Doesn’t the image’s power lie in its proliferation of meanings? So what is the point of arguing for such autonomy? Is it possible to separate ourselves from all the forces that teach us how to act in a room with an artwork?
Another way of putting this is to say that the violence of the frame consists above all in making our lives as irrelevant as hers, and it’s in this indifference to our particularity (this allegorizing of its irrelevance) that I locate the politics of Kydd’s work.
It will, I want to argue, be hard to describe Owen Kydd’s practice as appealing to the plurality of the medium against Art; on the contrary, it will be better understood as doing just the opposite, as redeploying the idea of the medium precisely on behalf of the idea of Art—and against a pluralism that is not only aesthetic but political.
I do not have this privilege because I have seen the works only on the small screen that, to many of us, is the whole world. These screens in our offices and homes are more isolating than even the whitest of white walls in the most pristine of white cubes. They are much more theater-like than even those small project spaces which resemble theaters—ones in which patrons are constantly walking in late and leaving early—which Kydd presumably meant to reject in favor of placing his works on gallery walls. An increasing number of artists with access to technology and a gallery have made a similar choice.
As I try to make this out I may find myself hesitating among several possibilities: that Manet simply took advantage of the earlier painting’s meaninglessness; that he was in some way actively interested in the palpable discontinuity within the painting between artist’s intention and unrealized meaning; that his own painting stands as a reading of Velázquez’s, where reading means something distinct from but not without relation to interpretation.
Meaning, no less than intention, matters. But to the extent it isn’t all or above all what interpretation, indeed appreciation, of an artwork aims at, or is in any event of a different, less linguistic order than those in search of it tend to suppose, then, their intentions notwithstanding, in a relevant sense both intentionalism and the do-or-die debate about it might not be all that any more than where it’s at.
So one easy way to put it would be to say that for many people, photography perfectly embodied the theory and practice of the postmodern, whereas for some people, it created the possibility or felt necessity for a critique of postmodernism. Or, to put the point in terms of intentionality: for many people, the photograph embodies the critique of the intentional that we find in theorists as different as Barthes and Derrida, Crimp and Rancière; for others it embodies something like the opposite – the opportunity to re-imagine intentionality.
Cognitive scientists have found out quite a lot about the psychology of intention. We humans are intentional to our core. Do we come into the world trailing clouds of glory? Maybe. But we definitely come trailing clouds of concepts. Far from experiencing the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” babies start detecting patterns only a few hours after birth. They segment, they process, they subdivide. They prefer their native language to a foreign tongue. They know about object solidity and object permanence. And by the age of roughly a year old, they have a fully developed Cartesian worldview, seeing objects and agents as distinct. Why should this matter to literary theorists? (Is the baby father to the man?) After all, by the time they go to graduate school, babies have long since become immune to the brute lure of intentionality. They have laid down complex pathways on their innate concepts. They reason counterfactually, wreath their ideas in the flowers of prosody, willingly suspend their disbelief, and wrinkle their brows in ironic suspicion. And by the time they are middle aged and have come to appreciate that the world is, in fact, a great blooming, buzzing confusion, their infant categories are…
James Welling and Walter Benn Michaels discuss photography, neoliberalism and aesthetics in a conversation from a recent conference at Parsons, entitled The Photographic Universe and we’ve got the video.
Walter Benn Michael’s “Neoliberal Aesthetics: Fried, Rancière and the Form of the Photograph,” published in our first issue, has generated responses from Michael Clune, Nicholas Brown, and Todd Cronan.