Frederic Jameson–Lauren Anderson

Frederic Jameson Lecture Review by Lauren Anderson

On February 23, I went to Frederic Jameson’s lecture, “The Aesthetics of Singularity.”  The lecture was given in the Old Main auditorium and the place was already full upon my arrival ten minutes before the start.  However, I suppose a full audience should be expected when one of the most important scholars on Post-Modernism comes to give a lecture.  His lecture was extremely packed with information, so for that reason I am just going to focus on the part of it where he talked about art because that is the part I found most interesting and relevant.  First, however, as Jameson did, I feel it is important to clarify the meaning and distinction between post-modernity and postmodernism.  According to Jameson, postmodernism mainly characterizes aesthetic production, when not philosophy itself.  Post-modernity, however, is a historical and periodizing concept, and could be called another name for the third stage of capitalism or the age of globalization.  Jameson says that post-modernity began around 1980 and is still going on now unless one believes that we have already gone through a significant historical transformation is the last few years.  Jameson asserts that post-architecture and the post-modern novel and other things that could be classified as post-modern must be understood as symptoms of the transformation that is post-modernity as a whole.  Jameson says that the post-modern has been understood as a way of thinking or a type of philosophy.  The tenants of this philosophy include anti-foundationalism, anti-essentialism, constructivism, and relativism.  Jameson agreed with these tenants but said that he also believes that philosophy itself is a symptom, like other areas of culture, and that post-modern philosophy is not a new kind of truth but rather an expression of the new system and structure of post-modernity.

Jameson then began his discussion of aesthetics, or in other words, art.  To begin, he uses the phenomena of the installation to illustrate his views on contemporary post-modern art.  He said that we do not often see easel painting or sculptures anymore, but now we constantly see “spatial exhibits in which various kinds of disparate and unrelated kinds of objects that are somehow juxtaposed.  None of those objects which make up the installation is the objet d’arte itself, and if the collection is a work, then its logic lies in their interrelationality.”  He questions where that relationship exists.  Is it in the mind? Is it only for personal private associations?  Jameson believes that while paintings have style and bear the mark of subjectivity, the installation is completely impersonal and style-less, even though it presumably corresponds to someone’s choices, but does not have a clear idea or theme or statement.  I do not necessarily agree that all installations are impersonal and lack a theme.  Sure, if a bunch a random objects are put together, I can see that as valid, however, often times installations are carefully planned out and function more as sculpture.  Nevertheless, Jameson says that, “the installation marks a significant disintegration of the old classical system of the fine arts, if not its complete restructuration.”   Jameson says that in modernity each of the different mediums of art had autonomy.  In post-modernity however, the arts have become combined and come together to create unexpected symbiotic relationships.  He says in modernity, photography was “a poor cousin of painting,” but now in post-modernity, it has become a major art.  He compares this to the replacement of fiction by non-fiction in literature.  However, Jameson reminds us that photography is an abstraction of visual and the tactile. Photography and other arts are being integrated into one another and turning into hybrids.  He says that perfecting one medium of art, and creating a unique work that way, is no longer a viable option in the post-modern world as it was in modernity.  Again, I do not know that I necessarily agree with that statement.  While more and more artists are choosing not to stick to one medium, I still know of several artists who are extremely talented and relevant and only stick to one medium.  However, I will concede that only using one medium is becoming less popular and possibly eventually impractical.  Jameson goes on to assert that the avant-garde of the 1960’s no longer exists because it cannot do so without the politics that surrounded it.  However, in the current art scene, Jameson believes that the installation and its larger-scale equivalent, the contemporary museum, might be a clue to what has replaced the avant-garde in the current scene.  Jameson goes on to say, “The conclusion is inescapable.  The collective avant-garde has in our time, and in post-modernity, been replaced by the single figure of the curator, who now becomes the demiurge of those floating and dissolving constellations of strange objects that we still call art.  In that case, maybe we don’t have any great artists any longer, we have great curators.”  This claim is quite provocative and perhaps one of the most interesting points of Jameson’s entire lecture, but it cannot be fully understood without some more explanation.  Jameson believes that the avant-garde of the 1960’s and installations are equally spatial, devoid of personal style, non-objective, and ephemeral. The difference with installations is not only the absence of humans from the installation or the curator from the museum, but also in the presence of the institution itself.  Everything is now under the institution and the curator is the allegorical representation of that.  In post-modernity, we no longer exist on a human scale and the institutions have become autonomous in a globalized world.  Communications technology forces us to think of institutions as informational institutions or immense cyber space constructions. Jameson believes that installations are not objects, but events that are not made to last they are just made for the ‘now.’  These post-modern works are not really a work or a style, or an expression of some deeper meaning, but they are strategies, strategies for creating an event.  Jameson believes, and I would agree, that in our society today, we not only use technology, but we consume it.  He believes that we not only consume the content of communication but also its form.  This distinction between form and content is really the heart of Jameson’s argument about art in this post-modern age.  He used an example of a writer who wrote a series of book reviews of imaginary books from the future which neither he, nor anyone else, would ever write.  The important point the writer made by doing this was that you could consume the idea of a book and get just as much satisfaction as if you had read the book itself.  Jameson believes that, “Art today is generated by a single bright idea, which combining form and content can be repeated at infintum until the artist’s name takes on a kind of content all its own.”  Jameson then used an example of a Chinese artist who drew lines that appeared to be Chinese characters, but in reality were meaningless.  This was a new kind of conceptual art.  Unlike conceptual art of the past where physical objects of universal forms are pinned against each other to create an occasion for meditation, this kind of conceptual art is about theory.  It is both theoretical and visual, but does not illustrate an idea or create an opportunity for contemplation.  This work is not universal and only displays a singular concept.  In this new kind of conceptualism, we do not consume the work, but the idea of the work, which is a mixture of theory and singularity.  It is not subject to aesthetic universalism and each of these objects reinvents the idea of art in a new and non-universal way. This is done so much so that Jameson questions whether the general term art is appropriate to use for such singularity events.  The idea that we only consume ideas and that no art is actually being made, only put together, or in other words, curated, is something that I think I have been feeling for a while with a lot of art today.  I never knew quite how to put it into words, but I have definitely been thinking that more and more contemporary art today is about the idea and less about the aesthetic beauty.  It seems that now, anyone can become an artist.  Someone does not have to have the technical skill to pull it off as long as they have the ideas.  Many artists come up with ideas and then send them to someone else to be fabricated.  I suppose this makes those artists more like curators than artists, if all they are doing is coming up with the idea and how they want the work to be presented.

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