Reading Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet!

This post is prompted by a question my friend, Louis, asked on Facebook yesterday:

I’ve written about the Orly Crash and the significance that tragedy has had on the development of Atlanta’s arts communities for Burnaway.

Here’s my response to Louis and I thank him for prompting me to write this down.

Depending on what you are trying to ask we may be able to support a couple of answers with the evidence available to us.

If you’re asking if we can be supported in claiming that Warhol’s painting has exploited a tragedy, then I think we can affirm that reading.

We can also refine your question and in so doing we are opened onto a few other ways of receiving the image.

We could also ask, “In what ways does Warhol’s painting here demonstrate his reception of image-making practices in the modern era?”

With this question we can then muster the resources of the history of painting (especially focusing on the period from the advent of photograph to the period in which Warhol made this).

If we look at the development of “modern painting” as a tendency to demonstrate how a human (specifically a painter) makes a kind of image that cannot be replicated by a machine (specifically a camera), then we can arrive at some, I think, really interesting ideas about art, technology, and representation.

Let me begin by making a claim about the impulse toward modern painting in general. What we see in the development of painting, from the late 19th century to Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet!

From the Renaissance through to the development of photography there developed a body of thinking about the nature of what we call “art” today. Keep in mind that this term has not existed in a vacuum and from the earliest days of “European” thought the concept of art was intimately related to another vexing word, “technology.” For the ancient Greeks the word tekhné would most closely resemble what we mean by “art” today, but they are not the same words and it’s important to give a brief outline of what tekhné (from which we get words like “technique” and “technology”) entailed for those Greeks back when. I’ve written about this topic for the Swiss exhibition at the London Design Biennale this summer

Tekhné referred to a type of knowing, a savoir-faire, that not only meant the person could manifest the vision they had in their heads, but also that the effect they caused, the thing they made, also had the potential to undermine another person. A gifted artisan using their tekhné could create an exquisite duck decoy, say. In order to create a useful decoy, the artist had to know quite a lot about how ducks are in the world. With this knowledge, the artist can trick the duck and thereby the hunter can successfully acquire their prey.

Into the early 20th century we could encounter, in Europe and “the West,” the term beaux arts and this phrase continues to linger with us today when we mark the distinction between arts and crafts and “fine art.” There has been the need to distinguish beaux arts from other arts, like the mechanical arts (see, for example, the wonderful Musée des Arts et Métier in Paris); that is, the technical arts. But of course, artists are also engineers in the sense that artists of course deploy a variety of techniques and technologies to resolve a variety of problems.

In the Renaissance era and through the Enlightenment period artists were often a kind of scientist, creating techniques and technologies to help render the world around them more sensible to observers. The development of linear perspective, tenebrism—frankly, the entire “science” of Anatomy arises from folks we today would call artists who were trying to find ways to represent the observable world with the greatest fidelity. In the Renaissance, again, an artist was one part mason and one part painter when creating frescoes. They were as likely to be hired for their ability to create life-like simulations of their patrons in portraiture as they were to be able to design an architectural space that showed the people of the region how great the artist’s patron was (often by representing the patron hanging out with deities).

Tenebrism, linear perspective, trompe l’oeil, these are the techniques that visual artists (specifically painters) developed to lend the greatest fidelity of representation to the observable world. That is, the techniques for realism are the techniques for illusionism. 

The academic style of painting that the avant-garde artists sought to break from required that the painter disguise as much as possible any traces of mark-making by the artist. The canvas should act as a kind of portal that the spectator could imagine stepping into and being transported into this other world.

Painting became the medium through which History was to be recorded. Here begins the crisis of representation, which is not only a crisis in painting, but also in political theory. Consider Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801):

By Jacques-Louis Davidkb.dk pic, Public Domain, Link

Napoleon is shown on a fiery steed, but in truth he crossed on a donkey. No matter for the folks of the time, the Spirit of History required that Napoleon be represented in this grand manner because of the magnitude of his actions on the course of human affairs. But it is a lie.

With the advent of the camera History no longer requires humans to be its recording agents. The advantage of the photograph (although this isn’t initially how it was received) is that it records the way that light falls upon subjects, the image we see is, we are told, objectively how the world appeared at that moment. Ask any artist what genre of painting they are most likely to sell and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts they will concede that they are much more likely to sell portraits and landscapes than they are to sell pure abstractions. The camera, then, presents a real dilemma for the portrait-making artist because the camera can more rapidly make that portrait than the painter. Furthermore, thanks to the development of printing technologies, there also exists a machine that will reproduce, with greater speed and fidelity, that same portrait so that the customer can send a copy to everyone in the family tree. The camera and these printing technologies induce a kind of existential crisis for painting. A veritable steam engine vs. John Henry moment.

