Suggestions for Art Today (Arthur Whitman)

 As readers of my previous post posts will know, I cannot claim to speak on behalf on poshumanism, nor tell what it might dictate for art. That said, I do have great sympathy for the claim, expressed by Taney in her various writings and in her questions for this symposium, that contemporary art must recover the sensual, the expressive, the embodied. While I take it that that is a common goal among the panelists here, I have some perhaps divergent ideas about how best to enable that that reflect my philsophical differences, expressed previously, as well as other personal experience and attitudes.

I am a newspaper art critic, of nearly fifteen years experience, working mostly in the "college town" of Ithaca, NY (hello to Werner Sun, my neighbor, if you're out there!). While academic thought runs deep in my family background and in my ongoing reading, my primary loyalties are to artists working outside of, or in some cases marginal to, academia. Art is not an academic discipline! Without engaging in broad brush condemnations of academic contributions to current thinking on the arts, I propose that most academic commentators on contemporary art are handicapped in understanding and accepting the broad range of what is, in fact, going on. The temptation to interpret and judge the importance of artists and artistic tendencies on the basis of specialized commitments and esoteric (to be unkind) theories is too strong.

Let me recommend that the best way to recover the sensuous immediacy of art is not to dictate, not in the name of supposedly radical and liberatory intellectual theory, what artists ought to be doing. I think rather, we writers and commentators ought to let practicing artists take the lead. And I while do I identify with modernism in the visual arts, I think the old military metaphor of the avant garde is dead, buried. Radical formal or stylistic innovation, while a generative goal back in the day, is no longer the wide open horizon that it used to be. I think most contemporary radicalism in the visual arts is false and that the posture of perennial oppositionality impedes what is genuinely valuable about art-making. So I think we ought to be open, at least in principle, to the whole gamut, rather than trying to stipulate or predict.

A curiosity of English grammar (Taney Roniger)

At the end of our conversation with Charles Eisenstein yesterday, there was an interesting exchange -- initiated by Wendy and picked up by Jane and Stephanie -- about the inadequacy of conventional English to express the relational and processual nature of agency. I want to bring it up again here because it’s so relevant to the current session. 

I’m paraphrasing here, but at issue is the construction X does Y to Z (active subject - active verb - passive object), wherein something is always doing something to something else. This is a problem because it doesn’t allow for the more nuanced fact that subject and object are both active and passive; each acts upon and is influenced by the other, however subtly. Jane brought up the “middle voice” as a compelling solution. As she says in her most recent book, Influx and Efflux, “[The  middle voice] designates performances undertaken within a field of activities, rather than decisions of subjects who enter a field either to do something (active voice) or to be acted upon (passive voice).” 

Perhaps Wendy, Jane, and Stephanie would like to pursue this further here (and of course I’d also welcome input from other panelists and readers!).

Response to 3.1: Is there a Spiritual Dimension to Form? (Daniel Hill)

     I do think there can be, absolutely, a spiritual dimension to the language of form. Two corresponding experiences during the April pandemic lockdown here in New York City amplified this topic in my mind. 

    First, I chose to re-visit Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1914) while tucked into my quarantine cocoon (coincidentally I was reminded of the book by Taney). This had been a book of profound influence on me as an undergraduate student and played a significant role in me declaring my concentration of study in the fine arts. That 20-year-old version of me was allured by words such as “spiritual” but after years of reading as much as I could on the topic, I realized the word conjures such a wide variety of definitions that its use has become quite limited. It is useful to get a general idea, but with a realm so necessarily nuanced, I hoped another word would come about. It hasn’t. 

    Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And as I re-read Kandinsky, if I updated terms to satisfy that definition, the text came alive and indeed still seems vital one hundred and nine years after being written. I had parted with the notion of “spiritual”, taking the concepts and methods of science in its stead.  Yet science with all its crowning achievements still leaves us in a world with plenty of room for improvement.  We need science to solve problems like the coronavirus.  We need art to find meaning. (By that, I mean the type I referred to in an earlier post.)  Without the moral compass provided by the arts, the future tools of science create a scenario akin to toddlers playing with blowtorches.


