July 7, 2008

Romantics and Conceptualists

I am preparing an advanced art theory class over the summer called Contemporary Art Theory: Markets and Collecting for the University of Maryland in fall. It's taking me back to all that critical theory culture industry biz: I'm reading parts of Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment this week -- especially the chapter on Enlightenment as Mass Deception. For me, it 's tough going. Also threw me back to Heidegger, sad to say. But I found some help: Timothy Clark's Martin Heidegger, which is a very readable, comprehensive look at the philosopher's poetics. Heidegger is essentially romanticism on steroids in my view. Part and parcel of that romanticism is a bitter critique of instrumental reasoning that furnishes a basis for the dark views of institutionalized, commercialized culture later offered by Debord, Baudrillard, Foucault and Jamison -- all of whom, in one way or another, seem to provide aid and comfort to Conceptualism as a subversion of the mainstream uses and abuses of art.

I don't teach Heidegger in my regular Theories of Art class. It's not just because he's difficult and essentially wrong. Almost all art theory is difficult and wrong. I'm more concerned that reading Heidegger is just too laborious -- slogging through all the neologisms, and jargon to come up with insights that are more simply and emphatically stated elsewhere ... earlier in Nietzsche and later on, in Marcuse's The Aesthetic Dimension, which I like.

Anyway, the relationship of romanticism to conceptual art appears more complex in this context. They appear at odds on the surface, but they have a common gene -- the goal of truth bearing via estrangement or 'defamiliarizing' the familiar in order to counter a petrified, oppressive social reality. I put it this way:

With the Romantic era came the notion that artists have some special capacity to speak the truth; it wasn't until the age of Conceptualism that they bothered to do any research.

(at right, image from A Breed Apart, Hans Haacke, 1978; one of seven panels first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, near one of British Leyland's factories. British Leyland declared bankruptcy in 2005; its brands are now owned by Chinese and Indian companies. A Breed Apart documents the company's complicity in South African Apartheid.)

The Artist's Journey into the Interior by Erich Heller (a proponent of German Romanticism and a teacher of mine at Northwestern, where he taught for many years); the cover is the often reproduced Casper David Friedrich painting, The Wanderer Above the Mists (1817-18). My favorite book of Heller's is The Poet's Self and the Poem: Essays on Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke and Thomas Mann.