Art and the 'Real'

Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey & Suhail Malik eds., Realism Materialism Art

Sternberg Press, 408pp, £25.00, ISBN 9783956791260

reviewed by Hatty Nestor

Realism Materialism Art is an anthology of essays published by the Centre of Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York, in conjunction with Sternberg Press. To uncover the relationship between realism and materialism within the sphere of art, the editors have selected a rich combination of exhibitions, talks and theorists through which to discuss current questions in critical theory. Featuring essays by Graham Harman, Boris Groys, Christoph Cox and Susan Schuppli, Realism Materialism Art meditates upon the different positions ‘objects’ may occupy within current theory trends, and art’s relation to the sphere of 'speculative materialism.’ This book comprises 35 essays arrange in six chapters: Matter, Object, Concept, Representation, Scale, and Speculation. It looks at how the world and our ideas of it sit intuitively and independently of our cognitive beliefs about it. If a concept, or belief of an idea were to present itself independently from phenomenological notions of being, and our (Kantian) thoughts of the material world, what would it look like?

An interview with philosopher Graham Harman, in the Object chapter, discusses the application of philosophy to materiality. Harman’s commentary is placed alongside the work of the novelist Tristan Garcia, who discusses ‘immanent artworks’ as a framing device that Harman extends in his notion of the ‘art object.’ Garcia’s response, although aligned with Harman’s, sits in the Representation section. In ‘In Defense of Representation,’ Garcia declares that he ‘seeks a materialist or naturalist theory of the mind.’ Departing from this duality, Amanda Beech’s essay explores the unification of artworks, discussing the similarities between mediums such as poetry and philosophy. The displacement and redefinition of the viewer are central to Beech’s argument: art here is a tool to question aesthetic judgment and perception, for the profit of the immanence of a system composed of the work of art, where the viewer generates the value.

Realism Materialism Art references Quentin Meillassoux’s characterisation of modern philosophy in ‘After Finitude’ (2008) as a ‘correlation between thinking and being, and never should either term be considered apart from the other.’ Hence, the notion that thought itself can think outside itself, that reality has the ability to be constructed outside of human comprehension, is a central concern in this book. As the introduction puts it, ‘the world is only ever the world for thought or the experience of a subject.’ This book takes up the theoretical premise that we can extend materialism and realism beyond the realm of socially organised constructions, presenting a platform to consider a reality that can be known without being shaped by and for human comprehension – where the idea of the ‘real’ is seemingly accessible through reason, science and mathematics.

The book unfolds onto a systematic explanation of how the material world is ultimately subject to linguistic and cultural changes, discussing the manner in which realist and materialist philosophies inform and resonate with the arts. The contributors trace the origins of realism and materialism in relation to cultural assumptions of artistic practice. In this trajectory, reality is bound by thought, and the book consistently presents this mode of being as unviable when constructed separately from human comprehension. Lacan put this mode of thinking, known as correlationism, most forcefully: ‘It is the world of words that creates the world of things,’ and it is this definition that allows realism and materialism to be intertwined, and not mutually exclusive.

The contributors to Realism Materialism Art reject this correlationalist view. Art, they say, can be a means through which realist and materialist philosophies can be extended; it is not just the experience of the subject. Suhail Malik proposes an art without aesthetic or subjective experience in his essay, ‘Reason to Destroy Contemporary Art.’ He invites us to consider art for its entirety, implying that experience should be at the forefront of our considerations. Malik builds on Sol Lewitt's ‘Sentences On Conceptual Art,’ urging the reader to think of art as being grounded in spontaneous intuition, not reasoned logic. This places humans again in parallel to the 'art object', rather than above it. Art is to be valued for its material experience.

Feminists have claimed their location within this trajectory too, by initiating discussions on agency and taking political positions. For instance, in their essay, ‘Feminism, Materialism, Freedom,’ Elizabeth Grosz and Rosi Braidotti take up materialist philosophies in relation to the new challenges set by speculative realism. Grosz explains that ontology can be a kind of politics, through Deleuzian ideas of liberation. This feminist stance suggests a questioning of bodies, as artworks and as a relational number of categories. This theoretical position turns the capacity of language towards the materiality of bodies, and the extent to which they can affect one another.

Beyond its philosophical insights, Realism Materialism Art offers the reader a useful framework with which to view and understand art, alongside technology and science. In these essays the human subject is inextricably entwined with the subject of art. This characterisation of art is what is most pressing in this anthology – a recognition that art can be a catalyst for exploring our most visceral and intuitive experiences.