The Pensive Places of Where We are Now: Six Directions of Art Theory After the Postmodern

Posted: June 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Construction Chart #1, 1975

From the 80’s to approximately the mid’90’s art was attempting a working through of ideas propounded by the integration of a number of issues (deconstruction, originality, subjectivities, otherness, mediation) into the matrix of Postmodernism.  After the mid 90’s however a re-evaluation of several notions of postmodernism were either directly confronted and resisted, or altered and elaborated, to accommodate problematics of the systems that the integrated theory of postmodernism implied and the art produced within this project entailed.  Thinking and practices which came to have a large influence in art practice and theory of the last 10 years can be put down to:

Relational Aesthetics (Sometimes known as Participation theory, or Post-production theory) – though a bit circumscribed by Nicolas Borriaud’s thinking (who brought this notion to its 21st century position with his books Relational Aesthetics (pdf) and PostProduction (pdf)), this theory is a elaboration of the trajectory of thinking about the spectator being pivotal or primary to the creation of the individual art-work.  Begun by the Russian formalists in their notion of “making strange” to the viewer and ending with a social elaboration art postulated by the concept of Postproduction (Borriaud’s idea that art was produced in engagement with the work):  The core idea, with some leeway between the many thinkers’* who embraced this notion, is the artwork is only activated, or becomes, art through the  intervention of the viewer.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 1992

Inbetween theory – sometimes called Liminal or Third Space theory this direction of thinking continues the elaboration of our endlessly negotiated spaces and the social construction of reality and temporal subjectivity(s) which the postmodern moment instigated.  Intersubjectivity  is underscored as the activity which forms the representational systems which “transparently” (which means for these thinkers what society and language decide and is placed by social agreement as real) detail conceptual categories (objects and structure of the world) which are accepted as forming the world. This view wishes to highlight the activities which are compounded to construct personal awareness through the social negotiations. Underlining of the constructive aspect of society, the notion of the liminal attempts to make apparent the arbitrary, and hierarchically static, state of the system with the result being a conscious criticality of the individual towards the over-determined social arrangement.  This suspension, which constitutes the residence of the aware subject in a third space, creates the possibility of alternative and resistive sites to the normative evaluations which a society imposes upon system, ideas, and individual. Thinkers include Victor Turner (liminal), Homi Bhabha (third space (pdf) in the book The Location of Culture), and, gathering a renewed interest in the artworld, Hannah Arendt (The sphere of activity in the book The Human Condition)

Gift Theory – was to postulate an alternative circulation of the art object and discuss the notion of “cultural capital”.  In opposition to a market idea of the art object and the ideas gathered around the object in its monetary routes, Gift theory spoke of the circulations of non-reciprocal giving which the art object had and was carried out between itself and members of a social viewing group.  Culture Capital was the accumulation of ideas formed by the viewers and growing as discussion accrued and abounded around the object.  This alternative capital was to be a system of freely flowing ideas outside of the market and accumulation of monetary capital, and was to be see as a fundamental crux to understanding a culture and determining what it was.  Marcel MaussPierre-Félix Bourdieu and Georges Bataille are mainstay thinkers about this idea, but tied to this idea strongly was the concept of excess and flow (Nietzsche and Deleuze), as the ideas around the art object are continually expanding, forming and shifting within the culture, and so need be incorporated into this theoretical model.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Secession, 2008

Archive theory – the collection and organization of objects/image as a socially organized and constrained system was explored in this thinking. This direction of thought looked at the ideas we have of the world and how the archive is formed to reflect these ideas and contain them.  As the (1) Archive limits and constrains possible readings, (2) lays out explicit and implicit rules for what and how things fit into the archive, and (3) organizes how subjects are to conceptualize the aspect of the world the archive documents; thinking regarding the archive was a method to destabilize this in order to construct alternative archives and discursive potential.   This theory had ascendance in the art world from 2002 till approximately 2008 (Hal Foster, Foucault’s and Derrida’s thinking in this regard), and is now having a rebirth in interest, and its implications, in the contemporary art world.

Marina Abramovic, Freeing the Voice

Performativity Theory – This theory set has a diverse set of thinkers and art practioners behind it and therefore, though important, is more theoretically diverse than the preceding models.  Though initiated in art thinking by the theory of Judith Butler who conceived of this within a “after” post-structuralist feminism (The binary concepts of masculine-feminine should be abandoned for a purely performative construction of personhood (pdf-Gender Trouble) which is continual and never-ending) , Interactive, Performance, and Process Art had an earlier formative influence on this movement.  Performativity theory has as a core issue the integration of plurality and uninterrupted performance to produce individuals and ideas.  As each unique performance instigates drift (unless the performance is motivated to be repeatedly normative) transgression of theoretical and material boundaries (both must be performed constantly) will be incessantly encountered and detailed.  Awareness and confrontation of the continuous performance of both subjects and ideologies displays the underlying non-hierarchies and instabilities of which the world is formed and becomes a platform for interrogating experience and the self.

Sarah Charlesworth Figures, 1983

Affect theory – This is the most recent inclination in art practice and theory is used to supersede the constraint and rejection that postmodernism placed on “presence” and “immediate experience”. This notion conceives of an affective response to stimulation which is immediate and spontaneous. Because of this non-mediated response we may use this to evade the constraints of language containment, training, normalized thinking and have in experience unstructured and unique alignments to the world and thought.  This immediacy of reaction forms a grounding towards unique arrangements to elements of the world and can be used as a resistant strategy to authoritative ideologies.    Many theorists and thinkers have approached this from Deleuze (Cinema I and II, the Affective Image) to feminists such as Sara Ahmed.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Breitmore Series Roberta Construction Chart 2, 1975

How these theories are to amalgamate within the current directions in art, and what the historical and social assessments of these directions of thought will be, is still to be measured and discerned, even within the art community. The myriad and dispersed directions though follow the course of thinking which art, even its modernist manifestations, has moved towards in the contemporary era. To see and understand these movements and thinkers, and how they break or continue the trajectories of postmodernism, is to get a initial grasp on the diffuse, but meaningful, cloud of current art thinking.

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* Included also in Participation theory is the Situationists game of “Detourement” where the “spectator” was to follow rules to re-see and reconstruct the world; the notion of the death of the author (Foucault and Barthes) where the work was formed by the viewed creating a “text” which becomes the art object; and Duchamp with “the Creative Act” (1957).

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