Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Good Long While

Update: What I’m working on these days.

I’m in the thick of conducting research for a thesis titled “Toward an Art of Social Conscience: Practices in Memory, Resistance and Re-Enchantment.” My rudimentary argument is posted below. It will undoubtedly undergo a series of changes as I ply through the literature and refine my thesis in the upcoming months.


Based on the following framework, I assert that the incorporation of sociohistorical narratives and other memory practices in contemporary artwork transforms art objects into sites of ‘social conscience,’ which I operationally define as ‘with knowledge of the other’ and believe to be an important motivational precursor to social action.

1. Objects have cultural biographies. Therefore it can be said that objects have lives, not just histories. In the least objects have a semiotic life which the beholder codes/decodes. With this in mind, I posit that objects store/preserve (a quality I refer to as memory in situ), invoke/evoke, transfer (e.g., via positive and negative contagion) and reconstruct sociohistorical and other collective memory narratives.

2. Art is a form of resistance, sui generis, in that, as Georg Simmel asserts, it is suspended above life, distanced from it, while simultaneously connected to its deepest reality. Theodor Adorno more forcefully expresses this relationship when he states that art, as a product of social work, communicates with the very empirical reality it rejects. Thus artwork by default is put in tension with reality. Moreover, it maintains this dialectic of resistance by taking life as its subject, even if only remotely or abstractly, and making of that life an object. (I believe there is an important distinction between taking life as subject vs. the grammatical object.) This process of taking and making the subject into an object then continues in the reverse, by way of the viewer taking the object and (re)personalizing it as subject. I detect in this dialectical relationship between the object and its beholder the idea, eloquently stated by Hans-Georg Gadamer, that texts, and therefore their histories, interpret us as much as we interpret them. In this manner, the artwork’s sui generis resistance produces a social nexus wherein the universal is made personal and the personal is made universal.

3. Art re-enchants everyday life. Because of its de facto state of resistance, and thus its unique social nexus, art is especially equipped to make alternative cultural and sociohistorical narratives visible. These narratives, however, are not proscriptive; they do not impose a restrictive reading or interpretation. Rather, they present an opportunity for the autonomous remaking of knowledge, understanding, and meaning. Their inclusion constitutes a social emancipatory force, which I identify as the power of re-enchantment.*

4. The dynamic constellation of memory, resistance and re-enchantment within the art object (re)produces and strengthens social conscience. With this in mind, I believe art operates as both a locus and agent of social conscience in the following manner:

a) Art, by its very own suspension from and tension with reality, suspends the self, i.e., the identified self of the viewer.

b) Standing before and confronting the art object, the self is placed in tension with the artwork’s subject, the narrative content of the work.

c) The art object thus produces a dialectical tension that orients the self toward its subject, a position which potentiates experience and knowledge of the other (i.e., social conscience), creating a veritable nexus between the personal and universal, and correspondingly, the individual and social self.

d) Within the liminal space of this nexus—that is to say, the juncture of the unresolved dialectic between self and other—personal restoration of meaning (re-enchantment) occurs through individual and collective memory practices involving semiotic coding and decoding, a process which in turn shapes and directs social conscience.

*Re-enchantment, as I conceive it, is the autonomous restoration of meaning, an act which by its very nature resists the hyper-rationalization of the proverbial Iron Cage while at the same time stimulating and strengthening social conscience.


The final paper will include analyses of, and examples from, works by Dario Robleto, Norm Magnusson and Kara Walker. I’m steeped in literature at the moment and slowly getting artist interviews transcribed. Apart from research, I’m busy parenting, working, and getting the house ready to put on the market in spring. Khalan begins college in the fall of 2012 and in 2013 I shall begin a Ph.D. program, not sure where yet.

Note: Text copyright 2011 Anne Marie Champagne.