on Ethics, edited by Walead Beshty (The MIT Press / Whitechapel Gallery)

In 1930, while waiting in the cold outside a Leningrad prison where her son had been jailed, Anna Akhmatova met a woman, also with an imprisoned son, who asked her, “Can you write about this?” According to Giorgio Agamben, who relates this story in On Potentiality, Akhmatova instantly committed herself to writing — but not because she had a proven ability to create poems about horrendous things. She simply responded “I can.” As the German curator Jan Verwoert says, “In this moment she found herself both empowered and indebted.”

EthicsCover.jpgAgamben’s point: for an artist to think ethically is to think relationally. However, the relation between aesthetics and ethics has never been a balanced one. “The purpose of art is not to change but to delight,” says David Mamet. “I don’t think its purpose is to enlighten us, to change us, to teach us.” Vladimir Nabokov adds, “A major writer combines storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter that predominates and makes a major writer.” Because we have been trained in the ethics of aesthetics — that is, in recognizing the benevolence of beauty and its attributes in art — we understand what Mamet and Nabokov mean. And isn’t all art relational?

But for some artists and critics, such statements are anathema; the critique of relations must dominate. The ethics of aesthetics must yield to the aesthetics of ethics. For them, Walter Benjamin’s assertion is indisputable: “a political tendency which is correct comprises a literary tendency which is correct.” Pausing to think about this, Walead Beshty decided that we need to take a closer look at the social dynamics and ethics of art. The result is Ethics, an essential sourcebook of essays, articles, conversations, and notes by writers and artists on the ethical dimensions of literature, visual arts, design, and performance. Most of the anthologized pieces here are either brief or have been edited for concision. Making one’s way through Ethics is a bracing experience; the book teems with provocative ideas and quotable notions to fill one’s notebook.

EthicsBeautiful_1.jpegIn his lively introduction, Beshty writes, “When social efficacy is equated with the politics of an art object, the political implications of aesthetics are ignored … Such sidestepping imposes severe limitations on the discussion of an artwork’s life within a border social context, and excises it from any meaningful relationship to the history of art.” But Beshty doesn’t speak from the median strip — he is clearly on the side of those who emphasize “the social field the art object constructs.” His first task is to remind us that “the term ethics is conflated with morals … Ethics, in the philosophical sense developed by Aristotle, contains no fixed parameters. Instead, ethics describes a dynamic system in which the common good is maximized.” A focus on ethics in art is preoccupied with “learning to inhabit the world in a better way, ins tread of trying to construct it based on a preconceived idea of historical evolution” — this, according to Nicolas Bourriaud in “Relational Aesthetics” (1998), included here.

Ardency is the common feature of Ethics — an insistence that ethically-underscored art is urgently needed in the culture. But there is also a struggle to determine what constitutes successful art in this mode. Worrying about occurrences at the site of reception of a work of art, these figures have a fear of wielding power over the observer. One also hears disparagement of galleries, museums and an art market operating like a stock market.

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Some excerpts:

Lygia Clark, “Humanity: Living Structure of a Biological and Cellular Architecture” (1971): “Now that artists have lost their role as pioneer in current society, they are more and more respected by the social organism in decomposition. At the very time that artists are consumed by their society in dissolution, what remains for them, in proportion to their means, is to try to inoculate it with a new way of living.”

Tania Bruguera, “Reflections on Arte Util” (2012): “It is art because it is the elaboration of a proposal that does not yet exist in the real world, and because it is made with the hope and belief that something may be done better, even when the conditions for it to happen may not be there yet. Art is the space in w which you behave as if the conditions existed for making the things that you want to happen actually happen, and as if everyone agreed with what we suggest, although it may not be like that yet: art is living the future in the present.”

EthicsSleep.jpegLiam Gillick, “Why Work?” (2010): “Art is a history of doing nothing and a long tale of useful action … artists today, whether they like it or not, have fallen into a trap that is predetermined by their existence within a regime that is centered on a rampant capitalization of the mind … artists are at best the ultimate freelance knowledge workers … neurotic people who deploy a series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of neoliberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism at every moment … The fact that it is superficially hard to determine observable differences between the daily routines and operations of a new knowledge-worker and an artist is precisely because art functions in a close parallel track to the structures that it is critiquing.”

