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Thursday, August 31, 2017
It is with great pleasure that I announce that I will be giving a talk on Haitian Vodou Aesthetics and Resistance, at the CAA 106th Annual Conference in Los Angeles. The artists and artworks I will be talking about, have so much importance in contemporary times, expressing a historical narrative within the Creolization of language, art, music and dance. This is something which has been very important to me for a long time now. As an undergraduate I worked for Haitian Art Historian Dr. Marilyn Houlberg, archiving 6567 slides of Haitian Artworks for the Smithsonian. A link to the archive can be found here: Marilyn Houldberg Nigeria collection, circa 1956-circa 2005
As an undergraduate student, at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I worked closely with Marilyn and I considered her a friend and a mentor. With the guidance of Philosopher Howard Caygill, I have developed a theory of Resistance within the Haitian diaspora of cultural aesthetics.
I am honored & humbled to be given the chance to speak at CAA 2018.
Marilyn Houlberg & Rowynn Dumont 2006
May 1st, 2007 Luke Willard and I did an interview with Czech curator Dr. Otto M. Urban. The publication was for fnewsmagazine; the school newspaper at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I have decided to reprint that interview here. The original link can be found here: FNEWS
Photograph of Rowynn Dumont and Otto M. Urban
Prague, CZ 2007
Czech art historian and visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, Otto Urban, studied art history and aesthetics at Charles University in Prague, and, in 2000, earned his PhD in the same field. He is currently teaching at SAIC, focusing on Central European Symbolism, specifically the question of Decadence. He has curated a number of exhibitions, and his book In Morbid Colors: Art and the Idea of Decadence in the Bohemian Lands, 1880-1914 recently won the Book of the Year 2006 award in the Czech Republic. His articles about Decadence and Symbolism have been published in magazines in the Czech Republic and abroad, and his texts have been included in a number of anthologies and publications.
Q: What is decadence in art?
Otto Urban: It is essential to define clearly what is and what is not decadent in the visual arts. However, the answer is not unambiguous, because until now the use of the term “decadence” in visual art was unclear and equivocal, as well as being more than once ideologically influenced.
Q: Who created this phenomenon of decadence?
OU: The first to define decadence in visual art was Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel Against the Grain (1884). The author describes decadent visual art through its content as a flight into a “distant dream,” as a picture of the innermost self “destroyed by hysteria,” for which the decadent tragic vision of the life of a painter, printmaker or sculptor finds its themes in “horrors, corruption, complicated nightmares and cruel visions.” Later, art studies began to show a marginal interest in decadence as an intellectual and artistic opinion and adopted a critical attitude toward it. The avant-garde perceived decadence as the culmination of one stage in an artistic development they had rejected, not excluding its decadent manifestation. The concept of exalted decadent individualism stood in opposition to collectivist ideas. For the avant-garde, decadence to some measure meant Mannerist, thus eclectic and repetitive in form.
Q: I got to see your show in Prague, In Morbid Colors. What was the purpose of that exhibition?
OU: There have been relatively few attempts to expand the concept of decadence in the history of the visual arts. In Morbid Colors was an attempt to define the concept of decadence in the visual arts, in the period 1880-1914, not only theoretically but above all by introducing the content of this concept through works of art, and thus showing that the decadence manifestation was not a question merely of a few individuals and that it cannot be narrowed down to a neglected motif or aspect of form. Rather, Decadence can be considered an artistic current permeating the whole period at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Q: How does Decadence relate to other art movements?
OU: Decadence is often mentioned in connection with Symbolism; however, for many later Symbolists, both in the visual arts and in literature, the starting point was Naturalism. An inclination from Naturalism towards more imaginative form of portrayal took place in the 1880s in (for example) the work of Edvard Munch or Felicien Rops. (Joris-Karl Huysmans, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Emile Verhaeren all emerged from Naturalism.) It was important, in describing the concept of decadence in the visual arts, to formulate its relationship to Symbolism and to Naturalism.
