5. Toward a Museum of Convention
Published: 19.05.2012
in the series Exceptional Position of Photography within the (Art) World
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Last week’s post concerned itself with the academy as a mode of distribution for aesthetic discourse and how the inclusion of art within higher education has the potential to shift the understanding of intellectual research and debate, specifically by forcing intellectual discourse to come to terms with its own monetization. Before going further, I think I should address what I mean by the use of the phrase “aesthetic discourse.” I mean not only that which is written or spoken about aesthetics (this is really secondary, and significant only when it shifts the conditions of aesthetic production). But primarily I mean communications or debates that happen through aesthetics. Within this array, art operates as an experimental and philosophical element, and following from this premise a useful definition of art is that it is a discourse about aesthetics that occurs exclusively through aesthetics.

I argued before that in the development and identification of a medium, new specific cases are understood in relationship to established convention, and that a history is formed in the struggle between the need to adhere to convention (for in order to be understood as communication at all, one must obey some elements of convention) and the development of new relations between technology and use, which serve the purpose of expanding the conditions of the medium. This is necessary if a particular medium is going to remain significant or viable in a contemporary context. In some sense, this describes improvisation, or more exactly, expressions with higher degrees of information (as the more improbable the expression, the more informative it is, or the more it expands upon the convention on which it is based). Convention then serves as the bedrock of any communicative act, and out of necessity its movements are glacial. Even though conventions are often slow moving, they are not static. These ongoing shifting relationships circling around communication once aggregated are given the name “medium,” or that set of processes, material or otherwise, that facilitate a transaction negotiated between parties. Medium is static. The term medium refers to an aggregation of these negotiations, a kind of short hand for the conventionalization of the application of a set of raw materials to a particular purpose, and a symmetrical social acceptance of it as vessel for exchange. It is a summary term, a kind of inert singularity. The world of media is the world of taxonomy, of filing drawers for diachronic operations, and at its most extreme, when we begin to look for ontological solidity in these terms, we stare into a tautological void, such media analysis is akin to Jerry Fodor’s Radical Concept Nativism.

Yet, it is important to remember that every object, rather than being a reciprocal singularity to its name, extends out into a vast network of relations (from its origins as raw material, to its extraction, to industrial product, and so on) each specific only to itself, carrying more and more information (in the Flusserian sense) as it is passed from one stage of production to another (each stage in its trajectory has the capacity to further “inform” the object, as the paths that it follows become more specific, differentiated, and improbable). If we take just the objects that happen to grace one’s desk at a particular time, we are witness to expansive systems of relations that extend out in every direction, sharing multiple points of confluence, even as they reach away from one another, fractal-like, defining a universe of active relations rather than categorical definitions. We are one element in this constellation. In a world such as this, the categorical classification of an object as a “photograph” or “book” or “painting” seems terribly incomplete. To state the obvious, it is infinitely more compelling to look at how we are organized around such an object or objects, and how objects are, in turn, organized by us, rather than theorize their often arbitrary names.

In the end, we must accept that to classify something as a medium, meta or otherwise, is to subscribe to an abstraction or schematic understanding (i.e. model), and that we must remember that medium is an abstraction of the sequence of networks described earlier. Needless to say, if enough individuals subscribe to a particular abstraction and invest themselves in it, it is irresponsible to simply abandon it, but rather it is important to historicize it, and understand its utility not as a transhistorical category, but as a set of ideas that arose out of a particular circumstance for a particular set of reasons. Thus the use of medium based on differential analysis is a mask for a deeper set of problems. It is, in a sense, a tool of convenience that our world has outperformed, something that stops the endless chains of relationships from flooding in. I would say we are now better able to deal with such currents than ever before.

If we attempted to step outside of medium-based categories, where might we start? One option would be to propose a history of aesthetic conventions, rather than media, for conventions are never misunderstood for being concrete or trans-historical, and are always comprehended as social and conditional (i.e. contextual). In other words, convention grows from the ground up, it is not asserted conferred upon something, but rather it arises from the active use of something. It would remind us that any medium involves human agency to generate it, that it is, in actuality, a set of actions performed upon a raw material, and that further, the actions involve not just the “artist” or “author” but an expansive system of production (be it industrial or artisanal). Further, conventionalization refers to the micro-negotiations that occur within the use of a particular thing. Conventions, as they are, are akin to common law.

The manager of medium-based distinctions in art is the museum. The museum gives concrete form to the divisions between media, it defines them, argues over them, turns them into funding lines, office space, gallery space, architecture, bodies, wages, etc. It takes something as malleable and intangible as the concept of differential media, and makes it solid. Each public institution is met with competing obligations, a mandate to deliver a service that is good for the whole, while not necessarily a good all citizens value. It is this conflict that all institutions make concrete, from the electric company, to the transportation authority, it is a sedimentation of the conflict between the group and the individual.

Modern museums, when dealing with photography run into a multitude of problems. A disagreement that precipitated an extended debate around “exhibitionality” of the photograph, a condition that for photographic objects is particularly unstable, or at least, multiplicitous, and simultaneously indeterminate. By indeterminate, I mean that the point of public reception for a photograph (whether it be meant to operate within a journalistic, artistic, advertising, etc. context) does not change the material condition of it as an object, thus the object does not immediately indicate which context it is intended for, which allows for a multitude of contexts to be possible. This produces a problem of reception for the museum, for what is the truest, or most accurate way to display a class of objects which appear deceptively similar, while being intended, and produced, for a multitude of contexts?

A history of convention could begin to solve this, and would be relatively easy to implement. The difficulty would be renovating the 18th century museum culture to accommodate such a change. It would also free a conversation about whether a work were truly painting, or truly sculptural, and make arguments for the works advancement of certain threads of debate, research, or observation within the field of aesthetic discourse. There would not be experts of objects, but experts in aesthetic thought. This is a fantasy, but perhaps a possible one.

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