Ilirian Shima: “Farajon” – A Frank Assessment, Or, The Eroticism of Nationalism

My take on the recently opened “Farajon” exhibitionGKA Farajon

“Farajon” [roughly, “OurSeed”—”fara jonë”], an exhibition of works by Albanian sculptor Ilirian Shima at the Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve [National Gallery of Art] in Tirana, presents an interesting paradox. The exhibition, curated by Ylli Drishti of the GKA, opened on May 29 and will remain in the gallery until June 22. It contains works of varying size and material—primarily carved wood, marble, and bronze—created by the artist from the 1990s to the present day. Thus far most media response and commentary on the works in the exhibition has been focused precisely where one would expect: on the forthright eroticism of many of Shima’s sensual sculptural forms. I would like to examine the exhibition with a slightly different critical eye, to go beyond discussions of the works as a challenge to norms of Albanian society (implicitly assumed by much of the media response to be prudish and conservative, and likely to be shocked by the display of erotic material, however abstract). If I set out to explicitly problematize the exhibition, it is not because I find it entirely in poor sociopolitical taste, nor because I have any issue with the quality of the works (a discussion I wish to leave completely aside). Rather, I simply wish to consider some of the more potentially insidious aspects of eroticism—and an explicitly aesthetically Modernist realization of eroticism—when explicitly envisioned alongside ideas of historical recovery of national(ist) roots, nostalgic longing for the ancient past of the homeland (as well as diasporic longing), ethnic and genetic identity and the drive to reproduce that identity so it might flourish in contemporary society. If the show raises these kinds of more challenging questions in the minds of viewers, it will have done the job of confronting its audience (Albanian and non) on multiple levels, of provoking debate both about certain conservative Albanian values vis-à-vis sexuality and about the ways these values cannot be transformed simply by exposing the public to artfully presented eroticism.

There are two primary points I wish to discuss: first, the treatment of the female form in the exhibition (and the ways in which it interacts with the male form); and second, the implications of the interaction between eroticism, virility, and national-cultural heritage apparent in Shima’s works and Drishti’s curatorial statement. The first point raises the question of whether “Farajon”‘s implicit challenge to Albanian attitudes towards the body’s sexual nature (I will forego putting the term in scare quotes, since I take it that the discourse of the body’s ‘nature’ is still widespread in Albania) truly attempts to alter perceptions of the female body and, by extension, women. I would argue that the answer is “no,” and not because the female nude sculpted by the male artist can no longer function as a critical tool, but because the primary trend of the works exhibited associates the female form with the wild mystery of both the ancient (through references to myth and legend) and the carnally unknown and often treats the whole of the female body as analogous to the vagina. There are works, such as Eternity [wood, 2014] and Aenaon [wood, 1990], that explicitly reference the ying and yang, positing an eternal—and equal—convergence of the male and female, situating both as active forms in a circle of recurring metaphysical, sensual relationships.

Far more striking, however, is the depiction of the headless female torso, with thighs spread apart, split by a darkened crevice extending up from the vagina through the chest (as in works such as Satir [bronze, 2014]). Elsewhere, in Untitled [2002], two semicircular pieces of carven wood resting on the floor, separated by the thin gap, resolve into buttocks from one angle and thighs and a vaginal opening from the other. Shehrazad [“Scheherazade,” red marble, 2000] is a languid vaginal form. Genesis [wood, 2006] presents a full, pregnant female torso, the lines of the wood accenting its protruding round belly and curved back. Most significant is that these works present not people but bodies, or more specifically parts of bodies. (While one could read this deconstruction of the form as a kind of violence directed at the female body, I think it more likely that this is simply a result of Shima’s orthodox Modernist style, especially since nearly all of Shima’s figures and torsos are headless, regardless of sex[1]). Furthermore, the eroticism of the parts stands as a surrogate for the eroticism of the entire body—the vagina traverses the female torso and in so doing it becomes the entire body cavity, the inner life of the body imagined as the source of sexual ecstasy.

So, the female body appears in the guise of its component parts, and these parts materialize in objects imbued with a pure and mysterious sexual force. An article by Fatmira Nikolli reviewing the exhibition calls Shima’s forms “provocations.” But the question is: provocations to what? Is it not possible that these ‘provocations’ do not so much challenge a patriarchal attitude towards female sexuality as reinforce it, taking a particular pleasure in revealing secret, uncontrolled sexual urges rooted in female physicality (rather than in the lives of actual women)? Let us not forget that it has been 14 years since “PostEva,” the first retrospective exhibition of nudes by Albanian artists, opened at the GKA. One might have expected that Albanian attitudes towards the female body would have changed, and that the discussion surrounding an exhibition like “Farajon” would focus not on the potential controversy of erotic art but on the relationship between social systems of power and the politics of said art. However, lest someone protest that in fact Albanians truly remain in the midst of a deep sexual repression—the Victorians that we further-Westerners once thought ourselves to be, until we read Foucault—let us look no further than Tirana’s streets for a sort of counterexample. As usual, capitalism has already made certain that the fragments of the female body are hyper-sexualized: one can barely walk down a single major street in Tirana today without encountering one of a recent slew of new advertisements, which show a pair of bare female legs in red high heels alongside the caption “E re. Seksi. E freskët. E zhveshur. E kuqe…” [Young. Sexy. Fresh. Undressed. Red…].

E Kuqe

If this is the image of the female body that pervades the streets of the capital city, then the eroticism of Shima’s female forms can be little more a naïve attempt to return some dignity to sexuality by retreating from capitalism’s explicit re-production of the spectacle of eroticism by adopting both Modernism’s aesthetics and its metaphysics.[2]

Indeed, the show does perhaps accomplish that social and metaphysical task which has long been perceived as the purview of Modernism (in contrast, for example, to Socialist Realism—a contrast to which I shall return later): it allows the audience to exercise taste. As a review of the exhibition in Panorama notes: “In these 23 years [since the end of Socialist Realism] a public has emerged that can judge [mund të shijojë] an artwork” (my emphasis).[3] However, this judgment remains at an abstract, formal level (appropriate to Shima’s pseudo-abstractions); one wonders what might be discovered by an audience who read the works not merely in terms of their forms but also—after Arendt—in terms of their political aesthetics. Just such a political reading, however, would raise more questions than have generally been asked about the story “Farajon” tells about the relationship between male and female sexuality.

I said above that I took for granted—in keeping with Shima’s Modernist bent—that the exhibition believes in a natural sexuality, in the immutability of sexuality materialized unambiguously in the male and female reproductive organs.It is not, therefore, my intent to critique this questionable stance, but rather to examine what its political implications are in relation to the ways certain works in the show are displayed and described in the curatorial statement. “Farajon” is most politically duplicitous in its construction of the relationship between the male and the female, and its association between these two forces and the Albanian nationa itself. The entire exhibit takes its name from the work Farajon [bronze, 2014, created especially for the show], a gleaming, stylized erect penis 141 cm in height, inspired (according to Drishti’s curatorial statement) by a phallic image on a 4,000-year-old Illyrian earring. Drishti explains that “this erotic male artwork symbolizes, for the artist, the great reproductive vigor of the Albanian nation.” Thus, the primary thrust of the exhibition (to use a perhaps unfortunate metaphor) is that of the association between the phallus, the nation, and virility required to reproduce this nation through the centuries (from the time of the ancient Illyrians to the present day).

