Seagull Books

Month: October, 2010

Between Magic and Reason. Aestethic Rationality.

An extract from Subversion and Subsidy. Contemporary Arts and Aesthetics. By Rainer Rochlitz, translated by Dafydd Roberts.

Art has always been the object of critiques and defences that put forward arguments for or against works under consideration. Why does contemporary art so often seem to be beyond the reach of criticism or rational justification? Why does the debate so often boil down to total rejection or blind solidarity? Oddly enough, this situation prevails both in the contemporary visual arts and, for example, in popular music. These domains seem to play, in the psychic economy of their partisans, the roe of a radical refuge from the principles that govern today’s world: economics, power, the functional sterility of life. They seem to offer some of the rare spaces of freedom and uncompromising expression. To draw distinctions there seems to contaminate them with the perverse spirit of the rationalized world.

In the wake of a millennial disenchantment, art alone today seems capable of offering some semblance of the ‘sacred’ and of imposing a limit on an invasive reason. And fear in the face of modern autonomy tends primarily to find refuge in the quasi-religious attitude of the admirer and interpreter of canonical works. Judging and deciding for oneself should go without saying. In the political realm, whose structure depends on such autonomous judgement, this is challenged only by the anti-democratic instincts of nostalgics and profound skeptics. But the same principle also applies to the policies of art institutions, as soon as they claim to act in the public interest. If the judgement of every Tom, Dick or Harry seems to constitute a threat to the independence of artists and creators, if, as in the realm of science, the incompetence of the majority tends to inhibit innovation, rejecting anything that might challenge common sense and well-established prejudice, it is nonetheless indispensable that choices made in the name of all, should, in one way or another, be justified before all. Periodically, contemporary art becomes the subject of public debate on the ‘abuse’ represented by the challenges laid down by artists disinclined to compromise with the public, debates that invoke the common sense and the ‘reasonableness’ of ordinary citizen. The role of ‘aesthetic rationality’ would be to remove the appearance of arbitrariness from the public recognition of work that at first sight are calculated to shock the sensibilities of a public unfamiliar with the language of contemporary art.

A legitimating reason, or a reason that interrogates legitimacy, becomes increasingly important with the growing enfeeblement of other mechanisms of regulation, such as the existence of a broad milieu of informed connoisseurs. The internal logic of a rationality is independent of its social function: when we speak of rationality in connection with questions of truth, justice or aesthetic quality, the concept refers not to a calculation independent of all perception, interpretation or appreciation, but to the ‘normative dimension’ that characterizes, in its different way each time, claims, acts or works.

To speak of aesthetic rationality is not a matter of provocatively rejecting a tradition that has made art the absolute other of the ‘Socratic culture’ and seeks jealously to protect it from all rational calculation. This tradition was not without legitimacy as a response to an undifferentiated extension of scientific rationalism and a puritan morality to the domain of the aesthetic. What is at issue here is something else. When one opposes art and reason, it is no longer possible to make distinctions between artworks and artistic events other than in the name of a particular sensibility or affinity, in the name of unjustified and unjustifiable preferences and complicities. And there may be very good reasons to distinguish between art and that which is not art, and to establish orders of importance within the different arts.

No rationality can predict or deduce an aesthetically significant work; aesthetic ‘rationality’ is not a matter of calculation, but of the reasons that enter into the decisions of artists; reasons which, however, as a general rule—and even in the case of Conceptual Art—can only be formulated after the event. Without endeavoring to reduce art as a whole to any form of reason, the notion of ‘aesthetic rationality’ is intended rather to identify as feature of works of art that distinguishes them from other objects, also themselves ‘aesthetic’, which is that they expect to be understood in their ambition and recognized for their success, such that they are susceptible of criticism and of reasoned justification. A distinction must be drawn between the status of a work of art as a non-discursive configuration and the rationality that gives the measure of its achievement and its appreciation. A natural phenomenon cannot be criticized in the same way, because it makes no claim of its own aesthetic value. Such value is only attributed to it from without, and if such a phenomenon is said to be beautiful or ugly then it is only this claim, not the thing itself, that can be criticized. A work of art, on the other hand, always presents itself as being worthy of attention by virtue of certain qualities. Even an object deliberately made almost imperceptible lays claim to this critical attention in presupposing the normally perceptible character of a work that is intended to be recognized as such.

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The Hour of the Goddess

Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal by Chitirita Banerji

An extract…

In New England, as I look out of my window, there is more colour in the leaves than on people during the autumn. The farm stalls and supermarkets proliferate with vegetables and the prospect of warm kitchens is once again welcome. Autumn, in this northern latitude, is the time to start wrapping up, to draw inward from the far-flung activities of the summer, start the school year, and buckle down to the serious business of living.

