Friday, 26 August 2011

The Disabling Potential of Art

It’s a commonly held criticism of contemporary art that it’s exclusive, alienating, obscure, elitist and so on.

Some (Declan McGonagle for example) have gone so far as to claim that there is something, quite literally, disabling about the spaces of art. That is that they impose social limits on their participants; and these limits manifest themselves by imposing aesthetic inhibitors on the bodies of visitors which manifest themselves as actual sensual and bodily restrictions.

This thinking often manifests itself in those practices (be they curatorial, artistic, pedagogical) that use the rhetoric of populism and inclusion in attempts to make experiences that are as comprehensible or as likeable as possible. I notice that on the website for the forthcoming Dublin Contemporary jamboree there is the demand to “ENGAGE!” and thatDublin Contemporary 2011 has devised an innovative education programme to facilitate and encourage public engagement with every aspect of the exhibition. Open to all…”

I have a hunch, though, that it’s all those things that make art problematic, and unlikable, and unliked which are the very same things that make it interesting. It is precisely because it’s disabling that art offers an opportunity to think about the world in different ways to that which we naturally would.
Luhmann uses rhetoric which suggests this when he claims that art retards perception. It doesn’t offer clarity but rather makes our experiences strange and perhaps wonderful to us:

Art aims to retard perception and render it reflexive – lingering upon the object in visual art (in striking contrast to everyday perception) and slowing down reading in literature, particularly in lyric poetry…. Works of art by contrast [to everyday perception] employ perceptions exclusively for the purpose of letting the observer participate in the invention of invented forms.” 
(Art as a Social System)

 Merleau-Ponty does something very similar; and I think it’s not coincidence that his two most famous examples are modernist art and the pathological, disabled body (particularly that of the war victim Schneider.) For Merleau-Ponty, then, it is precisely in this strangeness and oddness of the experience of art that our perception becomes almost like that of a disability. In art our perception is retarded and made available to us as an object of perception itself. In an experience of art as art, in which certain aspects of normal experience are suspended, or bracketed, art becomes a type of philosophical practice that the artist and the viewer jointly participate in. (There’s more of this in the essay on pathology, aesthetics and epoché posted here.)

If there is a philosophical significance to art objects and the spaces they occupy, then perhaps this significance lies not in that they illustrate certain theories such as how to live a better life, or what the role of politics is (even though they might). To think this is to think that the significance of art lies in its didacticism. I don’t think this. It is rather that the spaces and objects of art put us in, they demand of (or perhaps extort from) us, a particular frame of mind which is inherently philosophical.

I propose, then, that art objects have the potential to be a form of what Graham Harman calls a Guerilla Metaphysics; that is, forms of thought that allow us to speculate on the occult strangeness of the world and its objects.

And perhaps, then, this is an implication of Harman’s recent claims that: “Aesthetics may be a branch of metaphysics,” and that “aesthetics becomes first philosophy.”