Iain Cameron's Diary
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2005-08-25 - 10:11 p.m.

Chasing some fast rabbits down weird holes. I discovered a new aesthetic term today - disturbancy/disturbation - it comes from Danto - the discoverer of the art-world. We can imagine that art sometimes disturbs - good evidence that Huxley’s Point Counterpoint disturbed many readers in the late 20s. We can remember the hard edge of punk etc shock of the new etc.

I have been mapping an aesthetic trend in which the artist incorporates his or her own body disturbingly into the work - and punk certainly helped popularise this. But the snowball has rolled on from there. Ms Abramavic is a good case - and there were the Viennese Actionists. I came across a good article which listed many of the classic examples - involving body fluids, artists inviting the audience to do absolutely anything to them. Part of the aesthetic intention of the last piece is so to disturb of the audience that they intervene to stop the other half doing whatever it is they are doing. In using herself to compel moral action - between the altruistic and the cruel amongst those walking around in galleries - the artist could be said to unite moral and aesthetic engagement.

I ordered the Danto essay as soon as I identified it. In the meantime here’s a summary:

‘In his essay entitled Art and Disturbation, philosopher Arthur Danto addressed the topic of violent performance art which he termed "the arts of disturbation." "Reality must in some way be an actual component of disturbational art, and usually reality of a kind itself disturbing: obscenity, frontal nudity, blood, excrement, mutilation, real danger, actual pain, possible death. . . It is disturbation when the insulating boundaries between art and life are breached.

According to Danto, Disturbational art is a regressive movement; instead of going forward to its transfiguration into philosophy, it goes backward to the beginnings of art, and our involvement with this art puts the viewer in an entirely different space than anything the philosophy of art has equipped us for.Danto proposes that "the aim of the disturbatory artist is to sacrifice himself so that through him an audience may be transformed . . . it is an undertaking to recover a stage of art where art itself was almost like magic--like deep magic . . . in brief, it is an enterprise of restoring to art some of the magic purified out when art became art."

(I was made to love magic?)

This is an odd argument for Danto to run - he’s the guy who philosophised Warhol’s soap box cartons etc - so he’ll let groceries into the gallery but a bit of self sacrifice is beyond the pale?

The extract comes from a well argued article which is on Danto’s side for the simple reason that this hard-performance business is just too dangerous and inevitably gets out of hand with fatal consequences. This is a reasonable argument but it is not an aesthetic one. Its an argument for keeping art in its box because it cant be let out on its own in a society where the children, mad people and the infirm are trying to cope.

But Danto has his finger on the pulse of something - there isn’t much in Google on this but what there is extraordinarily good. There is a stupendous article on a piece of post-Judson ballet - ultra high minimalist NYC dance. Surely this stuff could only annoy and not disturb? The article which comes out of Yale or Princeton or some such Ivy League is an exceptionally rigorous account of how this ballet piece means and to my eyes is a genuinely novel contribution to issues like how representation works in art.

So Danto is probably mistaken in objecting to hard-edged body art that it is ‘too real’. Because the said dance models the real/is indistinguishable from the real - indeed it looks as if it is utterly real mundane body movement masquerading as ballet - which hitherto had grace and form. The work in question not only shifts the definition of ballet towards the real but does some very smart coding on how the real can be more than real and thus be art. So clearly this dance-work - Rainer’s Trio A - is a must-see full-on world-historical piece - up there with Lamont Young’s Trio for example. And it may well show that we don’t have good aesthetic grounds for ruling out hard-edged aesthetic self-mutilation. And therefore Danto is wrong.

But if Danto is wrong, he is wrong in a very interesting way. Here’s the other Google finding:

‘In this article I will discuss some systematic issues of Arthur Danto's philosophy of art and art history from a Hegelian perspective. Belonging to “Absolute Spirit,” art can be called a “spiritual kind.” Since spiritual kinds are reflective and self-determining, they are not susceptible to philosophical definition. Nevertheless, elements of essentialism can be maintained when describing art's historicity and conceptual structure.

To this end, “art” can be interpreted as a two-tier concept: in inherently reflecting its concept, it projects its own conditions into the past, co-opting “prehistorical” artworks as predecessors and classical examples. Hegel's view of art as conceptually structured in itself can have disenfranchising or reenfranchising consequences: either reducing art to minor philosophy, or acknowledging its privileged access to its own essence. After Danto's detachment of the philosophy of art from aesthetics, Hegel would himself be deprived of the possibility to “define” art by intuition (Anschauung). Even if the spirit consists of essential kinds, philosophy is not in a privileged position to establish the essence of art and thus the difference between art and philosophy. Rather, philosophy must acknowledge art as a neighbor (Heidegger) and as partner in a dialogue.’

To get beyond this summary you have to join the site for the day and that costs 10 dollars and for some not very good reason I held back from that.

In the Sublime of the Small, I start with Kant and his philosophy of art - which I had the benefit of reading in Lycia beside the pool - and was well taken with. In SoS I follow through the Kantian view to D H Lawrence who expresses it very clearly using Einsteinian imagery - talking about Van Gogh - very similar imagery to that which Birkin uses to get Ursula‘s skirt up.

The Hegelian path takes us through to Russell’s metaphysics and ethics which are the rational side of Brave New World. We can call this Stoicism - and via Hegel locate this as the Unhappy Conciousness in the Dialectic of the Subject. (Actually Hegel takes us on to song-writing as the divine articulation. As Miss Mitchell says - at 58 the songs stopped blowing through - who knows why?)

BUT for ten dollars I can get my grubby mits on a piece which promises to take Hegel forward and rough-up both Kant and Russell. Maybe we have a deal here?

A sentence to toy with is:

Since spiritual kinds are reflective and self-determining they are not susceptible to philosophical definition.

We probably don’t believe there is a world-spirit. But if we did we would probably be happy to find it expressing itself in the best bits of art of any era - in Lamont Young’s Trio and Rainer’s Trio A for example.

I think we could buy the idea that such great works are so great that when we find a new one - a leading edge one - it makes us look at the earlier ones in a new light. So Young’s Trio makes us see Webern’s Trio differently. Maybe after Riverman Wordsworth is different? After Miss Plath’s Mystic mysticism is different?

Art almost certainly has internal structure - someone once said (rightly) scratch a musician and you find a Pythagorean - jazzers are formalists - they get off on structure. You can say (with Kant) that this structure is part of the machinery that hotwires the audience to construct some fundamental truth - as Alice Coltrane puts it the sound of truth - or (and on the other hand) as Laura Nyro puts it - I want Coltrane in the Moon.

If we go with Hegel we go with the side of LNY which reaches beyond (LNY is the sound of reaching beyond? Miles is the sound of reaching beyond?)

At ten dollars its worth a punt.

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