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Yes, Art Making & Critical Theory Are Forms of Research

Leonardo DaVinci drawing - Five Characters in a Comic Scene, c. 1490

Leonardo DaVinci drawing – Five Characters in a Comic Scene, c. 1490

An editorial posted the other day in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, Let’s stop pretending academic artspeak reflects actual research, claims that “Artspeak” does not reflect “actual” research in the arts.  The conventions and validity of the arts are under attack daily at the moment.  As a member of a research institution where my research is art-making, and is occasionally supported by dense writing, I was disheartened to read this uninformed editorial in a major newspaper.

Artspeak is the often satirized form of English that showcases artists’ proclivity to use complex and absurd-sounding words and phrases.  I do appreciate the difficulty of artspeak and acknowledge my complicity.  Yes, when possible and appropriate artists and theorists should write for lay audiences.  However, I also recognize the necessity of Artspeak as a discipline-specific form of writing with its own quirks and peculiarities.  Several authors at Triple Canopy, a New York magazine, did a wonderful analysis of Artspeak calling it “International Art English” in 2002, yet there are many artists and writers like Russel Smith, who likely never had patience for French poststructuralism nor the florid universe of International Art English it helped to spawn.  To the author’s three main points:

The author’s first point is that artists use big words to overcomplicate simple concepts.  The author claims that “performativities of language embody speaking subjects,” is the same as “people of different backgrounds use language differently.”  These sentences are not the same and have different meanings.  To tackle the first part of this mistranslation, the performative aspect of language (or anything else) is different than language itself, language itself being the province of linguists, grammaticians, and even anthropologists.  Performance itself is an important part of the fine arts, as is the performative aspect of words or materials etc–what words materials etc. can do.  Secondly, embodying is an important concept in the fine arts as well;  the fine arts necessarily deal with  identity, the body, and the ways that individuals or materials can express certain ideas in ways that other disciplines do not.  While in other disciplines people “use” language, in the arts language is additionally free to embody speaking subjects or vice versa.  Finally, the word “subjects” is not the same as the word “people”.  A subject is an important concept in the arts—the subject of a painting, a subject as a distinct entity and not necessarily an individual belonging to some specific “people“, as is the case in the authors example simplified sentence.  Admittedly, this is a clunky sentence that could be improved.  Yet, the author’s thesis that complex ideas like embodying and performativity are analogous to simpler words like “use” is nonsense.

As the current president of the United States has gone to great lengths to simplify and dumb down the English language, so too has the populace been somewhat dumbed-down and considered in highly simplistic ways.  Trump’s tweets do indeed have a “performative aspect” and the sooner we recognize this the sooner we understand the performance itself for what it is.  Words mean things yes, but they also do things, and an integral part of the fine arts is a sensitivity to how various media “work us over completely” (Marshall Mcluhan) impacting individuals and culture.  Arts finds itself at the extreme of a spectrum of language complexity, as an embrace of complexity is in part the job of the artist. In a time of oversimplification from our elected leaders, moving toward a greater appreciation of difficult ideas and a greater understanding of the limits of language is a moral imperative.

To the author’s second point, I am not sure who is claiming that “critical theory is a kind of scientific research” in the first place.  This is a straw man argument.  Critical theory is necessarily and deliberately unscientific but it is research.  The fine arts celebrate ambiguity in ways that chemists generally cannot (lest they blow up the lab).  And God forbid critical theorists and artists use the wrong style when using citations!  The authors critique that artists and philosophers have it wrong by using “APA style as opposed to MLA style, for those in the know [emphasis added]” is an appeal to the same kind of discipline-specific elitism he attempts to condemn.

Finally, the author states that “philosophy and art criticism prove nothing…They just advance ideas.”   Scientific theories do not prove anything either.  This is why we call them scientific theories.  “Just” advancing ideas is exactly what artistic as well as scientific research does.  And yes, considering various ideas over the course of a period of time can constitute “actual” research in the truest sense of the word: research is by definition the process of seeking—Middle French recerche, from recercher to go about seeking (merriam-webster)—and not the process of making decrees about “established facts” in the form of science.  When we concede research and ways of knowing to the sciences exclusively we lose our humanity (the Nazis were supported by “established facts” about racial superiority provided by scientific researchers).  Obversely, figures like Leonardo DaVinci demonstrate that ideas may be advanced and strengthened through both artistic and scientific disciplines.  Unbound critical thinkers, artists and philosophers point us toward a greater and fuller understanding of the universe, in all its complicated, seemingly superfluous performative glory.
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Michael Sailstorfer: Masculinity and Quiet Destruction

I recently attended the opening reception for the exhibition Michael Sailstorfer: Every Piece is a New Problem at the Contemporary Arts Center here in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This is the German Sailstorfer’s first major solo show in the United States and the CAC is the perfect place for his large-scale sculptures and installations.

