Speaking Difference

Sharing a fascination with failure, Robert Lendrum directed my attention to John Roberts’s “The Practice of Failure.”

Roberts suggests that “one of the few critical functions that artists still possess is their access to modes of negation that deflate the conjunction of power and knowledge. This is because artists can lodge themselves into discourses without any social investment in those discourses.” He is speaking in particular about one artist’s performance of intellectual failure in the guise of intellectual prowess, in this case, Emma Kay’s attempt to write a history of the world from memory. Roberts argues that no writer, historian or intellectual would have the bravado to produce such a work because, outside the realm of art, the predictable failure of the project would simply be embarrassing. As an artist’s investigation of memory, Kay’s project is benign, not a tragedy at all (though it points to the ways in which shame can be used to quell curiosity), and Kay is able to probe memory’s role in knowledge transfer from outside any formal institution.

It seems to me, though, that interrogating a discourse without a social investment in it cannot be construed as a generalized permission for artists to interlope wherever they may. The difference is between ideologies and communities (I don’t mean to imply that Roberts suggested a conflation between ideas and people, nor that his “can” is imperative). Hypotheses about the world, by their very nature, need to be rigorously examined and redefined. Investigations into the lived experiences of people, however, need an ethical framework. For instance, sociologists and psychologists perform their studies by way of ethical codes. While there is no such code for artists, I imagine that many develop ad hoc frameworks through which they develop specific, probably politically oriented projects. It is not that any subject is inherently outside the purview of art, but that not all subjects can be taken up with abandon.

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