Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 5, 2014
Juliane Rebentisch Aesthetics of Installation Art Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013. 296 pp. Paper € 19.00 (9783943365191)
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“Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other, the spectator,” wrote Marcel Duchamp in 1957 (quoted in Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, New York: Paragraphic Books, 1959, 77). Unwearyingly, Duchamp stressed the contribution of the spectator to the “creative act.” Like him, Juliane Rebentisch argues in Aesthetics of Installation Art that works of art exist only in the aesthetic experience of artists and spectators, shared in art discourse. But while her book centers on the relationship between subject and object—and therewith aims to overcome a “central problem of modern philosophy: the problem of an ontology founded on the subject-object distinction” (15)—the primary subject in question here is the receiver of the artwork. Unlike for Duchamp, who is virtually absent from the present book, the figure of the artist plays little to no part in Rebentisch’s theory. Even if the artist-as-author has been sufficiently deconstructed since the 1960s, objectivist theories of art deserve further scrutiny. Claiming that works of art have no intrinsic objective being, Rebentisch presents a thorough plea for an understanding of contemporary installation art that focuses on the aesthetic experience. Yet the book is not an inquiry into the nature of aesthetic experience in relation to installation art. It is, rather, an attempt to read art-theoretical and art-critical discourses on installation art since Minimalism, identified as a predecessor, against the backdrop of philosophical aesthetics. Rebentisch’s aim is to rehabilitate philosophical aesthetics as a critical project. Her welcome viewpoint is that art criticism is not dead—just so long as it is backed up by an updated philosophical framework, which the book sets out to provide.

Like several other recent authors on the philosophy of contemporary art (e.g., Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, London: Verso, 2013), Rebentisch identifies herself with the European post-Kantian philosophical tradition whose key representative is Theodor Adorno. She is thus not particularly interested in providing a survey of the various forms or the history of installation art, but follows the premise that a small number of artworks can be deemed paradigmatic: those works that are responsive to the most compelling demands placed upon art at a specific historical moment. This philosophical tradition courts the pitfall of circularity: paradigmatic or “good” artworks are defined by their embodiment of the most stringent aesthetic demands in a given moment in time, but these demands are formulated on the basis of the “best” works of this time. Rebentisch does not address this circularity, nor does she escape it. The reader is expected to agree with her selection of case studies—which, she implies, is based on aesthetic criteria generated by public debate at a given time. It could be objected here that the book itself aims to be part of this public debate, which causes yet another form of circularity.

The second postulate flowing forth from an adherence to the post-Kantian tradition is the idea that art pertains to a separate sphere with its own history and potential separate from “life,” and that it generates a specifically aesthetic experience. Rebentisch openly states her project to update Adorno’s philosophy of art for installation art, and this “against” the philosopher’s “own intentions” (129). For, she argues, as soon as aesthetic philosophy is conceived of as a critical project, it is potentially or even necessarily fallible. Rebentisch’s objective to continue critically the aesthetic project of modernism—a position that could have been revealed earlier in the book—explains why installation art is approached through traditional categories such as form, space, time, content, and medium. It also explains why she places a relatively large emphasis on Minimalist art, but does not include the post-Adorno notion of conceptuality, the “other” pole through which the history of art since the sixties can and perhaps should be read.

The project to rethink Adorno’s aesthetic philosophy implies that the aforementioned traditional categories are subjected to intense scrutiny and necessary modification in order that they may become relevant for installation art. The book is divided into three thematic sections linked not only to the parameters of the aesthetic experience of installation art, such as form, time, or space, but also to the critical-reception history of installation art and its designated forerunner, Minimal art. The three section themes are theatricality, intermediality, and site specificity.

Theatricality is of course inextricably linked to Michael Fried’s early writings on Minimal art. Rebentisch thoroughly contextualizes and deconstructs Fried’s ideas, showing how Fried borrowed the negative use of “theatricality” from the philosopher Stanley Cavell to describe a loss of “genuineness.” Although Cavell started from different ethical grounds, Fried inscribed “theatricality” into the modernist, formalist discourse and mobilized the term to denounce hybridization and transgression of artistic media in favor of an aesthetic of “presentness,” based on the organicist idea that the work of art should reveal itself in one glance as a harmonious unity. Against Fried, Rebentisch argues for a rehabilitation of theatricality as a critical category describing the relation between subject and object in the aesthetic experience of installation art. For her, this relation is open, experimental, and individual rather than hierarchical and universal.

