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The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics

The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics

by Susan Stewart

Poets often have responded vitally to the art of their time, and ever since Susan Stewart began writing about art in the early 1980s, her work has resonated with practicing artists, curators, art historians, and art critics. Rooted in a broad and learned range of references, Stewart's fresh and independent essays bridge the fields of literature, aesthetics, and


Poets often have responded vitally to the art of their time, and ever since Susan Stewart began writing about art in the early 1980s, her work has resonated with practicing artists, curators, art historians, and art critics. Rooted in a broad and learned range of references, Stewart's fresh and independent essays bridge the fields of literature, aesthetics, and contemporary art.

Gathering most of Stewart's writing on contemporary art—long and short pieces first published in small magazines, museum and gallery publications, and edited collections—The Open Studio illuminates work ranging from the installation art of Ann Hamilton to the sculptures and watercolors of Thomas Schütte, the prints and animations of William Kentridge to the films of Tacita Dean. Stewart's essays are often the record of studio conversations with living artists and curators, and of the afterlife of those experiences in the solitude of her own study. Considering a wide variety of art forms, Stewart finds pathbreaking ways to explore them. Whether she is following central traditions of painting, drawing, sculpture, film, photography, and printmaking or exploring the less well-known realms of portrait miniatures, collecting practices, doll-making, music boxes, and gardening, Stewart speaks to the creative process in general and to the relation between art and ethics.

The Open Studio will be read eagerly by scholars of art, poetry, and visual theory; by historians interested in the links between contemporary and classic literature and art; and by teachers, students, and practitioners of the visual arts.

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University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Phoenix Poets Ser.
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Essays on Art and Aesthetics

By Susan Stewart
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-77446-6

Chapter One

What kinds of chance does art involve? Chance composition has never struck me as convincing, since the kind of chance staged under such terms is a rather sentimental version of the overwhelming forces actual contingency brings to bear upon the making of artworks. A throw of the dice, it seems, could never abolish chance. This argument can be made on the basis of notions from nature, theology, or the unconscious-any will suffice.

At a closer look, I also have wondered how an example like John Cage's sortes consultation of the I Ching or the cutups of William Burroughs and Jackson MacLow truly exemplified composition by chance, since these artists worked within a finite domain of materials according to rules laden with much determining intention. When Cage would say that in the nature of chance composition is the contention that all answers answer all questions, or when he and others would claim that there was a certain selflessness in exercising chance composition, the ethics involved seemed paradoxically to arise from a determining, even colossal, willfulness.

My reaction stems somewhat from my conviction that art is not an experiment-for what would be the purpose of beginning to make art by controlling the uniformity of its objects and the circumstances of its method? If the function of experimentation is to replicate results, how could such replication be a motivation for art? But lately I have been thinking that my bias has kept me from taking seriously what might be important in the relation chance bears to composition.

As an example that raises some of these questions, let's consider a recent artwork that is also a collection. One day in 1985 the artist Tom Whiteside found on the ground in a Philadelphia neighborhood a playing card depicting the three of clubs. He decided to use it to begin a collection of a full deck of cards, all of which, he decided, would have to be serendipitously found in his path. He set down a rule that if he encountered more than one card on the ground, he would allow himself to take only two from the given site. It took four years for Whiteside to complete a deck of fifty-four cards -the usual fifty-two plus two jokers.

This meant that the world of chance encounters could not include the world of intended consumption-a card had to appear as the world so often appears, randomly and without attribution. What "counted" was the general identity common to all playing cards, regardless of their membership in a particular deck or kind of deck. No other quality of a card would be relevant, including its overall condition. In other words, "quality" was not a quality of the object. And the ongoing construction of the projected deck overrode the significance of any duplicate cards-thus, as in any obsession, a process was constructed for making the bulk of phenomena not count, while the selected phenomena became overdetermined.

The process of making this work was intentional, but open-ended in time and space. The collector lived in a state of constant suspense and anticipation-the cards to be used appeared without prediction and yet were selected nevertheless by an individual agency. In this sense, the collection was somewhat like children's car-trip games of "collecting" license plates from all fifty states or looking for letters of the alphabet in sequence on roadside signs. But Whiteside was gathering actual objects. The collection was like a bouquet, a whole larger than the sum of its parts. Yet it also was not like a bouquet, because it subscribed to a finite rule and system for its organization as a complete deck. In the end, it was created with regard to a future apprehension by those outside the collector's agency.

