How do you pronounce the politics of aesthetics?

By Noah Simblist

Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-Aesthetic edited by James Elkins and Harper Montgomery, Penn State University Press, 2013

Like Gregory Sholette, I was interested in the statement by the Stéphanie Benzaquen in section 9, towards the end of the seminars. This section was about addressing any lack or exclusion of subjects that the participants noticed. She claimed that the group had “not touched on the social and economic conditions of theories of art.” Instead, she says, “We have been living in the abstract.” She references Edward Said’s text in The Anti-Aesthetic[1] because he explicitly talks about the patterns of exclusion that exist within both writing and its interpretation.

In his essay, Said talks about the divisions that exist between academic fields of inquiry and likens them to the cold war binaries in which he was writing. [2] Said invokes Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge[3] and employs its methodology to look at the structures of knowledge production that he has participated in. For instance, Said notes the partisan politics that exist within the humanities and the actual and social capital at stake in the academic publishing industry. He concludes this analysis with a pronouncement: “we need to think about breaking out of the disciplinary ghettos in which as intellectuals we have been confined, to reopen the blocked social processes ceding objective representation (hence power) of the world to a small coterie of experts and their clients”[4]

James Elkins says that this seminar was consciously organized to include participants from a wide range of fields and geographic centers to avoid the problems that Said raised. But, for the most part, there weren’t many actual examples brought up in discussion of patterns or trends in institutional structures or artistic practice that actually compare the ways that art production, dissemination and interpretation might work differently in places like Beirut or Ramallah as compared to Chicago or New York. Does the matter at hand, the anti-aesthetic, function differently for different communities?

Elkins also notes that he thought that this issue was covered in a previous seminar on art and globalization. But again, following Said and bucking the desire to delimit categories, how can we think of one topic informing the other? Why, for instance, have so many artists from the Middle East that address its politics used conceptualist methodologies? Artists like Walid Raad, Emily Jacir, Akhram Zattari, and Khaled Hourani deal explicitly with very volatile politics connected to the Lebanon Civil War, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and other topics. These topics, as Said himself noted in Covering Islam,[5] are frequently and problematically represented in mainstream media. But the strategies that the mainstream media often use focus on the bodies of the dead or wounded, burning tires, military strikes and screaming funeral marches. These artists turn away from the aesthetics of hyperbolic violence and instead choose a tactic of remove.

The question then is if these conceptualist methodologies are anti-aesthetic or if they simply employ an aesthetic characteristic of a certain brand of conceptualism – what Benjamin Buchloh referred to as the “aesthetics of administration?”[6] It is clear that they are not engaging in the kind of aesthetic questions that Clement Greenberg had when he referred to aesthetics – something that existed for him within the realm of painting and sometimes sculpture. They favor text and photographic images instead of the materiality of objects, and they use these media in a way that Fredric Jameson would call pastiche.

Walid Raad certainly cares for and employs aesthetics. In his video, done under the auspices of the Atlas Group, I Only Wish I Could Weep (2002) an intelligence agent chooses to focus his surveillance on a sunset instead of the target that his supervisors chose for him. This move by Raad, explores the aesthetics of politics by showing an instance where an individual within a saturated political environment seeks out an aesthetic rupture. But as a result this aesthetic moment, which might seem to represent the transcendent beauty of nature, becomes framed by the politics of the social.

Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From (2002-2003) also plays back and forth between art and politics, aesthetic and anti-aesthetic. In this project Jacir, a Palestinian American artist used her US passport to travel across borders and through checkpoints that would be difficult or impossible for many other Palestinians. She asked a group of Palestinians around the world if she could do anything for them in Palestine, what would it be. She gets responses like “drink the water in my parent’s village” or “go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy that you find on the street.” In some sense this work embraces the aesthetics of Palestinian politics but, following the response by Boris Groys to the seminar, perhaps this work could more accurately be described as engaging poetics.

