Fifteen Stars



History doesn’t matter—that much. History gets in the way.

I say this as a user. Personally I’ve gotten a lot out of history. I’m the kind of person who’s benefitted from having the time and inclination to learn about it and so I know how good it feels to look at art and not only see and feel the thing in front of me but also recognize a tradition that it belongs to, a dialogue of the past that it responds to—and I can feel it because that history is in my memory, and what’s memory but a history lived through and felt by a body? For me, and for a lot of other people who have cultivated some level of expertise in art, an encounter with art is an intellectual one suffused with a sensual one (or vice versa). That’s great! But most people haven’t been able for whatever reason to learn histories of art, to get them in their memory/body. That doesn’t mean, however, that art doesn’t exist for them, or that they don’t exist for art. That doesn’t have to be an obstacle to them having a sensual and spontaneous encounter with it.

But often it is. Often it does become an obstacle, because of the way museums present art, because of the kind of disposition toward art that museums set up for their visitors. There’s a lot of cognitive noise in a museum, from its architecture and its institutional identity, and even louder, the noise of the wall texts and (when applicable) the categorical logic that organizes works of the permanent collection into galleries; both these latter techniques are about inscribing art in some kind of history. And that’s an implicit demand that the viewer be disposed to a cognitive encounter with it. These practices are what make a museum a calcification of history, a visible accumulation of it around art—and that crust can be obstacle to an encounter with art for the viewers who don’t feel comfortable in the disposition that the crust sets them up for.

History is a tool that museums use to control art. I suppose this makes sense for museums that have literally seized objects of the past from excavation sites, or have purchased them and assumed the stewardship and care of them—but it’s awfully odd for museums that show contemporary art! It’s odd, when the wall texts inscribe new art into a history that hasn’t happened… odd, when art too new to belong to history gets grasped by its apparatus of control… odd, when art gets buried alive. 

But the changing character of the museum in these times suggests a shift away from attempts to control the present, to prematurely force it into a past.

For a century (at least) the default format of the museum has been given to us as one that cakes like grime to the invisible spirit of history to give it visible form. But in these times museums are exploring performance, they’re into parties and events and they’re experimenting with unorthodox and theatrical modes of display—museum are getting into the present. They’re edging away from always making history and moving toward situating experience in a way that stays open to life.

This new and still-unformed sort of museum is less of a machine for producing history than it is a machine for producing experience—it’s a social entity rather than a medium of culture. When a museum’s like this, art is in it like a user is in a social network, and by that I mean: operating within its frameworks but remaining distinct from them, moving around fluidly in them—a body using a system to create relations, dialogues, and exchanges in ways that emphasizes how it’s _unlike_ that system.

It seems like it’s kind of early to pass judgment here (which also makes it hard to describe this phenomenon in concrete terms), but somehow it feels good to me. I don’t know what will come out of these changes but I just like to observe that changes are happening.

I worry though about the persistent urge of museums to cloak all their activity in seriousness. Even when museums are showing artists who are still alive they want to put them into history already.

Men try to put themselves into history because they want to live forever. They long for a life that goes on without a body. Bodies are weak—they get sick, piss and shit, wrinkle, shrivel up and die and that’s gross. But history is something else, something relatively wonderful-looking in comparison. It has a permanent solidity and it never leaks. It is impressive because it leaves marks in time, whereas bodies take time’s marks. And lots of men want to be impressive like history.

The body is like #yolo and seriousness doesn't like that. So much art is, on some level, about the strange desire to not only have a body but to have something more, something else beyond a body. What makes the best art so good is a total equilibrium between the two halves of this contradictory desire. But I think the way the museum developed in modern times was such that it put the emphasis on that “something else,” i.e. the part that’s not weak, not #yolo. It put the emphasis on seriousness and history.

Seriousness is the patriarch’s favorite disposition. We’re brought up to believe that his seriousness looks noble and worthy. It impresses us because it stands beyond the body—it aspires to represent ideals that outlast life and it uses them seem impressive. Seriousness is a comfort to the 1%—it assures them that their exploitation of others is worth something because it makes it possible for something (even if it’s just their name) to outlast life. Seriousness doesn’t have anything to with the sensuality of a body’s encounter with art. It’s mostly about control. Control is comforting, whether you have it or someone else does, and that’s why we’re always depending on seriousness. Also because seriousness doesn’t want to let us believe in the validity of any other disposition. Screw that

I think it’s important to imagine ways of presenting and thinking about and writing about art that don’t depend on seriousness. So much writing about art is crusty with it, because writers presume their job is to lodge art into a history. That’s what museums want them to do. That’s what markets want them to do. Actually I can think of many writers who *don’t* do this—but still, it’s hard to avoid. It’s hard to get away from the givens. I know because this has happened to me! It’s happening to me now. I work on this all the time. And it’s not just about conventions of art writing, it’s about writing itself.

Writing about art—writing about anything, really—always means removing yourself from it. You don’t write when you encounter art—you write when you’re encountering a page or a screen. And what happens next can go one of two ways: (1) a revival or an animation of memory, reliving this personal past and feeling it again and translating the feel of the encounter into the medium of language, so the people who read it can get a sense of what happened to the writer during the encounter with the art, and maybe feel something approximate to it in themselves; or (2) the writer distances himself from the encounter with art (as he is physically distanced from it at the time of writing) and imagines himself into the role of a disembodied organ of cognition inscribing the art into a history. There is a lot of art writing that manages to combine (1) and (2) in various proportions… but it’s always going to lean one way or the other.

Of course, the people who look at art but don’t know the histories of it and yet write about it anyway can’t do (2) even if they wanted to. But they can (*we*can) do (1). And one way of doing (1) is to just tell a story about the art—a story about the experience of seeing and feeling it.

