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Philosophy Practice

Nine Little Art Histories
By Libby Lumpkin
Art issues. Press

I don't know much about design but I know what I like--criticism that takes me places I've never been, such as most of these brief essays. The smiley face occasions a cogent history of happiness. "The prohibition symbol"--the "no" slash--links up to the evolution of diagonality and perpendicularity, with a side trip to theories of infinity. Duchamp's chance art transports us deeper into mathematics. An inauspicious-looking talk on New Mexico counterposes Georgia O'Keeffe's idealization of nature against Robert Oppenheimer's all-too-literal deconstruction of same, which Lumpkin prefers. The stony gaze of the Las Vegas showgirl is traced back to the Sumerian "Inanna, Queen of Heaven, sometimes referred to as the Great Whore, and counterpart to the Great Mother, to whom so many contemporary feminists seemingly gain easy access." And that's two-thirds of the book.

Unfortunately, the final third--three attacks on the art of "institutional feminism" plus an atypically uncolloquial closer--doesn't bring it on home. Lumpkin has a nice way of yoking erudition and theory to common sense, and is right to insist on art's status as object in the world and object for sale. She convinces me that most of the women's work she reviews is as unwittingly proper and dreary to look at as she says. But while it sure is catchy to point out that "feminism may ultimately prove not to be good for the world; it may prove to be good only for women," the question of why women would want to live in this diminished world is left too far open. Maybe the problem with the "communitarian" ethics of the propagandists and hustlers she despises isn't the strong root of that word but the wishy-washy suffix. Maybe feminists should claim "communist" and let the chips fall where they may. But this would hardly satisfy Lumpkin, who I'm sure would continue to promote "contractual relations."

Nevertheless, Deep Design is a dense, engaging, provocative little book. Vivid though the writing is, there's not much of the lusciously palpable in it. Lumpkin's subject is indeed "design," not "art," and she focuses more on the philosophical and the social than you might expect from someone whose passion is "visuality," art as "practice." But for someone whose passion is words--for a reader--this is no drawback. Lumpkin has good reason to argue with "the idea of art as a liberal art"--as a carrier of concepts, even if her preference is more cyclical than she allows. Books, however, are supposed to carry concepts. And Lumpkin clearly knows it.

Village Voice, Jan. 18, 2000