I thought of Hannah Arendt's comment that "to be alive means to live in a world that preceded one's own arrival and will survive one's own departure. On this level of sheer being alive, appearance and disappearance, as they follow upon each other, are the primordial events, which as such mark out time." Like all artworks that create alternative models of time, these cards were removed from realms of accident or disappearance and placed in realms of intention and appearance-and so reversed the finitude of our lived experience of time. That they and their maker will disappear (just as either might outlast the other, depending upon equally open circumstances) is part of what they encounter as appearance. In running the risk of never being completed within the lifetime of its maker, this collection took on the stakes of finitude in a particularly compelling way, but one we can only infer retrospectively once the collection is complete.

Some collections may be made in a race against time; this one seemed to be made in a walk with time. Because it was impossible to predict where or when one of the necessary parts of this collection might be filled, it unfolded within the space of everyday experience, and made that space something like the "infinite stochastic space" model of the cosmos. Thinking of this analogy, I have wondered if this work about intersection and coincidence did not in fact reverberate to the largest possible sphere of coincidence between lived experience and the total environment-that is, the noumenal environment beyond human senses, imagination, and understanding. The way in which we cannot answer this question repeats the circumstance of searchingness under which the deck of cards was gathered.

Here we see that openness to chance in composition is not the same as following "chance" procedures. And further questions arise. Are both openness to chance in composition and chance procedures aspects of collecting and of any art-making that is based upon collecting? All art is based upon the gathering and arrangement of materials, from those traditional arts forged from the raw materials of nature to salvage crafts to modernist readymades and collages. And this gathering, whether for the purposes of art-making or collecting, will proceed under terms of chance or luck. But the more cognitive and material resources a collector has (ranging from the Internet to traveling assistants who enable him or her to be in more than one place at a time), the less opportune and the more determined will be the collection. I would argue that the less luck, the less art-that the creative process is shut down by too much determination, shut down at the start of making and shut down at the start of reception.

Of course, my response is tied to the persistence of Romantic, particularly Kantian, ideas of the symbol and organic form, and an inherent conflict between the aesthetic and the purely cognitive. On the most powerful level, such ideas have to do with the status of the "unconditioned legislation with regard to ends" that for Kant is what human beings are-an end in themselves, with human being as the highest end of creation.

As early as Edward Young's 1759 "Conjectures on Original Composition," we find a negative comparison between composition by rule and the inspiration of genius. Modernist ideas of chance procedures in truth simply invert this negative comparison as a way of critiquing the supposed spontaneity of inspiration and at the same time acknowledging the socially structured aspects of consciousness and their displacement of individual intention. Yet if we look closely at Kant's discussion of genius, he emphasizes the rather contrary dual nature of the productions of artistic genius as being both original and exemplary or rule-producing-this is how "genius is the talent that gives the rule to art." It is something within the subject or maker that gives this rule to art-an aspect of his or her nature that cannot be brought forward by the will or articulated prior to production. Nevertheless, according to Kant's notion of a purposiveness without a purpose, the finished work has something about it that can be grasped and followed according to rules: "for something in it must be thought of as an end, otherwise one cannot ascribe its product to any art at all; it would be a mere product of chance." Such a work without end would be the cards Tom Whiteside did not pick up, including those that never crossed his path.

As art-making involves the animation of some aspect of human nature, so might the impulse to collecting be viewed as involving an animation of external matter. Making and collecting art both produce a dynamic relation between prior and later activities of ordering and gathering. But animation produces anxiety about containment, and both collections and artworks share a teleology toward finality of form.

Let me then simply list some remaining questions: do collecting and art-making take separate paths on the way to finality of form? A finished artwork cannot be added to or subtracted from-is this true of a finished collection? Does a collection create a whole that overwhelms its parts, or do its parts persist under quantifiable terms? At what point in the history of art, the history of aesthetics, and the history of consumption do art-making and collecting part or join ways? And if collections involve the arrangement of things but not the representation of things, and artworks also use things but transform them into representations of things, then what happens when an artwork becomes part of a collection or a collection is formed into an artwork?

Perhaps, in the end, we have rediscovered some of the differences between games and play under other terms. Games involve fixed rules and fixed outcomes. In play the rules are set out at the start and specific to the emerging actions of the players; the end is a matter of consensus, an often arbitrary stopping point. If chance composition works like a game, composing while remaining open to chance works like play. The stakes for making works of art are quite high. You're either in the game or you're not, and it's always possible to start again. In play, however, to stop too early is a frustration; to go over too far is a ruination.

Chapter Two

Does the concept of art do useful work, or is it now primarily a defensive political gesture?-this is the question we've been asked to consider. It suggests a separation between the concept and practice of art that I would like to take up and then reimagine in terms that separate the ongoing work of individual artists from the path of art as a whole. I assume the question raises the specter of "a defensive political gesture" because of the attack on art from within aesthetics-the death- or end-of-art argument we have inherited from Hegel-and the attack on art from without aesthetics-the ideological suspicion of art we have inherited from Plato, a suspicion that continues to underlie attacks on art from the standpoint of religion and the state.