Telling stories is easy—anyone can do it. Everyone does it. Telling a story is like the most basic way of organizing perceptions and knowledge of the world and sharing them with other people. If we can conceive of a vernacular of art criticism that can be written by anyone who sees art it would be organized as a narrative (rather than as an argument that draws on history and connoisseurship and other forms of expertise).

So if one person tells a story about her experience and thinks, eh, that was worth about two stars, and someone else is like, wow!, five stars, and someone else is like hmmm, ok, three stars, and someone else is like lol ew, one star, and then someone else still is like hey, pretty good, four stars—what we have as a result is a constellation of fifteen stars, a glimpse at the truth of the social life of art that doesn’t depend on the serious accounts of institutions, or histories or any of the apparatuses that claim control of art—instead what we have is a story of art and the people who see it. Counting off stars to quantify an encounter with art is odd, I know, but the arbitrariness and weirdness of that system, and the fact that the people who actually use it do so without any systematicity at all, only emphasizes how personal it is, how infinite is the universal diversity of embodied experiences with art and the memories of them. A “review” means another view, to view again—right? And each story about art is another view on it. And yeah the stories that make up the results are fragmented or otherwise flawed—of course any one person’s perspective is limited. What’s interesting is a perspective when it’s taken in collectivity with others. Stars add up to constellations add up to galaxies—only the whole universe is the truth

Writing about art can go either way—(1) or (2). And that’s ok. At least the existence of writing about art, whatever way it’s done, is a translation of encounters with art into the medium of language, and that in itself affirms the openness of art—even if the way it’s written can obscure it.

We live in a society that has a public sphere (or a husk of one) where the rules of discourse require that we single things out, cut experience into manageable and differentiated sections, take a single position and support it by arguing for it as the right position and not a perspective that coexists among other perspectives in a relation of equality, as one small part of truth. Because art criticism developed in tandem with this public sphere it can be—and often it is—an excision of the work from life (from the life of the artist, from the writer’s living encounter with it, etc.) or a reconstitution of art in a firmament of institutional discourse, be that a specialized history or an authoritative claim. (Btw this is related to how museums separate the artworks they show with empty white space.) But it doesn’t _have_ to be that way.

Art has always been about something else, another kind of knowledge that is bigger than the cutting-up gestures of systems and apparatuses of control. Art holds these tendencies in check by measuring them against life. Art is less like systems and institutions than it is like people. It can contain and negotiate disparate and contradictory ideas, it can trigger emotional reactions, it can operate signs and images and language in irrational and crazy ways, and when doing so it can occupy a variety of positions and perspectives—and that’s why, even though it may be inanimate, even when it’s a hundred years old, it can still elicit a vivid response from people.

Art can belong to history but abide in life—it can enter the life of a viewer again and again. The best art is so good because it’s able to sustain a dialogue with the past—its own time, if it’s old art, or its own past—and the present—the time of the viewer—at the same time. When a work speaks to other times but is embodied in the present—that’s art.

Art is a life that outlasts life. It is where the spirit of history encounters the spirit of #yolo… this encounter happens within the artwork, but it also happens again outside of it in twin form, in the encounter between the artwork and the viewer. The artwork spawns its twin again and again—a twin whom looks different each time.

When art gets owned—when it becomes the property of an institution or some other serious entity—that’s not the end of art. Though art is involved in commerce of money, the trade of money for objects that produces ownership and other kinds of control, art participates in other commerces as well: there's art's exchange of emotions, and art's exchange of ideas... art's commerce of materials and images and forms that open up to each other within an artwork and allow themselves to be mutually changed by this exchange. (These kinds of exchanges are also present in things that we call “entertainment” or “design” or “games” rather than art, and in these things the equations of these exchanges have been resolved in a way that feels good—that’s not to say that entertainment, design, etc. are “worse” or “lower” than art, but that’s why they’re different, that’s why they have a different function in social life.) These exchanges are why art is open, why art’s alive, why there can be so many various stories about it—as many as there are viewers.

The more exciting these exchanges of emotions, ideas, materials etc. are the more people there are who like the artwork where it all takes place… the more people and institutions there are who are willing to pay money to claim ownership of that work (this is not to say that every good artwork _necessarily_ has a high price on a market, or that there aren’t mechanisms of markets and tastes that create a high price for an artwork that doesn’t have much going on in it—but for the time being I just want to talk about desire and interests, not how markets work, ok?). 

Selling art is serious business and ownership can be claimed and histories and provenances can be established—but meaning can’t, and the other kinds of exchange can and will keep going. Money establishes equivalency, it’s a medium where one thing can be exchanged for another in a discrete transaction… but art isn’t about equivalency, it’s about _equality_.  An equality of unequal entities, an exchange that is forever irresolvable and incomplete because of the asymmetry of it means it keeps going: that’s what the truth of art is, and there are ways of thinking about it and writing about it that represents this truth. The fundamental equality of unequal entities—that's truth, that's art.

--Brian Droitcour, 2013







Thanks to Anthony Antonellis for putting this site together

Thanks to the artists who contributed illustrations: Jeff Baij (two stars), Mary Rachel Kostreva and Douglas Schatz (five stars), Stephanie Davidson (three stars), Mike Francis (one star), and Michael Manning and Andrej Ujhazy (four stars)

I’d like to thank Yelp users Kim B., alexandra f., Erica R., Miranda P., and Jack N. for writing the thoughtful and detailed reviews of the New Museum that I’ve put on this site

For their various assistance in the project, I’d like to thank Sophia Cleary, Jesse Darling, Samuel Howe, Lee Kratzer, Brendan Mahoney, Hunter Payne, and Nicholas Weist

Thanks to the Shandaken Project for providing space and time to work on and think about this site

Thanks to Lauren Cornell for commissioning the project and to the New Museum for their support of it