Marina Abramovic and Ulay, AAA-AAA (performance RTB, Liege) 1977

Art and Affect

Instructor: Lindsay Caplan
The Workmen’s Circle
247 West 37th St, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10018

“It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry,” writes Sol Lewitt in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967). With this assertion, Lewitt joined many artists and art theorists in drawing a line in the sand: emotion or intellect. For those working in the postwar period, having to compete with an increasingly seductive pop culture of movies and television that conceived its audience as an assemblage of nerves, reflexes, and unthinking passions, a removed intellectualism seemed to be art’s appropriate response—from Clement Greenberg’s condemnation of kitsch to Donald Judd’s claim that art need only be “interesting” to a wave of “anti-aesthetic” theories of art inspired by Theodor Adorno’s critical philosophy. Artworks and aesthetic theories that foreground emotional and affective involvement, in turn, came to be viewed with suspicion, accused of everything from fostering stupidity, obedience, and passivity in their viewers to irresponsible escapism and complicity with capitalism’s worst exploitations. Yet in recent years, assumptions underlying this perspective are being rethought, and an interest in affect, emotions, and other non-cognitive forms of knowledge are being brought to bear on notions of art, its audiences, and cultural politics. What has prompted this reconsideration of affect and how does it bear on the creation, circulation, and reception of art in the present?

This course will delve into the ways that art has been alternately defined as antidote to and instigator of affect from the postwar period to today. We will start by surveying a critical tradition that heralds distanced viewing and cognitive understanding as the most desired and politically responsible experience that art can provoke, marginalizing affect and sensuality in the process. We will then turn our attention to theories of affect that consider feelings, emotions, and intuitions as not just valid but central—even privileged—in the construction of experience, subjectivity, and understanding. Through close consideration of such thinkers as Brian Massumi, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jacques Ranciere, Raymond Williams, Roland Barthes, Mark Hansen, and Susan Sontag, we will ask: how does a consideration of affect transform our conception of how images communicate? How do theories of affect position art in relation to the wider arena of culture and politics? Tracing the denigration and recuperation of affect in these ways, we will consider moments in art history in which the issue reaches its highest and most urgent pitch, such as the re-theorization of painting in the 1950s, notions of audience immersion in environments and expanded cinema of the 1960s and ’70s, neoexpressionism in the 1980s, and participation and embodiment in interactive and installation art of the 2000s to today. Examining how critical priorities have shifted over the last sixty years with respect to works by artists as diverse as Bridget Riley, Yves Klein, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneeman, Yayoi Kusama, Georg Baselitz, Marina Abromovic, Bill Viola, Olafur Eliasson, and Pipilotti Rist, this course will explore how and why affect has come to occupy such a central position in our contemporary critical and political discourse.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm
June 06 — June 27, 2017
4 weeks


Course enrollment is currently only open for waitlisted students. Please email us to be placed on the waiting list.

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