Must art be boring?

“You know me—I’m acting dumb
You know the scene—very humdrum
Boredom, boredom, boredom”
The Buzzcocks, “Boredom”

The world is awash in boring art. It’s tempting to chalk this up to the operation of Sturgeon’s Law, but in his recent book Strange Tools, Alva Noë makes the provocative claim that art and boredom are intrinsically linked. “Art,” he claims, “is boring on purpose. Or rather, it confronts you with a situation that makes boredom a natural, a spontaneous response” (p. 116). Moreover, “[a]rt is valuable only in direct proportion to the degree to which it can, or might, bore us” (p. 114).

What’s at issue here is not art that explicitly tries to bore the audience, like Warhol’s unendurable films, compositions by Erik Satie, many of Beckett’s plays, or Kenny Goldsmith’s uncreative writings. Those works evoke the experience of boredom in order to probe and dissect it. Boring us is a success, so long as it also spurs interesting reflections on the state itself.

Art, such as Walter Sickert’s “Ennui,” can also take boredom as its theme without intentionally evoking it, although this is a less stable line to walk. In fiction this is exemplified by Pessoa, though David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre, notably The Pale King, is probably the most discussed contemporary example. Wallace wants to illuminate that repellently vacant experience, even espouse it as a peculiar state of grace, but only from a safe distance outside.

Most of the time, boring art is a failure. The artist fails to engage us, or we fail to rouse ourselves to the demands of engagement. But for Noë, it’s inherent to art-making that it leads, inexorably, to the possibility of this sort of missed connection. This risk is part of art’s value and purpose. Striking as these claims are, I think they’re wrong both about the function of art and the character of everyday boredom itself. Continue reading

Neglecting description in theories of consciousness

Description’s an element, like air or water.
Charles Wright, “Black Zodiac”

An adequate theory of consciousness requires being able to describe it. This isn’t a grand metaphysical point, just an obvious fact about writing. Theories exist in discourse, and to bring mental phenomena like conscious experience into contact with theory, they too have to be described. How they are described makes all the difference to how they are theorized. So it is worth reflecting on the descriptions of experience that philosophers habitually turn to.

Many of these descriptions are embedded in the brief vignettes that are a staple of contemporary philosophical writing. Some of these belong to the unfortunately named genre of “thought experiments,” but they can include illustrations of how conceptual distinctions operate, accounts of facts to be explained, veiled attempts at persuasion, and more. Here I am interested in the role of description in these vignettes. I suggest that the conventions of philosophical description narrow the range of admissible facts and thereby make many phenomena invisible to our theorizing.

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A Halo of Pixels: The Internet as Religion, not Art

Art and the Internet are hardly strangers. In the last decade-plus we’ve already cycled through net art, new media art, post-Internet art, and frantically onward, with each new movement and manifesto trying to formulate aesthetic principles and create works that respond to the dominance of networked computing over modern life.

Even when released onto the web, though, these have mostly been creations of the artworld. In Magic and Loss, Virginia Heffernan hopes to reorient the discussion by construing our everyday use of the Internet as a kind of art-making. “The Internet,” she proposes, “is a massive and collaborative work of realist art,” an idea she tentatively fleshes out by analogy with participatory games such as MMORPGs. As a vehicle for its own distinctive forms of aesthetic experience, it constitutes “the great masterpiece of human civilization.” Continue reading

Everywhere and nowhere: A. O. Scott on criticism

There is a minor genre of books bemoaning the state of contemporary criticism. According to most of them, the “crisis” in criticism is internal or self-inflicted: it comes from critics who have lost interest in making judgments, or perhaps who only know how to make the wrong kinds of judgments. A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism is a departure from this narrative, but a vexing one. As a guide to understanding the material conditions behind criticism’s present woes, it falls short. But his positive vision of criticism opens up some interesting and neglected theoretical avenues. Continue reading

The pleasures of being lost

The attraction of art criticism as a form of writing is that no one agrees on exactly what it is. My own image of the critical landscape resembles an unruly, half-mapped wilderness. A place to get lost in, dotted with alien vistas and odd flora that defy easy naming and classification. Academic writing, by contrast, is as dull as a suburban neighborhood governed by a strict and watchful homeowners’ association. Everything is tightly prescribed, down to the color of your mailbox; there is little room for the singularity of an authorial voice, or for developing much of an individual style, and this near-total repression causes academics’ expressive desires to seep into their texts in strange ways.

Art also poses a unique challenge as a subject. The philosopher and critic Arthur Danto pithily defined artworks as “embodied meanings,” by which he meant, roughly, that they are material things (paint, pixels, thread, clay) that somehow convey or express richly specific thoughts and emotions. At the same time, though, artworks are also obstinate, mute objects. They simply sit there, refusing to respond to pleas, curses, and queries, no matter how fervent. Whatever they mean isn’t anything that they can say.

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Beyond comparison

In a famous 2002 article, Raphael Rubinstein announced a “quiet crisis” in art criticism. Over a decade later, the quiet has been replaced by a cacophony of voices clamoring to diagnose criticism’s many ailments. No consensus has yet emerged; perhaps the root of the problem is that critics have forgotten their proper task, lost their nerve, been supplanted by market forces, or become distracted and fallen into other pursuits, such as the writerly pleasures of description.

In On Criticism, Noel Carroll presents a theory of what criticism is (or ought to be) that aims to set the field right. Carroll argues that “criticism is, first and foremost, evaluative discourse supported by reasons” (p. 15). Critics do many things, of course, including describing, classifying, contextualizing, elucidating, interpreting, and analyzing artworks. But he thinks all of these tasks are subservient to the larger purpose of producing evaluations of the work. Evaluation is what distinguishes criticism from other forms of discourse that take artworks as their objects, such as art history and theory, as well as arts journalism.

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