The goal of The New Museum's Proposition series isn't so much to answer questions or present cohesive, fully developed ideas, rather it invites speakers to wax theoretic on whatever topic they happen to be puzzling over. Past Propositions include Matthew Barney's "Ancient Evenings Storyboards," Byron Kim's "A Cosmology of Doubt" and Kara Walker's "The object of Painting is the subjugated Body. The Painter is the colonizing entity. How do Paintings understand the concept of liberty? And who will teach them?"
Last Thursday night, Anthony Huberman, the director of The Artist's Institute, spoke about "The Letter 'T'," specifically the words Tuned and Touched and what they mean in the context of the confounding and bizarre video work of Harold Thys and Jos De Gruyter (think of them as the Tim and Eric of the art world) and Rosemarie Trockel, who will (perhaps not coincidentally) be "taking over" the New Museum in the Fall.
Viewed through the lens of speculative realism (an object-oriented philosophy that's way too cerebral to get into here, just check out their Wikipedia page for now), Tuned refers to how one object (a person, an animal, a thing, even an idea) can be "tuned into" the vulnerability of another object, and Touched refers to what objects we respond to—what we're "touched" by—and why.
I went to The New Museum that night thinking "object" referred to design object, not every single animal, mineral, vegetable and intangible concept out there. I thought Huberman was going to discuss why we're drawn to certain objects—why, for example, I'm so drawn to Meret Oppenheim's "Object" (better known as the fur teacup), or the purple Peacock Chair or anything robin's egg blue—and he did, but in a much more abstract way than I had anticipated. But even though speculative realism is difficult to wrap your brain around, we already know and understand its basic tenets. For example, in the Thys and De Gruyter video clip Huberman showed, a group of people are transfixed by a bunch of clay. A speculative realist might describe this as one object (the group of people) coming into contact with an aesthetic experience that's tuned into their vulnerability. The rest of us might just say, "Those people really like that clay,"—it's essentially the same thing.
So why do I really like Oppenheim's fur teacup? I can answer that with an example Huberman gave about Marcel Duchamp's 1951 sculpture "Bicycle Wheel." Why did Duchamp choose a bicycle wheel to mount on a wood stool? What was it about the wheel that attracted him to it? The answer is simple. Duchamp was drawn to it for the sheer pleasure of watching it turn. And, apparently, it reminded him of watching the fire in his family's fireplace when he was a boy. You could say that the wheel was Tuned into Duchamp's vulnerability and that vulnerability allowed him to be Touched by it strongly enough for it to inspire his work. In fact, "Bicycle Wheel" was his first of many readymades.
There will always be people who want to make something big (like a whole philosophy) out of something small (an everyday feeling), and it's easy for us to be annoyed or frustrated by that—but thank god for those people. If someone didn't take the time to expound on the little things we think and feel daily we would simply think and feel them without knowing why or without caring to know. The seemingly obfuscated point of view of the 'big Thinkers' helps make us more aware of ourselves and our choices. Why do we appreciate one aesthetic over another? What is it about something as mundane as my OXO wine key that makes me hunt through my kitchen drawers, bypassing all the other cork screws until I find it? Why do I love that damn teacup so much?
I asked Huberman the same question. "After all this examination," I said, "what have you learned about the way your own vulnerability is Tuned?"
"That's a very good question," he said, thinking it over. "So good I probably can't answer it. I'm going to cop out. Yes, I'm copping out."
He may have copped out, but I'll bet he thought about it, as did I, all the way home.