Curtis White and Contemporary Art Discourse

A friend and respected colleague of mine recently gave me an essay written by Curtis White, “I Am an Artist; I Make Beautiful Things: A Credo of Sorts Concerning the New Beauty”. It’s an attempt to find a way to talk about aesthetic values and judgments in an artworld where such discussions have been out of fashion since the ’80s.

While I’m in general sympathy with White’s concerns about the loss of critical discourse and engagement in the arts, I find myself wincing frequently as I read through his essay. Part of my problem is with his use of descriptive metaphors and figures of speech that seem crude and never quite on the mark. Consider, for example, the following: “I can feel an apology rising up from out of a wounded organ that stretches from my intestines to a hinter region of my brain” and “The artists try to speak, to respond, but their voices sound like the high whine of a vacuum cleaner with a dust bunny clogging the hose, or a food processor working on unshelled walnuts”. I want to ask, “Which is it? The dust bunny or the walnuts? Each conjures up a very different image.”

At first I tried to ignore these awkward moments in the text assuming he was an artist working outside his medium. But White is a novelist and cultural critic! I’m more than willing to admit that my experience in literary criticism is limited and my exposure to literature generally impoverished. So perhaps I should attribute his blustery and insufficiently precise thinking to some form of post-beat, ’60s literary style which simply strikes me as out of place in an essay that argues for a more articulate discourse on critical issues in the arts.

But the problem persists, despite my attempt to attribute our differences to taste. Together with his cavalier and somewhat indulgent style is a litany of references to high-brow sources — Adorno, Althusser, Derrida, Barthes, Jauss, Jameson, Baudrillard, Laclau and Mouffe. References to these writers is not surprising in a text devoted to postmodern art and criticism. But White uses ideas and concepts attributed to these philosophers and social theorists with the same flip abandon that he applies to his figures of speech. This leads to his blurring of important conceptual distinctions. So, for example, when he correctly points out that “[a]rtists and critics…can’t simply assert the reality of Beauty as some sort of unearthly absolute (the Sublime)…”, he appears to conflate the concepts of beauty and the sublime that writers such as Longinus, Edmund Burke, Kant, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe have consistently distinguished from one another. The natural sublime, for example, is linked to a kind of pain that one experiences in response to an awesome manifestation of the power of nature that goes beyond human comprehension and control. Beauty, on the other hand, is associated with a pleasure one feels in the disinterested contemplation of an object. These kinds of distinctions and their implications for a theory of artistic evaluation are lost in White’s hasty rant.

Okay, so what’s his analysis of the contemporary plight of art in the age of pluralism and the eclipse of critical discourse? The two big problems, according to White, are anti-essentialism and political correctness. White’s account of anti-essentialism is both brief and inadequate. While his analysis of political correctness is more fully developed, it’s unfortunately littered with the kind of unsupported judgments and dogmatic dismissals that one associates with late Greenberg. (White asks, “Does feel-good equal good? Does the fact of AIDS make a tedious melodrama like Longtime Companion important cinema? Is the solemn Safe by Todd Haynes ‘good’ because he’s [politically] correct…? Any Tan a serious novelist…why?” The answers to these questions are assumed to be too obvious to state.) White does have an important point to make, viz. that the distinction between aesthetic and political values and judgments is often ignored by artists and critics on the Left. There are a number of issues here that deserve attention. But let’s put that discussion to one side, for the time being, and consider what may be a general, equally insidious, and rarely discussed practice of contemporary writers and intellectuals such as White.

White offers the following characterization:

Anti-essentialism was the conclusion of a complicated logic found by American critics primarily in the work of Jacques Derrida. Derrida argued (and argues) against ‘the metaphysics of presence,’ and ‘transcendental signifieds,’ and ‘the purveyors of Truth.’ Thus, it has seemed easy to conclude that notions like ‘Beauty’ or the ‘Artist’ appeal to a Romantic, ideologically bourgeois and always and everywhere complicit (and therefore culpable) philosophies [sic] of the Real.

Ignoring for a moment the awkward form of White’s statement, notice how many terms he uses but how little he offers by way of argument, definition, or context. What (briefly, please) is the “Metaphysics of Presence” or a “transcendental signifier”? What judgment is signified by “Truth” with a capital “t”? Is the fact that Derrida formulated his critique of the metaphysics of presence in response to the early phenomenological investigations of Edmund Husserl and not as part of the “deconstruction” of a theory of beauty relevant to this discussion?

Having raised these questions, I don’t want to suggest that White should fully explore elaborate philosophical details in an essay directed toward a larger, non-academic audience. Rather, I would simply like to point out how White’s gestural reference to heavily weighted concepts instantiates a more fundamental problem undermining contemporary critical discourse — what Wittgenstein referred to as “language on a holiday”.

It is easy for readers, students, artists, etc. to pick up on the nomenclature used by philosophers and cultural critics. With relatively little exposure, one can begin using terms such as “essentialism”, “metaphysics of presence”, “deconstruction”, and “transcendental signifier”, just to name a few of the more obvious examples. One encounters them in college classrooms, galleries, and art journals all the time. But the ratio of understanding to use is low. Why is that the case?

One of the reasons is that there’s not enough attention paid to making these concepts clear to one’s readers or students. For example, in classrooms across the country, students are often thrown into deep conceptual and linguistic waters before learning how to swim. Too many teachers assume that sloshing around in the writings of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Adorno, and others will provide a sufficient starting point for the novice reader. By immersing themselves in primary texts, students will learn how to forge their own understandings and critical responses.

I claim this approach is misguided and irresponsible. Without both a larger frame of reference and familiarity with an ongoing discourse, including the philosophical background that has shaped the discourse and made certain problems salient, the curious but relatively naive reader of such texts will, at best, acquire a superficial grasp of only the most basic concerns and, at worst, simply add a few more items to their collection of fashionable linguistic accessories. If intellectuals and educators took a bit more time to define concepts and to review, if only briefly, the central arguments in support of, and in opposition to, the theoretical positions encountered in contemporary criticism, readers and students would be much better informed and prepared to use the conceptual and theoretical tools necessary for critical engagement with the cultural world around them.

This is only one of the factors contributing to the impoverishment of criticality in the contemporary art discourse and beyond. Writers who are committed to improving and rehabilitating cultural discourse, such as Curtis White, undermine their own objectives when they ignore it.

Interviews and other links for Curtis White

Center for Book Culture
The Write Stuff

The Role of Philosophy

Marcus Aurelius

I was talking with my political philosophy students the other day about the different roles philosophy has played in the past and the way it has been practiced. With reference to the recent works of Pierre Hadot, the French philosopher who Foucault cited as an influence on his later works, I pointed out that in the ancient world, philosophy was practiced as a form of self-transformation. It had a theoretical component, to be sure, with close analysis of arguments, definitions, classifications, etc. But these philosophical tools served the goal of living a good life. According to Hadot, it was only after the rise of Christianity and modern science in the West that philosophy as a form of self-transformation was separated from abstract theoretical discourse. The practices of the self were appropriated by the Church and by Christian philosophers. Most modern philosophers devoted themselves to analytical exercises and the construction of theories about justice, morality, language, knowledge, etc. There were, and still are, exceptions — Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein are three philosophers often cited by Hadot as influenced by the ancient practice of philosophy.

An example of the kind of philosophical reflection engaged in by the ancients can be found in an excerpt from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in a recent post by Gary Sauer-Thompson. Marcus Aurelius is also the focus of an important study by Hadot entitled The Inner Citadel, which was published in France 1992 and translated into English in 1998.