Is it any surprise, then, that we see the development of impressionism as there is this increase in the use of photography? Impressionism moves away from the academic style of painting that requires that the painter hide their brushwork, and, by flaunting their paint strokes, makes the viewer aware that what they are viewing is artificial. What the impressionist painting, in effect, states is that only a human painter to create images that speak to the fidelity of the human experience of a moment. Sure, a camera can show us how light fell on subjects at a specific moment, but only a Van Gogh can show us a human’s impression of a moment. The camera objectively records the external world with fidelity; but the human being, through artifice, can present the inner workings of a spirit or psyche.

From the late 19th century forward we see painters increasingly occupied with painting as the primary medium for human expression of one’s inner life. What do humans in the early 20th century express? Their sense of being lost in a sea of mass produced objects and printed images. Increasingly humans find themselves alienated from their work (through the assembly line), from their neighbors (with the move to urban areas), and from themselves (with the development of psychiatry).

Berlin Street SceneErnst Ludwig Kirchner (1914) – Scanned by uploader from the catalog: Deborah Wye, Kirchner and the Berlin Street, New York, MoMA, 2008. ISBN 9780870707414., Public Domain, Link

With the development of Cubism we see a significant painterly response to the proliferation of printed objects in the human environment. The collages of Braque and Picasso show us artists metabolizing mass print culture into a beaux arts context. With Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) we are led to accept that it is the surface of the image, no longer representational fidelity and illusionistic perspective, that matters for humans making art. It is in the superficial that we can find the deeper truths of our inner lives.

The newspaper, once the tool through which democratic representation could be secured, by the early 20th century had become the site of constant phantasmagoria. Unlike the novel, which we read from left to right, top to bottom, the newspaper is disjointed and places stories of one’s neighborhood next to stories about Timbuktu, sports scores, and society gossip. To read the newspaper in the same way as a novel is a schizophrenic affair. The fundamental conceit of the newspaper is that the reader must imagine themselves as a small water drop in a torrential historical flood. Everyone, everywhere, communicating with one another and no one has a better sense of the world than anyone else.

By the time Warhol embarks on his Death and Disaster series several generations of humans have been enculturated to accept the near-constant barrage of images from far-away places and too-horrible-to-comprehend situations. 129 Die in Jet! isn’t the first painting to comment on the loss of intelligibility in the modern era, but it is a very explicit and plain statement about the crisis of representation at the heart of Modernity. Warhol’s painting exists not as a comment on the horrific scene, but leads one to question the cruelty of a constant flow and reproduction of death in the daily media consumption of the times.

One could argue that the development of media like the slasher genre, as we’ve seen from Larry Rickels, and perhaps Warhols’ Death and Disaster series have been propagated as a therapeutic response to the horror of contemporary life. Following Rickels’ thinking on the matter, we gladly consume images of cruelty and absurd violence as entertainment in preparation for the absurd cruelty of our own lives. I’ve written about this in my discussion of AMC’s The Walking Dead and why that show had to be set in Atlanta.

Rather than reading 129 Die in Jet! as simple exploitation of a tragedy that impacted all those families, Warhol’s painting also opens us onto the horror of living in a society that simply cannot stop itself from revisiting and reproducing absurd violence. Although 129 Die in Jet! might be read in this manner, we cannot ignore that the reproduction of cruelty in itself is not an antidote to the ongoing horror of being alive. We can look to Gerhard Richter’s paintings of photographs of the Baader-Meinhoff Group, 18 October 1977 (1988) to see the continuation of the problems that Warhol is exploring in his paintings. Please watch Robert Storr’s discussion of Richter’s paintings here.

Man Shot Down 1, Gerhard Richter (1988) via the artist’s website

Modes of Knowledge-Making and Identity Politics

Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, Documentation of the performance,1970, Photographs by Rosemary Mayer, Collection Thomas Erben, New York © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; via whitehot magazine.

What follows are my lecture notes for my class on Contemporary Art at Georgia State University. During this class we were discussing Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Betye Saar, Pat Ward Williams, Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, and Cindy Sherman. I’m relying on the syllabus and slides that Dr. Susan Richmond prepared for her own Contemporary Art classes at GSU and I thank her once more for this opportunity to work with the excellent students at GSU’s Welch School of Art & Design.

Today we’re considering Bridget Cook’s essay “See Me Now” and the overarching theme of our class meeting today is to discuss how contemporary artists have demonstrated their concerns with what we call “identity politics.”

It seems to me that part of the problem facing us when we think with Cook’s essay is that representation is misleading.

Cook points us to Roland Barthes’ thinking about professional wrestling because in Barthes’ observation of professional wrestling he diagnoses something indicative of our contemporary lived situation. We live, as Guy Debord argued, in a society oriented around spectacles. So, what kind of agency can we have when we as individuals are seen as spectacles, forced into having our actions read by audiences with preconceived notions and expectations of what our bodies are supposed to mean when we go about our daily quotidian peformances?