Is Decadence a subset of one or the other, is it their interpenetration, or does it represent a self-sufficient and independent orientation and attitude? Unlike Decadence, Symbolism and Naturalism are concepts commonly employed in the history of art. There is a dual use of these two concepts: on the one hand, as the name of an artistic trend in the last third of the 19th century, on the other as more generally understood term when emphasizing the specific method of portrayal. For an example, the symbolism of Renaissance painting (Erwin Panofsky) or the naturalism of the sculpture from the High Middle Ages (Max Dvorak). But in this respect, the concept is used more like the adjectives “Symbolist,” or “Naturalist.”
Q: Is there a specific style to identify something as Decadent?
OU: Decadence originates through a subjective linking of extremes regarding the content of Naturalism and Symbolism, through a linking of the pathology of the body and the spirit of art. According to this thesis, Decadence originates through a subjective combination of the extremes of Naturalism and Symbolism as regards content, through the merging of apparent antithesis of the morbidity of the body and exaltation of the soul. The formal expression of a work of art is subordinated to subjective requirements, thus making the Decadent form heterogeneous and—sometimes quite deliberately—beyond the rules of the canon of the time. It is opened to the most varied experiments and, even consciously, inspired by the past. It is therefore difficult to classify a distinctive Decadent work, not only into the mainstream, but sometimes even into the work of one artist.
Q: What are some contemporary themes of Decadence?
OU: The portrayal of the horror and madness of the modern world became a key theme of Decadence. Decadence no longer had utopian visions of change, but only a grimace of ridicule and longing for isolation. The modern world was a world of the average, of leveling, a world without great deeds, but a growing number of horrors and tragedies.
Q: Why is Decadence important today?
OU: The meaning of Decadence for the visual arts can be summarized in a few points: there was much that Decadence introduced for the first time, above all themes that had been taboo (sexuality, Satanism, Anarchism); the emphasis on the subjectivity of visual expression influenced the imagination of the art of the 20th century; by putting an emphasis on art criticism as the factor bringing the exclusive nature of these forms to life and differentiating their conceptual nature, Decadence contributed to a more subjective view of art and creation; through vigorously refuting the national aloofness of earlier artistic concepts, Decadence shared in the creation of space for the later ascension of an internationally oriented avant-garde; and lastly, Decadence also required the creator to be independent of the surrounding society, thus making it one of the first manifestations of an alternative subculture. Decadence in the visual arts represented the dynamic duality of order and chaos, the painful moment of the birth of a new life and a new structure.
Last year I interviewed the Philosopher of Resistance, Howard Caygill, for The Institute of Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. I have decided to republish this interview here, for your viewing pleasure. The original can be seen here: IDSVA Newsletter 2016
RD: Can you start off with talking a little bit about this last text on Kant, which is highly unknown, that you have been working on. Are you directly translating that from High German yourself?
HC: The last work that Kant did is called Opus Postumum, made up of 12 convolutes. He wrote it from about 1795-1803. It is after the critical philosophy. It is a remarkable text, he considered it to be his main work and he was working to finish it. There are kind of three works in it, three books. What survived were the notes that he took. He would write notes, and collect them in little kind of folders, and then he would stand with this bit of paper, so he would have sheets in a folder, so he would stand with these sheets, and he would do what I am doing now, which is just talking to an amanuensis; the guy’s name was Worm.
Rowynn Dumont and Howard Caygill
Berlin with IDSVA, Summer 2015
Photography by: Louis Wales
RD: You even know his name?
HC: Yah, he appears in the manuscripts, Worm. So he would dictate and then a fair copy would be written, he would do it again, and then it would be written up into a book. So that is how [Kant] used to work. So the Opus Postumum is what is left of this last book, of what he was working on up until his 80th years. It is the very last Kant, and his literary executives after he died thought, “Kant has gone mad. He is throwing away everything in the critical philosophy.” And the text disappeared for about 70 years. It was never published until the 1930’s and is almost never discussed. It has only been translated partially; it has been only about 20-30% translated into English, same in French and Italian.
My project in this is I started to work on a translation of this and now I am thinking about doing it again, but in a way that respects the original translation as a facsimile, with the texts and the margins, exactly how the manuscript originally was. I hope to start that next year, with Nicholas Walker.
RD: So you are working as a team on it?
HC: Yes, I am.
RD: You mentioned to me in an email that you and some students from your Paris school are reading a sheet a week of this Kant text. How does that differentiate from the methodology that we utilize at IDSVA?
