Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Dresden Conference: Thinking Critically about Curiosity

Donna Roberts's paper set out to encourage us to think critically about curiosity. The world appears to have rediscovered 'cabinets of curiosity' in a big way over the past few years, turning it into the hackneyed phrase that we'd already noted. Although broadly speaking, the modern love of curiosity and rediscovering the love of 'odd collections' is a good thing, the problem with such popularity is the blurring of terminology and lack of critical thinking. To illustrate this point, the article, Museum of Curiosity set to ignite wonder with collection of 'weird' objects, stated that 'un-poetically branding his catalogue of curiosities as “weird shit”, Snelle is purveying objects all sorts of objects from the natural and man-made world'.
We agreed that 'weird shit' is cool at the moment but it isn't really doing anything for academic study in this area. Without knowing the history and background, there can be no critical thinking. As her introductory summary from an upcoming lecture states, 

Over the last few years a plethora of exhibitions and publications have tapped into the currency of the auratic terms “curiosity” and “wonder”. The influential rehabilitation of these words by Foucault and Deleuze follows the surrealists use of key concepts from Early Modern natural philosophy to develop a method for imaginative or poetic organisation working outside strictly scientific or rational taxonomies. Bataille's subversion of the encyclopedic and Caillois concept of 'diagonal science' represent the radical edge of this critique.
And with that we dived into George Bataille, Roger Caillois, Michel Foucault* and the Surrealists. Their main objective was to dissolve hierarchies, assault order, and use curiosity to understand how things work. She started with Bataille's journal Documents which sought to challenge the accepted order and startle its readers into interdisciplinary thinking. Caillois in the 1940s stated that 'the fantastic should be an incitation to research not support complacent devotion'. She told the story about Andre Breton and Caillois, and I have found a version by Marina Warner,
Caillois’s disagreement with Breton arose when the two men were shown some Mexican jumping beans: beans that will suddenly twitch and take a leap into the air. Caillois conjectured that there was a worm or larva inside them, and he wanted to dissect one to find out; Breton objected roundly, denouncing Caillois as a low-grade positivist who refused the marvelous and defaced the poetic by wanting explanations—in other words, Caillois was of the party that wants to unweave the rainbow.
She says that this goes someway to explaining the ambiguous character of surrealist collections, which were a mix of natural and man made. For instance she compared Dali's Lobster Telephone with a sixteenth century Nautilus cup, suggesting that the phone wasn't that surreal; the lobster is connected with the handset through its similar size and shape, just as the shell was the shape of a cup; an example of morphology.
She continued with shapes and patterns in the animal world, looking at the owl butterfly and others with morphological resemblances. We are programmed to see patterns, and objects which fuelled, disturbed and challenged the thoughts of Bataille et al provided a cultural fuel, and shook up the established order.

She returned to the present with a critique of a number of recent exhibitions, including the 'Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing', She asked, what did it achieve? Now, I have a slight issue here because I didn't see the show and as such refuse to comment. She felt that it was an example of cultural infantilism, similar to Ripley's Odditorium, where adults must be accompanied by a child. With all due respect to the speaker, that if such a sensitive and extraordinary writer as Marina Warner was involved, it can't have been that bad.

A show which got a positive response was the fascinating looking Coral: Something Rich and Strange. Academically agile and environmental aware, she said it encouraged curiosity through critical awareness. She suggested that the attitude of the UK towards curiosity is a problem, in comparison to European ideas. Against a background of  musty Dickensian Victoriana, curiosity has been factored into curriculum, so our museums and exhibitions are child-centric, fostering only infantile interest.

This is why, for her, the Surrealists were vital in overturning the old order with their fascination with violence and danger; 'Lurking in the jungle is a praying mantis. The praying mantis became a symbol for the Surrealists because in the act of mating the female devours the male.' Their new political, ethnographical curiosity and wonder in comparison to limiting imperialist, nationalist thoughts opened up a new world. Stable orders, the artificial, the repressive were open to ridiculing and reshuffling and they set the scene for 20th century cultural thought.

What was once revolutionary and contained in the world of art, was recently examined in a scientific report commissioned by British Gas: The power of curiosity 2012

1. Drive Curiosity is a human drive, comparable to hunger
2. Curiosity is evoked by incongruity between something (an event, object, etc.) and a person’s existing world view
3. Curiosity arises when someone becomes aware of a gap between his or her existing set of information and some other desired information 
4. Curiosity arises from physical engagement with things we believe we might change

So Man Ray's Gift and Méret Oppenheim's 'Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure)' has turned out to be instrumental in directing school curricula and future energy innovation.

Only by using diagonal sciences and intersecting disciplines - from natural sciences to ecology, art and poetry - can we understand and connect everything.  Diagonal science has been a revelation for me, given it goes to the heart of my thinking. As we found out in later sessions, curiosity has its down sides, however, in this talk - even if I'm doubtful about some of her observations - we learned to think critically about what 'curiosities' the art world was offering.

*I've been avoiding Foucault. I've read Henri Lefebvre, surely that exonerates me from any more French philosophy?

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to see a précis of one's presentation online! The problem I had with the Art and the Pleasures of Knowing exhibition - even though it involved excellent professionals - was that it offered a largely aesthetic response to an issue that far exceeds the aesthetic. A far stronger example of a response to the subject of curiosity would have been Dawn Ades' Haywood Gallery exhibition about Bataille's Documents. Once an exhibition like this has been achieved, it seems problematic to present a show about the pleasures of knowing and leave out some more intimidating possibilities, that is, at least without being accused of whimsy.