Too close


Whether people came to Art Fair Philippines (Ayala, Makati) to experience aesthetics cannot be judged by the sheer success of what is dubbed “The Best in Philippine Contemporary Art.” My ticket to the exhibit tells me I should be in for an experience of one of a kind that I would regret if I didn’t show up.

My most recent visit to contemporary art scene (before this one) was last year (at Manila Art Exhibit, SM Aura, Taguig City). From that one to Art Fair Philippines, it was the same experience of the politics of art collection. Both were held in malls which have fast transformed into critical sites of modern art collection. Inside the Mall, art throbs or is made to throb like a respiratory center of culture in which art moves, circulates, and distributes the sensible. The exhibit is a form of collecting cultures, and here the mall is also the site of culture where circuits of capital culminate. But it is also in this sense that the Mall renders obscure the many capillary street topologies of the ‘grey’ urban world which throb on their own but which must be necessarily overshadowed by the contemporary colours, line perspectives, etc. by a kind of directing art precepts, within a location boasting of more than thirty galleries, which the mall serves as its functionality as against the traffic of bodies in the metropolis outside.

I mentioned about the politics of art collection to which I should add a kind of aesthetics that this politics communicates using the sublime aura of art. If art scholars still continue to debate about the “communicability of the sublime,” which relies much on the ambiguity of the art-object not to mention varying degrees of taste that foregrounds aesthetic judgment, here is an example of how the sublime arguably communicates without the mediation of theory. I do not mean to defend the notion of unmediated sublime but something else entirely, without saying that I do not agree that there is a ‘sublime.’

Not all who flock to an art exhibit  have theories to color their appreciation of art objects or materials with, and I mean ‘color’ as a sign of learned appreciation. But that does not mean they cannot pretend to have and this pretension does have its purpose. As we will explain later, we may expect this color-sign to dismiss that art speaks for itself, a mute speech, a “thought that does not think” (J. Ranciere) but communicates in a way Benjamin would ascribe to ‘Adamic naming.’ (I am dropping these familiar names to zero in on our point of contention later). And as usual, one way to rationalize that art does not speak for itself is to confer a sense of ambiguity to art objects themselves.

The fact that they are ambiguous calls for a mediatized form of appreciation through which something is conveyed, supposedly unfamiliar to the object (if the object can be said to be aware) only to throw it back in circulation, and I mean the circulation of standard appreciations of art forms. (This already presupposes that what is conveyed should conform to the standard the simplest form of which is that art cannot speak for itself. Usually unrecognized as conformity, ‘conformity’ may take on many odd detours). I do not mean that objects are aware of some sort but it can be said that they convey pre-reflective or pre-analytic affordances (J. Gibson) to conscious appreciation. Consciousness is a matter of intensity and its emergent placement in the intensive assemblage of things. Objects do not possess consciousness as we do; however, they may have their own internal process of translation (to borrow a concept popularized by G. Harman) which are affordances in their own right, embedded in situated networks of relations which they do not by themselves create. All these, however, simply tell that art is not a mute speech.

One way or another, art speaks to the human in varying levels of communicability, including its mute pretext (if it does not, it is not art!) which may simply pertain to how consciousness is compartmentalized so that its analytic contents may be employed for specific purposes, purposes that are already reflexively situated within a specific constellation of signs.  In relation to the art exhibit, such form of art collection or staging of art-cultures offers a venue for this kind of analytic employment, at least for a specifically sensitive group among the ‘learned’ audience. In this sense we can allow ourselves to say that the exhibit directs the traffic of analytic employments proper to what the art-form conveys.

What about those who do not have formal color-signs and line-graphemes (to play on words referring to color and line perspectives as art terms which carry extra-artistic meanings) to appreciate an art collection? Here is where aesthetics directs its full force and which would unravel aesthetics to be of a different order yet reflexively disguised. Ranciere’s aesthetic unconscious tells us exactly what we mean—that aesthetics corresponds to “particular historical regime of thinking about art and an idea of thought according to which things of art are things of thought” (p. 5 ). What we obtain here is simple: art thinks, though mute or unconscious, pre-reflexive, pre-figurative. But, and this is our contention, insofar as we are already within a constellation of signs pre-arranged on a plane of organization or signification (best described by Deleuze and Guattari as the unconscious tracing of the semiotic machine), the aesthetic unconscious would be another complement of regimentation. In relation to the exhibit, the Mall is one particular site of this semiotic machine allowing those who do not have formal color-signs or line-graphemes to appreciate art as something that does not speak for itself (here, we are playing up the distinction between ‘mass culture’ and ‘popular culture’ where the latter connotes a more active intervention on signs vis-a-vis their enforced, pre-arranged communicability). 

That there is a non-discursive, pre-analytic treatment of art, in the final analysis, occults the view from somewhere—that the non-discursive is immanently inscribed by a reflexive placement of this spiritual or aesthetic or what have you kind of essence. This of course obscures the reality that art is a regime. Or, it tells us in the face but too close to distinguish it from what it says.  The proximity of the Mall tells all.



Benjamin, Walter, “On Language as Such and on The Language of Man,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1986).

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).

Harman, Graham, The Quadruple Object (Winchester, UK and Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2010).

Gibson, James, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (New York and London: Psychology Press, 2015).

Ranciere, Jacques, Aesthetic Unconscious (Cambridge UK and Massachusetts, USA: Polity Press, 2009).


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