, if not as an amateur, then maybe as an unprofessional. There is nothing quite like the feeling that Johnny Paycheck describes in the song as:
And that sucker, he’s gonna pay
I can’t wait
Until I get the nerve
To walk up to him and say…
Take this job and shove it
When you can finally speak your mind to the boss, when you know you never have to return to the factory, when your paycheck isn’t dependent on keeping quiet about objections – it can be a nearly mystical experience. So it is not so much that I am “willing” to engage in combat, it is that I can do so because I don’t need these people for anything. I’m quitting (perpetually) the art world. Now let me clarify that as far as bosses go, Nato is pretty great. He is super smart, and by all accounts a stand up guy. But he does have his blind spots and makes some questionable decisions (just like all of us). The problem is, as far as social practice in the U.S. goes, he is the 800 lb gorilla and therefore many people are afraid to criticize him. I don’t mean to imply here that I know he is some sort of vindictive person, but it is human nature, and prudent in the art world generally to avoid irritating people whose decisions may affect your livelihood.
Oh geez. I just now find myself getting around to your “engagement as form” notion. You say that having such form leads you to see me “as an artist.” Well, fuck you too. In all seriousness, this gets to one part of the title of this conversation. I would like to draw a distinction – that to see me as an artist is different than as an artist. In the latter you would be describing me in an ontological way, as being a member of a category. In the former, which I think makes more sense, you are describing me pragmatically, engaging in an activity as an artist might. Is there any point to that distinction?
Shannon: So much to respond to! And in the morning when my brain is at half-mast.
Well I don’t know if my definition of the Amateur is that puzzling, because I would never describe the people you outlined as making a living off their art in Maine as an Amateur. They have probably invested the 10,000 hours into their craft that Richard Sennett describes as the transition into ‘mastery.’ If one is making whirligigs and selling them on Etsy, church craft fairs, or coffee shops, I wouldn’t describe them as Amateur whirligig makers, and I wouldn’t budge from that position if they sold 0 or 45 of them a year. They are likely a whirligig specialist at this point, not a dabbler, despite not having a multi-million dollar enterprise where their designs are now outsourced to China. So my original point still stands – a true Amateur in my mind, a dabbler, a dilettante, is not a specialist in their craft and isn’t seeking an audience (perhaps “hobbyist” is a more accurate term for these folks). Once that craft becomes specialized enough to take to market or to build an audience, I don’t perceive them Amateur. (Does the audience, its size and engagement, determine whether someone is Amateur or Professional ? I think there are multiple points of transition from Hobbyist to Amateur to Professional and back to Professional Amateur.)
But the boundary maintenance of the “art world” does prefer to perceive and label those Maine painters as such, and therefore, I believe, draws the boundary around what kind of capital and for what and by whom and where is being exchanged. For the art world, professionalism is all about who the audience is, and the context within they interact with your work. Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollack might be a good example of that logic. A Jackson Pollack in the hands of the wrong audience member, gets stripped of its status as ART, is orphaned, because the context is perceived to be wrong.
So given that, if one is to really talk about the “other professionals” and appreciate their work, for me that might require being given another noun so I understand who we are talking about. Having said all that, I’m still just as interested in who the dabbler or the dilettante is and think it might be possible that one can be both at the same time. Who is more of a dilettante than an “artist”? They are always dipping their toes in politics, philosophy, engineering, science, craft and so on, and often with no long-term commitment to history or form. I think this is one of things that people often use to really distinguish between the avant-garde and the “other professional” is a sense that the “other professional” actually knows their craft too well while the avant-garde maintains a kind of dilettantish distance from it. This might be where my true critique of hyper-performance and professionalization comes from – it is driving a kind of specialization that distinguishes artists as a kind of professional on par with other specialized fields rather than embracing the Amateur qualities that would make art a kind of radical position to take in regards to the world. (This is where we could break into some kind of chat about leisure, but…I’m not done with your comments yet…)
I would agree with your comment on the dependency of linguistic analysis. This is the differentiation that made any practice that was physical or intuitive or embodied, suspect. Of course I would add sexism there, but I didn’t in this case because I was referring to how the Western artist elevated themselves, distinguished themselves, before Yale and Hunter and Bard did, through a kind of fetishizing of the other. Women are complicated in regard to that statement because while they were often other, and objectified, their output was rarely fetishized and just as prone to wanting to join the linguistic analysis club. Some people cite Rauschenberg’s Bed of evidence of women’s material culture inspiring some artistic output in a kind of proto-feminist way, but in truth, Rauschenberg just grabbed a quilt that one of his colleagues had hung out to dry in a moment of heated collage. He wasn’t inspired by the “innocence” of the female quilter.