HC: In answer to your question about the difference in style between the French system and IDSVA, at the University of Paris you are required to teach your current research. We do not have a curriculum, like you would have at IDSVA or like universities in the UK. What they have are professors that teach their current research.
I am teaching Opus Postumum, sheet by sheet. So each week we go over a single sheet. What I have done is take the last folder that Kant had prepared, the last book that is from 1801-1803, so it is Kant as a 19th century philosopher. He already knows Fichte, he knows Shelling, Schiller, all of those post-Kantian critics. It is like a post-Kantian, post-19th century Kant.
The particular text is called the “Convolute” and in this folder there were 12 sheets. And this is the first time that this particular work has been taught anywhere in the world, because (Kant) was considered to be senile. It was basically assumed that he was mad the last five years of his life, certainly the last three, while he was writing this text.
RD: Do you think that he was mad?
HC: Absolutely not! So this is part of a test for the students, you have to read it sheet by sheet for 12 weeks. It is close reading, pretty much line by line, which shows how it is different from any other text that Kant has written, completely different from The Critique of Pure Reason.
RD: So it is not something you could read through quickly?
HC: No, the course is actually to introduce students how to read Kant, this is the final stage before it was dictated. We are looking at what Kant would have dictated from. There is a difference between philosophy and philosophizing. This is an insight into [his] philosophizing. You can see him in the act of actually thinking, it is very extraordinary.
RD: So you are teaching your students in France how to learn how to read his philosophizing?
HC: Yes, they have to learn how to read it. And another thing they also have to learn as well is, is the last that they used as this kind of typeface, Gothic typography, in Nazi Germany. It was published in sponsorship with the SS as well. So that is another reason why it has been relatively unknown then. Even though Kant wrote it 130 years before, but I do not exactly understand why that happened.
A new edition is being made, they are re-editing it in Germany. So that is the project, but what it does is, it completely reverses the understanding that we had before. So to give you one example of what the text is: the project that I am working on is called Kant’s ‘cosmological turn’, because remember in the Critique of Reason it is all about the Subject, that is the Subject of knowledge, so it is not about what Being is, but how the Subject perceives experiences. In the Opus Postumum there is no Subject.
RD: That is why you said at our residency in Berlin, there is no Subject. There is no Subject and there are no direct references to Consciousness. But what there is, is the play between attraction and opposing forces; there is a battle of forces. So he is pulling cosmology … we get to understand Ontology as the way of Being. In the Critique of Pure Reason he says that psychology, or the Subject, is the way that we get to understand Ontology. So it is about the abolition of the Subject. It sounds like he has even transcended the perspective from the body…
HC: Yah, that is right, he is sort of saying that we are just balances between attracting and opposing forces. He even talks about the destruction of stars and supernovas, the speed of light, the idea that if there were only attractive forces in the universe we would just be a singularity, in a black hole. And as repulsive forces, we would just be scattered, but in both cases there would be no events. So it is really cosmological.
RD: Can you tell me about your relationship with IDSVA, what you think of the program, where it is going and what it is trying to do with this notion of the artist-philosopher?
HC: I have been with IDSVA since almost the beginning, the second year, and I was always attracted by that idea of the artist-philosopher. Plato expelled the artist and now the philosopher has made the return to art. It is very nice that IDSVA is going to Athens this year, so it is the first time that the artist-philosophers are returning to that place in which they were expelled 2.5 thousand years ago. The program very ambitiously takes students who work in the art world, and really gives them rigorous training in philosophy to create this next level of philosophy.
RD: Can you share something about your newest work on Kafka? Anything brief that you would like to say about it? Maybe a little background of why you became so interested in Kafka to begin with and what led you down the path of this project?
HC: The book on Kafka is coming out in about 6 to 7 months. It was meant to be the first in three books on critical philosophy. These books are focused on instead of trying to get pure judgments, to achieve legitimate knowledge like Kant does, [these text] do the opposite. That is to start with defiance, what happens to philosophizing when you start with defiance. What insecurities and reason become endangered, instead of secured, like with Kant. These three texts mirror the critical philosophy texts of Kant.
