Grant Kester - Artforum - Claire Bishop [The Continuing Saga]

Related LeisureArts posts:
The Social Turn - Claire Bishop - Response to LeisureArts
Claire Bishop - Aesthetic/Ethical - Critical Modalities
Maria Lind - Tactical/Agnostic - Ted Purves
ARTFORUM - New Art Practices - Cross Pollination

Oddly enough, Artforum has been making its way to us in subscription form without our instigation. An anonymous donor must have paid for the magazine to be delivered to us (We pay for our own subscription to Cabinet, but would gladly accept a subscription to US Weekly). We were never sure if this was an act of friendship or aggression, a gesture of good will or a taunt. However it was intended, it has provided material for many posts, particularly regarding Claire Bishop and the implications and fallout from her piece, "The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents."

The saga continues. In the May 2006 issue, Grant Kester writes a scathing letter in response to the aforementioned article. He rightly highlights Bishop's own complicity in reinforcing the division between ethical and aesthetic critical/artistic positions. Of course Kester, in his book Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, has his own set of contradictions when he valorises didacticism (although he would reject that designation) over the "shocking" impulse of the avant garde. He takes issue with the critic who presumes to decode these "difficult" works for a bewildered public. Although his critique of the mythos of avant garde art is welcome, it is less than satisfying to offer the "informed" artist to replace the critic as he seems to do in discussing Adrian Piper (much more can be said here, but blog space requires we move on).

He continues to challenge the privileged perspective of the critic in the Artforum letter by somewhat unfairly offering that "What Bishop seeks is an art practice that will continually reaffirm and flatter her self-perception as an acute critic..." He moves on to discuss Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's "paranoid knowing,' condemning Bishop as an example of "...one who views any attempt to work productively within a given system as unforgivably naive and complicit..." This might be an accurate analysis of how Bishop positions the work of Oda Projesi, and especially Maria Lind's critical treatment of it, but identifying her with a "paranoid" sensibility however well articulated by Sedgwick, is rather hyperbolic.

Kester hits his high note when offering this of Bishop, "While otherwise quite keen to question the limits of discursive systems of meaning in her criticism, she exhibits an unseemly enthusiasm for policing the boundaries of legitimate art practice."

Claire Bishop begins her response to Kester's letter by offering this shocking dismissal, "...he finds in my essay what he wants to read, rather than what I actually say." Did a huge portion of the critical oeuvre of the late 20th century pass Bishop by (Iser, Barthes, Foucault, Fish, or see this post of ours that touches on authorial intention with regard to Duchamp)? She's far too intelligent and well read to have made such an astounding claim. It is no simple task to determine what she "actually" says, and choosing to offer herself as the final arbiter on the matter feeds into Kester's "self-perception as an acute critic" accusation.

As an answer to Kester's claim that she seems interested in policing boundary distinctions between aesthetic and activist work, Bishop offers that she cited Oda Projesi and Jeremy Deller and that they "...clearly occupy a blurred territory between these poles..." This is true, but she doesn't mention that she lauds Deller over Oda Projesi because his project leans toward the aesthetic end of that pole while Oda Projesi's leans toward the activist.

Bishop then moves to her unfair treatment of Kester by saying, "He considers thinking and writing in depth about art, and using theory to elaborate ideas, as a way to intimidate others and 'flatter' oneself as a critic." She cites Kester's "populist" approach as something that bolsters her "philosophical antihumanism." She seems to be saying that either Kester has not written in depth about art, or that he is hypocritically guilty of self-flattery. Neither seems true to us. We are quite sympathetic to Bishop's aim to move beyond liberal humanist criticism, but don't share that working towards populist critical positions is inherently oppositional toward that goal.

What is most striking to us, though, is something we originally raise here and here concerning something Kester doesn't quite have an answer for, and something Bishop unsatisfactorily addresses. In closing his book, Kester asks these questions (which are the "big" questions haunting all of this as we've written about and something Ted Purves gets at in his generous comments here):

"Why bother trying to explain this work to an art historical and critical establishment that has so often treated it with indifference, if not disdain?"

And:

"What is to be gained by defining this work as art?"

Kester offers only a passing answer to the first question in closing his book, noting a pragmatic reason for art critical/historical engagement with these projects - no one else writes about them. The second question remains largely unanswered, but Kester does seem to agree with Bishop that viewing these activities as art is important. He closes his letter to Artforum lamenting that "critics like Bishop" too readily challenge "the ontic status of this work as art qua art." The question remains, what do we gain by framing these activities in this manner? Bishop's only answer seems to be that we have more grist for the critical mill, more "artistic gestures" that we can determine to be either "good art," "bland art," or "pleasantly innocuous art." Offering those sorts of distinctions sounds an awful lot like an "enthusiasm for policing the boundaries of legitimate art practice." We wish something a little more interesting was at stake.