Anyway, I digress…but not too far, because maybe I should talk about quilters. They are an interesting category of maker because their work has been drug in and out the museum at different points in history and by different people. Jonathan Holstein’s 1971 exhibition, Abstract Design in American Quilts at the Whitney was a seminal moment. After collecting quilts throughout the US, with no interest whatsoever in their authors or provenance, he mounted an exhibition meant to “elevate” quilts to the place of painting (they were hung like paintings and written about like paintings). The more recent exhibition, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, did a very similar thing, but did acknowledge and celebrate the quilt’s authors. Needless to say, I could write a long critique of both of these exhibitions: the re-authoring of work by a curator, the fetishizing of the Gee’s Bend quilters, the need to “elevate” the quilt to the vertical and remove it from the realm of the body, but that would take us far afield. For now I just want to address the quilt as an interesting territory for discussion and one that troubles the ability to come up with clear definition of “Amateur.” The quilts that Holstein showed were drawn from approximately 100 years of American quiltmaking. He curated quilts that he found qualities of abstraction in, and left out album quilts or other quilts that might have more pictorial qualities. Of these quilts, some were only ever intended for a “domestic audience,” most for use, and a few as a decorative art or family archive. All of these quilters were without a doubt specialists in their “field.” Were they critical makers?
So I’m going to leave that one dangling for now (I fear this conversation/lecture is going to be 3 hours long and 20,000 words by the time we’re through…)
Distinctions. I guess you are more adamant about the term artist and not being somehow embroiled in the world which you are continually quitting. I can’t unpack: “fuck you too” because I don’t see the inherent insult in the title. You are a cook on a ship, I call you cook. You are engaged in an ongoing discourse with multiple art worlds, I can call you a discussant? But I think, I would continue to describe you as an artist. (And a whole host of other people at that). I guess I’m describing the engagement, the activity, the form; I can’t remove the title from you because you insist on quitting one world for another. In fact if I did, I think that would completely belie the discussion we are having here and suggest that term only applies to people working within the defined boundaries of one world, either the one you are quitting, or the one where people strictly make objects that everyone sees and pedantically describes as art. Perhaps this part of the conversation will litter each exchange: the problems with naming, with defining activity, positions and roles in relationship to the production of any culture.
And a museum of rip-offs? Your joke is good one. But I was thinking seriously and literally about copies – and not the kind that are made in service of an artistic critique. But all of the other “fakes” that trouble society’s ideas of value and authority. From fake ID to fake handbags to fake boobs.
Randall: Well, you’ve brought up two things I definitely want to talk about – “fake” boobs and quilts. As far as fake boobs go, I would argue that industry parlance is “breast augmentation.” To refer to them as “fake” boobs implies that there is some sort of deception involved. Here we revisit ontology again. I would say there is an interesting distinction to be drawn – in the case of a fake handbag, one can purchase the handbag knowing it is fake and yet be happy with the image it projects or one could not know that the maker of the bag is not the one identified by the label. I would say the “fakeness” of boobs might be like the former, but not the latter. I am addressing this because I do think it is important to talk about how things operate pragmatically, that deception can be entered into willingly, and that in order to analyze fakery it is not enough to conduct a kind of forensic ontology – this is a Marc Jacobs handbag while this one only purports to be. Because a subtler, more experiential or phenomenological inquiry might be – is this handbag real enough? are those breasts doing what they were intended to do? And funnily, just today there was a post on The Stone portion of the NY Times blog that I think shows just how close this kind of ontological vs. phenomenological inquiry on boobs is to talking about art.
Despite talking about breasts first it is actually what you said about quilts that has me really excited. I was never a true believer with regard to art, I always felt it was not all that interesting as an academic field, but was interesting as a mode of inquiry. And I always had this reservation about its sense of self-importance, and its lack of criticality about its own criticality. The real turning point though came in a class I took on Southern folk art. It was taught by an amazing feminist, and radically populist woman (Kristin Congdon) and she laid out the case in no uncertain terms, that the so called openness of the arts was, well, fake. Her course was a tour de force of all the people left out of, or denigrated by, the art world. And she, like you, pointed out that many of these “outsiders” were let in the art world, but only on its terms, and usually in the most condescending ways – especially the idea of getting quilts off the body and whirligigs out of the garden with the aim of “elevating” them. I will say this however, there is the practical issue of displaying things and art institutions might hang quilts vertically, but so do many craft fairs and especially state/county fairs. I do think you’re right that there is more than the practicality of the issue at play in art museums though.