It is also interesting to note that some European curators who have worked with these artists like Charles Esche or Catherine David frequently engage ideas that link conceptualism with politics. Institutions like the Vannabbemuseum, the Witte de Witte, and KW Institute for Contemporary Art often traffic in work that might not be anti-aesthetic (in a polemical sense) but they certainly resist traditional engagements with aesthetics. Middle Eastern institutions like Ashkal Alwan, The Sharjah Biennial and Al-Ma’mal Foundation are similar to these European institutions in the proliferation of conceptual practices.

Perhaps one of the most sophisticated moves out of the aesthetic/anti-aesthetic binary, is Khaled Hourani’s project with Charles Esche and the Vanabbemuseum called Picasso in Palestine (2010). This project involved something rather simple by the standards of most international museums. The International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) borrowed Pablo Picasso’s Buste de Femme (1943) from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindoven. But because the IAAP is in Ramallah, The West Bank – a territory of contested sovereignty – this process became not only complex but also a subject for a much larger artwork that encompassed a painting AND the social forces that surround it’s movement. It took two years of intense negotiations with art shippers and insurance companies as well as research into the intricacies of the Oslo Accords to set up the first instance of a western modernist icon being exhibited in Palestine. The documents of this process were exhibited concurrent with the painting at the Al Mamal Foundation in Jerusalem.

For me, this project brings up one of many ways of seeing Rancierre’s contribution to the discussion by highlighting not only the aesthetics of politics but also the politics of aesthetics[7]. I understand the latter in a couple of ways. First, In terms of Picasso in Palestine, there are many hidden structures that allow culture to be made manifest. These structures are powered by both ideological and financial forces. I believe that when James Elkins brought up the support of Howard and Donna Stone, he was speaking to this dimension of the institutional and social context in which the seminar was happening. Picasso in Palestine, however, chose to be very self-conscious about those structures and fold them into the project.[8]

The second way that I understand Rancierre’s discussion of the politics of aesthetics is through the regimes within institutions, like universities or museums, have imposed hierarchies of value within the arts in relation to medium or genre. Despite the evolution of models of problematizing and moving beyond the aesthetic-anti-aesthetic binary, there are still many ways in which it is reified by communities of scholars, curators, critics and artists and by the art market. There are still firm believers in the universal truth of painting’s beauty that decry the hegemonic threats of anti-aesthetic conceptualism. There are also orthodox conceptualists that are paranoid about the links between aesthetic purity and the market. These caricatures didn’t become extinct once the notion of moving beyond the aesthetic/anti-aesthetic binary was raised. I have met many people in respectable positions who embrace the binary, as if stuck in the 1980s, while falling on one side or the other of it. This is a politics of aesthetics that I think was lacking in the seminar’s discussion – certainly in any concrete way.

So why have so many recent artists from the Arab world focused on conceptual anti-aesthetic modes of making to deal with politics? Certainly this has to do with the politics of aesthetics, which traditionally have organized communities that are aligned with social content toward certain modes of making. But of course, that isn’t to say that artists that embrace aesthetics are no less political. If we take a few Palestinian artists as examples, we could draw a spectrum from the abstract paintings of Kamal Boulata to the surreal sculptures by Mona Hatoum to the more didactic poetics of Emily Jacir. All of them make work that is deeply connected to Palestinian politics and identity but I don’t think that any of them would consider themselves to be anti-aesthetic. Perhaps the less abstract work of Jacir, like works by Raad and Hourani, resists some amount of aesthetics so that her politics can be more pronounced.


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[1] Edward Said, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Community” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Ed. Hal Foster (New York: The New Press, 1998) pp155-183.
[2] In a lecture at the Freize Art Fair in 2011 entitled The Luxury of Incommensurability, Katy Siegel also noted the links between this binary and the cold war and suggested the famous duck/rabbit diagram as a way out of it by imagining seeing two things at once.
[3] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Vintage Books, 1982)
[4] Said p182
[5] Edward Said, Covering Islam (New York: Vintage Books, 1997)
[6] Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” October, Vol. 55 (Winter, 1990), pp. 105-143
[7] Jacques Ranciere, “The Distribution of the Sensible” The Politics of Aesthetics (New York: Continuum, 2006)
[8] A similar self-consciousness has been performed by W.A.G.E., when members of the group are on panels and make clear how much they have been paid.