Flexible, shaky form. Fatality of commentary and socially engaged art

Posted on Grudzień 20, 2016

It is for a reason that I refer to the notion of significant, explored in depth by the French Structuralism and Post-Structuralism. The problem of the identity of the work of art – in this context, of “text” – and of giving it “form,” posed by Bishop in her book, can be seen as an echo of the question about the identity of the text which emerged together with Barthes’ concept of the death of the author.  This problem was addressed by Michel Foucault, among others. If we accept the concept of the death of the author, as well as the conclusion that the text works in no connection with his intentions, then were do we find the limits of the text, asked Foucault, if, for instance, we would wish to publish Nietzsche’s collected works? Certainly, we would publish what Nietzsche published in his lifetime, but the doubt would emerge if we reached for his notebooks, personal notes with deletions, additions, addresses, etc. Which of them should be published and which should not? Methodologies that reject the figure of the author treat literature as a “text” and dismiss the notion of work. In their consideration of the conditions of possibility of a text, they take a risk of assuming the existence of history that made the text possible, and “in transcendental terms, the religious principle of the hidden meaning (which requires interpretation) and the critical principle of implicit significations, silent determinations, and obscured contents (which gives rise to commentary)”. According to Foucault, after the figure of the author is rejected, the text is condemned to – as Michał Paweł Markowski described it – “the fatality of the commentary”. The text becomes prey to interpretations, annotations, footnotes, references, and travesties. Literary criticism argues that texts contain some unformulated rest, some surplus that it tries to capture and which eludes it constantly. Ultimately, the author and his death mean only, as Roland Barthes saw it, the birth of the reader. More than anything, however, it occasions the birth of the critic and the emergence of an infinite chain of interpretations and counter-interpretations or – in other words – “fatal,” eternally incomplete attempts at giving the text its final form. (…)

Yet, Claire Bishop’s methodology leads us much further: depending on the direction of interpretation it allows the critic to remove either the author or the audience, the process or the result, consensus or antagonism. It forces interpretations of artworks to move between two binaries and freely locate either on one or another side the influence of each on the identity or substantiality of the art work. In one instance, a critic may resign from assessing an artwork in terms of its quality by affirming inclusive tasks, in another, dismiss the active participation of the public by emphasising the role of talent. This softens the substance of the artwork much more than – in this context – an endearingly conservative and archaic concept of the death of the author. At the same time, it allows for criticism to emerge. In Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop notes that Rancière’s theory of the aesthetics of politics “has been co-opted for the defence of wildly differing artistic practices (including a conservative return to beauty), even though his ideas do not easily translate into critical judgements”. In the light of the ambivalence of interpretive results achieved with this perspective, yet again we arrive at a suspicion that perhaps interpretation is here a goal in itself. Political efficacy, on the other hand, becomes reduced to textual mediation in the form of reviews, articles, and interviews in professional press. Indeed, it does not escape the fatality of the commentary, on the contrary, it owes it its being and its meticulous construction of the interpretive house of cards.

An excerpt of a paper published in “Annales Universitatis Paedagogicae Cracoviensis. Studia de Arte et Educatione”, nr 217, p. 29-37. The full text is accesible here of here.