Sailstorfer’s work is characterized by unusual sculptural interventions that investigate the clash between technology and nature.  I too am interested in this intersection and was pleased to see an artist taking on this theme using such a massive scale.  The most prominently displayed Sailstorfer work at the CAC is a collection of four large live trees hang upside down.  Each tree is slowly rotated on a motor so that the branches sweep the floor.  The effect is mesmerizing.  Robotic motors whir and needles bristle and break leaving traces on the concrete ground in quiet circles.  In the graceful airy space of the CAC this strange situation feels almost natural and somehow calming.

Hanging Problems

Hanging Trees

Sailstorfer’s other works include a microphone is encased in a block of concrete, picking up subtle vibrations as visitors walk by.  Many pieces simply document past events: a cabin being completely burnt down using its own wood and wood-burning stove, a young tree exploded using air pressure. and a tire mounted in such a way that as it spins it screeches, leaving a rubber mark on the wall and a burning smell in the gallery.

Sailstorfer’s art is undeniably provocative.  The CAC exhibition evokes surprise and even glee, as visitors are confronted by unlikely and curiously dramatic, almost playful situations.  But while Sailstorfer’s works are consistently memorable and powerful, there lingers an undercurrent of unsettling darkness that may not be initially recognizable.

Burning Cabin

Burning Cabin

The CAC website describes Sailstorfer’s trees as “dancers of a melancholic ballet”.  After think exhibition sunk in a little, I am now more inclined to view them as victims of execution by hanging–an inverted lynching.  There is nothing new about upside down trees.  Take Natalie Jeremijenko’s permanent installation of living upside-down trees at Mass MoCA, Tree Logic.  Jeremijenko built a system which nourishes the trees despite their unusual position, asking viewers to contemplate the possibility of naturalness as thee trees respond over time to an unexpected environment.  Sailstorfer, by contrast, slowly kills his trees using decapitation and mechanical torture.

Natalie Jeremijenko: Tree Logic, MASS MoCA

Natalie Jeremijenko: Tree Logic, MASS MoCA

This interpretation is not metaphorical–Sailstorfer’s trees are indeed, actually, slowly dying. It is possible to become so enamored with the art-ness of Sailstorfers works that the reality of these destructive acts is overlooked.  But Sailstorfer is a materialist.  The essence of his art is material; it is reasonable to take his interventions at face value.  Of course, most contemporary art installations, performances, and actions are generally presented as symbolic provocations even as they are “real”.  The problem for Sailstorfer–and indeed much contemporary art–is that he seems unable to articulate the symbolic part.

Dying trees, exploded trees, burning cabins, burnt rubber, a microphone restricted in concrete and an obsession with the idea of “expansion”–Sailstorfer is a contemporary futurist.  Like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and friends in the Futurist manifesto from 1909, Sailstorfer sings the “love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness…” perhaps even a “contempt for women”–but does all this abstrusely.  Unlike the Futurists, who were transparent about their wholehearted embrace of destruction, machine-power and even fascism, Sailstorfer puts the responsibility on the viewer. This to me is even more unsettling.

Raketenbaum (Rocket Tree)

Raketenbaum (Rocket Tree) – Another Problem Solved

In another arena, Sailstorfer’s works could pass for entertainment or spectacle.  Fireworks, Game of Thrones, the NFL, Nascar–sports and entertainment media are awash in images of male power and violent destruction.  When pressed, however, Sailstorfer describes his art as being solely about nature, technology and art history.

In contemporary art and society ideology has never been more prominent.  For Sailstorfer–and all artists–every piece is indeed a new problem; solving them may require an element preservation, modesty, contraction, compassion and sensitivity.  How do you solve your problems?


Michael Sailstorfer: Every Piece is a New Problem
Now through September 14

Contemporary Arts Center
44 E. Sixth St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202

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