Farajon looms large in the exhibition space, placed on the slightly raised platform (which in turn leads to the awkwardly blocked stairway to that wing’s second level). It is certainly not the most imposing work in the show—that honor certainly belongs to the multi-piece instrument-artwork Briharpa [multimedia, 2014], which lends the entire exhibition space an additional Dionysian tinge—but it does assert itself visually over neighboring works, and especially over the feminine forms of Untitled and Genesis. Indeed, there is a distinctive sense in which many of the feminine forms in the exhibit seem to place themselves in a passive relationship with Farajon. Untitled seems almost to prostrate itself before the emblem of the phallus, the languid form of Shehrazad (the reclining nude reduced to reclining vagina) complement’s the penis’ verticality. Even Genesis is diminutive in size, placement, and therefore meaning in comparison with Farajon‘s glistening shaft. (One almost longs for a vertical, monumental vaginal form in the exhibition, an Ilirian-Shima-after-Georgia-O’Keeffe, for example.)

A microcosm of this relationship between the male form (the penis) and the female form can be found in the three small bronze figure of Satir [2014]. Two female forms, one black and one gold, cavort with vaginal openings wide before a burnished green phallus on two feet (presumably the eponymous satyr). Here the male body, like the female one, is reduced to its most ‘basic’ component, but there remains a quite definite valuation of the male over the female. After all, it is the male member which is seen to express the continuity and fecundity of Illyrian-Albanian culture and, ultimately, national identity. Female sexuality is openly celebrated, certainly, but under the aegis of male “reproductive vigor.” Thus, intentionally or not, the erotic longings for homeland, history, and nation become longings that are fulfilled by the masculine materialization of sexuality, not the feminine. Perhaps even more problematically, this masculine erotic drive is linked not to some general condition of the search for continuity in the era of globalization and uncertain national boundaries; rather, it makes an explicitly ethnic claim to the purity of genetic continuity. Shima’s works are, in a sense, Modernism-as-genetics, and as if this were not problematic enough, it is also a genetics that transfers the power structures of both nationalism and genetics onto the erotic qualities found in the (universal, but also ethnically specific) body. In short, they partially conceal an ascendant biopolitical power behind the ‘life of forms.’

We might ask, in the exercise of taste that the show seems to see as its most fundamental goal: Why is Modernism the appropriate language for a statement about both the universal, fundamentally erotic character of human existence while at the same time promoting essentially the fecundity of a particular ethnic group (the Illyrians), which is assumed to have passed down this reproductive vitality to a contemporary ethno-national group (the Albanians), if not as practice then certainly as a model for the preservation of its culture? Quite simply because it allows the focus to remain primarily on the forms of the works, rather than upon an explicit sociopolitical networks of power that they reinforce or reproduce. At the same time, the qualities of the forms—their contrasts, their sensuality, their polysemic representational properties (grounded in their most-often-merely-pseudo abstraction)—retain the claim of universality for any associations they make (between the erect penis and an image from an Illyrian earring, for example). This has nearly always been both the saving grace and the danger of Modernism, that it leaves itself open to various political readings—and indeed often does not deny them—even as it presents its critique as a critique of perception in general (or, in this case, a critique of taboos and conservatism).

This is perhaps to insist too much upon the political valence of a Modernism that seeks to be apolitical (though not, of course, asexual)—except for the fact that a) the seeming neutrality and/or universality of Modernist aesthetics has always been what allowed it to be duplicitous in the political machinations of states and organizations, and b) the potential political content of Shima’s works does not seem to be hidden that deeply (since one can no longer, I think, consider references to the Illyrian ‘genesis’ of the Albanians is in any way apolitical, if indeed one ever could consider such ideas to be apolitical). Furthermore, I do not think that Ilirian Shima’s works are truly trying to ‘hide’ this ideology beneath a veneer of formalism and ‘provocation.’ However, the discourse around what an exhibition of Modernist works like Shima’s really have to say contemporary Albania will almost certainly need to go beyond endless circling about taboos, lingering ‘Victorian’ morality vis-à-vis sex and sexuality, and the degree to which Albanian audiences are ‘ready’ for abstract art. It will need to grapple with the real sociopolitical implications of the convergence of eroticism, reproduction, the body, and nationalism, to consider what kind of ‘taste’ is needed to see Modern art as truly critical of social norms, and above all to enter into a much more nuanced discussion of what social norms in Albania are in terms of sexuality.[4]

I want to return, in order to cast a different light on the political significance of Shima’s Modernism, to the contrast presented by the Panorama review of the exhibition, that between Socialist Realism’s attitude towards sex and that which is available to Albanians 23 years later. So the argument goes, the system of Socialist Realism clearly delineated what was moral and immoral, and it made certain that the immoral was not even to be thought, much less materialized in art. Thus, female sexuality was not allowed to be imagined, much less to appear. The problem, of course, is that Socialist Realism never denied the importance of female sexuality and the essential role women played in reproducing (for) the nation. It merely hid certain aspects of this sexuality, brought others to the fore, and made the task of reproduction explicitly political and patriotic. Its was an eroticism of duty, and it subsumed the individual to the collective Eros of the New Life.

However, is “Farajon” really so different? Certainly, in that it celebrates the recovery of erotic experience in art as something to be explored, savored, ‘tasted,’ as abandonment to and in a deeper, more timeless level of existence. Certainly not, in that it urges viewers to recover the sexual as the vigor of the ethnically delimited nation, to seek the ancient past of that nation in the sensual, to love and reproduce for the sake of national History. As Slavoj Žižek is so fond of saying, Coca-Cola tells you “You must enjoy.” Here, “Farajon” is perhaps not quite so demanding, nor quite so empty in its promise, but its insistence on the recovery of erotic pleasure is most certainly not without the call to fulfill the national duty of reproduction.

[1] The single significant contrast comes from a pair of bodiless heads locked together in a kiss.

[2] One might argue that the “taboo” Shima is breaking is that against the depiction of the reproductive organs,  specifically, and not any taboo against eroticism (a taboo which certainly continues to exist in some circles but which has been thoroughly assaulted by advertising and global/Western culture in others). (This is the claim implied by an article in Panorama.) This may be the case, and Shima’s works are to be praised for initiating this debate. However, the fact remains that Shima’s sculptures so explicitly graph their eroticism onto the entire body—the bodies not just of individuals, but the entire enthno-national collective body—and indeed onto the soul. Thus, I maintain that whatever taboos Shima’s works break at the level of representation of parts of the body, they nonetheless reiterate more discourses than they disrupt at the level of the body as a whole, in society.

In any case, the “provocation” in terms of the male gaze upon the female body parts depicted in “Farajon” seems to be quite straightforward: it is the provocation to possess the female body in the throes of passion, because that body—in its sexual fragments—yearns for an ecstasy that takes no account of distributions of social power. But is male sexual power really privileged in the exhibit? Yes, quite simply by the fact that conceptually the whole show centers on the virility of the male reproductive organ, which I will discuss below.

[3] Since the Albanian word for the exercise of taste in the cultural sense is also “to taste,” the statement retains a sensuous aspect lost in English.

[4] Implicit in this, I hope, is the assertion that global capitalism’s use of eroticism to sell products in Albania cannot be uprooted until it is confronted, and it cannot be confronted by a naïve embrace of Modernism paired with a nostalgia for the ancient past. At worst, this course of action only further hides the inequalities and abuses that masquerade as a ‘free’ and ‘liberal’ embrace of typically masculine (and typically consumerist) sexuality.

Albanian Communism and Norwegian Black Metal: Missed Connections?

