The Expressive Import of Degradation and Decay in Contemporary Art

In Peter N. Miller & Soon Kai Poh (eds.), Conserving Active Matter. New York City: Bard Graduate Center. pp. 65-79 (2022)
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Many contemporary artworks include active matter along with rules for conservation that are designed to either facilitate or prevent that matter’s degradation or decay. I discuss the mechanisms through which actual or potential states of material decay contribute to the work’s expressive import. Nelson Goodman and Catherine Elgin introduce the concepts of literal and metaphorical exemplification, which are critical to expression: a work literally exemplifies a property when it both possesses and highlights that property, and it metaphorically exemplifies a property when the properties it literally exemplifies bring that property powerfully to mind. I argue that the literal exemplification of actual or potential states of decay enhances a work’s expressive power by stimulating our bodily and emotional responses to the physical potential of the work’s active matter. Conservation practices, by affecting the properties the work literally and metaphorically exemplifies, are key to the expressive power of works that employ states of degradation and decay. The argument is illustrated through discussion of works by Zoe Leonard, Marc Quinn, and Kara Walker that literally exemplify actually or potentially decaying materials, as contrasted with works by Ai Weiwei and Sam Taylor-Johnson that represent rather than exemplify decaying materials.

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Sherri Irvin
University of Oklahoma


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