Is philosopher Graham Harman’s speculative realism really inspiring a new art critique?

Philosopher Graham Harman, also included on ArtReview’s list of the most powerful personalities in 2014 the artworld, has indeed been one of the voices the members of the art community have most carefully listened to, at least since his contribution to the theoretical discourse in the context of dOCUMENTA 13. His general view, christened by himself as object-oriented philosophy, stems from the phenomenological tradition of Heidegger and aims at addressing reality in terms of objects and their interactions. Despite the physical concreteness the word connotes in an art context, here objects refer to whatever has an unbreakable unity that cannot necessarily be reducible to its parts and to the facts caused by it: objects for Harman can be cats, canaries, microbes, earthquakes, atoms, tar, ourselves, art performances, years, emotions, numbers, etc. Even though their real essence withdraws, objects can relate in their sensuality which translates any quality of any object: humans for example interact with fire or love as well as a glass marble interacts with a table and constellations through their sensual objectivity.


His thought reminded us and other philosophy passionates of the primordial times of the discipline – see ancient Greece. This similarity may also have to do with another position Harman has taken: for him as well as it was for Socrates, philosophy is simply love for wisdom. Unlike science, it should not aim at producing knowledge by trying to assert reality as graspable in cognitive forms, though it should interpret it via metaphorical language. In his philosophy, Harman needs to introduce the concept of allusion to address the real essence of objects beyond their qualities seized through sensuality. The power of allusion or metaphorical language operates at best within aesthetic, which then becomes first philosophy.


To some extent, Harman claims that aesthetic can assume the role of seemingly enabling us to peer into the reality of things, a position on study disciplines that is very much responsible for the philosopher’s success within the debate in the artworld. As a consequence, if art gets tasked to look into the reality of things, what is the duty of art critique?


In this article we would like to extend this line of thought and at the same time limit it to discourse about art, which like art itself should become the moment of allusion to art’s ungraspable and possibly inexistent reality. Just like the metaphorical nature of art and its impossibility to become knowledge are the keys to what possibly stands beyond, art critique should perhaps pick up metaphors and allusion to approach the artworks. In other words, it is an aesthetic language and not propositional discourse that should address the objects of aesthetic.


In addition, Harman takes also a complementary position when he says that an artwork is never holistic since its relations can form different objects. The philosopher often picks up the example of Picasso’s Guernica and how this painting can be aesthetically liked by those it politically denounces. This fragmentation should not serve to reduce an artwork to its pieces or its factual aspects, though it is the evidence of how the artwork can be used to create objects. What we can do as critics (or simply viewers) is therefore making changes in the artwork itself to create objects through metaphorical language.


The issue of art critique as interpreted through the ideas of Harman seems to lead to a new attitude that stresses on the modification one can make to artworks as expressed with metaphorical and poetic language. When one takes for example the recent Helen Marten’s installation Parrot Problem at Fridericianum in Kassel, which consists of a plethora of elements combined in space, a critique along the lines of Harman could possibly be that the stream structure of the silkscreens and pierced wooden boards of her wall pieces will include a great blue stroke of paint caused by the earthquake of a widely attended Internet event, a sea of people dancing around the smell of all the elements of such composition.


It is clear that this type of language, when related to things that like artworks – mostly for commercial reasons – should still be able to prompt a feeling of factual knowledge, would sound simply bizarre and somehow unproductive. It is in this regard that the title of this article is a question about the future since we cannot easily predict how political structures will influence art and art critique. It is also a question about the originality of both our and Harman’s proposition, since the practice of writing in metaphorical language to create poetry from an artwork – or objects in the Harman’s use of this word – is hardly new. It is though interesting to note that the artworld seems to have a short memory and therefore needs a quick and constant renewal of names and actors to arrive to old topics. Young artists completing and commenting their own art via poetical language in commercial contexts (as we have recently seen in the case of Dominic Samsworth) is perhaps a signal of how a certain writing can exist in the critique too.

December 15, 2014