Who cares if you look? On internal and external relationships with art. (Part I of III)

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

—Lawrence Weiner, “Declaration of Intent” (1968)

Shepard Fairey’s OBEY sticker craze captures
the core terms of any viewer-driven aesthetic.

Emory University

“The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings,” writes street artist Shepard Fairey in his 1990 Manifesto.

Fairey is of course most well-known for his HOPE poster of 2008, but for my purposes he is interesting for his ability to capture the basic terms of any viewer-driven aesthetic. The logic of his claim is clear: “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.”

These are the terms, as I see it, that any viable account of viewer-driven aesthetics must accept. That only a few artists and critics actually accept all of these terms is not my concern, but the reticence on the part of artists and critics to accept these terms either points to something central about their project—that they actually don’t care about response—or a failure of nerve, that response is the key to their project, even if they can’t come out and say that.

And if Fairey* hasn’t quite entered the art historical canon, an artist like Olafur Eliasson certainly has.

Speaking of his Weather Project exhibited in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Museum, Eliasson said, “I see potential in the spectator—in the receiver, the reader, the participator, the viewer, the user.” Eliasson’s sextuple commitment to the audience, the necessity for the audience to produce the work’s meaning, here through an elaborate steam and mirror system, is part of a basic trend within artistic, art historical and art-theoretical work over the past thirty years called alternately dialogical, relational, transactional, conversational, interactive, participatory, receptive or affective aesthetics. Of course the larger shift within the humanities, the shift away from artistic intentionality and toward audience reception, a shift codified but not invented by Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay on the “Death of the Author,” was firmly established as a goal in the work and writings of the minimalists in the 1960s.

Consider Robert Morris’ foundational assessment of the “new aesthetic” in “Notes on Sculpture”: “The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision. The object is but one of the terms in the newer aesthetic….[O]ne’s awareness of oneself existing in the same space as the work is stronger than in previous work, with its many internal relationships. One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.”

Morris’ basic distinction between works driven by internal versus external relationships is fundamental to any postmodern aesthetic. Internal and external relationships are the aesthetic terms for an even more basic socio-political distinction between an art rooted in subjective inner experience, a commodity predicated on privacy, and objective public experience rooted in a vision of the social collective. Of course a problem immediately emerges into view when we come to see how Morris’ so-called public meaning—meaning that occurs in the changing experience of the viewer’s embodied perception—bears a striking resemblance to the privacy Morris and the minimalists were committed to destabilizing. Because space, light, and field of vision are different for every viewer at every moment, while the internal relationships intended by the artist are fixed and singular (no matter how broad that singularity might encompass), it is hard to see how those perceptual differences Morris encourages amount to either public or private meaning, and not something closer Wittgenstein’s lamented “private language” (although language might be exactly the wrong word for the kind of privacy described here). After all, one can be wrong about what an artist intends, what was meant by a work, while one cannot be wrong about one’s experience.

More recently, advocates for participatory art and a related philosophical commitment to object oriented ontology have assumed a more critical stance toward minimalism. Why? Because the modes of spectatorship projected by the minimalists are limited to those generated by the perceiving body. Space, light, and field of vision are restricted to the human perceptual apparatus, even if the perceiving self is not that of the artist. The more rigorous advocates of participatory art model their practices on the non-humanist claims of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Cage, for instance, a few years prior to Morris’ “Notes,” described Rauschenberg’s White Paintings as “airports for [the] lights, shadows, and particles” of the space around them. Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, like Cage’s own 4’33″, were vehicles for audience response, what he called “nonintentional” artworks.

“What…nonintentional music wants to do,” Cage said of 4’33”, “is to make it make clear to the listener that the hearing of the piece is his own action—that the music, so to speak, is his, rather than the composer’s.” If the object and the gallery were still fixed terms of the minimalist experience, Cage and Rauschenberg imagined a wider set of terms, ones which in principle could exclude nothing from the artistic event. The wider, non-human, terms are literalized with Rauschenberg’s Growing Painting and Dirt Painting (for John Cage) of 1953. “The message is conveyed by dirt,” Cage wrote of them. “Crumbling and responding to changes in weather, the dirt unceasingly does my thinking.”

Response, here, is no longer limited to a perceiving body but to distinctly non-human temporalities, durations, and modes of experience.

The new fascination with non-human based modes of experience explains a renewed interest in the work and writings of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, an artist who deeply shaped Cage’s thinking. Writing in 1927 of Kasimir Malevich’s White on White of ten years earlier, a picture which is a clear model for Rauschenberg’s white paintings, despite its lingering commitment to internal relations, Moholy described them as “an ideal plane for kinetic light and shadow effects which, originating in the surroundings, would fall upon it….These actual reflections and mirrorings bring the surroundings into the picture….The surface becomes part of the atmosphere, of the atmospheric background; it sucks up light phenomena outside itself—a vivid contrast to the classical conception of the picture, the illusion of the open window.” If the classical conception of the picture projected the illusion of a unified space containing man and nature, then Malevich’s White on White absorbed the literal environment into itself, incorporating not just the beholder’s body but also the non-human space around it. Of course for Malevich, as opposed to Moholy and Rauschenberg, White on White was an image of absolute perfection, “outside movement and dynamics, outside space and time, it is immutable.” Malevich made an ontological distinction between works that occurred in time, and those out of time: “Each thing determined by social conditions is temporal,” Malevich wrote, “but works arising from sensations of art are outside time….; regardless of the changes in social life works of art are immutable.” 

Part II (next)

Part III

Todd Cronan is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. He teaches modern European art at Emory University.

“Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. In the first place, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary esthetics, whether or not a beholder’s exper¬ience of a work of art can properly be understood as affective rather than as cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of various writings by Henri Bergson—whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse—with respect to that and related issues, showing in the end that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position, he never quite definitely succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitivist viewpoints in the theory and practice of one of the great painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse; this sets Cronan on a collision course—from which he does not flinch —with the almost uniformly affective bias of recent Matisse criticism. Against Affective Formalism is a major achievement, and I look forward with fascination to its reception by a field that is likely to be transformed by it.”
—Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University

* A note from the author: My thanks to Catherine Barth for bringing Fairey’s writings to my attention. 

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