In light of the recent workshop I facilitated on “Creative Writing in/and Art History,” I think it may be worth returning to this blog, if still quite sporadically. In the course of researching for my thesis on the Vlora Independence Monument in Albania, I’ve been reminded of a number of different almost-completely-unrelated themes and topics which might be of interest, especially to those working on the Balkans and on Albania in particular.

Almost a year ago, I came across a truly bizarre congruence: that between communism—especially the dictatorial variety which characterized countries like Albania and Romania—and Norwegian Black Metal. In an interview in the eight issue of Slayer magazine (Spring 1991), Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth), the lead guitarist for the (in)famous black metal band Mayhem responds to a question about his opinion of the situation in Eastern Europe at the time. He says,

The question is a bit difficult because there are two answers. All the revelutions [sic] you have seen in E.E. are just as they could be taken from MARX/LENIN/MAO, and the party I’m in is totally supporting it, because communism means total freedom, and that it should be people who decide things, not the government or the capitalists. But on the other hand, I’m personally very fascinated by countries like Albania, North Korea, or Kampuchea, which have been running a very hard line and which have been closed for the rest of the world. I really regret that I didn’t get the chance to go to Romania while it was like in the old days, but at least I’ll be going to Albania soon.[1]

Earlier in the interview, Euronymous notes, “No, that [writing about his political viewpoint in the lyrics of Mayhem songs] will never happen. Even though I’m active in the most extreme communist party here (Albania inspirations), I leave to the Punks to write about that in the lyrics.”[2] (According to later interviews, he never made it to Albania.)

Euronymous’ interest in extreme, dictatorial communist states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere has already been noted. However, I think that—while there is certainly still a great deal of thinking to be done about Euronymous’ communist leanings—it is more interesting to take examples such as this one as an opportunity to rethink the significance of Hoxha’s communist model. Hoxha is so consistently identified with Albania that it is easy to forget that there are still ‘Hoxhaist’ parties elsewhere in the world which look to the example of communist Albania for inspiration. The fact that Euronymous was a member of one such party reminds us that Hoxha’s heritage is not significant only in Albania, nor even only in the Balkans more widely.

More specifically, what would it mean to think about Hoxha’s Albania as a truly global phenomenon—one which served and serves as a point of reference for the conceptualization of political ideas as seemingly unrelated as those of Mayhem’s guitarist? This is emphatically not to suggest that Albanian communism should be treated as merely an example of a universal (or global) phenomenon—whether it be ‘communist dictatorship’ or ‘totalitarianism’ or any other framework; the insistence on the specificity of the Albanian context is entirely warranted. Likewise, it is not to say that we should somehow take quite seriously the idea of Hoxha’s Albania as the last bastion of ‘true socialism’ in Europe, surrounded by the ‘imperial-revisionist blockade’ (although it might be worth taking Hoxha as a thinker of communism more seriously than authors like Arshi Pipa have done). It is to insist on the inapplicability of ‘authenticity’ to the question of (the experience of) Albanian communism—that is to say, to insist that Hoxhaist communism is really known only by those who lived it, or that their experience is the only experience of it. Of course it is true that the most significant Hoxha leaves behind is in the memories and actions of those who lived in Albania while it was under his control. However, this fact should not exclude from consideration the ways in which Hoxha’s Albania was perceived from ‘outside’—the ways in which it became an important (if starkly ‘inauthentic’) point of political and existential reference.

Part of this external experience, of course, is premised upon a lack of encounter—the fact is, Euronymous never went to Albania. (One can imagine that, if he had, he would have arrived in time to see this, which might have been a rather bitter welcome to a zealous follower of an extremist communist party.[3]) This position of externality does not, I would argue, make the significance that Albania (and Romania, and North Korea, and so forth) held for Euronymous any less worthy of consideration and scrutiny.

What would it mean to look at Albanian communism, particularly that of the Hoxha years, not as something concentrated and bounded in space and time, but rather as something dispersed, distorted, reinterpreted, misunderstood, spread thin across the world and picked up in the strangest of places: Helvete, the record from which Euronymous contributed to the short and controversial rise of black metal, another ‘national’ phenomenon which would take on a decidedly transnational character in the wake of his own death.

[1] Jon Kristiansen, Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries (New York: Bazillion Points, 2011), 210.

[2] Ibid., 209.

[3] The idea of the shock of the ‘reality’ of Hoxha’s Albania encountered for the first time by foreign sympathizers is explored in one of the narrative threads of Diana Çuli’s Diell në Mesnatë. 

Interview with Renee Couture, Part 2

This is the second part of an interview conducted via email with Renee Couture, an artist working and teaching in Douglas County, Oregon. Her work often deals with issues of productive and/or repetitive work and its connection to our lives, as well as the relationship of human communities to the environment. Couture’s website is: .

I am fascinated that you have in a way divided your work (in terms of how you present it on your website at least) into works about work and works about (land) use. The work/use dichotomy seems to me to raise a lot of interesting points. The cautionary reminder that seems to me to be present in works like “Kindly Use” and “In the Quiet of These Great Distances” sets up a tension between “using” and “using up” resources. Do you see the artist as a person who is uniquely positioned to appreciate the need to “use” materials without “using them up”?

I actually see the themes as more related than separated, despite their separation on my website. I see the works of land use as an extension of my works that are specifically about work.  Where Marx spoke of a worker’s alienation from his/her job and jobs [being] comprised of dismembered gestures, bioregional ethics explores the other side of that coin. Through the lens of bioregional ethics, I’m starting to explore how one can work in an engaged way, full of thoughtful gestures. I’m thinking about places where a mindfulness is added to one’s action.

For me, the dichotomy between work and use is a modern invention, if you will. It is the issue of scale. On a small scale, we can use resources, and we can be engaged with our actions. On a large scale, we use up resources and tend toward dismembered gestures. This division between work and use is possible due to series of networks that have made our lives easier. But these same networks have produced a disconnection between the individual and resource at the beginning of the system [and] from the individual and commodity at the end of the system.

I see the work “kindly use” as simultaneously cautionary, but also celebratory. The locations where those signs were placed were near privately owned ranch lands – family-owned businesses run by people who are engaged with their work/labor actions. With the body of work, “In the Quiet of these Great Distances”, I am exploring a gray area of use.

I think artists are certainly in the position of needing materials for the purposes of producing their work. Considering that artists now will often select a material specifically for its cultural connotation, or its meaning, artists are able to see past a material’s usual or typical use. And hopefully using as much of a material as needed to experiment and produce the (art)work he/she is producing. There is also the idea of exploration of intellectual material, of making many works exploring a theme or exploring something deeply – to generate instead of simply consume. There’s also that notion of where the artist can be generous, and where to hold back – to not “use everything up”, to leave space for the viewer.

Do you think art also potentially “uses up”? For example, is there the danger that art “uses up” its subjects by bringing them into the light and thus laying on the table all the meaning they had as parts of our everyday lives? Or does art give its subjects a new kind of vivacity in bringing them to light?

I hope not art doesn’t “use up” its subjects. But it’s certainly possible, both on an investigative/intellectual level, and on a materials level. I mean, how many themes are there really that artists work with? It seems there are a couple dozen general themes. It would be incredibly limiting in that once a theme would be explored, it couldn’t or wouldn’t be explored again by other artists in different ways. Is it that the artist and the art uses up its subject, or does the artist exhaust the subject for him- or herself? Perhaps that’s sort of the same thing. I think that art can explore the various meanings or lines of inquiry of a subject. Expand what it is until it collapses (or until the artist collapses).

