Art, Theory, and Infancyby Joachim Pissarro
During a job search at a prominent university about 20 years ago, a search committee decided not to appoint a scholar in non-Western art despite the fact that, all agreed, this person surpassed in knowledge, field research, languages, and publications almost all (few) contenders in the field. The rationale of the decision was pithily expressed by a member of the committee: “He doesn’t have enough Theory.” Something strange was occurring in American academe. (This was the 1990s.) The very campuses (mostly through the agency of comp lit departments) that had propelled an ideological revolution in the early 1980s by opening up the canons of literature, philosophy, and critical thinking to a roster of authors (mostly French—see Weinberg’s essay and his reference to T. J. Clark’s just quip about Theory being “a French disease”) having been responsible for propelling new modes of thinking, and new criteria and systems of reference, were now foreclosing any possibility of thinking outside this new other system. The very system of values that had been promoting thinking in a constant state of agility and criticality, encouraging opening up to the “courage” of thinking through difference (or différance), critiquing “the violence that founds philosophy” and all humanities (Spivak referring to Derrida) were now ossifying into a doxa (see Shiff’s essay). The “heterogeneous games of language” (Lyotard) were giving way to a singular, monotonous, and monolithic code. The corridors of departments of humanities sounded more and more as though they were inhabited by Narcissus and Echo—once Theory’s privileged mythical target of critique: the horror of the self resembling the self was now de rigueur. And the “subaltern talk” (the voice of those never heard) was no longer the voice of difference—seeking to be heard—but that of the miserable fellow whose erudition was belying fatal lacunae in “Theory.” Theory had now lost its state of infancy, having risen from a “subaltern talk” into an imperious talk—from silence to that of reducing to silence those who were lacking in its rhetorical skills.
Today, the situation is different. While we count substantial theoretical and practical gains harvested through the era of “deconstruction,” the monolithic grip of a singular notion of “Theory” has largely disappeared—pace October. Ironically enough, the situation has developed into a strange and almost unnamable field: Theory is to today’s art world what sugar is to a bowl of sweet hot milk; it is felt everywhere; yet cannot be located anywhere. I am certainly not suggesting that people no longer read Foucault, or Derrida (see Jaskey’s essay); and I join several of the contributors here (see Shiff, Singerman, Weinberg, and others) in continuously relishing Barthes’s inimitable prose (although no one mentioned Le plaisir du texte, nor Fragments d’un discours amoureux, my personal favorites).
Through the past decades, we have gone a long way on the trajectory of what Weinberg calls “identity-based art.” Yet, one field has remained relatively untouched: infants. Etymologically, in-fans means that who has no voice. “In-fans” (in Latin) has exactly the same root as “a-phasia” (in Greek): no speech/loss of speech—an ailment Baudelaire and de Kooning both died with. Out of all “subaltern talks” blazoned throughout the 1980s, one left out is the (no-)voice of infancy—those, literally, with no voices.
So, I suggest now to turn from the infancy of theory to a (possible) theory of infancy.
On the whole, childhood has offered a premise to, or an instrument toward something else. Michael Asher offered a noteworthy precedent in the Michael Asher Student Reinstallation Project in 2004 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A group of 12th graders from Fairfax High School were given a free room, under supervision from the museum’s curatorial team, to hang a portion of LACMA’s collection generally not on view to the public. The walls, as I recall, were painted in deep purple; I remember a Magritte painting being hung upside down, and works and objects hung from the ceiling. The exhibition departed from what one expects to find on a routine museum journey, and made you look at things differently—but I could not quite ascertain what either the curator/artist, Asher himself, nor the students, intended to do, although I do remember staying in this exhibition for much longer than I expected, and being mesmerized by the whole experience.
More recently in 2012, the year Asher died, an innovative curatorial program called uCurate was launched at the Clark Art Institute; it enabled any visitor to have access online to its exquisite museum collection (comparable to the Frick, or the Norton Simon Museum) and to grapple with its works of art as a curator would: organizing it, displaying it, curating it as one wishes.
The first curator selected through this uCurate democratic online program was Giselle Ciulla. I suspect that few readers of the Rail will know who she is. She was then 11 years old. I was astounded at the “professional” aspect of her exhibition. She was given, we’re told, free rein on almost everything, and thus possibly became the youngest curator. Here is an example of the labels she wrote (on Homer’s “Sleigh Ride”): “I like how the only thing is the sleigh, like nothing else is alive, just the horse and the rider.” To most viewers who would not have read the didactic panels, it would have been difficult to know that the curator was not a professional, let alone an 11-year-old.
In both cases, Asher and the administration of the Clark Art Institute looked to adolescents to “curate” an exhibition—although for diametrically symmetric reasons. In Asher’s case, this was an obvious case of “institutional critique” (and there would be so much to talk about); symmetrically, in the case of the Clark Art Institute, this was a case of “rejuvenating” its image, as one media put it, and projecting a “young” look.
But, I would like to conclude with an example (among many possible others) of—not children—but infants having a go at art. I have learned a great deal from the practice of Jenna Bauer, an artist who recently earned her M.F.A. from Hunter in 2013. Bauer intertwines her own practice as a painter with her “day job” as a pre-K school art teacher.
Bauer is courageous. As an artist. As a teacher. As a mensch. Her work with these infants (between 24 and 36 months) is best characterized by what it is not: it is not condescending; it is not instrumental; it is not patronizing; it is not self-aggrandizing (her prints disappear underneath the chalk drawings of her students); it is not controlled; it is not seeking publicity.
But it is: beautiful.