Gest: Laboratory of Synthesis #1
Edited by Robert Garnett and Andrew Hunt, 2008
Robert Garnett and Andrew Hunt describe Gest as ‘a multi-part project that aims to bring together artists and theorists, critics and curators in order to discuss and potentially generate new approaches to art writing’. True to their aim, it presents texts, discussions, interviews, and artworks which represent all these constituencies. And it is precisely such people who will likely form the main readership for Gest.
There is plenty to interest them here. In particular, two much-discussed themes in recent art discourse, the ‘crisis in criticism’ and the rise of the curator as a pivotal figure in the field of cultural production, are examined in several of the contributions. These themes received pessimistic treatment in the pages of October in a 2002 roundtable in which the displacement of specialist critical judgement on populist and affirmative art writing was bemoaned. Garnett’s own essay targets a prevailing academicism in art theory, and suggests that it is its ‘failure to reinvent its conceptions of criticality and artistic intelligence that might be a root cause in this current critical impasse’.
Gest aims to operate, then, in a ‘widening gap’ between an ‘increasingly market-driven criticism in mainstream art magazines’ and more specialist academic journals like October. Rather than read this gap as a symptom of ‘crisis’, Garnett and Hunt see it as ‘a space-time of positive potential’, a site of possible reinvention.
This hopeful position clearly underpins the project, but what is often most valuable here is the sense that uncertainties and dissensions from within the contemporary art world can be voiced, and the uncritical pluralism, the lack of crisis, of much of its discourse contested. It is interesting, for instance, to read curator Anne Pontégnie dispute the desirability of interdisciplinary publications which might bridge the gap between art and theory. As she puts it, ‘I’ve learned philosophical truths and tools, and I don’t need to read it in Artforum.’
The curators interviewed here come across particularly well; all articulate a thoughtful wariness about the limits of their own positions, and all have interesting things to say about current exhibition practices.
The merit of allowing philosophical discourse a space to engage with art critical issues in its own terms is apparent in the exchange between Peter Osborne and Eric Alliez, representing the traditions of critical theory and Deleuzian thought respectively.
In a discussion pitched at a rarefied level, Osborne, convincingly in my view, contests the role currently played by a particularly affirmative reading of Deleuze in art discourse. Accepting that the Frankfurt School of thought failed after 1968 to ‘generate new problems, or reconfigure the existing problematic … in relation to new forms of social experience’, he argues that nonetheless it retains ‘the conceptual resources’ to do so.
Crucially, for Osborne, ‘to prove this, one has to get on and actually do it’. Quite. Though it is undoubtedly useful for the general coordinates of such a reconfiguration/reinvigoration of critical theory and related art world problematics to be sketched out, as they are here, it is to be hoped that future publications from this project provide space for the results of such efforts at getting on with it.
Gest certainly reflects the varieties of writing that attend art today. Representing the tenor of much contemporary art writing, texts by Dan Fox, John Russell, Johnny Golding and Jennifer Allen play with the conventional essay format, introducing fictive, satirical or pseudo-biographical voices and eschewing the authoritative and analytic stylings of art history or art theory proper.
The pieces by Fox and Russell are funny, perceptive and knowing, and Russell in particular skewers many an artworld bromide with his satirically inflated rhetoric and hyphenated neologisms (for instance: ‘kritico-intellecto-antago-political pseudoversus an esssssfetico-sensuo-intuito/ transcendent SWAMP-MODEL-WHITETRASH- SHIT-TRAVESTY’!). You probably need to be familiar with both the mainstream art press, and October for that matter, to get what’s being satirised, not least as Russell’s text is closely engaged with Greenbergian modernism and debates over its legacy.
Photographs from Rainer Ganahl’s Seminars/Lectures Series are included in the book. Several show an audience at Frieze Art Fair looking rather artworld-weary as they listen to a lecture from Thierry de Duve (a reference point for more than one of the essays here).
Gest is, in general, deeply caught up in the phenomena it seeks to describe, and it is to the credit of the editors and contributors that no meta-position above the fray is assumed. Cartoons of Adorno (tense) and Deleuze (laughing) illustrate the Osborne/ Alliez discussion. Russell writes of them: ‘these crudely obtruded positionalities conform to the way in which they are usually presented in art world contexts by YOU, ME, US, and so this is not a bad starting point. This is the REALITY of the art world-shit-ghetto situation.’
Indeed, and it is only by acknowledging the way theory usually functions in the art world that any possible reconfiguration of criticality can take place. We also need to acknowledge that it is YOU, ME, US, the kind of people who read or write book reviews in art magazines, who are the ones occupying the ghetto.
Gest provides a useful map of the situation, if not quite an escape route.
Dominic Paterson is a lecturer at University of Glasgow
£9.95 , ISBN 978 1 870699 96 9 www.bookworks.org.uk