Saturday, November 19th, 2016

Pedagogy on the Loose: A Book of Lectures by Liam Gillick

Liam Gillick, Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820 (Columbia University Press, 2016). Courtesy the publisher.
Liam Gillick, Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820 (Columbia University Press, 2016). Courtesy the publisher.

In early 2013, Liam Gillick gave a series of four lectures at Columbia University entitled “Creative Disruption in the Age of Soft Revolutions,” part of the school’s Bampton in America series. These lectures and other writings, released in different publications in the last seven years (including several essays originally published in the online periodical e-flux), constitute a new book by Gillick, called Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820, recently published by Columbia University Press.

While it goes unsaid, the book’s subject is the revolutionary potential of art, but this takes some unpacking. As he twists his way through the text, loosely bringing readers through a history of contemporaneity, Gillick muses recurrently on myriad topics, from the impact of cultural relativism on art, to what he refers to as “the discursive” but you might know as relational aesthetics, politics and economics, and many other digressions in many different directions. Generally, the book is Gillick’s opinion on what contemporary art is. To uncover more specifics we need to look at whom this book is for and why they might read it.

The book is intended for very serious artists with an intellectual bent. It also is important to be an artist who has made art for a while and spent much of that time considering the point and place of their work in our world. It takes a great deal of specialized knowledge to enjoy, like a car repair manual or theoretical astrobiology seminar; criticizing its limited audience would be like criticizing the astrobiologist for not attempting to communicate with mechanics. Gillick is not addressing a popular audience for his lectures: he was speaking to one of the most elite, exclusive graduate art programs in the world. His fundamental allegiance is to art and artists, and while he might fancy himself a writer, academic, and theorist, he reads best as none of the above.

Gillick starts the book with his attempt to define and frame the art of our time. He examines the trend of “super subjectivity,” art that focuses myopically on the artist who is making the work. This retreat to the self, he asserts, comes from cultural relativism, the prevalent idea that all values and prerogatives are relative, no one better than another, and the effective banishment of hierarchy. Thus, Gillick concludes, artists can only solipsistically focus their art making on themselves, in such a cultural climate, for fear of being wrong or imposing on others. This is one facet of what Gillick would like to start calling “current” art, instead of “contemporary” art. But he chronically refuses to make limpid, by providing any concrete examples, his descriptions of what he calls “current” art. He likely does this because giving examples and defining terms has come to be seen as totalizing and limiting, a tool of the powerful to maintain an advantageous status quo. It turns the book into a gymnastic exercise in obfuscation, and because it sacrifices readability is much like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But if the reader is willing, they might allow that they are the example he is talking about but not naming. This passage might describe, quite accurately, you or a contemporary artist you know:

[Contemporary artists are] marked by a displayed self-knowledge, a degree of social awareness, some tolerance, and a little bit of irony […] The attempt to work is the work itself […] In this case no single work is everything you would want to do […] Hierarchy is dysfunctional and evaded in the contemporary and, therefore, key political questions […] are supplemented by irony and coy relations to notions of quality.

This author found his descriptions (while dated in some ways) uncannily self-applicable, and if you don’t, or find the sentiment dull, you might consider sitting this book out.

The writing can be bad at times, and it seems like some of the lectures were not thoroughly enough translated into the written word. The book is riddled with paragraphs composed solely of subordinate clauses separated by periods, adjectives almost randomly used as nouns, a meandering, luxated argumentative structure, and an absence of metaphor or analogy. Warren Buffett is able to spin enlightening and evocative metaphors about the complexities of finance; the same should be possible for art. (Interestingly, these two disciplines share a similarity: they both have a lot of people who use endless wads of jargon merely to disguise their own lack of intelligence and to disenfranchise the uninitiated. Which is rude–but not entirely the case with Gillick.)

What this means is that to read and enjoy this book, one should have a casual familiarity with the writings and coded language of Marxism and Continental philosophy. An example of code it is very helpful to know: in the chapter “Projection and Parallelism,” he mentions that the labor battles of the “last 150 years saw the victory of speculation over planning” which refers indirectly to conflicts of capitalism and socialism. But, of course, because Gillick is well read and observant he tells us the reason for all this coded academic language: “by 1963 [education] was a locus for struggle […] This coincided with an emerging sense that artists should be part of an educational process through the production of objects that required understanding: art as an extension of advanced reading.” Maybe the book needs a disclaimer: ADVANCED READING REQUIRED.

But one purpose of advanced reading is to attempt to imagine and describe new and completely different modes of thinking, unconstrained by the pernicious rules of our contemporary world. This has to do with his most worthwhile concern: the revolutionary potential of art. Deep down, Gillick’s aim is to empower those who can understand what he is talking about and hope to, if even unknowingly, define the better tomorrow.

Artists often forget that there is a higher burden of proof for one’s speculations elsewhere in the university and routinely wander into the academy saying whatever comes to their mind, without challenge, much as they do in their practice. If in academia there is both “hard” science and “soft” science, most good art is neither, often unable to find conclusive citation outside of itself. But it is an important role for art to play, as a complement to the more rational seeming aspects of the Western world, articulating murkier realms of the humanity. I’m not being pejorative or crass when I say Gillick gets to a descriptive truth of our world by being opaque. While there are many barriers to entry, as his intended audience I found myself having real moments of revelation and identification with the book, Gillick giving form to something I had seen and felt on many occasions but never had the ability to articulate. In his prescient way he says, “The contemporary is always an internal thing expressed only partially in the external.” His writing is much the same: a rich internal thought process only partially expressed externally.

Gillick, Liam. Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016). ISBN-13: 978-0231170208. 208 pages, $35