Graduate Seminar: Ethics of Abstraction
Anneka Lenssen, Julia Bryan-Wilson
The course will interrogate abstraction as a strategy in 20th and 21st century art around the globe, and its manifold implications for political projects of being, seeing, and knowing together. We will look at how various artists turn to non-representation as a means for thinking differently about issues as divergent as flatness, vision, progress, decay, identity, violence, solidarity, negation, and protest. How might we read acts of judgment performed by abstract artists, i.e. separating what is alien from that which is intrinsic, as politically activated? How do we account for the ways abstraction has figured centrally not only in modernist art histories, but also in economic and political theories (as in the abstraction of use into exchange value)? How, too, have representation and figuration (as ostensible opposites of abstraction) been positioned as ethical tactics? We will take an object-oriented approach that foregrounds the complexity of movement between “thing” and abstract “effect.” The course pursues comparative readings as well, exploring the turn to abstraction in affinity with Islamic, Jewish, or mystical metaphysics that treat the representation of living beings with suspicion; divergent valences in postwar abstract painting; and contemporary abstraction as it supports coded meanings, eccentricities, and alternative (feminist, queer, marginal, racialized) formations.