Friday, May 11, 2007

The Limits

My brain has this unfortunate habit of combining two rather disparate, but new-to-me, ideas into one mutant "realization" that takes some painful prying (usually prodded by the belly laughs of folks I attempt to convince I've uncovered some hidden truth) to dislodge from my convictions. As a child, for example, I had heard about a "stampede of elephants" for the first time, shortly after having been introduced to the art of the "flying trapeze." For whatever reason those two words merged as one in my mind (stampede and trapeze) to convince me, rather unshakably for a while, that there were, indeed, flying elephants about. This probably also followed on the heels of watching "Dumbo," but I recall my poor parents doing their best to explain why I was mistaken without laughing.

I note this humiliating penchant to allow for the possibility I'm doing it again by assuming an association between two ideas I've recently encountered. The first was in a book published by the Century Foundation about how we must regain full use of the civil liberties that have been curbed in response to the terror attacks on 9/11:
Liberty Under Attack

Congress, including twelve Democratic senators, .... deferred to a president who in many ways has abandoned policies and principles that have served the country well throughout its history. General John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, put it well: “The U.S. has repeatedly faced foes in its past that, at the time they emerged, posed threats of a nature unlike any that it had previously faced. But the U.S. has been far more steadfast in the past in keeping faith with its national commitment to the rule of law.”

The second input comes from an article by The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl on the work of Chris Burden. In putting Burden's work into a historical context Schjeldahl suggests:

In pragmatic terms, art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities. Artists of the Duchampian sort delighted in effacing the boundaries, which, with increasingly avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements. It was a silly game, in the end. Ultimate limits were discovered, most pointedly by Burden, whose influence on conceptual and installational artists, to this day, is immeasurable. He defined art, in an interview in 1975, as “a free spot in society, where you can do anything”—anything, he might have added, that society will let you do. (Dennis O’Shea wouldn’t let him die.) Context is all. The complexity of Burden’s attitude became clear in 2004, when he and Nancy Rubins resigned their longtime teaching positions at U.C.L.A. to protest the university’s decision not to expel a student who, in a class, had played Russian roulette with a fake but real-looking gun, then had left the room and set off a firecracker in the hall. In a university, Burden said, “there are rules of speech and decorum.” Some disputants in the controversy, which dragged on for months, accused him of hypocrisy. He insisted on a cardinal difference between an act performed in an art space for an audience that had been warned and one sprung on students in a classroom.
Pre-dating these new additions to my mental database was a proposal by an artist for a piece in that involved shooting up the pristine white walls of some gallery with a machine gun. I told the artist I hope he gets to do that some day (implying "but it won't be in my space").

OK, so by now you're scratching your head and thinking "He's inhaled too much floor paint fumes," hasn't he? Possibly. But the notion Schjeldahl offered that "Ultimate limits were discovered, most pointedly by Burden," in art, combined in my head with the comment by General Shalikashvili that "The U.S. has repeatedly faced foes in its past that, at the time they emerged, posed threats of a nature unlike any that it had previously faced," to suggest to me that Schjeldahl is most likely wrong. Burden did not discover the ultimate limits. We simply can't imagine them at this point because they'll be of a nature unlike any that we've previously considered.

Which is not to be mistaken as a call for even more dangerous performances, mind you. (I would have smacked the Russian Roulette artist upside his head had he pulled that stunt on my watch, but that's more out of fear than anything else.) But the notion that physical danger is the ultimate limit strikes me as somewhat, well, limited. Yes, I agree that life is everything, and once that's gone, the rest is reduced to footnotes, but there are other boundaries beyond the physical endurance types (like the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical skill variety) that are still ripe for boundary pushing in my opinion. Burden's most infamous performances generally risked one, final, conclusion, but didn't permit for success to be measured within a physical achievement. He would either passively die or survive. But that ignores the third option: to actively thrive. The exclusion of that option is his work's greatest failing in my opinion.

But I'm getting off track. My question is whether or not it's ever possible to reach the "ultimate limit" of the imagination. If there's one lesson from history we should have learned it's that there's always some surprise in store for us. I fully understand Burden and even Schjeldahl's desire to dissuade young artists from continuing Burden's earlier explorations, but I thought the best argument for doing so was the one of context Burden offered, not the notion that the ideas therein have been exhausted. Surely that's more likely to encourage some young Turk to attempt to prove them wrong, no?