As Cook points out, the appropriation of racist (and let’s extend this to misogynist) imagery, there is the danger that the artist doing this appropriation will inadverently reinforce the negative meaning of the original imagery. When this occurs, and it does occur, this is considered to be a failure on the part of the artist or author of the work.

But we are left with the dilemma: as typified by the reactions of the RISD custodians who went on strike upon viewing Weems’ exhibition, Ain’t Jokin’. Cook asks us to consider the following question, how does the our reception of a work of art transform when we become aware of the race/gender of an artist? In the case of the RISD custodial staff it was obvious that not all participants in the strike were not placated upon finding out that Weems is a Black woman (one member of the strike quit rather than return). Now, it could be that person quit for extenuating reasons, but we can easily imagine that among the returning workers the question of how appropriate this exhibition was lingered in the minds of many.

Cook frequently discusses the relationship with knowledge and these appropriated images. So, I want to suggest that part of what is at play here is the difficulty that arises when two modes of knowledge come into proximity of one another. Since we’ve been discussing judgment and the need for art criticism to provide a reliable method for evaluating art objects, let’s look at how expertise comes to be.

There are at least two ways of understanding what is true. Tom Kasulis presents us with what he refers to as the “correspondence theory of truth” and contrasts it with what he coins the “assimilation theory of truth.” I believe that we can extend the lessons of Cook’s essay by considering and then acting from insights we gain when we understand Kasulis’ thinking on the matter.

The correspondence theory of truth is the dominant model of how we claim to know something. In this model it is assumed that the world out there exists independently of what I think about the world. Through my observations of the world out there I come into a relationship with the world and the name of that relationship is “knowledge.” Kasulis points to Galileo and his “discovery” of Jupiter’s moons to illustrate this relationship. There are three parts to this externalized relationship:

  1. (A) The preexisting reality (those moons were there long before Galileo was thinking about them)
  2. (B) Galileo had a theory that they might exist because he observed something strange when he looked at Jupiter through his low-quality telescope
  3. (R) the verification testing (the mathematics of orbits) that confirmed his idea—thus we say he “discovered” knowledge of the moons.

With this model of knowledge it is assumed that anybody, properly positioned will be able to have the same knowledge about the reality of the world around them. But that’s not really how the entirety of the world works.

Consider the concept of the “painter’s painter,” this figure that often goes unsung for decades or more and then suddenly bursts onto the stage with significant gravitas. How does someone come to be understood as a “painter’s painter”? The answer is that painters have a common practice and it is through this common practice among painters that they come to judge the quality of their peers’ works and deem some of their peers to be truly exceptional, “a painter’s painter.”

Kasulis uses the example of the Olympic diving judge. He asks us to consider how it is possible that judges of sports like diving come to agree on the scores they assign to competitors? As he points out, these scores are spontaneous assessments and often there is significant agreement in the scores (it’s rare that an athlete gets three scores of 7 and then one person gives the athlete a 2). These judges don’t convene and compromise or come to a consensus through discussion, yet they each appear to have arrived at a common understanding.

Kasulis argues that this is the case because these judges (or in our case, painters) don’t use a correspondence theory of truth. Instead, our judges are demonstrating the assimilation theory of truth. In this model, what is knowable is a matter of interrelating between a person and the world. The knowledge one gains is acquired through practice. Kasulis names this “assimilation” because of the term’s meaning in physiology: assimilation in that context refers to the way in which organisms gain nourishment from the food it consumes. Those nutrients from the world out there become actually in-corporated. It becomes part of their body.

So is it with expert judges, especially of performance-activities like dance or painting. Expertise in these domains is a matter of coming to embody the knowledge one has gained by practicing the materials and techniques over and over again until these become a second nature. In this model of knowledge-making, we find ourselves transformed by what we learn and the world itself becomes transformed by our relationship with it. Critically, this knowledge is not contained only within the individual, but is a communal knowledge. This communal knowledge is exercised through specialized language that communicates to the initiated that they have a common body of knowledge, and also serves to delimit the boundaries of the community. If you don’t understand the word we’re using, it’s because you don’t belong among us. This is literally how code switching functions.

Why Do You Think You Want More Art Criticism?

Image above: Andrea Fraser “Museum Highlights” (1989); via Frans Hals Museum

It’s that time of year again when someone in Atlanta writes about arts journalism, this time from my friend, Andrew Alexander. Andrew asks readers of the Saporta Report to imagine an Atlanta without arts journalism. And, as is the custom, there are generalized complaints from folks in the arts community.

Having worked for a few years in arts publishing, writing, making, and teaching here in Atlanta I feel confident in saying that this perennial kvetch about art criticism in Atlanta is misplaced.

Y’all get the art criticism you deserve.

