Ethel Gabain, 'The Striped Imp', Lithograph, 1917
The formation of the “official” history of modern art was defined by its insistence on being contemporaneous with the scientific, technological and ideological perspectives of a deterministic conception of the world and its counterpart, the notion of progress. At least, this is what the historiography of Western art argues, for its most part. In these lectures, the emphasis will be given on a parallel, although less visible tendency of self-criticism of the modern condition through the comic element in its pragmatic, slapstick and allusive form.
The comical element will be analyzed with the intention to subvert the rhetoric of a cohesive narrative whether in the conceptual framework, through a rupture with the discourse of Enlightenment and of scientific objectivity, or in the constitution of form as such. It is not enough to simply study the gestures of the Dadaists and the Fluxists in order to situate the evident depreciations of rationalist modernism. Through the subterranean allusiveness of the comical and irony, we will bring to light the ways in which dominant narratives are transformed into vehicles of parody, touching even the most improbable and humorless avant-gardes. Even the most discreet references of the meta-language of avant-garde in contemporary production involve a critical relation that has to do with the failure of avant-gardist expectations.
Whereas any 20th-century utopia (from the cult of mechanics in Italian Futurism to the propagandist podiums and pavilions of Russian Constructivism) makes the contemporary viewer smile condescendingly, we will focus instead on the details, where God or the Devil tends to hide; the details that betray the ironic smile of the creator, however featly hidden or repressed.
This deficient, minor narrative, as opposed to the dominant reading of the work, is almost cryptic, in the sense of the enigmatic object-toy in its psychoanalytic projection, and also through the use of decrypting in its symbolic registry.
Thus, if the comical smolders in every ambitious fraction of modernity, our research aims at activating the “deficiencies” of technology in post-Fordist production: from the slapstick corporeality of post-war sculpture, the latent functionality of DIY works, the ambitious invention or failure of emergency solutions in design, to the deliberate relinquishment of the cognitive process of handicraft (objets trouvés, readymades) and the equally deliberate transition from skillfulness to deskilling.
In the heyday of the Taylorist organization of labour, and against the suggestions of a disciplined and controlled environment, clumsiness, blunder, the sense of incompetence, the awkwardness caused by the “clownish” subject against herself, inspired the beginnings of avant-garde (Les Arts incohérents, Dada, Symbolism), thus explaining the Surrealists’ obsession with Mack Sennett’s comedies and the fondness for the theatre of the absurd, and also confirming the actuality of the tradition of Commedia de l’arte and puppet theater in performing arts as well as in 21st-century painting and sculpture.
This sign of “failure” in avant-gardism, which did not remain insusceptible to the spirit and the anxieties of the time, would regenerate and enrich older and new antiheroes, caricatures of buffoons, numerous kinds of Pierrot le Fou, as well as paranoid bourgeois such as Ubu Roi, among other neurotic and psychotic metropolitan denizens.
These descriptions of personality disorder turn the comical into a reversed tragedy, where it is the artists that identify themselves with the outcast and sorrowful clowns, who, lost in their personal dead-ends, live somewhere between the dream-world and reality. The new “obscure” hero of modern societies is not Odysseus anymore, but the nameless soldier, the reckless and clumsy Elpenor, who falls from the roof of Circe’s palace and breaks his neck, and none of his comrades takes notice of his absence when Odysseus’s ship departs.
Among other blunders, misfortunes and glitches, we will examine asymmetry in rationalist movements such as Bauhaus, Barnett Newman’s contemptuous description of the experience of stumbling on sculptures, the prank behind Kazimierz Malewicz’s Black Square, and the contemporary return of sculpture to the archaic clumsiness of the xoanon.
Although the context of the lectures will be the “histories” of modern and contemporary art, each lecture will be organized in thematic and conceptual, not chronological terms. Drawing from the classic and contemporary literature on the paradoxes and the self-evidence of the comic experience, we will touch upon the field of epistemological intersections with psychoanalysis
(Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Sarah Kofman, Julia Kristeva), philosophy and ethics (Vladimir Jankélévitch, Henri Bergson, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, John Gray), the theory of literature (Aristotle, Heinrich von Kleist, Gianni Rodari, Simon Critchley)criticaltheory (Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin), feminist studies (HélèneCixous, Luce Irigaray), and aesthetics (Jean-Yves Jouannais, Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Steven Connor, Jacques Rancière)
The content of the students’ artistic production will be the main part of the research process even beyond the “content” of the lectures themselves, since the students will be called to actively participate in structuring these lectures. The students will document their theses with specific examples from art histories; these narratives are considered to be essential since they provide students with a map that enables them to follow their own trajectory to a particular point in the map where they would like to find themselves. The course aims at enabling them to conceive a possible genealogy of their own work.
The students will be called to combine context and practice, through joint presentations of their artistic production, including an introduction where they will be asked to report, develop and broaden their questionings. After every presentation, an open collective discussion will follow, as well as individual collaborations with the students that will enable each and every one of them to have an independent qualitative familiarization with the subject matter.