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26 Comments:

Blogger venbolta said...

Barry Le Ve had Philadelphia Police shoot up the walls at the ICA in 2005.

Libby wrote about it on theartblog...(you need to scroll about half way down to read about it)

5/11/2007 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It wasn't Barry I was talking with about that idea, but at least someone finally got the chance. I just didn't want to have to fix the walls. ;-) Besides, it strikes me as a bit of a one-liner.

5/11/2007 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

I think the imagination is limited by our physical reality and experience. But I also think or hope it is limitLESS due to the inevitable change in that physical reality or experience.

Could you have imagined this interaction via the web 20 years ago?

I find the actions of our nation's government, when it comes to terrorism or the environment, stems from a limited imagination due to our being physically and mentally cut off from the rest of the the world. My hope is that that can change. I think the entire American experiment to be incredible imaginative anf the rules of law that the General reminds us of sprang out of the entire human experience throghout all of history. The gubment's unimaginative shirking of those laws stem from the concerns of a very limited elite maintaining a shaky standard of living.

5/11/2007 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

My question is whether or not it's ever possible to reach the "ultimate limit" of the imagination.

Of course it's impossible. These limits you speak of are pliable and flexible. Limits stretch like a membrane over and around elements of the fitness landscape they occupy. If that landscape changes enough, the possibilities for and response to limitation change.

An analogue to your question would be is it possible to reach an "ultimate limit" of evolution. Again, of course not! A similar question with a "yes" answer would be: can a society stabilize long enough for functional momentary "ultimate" limits (mathematically referred to as "local limits") to be discovered. Absolutely!

An aside: don't worry about your style of thinking here as you collide disparate ideas. This is partially what I meant a couple days ago when I posted that artistic thinking is "integrated" rather than merely "visual": it's synaesthetic and hypermetaphoric. Spontaneous generation cross-topical metaphors via intuitive recognition of patterns in dynamics and relationships is one of the creative forces that drive science, art and philosophy. This is irrespective of whether the patterns are strictly visual, aural, tactile, abstract or some complex hybrid thereof.

5/11/2007 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

I found that New Yorker article really irritating. It's as if Schjeldahl had never heard of performance before. In my mind, Burden is pretty shallow, as you suggest. Especially in comparison to the layers of a Marina Abramovic performance (for example).

It's all about people with a lot of power not being hip with the program, being out of touch, being slower than the ranks below them, being sleepy, basically being stagnated by power.

5/11/2007 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ultimate Limit?

No, not possible.

Thanks to the Universe and Star Trek.

I learned quite young.

mls

5/11/2007 12:26:00 PM  
Anonymous anne said...

"to reach the "ultimate limit" of the imagination" ...

Let's not forget the ultimate and infinite language of the imagination - mathematics.

I highly recommend a book by Robert and Ellen Kaplan, 'The Art of the Infinite,' where they speak so clearly and helpfully about the beauty of mathematics, and its a priori nature (Kant).

Some important physicist (?) once said that he would have loved to have been a mathematician, but that he lacked the imagination.

It really seems to me that the majesty and infinity of the imagination is cradled in the arena of mathematics - a universal and human language.

5/11/2007 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Good post, Ed. Got me thinking...

Even when we have evolved to 'brains in vats', I am sure we will find some ways of manipulating the fabric that envelops us to produce new and varied visions of the future...

The advent of digital publishing and image manipulation changed art in so many ways. Video did the same to art some decades back. Low cost three dimensional printing will change sculpture in ways we cannot imagine.. Creation of gravity defying architectural forms is slowly taking off…

Ideas for art can range from the microscopic to the macroscopic.
At a micro level, artists may indulge in works that would be able to access; control and directly manipulate neurons in the heads of the viewer such that the artist could specifically tailor 'out of body' experiences in the presence of her/his art
At a macroscopic level, artists can manipulate clouds using advanced 'seeding' techniques to produce ephemeral large scale visual art that is accessible to whole populations for a short time to blowing up meteorites into programmed sizes to create outer space sculptures that really can’t be appropriated by anyone out here on earth... It is limitless and beautiful - which is the best aspect of art...

As far as the issue that General John Shalikashvili mentions, I hope and pray that future leaders do not repeat history over and over and over again...

5/11/2007 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

Hey Ed,
i really love that state where one links seemingly divergent ideas. Its such an exciting place to be. Sometimes I get that feeling when visiting different blogs. When I have the mental capacity and time to find correlations between different postings- its so fun!