It should be pointed out, that there are pockets of folks who create reading groups and they are greatly appreciated by me. For example, Discrit. But there are a great number of folks (no surprise) who don’t bother to read criticism, don’t bother to write criticism, and don’t in any way feel uncomfortable about sharing their unfounded opinions about the matter.

When folks whine about the quality of art writing in Atlanta, I want to know:

  1. Who are YOU reading on a consistent basis? Tell us who we should be in conversation with, then, and we’ll see if we can’t make Atlanta audiences connect with less parochial concerns.
  2. Are you paying for art writing? I’ve seen the paid subscriber lists; folks just don’t read art criticism like it matters.
  3. When’s the last time you sat down for a week or so and read about an area outside your specialized knowledge, synthesized that literature, then wrote out a methodical treatment of a recent exhibition? Would you even recognize that work that was done by one of us?
  4. What do you think an art critic’s job is? More often than not, when I read one of these threads I walk away from it with the sense that y’all want blood.

But that’s not what an art critic does, ultimately.

My position is that all critique is grounded in providing a reliable method for arriving at decisions about sense-making.

That places the art critic firmly in the remit of aesthetics.

I recognize that in the parlance of our times folks often use the word “aesthetic” to mean “stylish,” but that’s not the way critics and properly trained artists tend to use the word.

The opposite of “aesthetic” is not “out of fashion,” but rather, “anesthetic,” meaning, “without sensation.”

My job as an art critic— that is, when I’m discussing an artist’s aesthetic decisions—is to help you, the reader, and the artist/curator/administrators of art spaces to see how their work makes what kind of sense.

In other words, my role as critic is not to offend or to write propaganda for or against individuals or institutions. That kind of work is merely rhetoric.

My role as art critic requires that I demonstrate the utility and creative necessity of reasoning-out the propositions put forward by the artist.

By following a line of reasoning found in the works being evaluated I am helping the works under consideration appreciate in value. Now, it’s important to recognize that this value increases not because I wrote about the work.

Rather, the value grows only to the degree that I demonstrate to the community that they also can perform the critical evaluations I’ve put forward. That is, when a reader/artist/curator/administrator can also reason-out and critically assess my position.

When others are able to engage in this reasoning-out exercise, there is an expansion of that rare commodity called critical thinking. We as a community benefit from having this common good expanded. We desperately need more of this precious commodity.

“Everything Is Very Precious” from L’Automàtica, Barcelona.

Aesthetics the”Morality Wars”

Wesley Morris wrote an essay worth considering for The New York Times Magazine in which he diagnoses some cultural activities of the recent years. Morris terms our moment as being caught in “Morality Wars,” which he links to the “Culture Wars” of the 1980s and 90s.

The NYTM website has the header text for this article, “Should Art Be a Battleground for Social Justice?” and so this is an essay about our ethics and implicitly we are asked to think about the distance between our ethical training and our aesthetic training. Well, I am thinking about those things.

While reading this I kept thinking about the importance of asserting and interrogating the philosophical development of aesthetics.

I’m in my third semester professoring in an exciting Art School and every week I note how unfamiliar my students are with the cleaving on/between “art” and aesthetics.

That’s of course not a shortcoming of my students nor of my colleagues; that I am there, teaching and think about aesthetics is precisely why I hold the position I have at the School.

Living in the short horizon of the hot take has its pleasures, among these being the joy of the put down well performed. Sometimes it just feels good to scratch the itch of ressentiment. But it’s reactionary and tends toward puritanical violence.

Since I’m in the position I’m in, how do I best promote the cultivation of the appropriate kinds of judgement and assessment?

Some of that is infrastructure: the assessment tools I use to evaluate my students ought to align with my syllabus and the goals of our course.

And also to my students and the community who support them my obligation is to model the ways of doing the work that I think they can trust is a reliable method for themselves and others.

This impulse to mutual enhancement and cultivation I have absorbed from the years of working through the kinds of philosophy I’ve trained with, especially the Confucian tradition.

To the degree that there is a “me” who can become better, it’s largely predicated on there being a “you” who helps me see how I can improve. If I see something in you that I admire, I emulate that. If I see something in you that misses the mark, I check myself and ensure I do not also exhibit that behavior. This is the advice we receive from Analects, for example 4.17:

“The Master said, ‘When you meet persons of exceptional character think to stand shoulder to shoulder with them; meeting persons of little character, look inward and examine yourself.'”

Or consider 7.22:

“The Master said, ‘In strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.'”

I also see this sensibility at work in the Zhuangzi:

“Zhuangzi was in a burial procession and paid a visit to the tomb of Huizi. Turning around to address his followers, he said to them, ‘There was a man of Ying who, when finding that a bit of mortar as thick as a fly’s wing
had gotten stuck on the tip of his nose, sent for Carpenter Rock-solid to swipe it off with his axe blade. Carpenter Rock-solid spun his axe like the wind, and feeling the moment, swiped the bit of mortar cleanly away without injury to the nose while the man from Ying stood there at ease. When Lord Yuan of Sung heard of Carpenter Rock-solid’s ability he
asked him “Could you demonstrate your ability for me?” But Carpenter Rock-solid replied, “There was a time when I could do my part, but now my partner has been dead for some time.”’
‘Since Hui Shi died,’ said Zhuangzi, ‘I too have had no chopping block, no one to really to talk to!'”

