The Main Questions: Artworks and Objects

I’ve nearly finished my proposed essay that attempts to map OOO and Michael Fried’s aesthetic criticism / historical analysis together. The process of writing and reengaging with the artworks he celebrates, has thrown some interesting conclusions.

I know that the majority of those who will read it will be of a philosophical background so I’m desperately trying to avoid lapsing into ‘art speak’. This usually involves describing the work and the artist’s actions, in the minutest detail. If the writer concerned is a good one (like Fried) it can be an absolute joy. If they aren’t (like Bourriaud or Ranciere) then its like trying to find cupcakes through treacle.

Its also nailed the reasons why I admire OOO so much as an ontology. Many artists and thinkers like to distance ontology from arts practice so that ontological concepts guide the artists concepts (theory informs practice). I find this position untenable personally, it is the reason why so much art based directly on Speculative Realism and OOO misses the point completely. The process of making work is explicitly ontological. By making work which panders to the audience directly, you are submitting to the antithesis of the Speculative Realist / OOO position; that the artwork needs the human viewer in order to work. By contrast Fried has made a career in tracing the opposite.

Its really interesting to see how Morton, Bogost, Bryant and Harman are applying OOO to so many different areas. Amongst other areas of integration, Harman is going to have a go at piercing the epistemological distinction between real and sensual objects. Bogost is developing a fantastic videogame design project, that forces the user to confront avatars themselves, on their own terms. Because Morton’s already developed such important ecological work, its fantastic to see how OOO is transforming his own ecological thought. And finally Bryant is dealing out important post after post on the impact of object mediation (Sartre and anti-praxis), social group collectives and political agency.

So here are my main questions that assume a lot, but are the main ones nonetheless. The integration is one between Digital artworks, algorithms and OOO. These are questions that I’ve dealt with in much more detail, for the PhD;

1.) Is aesthetic expression with the viewer or the artwork?

Are artworks special types of artworks that deliver expression autonomously, or can the autonomy of expression be delivered by any object whatsoever? In the history of aesthetics (that admits to artworks being explicitly ontological), this seems like a forced choice. Either, the artwork is a special type of object that is ‘idealised’, i.e. it is a special assemblage of ordinary things that resembles an object which is “no ordinary object”. Or if any object has the capacity to work as an artwork, then it is the relational receiver, system or context, that ‘makes’ it art in the perspective sense. Or, artworks have the political impact of opening space within systems and social patterns.

For the best part of the last 40 – 50 years, art criticism has sided with the relational aspect and rejected the formalist, transcending object part. This is where OOO comes in, it completely obliterates that forced choice. The object is both independent and relational at the same time. You can have your cake and eat it, formalist supporters.

2.) What is the difference between Artworks and **mundane** objects?

This should be noted with the proviso, (if any). As you would have detected, this fails to answer the question of what it is we are actually looking at. OOO does not just reject the suggestion that other objects are mundane, (i.e. a painting is indeed a painting, and not a dog or a bar of soap, but each object also has an equal ontological validity as any other), it complicates things further. Humans are also objects and as such, they are not held as sole bearers of aesthetic judgement anymore. The artwork-object we are looking at, should have just as much aesthetic capability as the viewer.

Where does this leave the special idealised artwork, and perhaps more importantly, where does that leave the perceptive issue of relation? OOO provides an interesting alternative to the suggestion that what we are dealing with is “two” types of object-perception, one mundane, the other being genuinely aesthetic. This is necessary for the artwork to function ‘as’ an artwork, because if it doesn’t, then the perceiving object solely handles the aesthetic process.

3.) Why is aesthetics important here and not design or engineering?

I’ll admit this, I’m not totally sure on the answer. I can’t reveal the reason why I think Fried’s aesthetics will answer some significant questions on how real objects connect without connecting; I’m still unsure as to why even Fried’s aesthetic contribution should satisfy aesthetics sole criterion for causation. I don’t want to follow Harman here and go all out on aesthetics being ‘first’ philosophy, but as fascinating as allure is, I still see no sufficient reason why aesthetics should matter here. I think some sort of confrontation comes from the last question…

4.) What part does the Digital Arts and algorithms play in this?

My own solution is look into the rather forgotten history of early computational, generative – algorithmic art. Sounds odd to pick such a specific artistic discipline, if we’re being general with all manner of artworks and objects, then surely this doesn’t matter. I hold that what separates algorithmic aesthetics is the confrontation with withdrawn execution. By letting the artwork run or execute on a expropriated or created algorithm, the ontological sensibility has the same formal contingency as the execution of a painting, video installation or shard of glass.

In aesthetics, execution means linking both; the withdrawn being of an object and the intended style and production of the artist(s) setting up the work. The artwork is that which specifically confronts the beholder with its own blind-algorithmic execution in presence. To interrograte this further, one must reevaluate what execution is and how this emerges from its rules or algorithm. To do this, we must reevaluate what an algorithm is. Thats for another discussion.

