For those who are interested, here is an unedited draft copy of my talk at The Matter of Contradiction: Ungrounding the Object conference in Limousin, France next Saturday. This is my first foray into how machine-oriented ontology might talk about art, so be kind. I realize there are a lot of points here that need to be fleshed out and developed, and I’m still struggling to fully articulate certain claims I’m after. I begin by taking on what I refer to “expressivism”, or the thesis that art expresses something (theories differ as to what it expresses) or that art has a meaning. From there I try to establish that an artwork is not so much about something, but is something. An artwork is a genuine entity and actor that circulates throughout the world, that is every bit as real as a cat, quark, or rock, and that acts on the world around it. Finally, I try to address a deadlock that I believe emerges between expressivist theories of art and object-oriented theories of art, arguing that works are sense-making machines that act on contexts. Above all, I’m interested in preserving the singularity of art, avoiding its erasure in meaning and criticism, and in emphasizing the actual practice of artists over and above critics and viewers.
As is the case with most of my work, my aim is not to exclude but include and expand. I don’t wish to undermine current forms of criticism such as the new historicisms, Marxist criticism, deconstruction, formalism, structuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, eco-criticism, etc. I think all of these approaches provide us with valuable insights. What I want, instead, is theoretical humility. Emphasis on the point that artworks cannot be reduced to their contexts– a very Derridean point as I observe in the article –helps us to see that an interpretation is not something that gets at the true meaning of a work, but is rather a machinic coupling that strives to produce a machine that functions with respect to the world. In my view, criticism is not so much about the work, as about activating the work as a machine with reference to the present. Good criticism not only transforms the work but is transformed by the work. Bad criticism simply subordinates the work to a pre-existing theoretical framework as yet another case in a species/individual relation. A criticism is the formation of a machine that strives to act on the present and transform it through the assistance of the work.
Sadly, I was unable to get to the points I really wanted to discuss with respect to art and the nonhuman. If there’s something profoundly wrong with Heidegger’s thesis that art is an expression of a world, it is that art opens us on to worlds beyond our own lived artworld. If there’s a reason for the persistent animosity towards art throughout history, then this is because art interrupts. Art can open us to worlds not only of others who live very different lives than many of us (Tony Morrison, for example), but also to nonhuman worlds unlike ours at all. Art can allude to the world of dogs, quantum particles, colors, shapes, different places in history, the life of insects, etc. Far from confirming and expressing the worldhood of our world, art perpetually challenges that familiar life-world and calls it into question. This is the reason that every reactionary social order has called for careful regulation of art or that it be banished altogether. As a genuine entity that acts on our life-worlds, art is dangerous.
There’s not much I can do to revise the talk at this point as I have to prepare my talk for Dundee in Scotland the following week and pull together my reader’s report for a dissertation committee I’m sitting on there. At any rate, I would like to publish this as an article at some point, so constructive criticism would be helpful. Anyway, here’s the talk: bryantlimosine.