Discourse in and out of art

Boris Groys, a critic whom I respect, has described how the discursive mode has emerged in current art practice. It’s not clear whether he advocates this approach, but he describes it well. However, even he errs in describing modernist painting, the presumed antithesis, as mute. In fact, modernist art is as discursive as any, it’s just that much of what it says is implicit and unspoken. In this way it makes demands on its viewer—it asks that one hear between the lines, understand what is taken for granted, “see” what is not shown and be aware of the context that the work is pointing to. Rather than silent it might better be called eloquent, in that its “discourse” is presented in the most concise possible form. With respect to context, it’s important to realize that modernist art has a politics. During its expansive period modernist criticism downplayed that aspect; a correction was necessary, and it happened, during the sixties and seventies. It’s the job of criticism to render the implicit explicit, and then work through the contradictions that ensue, so discursive art is not actually a negation of modernist art but an extrapolation of modernist criticism, particularly that of the eighties and nineties, of the style we call “post-modernist.” It needs modernist painting as its foil—it could not claim to be critical if it did not have an object. It could also be described as a kind of “dumbing down,” as an art that presents its viewers with fewer difficulties, and requires fewer faculties, because it explains everything.

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