5/11/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

Does anyone remember James Burke and his BBC show "Connections"? I loved that show!

5/11/2007 01:05:00 PM  
Anonymous cameradedios said...

If the universe is expanding so are ideas. The very idea that all of the ideas have been exhausted is what has led many artists, authors, morons and others to commit suicide. It’s an adolescent idea.
Chris Burden certainly pushed the edge of an envelope, but it was an envelope among and within other envelopes; all of which have proven to be quite elastic. I agree with you, Ed, the exclusion of the option to “actively thrive” is its lack. It is the same failure of imagination that makes an idea or life seem insupportable.
And whatever does Shjeldahl mean when he says that art is “the privileged zone of gratuitous activity”.? I disagree and feel that this assumption contributes to the solipsism of the times.

5/11/2007 07:18:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

Peter S lets his love of language cripple his ideas.

How can we run out of innovation since we have such short memories? I saw a show at Tom Solomon's rental gallery after seeing Wack at MOCA Geffen. The young artist at Solomon was doing a sweet, aestheticized photographic documentation of cross dressing and transexuality and probably thought the work was transgressive and totally revolutionary. The same work in rawer form was done forty years ago. Entire walls of it at the Geffen. Without memory all art becomes new again.

5/12/2007 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger Bryce Digdug said...

I like Burden a lot. He's not as cute as he was when he was shot. That piece brings to mind Saint Sebastian. As far as Burden at U.C.L.A., well...people grow older.

5/12/2007 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ml:

..memory....all art becomes new.

I like that!

mls

5/12/2007 01:05:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

Many vs Infinite:

thanks Lugosi!

5/13/2007 01:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Mike Waugh said...

Schjeldahl's idea that art is “the privileged zone of gratuitous activity” is pretty commonly held, the idea being that art patronage guides art – as it has for millennia. In the modern era, this idea is used to reduce art to a kind of philosophical “play” in which philosophical, moral, formal (etc.) beliefs are “tested,” at best, illustrated (and made accessible so that they can enter the zeitgeist) at worst.

But, Ed, I really thank you for your blog entry because it got me thinking of some connections.

I just finished a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and I’ve been thinking about the revolutionary ideas that exploded across the globe in the 18th century with the French and American revolutions. Before Jefferson, democracy was envisioned as merely overturning the hereditary nature of aristocracy (John Adams and Washington did not believe every citizen deserved a vote because the general population was too dumb). The real revolution happened with Jefferson, in which the abstract democracy held power not an aristocracy. One of the cornerstones of this Jeffersonian change was the evolution of the 4th estate, journalism, as the vital seed that empowered the voters to make decisions and limit the aristocratic pretensions of those in office.

So here’s my point: in a democracy, the rich and the elected are not supposed to hold the ultimate power, an informed public is supposed to wield that power. The “rule of law” referred to by the Leone article has been a phrase behind which the Bush administration has hidden because they have taken it upon themselves to interpret the rule of law, which is not their role ESPECIALLY when faced with “threats of a nature unlike any that it had previously faced” that the law did not foresee.

OK, so how does this relate to art, Burden, and Schjeldahl? Well, there may well be artists who merely produce work for rich patrons – just as there may well be journalists who cater to the ideology of their owners (read: FOX news) or their advertisers. Powerful people, governments, and corporations may well try to (and often succeed) at directing and limiting journalism. But that is in violation of our democratic system.

So it is with art: Powerful people, governments, and corporations may well try to (and often succeed) at directing and limiting art so that art merely reflects the tastes and beliefs of collectors. When this happens, art fails to serve what is supposed to be the seat of power: the people.

What is incredibly troubling to me is that the trajectory begun by the Duchampean impulse has been co-opted so that “avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements.” This means that many artists have become modern day court jesters, ridiculing or testing the limits of the norms set by the powerful – without challenging the basis of those norms and doing nothing to challenge the undemocratic consolidation of power in this country.

Wealth and heredity were supposed to have been replaced by democracy, by the people. If we hold this truth to be self-evident, then the patronage that artists should seek is not rich collectors but the democracy itself. I don’t think this has ever really been realized: serving the people does not mean making simpering public art. Serving the people should mean that art, like journalism, should help to expose the structures of power that can lead to the un-democratic entrenchment of that power. In the most banal sense, this could mean exposing the random nature of societal norms, shocking people into wakefulness. But once people are awake, a rigorous critique is not just necessary but required.