The first text is about what truth looks like under the conditions of defiance. In relationship of looking towards law or reason, we look at accidents. It asks the question: what does truth look like through the lens of Kafka in relationship to an accident? It takes Kafka’s insurance writing and says he is not the writer of domination, and bureaucratic subjugation, but in fact he is writing about accidents. So basically it is an ontology of the accident. What happens to truth when it is just a matter of an accident?
The second one you know, On Resistance, which is based off of The Critique of Practical Reason. So it asks, what should we do and how should we act? So instead of saying we should be more abiding citizens, it is saying that resistance is first and it is the law that is dictated in order to forestall resistance. Defiance comes first and the law comes after.
The third volume, which I am working on, is called The Aesthetics of Madness. And it is looking at the art made in mad houses in the first half of the 20th century. So I was looking at the way in which art objects were produced by people who have lost their reason, [who] have entered the art market as Art Brut, with Dubuffet and how that happened. Basically it is breaking the link between what Kant talks about in the third critique between beauty and reason. It asks what works as beauty when reason is endangered?
HC: So it is a perversion of the Critique. It asks why are these objects that these people [with no reason] made classify as art? How did they challenge our understanding of art and its relationship to philosophy? So [as a whole] it is three critiques but done backwards. So the Kafka book will be out next fall and the last text the following fall. When I finish that last book that will probably be it for me.
RD: You say that now…
HC: I say that now, but obviously, well!
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Inspired by the 2015 Venice Biennale
All photographs taken at the 2015 #VeniceBiennale
Friday, July 11, 2014
The beginnings of the contemporary understanding of myths are particularly associated with early nineteenth century discourses on secularism and colonialism. The battle of the sciences for authority over the church and similar powers in their ‘truth-claims’ about reality, led to continued debate on the rational and irrational in the aim towards verity. This was intricately linked with prevailing theories on race and empire, class, sexuality, the civilized world and the primitive, and in such light the term ‘myth’ and all of its associations were set as degrading - references to the fabulous, untrustworthy, deceptive, and non-rational. These discourses were directed in large at the belief systems of colonial imperialism, at “other” people; however through the lenses of universalist and transhistorical theories, they were also increasingly directed within - at the internalized and barbarian otherness inherent in modern ‘civilized’ man with all of its complex expressions. In this paper I will be referencing Craig Owens’s “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism”, Sigmund Freud’s “A General Introduction of Psychoanalysis”, Slavoj Žižek’s “The Sublime Object of Ideology” and Jacques Lacan’s “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis”, amongst various other peripheral resources. The dramatic and textual arts of myths provides a wealth of substantial material to these theories in their uncovering of universalist and transhistorical codes in expressions - particularly those of Classical Greece with which this paper will focus. The argument here however, is that relativism and universalism are malleable terms, and that the postulates of myth and those of philosophy are best seen as forms of local knowledge. To this end, in the following essay I will argue that historical metaphysical postulatesabout reality should not be interpreted by the standards of transhistorical philosophy. It is my hope that this will ultimately lead us to explore the broader question: to which (and whose) reality is it that myth speaks to? Past theories have cited that myths can be translated into allegorical impulses. An allegorical impulse is an examination of why humans are driven towards creating stories with hidden and symbolic meanings. “Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably”, Walter Benjamin (Owens, 67). This quote has interesting implications for the question –“to which (and whose) reality do myths speak to?” – as it is only through their validity to present concerns (their ability to speak to the present) that myths continue to be relevant.1 The question then unfolds into the following – how and why the interaction between myths and the theories and philosophies which have addressed them in the modern and contemporary world remain relevant. Like the term ‘allegorical impulse’ this essay will be dealing with several other keywords. These keywords are principles in the discourse of the topic in hand. It is imperative to examine these keywords here before addressing their additional readings as the essay bridges the gap between the dialogical players and the myths themselves. The first in these definitions is the word itself: myth – The word myth is derived from the Greek word muthos. It has a very different meaning in contemporary times than it did in Classical Greece. “For them muthos was a true story, a story that unveils the true origin of the world and human beings. “ (Partenie, Stanford Online) For Hegel, the myth was something to be un-shrouded by philosophy (Kojéve, 78). In these two notions we see an opposition. In philosophy, the “truth” became the story