In terms of materials, there is no such thing as a “pure” material or medium. All have histories and are imbued culturally in some way. The way in which the materials are used is another conversation. Materials or modes of working which may have, at a certain point in (past or recent) history, been avant-garde can become a modes of working or materials that are commonly used.

I guess I would say that if art “uses up” its subject, material, mode of working, it would do so for a period of time, but they will emerge again. I also think that an artist needs to honor him- or herself, that is, to do what he or she feels compelled to do. An artist can give bring new life or vivacity to a subject, material and way of working, exposing something hidden within the subject and within the artist. There’s an exchange. It’s a dialogue. A dialogue between artists of different eras, artists in different places with similar and different thought processes; a dialogue between the artist and the subject; a dialogue between the artist and the material and process; a dialogue between artist and viewer.

I’d like to touch briefly on how viewers might encounter your work. How important is “making a statement” to the experience of/encounter with your work? What I mean is that, given the fact that a great deal of your work comes from everyday activity, it seems possible to encounter things like dryer lint, floss, potato chips, firewood, etc. without linking them to broader political implications, but simply pondering them as things and materials. Do you feel that your work “must make a statement” in a political or social sense? Or is it sufficient that it simply allows people to contemplate their relation to things and activities?

I think artists make work for different reasons. Some artists want to make beautiful objects, functional objects, a record of a place or moment, a record of a thought, or to make a statement, among other reasons. My work is usually driven by a curiosity, something I’m trying to make sense of, or come to some sort of position on. My work is a record of thought and investigative actions.

That said, I think our lives are political, whether we know it or not. Often we think of politics as something that happens in Washington DC, or among politicians. But I think how we live our lives is political. So, while I don’t necessary think that art must make a statement, I think I am interested in exploring the political within my work and attempting to communicate something to the viewer.  Is wanting to “make a statement” the same as wanting to communicate something?

Since post-modernism, the relationship between viewer and artists, viewer and work has shifted. The viewer has more responsibility. The viewer has to do more work in the viewing process – to ask him- or herself questions about materials, about how they are used and displayed, about the title, about the work’s relationship to other that artist has made or other objects that share its same space. Each viewer brings his or her own subjectivity to a work when viewing. Roland Barthes, in his essay Death of the Author – a basic read for all grad students – explores this idea. As an artist I have to trust the viewer to make their own understanding of the work, whether the viewer looks at the pieces purely in terms of its formal sensibilities, or if the viewer will engage on a deeper level with the work, and whether or not my intention comes through.

Finally, I’m curious about the idea of art as “gesture” (as in your work “Small Gestures”). How do you conceive of the idea of “gesture”? Would you say that all art represents a “gesture”, or is it one kind of activity which art/the artist can engage in? In describing “Small Gestures”, you called it a way of acknowledging “work” that people do, so in some way it completes a circle back to work. In some ways I get the sense that the gesture “says a lot but produces little” while work “produces a lot but says little” (or at least we don’t usually listen to what it has to say). Do you see a sort of reciprocal relation between work and gesture? Between art as work and art as gesture?

The idea of “gesture”… if you look it up in the dictionary, its definition as a noun refers to movements that express thoughts and emotions, and any action of courtesy. In that way, “Small Gestures” is both because it is a record of movement and a courtesy.

Why not acknowledge the work people do? It seems as though, as much as we may work, that it becomes invisible because it’s taken for granted, or because we operate on auto-pilot, or because it’s an expectation within our work-based society. Do we really see the “fruits of our labor” anymore? Within some jobs, certainly, within others, no. Have you ever gone home after a day of work and wondered what you did that day?

Your assertion that “gesture says a lot but produces little while work produces a lot but says little.” is interesting to think about. Some gestures “speak” more “loudly” than others, just as some work produces more, while other work very little. Maybe work and gesture actually need each other; that there is not just a reciprocal relation between work and gesture, but that there is a symbiotic relation, too. Without one, what happens to the other? Where is the overlap, or convergence of the two?

Art is so many things. Art as work, art as actions, art as gesture, art as thought, art as leisure, art as community, art as history, art as work, art as commodity…  I do view art, the making of and the final product (if one exists) as the accumulation of movements, and as an action intended to communicate with or affect the viewer.


Interview With Renee Couture, Part 1

This is the first part of an interview conducted via email with Renee Couture, an artist working and teaching in Douglas County, Oregon. Her work often deals with issues of productive and/or repetitive work and its connection to our lives, as well as the relationship of human communities to the environment. Couture’s website is: .

In encountering your art, one of the first things that comes to mind is a question Duchamp posed: “Can one make works which are not works of art?”. Many of your “works” are about work; do you see a strong distinction between art (the kind you do, or any art) and work? Is the relation between the two a kind of continuum? And if so, what makes the “art” end of the continuum different?

I think this might be a question of intention, and the artist’s or viewer’s willingness to consider a work as art, or not. For example, the Walker Art Museum in Minnesota had an exhibit of Eva Hesse’s sketchbooks, working notes, diaries, and experiments on display. What did Eva Hesse think of these objects? What did the museum think of these objects? How are these objects displayed, and how did the display impact the way in which viewers engaged with these objects? Another example is Gabriel Orozco’s first solo show at Marian Goodman Gallery where he presented Yogurt Caps. The work consisted of four yogurt caps; each wall consisted of a single cap placed in the center of the wall. During the opening, viewers walked in, and then left. And then they came back and really interacted with the space.

In my case, questions surrounding  work and labor – such as our cultural relationship to work – are where my intellectual inquiries begin. So what is work? In my mind, work is anything that we spend our energy on – which is great because my life and my studio practice overlap; I draw from my life for my artwork. Where does one stop and one begin? Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I question myself; sometimes my practice reveals my own biases. Maybe the only difference between one end of the continuum and the other is how I’m thinking about it, what my intention is, whether or not I’m documenting it.

That said, I do think of one’s studio practice as a practice and as work. A studio practice can be bliss, can be fun, can be drudgery, can be painful. Thinking back to Bruce Nauman, who asked the question, “what is art?” shortly after he finished with graduate school and he decided that he was an artist and therefore anything he [does] is art. That revelation expanded his studio practice in exciting ways. Think of what Mary Kelly did with her Postpartum Documents, Merle Ukeles Laderman with her Maintenance Art project, or the work of many artists in the 60s and 70s, where their art was their work and their work was their art. Today Santiago Sierra continues this, though thematically a bit different, but the idea of exploring labor is present.

My husband and I got an exhibit postcard in the mail from a friend once. He said, “gee, I wish I could send out a postcard for when I go to work this coming Monday. It would say my name, and then : reviews timber contract.” On the one hand, he has a point in questioning why the work of an artist should be “celebrated” when everyone else’s work is not. But on the other hand, much of the work artists do is hidden until it’s shown in a gallery, online, on the landscape, etc. Even then, within the final product or object, much of the work involved in the conception and making is missed or hidden. The artist may or may not “get paid” (i.e., sell) the work he/she produces. Does that mean the artist has worked for free?

Does the work have to be shown in a gallery to put it on the “art” end of the continuum? But that would take us into the territory of discussing the Artworld, with a capital A. What I will say is that I know I don’t consider all the work I do each day to be considered “art”, but there are times that I will document work I do with the intention of it becoming art. So I suppose the answer to the last question is a combination of variables of the artist deciding what will or won’t be art, a gallery owner/manager/collector deciding if something is or isn’t art, and the viewer deciding if something is or isn’t art. I mean, we’ve all been in a museum or gallery where a viewer questions whether or not object in that space (gallery, museum) is art, or “something a six-year old could make.” That said, I suppose the continuum shifts depending upon who you speak with.