Conspiracy, DMing, and Epistemic Anxiety

Occupy Wall Street Sign
Sign from Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in New York, fall 2011

There is an enlightening bit of journalism about the Qanon phenomenon written by Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins over at NBCnews.com that has prompted me to write this morning.

I’m not familiar with the specifics of the conspiracy being unfurled by the Qanon media ecosystem, but I do like a good conspiracy. This is in part because of my heavy ingestion of Robert Anton Wilson’s writings on language, epistemology, and magick when I was a younger man. As a philosopher, I tend to think that conspiracies are useful mental exercises because they force me to practice my logical reasoning. Conspiracies help me remember that there is a difference between having a reason and using good reasoning. What certifies one as valid rather than the other is a matter of artistic license, ultimately (as RAW winks and reminds us, Reality Is What You Can Get Away With). I will explain in a little more detail why I claim that what certifies one reasoning as valid and not the other in a moment. First, let us pause and admire the strange reality wherein mainstream baby boomers (for whom, let’s face it, Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary are essentially avatars; their companion faces being Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh) have somehow gotten involved in the smelly butthole of the internet. They have been enfolded into these chans through the virtue of an Italian leftist philo-fiction.

Last week Buzzfeed offered some reportage that suggests evidence that the darlings of the turn of the century antiglobalization theory and fiction crowd, Luther Blissett (aka Wu Ming), may be the of Qanon.

I think this conspiracy-for-cash structure that Zadrozny and Collins present is the best lens for understanding our contemporary situation. Infowars, #MAGA, Qanon: each of these are, essentially, Dungeon Mastering activities. They are producing emotional contexts for folks starving to feel (to feel empowered, to feel meaningfully-connected, to feel smart, to feel righteous, etc.)

We read in the Zadrozny and Collins piece, “Recently, some Qanon followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers.”

Further into their report we learn about an Jerome Corsi, an Infowars editor (and all around heel from Harvard) who apparently sees an opportunity to divert some audience (read: market share) from the Qanon conspiracy by denouncing it. But Corsi doesn’t get the traction he was hoping for, so he applauds his marks/rubes for their “excellent research.” Why? Because he’s working the long con on them.

Here a basic truth needs to be reckoned with: most people, including folks at fancy R1 universities, don’t know what “research” means. Among the cognitariat there are plenty who can discuss research methods, but what research is…

Hannah Arendt, in her essay “Auschwitz on Trial,” parenthetically tells the readership that this trial was “so poorly covered by the press that it took some ‘research’ to determine whether it happened at all.” Note that she places the term in scare quotes, “research,” as if she doesn’t quite trust the use of the term in this manner. In reading the essay we come to learn that this essay is, essentially, a book review. Is that “research”? What do we name this activity in which a person doubts the validity of the presentation (or the absence of reporting) of world events and so then makes their own presentation and interpretation of what one has found? In the social sciences this is, effectively, a description of research.

Small wonder there is a crisis of reproducibility in the fields given that the methods sections of papers are rarely emphasized in favor of tracing the genealogy of the project in the opening lit review and then skipping to the discussion and future studies sections. P-values-based studies abound but rarely do folks, myself included, reflect on the double meaning of confidence values.

The conman preys upon the the trust and confidence that their marks give to him. In the absence of better understanding of the empirical limits of one’s methodology, there is the trust and faith placed in the numbers.It’s not only a crisis of numeracy but also a crisis of meaning itself. The more intoxicated one becomes by the robust predictions possible when inducing relationships from particulars out to generalizations of the global whole, the better one gets at assuming that knowing being is the same thing as knowing the meaning of those beings.

Certifying the right reason

I wrote above that there is a difference between having reasons and valid reasoning. What I am pointing to here is an example of the occasional poverty of the English language (other areas where we have this poverty include terms like being or love). In English we use the term reason to mean several different things. If you’re one of my students you may recall these distinctions from my lectures on reason and on understanding. Reason can connote explanation, justification, and the formation of judgments; it can also refer to the mental power to do those things.

The term comes into English from the French, raison, itself a Gaulicization of the Latin term ratio, which the Romans used to translate the Greek’s logos. This Greek term, logos, is pregnant with possible meanings: cause, word, sentence, account, number, etc. Because reason has this constellation of meanings possible it is necessary to distinguish and partition-off possible renderings of the term. This decision, I am arguing, is an aesthetic one. I say that in part because I am a scholar of philosophy and also as a scholar of art and practitioner. I am particularly interested in the thinking about technologies and the ways in which human relationships are mediated by these technologies. These may appear to be far-removed from conspiracy theories and art, but I see a relationship (isn’t this the heart of conspiracy thinking?) between them.  To get at the matter we need to continue to look at the truth of/worlds created by these words, this is an exercise in etymology (etumos logos, true-causal word).

