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The Aesthetics of DisengagementReview - The Aesthetics of Disengagement
Contemporary Art and Depression
by Christine Ross
University of Minnesota Press, 2006
Review by Kathleen I. Kimball, Ph.D.
May 29th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 22)

The audience for this specialized five chapter text includes those concerned with contemporary issues of depression, new media art theories, contemporary art, and the relationships among these subjects.

Chapter One, "The Withering of Melancholia," moves depression from being a symptom of melancholia to an independent cluster of symptoms.  Chapter Two, "The Laboratory of Deficiency" argues that depression is a continuum rather than a category.  Chapter Three, "Image-Screens, or the Aesthetic Strategy of Disengagement," previously appeared as an article in the journal "Parachute."  It suggests that relations between art and viewer are changed via the use of screens (vs. historic picture planes) and this corresponds to disengagements that occur in depression.  Portions of Chapter Four, "Nothing to See?", which appeared previously in two other publications, consider the roles of time & attention in both depression and contemporary art.  Chapter Five, "The Critique of the Dementalization of the Subject," describes two depression treatments:  pharmaceuticals (seen as reductionist biologizing of the subject) and psychotherapeutic conversation (seen as preserving the depth of the unconscious and the uniqueness of the person).  Ross offers the work of seven contemporary artists as exemplars of her new category of 'depressive art.'

The significance of depression is established early on by quoting various experts about its widespread and debilitating occurrence.  For example, the author says that fifty percent of the world population at one point or another will have an episode of depression.  However, given that she admits there is no agreed definition for 'depression', this is a problematic claim.  Nonetheless, she convincingly argues that depression is a large and growing aspect of human experience.  Occasional jabs at 'neo-liberal consumerism' are as close as she comes to offering an explanatory cultural context for the rising tide of depression.  

While she cites cognitive science and post modern literary theories to support her case that the increasing presentation of depression in contemporary art relates to depression in the culture, she does not cite the significant current work, such as in neuroaesthetics and mirror neurons.  Perhaps she views these as part of the biologizing of mind into brain against which she is arguing.  However, contemporary research by Ramachandran and Zeki, could support her arguments.

The author's insights, which are scattered throughout the chapters, gave me the interesting and unusual feeling of experiencing the subject about which she was writing.  Her ideas have the potential for significance beyond what is immediately apparent in this book.  Perhaps this is because she is piecing together some previously published ideas with newer writing.  Perhaps it is because we are missing some pieces, such as: clear connections within and between chapters; an overall synthesis of arguments; sufficient anchoring and contextualizing of information in the wider social network of contemporary life and; relevant research information.

 

   

© 2007 Kathleen Kimball

 

Kathleen Kimball, Ph.D., Artist and Art Historian, Adjunct at Plymouth State University www.cp-kik.com, www.waterdragoninc.com


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