When you ask if quilters were “critical makers,” I have to reply with a hearty who gives a shit? Actually, I would say that it is an interesting question, but not the only one. The art world as we find it today seems to think that is a more interesting question than, “Was it made with love?” or “Was it loved by the person who used it?” or “Did making this quilt provide a sense of purpose to the maker?” I think these are crucial questions and I think there are many more to ask that I just don’t hear being asked all that much in the art world. In fact, much of the hostility around certain social practice projects is that they get too close to these sorts of phenomenological questions. And here we are beginning to delve into a parallel conversation we’re having about Stephen Wright’s ideas around “usership” against spectatorship.
And of course I’m not actually offended about being called an artist, but I think it can be misleading, Subway calls its employees “sandwich artists” and it does so to “elevate” the perception of its fast food slop, but it does also evoke the idea of artistry being applicable to anything. And in that sense I think it ties into the idea of craftsmanship that you reference from Sennett. So if you say I’m an artist and mean something like a “sandwich artist,” then yes, I’ll begrudgingly accept that. But I just worry about the folks that might hear that, like the ones at your lecture, and think that I have some affinity for the discipline of art, some desire to participate in its world as currently configured, to be a “fine” artist…it would feel fake, like an ID and not like boobs.
Shannon: Well, I can buy that trepidation about being categorized as artist. That is a kind of double ontology, on par with Wright’s ideas, correct? The dual position of being both a person enacting a thing within its original context, and then it being reinterpreted differently, in another? And accepting both positions as equal ways of being? Does this mean that ontology is audience, context, user specific?
I don’t want to conduct a practice of elevation to a “standard” set by “art” – in fact elevation makes me queasy. I want to be engaged in a perpetual push back against the received idea of what is good taste or appropriate validation, and root out what feeds that. For what ends, maybe I’m not sure? It is not to elevate – which is why I was curious about Wright’s ideas on the vulnerability of the attention economy. I think “attention” is classist. There are certain people’s, certain group’s, attentions that are more desirable than others and part of my interest in social media (regardless of whether Facebook users should get a dividend check for $120) is that it starts to spread the power of validation across a wider spectrum. The power to validate used to be about acquiring power through money (the money to buy leisure to have power to validate fashion by owning it), and now there is a power to validate wrought by audience size, and audience size can be garnered by wit rather than dollars. But without digressing into Facebook critique (it happens to be on my mind today, and we can get into to it more in this rambling, vast text we are weaving at a later time), I want to back up into “fake” and the idea of deception. I read that and thought, right: why is the bag printed with the Coach double C any less real than the bag printed with the Coach double C? Its an authorship, craftsmanship question. Group A authorizes this process in order to get these results = the thing. If Group B authorizes a different different, although similar process, to arrive at similar results they = a slightly different thing. And originality, authenticity, lies in the initial idea, and owning the idea as it was wrought by its originator. When it comes to boobs, that is kind of a funny joke about authorship, but if they are a great place to start to displace the idea of fake, to take up the idea of the “fake”, or the augmented I suppose, as a wholly new, or original thing, given that its objectives are actually different than its predecessors. (Meaning the ‘fake’ boobs actually have intention, they are authored, fabricated and therefore capable of new meaning, maybe that makes them more real? Is there a philosopher in the house?)
Your questions: is this handbag real enough or are these boobs doing what they intended to do kind of excited me. Its something that troubles me about people’s trepidation about the Internet, the folks who believe that social worlds online are not as real as the ones that occur face-to-face. Having spent election night with you and maybe 4-5 other friends “at facebook,” and realizing that was perfect and I wasn’t “alone” and it was real, makes me much more critical of the proposition that there is somehow a real and fake, and a better and worse. Or really a definitive first and second. What makes something real enough? I suspect its when its doing what it is intended to do. When its working. (Oof, time to unpack work.) You end somewhat in that territory by invoking love and care and usership. A healthy relationship exists between a thing that is working, that is evoking, and a user who is deploying, is bonding with the thing. The thing is working when it is evocative to a user – it is communicating. And that in my mind is success for anything, when it creates some kind of dialog between itself and another, some kind of relationship. What if that relationship turns out to be different, however, than what was intended? That seems to be where the breakdown in art occurs. When the end result of the communication is counter to the intentions of the object in its deployment, it fails, and is removed from the stage with one of those long canes.