Today we think of “art” as an object created for the sake of perceptual engagement. Often one’s formal training, if there is any, in analyzing art is fairly stunted and remains at the examination of the content and medium of the art object. This is a shame and something I hope to correct. This problem is in part the result of historical processes. Prior to the twentieth century there was an emphasis placed on the “Fine Arts” which could be distinguished from the Liberal Arts and the Mechanical Arts. We get our English word “art” from the Latin ars but its meaning was sharply inflected by the Greek analog, tekhnê.

For the Ancients fabrication was the only concern of what we today would call art (Greek tekhnê, Latin ars). What we today would refer to as a technique or a technology was included under the broad umbrella of making that tekhnê named. So there is not a distinction between an object made for being pretty and an object made for being useful for addressing a problem. If we look at Plato’s Gorgias we see that art-technology early on was prescribed the role of examining the nature and cause of those things that the person is dealing with and the conditions that arose for this fabrication.

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, characterizes art-technology as a body of know-how that reacts to chance, unlike what we would today call “science” (although he called it epistêmê, from which we get the field of Epistemology). This latter body of knowledge is not reactionary because it is concerned with rooting-out the causes of the phenomena we experience. Thus technical art is a matter of the proper practice of jurisprudence (phronêsis), the artisan relies upon their practical experience (empeiria) to guide them in the execution of their solution. Thomas Aquinas marks the distinction thusly: technical art is recta ratio factibilium (the right reasoning for creating) and phronêsis is recta ratio agibilium (the right reasoning for acting). Goyet explains that the word recta “refers to the idea of a rule, from regula ‘regulation.’” (This rule or regulation is what makes it possible for the practitioner to overcome contingency and enter the domain of something like a science (in the way that medicine is characterized as both a science and an art): the application of the rule is a matter of creating a particular effect in the world. It is through this practice that one discovers and activates the stable principles in a changing world.

This is the meaning of certification: the rule that has been discovered through practice will bring about predicted results. So, this imagined knowledge is no longer only a matter of chance, but imitates the kind of creation that belongs to the Divine logos (John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with Him and He was the word, En arkhêi ên ho lógos, kaì ho lógos ên pròs tòn theón, kaì theòs ên ho lógos). In practicing conspiracy theorizing one is practicing a kind of world-reordering by finding the right account, and the right causes, and the right words. The conspiracies make sense of the seeming chaos of our contemporary moment.

CFP for ISCP at the 2019 APA Eastern

The International Society for Chinese Philosophy (ISCP) plans to host two panel sessions at the 2019 Eastern Division Meeting of American Philosophical Association (APA) on January 7-10 in New York City, NY.

The ISCP will be co-sponsoring a special session with the Karl Jaspers Society of North America (KJSNA) at the APA Eastern this year. This author-meets-critics session will feature Kai Marchal (National Cheng Chi University), Mario Wenming (University of Macau), Carine Defoort (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven), and Eric Nelson (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) discussing Nelson’s Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought (Bloomsbury: 2017).

Because of this, we are inviting only individual paper submissions for our additional panel session.

Your submission should include the following information:

1. Title of Paper
2. Name of Presenter
3. Presenter’s Affiliation
4. Presenter’s e-mail address
5. Approximately 200-word Paper Abstract

Please send the submissions electronically to Paul Boshears, ISCP Liaison to the APA Eastern Division Meeting, at: paul [dot] boshears [at] egs [dot] edu.

The deadline for submission is June 20, 2018.

Human Head Transplants in China

Karen Rommelfanger and I wrote an editorial for Newsweek discussing some of the ethical issues we think need to be discussed.

It’s a short piece for a general readership.

We also wrote a more scholarly editorial introducing (here) the new special issue of AJOB Neuroscience, the official journal of the International Neuroethics Society, dedicated to Canavero et al’s procedure.

Teaching and Gongfu

I’m teaching five sections of a General Education Introduction to Philosophy course this semester and I’m grateful for this 功夫 (gongfu/kung fu) practice. I am revisiting Peimin Ni’s writings about Confucius and to him I am grateful and will make liberal references.

Before I decided to go to college I was fortunate to study Shaolin Dao with Master Michael Reid and his teacher, Gary Grooms.  It was in that martial context that I was first told that “kung fu” doesn’t refer to fighting but means something like “time invested.” I credit the training I received from Master Reid and my peers with my future academic successes (such as they are).