In your statement about your “work-related” art, you note that “we live in a work-based society”. I wonder to what degree your art might constitute a critique of that society or a reinforcement of it. On the one hand, your emphasis on the product of daily activities stands in contrast to what we might produce in “jobs”. On the other hand, these works seem to be part of the pressure exerted on members of society to accumulate and produce something no matter what. Do you see your art as simply a commentary on this situation, or a step in changing it? If a step towards change, how so?

I think my work is an attempt to understand something and/or to call attention to something. I don’t think of my work necessarily [as] trying to change things. I think of myself as an observer, a record keeper, a researcher, a critiquer, a maker, among other things. My role shifts during different parts of the process and studio practice, and perhaps my role changes with each work or body of works. I suppose some viewers will see the work as a critique, while others might see the work as reinforcement, and other might see the work as observation.

I do think that people have the desire to feel productive, and to do something they can feel good about or are happy doing. But there is also this pressure, for people who have a wage-job, to produce and be productive, to be able to measure the productivity, to earn their pay. This is especially true now in our current economic time.

Also, our jobs are such a large part of our identity, not just how we see ourselves, but how others see us. I suppose the questions now is, what do we produce? Are the things that we produce necessary? As a society, we’ve certainly mastered accelerated obsolescence. And creating specialized objects for everything. How does that impact our creativity, our ability to repurpose objects within in our lives, to see another or hidden potential within an object? Since the industrial revolution and most definitely in our post World War II society, most people no longer work for themselves, that is, they work for an entity that pays. There is an even greater separation between work and leisure, work and pleasure. The home has become a site of consumption as opposed to production. There is a greater distancing between our professional lives and our private lives. Also, the advent of “specializing” we’ve lost generalized knowledge. We lost a seasonality that used to be present…now, instead of working in a seasonal way, completing activities that shift throughout the year, we do the same activities each day. How does that impact how we engage with these activities? These are some of the things I’m thinking about when I’m working.

What do you see as being the difference between work and labor? What about “activity”? How would you relate the concepts of work, labor, and activity to art?

Certainly when I think of “labor” I’m think of something that involves a physicality – an activity where the body is a tool, an activity where muscles are engaged, an activity that physically tires or strains an individual, an activity that is physically engrossing. “Work”, I suppose, involves the mind; it’s also a place where one does one’s job (“I have to go to work”). Of course, these are not entirely separate. Even though I’ve described them as quite different, I believe there is an overlap, like in a Venn diagram. And a “job” is something one does for a wage. Of course, an “activity” is some sort of action that one does when working, laboring, or at one’s job. It is the activity, or more correctly, the output of that activity this is measurable and measured to determine one’s productivity.

But I think that artists work and labor within their practices, each in his or her own way, and perhaps with a different amount of emphasis placed in these areas. Part of the process is researching, thinking, writing, and planning; and then physically making the work. The end result is the accumulation of the various activities that the artist employs within his or her studio practice.

Another theme that I see reflected in some of your works (“Blind Flicker of Nerve”, “Over and Over”, “Labor Day’s Labor”, etc.) is the theme of repetition and habit. These works seem to touch on a kind of obsession related to the repeated act, but to me they also recall Michel Foucault’s analysis of how, in society, the individual/subject is created through habits/activities that are part of a network of power. Do you feel that the sort of repetitive activities your art deals with are a product of the individual, or do they form the individual? Or is it somewhere in between?

Am I allowed to say both? Because I think the relationship is cyclic. I think Louis Althusser points to this in his discussion on Ideological State Apparatuses.

I think perhaps a factor is how engaged the individual is when completing the activity. Is the individual completing the activities with the sort of dismembered gestures of one who is alienated from the activity or mentally disengaged; or is the individual completing the activity in a way that is thoughtful and focused?

There are most definitely habits/activities that are part of a network of power that shape the individual in a variety of ways – how we think about things, our muscle memory, ……. Our body becomes an archive of the activities we do – we see it in the body of retired ballerinas or football players, workers having carpal-tunnel syndrome, or chronic headaches or ulcers due to stress, for example.

Also, studies have shown that the more education one has, the more one’s identity is derived from his/her job.

Our bodies are also not entirely our bodies. Our bodies “belong” not only to us, but also to our culture on a national, state and local level. We see this all the time in legislative acts on women’s reproductive rights, the Death with Dignity Act and objections to it, to name a couple of the more polarizing examples. They belong to families.

In connection with the above question, do you feel that art has a shaping effect or a shaped effect in relation to the artist? Does art come from the artist, or does the artist come from the artwork?

I think what you’re really asking here is what the relationship is between the artist and the work, and the question implies that the relationship is hierarchical. Really, this relationship is a dialogue between the artist and the process. The artist and the process are partners in creating a finished work. So, to answer the question: I believe that both happen within an artist’s practice, a give and take, so to speak, of shaping and being shaped.

But I think it depends upon one’s approach to that particular work, or why one is making the particular work of art. If the artist already has a firm position on the theme or content that he or she wants to present within the work, then the artist has a shaping effect on the work. If the artist is using the work to explore or investigate a question in an attempt to find a position, then the work shapes the artist. Work comes from the artist, and work makes work.

Part 2 will follow shortly. –Raino Isto

Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology, Part 4

Wish you knew what was going on in this post? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 will confuse you more.

IV. Conclusions and Implications for the Study of Art and Craft

It might be said that I have, in focusing my critique on what is only part—though an integral part—of Risatti’s discussion of the craft object, been unduly harsh in my criticism of his theory. I therefore wish to reiterate that my intention is not simply to argue that Risatti’s characterization of work of craft is “wrong” and that we should instead be in search of the “right” one. On the contrary: Risatti’s interpretation of craft using the lens provided by Heidegger and Gadamer is extremely fruitful. His Husserlian model of the craftsperson’s relation to the meaning of the craft object is likewise fruitful, and the tension between the two, which has been the object of my discussion, raises questions which are rarely raised in art historical enquiry. It is my contention that to take Risatti seriously is to see this tension and his struggle to resolve it, and to see beyond that struggle to the new horizons opened up by it.

The truth of the matter is that Risatti’s Husserlian model of objectifying intentionality as a (or the) source of meaning in the art or craft object is common in art historical methodology. Likewise, the view which Risatti rejects—the view that “all meaning resides outside the object” and that meaning is imposed not by the creator but by the viewer, is common in art history and criticism (255). I believe that Risatti senses the limitation of both these models, which adhere to the idea of an object which a subject invests with meaning, and thus draws upon a post-subjective model, though without complete success. What I believe Risatti is seeking for is precisely “the excess of meaning that is present in the work itself”, as Gadamer says (“Aesthetics” 102). This “excess of meaning” is precisely what speaks to us in the work beyond and before what is “put into” it by creator or viewer. Openness to this meaning, allowing the work to speak to us, is something which demands a kind of thinking no longer tethered to the division of meaning-giving subject and object.

Perhaps what is most difficult about looking at the work of art or craft in this new way is that it seemingly forces us, as viewers, to abandon all investigation of the artist or craftsperson’s relation to the creation of the work. If we must leave behind intentionality and “the intention to mean”, what is left to see in the act of creation? Are we not forced into merely passively contemplating the work as it stands before us? And does not this passive contemplation lead us back towards a problematic emphasis on Kantian aesthetic experiences aroused in the subject, and therefore back into the heart of the subject-object model? The answer, I believe, is no.