(Full disclosure: I wrote this on 4 hours of sleep and a drunk-over)
Randall: I am probably going to take up Wright’s idea of double ontology elsewhere, but my initial thoughts while reflecting on the interview we’re referencing is that maybe “double entendre” is a better way to express things. This helps with the metaphysical trap I think he’s setting by not claiming that a thing is *that* thing, but also art. Instead, calling it a double entendre means that I have opened a cafe, but what I’m really hoping to do is talk dirty – i.e. speak art. I mostly reject the idea of ontology as he imagines it, and also argue that this “dual position” is actually wanting to have a conversation without having to say I want to. Is that art in your pocket or are you just happy to see me…?
I would partially agree with the issue of craftsmanship when it comes to handbags (and I guess craftsmanship matters with boobs too!), but once again it matters what one is trying to do, or what sort of experience one wants to have. If you want a bag made with a certain level of attention to detail, a certain quality, that would make the distinction between real luxury goods and fake ones important. But, if you are more interested in the “attention economy” of luxury, then craftsmanship is secondary.
As an aside, long ago and far away I was at a talk by Susan Bordo and she was highly invested in the idea of “real” bodies and “real” women. She had a strong moral position against augmentation and bodily modification. I eventually asked her where she drew the line – at cutting one’s nails? at cutting one’s hair? at makeup? wearing clothing? working out? Where was this “natural” state that fake boobs had drug us out of? Her answer was unsatisfying and mostly focused on my gender (a real power move). If she had let me respond, I would’ve made a claim similar to what I think you’re referencing about the real/fake distinction with regard to online interaction. The qualitative dimensions of experience, the “felt situation” as John Dewey might say, is supreme. There are a host of issues around power of course when it comes to modifying one’s body, especially for women in a misogynist culture, but the way one feels and lives those issues can’t be fully theorized despite the dreams of many an academic.
What you have to say about relationship, communication, and intention kind of cuts to the core of what I find so maddening about critics of a non-activist or insufficiently antagonist social practice. Intention is important, but too often critics mistake their own intentions for those of the artist. The work then “fails” because it doesn’t live up to those intentions. But more profoundly, I disagree with the idea of equating art with intentional communication. I know it is a standard paradigm in art pedagogy and one of the only things teachers have available to properly “evaluate” a work. It might be a minor point but I don’t think a work “fails” when “the intentions of the object in its deployment” are not met – it simply does not do what was intended. The generous viewer, critic, or user, might find something else to appreciate. To bring it back to love, suppose a loved one intends to make you the best meal of your life for your birthday and it is not. Does the meal fail? On one hand we could say yes, and on another we could say no, but still hang on to intention by saying they say their intention was the meal, but really it was to express love and therefore it did not fail. I would say that neither of those responses matter all that much unless evaluating is important which I would argue ties into the notion of validation that you are bristling at.
The idea of “phatic” communication might be important here. It is mostly used in a pejorative sense (exhibiting the biases of high minded intellectuals), but it can also be descriptive. Phatic communication sometimes means “small talk,” the kind of stuff people say to be social. Or also the kind of talk lovers engage in that has no goal, other than to be connected in that moment. Critics of social practice seem to hate small talk. They want everything to be big ideas and can’t stand the idea of people just wanting to be together, to have the feeling of being together. So as you mentioned, on election night, a group of us did talk politics, we did exchange ideas, but I would say that the mere act of talking was what we found the most valuable. We were sharing something. Together. And it didn’t spur us to protest, or to change the world. But it changed my world on that night. And any idea of an art practice that diminishes that is not one I want any part of…
Shannon: Sorry for the long pause between interactions. I have a few things I want to dig into, but I think I the thing I’m going to work off of is the one of intention and failure.
I agree that there is a general distaste for small talk by critics and you are right that being together, talking, joking, fellowship, is something that deeply impacts people on a somewhat private, or at least intimate level. This intimacy, this private life, is something people go in search of – they desire that fellowship in order to find a place that is somewhat safe – and not just for kindness, but for honesty, even of the critical variety. I bring this up to have a look at how things of a private or intimate nature are the ones that are frequently dismissed – the domestic, the amateur, the quiet. The activities that are not concerned with participating in the attention economy that we have been citing.
In regards to real/fake and craft, I’m compelled by how many of the traditional luxury brands, who were once lauded for their level of hand-craftedness, have turned their manufacture over to the same oversea factories who mass-produce more mainstream goods. Louis Vuitton and Coach are not the products of yesteryear – they are as mass produced as Gap jeans. They needn’t trade on high craft any longer, just their logos emblazoned on the leather and the “attention” they garner. High-craft, something that used to matter in goods, doesn’t trade as well in the attention economy, as the details are relatively invisible and the labels hidden, private.