13 thoughts on “The Main Questions: Artworks and Objects”

  1. Interesting – my initial thought -in much of this – is that of its written as an observer of an art object.
    I’d argue that misses the actuality of that object as it is not observed but MADE. Most critics and philosophers look at dry paint on canvas in a building, which is like looking at the stuffed animals in the Natural History Section.
    As if they try to fit what they see into a theory (of everything). Which is as stupid as imagining animals deliberately participate in evolutionary theory.

    Yet By “making work which panders to the audience directly, you are submitting to the antithesis of the Speculative Realist / OOO position; that the artwork needs the human viewer in order to work.”

    Where? Who? Its clear that those who do this produce rubbish…

    “Either, the artwork is a special type of object that is ‘idealised’, i.e. it is a special assemblage of ordinary things that resembles an object which is “no ordinary object”. Or if any object has the capacity to work as an artwork, then it is the relational receiver, system or context, that ‘makes’ it art in the perspective sense. Or, artworks have the political impact of opening space within systems and social patterns.”

    No – its non of this! the art work separates itself from everything else BY BEING ART. How these are interpreted is besides the point, think of a cormorant, it separates itself out not by its attributes – i.e. it eats fish etc. As in OOO an object is always in excess of its attributes. We may interpret the cormorant as a “bird” a “fisher” etc- but its more than this – and none – (it doesn’t i suspect think of itself as an angler…. anymore it thinks itself as a bird) As an object its a cormorant, and *it* does not partake in any Venn diagram relationship with seals and Isaac Walton!!!


  2. Hi James

    Three points;

    1.) “I’d argue that misses the actuality of that object as it is not observed but MADE”
    True, but you’re submitting to the idea that the artwork is reducible to the artist, which formalist’s like to imagine is true in a idealist sense, but in fact this it is unteneable, theres plenty of digital artworks to show that these works aren’t specifically made, but executed. Like Heidegger’s “Thing”, both the artwork and any other ‘thing’ are irreducible to their production. This places the artwork on a precarious footing, as any object qualifies here.

    2.) I think the disagreement here is that you agree on the formal discrete nature of the object and the same formal critera for the artwork. If the artwork separates itself from everything else by being “arty” (i.e formalism) then you’re basically saying that the artwork has the same formal properties as all objects OR an artwork has an identity that is different from a cormorant or an angler. You can’t have both. Either it is an indpendent, transcending artwork that isn’t an object or it is an object of equal ontological validity. If all objects are objects then so are artworks, despite being accepted for the same critieron as ‘independent’ or ‘discrete’.

    3.) Because there isn’t any differentation between ‘artworks’ and ‘objects’, then what counts for aesthetics is something similar to Harman’s allure. Basically, a change in perception within the object’s interior. This cancels out any further notion of transcending reality, because objects don’t reach any higher level of existence, they just burrow even deeper into these alluring objects.

  3. Aesthetics is not an issue – art as object arrives before aesthetics, or allure … that is the artist makes an art object, that she/he finds it alluring or not is beside the point – of making. Where ‘its’ properties are located are again of philosophical interest, but the artist – in the ‘as object paradigm’ has a unique relationship re ontology. i.e. “The thing in itself” – I neither set out to make an art object or a cormorant … but only after then event is some terminology applied, some ‘consideration’ etc. If it eats fish and swims – or for want of a better word I’d call it art.

    I’m not explaining myself well here, but lets take how I regard something I’ve made which I call “art”, my relation to it is best described as it appears as another ‘person’.
    As such what it is – is a mystery to me, and though I may frame ideas regarding it, these will not alter it- as it is in itself. I’m distinguishing this ‘art as object’ from art as concept or process etc. But the ‘art as object’ has I think a resonance with OOO and its approach, especially the idea that objects are more than what is given. Its at that point in creating a work that it ‘objectifies’ itself, the feelings towards this ‘object’ once it become so can have aesthetics – or not.

  4. These are interesting points James, thank you very much for commenting on this;

    I must make it clear that like Heidegger, I find the status of artist somewhat unimportant in this process. As I write art criticism, I want to concentrate on the work, not the author. For me the work is not ‘made’ as such but composed and it is irreducible. I find the artist one of the necessary components in the artwork’s compostion, along with all manner of competing objects, money, studio, tools, space that compose the work alongside. This is why I think the artistic process is more complex and algorithmic than it is social phenomena.

    The problem we both face here is one of asking whether we should conflate art and the real objects in themselves. If art takes on the authentic nature of the things themselves (in the context of OOO), then there is no such thing as art. If everything is ‘art’ then nothing is. The other option we face then is the “perspective” one, namely the co-relation between object and object which produces some contingent effect as ‘art’ or aesthetic effect even. This is where I’m heading, although it needs to be reworked completely from the ground up as in todays art criticsm focuses on the systems that impact on the work and how the work impacts on systems.

    You seem to be to-ing and fro-ing between the art-as-object as ‘in itself’ despite all changes of perspective to it, and the suggestion that ‘only after the event is some terminology applied, some ‘consideration’ etc.’ Now, OOO certainly does offer the approach of providing both the in-itself and the pluralistic relationality; however this approach fails to account for the ontological status of artworks for the reasons I’ve just stated. This isn’t OOO’s fault but art criticism itself needs to catch up with ontology if anything.