Thousands of miles from my window, there is a place where autumn is the antithesis of such earnestness. In eastern India it is the holiday season, marked by three major religious festivals. In that lush tropical delta crisscrossed by countless rivers­—my native region of Bengal—there is nothing misty or wistful about autumn. It comes riding vigorously on the heels of a receding monsoon. It dissipates the cloud cover, banishes the enervating moisture from soil and air, and lets the earth bask under a kindly sun in a blue, cloud-flecked sky. Its primary icon is that of the many-armed goddess Durga, a resplendent figure, all gold and red, riding a lion and carrying ten different weapons in her ten hands, a potent symbol of victory and hope who destroys the dark demon Mahishasura.

The ebullience of nature and the liberating effect of the holiday season is complemented by another potent pleasure. Autumn, and later winter, is the time to eat well, especially to indulge in richer foods that are so hard to digest in the heat of the summer or the persistent dampness of the monsoon. The presence of the goddesses elevates food to an almost supersensory experience. Many Bengali favourites, including meat, are also cooked for them. Once the food is ritually offered and supposedly accepted by the deity, its very nature is transformed. However illusory it sounds, I know that a major part of the pleasure of many festive foods is associated with the ritual of offering. As if, by preparing and offering food, the earthbound worshipper can bridge the gulf between mortality and divinity.

Whenever I think of the autumn festival of Durga, and of the subsequent ones honouring the goddesses Lakshmi and Kali, I am overcome by the aroma of hot, puffy luchis (deep-fried puffed bread), of alur dam (slow-cooked spicy potatoes) nestling in a glistening, dark, tamarind sauce, of golden chholar dal (yellow split peas) spiced with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cardamom, its thick  texture flecked with tiny coconut chips fried in ghee (clarified butter). The richness of meat cooked in a fragrant, spicy sauce extends pleasure to the edge of sin. My tongue wraps itself around the cool memory of a rice pudding made with milk evaporated to a rich, pinky-brown creaminess and combined with fragrant gobindabhog rice, crushed cardamom seeds and pistachio morsels.

As with eating, celebration too is marked not by restraint, but by boundless enthusiasm. The autumn festivities are about inclusion and community participation.  The bursting bounty of the fields is matched by joyful throngs, dressed in vibrant new clothes, milling about the streets and visiting the neighbourhood pandals, temporary enclosures where images of the goddess are enshrined for the festival. Celebration in Bengal is inevitably chaotic, exuberant, cacophonic, and above all, public.

My memory of these festivals is always connected to that of my first Christmas in America. Arriving as a student in the autumn, I had kept my homesickness at bay by imagining that Christmas would be a compensatory event. I anticipated the same kind of energy, laughter and fragrance that festivals had always meant for me. Instead, I found myself inhabiting a ghost town. All the students in my dormitory, except for two other hapless foreigners like me, had gone home. The cafeteria had shut down. Even the city streets were deserted. Christmas, I discovered, like other festivals here, was a very private family event behind closed doors. The joys of giving, receiving, merrymaking, and eating were off-limits to all but the inner circle. Walking the deserted streets, I went past houses whose windows glowed with many lights. I saw people gathered around tables, the flickering flames of candles. I laughed to myself, wondering what would happen if I rang the doorbell of a house and asked to come in.

Of course I did no such thing. But the pent-up nostalgia for a lost autumn returned forcefully in the desolate winter. I was suddenly filled with a determination to hold on, to capture memory in every shape and form so that neither time nor distance made a void in my heart. No longer afraid of feeling sad, I concentrated instead on remembering every autumn ritual that had sent me forward, year after year. The aromas of signature foods came and wrapped me in a comforting cocoon.

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Hans Magnus Enzensberger – A History of Clouds

VIDEO-PODCAST: Hans Magnus Enzensberger about poetry (Excerpt from an interview in June, 2010)

Excerpt from A History of Clouds. 99 Meditations by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Translated by Martin Chalmers and Esther Kinsky.

After-Dinner Speech at an Engagement

This self, a container, which,

as long as no one opens it,

appears compact, smooth

as a Kinder egg,

almost appetizing. Only inside,

there it’s dark. Who knows

what’s waiting for you there.

Obsession no doubt,

rusty habits,

incomprehensible fears,

second-hand tricks,

childish desires.

That you want to have it,

this gift box,

borders on a miracle.

Excerpt from A History of Clouds

In case of stress, grief, jealousy, depression

cloud watching is recommended.

With their red and golden evening borders

they surpass Patinir and Tiepolo.

The most fleeting of all masterworks,

harder to count than any herd of reindeer,

don’t end up in any museum.

Archaeology of clouds – a science

for the angels. Yes, without clouds

everything living would die. They are inventors:

No fire without them, no electric light.

Indeed, in exhaustion, anger and despair

it is recommended that the eyes

be turned to the sky.

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