Friday, June 18, 2010

Art and Exploitation_01

I had a conversation with a friend of mine last night that was very fruitful and got me to thinking. So today I sent this response to her.

Hi ___,

Just to pick up on a topic we exploited last evening to our mutual pleasure (at least I enjoyed it);
art and exploitation.

I have a definition of art that I find works very well for me...

Art is the making of objects for the purposes of contemplation.

I restrict this to man-made objects and exclude god so that we don't have to mess with issues of nature as art. But these objects can be temporal objects, a performance. Part of the beauty of this definition is that it evades questions of high art/low art; does art have a social purpose or obligation? must art be beautiful or uplift us?

Take for instance a Sam Maloof settee which can be seen on display at the Oakland Art Museum. (Maloof was a craftsman furnituremaker who died recently. He was particularly famous for his rocking chairs.) Does a chair belong in an art museum next to a Mel Ramos painting of Superman? A chair can be assigned a utilitarian value, an economic value, a decorative value.... but is it art? Well, by my definition, if we can even contemplate this question, then it has a value as art. Does it have a high value, or a low value? That depends on the viewer and what the viewer brings to the equation and that's the other part of my definition. Art is not so much dependent on the creator as it is on the viewer and the degree to which an object is art depends on the degree of contemplation it evokes.

So does using woman as the subject of art objects exploit them? In most contexts we would say that it does not; few would argue that Bernini's St Theresa in Ecstasy exploits women, although in incorporates elements of violence towards a sexually attractive young woman. But the word does pop up often in contexts involving sexuality and violence.... both together and separately. In the context of modern feminist usage it comes as a preloaded word, referenced below as the second verb meaning.


1 –noun
1. a striking or notable deed; feat; spirited or heroic act: the exploits of Alexander the Great.

2 –verb (used with object)
1. to utilize, esp. for profit; turn to practical account: to exploit a business opportunity
2. to use selfishly for one's own ends: employers who exploit their workers.
3. to advance or further through exploitation; promote: He exploited his new movie through a series of guest appearances.

Interestingly to me, in none of these definitions is the object being exploited explicitly defined as being damaged by the process. This particular one to use selfishly for one's own ends suggests the possibility of damage just as the others suggest the possibility of the exultation of the object of exploitation.

Nevertheless, in a feminist critique of art the use of the word exploited is clearly understood to carry the implication of damage to the subject of the art piece, by virtue of its transformation into object. The parallel debate is over whether depictions of violence promotes or defuses the desire to commit violence. Or to go to the issue that is most difficult to disentangle from the emotional revulsion we feel at it, child pornography. If a child is photographed in a sexually provocative scenario, we all feel that a child has been damaged. If Vladimir Nabokov writes about a middle-aged man in a sexual relationship with a 12 year old girl, no real person has been abused.

I think the real point I'm coming to about this is that when we bring certain words to our discussions of events, art, opinion, we can often bring them preloaded in ways that restrict analysis, as when he use the word greatest in reference to an athlete. How are we defining greatest? Or in the use of the word exploited in this context.

So a topic for further exploitation, just how are certain kinds of art damaging to real people? How are women exploited? For that to be a valid description, we should be able to clearly draw the mechanism by which it happens. We should not let it pass as an unexamined assumption. We should take care that we are not allowing words to mask reality.


Whew! this was fun. I think I'll post this to my blog (delete your name) and add some links.

Have a productive day, meditate and enjoy the sun!

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