So what is a real encounter with art?
In past posts I named the real encounter as a counterpoint to the conceptual regime in art – or the mode of consciousness that wants to see art largely as what we think about it, rather than what it is. The point, however, was not to set up a dualism between the two, or to suggest that meaning, concept, and (really?) thinking don’t have a place in our encounter with art. That would be unproductive, and – well, unreal (not to mention stupid). We think. We want to know what something’s all about. We want to use our history and experience and (some of us anyway) expertise in the service of a clear and legible exegesis. Plus, we have agendas – good ones. The liberation ideal behind much thought about and positioning of art – that the purpose and goal of art is to expose modes of power, prejudice, and limiting beliefs and structures (both in the world at large and within the world of art) — works, in my view, as a progressive and enlightening mode of production and meaning. So I have no truck with ideas or ideation – the liberation ideal, for example, has ushered viewers to deeper realizations about their political and social circumstances, has exposed political structures to scrutiny and change, and has pushed artists to continually question the foundations and assumptions of their craft, spurring an ever-widening scope and production of objects (and non-objects) for our consideration.
But what I have noticed, over the past 20 years as a working artist (and this of course, is me engaging what I hope is a novel line of liberation thought) is a widening gap between what we say and write and think and talk about in art, on the one hand, and what the thing – the art object – is, on the other hand. For all the liberation of human potential, the art object itself has been held largely captive to the human imaginations that make this liberation possible. The truth is often the art object is seen as little more than a caption to our ideas about it.
There is much to be explored here. But I want to keep it simple, for now, and focus on the basics of the real encounter.
So what do I mean by real? My use has nothing to do with colloquial realism, and little to do with Michael Fried’s realism – although what he discusses is relevant. The real here refers to the current and developing corpus of philosophical realism – or the odd (for us) idea that things – art objects and otherwise – are not simply constructions of our minds, but are: they exist in and of themselves, with and without us. It seems to me that much recent (last 20 years) writing and talk and thinking on art (to me, the conceptual regime) reflects a different position – one more in line with philosophical idealism, or the notion that objects exist only for us and by us, in our beholding and consideration of them, and not otherwise. In my view, the art criticism of the past 20 years, if nothing else, has focused on our ideas about art and artworks, and has made little room for a consideration of the art object as real in itself, and what that might mean for our interaction with it, and the outcomes of that interaction.
And what do I mean by encounter? I am using this word, and not experience, because the latter simply extends the human experience, with no allowance for a notion of interaction between viewer and art object. So an encounter is an interaction between two objects – or, better put, the field that is developed between the two. We typically assume that the bargain is one-sided – that the artwork is an empty vessel until we arrive with our ideas about it. It may be differentiated from other artworks, but we still hold its meaning – its soul.
And so what is different about the real encounter? Well, it doesn’t look much different than any encounter with art. The difference is internal, in the approach and attitude we take, and in the willingness and openness to allow an uncertain outcome, wrought in the crucible of the field of the encounter. Basically, we agree to put down our preconceptions and prejudices willfully, and allow (it sounds too simple and brute) what is there to motivate thought and meaning. A real encounter doesn’t mean that we fill in what we think the object is doing or wants, nor assume nor project any agency of the object. No: the quality of interaction in the real encounter is rendered, rather, by our restraint in such projections and assumptions, as well as our restraint in our will to blanket the field with limiting, flattening ideas and thoughts about what the meaning of the thing might be.
In short, in the real encounter we are willing to let meaning be real – to announce itself to us through the unfolding realtime interaction, rather than looking in the encounter for affirmation of our ideas about it.
The real encounter is much simpler than what we are used to – and harder. Allowing what is, is the simplest action. But giving up the security, confidence, knowingness, power, the bolstered identity and sense of self – that’s the hard part. Engaging the field of the real encounter, after all, means stepping into the interaction in vulnerability, with a willingness to be impacted and changed by that field and to be touched – here, touched by art.
Image: Jeff Perrott, Souvenir, 2005, 3 1/2″ x 4″ x 4″, bronze, two parts. Edition of 3.