“‘Coefficients of friction’ of function, raw material and technique…”

A quote from Edgar Wind’s essay on how Aby Warburg’s library aims to “cater” for problems generated by art history. The piece was written in the 1930’s and addresses the legacy of Riegl and Wölfflin, but—for me—it’s the point right at the end that caught my attention, Wind naturally applying an engineering concept to the interplay of forces necessary for the production of cultural objects.

If we consider the works of Alois Riegl and of Heinrich Wölfflin … we see that, despite differences in detail, they are both informed by a polemical concern for the autonomy of art history, by a desire to break it free from the history of civilization and thus to break with the tradition associate with the name of Jacob Burckhardt. I will try briefly to summarize the forces behind this struggle and their consequences for the methodology of the subject.

3. The antithesis of form and matter thus finds its logical counterpart in the theory of an autonomous development of art, which views the entire process exclusively in terms of form, assuming the latter to be the constant factor at every stage of history, irrespective of differences both of technical production and of expression. This has both positive and negative consequences: it involves treating the various genres of art as parallel with each other—for, as far as the development of form is concerned, no one genre should be any less important than another; it also involves levelling out the differences between them—for no one genre can tell us anything that is not already contained in the others. In this way we attain, not a history of art, which traces the origin and fate of monuments as bearers of siginificant form, but, as in Riegl, a history of the autonomous formal impulse (Kunstwollen), which isolates the element of form from that of meaning, but nevertheless presents change in form in terms of a dialectical development in time—an exact counterpart of Wölfflin’s history of vision (Of course, this conceptual scheme is quite different from Wölfflin’s. There is no simple division of form and content, but a complex relationship of dynamic interaction between a conscious and autonomous ‘formal impulse’ and the ‘coefficients of friction’ of function, raw material, and technique.…)*

  • Wind, Edgar (1930). ‘Warburg’s Concept of Kunstwissenschaft and its Meaning for Aesthetics’ from The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Hamisi Art (1983). Oxford: OUP.

identi.ca dents for 2009-01-30

  • proof reading a very long and rambling interview #
  • The translation from Chinese to English doesn’t make sense in many places. Many things left unexplained. #
  • Wondering if it made any sense in the original… #
  • needs many notes to make it understandable to the lay reader #
  • this seems to be a general problem for international understanding of Chinese art, and perhaps this goes for other areas of society too… #
  • …the translations are usually very poor, which could either be the fault of the translator, or the original text, I’m never quite sure. #
  • But generally there seems to be a lack of rigor in the writing and criticism of art here #
  • with notable exceptions of course (which I won’t note), but they only go to highlight the general low quality #
  • so quit griping, what are you going do about it? #

djs and vjs: so what (are you doing)?

The previous post about the relationship between the fashion house Dior and the artists in its exhibition at Ullens Centre here in Beijing reminded me about a certain uneasiness I had about how much enjoyment I was having at the Laoban Mixing Event which took place at the CPU:798 in December and which we hope to continue in 2009.

[ASIDE: I don’t want to always seem like I’m complaining about things and especially not about Laoban, I had a great time and Jon did a great job and I fully support what he’s doing. I think in every positive I see the potential for improvement, and I also want to understand what it is that I am finding so good, I guess so I can find more of the same. So, I can be quite critical of things, as I have high expectations.]

There were some very talented performers and artists working at the event, producing stunning visuals and sounds, and I can happily admit that I loved it – I was thoroughly engaged in it.

But at times my self-awareness came back and I was left wondering: what is the point of all this, what possible purpose does it serve apart from instant gratification? There was a hermeticism about it all, cut off inside that room from reality, and that began to worry me.

Looking back, the only artist who directly addressed some audience or source outside of the small group, some kind of larger society, with a hope perhaps of making some kind of comment, was Du Qin (a.k.a. D4Q1N), specifically generating a flying array of what I think was the current RMB to USD exchange rate as part of his projection – at any point in time a quite meaningful piece of information for society.

Du Qin at the Laoban Mixing Event, CPU:798
Du Qin at the Laoban Mixing Event, CPU:798. 12/2008.

Many of the other visuals that I saw were semi- or fully-abstract patterns, which—while distracting and by and large visually appealing—seemed to serve only to distract, not to engage. In most cases the visuals were feeding off the music and vice versa, producing what amounted to a closed loop, again not entering into an engagement with an audience either within the room or beyond.

[ASIDE: Of course, there may have been meanings which were lost on me. I may have missed them, but also the nature of symbolism is much more deeply ingrained in China than in Britain (from where I got most of my visual knowledge), so the significance of some imagery may have been meaningless to me.]

Nevertheless, the disjunction between my enjoyment of the sounds and visions, and my disquiet over the lack of engagement, can be rationalised by understanding the evening itself as the engagement. The possibility of the evening happening and what it represents is the socially important thing, both looking inward to the participants and outward to the rest of the world.

I should probably learn from the Adorno quotation which I posted a while ago, about ‘commitment’ in art. He says: “It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads.” Looking further back in my posted quotes there is the Marxist Art Historian Meyer Shapiro presenting abstraction in art, for all it’s seeming lack of subject, and hence effectiveness, nevertheless is the “domain of culture in which contradiction between the professed ideals and the actuality [of our culture] is most obvious and often becomes tragic.” In a similar way, I think, the abstraction of Laoban’s participants, itself against the norms, presents an alternative which energises society purely by its presence in the system.

I would go further, though, and give more credit to the event itself as a process which creates some change, some difference. At the end of the day the event can only (re)present what the individuals are doing at any given moment. If no one is engaging through their work, then engagement will not appear. But the evening itself can serve as an engagement. By moving the means of engagement onto the level of the container, this perhaps avoids a situation where participants feel pressured to conform to a particular mode of display, one which has a rather bad reputation for histrionics.

It’s true that there are many ways to make a statement, and being part of something which makes a statement—even if you yourself don’t make one—is perhaps enough, and important. You are guilty by association, as it were.

Chinese artists and Dior: whose exploitation?

From the review of ‘Christian Dior & Chinese Artists (Ullens Centre)’ by Maya Kóvskaya in Art Review (noted by RedBox Review).

Art and the artist’s relation to society has always fascinated me, particularly the role of the commodity in the art system. Because of the mutability of the nature of the artworks, commodification is part and parcel of it, and (but?) always seems to end up being problematic for it or the artist.

The fashion powerhouse wins here by appropriating art, linking the house of Dior brand to the (false but potent) notion that art is above commodification. The uncritical revelry of some artists in their own newly minted celebrity mirrors the embrace of art as fetish commodity and store-bought cultural capital for the nouveau riche, and echoes the dream of material accumulation, while eliding grotesque social inequality in a country where one superrich individual is worth more money than Gansu province, population twenty-six million. When art becomes parasitical on fashion and cedes its capacity to offer critical optics for viewing the human condition, we can legitimately moan about co-optation; and when artists appropriate capital to realise works that extend their explorations and serve their aesthetic visions, we can celebrate. Christian Dior & Chinese Artists gives us cause for a bit of both.