Griselda Pollock - What if Art Desires to Be Interpreted

What if Art Desires to Be Interpreted
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  What if Art Desires to be Interpreted? Remodelling Interpretation after the ‘Encounter  - Event’   ByGriselda Pollock 1 April 2011 Tate Papers Issue 15 Taking up analytical theorist and painter Bracha Ettinger’s argument that it is the destiny and desire of artworks to be interpreted, this paper explores the concept of ‘encounter  - event’ as a model to move beyond the restrictive dichotomies of word and image, verbal and visual language, object and text, and into the politics of difference via an understanding of interpretation as a collaborative activity solicited by the artwork as an event that precipitates an encounter with difference and thus extends the viewer, rather than instructs them, in given scripts of cultural meaning. Fig.1 Louise Bourgeois Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)  1989-93 Marble, mirrors, steel, and glass unconfirmed: 2362 x 2108 x 2184 mm Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1994© The estate of Louise Bourgeois   View the main page for this artwork   The great twentieth-century sculptor Louise Bourgeois died on 1 June 2010 aged ninety-eight. Her first retrospective in Britain took place a mere three years ago. Over seventy years old before she received art world recognition or international fame as a ‘ must- have’ for collectors and major museums, the reception of Louise Bourgeois’s work has been disfigured, however, by the ease with which t he hungry interpreters consumed the life story that the artist had apparently flaunted in front of them, as if autobiographical memories provided the key to the interpretation of her work. The story of what Bourgeois called ‘Child Abuse’ seems to have suspended further exploration of what her work was doing. 1  Instant explanation provided by a childhood trauma rehearses the classic romantic belief that  art srcinates inside its subject and is expressed, however obliquely, in art, existing there as content to be decoded with a single unifying explanation; in other words, artworks form an indirect portrait of the artist. The conflation of artistic subject and artwork is theorised as intellectual or artistic intention, but the only artist for whom this operation dignifies their practice is the unmarked subject  –  the white straight man. If you are a woman, the linking of art and life is merely reductive. The same model functions inversely, with the artwork being treated as the unconscious leakage of femininity from the sexed body or psyche. If the artist is a marked man exploring an othered identity resulting from ethnicity or sexuality, the ‘stain’ derail s hetero-white masculine self-determination and their art also becomes devalued for dealing, not with art, but with biographical otherness. 2  This approach, whether it positively or negatively locates meaning in the artist as valued, universal author or as particularised partisan, overrides an understanding of art as practice and process. Rather than finding out what art is  about  –  a project leading back to the artistic subject in whom it is thought to srcinate  –  we need to ask what artistic practice is doing and where as well as when  that doing occurs. What are art’s occasions and  temporalities?  A distinction should be made between the time it takes a painter to paint the picture (the time of production), the time required to look at and understand the work (the time of consumption), the time to which the work refers (a moment, a scene, a situation, a sequence of events: the time of the diegetic referent, of the story told by the picture), the time it takes to reach the viewer once it has been created (the time of circulation) and finally, perhaps the time the painting is . This principle, childish as its ambitions may be, should allow us to isolate different ‘sites of time’. 3  To the philosopher Jean- François Lyotard’s many ‘sites of time’ I want to add the timelessness of trauma. Far from being a past source from which imagery is generated, a reductive diagnosis found in the literature on Louise Bourgeois, trauma is rather the non-thing not yet-experienced towards  which a lifetime of making art might be unknowingly journeying. 4  If trauma is ever encountered, its traces risk a secondary traumatisation, unless the gesture of its becoming encounters a receptive discourse to structure it. Witnessing  –  hospitable participatory responsiveness  –   is a reciprocal act allowing the offered trace to be processed in the encounter with and by an ‘other’, whether the other be an individual or a culture. Hence in the case of Louise Bourgeois, her most extraordinarily inventive period after 1982 was not a response to delayed art world recognition but, I suggest, it registers the coincidence of her own artistic gesture with a feminist-infiltrated cultural moment concerned with the sexual, the body and psychic life that sustained her gesture as art, that supported certain kinds of investigation materially, technically and symbolically and that provided a frame of intelligibility that had perhaps been missing up to that moment. Thus the culture of the feminist moment sustained a series of artistic leaps that radically exceeded the modernist principles of sculptural form within which Bourgeois had been working more or less successfully. Once there was a specifically feminist and a specifically post-conceptual space in culture for the uncanny  –  the surreal in a novel form  –  the interrelation of object and space in the emergent form of installation, and the use of freighted materials and a narrative voice, Bourgeois’s aesthetic i magination exploded and the Louise Bourgeois after 1982 is a different artist compared to the Louise Bourgeois of the 1940s  – 70s, despite there being obvious thematic continuities that run throughout her oeuvre. Thus I suggest we can read in her work not the prison house of the traumatic past, but the temporally sensitive, creative passage from trauma to aesthetic witnessing. This is far from the therapeutic idea of  art as expression, expulsion, ejaculation, release, and all the other obviously phallic metaphors by which an inside (the art ist’s personality or intention) becomes an outside (a formalised and semiotic artwork). Trauma, around which all genuine art hovers, and in which art is generated in the unforeseenness of its event that we experience as aesthetic shock or effect, whatever its causes, requires an entirely o ther, matrixial account of the interface of sexuality, sexual difference and the aesthetic. Bourgeois’s challenging and perplexing practice serves precisely to incite interpretation and reinterpretation of its inexhaustible potential through recurring wit(h)ness encounters. Writing as both an artist and an analyst-theorist, Bracha L. Ettinger declares that it is the destiny   of artworks to be interpreted. She formulates the inevitable connection between subjectivity, initially the artist’s, and the Symbolic,  the field of meaning, in ways which at first echo Julia Kristeva’s notion of art as the semiotic transgression of the Symbolic order. But Ettinger goes  further.  