  5. I think we can agree with the status of the artist, my original point was more about perspective, by which I mean the creator of the art object is one who sees it thus. There is a difference between deliberately setting out to make an art object, and something, say a religious object, becoming art… The work of art is not a product simply of nature and yet in certain cases – I’ll call “art as object” they have no ‘use’. Hence they resemble “persons”. So apply questions of ‘meaning’ and ‘use’ to a person seems to produce the same kind of problems, or interest re- art. If you take for instance Kosuth’s 3 chairs, the ontology of the art work I would say is a fourth ‘chair’, neither a picture of a chair, or a real chair or a definition, but that of the particular of this presentation as being ‘a work of art’ That is neither a ‘representation’, a thing to sit on or a definition.

    I think this is a mistake made by some – in that conceptual art is not about making clever ideas, pickled sheep, unmade beds, but its about viewing ‘a concept’ as an art object. You could say I suppose aesthetic, but I think that would confuse, lets say I could present “Being and Time” and present a reading of it, not as philosophy but as art. In which case questions as to its meaning and use would be by the by. Not that you couldn’t ask them, but its use would be no longer in proposing an ontology as its status as art object is just that, i.e. like a person, or a mountain? I’m struggling here to explain…

    The OOO approach is very interesting as it might throw light on artworks as such, I discount artworks which attempt to illustrate OOO…

  6. Good points there.

    I think there is also the added complexity of the systematic co-relation between viewer and object, this certainly takes place within conceptual art as well as networked art and relational aesthetics. The Kosuth example of ‘Three chairs’ is perfect here, as he was linked with Jack Burnham’s criticism on the link between systems and artworks. The three chairs work is certainly ‘useless’, it isn’t equipment in the Heideggerian sense. The ontological point of the work is to implicate the viewer directly through the concept. It is not the object that is foregrounded, but the reciprocal co-relation between object, concept, action and viewer. As you know, OOO disputes the primacy of relations first and foremost, nothing reaches the being of ‘units’, so theres a real chance to work through some of these ideas that are rigorously based on relations.

    I would however dispute the suggestion that we view ‘a concept’ as an art object. Certainly an OOO analysis would clarify it as a sensual object in the ‘translating sense’, but from the POV of the criticism at the time (and very much now), critics would privilege the use of process-systems and constant meta-analyses of the limits of meaning first, rather than the unity objects.

    I think the end goal here is to ask the following question; “Would it be feasible to suggest that the autonomy expression still exists without humans?”

  7. I’ve been reading all of your posts for the last couple of months and saving them wanting to find enough time to engage them. No time ever comes. I’m very interested in the headway you are making with OOO and aesthetics. Perhaps next semester I’ll have enough time to really get into this along with you.

    My thoughts have changed after reading your posts, but here was my own early take on OOO and aesthetics which dealt with the distinction between “art” objects and “mundane” objects:

  8. “I would however dispute the suggestion that we view ‘a concept’ as an art object” That’s not quite what I meant, what I was trying to say is one *can* view a concept as an art object. And further that’s what conceptual artists do.
    There is something in “What is philosophy” regarding this. But in the meantime and it might move towards answering your question, what I said regarding a book and “persons”, certainly in Sikhism Guru Granth Sahib is treated as a person, more than in Christianity but the bible is treated as more than just a book, (I think I’ll get to my point) via the status of the orthodox icon. I think the question can be answered by reference to a deity, but in the case of minimalism and obviously Malevich that art work seems to be posited independent of humanity, as a thing in itself, now with the ‘holy’ removed but still nevertheless an ‘other’.

    “Malevich responded that art can advance and develop for art’s sake alone, regardless of its pleasure: art does not need us, and it never did.”


  9. oh yeah, no-ones disputing the attitude to the independence issue, especially in someone as appealling as Malevich. Certainly the artwork is trans-context for Malevich, in the sense that it has a transcending indpendence which transcends humanity. (I’m not sure Malevich thought that far ahead, in terms of whether the painting is still an artwork in a human-less ontology)

    I have no problem with that formalist idea at all, the problem is that OOO would have to apply the same authentic critera of Malevich’s authentic artwork to a can of beans and a meat grinder. And I’m not convinced that this concludes with ‘everything is an artwork’ otherwise no distinction is possible. Even Heidegger faces this problem, when he says that the artwork shows strife *as* strife, (i.e. strife between Earth and World is everywhere, but you see it *as* strife in artworks). In OOO terms a can of beans also shows strife *as* strife (it is strife) from any object to object relationship, its just that Heidegger chooses to ignore specfic objects and focus on great works of art only.

  10. @ Thomas

    Thanks for reading all the stuff I’ve posted. Really nice to hear you like what I’m doing.
    I’ve just had a read through, and my response will be a bit too complicated for commenting here. So I’ll do a separate and linked post, which will includes Mike Watson’s interesting comments on artworks and OOO as well. Aesthetics is a bit of a blind spot in SR / OOO I agree completely.

    I think I vaguely know Mike through someone else at Goldsmith’s, but thats for further clarification.

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