July 6, 2007

Serra, Serra: last call

Insightful commentary by Gainesville subterranean bodhisattva JCS claims Serra's recent work constitutes a monumental gesture of resistance to authority. It's an attractive, if romantic, idea and it's certainly consistent with Serra's intention. Nonetheless, I have my doubts. The flaw is that you need the Serra back story to make that argument: tough guy, against the odds, hostile public, etc., etc. (I'm sympathetic - my self-image was forged by TV and movie cowboys, too.) But artists don't get to decide how their work functions in society. The work functions on its own. An important part of the critical enterprise is to figure out the actual, on the ground, impact of specific works of art. In my view, Serra's scale virtually guarantees its future as just another (loud) phrase in the vocabulary of wealth and power. Another way of asking these questions is an old one (Benjamin's): what is, really, the political tendency of this work? Or Marcuse's: How does this work help to demystify institutions and relationships in society and , thereby, 'break the power of established reality (and those who established it) to define what is real'? Can 'Serra' (the brand) escape becoming an emblem of capital? As to net social impact, it would be interesting to compare Serra and Gordon Matta-Clark (the recent Whitney retrospective was fascinating) and, for good measure, add in Damien Hirst's new $100,000,000 skull.

Note: to follow up on an earlier post where I wondered why Wal-Mart had not seized the opportunity to sponsor the Serra MOMA retrospective – the actual sponsor is conglomerate LVMH / Mo√ęt Hennessy Louis Vuitton.


onkafatso said...

You give yourself away, Mr. Weil, with the reproduced photo. Our intel leads us to believe it's not so much the cowboy as it is the cigarette. Having some trouble with abstinence? Making you a bit irascible?

Still, nice argument -- though I'm supposed to avoid matters of substance on this assignment.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Serra, Serra, Serra. . . whatever will be will be.

In Juli Carson’s essay about Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and its demise, 1989, she states that with Serra’s publication of The Destruction of “Tilted Arc,” his obdurate, machismo, sculpture’s presence had become “inextricably bound up with the rhetoric from which it was conceived (late modernist, phenomenological notions of site-specificity) and to which it contributed (postmodernist notions of the discursive site).” She then continues with: “For the ‘object’ destroyed was the very one borne within the modernist dialectic over a work’s physical site-specificity, bound up, as it were, in the logic of transcendence - a dialectic between a work seen to transcend any physical union with its site and a work seen to transcend any physical contradiction with its site.”

I believe this is a rather elegant consideration of both Serra (the sculptor) and Tilted Arc, (the sculpture), as physical, now mythological, “objects” hatched from those “late modernist” ideas of art and artists that transcend their location, whose ironic return now as “placeless” objects, freed of their earth-bound presence and encapsulated within postmodern discursivity.

Further still, Carson’s archaeological analysis of Serra (by way of Derrida) as origin (the Father) of Tilted Arc (the Son) is an especially useful and poetic analysis if we consider that his sculpture has transcended the physicality of Federal Plaza and has sustained new life within a discursive site further supported by Serra’s overtly virile machinations about his continued right to impose large-scale, territorial sculpture.

M Mitchell said...

Although the critical establishment has effectively canonized the dimension of performativity evidenced in Serra’s legal battles (see R. Krauss), it does not erase the presence of an object that ultimately exists as an instrument of a system of connoisseurship. Whether that object exists as a physical object or an object of discourse, its flirtation with ontological ambiguity does not directly translate into the work’s possession of a social function.

In the case of Hirst’s diamond skull, the supporting documents that assure the buyer of the ethical origin of the work’s materials imbue the works with a certain absurd self-consciousness. Does this self-consciousness in itself constitute a critical gesture? After reading your post, I would guess not.

onkafatso said...

Mr. Weil, my superiors are quite pleased with my report on your handling of the Serra problem. We commend you for the mystification inherent in the assertion that “the work functions on its own,” which not only negates the artist’s intentions but more importantly helps us in obscuring the fact that it is we and our corporate masters who determine how the work functions.

Your strategy also successfully disempowers the viewer and nullifies, to our delight, the experiences, not to mention the hopes, of poor viewers like Nathan and JCS, only to supplant those experiences with the assertedly more valid responses of critics in the industry.

Finally, having negated artistic intent and viewers’ own interpretations of art in favor, first, of mystification and, second, of the business of criticism, you pose questions by Benjamin and Marcuse that are both premised, in one way or another, on the supposed political “tendency” or “function” of the work. As posed, those questions reinforce the idea that the work “functions on its own” and is not subject to specific political-economic forces and strategies pursued by real people with real power, except perhaps professional critics, some of whom we employ or control.

Well done! You are at last beginning the earn that rather extravagant per diem they afford you.