Comments on Kuspit

In response to Dan, JL, and George’s comments to the previous post, I think it’s both unfair and unwise to dismiss Kuspit’s analysis as “narcissistic posturing”. Kuspit distinguishes the historical, contemporary, ideological, and critical aspects of art to sharpen our focus on the way one’s experience can be either enhanced or limited by active engagement, on the one hand, or reductive categorization on the other. He’s using the notion of the “historical” not to dismiss it, but rather to question the way it intervenes in one’s encounter with art, shortcircuiting the psychodynamic process that Kuspit believes is at the center of our experience of modern art. We can disagree with his position and characterization of this experience, but not without giving it a close and careful reading.

I don’t think Kuspit is dismissing the historical and the value of consistent, coherent, and necessarily selective accounts of artistic works, movements, and styles embedded in a larger framework of social and material forces. His point is that a fruitful engagement with the work of art depends on our keeping it “in play” and not fully determined. To be affected by it, we must remain open to the unexpected. That entails finding ways to take “out of play”, to whatever extent possible, prior assumptions about the work and its cultural and historical significance, not because they are inherently illegitimate, but to keep them from “conditioning” and, thus, limiting our response. It’s those preconceptions that he refers to as “ideological”, and that he associates with the historical, that diminish a certain kind of productive and critical encounter with art, the value of which is to “further personal autonomy and critical freedom, strengthening the ego against the social superego as well as the instincts, both of which stifle individuality with conformity”. [From The End of Art, Cambridge University Press, 2004, 14.]

So it’s not a question of eliminating history all together, but rather one of relegating the “historical” and the “contemporary” (or “critical”) to those moments in our engagement with art where they can do the most good.

Now it may be that too sharp a distinction between the “historical” and the “contemporary” obscures the ways in which our knowledge of the work might help to open it up for us. (This may be relevant to George’s concerns about “the present”.) Perhaps this is true only for works that rely on a strong conceptual component. I’m thinking here, for example, of Daniel Buren’s early work which, on first encounter many years ago, was utterly opaque to me until I did a bit of research and learned more about his concern for drawing attention to the “rules of the game” — the practices of display and “consumption” of art. Kuspit might place such works as Buren’s in another category entirely — cognitive rather than affective. And, of course, that raises other issues…

One thought on “Comments on Kuspit

  1. I’m going to have to go ahead and “pull a Quigley” here and leave a comment just to say that one of these days I swear I’m going to get around to responding to you… Really. Promise. Stay tuned.

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