How it Appears
You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap!
The question of making or talking about art is really one of how to engage with the world, to deal with everything from watching sunlight move across a lawn to having sex on the kitchen floor. Given this expansive definition I find it is most useful to understand art as a form of playing: a special kind of social behavior. Art historian Johan Huizinga wrote about play as a foundational cultural force, or a “significant form” (using Clive Bell’s term for art) that “stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites.”Most importantly, playing relies upon an agreement within a group in order for its action to have meaning. There is no game or fun if we refuse to play along; everyone involved has to be wholly invested, just as a painting must be looked at in order for it to have a purpose. When we become pessimistic about the art world it is helpful to think of it as a playground: nothing more or less than a number of people who care about art, and, on some level, want to be there. That fact alone should give everyone some feeling of generosity.
When Huizinga says play “adorns” life, he is calling on metaphors like those used to discuss “style”—elements that embellish. Sontag famously wrote, “Practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside,” but “it would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor.” Far from being superfluous, she shows there is no outside of the appearance of things. When Dolly Parton, for instance, performs the iconic version of herself with wigs and big fake breasts, the way she looks is not trivial decoration, not separate from her “meaning,” but the very joyous medium through which she communicates her artistry. To this extent, making or writing about art is similarly an aesthetic performance unto itself, the totality of which is style, i.e. how the object or the text reveals itself to you. A particularly beautiful example of this intersection, where artwork and criticism work together, attending to the disclosures of “object to viewer” and then “writer to reader,” is Frank O’Hara on David Smith’s sculptures: “They present a total attention and they are telling you that that is the way to be. On guard. In a sense they are benign, because they offer themselves for your pleasure. But beneath that kindness is a warning: don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial and don’t be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.”
The advice O’Hara gets from these sculptures is something everyone should listen to now, paying close attention to how he gets it and then shares it with us. Huizinga describes play as “outside the range of good and bad,” subject to judgment only according to its own logic, a principle I think would move art criticism along quite a bit.
“Evaluations” of art filled with fiery declarations are very fun at parties but are always provisional and not nearly as meaningful to the ongoing conversation as saying something that tries to open up fresh understanding.
What is thoroughly uninteresting about the majority of writing happening right now, both scholarship and criticism, is its predictability and artlessness: CAA papers and magazine reviews are both written in the generic language of the press release, an easy style born of commerce. Overwhelmingly, this approach to making, showing, and discussing art is NO FUN, which really comes out of the problem of people making a living. Imagine if everyone who wrote art criticism had the goal of playfully disturbing and delighting their smartest and most interesting friends: the art world would be in much better shape. We might all actually want to read what was being said about art, and relish its delivery, instead of slogging through the requisite magazines as a kind of professional duty. “Play to order,” Huizenga tells us “is no longer play”; this is precisely the art world’s transition from intellectual and aesthetic playground to routine work space. The postmodern generation got everything it asked for but nothing it wanted.
One of the nicest things about our present moment is seeing everyone nervous because they don’t know what’s coming next. Artists and writers should obviously be able to make a living (which we all hope to do) but not at the loss of freedom or joy or real looking and thinking that an atmosphere of commercial machinery demands. For me and my friends the future of art lay in delighting and disturbing each other, and in using that as a way to actively—playfully—make sense of being in the world. Whether these conversations will happen within the institutions that have erected themselves around “art” for the last half century is another matter—perhaps art and its interesting discourses will have to slip out the back doors, exist someplace else for a while, letting the corporate leviathans consume themselves.
JARRETT EARNEST is an artist and writer living in New York. He is a co-director of the art space 1:1 located in the Lower East Side, and is presently at work on a book of images and text about the aesthetics of intimacy.