Peimin Ni helps us understand the phrase even more:

“Originally used to describe human labor during the third and fourth centuries, the term gongfu was later developed into a locus from which a cluster of meanings emerged, referring to the time and effort spent on something, the ability to accomplish intended results, and the result of such effort and abilities. Consequently it came to be used broadly for all the arts of life that require cultivated abilities and effective skills, be it the arts of cooking, speaking, dancing, dealing with human relationships, or the art of living in general.” (Ni, xii)

“Every Day Is a Good Day,”
Fukushima Keido Roshi, ca 2003.

Given my large teaching load, I have had course design anxieties. I’ve been trying to get my classes more accessible because accessibility is a federal right and I am encountering a large number of students so I am statistically more likely to work with folks who will need accommodations. But, really, everyone benefits from a more intentionally accessible course. My course is primarily concerned with habits, especially habits of citizenship (I bookend the semester with Danielle S. Allen’s book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education).

As I have pursued a more accessible course design I am encountering unforeseen benefits from working with the accommodations that my students request.  Specifically I am having to think more clearly about what is important and how I can best communicate that.

The class I’ve built treats writing as an iterative process, the assignments are repetitive and provide opportunities for the students to practice metacognitive skills (i.e. they’re learning about how they learn, thinking about how they read, writing about how they write).

For example, before each class meeting my students are required to have read primary source material and to have generated at least one well-written question about that material so that we can discuss the reading in class.

To help my students craft their questions I first assign them to read, and subsequently bring to every class meeting, Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ handout “Some Notes On How To Ask A Good Question About Theory That Will Provoke Conversation And Further Discussion From Your Colleagues.”

Writing one question for each class is a low-stakes assignment that encourages my students to critically engage with the assigned readings, rather than riffing on a theme they’ve noticed in their reading and asking questions that might make sense to them but tend to lead class discussion into areas that aren’t necessarily useful for the class as a whole.

I then require that my students submit a reading outline in which I ask them to paraphrase, in one or two sentences, each paragraph of an assigned reading and then write a sentence or two in which they tell me where the author’s argument “clicked” for them.

When I introduce this assignment to my students I tell them that this is an assignment designed to get them thinking about how they read and retain the information they are reading. I tell them that this assignment will benefit them if they practice this kind of note-taking, no matter what the course they are in and regardless of their major (although they should all want to be Philosophy majors). The assignment contributes 10% of their final grade, so it’s not a massive project but it’s also not a trifle.

Like this metacognitive reading outline, I follow-up this assignment with an argument outline wherein my students practice tracing out the premises/evidence/reasons/presuppositions that support the arguments made by the authors in their assigned readings. If philosophy has a method, (of course it does and I juxtapose the methods used in science and religion to clarify the differences) this would be it, I tell them.

If in my teaching I only went up to the lectern and spoke about my opinions and recited my (granted, hard-earned) knowledge, I don’t think I’d be doing my students, my university, my state (I teach at a state university), my profession, or myself any favors. I’d be going through the motions but education can be a transformative process when teaching and learning happen in the appropriate manner. In this way I am thinking about what Cheng Yi (1033-1107) said during the Song dynasty, “Nowadays people no longer know how to read. When they read the Analects, for instance, they are the same kind of people before they read the book and after they read the book. This is no different from not having read the book.”

Zhu Xi resonates with Cheng here when he states:

“In reading the Analects and the Mencius one should not merely aim at understanding the theory and the meanings of the text. One should make careful reflection and put the teachings into practice [….] If a reader can relate the sages’ sayings to his own person and examine them through his own embodied practice, his effort will surely not be spent in vain. Every day will bring him the result (gong 功) of the day. If one only takes the books as collections of sayings, it would be merely the learning of the mouth and the ears.” (Zhu, Du Lunyu Mengzi Fa, 3)

The work I’m asking my students to do means I must do a kind of work that that is really interesting to me and puts me into a relationship with the readings and my office that is often unexpected and rewarding.

I am really grateful to my students for meeting me like this, so that we’re both putting in the effort, we’re practicing a mode of gongfu.

Atlanta as a Site for Critical Inquiry for Contemporary Art Students

Below is the abstract for what I’ll be presenting at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning’s Annual Conference on Scholarly Teaching in May.

I’ve written about these matters previously, for Burnaway/ArtsATL and for Art Papers. These ideas are also a significant part of my essay published in Dawn Keetley’s edited volume, “We’re All Infected” Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human.

I love talking about these issues (I’ve talked about these things at the Zombethics Symposium, for example) and would love to come talk with you and your folks, please contact me and let’s book a visit. You can see my upcoming events here.