When I think about your comments on making dinner for a loved one, I think about how intention is linked to the attention economy. For an intention to succeed it strikes me that it requires attention – as in, the luxury goods need to enter into an exchange based on the immediacy of brand recognition, built on a history of quality that may have since receded into history. Perhaps that is somewhat the same for certain gestures of intimacy that appear to succeed when either resembling rather popular ideas of love, or at least resemble a history of gestures behind it. I know that sounds cynical (in regards to love), but I think of Mike Kelly’s More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and how his gathering up of these forgotten handmade toys both highlighted their failure at being grand and resituated them to receive attention. They entered the economy en-masse as sad and pathetic gestures of love, like a line-up of poorly made dinners and belated birthday cards – things that were intended to be loving, but failed to meet expectations.
Having said all that, what fails because it doesn’t elicit the attention, the reaction, that is required for success, doesn’t wholesale fail – as you say (although you’re not saying the same thing I am). So what does it do? What is a way to talk about gestures, things, actions in terms other than success (attention and therefore validation) or failure (dismissal and disappointment)? Somehow it seems like desire is the affect that negotiates both sides of the spectrum (attention = being desired, dismissal = being rejected) and applies as easily to handbags, boobs and handmade Valentines, but it strikes me that desire has perhaps become an increasingly public demonstration and that private desire – the kind that might be satisfied by accumulating glass figurines or writing love poems is deemed somewhat pathological UNLESS we engage in a process of public discussion and approval of that desire (I would say that Etsy is a good example of that here – it is NOT economical for 80% of Etsy sellers to make and sell whatever they are producing, but being on Etsy validates their hobby of knitting, making soap etc. as being productive – its PUBLIC! Its a BUSINESS!!! Its no longer a PRIVATE HOBBY!!!)
Sorry for the all caps.
Hmmm….I may have rambled away from your lead.
Randall: I have to admit I am pretty uncomfortable with the language of success/failure when it comes to desire. Or rather, it seems like outsiders are the least equipped to judge – this largely runs counter to the idea of the insightful critic. All the talk of an internalized male gaze, or homophobia, or identifying with the oppressor may very well be true in certain circumstances, but I worry about the presumption to know and understand another’s desire. It often looks like an act of critical ventriloquism in which the critic speaks in place of the “dummy.” I once had a class with Mira Schor in which we read her book Wet. In it, she has an essay about David Salle and goes on at length about the ways he used female models as “props” in his paintings, posing them in “degrading” ways and evacuating them of any subjectivity. I asked her if she ever spoke to any of the models, if she ever actually inquired about their feelings. She was flabbergasted. “What do you think I should have done? Track them down and interview them?” Well, yes that was precisely my point. In effect Schor was doing the same thing she was accusing Salle of, except these women were no longer props in a painting, they were now props in Schor’s critical essay, devoid of any subjectivity. Now, Schor may well have been right that these were desperate women eeking out income from being exploited by a sadistic man for his own pleasure and profit. But she could be wrong too because desire is a funny thing – it doesn’t always play nice. The really troubling thing of course is that the all knowing critic intervenes with metaphysical certainty telling the world what “true” desire is (and thereby what is “healthy”). Believe me, I am extremely sympathetic to notions of disproportionate power creating a systemic distortion of desire, but I am more comfortable erring on the side of what the parties involved tell me. I’m just not that good at reading minds.
So I have no idea whether people on Etsy are seeking validation in the way you describe or not, some probably are. A few people I know put items they are going to make anyway on the site and figure if they sell great, if not, fine. I wonder if in some extremely circuitous way this might bring us back to THAT. When you called me an artist in that talk you were using a kind of shorthand, making it easier on yourself by not having to go into a huge sidestory about why THAT wasn’t exactly accurate. But you could’ve just said “this guy” or some such thing. The way I see it, there’s a bunch of stuff I’m going to do whether or not it actually fits within the attention economy of the art world and to outsiders it often looks a lot like art. But if they actually bothered to take the time to ask, they might have a different understanding of my “intention.” Maybe I’m just adding to the heaps of failed gestures and love poems to be repurposed by an art economy that can then “elevate” things into the PUBLIC I think you’re mocking.
Finally, when you used the word “affect,” it gave me the idea for yet another conversation title: “Can’t we just talk about our feelings? The rise of affect.” And who the hell titles their conversations in the first place?
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