Artists continually introduce into culture all sorts of Trojan horses from the margins of their consciousness; in that way, the limits of the Symbolic are transgressed all the time by art. It is quite possible that many work-products carry subjective traces of their creators, but the specificity of works of art is that their materiality cannot be detached from ideas, perceptions, emotions, consciousness cultural meanings, etc, and that being interpreted and reinterpreted is their cultural destiny. This is one of the reasons why works of art are symbologenic. 5  Ettinger presents art as a kind of gift, packaged in its own materialities that are at once spurs to perceptions, feelings and thoughts as well as connections with existing cultural meanings. This gift is also an event, inviting and inciting the receptive culture to work with it. The concept of the event is central to Ettinger’s theoretical shifting of psychoanalysis from a focus on the object to the si gnificance of a shared trans-subjective occurrence. The event initiates the foreseen that has resonance beyond the individual subject. Event in general parlance involves both a gathering and an occasion and the word, used of art, reminds us of both the interaction between different sites and moments of subjectivity and the shared experience, of the gathering of reciprocal responses. Interpretation, then, is not the exhaustive definition of what art is and where it comes from but is instead an engagement to work with it as a gift-event, that in doing something, brings about change in the culture itself: it generates new meaning. Ettinger then continues to elaborate how a radical change in culture can occur so that the gift-event is not merely renovative transgression, that happens all the time through any aesthetic-semiotic activity, but may challenge the very Symbolic order itself from a subjective, but always culturally-determined otherness that becomes a creative resource. She is using a Lacanian vocabulary in which the Symbolic is the locus of words and thought, and is also the determining law of culture according to which we become both speaking and sexed subjects. It is the deep unconscious of what the subject is as a cultural speaker. The Real is what is beyond the reach of both the signifier and the image, the tool of fanta sy or in Lacan’s terms, the Imaginary. It is the undifferentiated that happens to us, but which we apparently cannot know (symbolically) or imagine (through fantasy). It is identified structurally with trauma: the event that impacts upon us but of which we can have no knowledge. Ettinger writes:  Artists inscribe traces of subjectivity, Oedipal or not in ‘external’ cultural/symbolic territories (i.e. artworks), and by a nalyzing these inscriptions, it is possible to create and forge concepts which indicate and elaborate traces of an-other Real and change aspects of the  symbolic representation (and non- representation) of the feminine within culture. From time to time the artist’s gaze is suddenly split and we find ourselves in the position of observer-interpreter. I see the inscription of onese lf in the Symbolic and the recognition of one’s own desire through the Symbolic as inter-related, self-organizing, continuous events. I believe, therefore, that the Symbolic must be penetrated by women even if choosing one name/concept will be considered phallic. In that way, alternative ideas, deviating from the Phallus, may enlarge the text of culture. 6  Thus, it is not as a woman that the artist changes culture and brings into it new possibilities; it is instead achieved through working as an artist on these margins, opening passages from other unthought dimensions of subjectivities and sexual difference into a transformed realm of cultural meaning. In the case of feminism, this means challenging the phallocentric domination of the Symbolic and shifting or expanding its potential for supporting other, different, differencing meanings and subjectivities. French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche has argued that there are at least four sites of psychoanalytical experience: clinical, extramural, theory, history. 7  To this, I am going to add aesthetic experience. Resisting the idea of application of alien science to non-psychoanalytical domains, Laplanche argues that psychoanalysis leaves its clinical analytical sphere ‘  in order to encounter cultural phenomenon’ and to do so in a situation in which psychoanalysis is already a symptom or a mode of analysis that marks us all, after the ‘event’ of psychoanalysis as a practice, discourse and theory, because since Freud, we are now psychoanalytical beings. 8  Psychoanalysis is obviously one of the formalised and modern cultural sites of interpretation.  It is also an incompletely explored and contested resource for aesthetic theory. From the moment of Freud’s   Traumdeutung  , translated as the Interpretation of Dreams , published in November 1899 but identified with the century’s turn in 1900,   interpretation became a process of negotiating not merely the inherited opposition between word and image with its grand rhetorical traditions of  ekphrasis  and Lessing-type evaluation of literary versus the visual representation. It offered a novel means to trace the multi-levelled interplay of different, yet interrelating registers of image and word on which occur the subjective processes of producing meaning and becoming a subject in a world infused with, yet resistant to particular, orderings that we call meaning: conscious and unconscious, as well as Imaginary and Symbolic, repressed and censored, fantasy and thought. Neglected by subsequent psychoanalytical trends, dreams along with jokes, parapraxes, neuroses and artworks were key sites of interpretative activity for Freud. Before Freud, the interpretation of dreams had followed two hermeneutic paths. Symbolism made the dream a foreteller of the future by allegorising a truth to come. A second model involves decoding: the dream is treated as the holder of obscured meaning that merely requires a key to unlock. In radical contradistinction, Freud proposed a specific and dynamic level of psychic work, which he named ‘dream - work’, thus insisting on an economy, which worked   on what he called dream thoughts . 9  Because of the constitutive split of subjectivity by the unconscious, censored or repressed wishes figure as dream thoughts. That means that dream thoughts are the object of interpretation but they have been trans form ed. Form is the key element of this word so that interpretation has to analyse the logic of the dream operating through processes of condensation and displacement of the dream thoughts into a manifest content that can be remembered and reported by the speaking, waking subject even without apparent comprehension. The manifest content becomes available to the conscious subject to recall after waking and to narrate with some
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