Handbook

A philosophical and practical manual on the development of artistic ideas



Front cover How art can be thought of

As a contemporary art historian and theorist who led a master’s program in visual arts (at Florida International University) for half a decade, Allan deSouza’s book How art can be thought of: a manual for change particularly attracts me. On the one hand, it is a philosophical inquiry largely exploring how artistic sense takes shape. On the other hand, it is a practical manual that suggests productive ways of conducting critiques in art programs (Chapter 4) and provides a long list of terms often used in the art world without lots of clarity, with concise commentary that can be helpful to undergraduates. and graduate students in fine arts (Chapter 5). Juggling these two aspects of the book – the conceptual and the practical, if you will – is no easy task and deSouza does a good job. At the same time, the book is most successful when it functions as “a manual for change”, the subtitle of the book.

In the introduction, he delimits his own genealogy, and gradually his stakes in the arguments of the book:

My diasporic experience and the very label of being “East African Asian” means that I grew up with… the need to hold multiple positions. I have lived in many worlds: queer, trans and straight; black, South Asian and white; and all kinds of assimilative, oppositional, alternative and “marginalized” groups.

To this list we can add the artist, professor and administrator – he is currently chair of the Department of Artistic Practice at the University of California at Berkeley. These specific subject positions associated with the many worlds (queer, South Asian, etc.) he writes and inhabits provide him with a unique perspective from which to explore the pedagogy, historiography and development of artistic ideas.

A key intervention from the book is implicit in his above description of his experience as a ‘diasporic’: an engagement with related terms such as ‘colonialism’, ‘decolonizing’ and ‘decolonial’ which he says are not. intended to address a minority but “all submissive peoples, that is to say everyone.” While deSouza identifies two aspects of colonization that he returns to throughout the book in different ways – “the control of history (time and memory) and its efforts on the body (affect and mobility)” – he does not return to not explicitly in the term “decolonial” as many times as I would have liked to fully explain the extent of its definition.

One of the strengths of the book is deSouza’s reflection on language – its importance for the decolonization project and for artistic meaning / expression. For example, in his first chapter entitled “How Art Can Be Thought, ”(emphasis in original), he provides a dictionary definition of“ art ”and then discusses each word of the definition to illustrate the complexity and impossibility of defining art. Instead, it doesn’t describe so much “what art can to be but work towards language to describe what it Is and does not, how he does this, and what he can do ”(emphasis in original). At the same time, the following statement approaches a kind of definition:

How we experience the work of art, what it means (potentially) to us, and how it makes sense occur through negotiations of … complex crossroads that call for equally complex articulations rather than self-comforting variations of “transcendence” (emphasis in original).

Following this point, through the intersections between the works and the viewer’s bodily body, the viewer’s previous experiences / knowledge, the viewer’s assumptions about the artist making the work and the larger viewing site (museum, gallery or art school) the meaning of the work of art can arise.

He makes a compelling case for him to work within the institution to bring about change – what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would describe as “affirmative sabotage”. For example, there has been an increase in “alternative” art schools in the West, all of which are useful in different ways but are often seen as a contradiction or a replacement for traditional MFA programs. Bringing my own experience as a director / administrator of a Masters of Fine Arts program, it is worth exploring how I worked within the institution and with an alternative school, in particular the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), the Miami Art and Research Center, led by artist and scholar Gean Moreno. FIU is Miami’s public school and does not have a budget to recruit the kind of academics, theorists, and artists that the ICA does. At the same time, the Art & Research Center was not designed to offer an MFA degree, which is often a bare minimum to qualify to teach at a university level. So, to allow students to get the best of both worlds, those who have taken an independent research course that involves attending the ICA Research Center, could effectively get college credit. My point here is that, as deSouza writes, getting rid of the institution en bloc might be rude or misguided. I would add that new alliances and affiliations are needed rather than the creation of counter-publics.

Allan DeSouza, frontispiece image for How art can be thought of

The bulk of the book is a series of alphabetically arranged terms, words and phrases that are often used in the art world: “Form / Formal / Formalism”, “Identity Politics” and “affect. He discusses them succinctly and clearly, often illustrating how they are not straightforward or straightforward. For example, it describes both how paying attention and recording the colors, lines, shapes and materials of a work of art is fundamental to experiencing and understanding how meaning comes into being. At the same time, he notes that the genealogy of the term “form” in the West is thwarted – often unfolded as disembodied. The book is also not without humor – under “intuition” it simply wrote “indigestion”. In the footnote, he explains how such sentiments are seldom correct and cites recent scientific research on the subject. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we have to ignore our gut feelings, but that every now and then we may want to question the foundation they are based on.

Personally, I would like to see a phone app that allows students (and faculty) to post these terms and their “definitions” during reviews and discussions. Often, terms like “identity” appear for granted and without a complex story, and an app can allow faculty and students to think in a focused way. In addition, students could easily access the terms on their own. This, of course, does not replace the reading of complex essays that would occur in a critical theory course.

The author’s final chapter explores his experience looking at a Rothko painting. At one point, deSouza convincingly writes about how Rothko’s “back brushstrokes” become “plumes of smoke” and Rothko’s orange becomes the orange he saw in the nightly TV blasts. He moves easily from metaphysics and the past to the physical world of the recent present, then returns to a different past when he establishes formal links with an 1840 work “The Slave Ship [Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming on]By JM Turner. In the last sentence of the book, he writes:

While remaining optimistic about the role of art in “what it means to be human”, my story is a negotiated refusal: negotiated, since it claims the right to knowledge, to pleasure and to experience ( in this case, of Rothko, of the end of Euro-American modernism), and a refusal of the active forgetting of assimilation.

This way of thinking matches mine. For example, my inclusion of Cy Twombly in a transnational South Asian art history is also a negotiated refusal: I refuse to forget or deny my enjoyment of modernist art in favor of an essentialized understanding of ‘l ‘South Asia “.

My feeling is that students who begin to explore his lexicon of terms will over time begin to practice his theory before fully understanding it. Of course, practicing what one has learned before fully grasping the nuances of the knowledge imparted is not that different from the way information in general is transferred between student and teacher in the classroom. There are, however, two key differences in deSouza’s pedagogical approach: a rigorous and active questioning of accepted norms rather than a blind acceptance of them, and a refusal to get rid of the past en bloc.

How art can be thought of: a manual for change by Allan deSouza was published in November 2018 by Duke University Press.

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