I recently presented a workshop entitled “Aesthetics and the 21st Century” at the 2009 International Arts Movement (IAM) Encounter conference in New York City. Hundreds of attendees gathered that weekend to participate in panoply of workshops and to hear keynote messages from thinkers such as Nicholas Wolterstorff (former professor of philosophy at Calvin College and Yale University and author of many books, including Art in Action).
“Aesthetics and the 21st Century” is admittedly a broad subject, but it was given to me for a seminar lasting only an hour and a half. I could have covered the wide topic in a number of ways, but I tackled it in the only way that makes any sense to me, which is to reflect and embody a distinct aesthetics: by turns highly personal, evocatively objective and maybe aggravatingly debatable.
At nine o’clock in the morning, about forty artists of differing stripes filed through the door, welcomed club-like by a song I love, the swaggering “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. Later on, I also played “Time to Pretend” by another hit-band with plenty of “indie” street cred: MGMT. I’ve spent enough time with IAM to know that people want to skip to the “ought to be” before they spend any credible time in the “world that is,” borrowing language from IAM’s vision statement. Too many people seem to want to talk of future possibilities when it is really history—her past and present manifestations (starting with the top critical favorites of 2008)—that dictates whatever might be new and cutting edge.
Along with the music I love, and what educated critics and millions of cognoscenti (“hipsters” if you will) of the next generation plainly love, I took the liberty to also show about three dozen images of visual art from about twelve emerging artists. I chose nearly all of them just as I, as a curator, choose artists: they are primarily those with whom, by one or two degrees, in ideas and form, I am personally acquainted. Jonathan Atchley, Jonathan Cowan, Joe Deutch, Amanda Ross-Ho, the TM Sisters, and more—all artists experimenting in provocative forms and mediums in response to the 21st century. Breaking from normal habit, I decided to hardly say a word as we watched the images in quick succession. My only preface to the audience was, “I am not going to say which artist is or is not affiliated with IAM.”
I underscored the challenge of dealing with artists and their art (whether music or visuals) on the basis of what one sees and understands (phenomenologically and epistemologically, if you will), not on premature, superficial grounds of pre-packaged categories. Christians often take pride in their hermeneutic abilities—so why is that kind of discipline severely lacking when it comes to seeing art?
I believe the power to substantially interpret is not primarily garnered from attending art school, reading lots of philosophy, or simply going on lots of gallery walks; it has to do with cultivating a deep, energetic curiosity and precocious sensitivity to history and its forces. I designed my workshop so that attendees sat in clusters, grouped according to certain segments of knowledge and experience: Science and Technology; The Arts; Current Events/Politics; and the Academy/Philosophy & Religion.
I gave the groups only about five minutes to collectively brainstorm and identify notable events from recent decades within their respective sphere of knowledge. They rose to the occasion when each group eagerly shared mind-blowing lists demonstrating the tumultuous history we inherited in the 21st century. Against this backdrop of wars, poverty, medical breakthroughs, the Internet and Deconstruction, we had a lively, even contentious debate about the type of aesthetics that might make sense in our day and age. A few people became especially vocal. If there is ever another chance to have a “part two” conversation about aesthetics, I cannot wait to investigate another, more personal, type of history—that of our own overlooked, psycho-social worlds, which in all likelihood exerts an equal, if not greater, impact on the individual and collective aesthetic devotions to which we are wedded.
In the end, I was happy with the discussion that emerged in the workshop. It was anything but boring, which is important when wrestling with a subject that can easily be relegated to the usual cerebral calisthenics. At least for me, aesthetics cannot help but be a mixed martial arts affair—never pedantic, abstract or tidy. The workshop may not have covered it all, but a prelude to the matter in contemporary settings is remiss to escape a methodology with some form of rock music, visual challenge, cluster groups and faux-democratic debate.