I'd like to address both the internal and external attacks on art, and to talk about a collective framework for the arts in what I hope are neither defensive nor merely political terms by considering art's relation to ethics. My argument finds its source in the relation between aesthetics and aesthesis, or sense apprehension, and in the deep formal analogy between the face-to-face encounter between persons and the face-to-face encounter with artworks. To put my aims simply, I am interested in preserving persons from totalitarian systems of social control, including systems of nonconsensual time and technological development, and preserving artworks from speculative allegory. I believe that this task requires concepts of persons and art that strive toward the most general universality without a prior outcome in mind-hence a universality that precedes cultural choice-making. I imagine the ground for this precultural choice-making to be nature and the by-now-common concern for the future of nature. This concern is inseparable from our acknowledgment of finality of form in the world and a concern for living things coterminous with our own finite being. Following directly from Kant, I'll suggest that art is a domain for the exercise of nonteleological judgments-hence art's deep commitment to a practice that is truly practice, and that such aesthetic judgments provide a nonteleological paradigm for the ongoing work of ethics. In this way I'd like to pursue a concept of art that addresses the real consequences of metaphysical beliefs for thought and perception and that considers transformed conditions of thought and perception as occasions for transforming relations between persons.

So let's follow Kant in saying that art is a practice for its own sake and then ask what a practice for its own sake might be for. I believe that many of us who make and write about art have forgotten to ask such a question because we have not been patient enough to separate the two strands of the following formulation: at one level, instances of art practice can be in themselves and for themselves; at another level, the long historical development of art can have consequences that are not dependent upon the outcomes of particular works, either in their creation or reception.

To continue to confuse the particular activities of artists with the broader function of art in the development of human culture is to ignore artworks in their specificity and to foreclose the possible work of art in general. If function is indeed met by this long historical trajectory, then individual works, as Kant surmised, need not themselves bear the burden of purpose. Such works would precede cultural understandings of purpose and not be in pursuit of them. I see no reason to presume art is a cultural production; such a presumption tends toward a representative function for art and masks the ways in which culture is itself an aesthetic production. Separating the situation of individual artworks from the history of art in general also means that the demand to reconcile theory and practice is unnecessary, perhaps even untenable. As any working artist knows, art practice that proceeds under the shadow of theory is doomed to be mere allegory; and as any working aesthetician knows, theories of art bound to particular historical practices are doomed to apologetics. Here I am merely recapitulating, under other terms, Kant's well-known axiom that "concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind." For art to be of any use at all to us, there must be a tension between the actual circumstances of perception and the continuity of conceptual habits. Art theory has demanded of us a reverence for such habits as "things of the past" approaching a reverence for nature. And art theory has also, rather paradoxically, demanded of us an overthrowing of such habits, also as "things of the past," a demand in the shadow of the planned obsolescence of commodity culture. Yet whether theory demands reverence or denigration, the result is the same: a declaration of the death of art. Jay Bernstein has suggested helpfully in this regard that philosophy's constantly renewed announcement of the death of art can be read as a response to art's unstated assertion, by means of its animation of sense particulars, of the limits of philosophy.

We reach this fulcrum between the demands of art theory and art practice via another conceptual habit: the tendency when talking about aesthetics to conclude with "productive tensions," or "necessary dialectics," or notions of "interplay." Such a tendency seems to me to resolve the real tensions between sensual particulars and abstraction as if thought were the sole sphere of aesthetic experience. Instead I want to propose that what the practice of art in general might be for is the carrying forward of a practice of ethical encounters between persons. I say "might be" because I am viewing the history of art in a way that emphasizes such encounters, and I am going to suggest that art offers a potential sanctuary, a secular sanctuary, for such encounters in the future. Such an ethics is by definition both hypothetical and incomplete and yet perpetually realized under the finite circumstances of particular encounters-features it shares with aesthetics. I take seriously here the outcomes of art as a purposeless practice. This purposelessness is at the heart of what makes art a possible ethical sanctuary; far from removing art from the spheres of political power and importance, art's hypothetical and incomplete aspects are vital to both its conceptual freedom and its capacity to bear an ethical orientation.


Excerpted from THE OPEN STUDIO by Susan Stewart Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Susan Stewart is professor of English at Princeton University and a MacArthur Fellow. Her most recent critical study, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, received the 2002 Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism given by the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the 2004 Truman Capote Award for literary criticism. Stewart’s latest poetry collection, Columbarium, won the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Both books are published by the University of Chicago Press.

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