There is at least one way of thinking about the meaning of the work of art or craft in terms of “receptivity to meaning” without simply adopting the standpoint of a passive viewer. This way of thinking is suggested by the writings of some contemporary Heidegger scholars, principally Hubert Dreyfus. Dreyfus’ discussion of Heidegger and Husserl’s differing concepts of intentionality in his essay “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl’s (and Searle’s) Account of Intentionality” examines precisely the tension that Ristatti’s struggle reveals. Dreyfus offers an account of Heidegger’s notion of intentionality, which is a pre- or non-objective intentionality (2-4). In other words, there is a kind of intentionality characterized by receptivity (of the kind Risatti wants to cultivate in our encounter with the craft object) which has no defined object. This kind of intentionality, as Dreyfus explains, underlies the Husserlian model of objective intentionality and makes it possible. This is to say that Heidegger gets around the issue of transcendence (which is so problematic for Risatti, as we have seen) by revealing transcendence as the ground for deliberate, intentional object-oriented action, rather than a result of it (“Heidegger’s Critique” 10). Thus, in any encounter with the world, we are always already “absorbed” in some way in a situation, and the situation calls upon us to “get into the right relation to it” (“Heidegger’s Critique” 6). This quite accurately describes what Risatti’s entire book aims at: it wants us to “get into the right relation” to the work of craft, and thus come to understand more fully what it is and how it is.

All that said, Risatti is clearly interested in the connection between craftsperson and created work of craft. Can we examine this relationship in terms of Heidegger’s account of pre-objective intentionality and receptivity to the world? Again, Dreyfus suggests a way of doing this. In All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly examine how those living in our present age can understand and engage in meaningful action and understanding. Their enquiry includes a lengthy discussion of the way in which the maker relates to the object created—interestingly enough, using the example of the craftsperson rather than the artist. Dreyfus and Kelly see, in the activity of the woodworker, an example of how to think post-subjectively about the maker’s act of making. In contrast to Risatti, Dreyfus and Kelly are very much interested in skill, though they have a very different idea of what skill might mean in this context. “The master’s skill for working with wood … involves intelligence and flexibility rather than rote and automatic response. This does not mean that the master is constantly planning out his actions; his ingenuity is practical, embodied, and in the moment” (209). Thus, the craftsperson “sees meaningful distinctions in the wood—distinctions of worth and of quality—that in no way find their source in him” (208-9). “The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there” (209, emphasis in original).

This characterization of the craftsperson’s act of making might seem a far cry from Ristatti’s investigation, which ultimately seeks to avoid basing a definition of craft on either skillful creation or the material used. However, what Dreyfus and Kelly reveal is that this renewed and re-formed characterization of the significance of skill and material allows us to think about the creation of the work of craft (or of art) in a way that avoids simply falling into the subject-object dichotomy. This phenomenological approach suggests a range of meanings—physical, material, situational—that are overlooked or at best distorted if we merely examine the craft object in terms of the deliberate intention to mean on the part of the craftsperson-subject.

This new way of looking at works of art and craft is precisely what Risatti is seeking in his book, with all the new and difficult horizons that this new way of looking opens up for art historical enquiry. Taking Risatti’s task seriously means seeking this new way, seeking an alternative to the model of objective intentionality present in Kant and Husserl, and bringing this new method to bear on ourselves and our encounter with works of art and craft.

Cited: Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics”, Philosophical Hermenuetics, trans. David E. Linge, Unicersity of California, Berkeley: 1976.

Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl’s (and Searle’s) Account of Intentionality”, Social Research, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring 1993.

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York: 2011.

If you’ve read this far, thx. –Raino Isto

Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology Part 3

Wish you knew what was going on in this post? Part 1 and Part 2 will help.

III. Risatti’s Difficulty in Accomplishing the Post-Aesthetic Turn

As I have noted above, Risatti sets himself a substantial task in attempting to answer the question “What is a craft object?” He faces not only a significant ontological challenge, but must also make the question relevant to art historians and art critics. In other words, he must speak to them as viewers and students of art (and craft); he must speak to their experience of the work of art. Risatti’s first step towards this goal is to attempt to describe how works of craft can be meaningful to us, and in this endeavor his first step is to consider the maker of the craft object and the maker’s intention in creating it. Whether he does this because he is drawn to a Husserlian model of intentionality or whether an interest in a particular model of intended meaning draws him to Husserl is irrelevant. The result of Risatti’s first step is to place the craft-object over against the craftsperson-subject, the latter imbuing the former with intentional meaning drawn from a source Risatti does not elaborate. Presumably Risatti believes the meaning could come from any number of sources, but—in identifying the craftsperson with the meaning-giving subject—he essentially ensures that meaning must in some way relate to the intention of the maker.

In taking this step, Risatti has complicated his subsequent task: to describe how meaning reaches the viewer, and how the viewer can be open to that meaning. To accomplish this, Risatti calls upon Heidegger and Gadamer’s post-aesthetic conceptions of contemplation and understanding. In fact, I believe that Heidegger and Gadamer do provide the key Risatti is looking for in his attempt to characterize the meaningfulness of the work of craft. However, Risatti mischaracterizes the kind of meaning that Heidegger and Gadamer encounter in works of art, and thus cannot apply their theories successfully to his own model. Simply: the kind of meaning that Risatti has identified, an intentional meaning put into an object by a creating subject, is not the kind of meaning that Heidegger and Gadamer’s phenomenological approaches seek to encounter.

Risatti’s first mistake is that he misunderstands Heidegger’s concept of meditative thinking, conflating it with Kantian aesthetic contemplation. Risatti sees in Heidegger’s distinction between “calculative thinking” and “meditative thinking” essentially a distinction between a means-oriented and an intentional-meaning-oriented way of encountering things (262-5). He sees (rightfully so) calculative thinking as absorbed in what something can be used for, while meditative thinking gains access to the meaning in things “made with the intention to be contemplated” (265). Here he seems to smoothly transition from his Husserlian/Kantian model to a Heideggerian viewpoint. What Risatti misses is precisely the fact that Heidegger wishes, with contemplative thinking, to move beyond precisely the subject-object division that Husserlian intentionality presupposes as original in our encounter with things (cf. Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique” 2). In fact, the later Heidegger renounced the term “philosophy” in favor of “thinking” precisely as a way of overcoming the philosophical tradition’s focus on the subject-object division (Thomson 11).

Thus, Heidegger’s “meditative thinking” is distinguished from Kant’s aesthetic contemplation precisely in that it seeks to go thinking” is distinguished from Kant’s aesthetic contemplation precisely in that it seeks to go beyond or more exactly before the Kantian description of a subject disinterestedly contemplating and object standing over against it. This is the entire goal of Heidegger’s description of Dasein’s fundamental transcendence: to show that we are, in our being-in-the-world, first in a world of things that we understand prior to any subjective contemplation of them or attempt to ascertain the meaning of them and bring it into our subjective sphere (Heidegger 162). In this sense, when I have above referred to Heidegger’s stance as “post-subjective”, I might perhaps more accurately have done so as “pre-subjective” insofar as while Heidegger comes after a long history of subjectivity in philosophy, he seeks to overcome that tradition by going behind and before it phenomenologically. Risatti sees that precisely this kind of overcoming of the tradition of aesthetic contemplation is in some way necessary, but he remains committed to his assertion that the meaning of the craft object is both a) intentional meaning from the maker, and b) meaning to be found in an object, thus presupposing a subject to both put the meaning there and find the meaning out.

