How Art Can Be Thought: A Handbook for Change

How Art Can Be Thought: A Handbook for Change

by Allan deSouza

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What terms do we use to describe and evaluate art, and how do we judge if art is good, and if it is for the social good? In How Art Can Be Thought Allan deSouza investigates such questions and the popular terminology through which art is discussed, valued, and taught. Adapting art viewing to contemporary demands within a rapidly changing world, deSouza outlines how art functions as politicized culture within a global industry. In addition to offering new pedagogical strategies for MFA programs and the training of artists, he provides an extensive analytical glossary of some of the most common terms used to discuss art while focusing on their current and changing usage. He also shows how these terms may be crafted to new artistic and social practices, particularly in what it means to decolonize the places of display and learning. DeSouza's work will be invaluable to the casual gallery visitor and the arts professional alike, to all those who regularly look at, think about, and make art—especially art students and faculty, artists, art critics, and curators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002185
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/09/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Allan deSouza is Associate Professor and Chair of Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has been shown nationally and internationally, including at the Phillips Collection, the Whitney Museum, the Centre Pompidou, the National Museum of African Art, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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While the rest of the glossary follows later, in alphabetical order, it seems only fitting to acknowledge and examine early the elephant on the page:

A typical popular definition of "art" may read something like this:

Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.

The definition leaves too many questions unanswered, not to mention that it doesn't apply to much of contemporary art.

To break it down into its component parts:


[Anything? Does it have to be a thing, that is, be an object with material form? This would exclude performance, conceptual, or digital work. If it is a video or film, clearly the "art" is more than the materiality of the videotape or the film reel, which is the apparatus for the art, and which can be accessed only through other viewing devices such as projectors — and I am not dismissing experimental film and video that emphasize the material properties of the medium.]

that is created

[What does it mean to create? Presumably it means more than "fabricate" or "build," since these can be performed by assistants, including highly skilled ones.]

with imagination

[In "created with imagination" is the object the manifestation of, a product of, or a translation from imagination? How do viewers measure the degree of imagination? How much is imagination tied to ideas of "newness," of conceiving something that didn't preexist? Is artwork necessarily linked to the new? How do we evaluate parody, appropriation, collage, assemblage, the readymade, the restaging, and the critical, which are not dependent on newness or even on imagination in any conventional sense? Imagination suggests an interior source, whereas art might proceed from external, mechanical, mathematical, linguistic, social, or interactive processes.]

and skill

[If the work is skillfully made by an assistant, do we still attribute skill to the artist? Does the application of skill elevate the artisan to the artist? If the work is a readymade, is skill attributed to the manufacturer? Is skill simply a learned and well-practiced method? Is skill defined only as physical rather than mental abilities? Is "badly made" work not art? Does intervention performance require skills?]

and that is beautiful

[Who decides what's beautiful, with what criteria and measures? Is beauty absolute, or relative? Is there a spectrum from beauty to ugliness, and is the ugly no longer art? Are some artworks more beautiful than others?]

or that expresses

[What does it mean to express? Presumably not like breast milk?2 Or perhaps that is exactly the meaning we want, a bodily humor that leaks out into the world?]


[Who judges, and what is or isn't important? According to what criteria and what timeline? Does importance change over time?]


[Any ideas? Are some better than others? How do we track what the ideas are when we look at an object or event?]


[Why not and rather than or, ideas and feelings? Is there a hierarchy between the two?]


[Were these experienced by the artist before or while making the work? Are these to be experienced by the viewer? How do we know if these same feelings are experienced by different viewers? How do feelings change over time or after repeated viewing? How do feelings change according to the setting and conditions in which the work is experienced? Is there a required intensity of feeling? Does it matter if the feeling is fleeting or enduring? Do any feelings count? Rage, hatred, anger, disgust ...? If work appeals only to the intellect, with no apparent response of feelings, does it make it not-art?].

* * *

One could continue, ad nauseam, with such questions. The point is that for the most part we don't really know what we're talking about because such definitions of art produce so many variables and unanswered questions. If discussions of art proceed from only these kinds of definitions, we would operate only on the presumption that we know what we are experiencing, what we are talking about, and the presumption that others have the same incommunicable experiences and understandings.

