'Poetic Translations': Conversations Across the Plurality of Arts Disciplines in Visual Arts Exhibitions

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Published conference proceedingConference contribution


    A clear distinction between art and other exhibitions characterised the growth of large exhibitions in the nineteenth century. While art exhibitions were staged within a narrowly defined context of European painting and sculpture, all else was displayed within two broader contexts: specific academic disciplines (natural history, history, anthropology, design and industry, book fairs), and/or trade exhibitions. Since at least the mid-twentieth century, this distinction between art and other exhibitions has become blurred. References to the natural sciences, history, theatre, music, dance or literature have been incorporated into art exhibitions, while historical museums have exhibited art works, commissioned art interventions and utilised contemporary curatorial practices. The British museum, for example, hosts ‘permanent’ exhibits of contemporary art works in its collection, as do many other museums. The frequently asked question ‘what is art?’ invites the response: ‘art is…’. Since so far no definitive answer has proved to be possible, it is common to hear the question put in the context of a specific work asking: ‘but is this art?’. Philosophical discourse acknowledges the plurality of arts, at least since Plato. However, until the twentieth century the plurality of the arts was presented hierarchically with poetry at the top. Modernity saw a rethinking of this hierarchical order of the arts. For example, Adorno argues that ‘art’ is not a generic concept; if the arts were governed by a single concept they would be hierarchically placed under philosophy, establishing a hierarchical chain. The value of the plurality of the arts is precisely in its capacity to circumvent the above hierarchy. Jean-Luc Nancy further develops the thought and asks: ‘Why Are There Several Arts [not just one]?’, in his essay of the same title. At issue is how might we understand the relationships between the plurality of arts disciplines without imposing a hierarchy? The art critic Clement Greenberg argued in his radio essay ‘Modernist Painting’ (1961), that Modernism was ‘the intensification, almost the exacerbation’ of the self-critical tendency that he identified in the approach taken by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, in the discipline of philosophy. Greenberg contended that the essence of Modernism was in the capacity of each arts discipline to focus on what was specific to itself in order to escape the traditional hierarchy in which paintings were expected to ‘illustrate’ literary narratives in order to establish their value. Greenberg’s argument focused on the formal qualities of each art form; for him, painting’s essential characteristic was in its two-dimensionality. In modernity, he thus argued, artists insisted on the non-referentiality of art and focused on the medium itself. Hence, artists titled their works ‘composition’ or ‘untitled’ to emphasise that their art works should be interpreted on their own terms and not on their ability to illustrate ‘higher’ art forms. Shortly after the publication of Greenberg’s essay, his claim that each arts discipline sought to ‘purify’ itself through its formal means was challenged. However, his argument that in modernity art performs a self-critical role was taken up by many artists. This performative process does not take place through the ‘purification’ of each arts discipline but precisely through the ‘poetic translations’ across arts disciplines: some paintings in the 1960’s were translated into performance acts, dance and music performances were translated into visual art works (Fluxus), film and video were translated into visual art installations, visual artists presented performance works, artists translated curatorial practices to present art installations and curators translated both visual and performance work (including music, dance, theatre), as well as literature, film and video into art exhibitions. The curator Harald Szeemann sought to revive Richard Wagner’s approach to Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) which made use of most arts disciplines including design, as can be seen in his post-1969 exhibitions. Since literature (poetry) was historically the highest form of art, much of the twentieth century avant-garde art shunned references to literary narratives. However, recently some exhibitions have been using literary material to organise visual art exhibitions. For example, Tate St Ives’ Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writing (2018), exhibited works by women artists who addressed issues arising from Woolf’s writing. London’s Gagosian Gallery exhibited Crash: Homage to J. G. Ballard, bringing together art works that resonated strongly with Ballard’s harsh, dystopian literary visions. Most notably, Mieke Bal’s Emma & Edward: Love in the time of Loneliness, Oslo (2016-17), established ‘associative connections’ across time and arts disciplines (Literature and visual arts) between characters in Flaubert and the works of Munch and others. The rationale of the conference is to explore how the different arts translate across disciplines and to establish exchanges that will allow arts disciplines to engage with contemporary debates and concerns in a non-hierarchical way. In this context the term ‘translation’ is taken from Walter Benjamin through Jacques Derrida’s interpretation, which can be read as yet another translation in a long line of poetic translations. Translation, as Derrida points out, implies a hierarchy: the translation is generally perceived as secondary to the translated material. The translator is thus always indebted to the text/material which is translated, and to its author. And yet, the translator also transforms the translated material and makes it relevant for a different context. The act of translation involves a level of betrayal analogous to the betrayal of the ‘creative act’ it translates (each creative work betrays a tradition through the creative moment). Hence this conference’s use of the term ‘poetic translation’ with reference to the hierarchical tradition and the way it is being transformed through translations to create non-hierarchical structures of exchange. For the ‘creative act’, by definition, introduces an innovative moment. It is this ‘poetic’ innovation, Benjamin insists, in which ‘the unfathomable, the mysterious, the “poetic”, can be reproduced; but only if the translator is also a poet [artist]’. A wide range of contemporary debates and concerns can be addressed from the perspective of non-hierarchical relationships between a plurality of the arts and across cultures, for example: globalisation, migration, environmental concerns, issues of gender/ethnicity identity. Papers are invited to discuss and/or present exhibitions which are not limited to the European tradition and/or works made by marginalised communities often categorised as craft and those associated with ‘design’ rather than ‘the Arts’. Examples of craft might include textile, pottery and folk art, while design might include fashion, everyday objects, popular culture, even web design.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationSolent University
    Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2020


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