Essentially, what Heidegger and Gadamer seek to do (in terms of the work of art) is to overcome the entire history of aesthetics (for a detailed account of Heidegger’s post-aesthetic thinking, see Iain Thompson’s Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, especially chapters 1-3). What I mean by this is that they seel to overcome aesthetics as the discipline which presupposes a subject which has “aesthetic experiences” and from those experiences determines a meaning for itself. Rather, Heidegger (and Gadamer follows him in this) seeks to understand things (note that we do not say objects) as meaning-full (Heidegger 158-64). In other words, our absorption into the world does not lead to us “reading meaning into” things (either as creators or as viewers), but rather we encounter a meaning that is really there in things themselves (Heidegger 173). The meaningfulness of things is what allows us encounter them as meaningful, not our subjective intentionality. Heidegger has a long argument about his own conception of (pre-subjective) intentionality, which we need not go into here (cf. Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique” and Heidegger, Basic Problems). It will suffice to say that Heidegger’s “meditative thinking” is certainly not akin to Kantian aesthetic contemplation, and thus that Risatti has not yet really made the move he needs to: the move away from a subject-object account of craft to a post-aesthetic description of craft.

Likewise, Risatti’s appropriation of Gadamer’s notions of “games” and “fore-understanding” (8-10, 304). Risatti interprets Gadamer’s “games” and “fore-understanding” in terms of concrete categories of thought that we bring to bear on objects we encounter: objects of craft, in this case. He ignores the way in which Gadamer’s description of the game also relates to Gadamer’s way of following Heidegger’s movement beyond subjects and objects. As Gadamer says, in the game way are swept up in something—as we are in understanding—a situation that is prior to our individual subjectivity (“Beautiful” 22-24). Our interaction in playing the game indeed involves our following rules, but we follow these rules in a way that does not involve our confronting them or the game or other players as objects which we mist discern the meaning from. Rather, things are meaningful in the context of the game. Likewise, our “fore-understanding” is precisely a pre-subjective understanding that has not yet grasped objects and does not need to because it is part of Dasein’s absorption in the world (Truth and Method 235).

Both Heidegger and Gadamer’s ways of thinking about intentionality, understanding, and the meaning of art (and things in general) do indeed help Risatti’s argument for taking seriously works of craft. As Risatti cites from Gadamer: “We cannot understand [the work of art] without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said” (ctd. in Risatti 304). Gadamer’s clarification shows precisely this: that it is not a matter of intent to find meaning, but of being open to the meaning that is there. The meaning that we might intentionally discover in the craft object might well (through prior transcendence) be the meaning of the maker. It could as well be the meaning we as subjects put into it. It could as well come from other subjects. However, the meaning that is there in the work of craft before it stands before us as an object of craft is the meaning that is in the work of craft and we are open to it before we ever objectify and thematicize it as viewing subjects. It is this meaning that Heidegger and Gadamer seek to remain open to, and which Risatti cannot be open to in his account of the craft object.

This post will be continued in Part 4, which is where I will actually come to conclusions. So that’s the one to read.–Raino Isto


Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

Martin Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter, Indiana , Bloomington: 1982.

Hans Georg-Gadamer, “The Relevance of the Beautiful”, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, trans. Nicholas Walker, Campbridge: New York: 1993.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York: 1986.

Iain D. Thomson, Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, Cambridge, New York: 2011.

Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl’s (and Searle’s) Account of Intentionality”, Social Research, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring 1993.

Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology Part 2

This post is a continuation of Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology.

II. Risatti’s Problematic Conceptions of Intentionality and Meaning

Risatti’s discussion of craft unfolds in a philosophical space provided essentially by four philosophers: Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. It is not my intention to trace the entirety of Risatti’s utilization of these philosophers and their ideas. Nor do I mean to recount Risatti’s complete theory of the craft object. Instead I want to focus on those areas in which Risatti most problematically attempts to synthesize the views of Kant and Husserl with those of Heidegger and Gadamer without fully acknowledging the difference between their theories. Ultimately, Risatti’s answer to the question “What is a craft object?” is unsatisfactory because it does cannot fully overcome the differences between what I will call a “subjective” approach and a “post-subjective” approach to finding meaning in the work of art.

Risatti clearly has what I will—perhaps crudely—describe as a loyalty to (“respect for” might be a fairer way to put it) a Heideggerian post-aesthetic, post-subjective, and therefore post-modern, philosophical approach. Beginning in his introduction, Risatti draws upon Gadamer’s analogy to the game as a way of describing the tans-subjective event that occurs in understanding (5). Throughout the book, Risatti repeatedly returns to this notion—the way in which, in understanding the work of art or craft, the work itself makes a demand on us, and we must allow ourselves to be open to that demand if we are to receive the meaning that is there. Likewise, Risatti is clearly drawn to Heidegger’s assessment of the way works of art can lose their “world” in the absence of preservers and gradually transform into no more than aesthetic objects gracing the halls of museums (Risatti 84). In the same vein, Risatti seems to be drawn to Heidegger’s notion of (non-objective) “meditative thinking” (as opposed to “calculative thinking”), and in fact Risatti seems to base his model of aesthetic contemplation on Heidegger’s meditative thinking (264-5). He does so, however, only after a detour through Kantian and Husserlian characterizations of perception, and therefore cannot fully pin down how he wants the viewer to encounter the work of craft.

While Risatti clearly wants to explore the regions opened up by Heidegger’s attempt to overcome aesthetics, he is also drawn to a Kantian model of the aesthetic experience and a Husserlian model of intentionality. Put briefly, the problem with Risatti’s characterization grows out of the fact that he wishes to grasp the craft object at both ends, so to speak. He wants to describe its creation by the craftsperson using a Husserlian intentional model, and at the same time to facilitate our encounter with it using a fusion of Kant’s aesthetics and Heidegger and Gadamer’s post-aesthetics. The task that Risatti has set himself is immense, and we can certainly sympathize if he fails to achieve entirely clear and satisfactory results in terms of offering a theory of what the craft object is. He nonetheless raises important questions about art historical (and craft historical) method, not the least of which is how tenable it is to investigate the phenomenon of art from the point of view of the creator and in the same breath from the point of view of the viewer.

I have said above that Risatti fails essentially because he cannot synthesize a view which is premised upon the subject-object division with a view that fundamentally wants to move beyond that distinction. Let me explain the former view, and how Risatti depends upon it. Risatti is concerned with the meaning works of art/craft have for us, and how we might appropriately open ourselves to that meaning. For a description of how the work receives its meaning, Risatti proceeds from a telling description of Kant’s “purposive objects” and the contrasting “free play of the maker’s imagination” that characterizes the creation of works of “fine art” (220-1). Risatti does this in part, undoubtedly, because he wishes to avoid the association between craft and function, an association which has led theorists to view the creation of craft objects as a process totally governed by the ultimate use to which the object will be put. So, from the start, Risatti is concerned to show that there is some freedom, and thus some meaning, in the activity of homo faber when he makes craft objects. Risatti says: “To mean is to signify, and for an object to signify something…two things must be present. One is that its formal demands must be such that they allow for manipulation on the part of the maker in the name of expression; and two, this allowance for expression must be intentionally exploited by the maker in a desire to express something” (221). Now that Risatti has used the word “intentionally”, he needs a way to describe this intentionality, and to do this he turns to Husserl.

