Marsha Meskimmon’s Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination

In contrast to much writing on art without critical agency Marsha Meskimmon’s ‘Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination’ is constructed around the premise that art can be inter-subjectively contemplated, to gain an ethical dimension and political impact. This brief introduction of the book will focus on Meskimmon’s writing method, and summarize the main points of the book to finally open up questions regarding both. Meskimmon is not claiming an objective evaluation of the artwork she is analyzing, she is rather engaged in a process she call ‘affirmative criticality’, backed by Juergen Habermas’s ‘advocating in an affirmative mood’. In other words, the premise of her critique is derived from positive ethical and aesthetic position, intent on creating a productive effect in the world at large. Her ambition is not to write about art but to ‘write with’ art, meaning she generates her own concepts and ideas based on a close reading of the artworks. She introduces the notion of cosmopolitanism in connection to a shifting definition of home that she pursues throughout the book. In her view a cosmopolitan home is not bound to a fixed location, but is characterized by a continuous state of flux between urban centers. As a feminist writer, Meskimmon is consciously embracing associations between the domestic and the feminine, seeing the household to be a producer of value rather than a place of female drudgery. The ‘home’ and associated terms of dwelling and housing provide her with a metaphorical tool-set to structure the book. Departing from any conventional notion of classification she groups the artworks around four terms that loosely relate to the idea of dwelling. In so doing she creates unusual adjacencies and interconnections for the artworks themselves, constructing a temporary global home for them where they briefly reside in our imagination.

The first term she is borrowing from her imaginary architectural model is the ‘foundation’, traditionally the most stable part of a house. For her, global connections have become the new foundation of society at large and of art in particular. Her main protagonist is an urban nomad, instantly at home wherever she decamps, because her foundations are shifting, plurilocal and defined by her movement rather than a physical space or maternal origin. Similarly, community is defined as being in constant ephemeral flux, openly embracing a never-ending process of transformation. Big cities are seen as nodes in a global exchange network, conceptually fusing them into one fluid system, as opposed to the traditional view of the national state as a territory with clear boundaries. As examples of individuals portraying the dynamic ground in their art and lifestyle, Meskimmon chooses a commercially successful artist, traveling around the world from one art center to the other, as well as a historical portrait of a privileged family crossing between Europe and India. Both of these situations are exceptional and associated with the financial liquidity to allow for a cosmopolitan lifestyle. It remains open how this idealized conceptualization of a connected world is applicable to the less fortunate, or even more acutely refugees and involuntary migrants.

As a second theme, Meskimmon explores the threshold, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Thinking of a threshold as a softened and blurred border condition, pregnant with possibilities rather than a sharp delineation, she rejects the idea of a harsh demarcation between spaces: ‘Conceiving the threshold as a borderline between two fixed places or states creates the condition for oppositional forms of ‘originary violence’ to emerge. If the self and the other, or the domestic and the foreign, are fixed categories, separated by a defined border, then every encounter between them is, by definition, a threshold crossed by violence.’ The conception of a strict thresholds defines the possibility of intrusion, whereas thinking the thresholds as a flexible space allows for an open interpretation and a dynamic reading. Political violation of the personal space is an example of a strict boundary that can only be collapsed through brutality. Doris Salcedo’s ‘La Casa Viuda, is an artwork describing a violation through its opposite- her installation is not defining any strict boundaries or literal interpretations of the transgressions that happened in Colombia, but is creating an threshold condition, open to interpretation and occupation by the viewer. It engenders a subjective response-ability that is directly related to an ethical responsibility. It is in this relationship that the author locates a link between aesthetics, ethics and global politics. This is related to the second conceptual threshold condition important to her analysis, the ‘affective exchange’, or threshold between memory and imagination. She juxtaposes the terms justice and care, opposite in the sense that justice is defined by universal moral imperatives, while care is defined by particular emphatical relations. Care is associated with generosity, as an unselfish projection into the future as an constituent element of a cosmopolitan ethics.

Passing on to the third trope, we find a term that is closely related to the threshold, yet rather describing the act of moving through something, rather than from one thing to the other. The term ‘passage’ implies a journey, a connection between separate spaces. Returning to the idea of global connectivity, Meskimmon relates the idea of the passage in art to a network, and specifically an affective economic network. Within that network artists leave their individualistic positions and operate from a inter-subjective position premised on solidary values and social exchange rather the expression of the ‘self’. In an affective economy, artists can produce work from within the system, because their agency is ‘premised upon material and social exchange.

Passage can also be looked at it terms of a constraint, establishing the ‘right to pass’ and the possibility of trespassing, leading the question of citizenship. Meskimmon writes; The trope of passage suggests a critical exploration of world citizenship that is both material and yet mutable, operating at the level of the subject (figuring an intersectional subject of circulation) and at the level of practice (figuring global belonging). Her critique of the citizenship is located in its homogenizing and normative logic, excluding differences and non-normative subjects. Calling for a global understanding of citizenship, it is at the level of inter-subjectivity that citizenship can best be redefined, through processes of intense negotiation. This invokes question of participation and art’s possibilities and responsibilities in the process. For Meskimmon participation is achieved with the viewer actively completing the the ‘thought’ or idea of an artwork, thereby transforming himself in the process.

Finally, we arrive at the landing- a point of reflection and outlook, as a stop on a predetermined path. The reading of a landing as a space of repose can be productive to create a zone for communication, or generate different types of encounters. Meskimmon opens up the dichotomy between longing and belonging, with the capacity to produce creative energy to transcend from one state to the other. Of course, in Meskimmon’s reading, belonging does not imply a static home, or an identifiable territory, but rather a partaking in a collective endeavor. In her examples she is using a carpet and a cup of tea, tropes strongly associated with domesticity, yet simultaneously objects that are mobile and can function as reconstituted signifiers of home in a new location. They symbolize a repose that can be accessed from anywhere, a mutable landing. In the constantly shifting mutability of Meskimmon’ cosmopolitan vision of home, a landing represents a stopping point, only to be ready for the next departure.