and muthos became the myth. Plato himself had a hand with this exchange, as he would often use traditional myths in addition to his own invented ones for academic purposes (Partenie, Stanford Online). Transhistorical - the second keyword - holds to the idea that a concept can transcend a particular period of time in history. Various aspects of the human condition can be given as an example of being transhistorical. Transhistorical can be something that is considered “timeless” in nature - applicable to all humanity in all times (Oxford Online). The third keyword is Universality or the universal; according to Kant a proposition that is thought of as universal is a priori; independent of experience. Universality in a way is in direct opposition to relativism - that certain truths exist, but only under certain circumstances and contextual means. Universality, in opposition, refers to a “truth” that exists within the whole of the universe (Johnson, Stanford Online). The last few keywords are all covered in depth in their application to the Greek myths of Zeus & Alcmene and Zeus & Semele. The two particular myths that I have chosen pertaining to Zeus encompass what could be interpreted in philosophical terms as symbology. Searching for hidden meanings in myths, symbology implies that they have an allegorical nature, allowing us to keep myths relevant, to rescue them from historical oblivion – it follows that with each breakthrough in theory, philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science, that we can continuously see them in a new and refreshed light (Owens, 68). Freud related symbolism to dreams. His psychoanalytic analysis of his patients consisted of the interpretation of dreams. He believed that the unconscious mind would create wish-fulfilling dreams, and hide these desires in symbology. Each symbol would only give specific meaning to the individual dreamer. This brings up the concept of subject and object. In this case, the subject is the dreamer and the object would be the dream. A term like psychoanalysis can be mercurial in nature as there is no fixed meaning. However, using the OED’s and Freud’s definitions as a reference point, one could say that psychoanalysis is a method of psychological therapies which attempt to treat mental conditions by exploring the interface between conscious and unconscious fundamentals of the mind. In using these observations a psychoanalyst may help the subject to bring their repressed fears into conscious being. In this way the story of Zeus and Alcmene would very likely be treated as a symbolic, psychoanalytical dream. So the question must be asked, “Who is the dreamer?” Alcmene was the daughter of King Tiryns, Electryon. She was considered the most beautiful and wise of all mortal women. Alcmene was exiled to the land of Thebes to marry Amphitryon. However she refused to sleep with Amphitryon, until he had sought revenge, on her behalf, for the wrongful death of her brothers. Zeus took advantage of Amphitryon’s absence in order to seduce the stunning Alcmene. When Amphitryon had gone, Zeus changed his form into Alcmene’s soon to be husband and returned home in his guise. He proclaimed that he had revenged her brothers and would now claim his reward. Alcmene willingly gave herself to him, believing in his facade. With this union a child was conceived and was later born as the hero Hercules. Amphitryon returned to Thebes, unhappy with the union of Zeus and Alcmene, but unable to do any thing, as he was only a mortal man (N.W.E.).
Thursday, July 10, 2014
This essay offers a brief discussion on the discourse of Kantian form vs. Hegelian content in relation to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. Can form and content coexist in one architectural entity? My argument is that the Centre Pompidou, outwardly displays Kantian form, and yet at the same time, holds Hegelian content throughout its collective spirit. In terms of defining form and content, we will use the following definitions: Eternal Kantian Form, is one which holds line and geometric shape but without the content. Hegelian Content is the concepts and history of an object. Modernism was a celebration of form, a metaphorical shedding of the allegory. But you cannot have form without content. Postmodernism came along and fractured form. It changed the way people saw and were seen in their constructed theories on art and philosophy. Now form could be something, which could also hold content. With this new sight it was apparent that everything has content. One of the architectural landscapes that could be said to hold both form and content is the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The architectural team consisting of Rogers, Piano and Franchini, designed this complex entity in 1977. The center is considered a great achievement in the forth coming of Postmodernist Structuralism. Le Figaro, a daily French newspaper, in reaction to the Centre stated, “Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Loch Ness.” (Silver). The building’s skeletal like “pure form” had never been encountered in Paris before, nor has it since. A new library and one of the greatest collections of Fine Art was placed within the Centre and made open to the public, this helped to pass the aversion. The Pritzker jury said the Pompidou, “revolutionized museums, transforming what had once been elite monuments into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city.” (Pogrebin). Can form and content coexist in one architectural entity? The Centre Pompidou in Paris proves this possibility making the world a better place for it now and for future generations to come.