    Kandinsky uses the metaphor of an inner world and I find this more apt. Practicing the examined life is a very personal realm where we quietly acknowledge we all have room for improvement. One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of how callous and mean humans can be to each other when inebriated with power, greed, tribalism, and ego. Therefore, we can see that growth within this inner world is an absolute necessity if we as a species hope to navigate the stormy seas of our collective adolescence. The language of abstraction serves as functional vehicle of this inner world. Visual abstraction has the capacity of carrying no temporal, societal baggage and thus possesses the capability of being pure metaphor for those jewels of human experience that are ineffable.  Visual abstraction then becomes a mirror for the viewers mind, recording and revealing a symbolic version of our inner world. It can then be examined as a complex web of tendencies, good habits, bad habits, emotions, intellect, etc.


    Second was my experiment of making a chalkboard drawing a day during quarantine here in NYC. This proved to be of crucial importance for me during such a stressful and anxious time. For me, the drawings are inner work made visible. The process of their making, and the reflection aided by them, were an anchor for me as my family and I recovered from the virus. Below are the exhibition notes for a video montage of these drawings recently on display and also a link to the montage.


    “As the coronavirus tsunami poured through New York City in Spring 2020 and we all hunkered down in the caves of our apartments, it became apparent that short of contracting the virus, successfully coping with the fear and anxiety produced by this extraordinary moment was absolutely essential. We were told to wash our hands, eat well and exercise- but no one mentioned our minds- that most important of elements. As an educator, I tell my students that a practice of seeing and making can benefit them in surprising ways. If such practices are not of indisputable value at a moment such as this, then their place in a future society is truly in peril. No longer able to go my studio and make paintings, I salvaged my kid’s old “Melissa and Doug” chalkboard slated for the garbage in order to make room for our new cramped quarantined existence. In a spark of intuition, I decided upon a daily ritual: I would make a chalkboard drawing a day while in quarantine and post that drawing on social media everyday whether I liked the drawing or not. During one of the most difficult three week periods in memory as my family and I dealt with coronavirus-like symptoms (we later all tested positive for antibodies), this chalkboard ritual emerged as a fundamentally grounding practice which instilled doses of discipline, reflection, and meditation so necessary during this very stressful time.”




Chalkboard Drawings Daniel Hill April 2020

Introduction to Session IV: Posthumanism Made Flesh (Taney Roniger)

Entering the seventh day of our dialogue, it’s become clear to me just how much more there is to be explored on our subject. While there are still four days to go, I’m already entertaining the idea of expanding our conversation in book form. In the meantime, however, I want to thank those readers who’ve offered their comments and to encourage more of the same on any of the material we’ve covered. As always, panelists too are welcome to continue threads from past sessions in addition to considering any new ones that might emerge over the next two days. The introduction to Session IV and its questions are below.

Session IV: Posthumanism Made Flesh: Forging a New Century with a Reoriented Aesthetics

Thursday, December 10 - Friday, December 11

Having laid the groundwork for a new posthumanist aesthetics, in this session we will consider what kinds of embodied forms such an aesthetics might give rise to and how they might be experienced by human (and perhaps nonhuman) bodies. 

4.1    Are there certain kinds of aesthetic form that seem especially consonant with posthumanist values, and if so how might our human artifacts better embody them?

4.2    Are there certain materials that seem especially consonant with these values, and if so how can our human-made forms make better use of them?

4.3    The environmentalist Robin Wall Kimmerer has called for a "grammar of animacy" -- a new approach to language that will more accurately reflect the vitality of the natural world. Can something analogous be developed in the visual sphere?

4.4    Given that so much of our contemporary technology is the product of a distinctly humanist agenda, is there a role for technology in an aesthetics oriented toward the decentering of the human?

4.5    If visual perception is no longer reducible to vision alone, and if conceptual thought is no longer separable from the sensorium that gives rise to it, might this mean the erosion of the conventional distinctions between the various artistic disciplines? What might it mean for the tacit hierarchy that places the crafts and decoration beneath the fine arts and design?

4.6    By way of expanding current ideas about spectatorship, can we imagine alternative ways for our species to experience -- or indeed participate in -- aesthetic expression?

4.7    Is there a role for other species in posthumanist art?