This post made me want to take a closer look at Rita Felski’s book Uses of Literature (2008). Felski’s intention is to bridge the gap between literary theory and common-sense beliefs about why we read literature.

Uses of Literature deals with four key elements of the reading experience: recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. These four recall, as she acknowledges, the four “venerable aesthetic categories” of anagnorisis, beauty, mimesis, and the sublime. As I read this text, it is also of great value to the way we experience visual arts.

Since reading Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy I have become more and more interested in the uses of art. I do not – as de Botton – see art as therapy, but I do believe art has an important function in everyday life, both on an individual an a societal level. But, as Felski notes, it is really not comme il faut to speak of the use of literature – or art.


Jeff Wall, Men Waiting, 2007 © Jeff Wall

In her second chapter – Enchantment – Felski discusse the presumed problems of getting too involved in art, which one easily gets accused of if one wants to discuss the use of art.

For literary critics, she says, keeping one’s distance has been crucial. How can we exercise judgement, how can we critique a text’s ideological entanglements, if we are absorbed by its subliminal and mysteriously enchanting aspects? We would descend to the level of the child transfixed by the television cartoon or by the advertisement for the latest toy, our critical faculties disabled, ourselves deluded. Critics have historically tended to treat enchantment as something to which only “weaker” beings –women, children, gay people – fall victim, not the alert, stout-hearted male critic.

Felski sees things differently, she says:

Modern enchantments are those in which we are immersed but not submerged, bewitched but not beguiled, suspensions of disbelief that do not lose sight of the fictiveness of those fictions that enthrall us. Such enchantments are magical without requiring the intervention of the supernatural, reminders of the persistence of the mysterious, wondrous, and perplexing in a rationalized and at least partly secularized world.

Enchantment matters because one reason that people turn to works of art is to be taken out of themselves, to be pulled into an altered state of consciousness. While much modern thought relegates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises a less prejudicial and predetermined perspective. The experience of enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. Once we face up to the limits of demystification as a critical method and a theoretical ideal, once we relinquish the modern dogma that our lives should become thoroughly disenchanted, we can truly begin to engage the affective and absorptive, the sensuous and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience.

The sensuous and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience; this is exactly what I’m trying to find an appropriate language for –

Te Tuhirangi Contour

Te Tuhirangi Contour, once more 

Serra 5

Richard Serra: Te Tuhirangi Contour (1999/2001), Gibbs Farm, New Zealand

Viewed from above, the 257-metre steel wall has a delicate quality like a dark ribbon curling, almost floating. One of the features that ensures this impression is the unbroken curving line formed by the top edges of all of the steel plates which are perfectly butted together and engineered so that the whole can expand and contract with sunlight and nightfall without the slightest warp or buckling.

The graceful ribbon-like deception is beguiling until one walks nearby and underneath the six-metre-high sculpture. Here the viewer is confounded by an altogether different experience. From the downhill side Te Tuhirangi Contour has all the mass of a giant dam filled with water. Each of the 56 steel plates leans out by 11 degrees from the vertical, which is steeper angle than Serra had ever tried before, and which was imposed by the site-specific concept itself: that the line should run at the true perpendicular to the slope of the land. So, seen from below, the materiality of mass and form impose themselves dramatically as something more felt than seen.

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Richard Serra: Te Tuhirangi Contour (1999/2001), Gibbs Farm, New Zealand

art & nature

Art matters –Serra 2

Richard Serra: Te Tuhirangi Contour (1999/2001)
56 Corten steel plates 252m x 6m x 50mm

Te Tuhirangi Contour is a site-specific work located on the Kaipara harbor in New Zealand, 30 miles north of Auckland. The site is a vast open grass pasture with rolling elevations and curvilinear contours. The sculpture, made of hundreds of tons of steel, is located on one continuous contour, at a length of 257m (843 feet). The particular contour was chosen for its location, differentiation, contraction and expansion in relation to the total volume of the landscape, and the elevation of the sculpture is perpendicular to the fall of the land, which generates its lean of 11 degrees.

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Richard Serra: Te Tuhirangi Contour

The thing is – good land art is not only a pleasure in itself, it does also enhance qualities of the landscape, with which it becomes a part. Walking a long a work like Te Tuhirangi Contour, one will notice light & shadow, temperature, wind and sounds – in a very different way from in a totally open landscape. Encountering a building would not result in the same awareness. A work of art asks for contemplation, while a building usually has a practical function. Sometimes we have to put usefulness aside if we are to fully experience the beauty of the world.

Richard Serra was born in 1938 in San Francisco. While working in steel mills to support himself, Serra attended the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Barbara from 1957 to 1961, receiving a BA in English literature. He then studied as a painter at Yale University, New Haven, from 1961 to 1964, completing his BFA and MFA there.

I am still alive

Some people say:

The work of On Kawara is worrying and disturbing because it remembers us the insignificance of our lives.

For me On Kawara is disturbing and also extremely beautiful – not because he shows me the insignificance of my life, but rather because he underlines the preciousness of of it all

and also

because his work is documenting the unbearable lightness of being, reminding me to show up, be here – now …!  On Kawara’s art invites us, just like mindfulness training, to be continuously present with experience.


On Kawara, I Got Up, 1972, Series of 108 postcards sent to Herman Daled daily between May 18 and September 3, 1972


Regarding the  I GOT UP series, the Met says:

Considered the most personal and intimate of his works, I GOT UPis part of a continuous piece produced by On Kawara between 1968 and 1979 in which each day the artist sent two different friends or colleagues a picture postcard, each stamped with the exact time he arose that day and the addresses of both sender and recipient. The length of each correspondence ranged from a single card to hundreds sent consecutively over a period of months; the gesture’s repetitive nature is counterbalanced by the artist’s peripatetic global wanderings and exceedingly irregular hours (in 1973 alone he sent postcards from twenty-eight cities). Moreover, Kawara’s postcards do not record his waking up but his “getting up,” with its ambiguous conflation of carnal and existential (as opposed to not getting up) implications.

With incomparable simplicity and elegance Kawara creates, with this series, a complex meditation on time, existence, and the relationship between art and life.

In a certain sense the phrase “I am still alive” can never be sent as it cannot be received by the addressee instantaneously…It is only valid at the very instant that it is being written, and in the very next second it no longer is a certainty. If the addressee receives the telegram a few hours or days later and reads it, he merely knows that the sender was alive at the very instant the telegram was sent. But when he is reading the telegram, he is totally uncertain if the content of the text is still relevant or if it is still valid. The difference, the small displacement between sending and receiving, is that particular unseizable glimpse of the presence of the artist. Likewise, it is a sentence of self-reassurance…”I am still alive.” The activity of telling oneself and the world “I am still alive.”

– On Kawara on his “I am still alive” correspondence


On Kawara, I Got Up