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Bishop, Claire, and . Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics

2004, October 110: 51-79.

Summary: Bishop offers a critique of “relational aesthetics” – an approach to installation art that originated in the 1990’s and whose main proponent and interpreter was Nicolas Bourriaud. Bourriaud’s chief claim is that the art movement in question promotes intersubjective relationships (between artist and audience members and among audience members alike) and privileges social and political cohesion over other possible aspects of the aesthetic experience. While Bishop finds this ethos applicable to the work of the artists Bourriaud chooses to discuss (Rikrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick etc.), she finds it difficult to reconcile relational aesthetics with the realities and concerns of the larger artworld. Antagonism is for Bishop just as viable a driving force in the making and appreciation of art as are social cohesion and intersubjective togetherness. Furthermore, as the history of early performance art and its reception shows, what makes art difficult, and thus politically important, is precisely the tensions that the makers and theorists of relational aesthetics attempt to quell.

Comment: This text offers a good introduction to relational aesthetics. Best if read together with (some of) Nicolas Bourriaud's work on relational aesthetics.

Chari, V.K., and . Validity in Interpretation: Some Indian Views

1978, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36(3): 329-340.

Summary: An outline of the theory of interpretation within the language philosophies of ancient India. Chari organizes this extensive history according to topics such as verbal autonomy, intention, unity of meaning, polysemy, contextualism, and interpretation.

Comment: This text is appropriate for discussions of language and meaning in aesthetics, as well as philosophy of language.

Jones, Amelia, and . Art History / Art Criticism: Performing Meaning

1999, In: Performing the Body / Performing the Text. Ed. Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson. New York: Routledge. 39-55.

Summary: Jones’ essay offers a critique of philosophical and art-historical interpretation. Her main contention is that attributions of meaning in philosophical aesthetics and art criticism are traditionally a manner of top-down bestowal – i.e. artworks are rendered intelligible by certain pre-established and often institutionalized conceptual paradigms. In this, the often unstable meanings of art works themselves are not only inadvertently lost but often even intentionally stifled. To rehabilitate such meanings, and destabilize the homogenous discourses that try to contain them, Jones proposes a “feminist phenomenological approach… deeply invested in performing meaning.” What this amounts to is a newfound sensitivity to all aspects of art – the performative, physical, contingent, messy, gendered, theatrical, emotional etc. – that have been systematically marginalized by philosophers and art critics since Kant. There is, according to Jones, an intractable economy of desire that absorbs artistic creation into the cumulative enterprise of human interaction and, instead of sweeping it under the rug for the sake of stability, philosophers and art critics should engage this economy on its own tentative terms.

Comment: Useful in classes on art interpretation. Can inspire great discussions when read together with (parts of) Kant's Critique of Judgment.

Sigman, Jill, and . Self-Mutilation, Interpretation and Controversial Art

2003, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 27(1): 88–114.

Summary: Sigman studies outrage and offense in the art context. The first important observation she makes is that, often enough, the public’s recoiling from a piece of art comes with the assumption that the object of offense is interpretatively transparent. This is because in the absence of art-historical or theoretical wherewithal, we default to pre-conceptual reactions – fear of otherness, loss of our ethical bearings, low self-esteem etc. Since most historical offense-based arguments against art have made a claim that the particular work is demeaning to the public, Sigman carefully lays out the features of demeaning treatment – a mostly intentional act that treats persons as less than persons, usually in an abusive manner. On this description, very few artworks could be considered demeaning. Furthermore, as Sigman shows in her art-historical contextualization of artist Stelarc’s performance work Street Suspension, public outrage could be tempered and/or extinguished through attentive engagement with problematic artworks.

Comment: This is a thought-provoking text which can provide good background for a debate on controversial art. It is quite easy to read and features examples which make it accessible for beginners classes on aesthetics, art interpretation, the value of art, and modern art in general.

Sontag, Susan, and . Against Interpretation

2009, Penguin Modern Classics

Summary: Sontag mines the history of philosophical aesthetics and art criticism for the reasons why interpretation has held us under its spell for the last two millennia. One such reason is our insistence on the form/content dichotomy and the vestigial prioritizing of content in the way we talk about art. Another reason is the discursive, and thus political, control that interpretation enables. A third reason is our willingness to sacrifice our unmediated experience of an artwork, and our sensitivity to an artist’s intentions, for the sake of interpretative success. To counter these “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling” tendencies, Sontag proposes an “erotics of art” – a new emphasis on transparence, which favors description and appreciation over interpretation. This critical ethos does not only change the terms of conceptual engagement; it also opens the gates for creative approaches to art which explicitly challenge vestigial modes of meaning-making and meaning extraction. Even though Sontag does not specifically single any of these approaches out, performance art is arguably the most extreme of the potential candidates.

Comment: This text offers a seminal critique of art interpretation and should be included in any course discussing interpretation and criticism.