02 June 2021

[sc]airquotes (vii)—The Challenge and Pretense of Conceptual Art

"It was Bertrand Russell who declared that the great discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of the suspended judgement. A.N. Whitehead, on the other hand, explained how the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. Namely, the technique of starting with the thing to be discovered and working back, step by step, as on an assembly line, to the point at which it is necessary to start in order to reach the desired object. In the arts this meant starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building that would have just that effect and no other." (62)

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media (1964)
MIT Press edition (1994)

"If you have the right models...you can predict with great precision how the ice cube will melt—this is a specific engineering problem devoid of complexity... However, from the pool of water you can build infinite possible ice cubes, if there was in fact an ice cube there at all. The first direction, from the ice cube to the puddle, is called the forward process. The second direction, the backward process, is much, much more complicated. The forward process is generally used in physics and engineering; the backward process in nonrepeatable, nonexperimental historical approaches.

"In a way, the limitations that prevent us from unfrying an egg also prevent us from reverse engineering history."

N.N. Taleb
The Black Swan (orig. 2007)
2nd Ed. (2010)

Incidentally, Taleb also takes aim at Russell and the suspension of judgment:

"We cannot teach people to withhold judgment; judgments are embedded in the way we view objects. ... It is not possible without great, paralyzing effort to strip these small values we attach to matters. Likewise, it is not possible to hold a situation in one's head without some element of bias. ...

"Philosophers since Aristotle have taught us that we are deep-thinking animals, and that we can learn by reasoning. It took a while to discover that we do effectively think, but that we more readily narrate backward in order to give ourselves the illusion of understanding, and give a cover to our past actions. The minute we forgot about this point, the "Enlightenment" came to drill it into our heads for a second time. (Taleb, 202)

Time for another Enlightenment, I guess. Or maybe the Plague will suffice.

"The lesson for the small [matters] is: be human! Accept that being human involves some amount of epistemic arrogance in running your affairs."
So, re: the peculiar arrogance of believing that any work of art can have just that effect and no other on all of the people who might encounter it...is this a small matter?
"Do not try to always withhold judgment—opinions are the stuff of life. Do not try to avoid predicting—yes, after all this diatribe about prediction I am not urging you to stop being a fool. Just be a fool in the right places." (Taleb, 203)
Is artmaking the right place to be a fool? In most ways, yes, emphatically, it is perhaps the best such place. But is this also true re: prediction about the audience? How about re: epistemic arrogance about the audience? If so, what hellish effect or concept does that betoken?
"Know how to rank beliefs not according to their plausibility but by the harm they may cause."

Artworks which themselves do harm to the audience are rare and exceptional. Many of these are indeed "conceptual" works in the sense used here, but that is beside the point. What's the harm in a little old fashioned bohemian pretense? In isolation from all the rest of it, nothing at all. But we are the opposite of isolated these days, and so I do wonder about the system-level impact of all this free-floating dissimulation. I wonder if each of our little white lies about ourselves and our art, and most especially about its effect on audiences, if all of this is not precisely the kind of signal distortion which ultimately ramifies into toxic identity politicking and alt-right conspiracy mongering; into a Global Village not in the reductionist sloganeering sense but in the pejorative, racialist sense of "village" that a 19th Century British anthropologist might have uttered with a hiss. Take credit for enough that is not real and eventually you will have theorists of the Cultural Marxist conspiracy giving you credit for all manner of unreal things beyond your wildest dreams. i.e. Be careful what you wish for. Perhaps the frustrations of the actual Marxists could teach us artists something about the folly of starting with the effect.

A more fitting credo:

"What an artwork represents is quite insignificant. What the artist believes it represents is also insignificant. The effect the artist wanted to achieve is itself without interest. What the observer believes he sees in the artwork is in itself insignificant. The only thing that means something is the objective and real effect the art has exercised on the observer. That is the artistic reality."
(Asger Jorn, quoted in Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn, 201). 

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