Andy Warhol 129 Die in Jet (1962) acrylic and pencil on canvas
Museum Ludwig, Cologne © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

In this presentation I will discuss how I incorporate Atlanta Studies into my ART 3910 Critical Thinking Through Writing course, “Issues in Contemporary Art” curriculum. June 3, 2017, will mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the doomed Air France Flight 007 in which 106 of Atlanta’s leading arts patrons died at Orly Airport outside of Paris. Only two people out of 132 would walk away from that crash. It was the worst air disaster in history to that point. The impact of this tragedy on Atlanta was enormous. The accident left thirty-one children orphaned, and the broader metro area continues to grapple with this tragedy today. The most obvious result of the Orly explosion is the creation of the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, renamed the Woodruff Arts Center in 1982. Robert W. Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate and future namesake of the enormous cultural center on Peachtree Street, was initially guided by the head of his foundation and former president of Oglethorpe University, Dr. Philip Weltner, to build an arts complex in Piedmont Park. This would have been a natural choice at the time because Piedmont Park had become the site of the annual Arts Festival. The plan to finance the building of this cultural center, however, failed to pass a public referendum in August of 1962, in no small part due to the charged racial atmosphere. There were two reasons for this failed referendum. First, the strongest link between the Atlanta Arts Alliance and the city’s Cultural Needs Committee, Del Paige, had died in the wreckage at Orly. Second, Woodruff insisted on donating the initial $4 million anonymously. The white power structure of the time allowed a whisper campaign suggesting that the mysterious donor was actually the family of millionaire Alonzo Herndon, a “negro” family.

Not only does Atlanta enjoy the privilege of hosting the largest collecting art institution in the region as a result of this tragedy, but the Orly disaster has also had a significant impact on the development of contemporary art across the globe. Andy Warhol found an image of the Orly disaster on the front page of the New York Mirror. This image was the basis for Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet (Plane Crash), and it was the cataclysmic loss of Atlanta’s most active arts patrons that launched Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings (in 2007, his Green Car Crash III would fetch $71.7 million at a Christie’s auction). Contemporary Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn stated in the pages of ARTFORUM that it was viewing Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet in 1978 that made him aware that he needed to be an artist. “It was the first time in my life that art had an impact on me, the first time I was directly in dialogue with it,” he said, “129 Die in Jet changed my life.” It is my aspiration that learning about and critically engaging with the events surrounding this terrible disaster will also change the lives of my students.

That Girl Ain’t Your Friend

Arturo Di Modica is upset about Kristen Visbal’s sculpture in front of his  sculpture. The story circulating in social media and “news” outlets is that Di Modica feels hurt. Who cares? The conversations I’ve had so far with folks, smart folks whom I like mind you, is something along the lines of, “Sorry, Charlie, she’s powerful and you’re gonna hafta suck it up, Buttercup.”

I’m livid about this.

Folks don’t seem to care that both sculptures are exercises in affective warfare. They are weaponized narratives deployed by “corporate persons” against homo sapiens.

Di Modica’s narrative is that he “gifted” his $360,000 sculpture to the American people in the wake of Black Monday, a monument to the “strength and power of the American people.” Never mind that his gift was delivered two years after the economic crisis. Never mind how an artist just has more than a quarter million dollars to just give away.

Visbal’s narrative is that she created a monument to the value of “gender diversity in the workplace.” And, as it turns out, you—yes! you!—can purchase that gender diversity by investing in SHE (State Street Global Advisors’ SPDR Gender Diversity Index ETF). State Street is, according to Wikipedia (I know, lazy me), the third largest asset management firm in the world. It’s leadership is 18% women, it’s parent company’s leadership is 28% women, as Jillian Steinhauer points out.

What do we call art that is deployed entirely for the purpose of benefitting a massive multinational finance corporation? Is it not advertising? This is the artistic equivalent of greenwashing or pinkwashing. It is not a liberatory gesture.

This whole kerfluffle is ridiculous and cynical and cruel.

Cruel because it is this cynical leveraging of a common desire for women’s liberation and a desire to enact a society that is capable of providing the material needs for all that would support their neighbors.

It seems to me that the sculpture is the equivalent of waving a bucket of water in front of a person stranded in the desert for three days.

It figuratively whispers in our ears from behind us in a dark corner (this, our continually darkening corner of human history—as we dismantle the social safety net and rain terror across the planet), “You like that? You like that dontcha? You like how I did that?”

The message of this sculpture is, effectively, “You don’t need to imagine a world without capitalism, just be a young girl (cf. Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl). Be the neoliberal subject that our processes of capital extraction require and feel the power of being nobody but what our marketing team tells you to be.”

A smart person I like wrote to me that they felt these two publicity stunts cancel one another out add up to a (completely ineffectual) unintended liberatory gesture. Good conversation has come from two not very defensible pieces of statuary. But so far, only good conversation, just as with most deliberately political art.

I must be traveling in the wrong circles because the only conversation I’ve been having is with folks who doe-eyed tell me about this girl sculpture and how bold it is and then I’m the jerk that has to point out their revolution has been sold to them by the same forces of capital that insist on their oppression.