Ariella Azoulay, “The Spectator is Called to Take Part” (2008): “Becoming a citizen in the citizenry of photography means giving renewed sanction to the gap between the world and picture. Becoming a citizen is in opposition to the absolute conquest of the world as picture.”

Jacques Rancière, “Some Paradoxes of Political Art” (2005): “It is supposed that art incites us to foment revolt by showing us revolting things, that it mobilizes us by the mere fact of moving out beyond the studio or museum walls and that it turns us into opponents of the dominant system by negating itself as an element within that system. It invariably takes as self-evident that there is some kind of relationship between cause and effect, between intention and outcome … The fact is, however, that this model was subjected to double-barreled critique as early as the 1760s … What aesthetics means most fundamentally is not the contemplation of the beautiful but rather the suspension of any direct relationship between the production of the forms of art and the production of a determinate effect on a determinate audience … the efficacy of a disconnection, a rupture, a breakdown in the relationship between productions involving artistic know-how and of defined social objectives … it established the efficacy of dissensus.”

Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” (2004): “A democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased … The tasks facing us today are to analyze how contemporary art addresses the viewer and to assess the quality of the audience relations it produces: the subject position that any work presupposes and the democratic notions it upholds, and how these are manifested in our experience of the work.”

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Exactly how one assesses “the quality of audience relations” isn’t spelled out — can it be? Simply placing emphasis on relations seems to suffice for Claire Bishop and her peers in Ethics. In the world of poetry, this emphasis also seems sufficient for most of those who have commented on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. When Sean O’Brien reviewed the book in The Guardian, he said this: “The power of Citizen is such that questions of literary form tend to be set aside … Rankine works by impeccable timing within the paragraph, with an even tone enforcing an implacable verbal economy and exactitude.” O’Brien claims in effect: what Citizen says is so important for us to hear that we needn’t quibble about its literary effects. A cooler head might find in Citizen quite ordinary op-ed writing, anecdotal asides, and “innovative” video scripts (ie., punctuation removed).

At least three obvious elements of art-making are missing — and perhaps must be banished — from the preoccupation with ethics. The first is how these artists and writers, intent on calling out error, must speak as if existing on a higher plane than the audience. Thus, the purported squeamishness about wielding power. The second is the shrouding of personal ambition; an ethics-artist claims to have abandoned the fiction of artistic autonomy. The third is how political certainty may block access to complexities and the larger, transpersonal enigmas of existence. More generally, one finds some self-proclaimed ethicist-artists playing to an audience that agrees with them in advance.

And then there is Thomas Hirschhorn, taking exception with the cant-makers. In “Bic and Political Commitment” (2009), he responds to charges that his use of a Bic pen for drawings constitutes a moral lapse since “Bic is a financing supporter of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” a French neo-conservative politician. He said, “I don’t ask myself all these questions, because I want to work and act. But I don’t want my energy to be taken over by information and informers who are conscientiously both politicized and impotent. Too much consciousness kills art and canalizes all the vital energy, stopping revolt from happening. What these overly conscious people forget is that I lead a battle.” Hirschhorn clearly understands that some of our “ethical” artists are erecting partitions while claiming to tear them down.

EthicsPlates.jpegThe headlines tell us that the human race is fratricidal. The ethicist-artist says otherwise. Giorgio Agamben (here, in his wonderful essay “Form-of-Life” [1993]), writes that “an irrevocable exodus from any sovereignty” should be our goal. State sovereignty affirms itself “only by separating in every context naked life from its form.” Art creates, at least, an image of the naked life — and may point us to a door marked “exodus.” Agamben points out that “relations” have been the concern and inspiration of great artists and writers through the centuries. As Dante affirmed in De Monarchia, it takes a multitude to leverage the power of an idea:

“It is clear that man’s basic capacity is to have a potentiality or power for being intellectual. And since this power cannot be completely actualized in a single man or in any of the particular communities of men above mentioned, there must be a multitude in mankind through whom this whole power can be actualized … The proper work of mankind taken as a whole is to exercise continually its entire capacity for intellectual growth.”

[Published May 4, 2015. 240 pages, $29.95 paperback. Issued as part of the Whitechapel/MIT series “Documents of Contemporary Art.]