For Husserl, meaning comes from “the intention to mean”: “Intention to mean is just as important as the possibility of meaning,” as Risatti summarizes Husserl’s position in the Logical Investigations (221-2). Husserl sees all perception—and thus relation to the world—as intentional. For Husserl, and for Risatti, one cannot think without thinking of something, one cannot perceive without perceiving something, and—and this is Risatti’s development of Husserl—one cannot make without making something (252-3). Risatti thinks he is avoiding Cartesianism in his Husserlian proclamation that “the act of making can never be empty; always it must be directed beyond itself to an intentional object” (253). Risatti thus treats the craft object as the intentional object of the craftsperson, whose intention causes meaning to reside in the object. He then proceeds to call upon Heidegger’s “meditative thinking” and Gadamer’s characterization of understanding to explain the attitude that would allow us as viewers to open ourselves to the meaning placed into the craft object by the maker.

Here Risatti does an injustice to both Husserl on the one hand and Heidegger and Gadamer on the other. Risatti seems to overlook precisely the fact that Heidegger’s meditative thinking—a term the later Heidegger used to distance himself from fundamentally metaphysical philosophizing—is meant to transcend the subject-object dichotomy. In his characterization of the craft object using the ideas of Kant and Husserl, however, Risatti has already firmly rooted himself in this metaphysical tradition, and he cannot overcome it by simply switching to Heidegger’s point of view.

What do I mean when I say that Risatti’s Husserlian model is rooted firmly in metaphysics? Simply this: that it depends on the division between a knowing/perceiving/creating/meaning-giving subject and a known/perceived/created/meaning-receiving object (of craft). In fact, Risatti reveals this prejudice in his very first sentence when he says that he wants to discover what a craft object is (xiii). One might say that this is simply an unfortunate choice of terminology, but in fact Risatti can never escape the traditional conception of an aesthetic object to a more post-aesthetic conception, such as Heidegger’s characterization of the work of art.

The easiest way to think about how Risatti’s interpretation of craft adheres to metaphysics is to see how it is rooted in Cartesianism. While Risatti wants to dispense with an intentionality of function (in which the function is the only “goal” of creation), he nonetheless replaces it with what we might call an intentionality of expression. In doing so, he sees himself as preserving the freedom of the craftsperson in creating the object. Perhaps this is so, but he is also characterizing the meaning of the work of craft in a metaphysical way. Basically, Risatti conceives of meaning “getting into” the work craft object thanks to the craftsperson’s metalistic/subjectivistic prior intention to express something. For Risatti, there can be nothing more basic than this relation between free intention to mean and the object wherein the meaning is fixed by the maker. Risatti, following Husserl, does not want to fall into the Cartesian trap of a subjectivity that knows only itself (Risatti 253). But in “escaping” this Cartesianism, Risatti no doubt does Husserl justice. However, Risatti’s path leads him to a point at which—in his struggle to show how we can find works of craft meaningful—he must struggle with the idea of transcendence.  Since Risatti is tied to his concern with the “sign as expression”—his citation of Peggy Kamuf makes this clear—he is forced to try to explain transcendence on the basis of intentional subject-intended object. In other words, he has to explain how meaning gets from one to the other, and the how it might get to us on the other end. Here, Risatti comes up against a problem with a long history in philosophy: “How do experiences and that to which they direct themselves as intentional, the subjective in sensations, representations, relate to the objective?” (Heidegger 62).

In other words, Risatti (like Descartes and Husserl after him) places the division between the subject (the creating craftsperson) and the object (the object of craft) at the center of his theory of craft.  This was, as Heidegger notes, the “new beginning” which Descartes instituted: an ontology of being which takes its first steps from the ego, the subject, the res cogitans (Basic Problems 123-5). As I said above, this model is perfectly sufficient from one point of view. It is quite plausible to adopt a model in which the subject, the craftsperson, confronts the raw, meaningless material of the world with an idea to be realized and sets about putting that meaning into form in the object of the crafting process. Meaning is given by the intention of the crafter to mean, as Risatti and Husserl agree. We can follow Risatti this far.

The problem is that Risatti has not fully accomplished the task he sets himself. Characterizing the process of creation from the point of view of the creator is not (entirely) Risatti’s aim. Risatti also wishes, put bluntly, to raise the status of craft objects. This is what I might call his ideological goal, although this sounds perhaps disdainful. Risatti wants to be able to ask the question “What is a craft object?” and he means to create the space in which it can be asked by giving us, the viewers, access to the craft object. To do this, he cannot of course rely on his Cartesian model.

Why not, we might ask? Because, as I noted above, Risatti has raised the problem of transcendence, and he cannot overcome it from his current position. Even if we agree that the craftsperson is somehow able to make meaning appear from nowhere, or take it “from somewhere out in the stars” and invest it in the craft object, how is this meaning to become accessible to us? And more importantly, what meaning is supposed to become accessible to us? The pure meaning of the author’s intention? A meaning totally divorced from any intention of the author that somehow comes from outside the object and the maker? Risatti rejects both of these kinds of meaning (254-5).

Risatti looks to Kant for a way to describe how we appropriately encounter the work of art (or craft). In doing so, he is being consistent in his adherence to the subject-object division, since this division is fundamental in Kant as well. However, in discussing how we can break away from the “steady stream of data through our senses” and confront the object disinterestedly as Kant described, Risatti cannot avoid the implicit question he has raised—the question of how the meaning of the isolated object standing in itself can reach me, the subject of perception (266). This is a question which resounds through the history of philosophy, as Heidegger describes in Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Heidegger’s solution, briefly put, is to show that the problem only exists in a certain context: the context of a philosophy which takes the division of subject and object as the most basic distinction, and which regards the character of beings as present-at-hand for that subject (including even the subject itself).

Risatti does not seem concerned with this question, because he thinks that he can simply switch to a Heideggerian, post-subjective point of view and transcend the problem. This is true, to a certain extent. More is necessary, however, as I shall explain below. The easiest way to see how Risatti still struggles with the question, despite ignoring it, is to note the amount of effort he expends trying to “give us access” to the craft object. Having described how meaning “gets into” the craft object through intentionality, it would seem fairly simple to follow Kant’s model of intentional perception and summarize how we in turn understand the meaning in the object. Why detour through the New Criticism and Barthes at all, as Risatti does? Is Risatti simply being intellectually polite? On the contrary, Risatti perhaps senses that his model is still open to criticisms from these schools of thought because he has not yet said anything truly convincing about how the maker’s intentional meaning gets to us. He has posited a making subject and an object. Now he must posit a perceiving subject and an object. But, of course, it has to be the right kind of object—the kind worthy of the attention of art critics and art historians and the rest of us. It must be meaningful, meaning to Risatti that it must inspire in us an aesthetic experience. Here Risatti seems to shrug his shoulders: “[what matters] is that viewers are able to aesthetically behold the work of art as a contemplative, meditative object”, he says (261). Agreed, but this does not tell us how we, as subjects, are supposed to transcend our subjective sphere (the same sphere that, in the case of the craftsperson, gave meaning to the object through intentionality) and be open to the meaning which adheres somewhere in or around the object.

Having explained some of the difficulties inherent in the relationship between Risatti’s clear goals and the theoretical model of creative intentionality that he has chosen, I would next like to discuss Risatti’s attempts at adopting a Heideggerian stance. I intend to show how Heidegger and Gadamer offer a real alternative to Husserl and Kant, and why Risatti is unable successfully apply their views to his theory of the craft object.

Cited: Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

Martin Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter, Indiana , Bloomington: 1982.

This post will be continued in Part 3.–Raino Isto