The problem in the arts, like in the rest of our society, is that the Jeffersonians never envisioned corporations or global capitalism. Just as this 5th estate (corporate capital) has shifted the balance of power in politics and in journalism, it has shifted the nature of patronage in the arts.

The struggle in the arts, in journalism, and in our daily lives is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power. Mere delight, mere beauty, mere effacement do nothing to serve the patronage of democracy.

5/13/2007 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/13/2007 06:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hopefully only about 1/20th of The struggle in the arts is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power, cause if not life would be boring as F**K !!!!!
( *-* )

5/13/2007 08:21:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/13/2007 08:44:00 PM  
Blogger aurix said...

mike waugh--i really like your comment. i agree with you and couldn't have put it more articulately.

at the same time though the issue becomes what 'art' is and what it should be. and i mean there are people who argue that art is about beauty, "pure" aesthetic pleasure, etc, not some sort of political instruments. i'd argue that art, ideologies, politics are always closely intertwined (i'm an art history major), yet after all these years, this idea of art as pure aesthetic pleasure still persists.

on the other hand, i'm not a visual artist but i'm a dancer and i've choreographed some stuff and in my experience the idea of art as above politics/ideologies is possible, maybe not exactly pure aesthetic pleasure but it's a form of pleasure that's very internalized and not related to power/institutions/knowledge. when i choreograph a piece i don't necessarily think about, say, institutionalized power and politics and i don't see it as my duty to try to "find a way to put checks on institutionalized power" through my dance piece, although sometimes i do that (or would like to do it).... plus dance is very abstract, and so it's hard to make, say, political commentary. and people always debate about "political" dance pieces and whether or not they work. and usually when they work the pieces aren't exactly dance but more like dance theater...

music, it seems, is another art form that encounters this problem. how do you put a check on institutionalized power through music?

so i don't know.. what does everyone think about this?

5/14/2007 03:50:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Bravo, Mike!!
Sadly you may be rejected as an outcast and regarded as old fashioned in today's world...

I had to reproduce your comment...

"This means that many artists have become modern day court jesters, ridiculing or testing the limits of the norms set by the powerful – without challenging the basis of those norms and doing nothing to challenge the undemocratic consolidation of power in this country."

"Serving the people should mean that art, like journalism, should help to expose the structures of power that can lead to the un-democratic entrenchment of that power. In the most banal sense, this could mean exposing the random nature of societal norms, shocking people into wakefulness. But once people are awake, a rigorous critique is not just necessary but required."

5/14/2007 07:11:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

This means that many artists have become modern day court jesters, ridiculing or testing the limits of the norms set by the powerful – without challenging the basis of those norms and doing nothing to challenge the undemocratic consolidation of power in this country.

Mike Waugh, thank you for this clear articulation. A few weeks ago, after a long afternoon in Chelsea, I found myself near tears with frustration. Since moving to NYC, I've increasingly begun to see being an artist in today's social structure as a vulgar and ignoble profession. You have articulated the observations that lead me to that perspective.

As you indicate, there exists a rising wall of challenges (via the 5th estate and economic realities) for visual artists should we wish to play a more significant role in society--other than that of jester.

What's the answer? I don't know. Personally, I'd love to find a group of peers interested in exploring a Jeffersonian style "citizen artist" and meet regularly. I want to do more than create luxury goods. I want to make art for my neighbors. An ad hoc congress seems in order here.

5/14/2007 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

newsflash the neighbors dont care about your art. art is only appreciated by a small % of the population it is not journalism

5/14/2007 01:15:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

newsflash the neighbors dont care about your art. art is only appreciated by a small % of the population it is not journalism

I was talking about poetry, not journalism.

Anyways, I didn't realize you were that close with all my neighbors. Thanks for making crystal clear the errors of my ambition.

5/14/2007 01:37:00 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

James,
I like your idea of a citizen artist movement. I like the idea of art with social message and art serving as a signpost for people. Not that my art is the greatest, but I have some ideas... Let us know if you take any steps in this direction... (swapsun@gmail.com)...

Mike's statement resonated with me strongly - of course, I still have to read Ed's part II of the same post, but I think you are really onto something...

5/15/2007 02:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

don't gilbert and george try to make art that is socially relevant?

5/17/2007 04:59:00 PM  

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