For a moment, let's consider other attempted definitions:

• Art is nature as seen through a temperament. — Camille Corot

• Art is either plagiarism or revolution. — Paul Gauguin

• Art does not reproduce what is visible; it makes things visible. — Paul Klee

• Art is vice. You don't marry it legitimately. You rape it. — Edgar Degas

• [Art is] ... a man's timid attempt to repeat the miracle that the simplest peasant girl is capable of at any time, that of magically producing life out of nothing. — Oskar Kokoschka

• It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident. — Theodore Adorno

• You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition. — Marcel Duchamp

• Art is probably the only thing that doesn't need a reason to exist. — Lawrence Weiner

• To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry [sic] — an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of [the] history of art: an artworld. — Arthur C. Danto

• A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld). — George Dickie

• The point of art is not the exposure of the truth but the creation of public situations for reimagining reality. — Nikos Papastergiadis

• The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist. — Nicholas Bourriaud

• Once we accept the simple fact that the work of art is produced by a human being who has been socialized by family, school, religion, and the media, then it can take its place in the larger range of human production and be seen as a reciprocating device in the social mechanism, caught up and determining the dynamics of change itself. — Albert Boime3

In these desperately inadequate attempts (all written by men, mostly Euro American), some common themes emerge:

1. Art as indefinable

2. Art as mediated nature

3. Art as unmediated expression of the (male) artist's interiority, a process sometimes equated to a woman giving birth (not far behind this is the conviction that since women can/should give birth, they can't/shouldn't make art)

4. Art as masculine enterprise and conquest

5. Art as cultural, social practice.

The first theme maintains that art is perennially mysterious and enigmatic, that its affects cannot be quantified or put into words. This mystery is a necessary prerequisite for (en)forcing the separation of art from the realms of political, social, and cultural practices. Art's ostensible separation from economics is paradoxically what gives it economic value. Thus removed, and made autonomous, art is conceived as the product of isolation, genius, even divinity.

The second and third themes are archaic but still operative in less gendered form, and will be addressed throughout the book.

The fourth theme (overlapping with those previous), that art is a masculine enterprise (with craft as its feminine counterpart), remains both overtly and covertly resilient. This is comparable to the similarly resilient proposition of art as a racialized European enterprise, with everything else as artifacts of ritual or of the "natural." Degas's jarring quote to the effect that art is rape is hardly an isolated example, and speaks to art as a dominating practice. Art history is lousy with artworks and careers built on (sometimes highly aestheticized) violence depicted or enacted upon the female body as metaphor for the (male) artist's interiority, and his musings on religion, politics, and the nation. Beyond muse, the female body may be the instrument of production (see, for example, the "living brushes" of Yves Klein's Anthropometries of 1960).

One of the problems any potential discussion of art faces is when participants hold to only the four first themes, or in holding to them to some degree, find themselves conflicted in how or even whether to discuss art.

It is the fifth theme, art as a cultural, social practice, that enables art to be brought into language and to be investigated and discussed. This forms the core of this book, that art comprises forms of knowledge of being in/with the world, which I distinguish from knowledge about the world. I'm not trying to make a case for art as objectively verifiable information about the world; for that we might better look to the sciences, although it is worth recalling Aimé Cesaire: "Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge." While Cesaire is speaking to the disciplinary project of European rationalization, aka the enlightenment, I'm pointing more narrowly to art providing different kinds of knowledge, within science's gaps of how to be in and with the world. My use is similar to how Kobena Mercer references art as manifestations of "aesthetic intelligence embodied in actual works of art as objects of experience."

While art is coded knowledge, generated and interpreted through learned and historicized disciplines and media, an artwork is a manifested "object of experience," of being in/with the world from the very particular perspective of an artist's historicized, embodied, located, enculturated subjectivity. Viewers engage this complex of perspectives with their own similarly complex subjectivities. [#Authenticity]

* * *

Contemporary art is expansive enough that artists can work across m/any disciplines, including law, anthropology, dance, tourism, cartography, nanotechnology, bioengineering, and so on. Not only do artists play out the assertion that anyone can be an artist, but they put into practice that artists can be anyone. An important consideration across any medium and discipline is how art "comes into being." This can occur through a multiplicity of manifestations, practices, and functions: individuals and groups constantly amass data through multiple means, including experience, surveillance, research, investigation, imagination, and memory. We store, decipher, categorize, translate, reconfigure, speculate, forecast, endure, replay, act upon, and are acted upon by these through complex bodily, emotional, intellectual, material, social, political, technological, and virtual systems. Any of these activities, in any combination, and the gestures and forms they produce might be what we inadequately call "art."

This is another way to say that art is anything and everything. This provides rich potential, but it doesn't really help as a definition. Slightly less expansive (and without judging which are "better"), are a number of working possibilities: artworks are design elements and spatial enhancements, affective encounters, sensory and ethical triggers that can be both activating and placating, transformation devices, identity and communal markers, cultural values and ritual practices, archives of the contemporary and of the historical, provisional meaning systems and social interventions, entertainment and touristic attractions, luxury goods and status markers, stock options and liquid assets, tax breaks and trade goods, and histories of imagination, thinking and making; objects and acts that help us create and allot meaning, that define us to ourselves, that define us in opposition to others; vessels and conveyances that paradoxically direct us toward the uncontained and uncontainable; and practices that we believe (and hope) can aid us toward understanding and insight, that connect us to each other, to transcendent experiences, and to "higher powers."

