Welcome, everyone, to Thingly Affinities! Over the next ten days we will be exploring the implications of ethical posthumanism for the visual arts, with a particular emphasis on how it might alter our perceptions of and attitudes toward aesthetic form. I’m delighted to have gathered such an accomplished and diverse group of panelists for the occasion. Thanks to their generosity, what follows promises to be a compelling and provocative dialogue. Readers are welcome to participate by sending comments or questions as we go along (see sidebar for instructions). Below is the introduction to Session I along with the questions we’ll be addressing.
Goodbye to an Era: Examining the Legacies of Humanism and 20th Century Formalism in Art
Friday, December 4 – Saturday, December 5
Renaissance humanism, the first of the foundational movements that contributed to the emergence of modernity over four centuries, embraced concepts of classical Greek thought, foremost among them dualism (the belief that there is a radical discontinuity between humans and nature, body and mind, self and world) and that “Man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras). The entire history of the Western arts and humanities since the Renaissance unfolded within this humanist orientation.
In many fields within the humanities today, the values of the humanist ideology on which they were founded are being called into question with increasing scrutiny. The idea of the human self as an autonomous subject rightfully presiding over a world of brute objects is giving way to a more a humble worldview in which we are but one being among many. Known as the nonhuman turn, this emerging movement has brought with it much critical reassessment as the various fields examine their complicity in the humanist fallacy. As a point of departure, this first session aims to inaugurate a similar kind of reckoning within the visual arts.
1.1 In what ways has the ideology of humanism informed our ideas about visual art, both within the art world and in the larger culture?
1.2 Has the humanist habit of conceiving of the world in dualistic terms locked the professional art world into art’s persistent dichotomy of form versus content? How did form – the material embodiment of a work of art as perceived through its visual qualities – come to be considered separate from a work’s meaning or “content”?
1.3 Although formalism (the assertion that art should be considered in terms of its form alone) dominated the art world after the 1940s, the rejection of that stance in recent decades seems to have mutated into a dismissal of form itself, now often seen as retrograde and frivolous (“empty formalism,” “mere formalism,” “zombie formalism”), with content, or concept, given artistic primacy. To what can we attribute this conflating of doctrinaire formalism with form per se, and are the forces that led to it still influential?
1.4 The legacy of Clement Greenberg-style formalism, which shaped attitudes about art for decades with its denial of content and insistence on art’s autonomy, has left us with ideas about form that artists today find untenable. What is it about Greenbergian formalism specifically that today’s art world finds so objectionable? Is there a link between the ideology of humanism and Greenberg’s conception of form?
1.5 While the deconstructive postmodernism of the 1980s and ‘90s viewed itself as a movement against humanism and modernity, its focus on denying the existence of a fixed human nature and its emphasis on the role of (human) social construction made it in many ways a continuation of the humanist program. How has the legacy of deconstructive postmodernism informed current attitudes about aesthetic form, and what is its relationship to the emergent kind of posthumanist thinking?
1.6 Are there aspects of humanism that we would wish to preserve moving forward, both within art and in the wider culture?