In order to further counter Fried’s widespread, specific, and strongly negative use of “theatricality” in defense of medium specificity as the guarantee for a transhistorical canon of art, Rebentisch explores the critical category of intermediality. Her thorough inquiry into the modalities of installation art (intermedia, form, space, time) in the second section of her book should be understood as contributing to an understanding of the structure of aesthetic experience. The first part of this section is an attempt to rethink Adorno’s key ideas of aesthetic autonomy and artistic progress. Rebentisch argues that aesthetic autonomy is not guaranteed by production, that is, by medium specificity, but that it can be explained only with reference to the aesthetic experience. First off, Clement Greenberg’s ideas on medium specificity are deconstructed with the help of German philosopher Niklas Luhmann’s medium-transgressive theories. This chapter further includes insightful readings of Lessing and theories of the total work of art.

The second part of the section on intermediality focuses on the entwinement of spatial and time-based arts in theatrical, cinematographic, or sound installations. It includes readings of Gertrude Stein, Ilya Kabakov, Boris Groys, Walter Benjamin, Adorno, and Cavell. This portion of the book contains more references to actual artworks than are found elsewhere, but for the art historian, the observations often hover around the obvious. Moreover, the surprisingly heavy presence of Kabakov must be explained by the fact that the original German version of the book appeared ten years ago, when his installations were at the center of art-critical attention. Rebentisch’s main emphasis in this section is on the “processuality” of the aesthetic experience (131), the “uncertainty” of which she defines as a “critical quality” (73). The vocabulary now and then reveals a modernist standpoint: the transgression of the boundaries of the artwork is described as contributing to “Enlightenment”—a term that is not problematized but that may point to an ideology of progress. This “Enlightenment,” however, is for Rebentisch engendered by a deconstruction of the rudimentary metaphysical elements implicit in an aesthetic of presentness.

The third section of the book, on site specificity, opens with an unexpected author: Martin Heidegger. His philosophy of space and place is introduced because it is unclear, according to Rebentisch, which concepts of site and space ground art-historical discussions of site specificity. The choice of Heidegger is related to Rebentisch’s project to re-read modernism. Many Minimalist artists and theorists understand their art through French phenomenology, which emphasizes the body of the spectator, and therewith offers a subjectivist theory of art. Rebentisch mobilizes Heidegger’s phenomenology—again “against” the philosopher himself—to shift the attention to an overcoming of the subject-object ontology. Heidegger gave a processual definition of the artwork as an inconclusive striving (for truth) between form and content, and saw the relationship between artwork and viewer as undefined.

The final chapter in this section, “Installation and Intervention,” focuses on the political potential of installation art. With Heidegger, Rebentisch argues that space is not neutral but always pervaded by meaning. Site specificity can also refer to a critical or even political quality of installation art, which she defines, in line with Adorno, as self-reflectivity. “Self”-reflectivity for installation art means a reflection on the conditions that frame it—be they social, cultural, economic, or political. According to Rebentisch, these processes of context-reflectivity are at work in the aesthetic experience, and this is where art’s “criticality” is situated, rather than in a political or otherwise directly engaged social content.

The book’s structure is clear and the argumentation is concise. Rebentisch’s intelligent and elaborate deconstruction of modernist art criticism (Fried, Greenberg, Rosalind Krauss) is a worthwhile read for modernist art historians. Her plea for a philosophical renewal of the foundations of art criticism helps fill a lacuna in contemporary art theory. It remains to be seen, however, if the combination of a constitutively open and individual subject-object-relation in aesthetic experience on the one hand and, on the other, a rethinking of modernist critical categories is sufficient to discuss all contemporary installation art. Notably, this theoretical approach leaves little to no room for an extensive discussion of the idiosyncrasies of conceptual installation art.

Rebentisch’s strength is in analyzing philosophical or art-critical discourse, while her descriptions and interpretations of artworks sometimes seem incomplete, or worse, come across as partial appropriations in favor of her own theory—even if she explicitly argues against such a practice. The claim that aesthetic experience is ultimately individual necessarily limits the possibility of “practical” applications of her theory. However, this viewpoint is coupled with the idea that aesthetic discourse is constructed through the condensation, in art criticism, of many aesthetic experiences. This seems to be a direct invitation to art historians to contribute to the formulation of aesthetic criteria. The intelligence, depth, and thoroughness of argumentation with which the Aesthetics of Installation Art is written should also be a reminder not to take this task lightly.

Merel van Tilburg
Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte, Paris

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