Only some of these possibilities might be widely considered as art, and others are popularly rejected. They are all social practices, with political and material consequences, processes that are always in flux, impermanent functions even as they are invested with the semblance of permanence, always being tested and adjusted, always responsive to codependent factors and forces. The designation "art" itself is a political naming, with choices made by artists, galleries, and viewers (or producers, distributors, and consumers) based on vested interests. Those interests need investigation for us to understand why and how certain forms of art are recognized and valued over others.

These beginning considerations of what art does are still too expansive for everyday use, but they begin to allow for a discussion of what specifics we may mean when we talk about "art."

Here is one commonly encountered response, especially from students: "Art is whatever I say it is." Invoking professorial authority, I could counter, "No, whatever I say it is." This idea of "whatever" is alluring precisely because it mirrors the claim to autonomy that is one of modernism's foundational mythologies. Autonomy of the artist, autonomy of art, the artist as originator, as (de)terminator — Austrian accent optional. This individual "right" to self- definition and self-determination is a defining, almost national characteristic of America, and of the global capitalist economy. However, while the artist can make a case for why it is art, it is accepted as art only when there is a collective agreement that it is. To begin to think through the individualist stance, we can take another starting point for defining art:

Proposal and/or action and/or object, plus discourse.

"Proposal and/or action and/or object" refers to the prior "whatever I say it is." But it is the more collective and historicized "discourse" (with marketing as an increasingly prevalent component) that determines whether it becomes art or not.

Art is identified and defined through discursive and theoretical models, and not by simply encountering it. For example, if a dominant theoretical model defines art as primarily a mimetic practice, then abstraction will be considered only as inept (childish and/or primitive and/or the result of insanity), or as a hoax. A theoretical understanding of art has to (and did) shift from art imitating reality to art creating its own reality through new forms and new ways of looking. [#Theory] We can trace similar shifts:

• Art depicting realities beyond the tangible and reason-regulated (Surrealism)

• Art depicting interior realities (Expressionism)

• Art creating new realities through already existing forms (collage and readymades)

• Subsequent shifts have brought into question our grasp of and access to reality through questions of mediation and collective participation (institutional critique and social practices)

• Other shifts (postmodernist, feminist, postcolonial, queer) have brought into question those subjectivities (whether of artists, critics, patrons, or viewers) that have historically laid claim to describing and projecting their particular experienced reality as universal truth.

In other words, theory as a tool for examining and imagining our experience in/with the world needs to continuously adapt as the world itself changes and is changed. This is not to suggest a causal relationship that theory leads the way and that art follows. Art itself functions theoretically (through and beyond its own materiality), and has theoretical and material effects on other art, with further effects through its interpretation and translation into verbal language (much of what we identify as art industries is formed around these functions).

"Whatever I say it is," then, is paradoxically a stance that is itself collectively enabled.

* * *

Returning to the earlier equation about what art is, or does (proposal and/or action and/or object, plus discourse), we would need to account for a priori experience and information, the grounding discourses from which the artistic proposal or action derives, and the discourses and practices that direct the viewer and viewing. Thus:

Discourse, proposal and/or action and/or object, plus discourse.

We can push further this temporality by suggesting that an artwork is in process of becoming (and I include gesture within this). In the equation, replacing "proposal" with "process" removes the narrative sequence between "proposal" and "action" and suggests that the process constitutes the work rather than it being only a consequence of a preceding thought or action. Process locates the work as performance by an embodied subject or a group of subjects, regardless of medium. Process emphasizes "becoming," and the potential for ongoing meaning-in-the-making; therefore:

Discourse, plus process and/or object, plus discourse.


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Table of Contents

Image Notes  vii
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. A Foot in the Door  1
1. How Art Can Be Thought  21
2. Entry Points  35
3. How Art Can Be Taught  57
4. Critique as Radical Prototype  67
5. How Art Can Be Spoken: A Glossary of Contested Terms  85
Afterwords. How, Now, Rothko?  365
Notes  283
Bibliography  303
Index  309

What People are Saying About This

Steven Nelson

How Art Can Be Thought compellingly interrogates the art world's languages of difference and its educational apparatuses in order to understand how they are deployed and how we can turn them on their sides to effect a decolonization both of art and art pedagogy. With Allan deSouza's incisive strategies for creating change, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in increasing meaningful diversity and inclusion in art and its institutions.”

Tania Bruguera

"A lexicon of contested terms, a new glossary to navigate our artistic practice, is a needed first decolonizing exercise in all art schools. This book will bring you an insightful landscape of what we should address today.”

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