Response: Bullshit and Art’s ‘Discursive Turn’

Sean Ashton responds to Joanna Fiduccia’s provocative report on bullshit in MAP #22    

In the last decade or so, art has become institutionally discursive: discourse is not merely desirable or necessary. It is inevitable, one might even say it is obligatory. Discourse now carries a moral force, and artworks that don’t situate themselves discursively risk being side-lined as passively aesthetic.

Of course, there’s a difference between discourse about art and discourse as art. If the proliferation of the seminar, gallery talk and panel discussion has instilled a discursive hegemony, discourse as art purports to undercut the moral authority of this hegemony, by locating discourse in the ‘here and now’ of the artwork’s unfolding, as opposed to the ‘thereand then’ of the lecture theatre. It is here—in what has been called the ‘discursive turn’—that the four artists surveyed in Joanna Fiduccia’s article ‘Bullshit: Calling Out Contemporary Art’ in MAP #22, operate.

Though restricted to ‘bullshit language or speech in contemporary art’, her survey yields enough material to justify a hefty supplement to the essays she draws on, Harry G Frankfurt’s 2005 ‘On Bullshit’, and GA Cohen’s later ‘Deeper into Bullshit’, (Swimming in It would seem the next titular move). Fiduccia takes her cue from Frankfurt’s distinction between ‘bullshitting’ and ‘lying’ (the liar operates in the vicinity of truth, whereas the bullshitter disregards it), but Cohen’s preoccupation with the abstruseness of poststructuralist  / postmodernist discourse (a ‘discourse that is by its nature unclarifiable’) is clearly more relevant to her featured artists, who all regard abstruseness as a legitimate professional strategy. Eric Duyckaerts, Jimmy Raskin, Benoît Maire and Falke Pisano subject language to an essentially plastic process: words seem to have the same status as physical material; parts of speech are hewn and chopped, shunted around like lumber.

The syntactic approach of postmodernism’s leading theorists would seem to license such a strategy: The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the thankless effort to discipline the viewer).

According to David Foster Wallace, this sentence—from Frederic Jameson’sSignatures of the Visible—‘won 1997’s First Prize in the World’s Worst Writing Contest held annually in New Zealand, a competition in which American academics regularly sweep the field’.[1] It’s surprising how often Jameson ignores issues of overcompression, underqualification, pleonasm and the use of pronouns without clear antecedents. These are the serial faults of ‘discourse that is by its nature unclarifiable’, oversights that constitute what Fiduccia calls ‘not a disregard for truth, but rather a disregard for meaning’. In the above sentence, we can just about decipher the meaning of each clause, but how they relate is unclear, since so much connective tissue is missing: there’s no torso to unite its flailing limbs.

It’s this same bluff tolerance of disjunction that characterises art’s more elliptic ‘discursive turners’. Quoting TJ Clarke and Paul Valéry, Fiduccia suggests that the artistic production of ‘discourse that is by its nature unclarifiable’ capitalises on a central tenet of visual art: that the artwork cannot be reduced to an explanation of itself. ‘A work of art’, says Valéry, ‘if it does not leave us mute, is of little value’, but we may question whether this holds for artists who use language. Does the man at the lectern leave us less mute than the formalist who deposits his work in the gallery and retreats silently to the shadows? It depends on the extent to which we regard the formalist’s depositions—and by implication all art material—as intrinsically discursive: art material, once restricted to a handful of ‘neutral’ substances, is now perceived to be underwritten with textual codes; objects and images resonate with latent meaning, and artists tease out these meanings with processes that range from the purely physical—things done to material—to the purely linguistic—things said about material.

Eric Duyckaerts and Jimmy Raskin have charismatic pedagogical voices sup-
ported by a panoply of didactic props, while Benoit Maîre and Falke Pisano refract their voices through sculptural objects. Fiduccia seems to arrange the first three artists in order of how far they dissent from a notional academic authority. First we meet Duyckaerts, ‘at once clownish and erudite and just this side of aporia’; then the virtuosic Raskin, the ‘disciple who is permanently confused’; then Benoît Maire, whose language, though ‘near-impenetrable’, has a ‘subtly humorous side’ due to the ‘absurdity of using academic philosophical discourse to debate work that has expressly abandoned the academic philosophical context’.

But then we get to Falke Pisano. And the language on the text panels of her ‘Silent Element (Figures of Speech) II’, hung from tubular steel frames that straddle floor-based sheets of Mondrian-esque pure colour, ‘is deeply alienating and hopelessly obscure’: duration can only be experienced when perception takes place from one structure to another; consequently temporal values are transferred to a continuous present experience of time.

Where conceptualists used language to prioritise cognitive over sensorial appraisal, many of their successors seem to use language to prove that a work submits to cognitive appraisal. Language is seen as ratifying a work’s conceptuality rather than performing it. And that’s the problem here. That, and the need to simulate depersonalised erudition—the default voice of art’s ‘discursive turn’.

We might go further and say that it’s difficult to tell whether ‘Silent Element’ 
is discourse about art or discourse as art. It’s surprising how often ‘discourse as art’ adopts the language of academia, supposedly assigning it a more subjective role, but in reality shrouding the concerns of the artist in a lexicon of rote theory. Ostensibly, Pisano’s language issues from the discipline of phenomenology, but it’s so inconsonant with the work’s physical components as to make its discourse seem like it is not for now but later.

This decoupling of cognitive and sensorial appraisal, common in the discursive turn—mentioned previously as a deferral of the here and now of direct experience to the there and then of the seminar room—is due to a failure to find a voice that’s indigenous to the work’s formal character. In theatre, the inte-gration of voice, action and set is called dramaturgy. Discursive art has been slow in developing dramaturgical vocabu-laries, defaulting to the pedagogical format, one feels, as a safeguard against theatrical interpretation. Arguably, though, the more compelling works in this vein—Mark Leckey’s ‘Cinema in the Round’, and Tino Sehgal’s ‘choreographed discourse’, for example—embrace rather than reject theatre.

Sean Ashton is a writer and former artist

End Notes:
[1] ‘Authority and American Usage’, in  Consider the Lobster. Abacus, 2006