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Tom McDonough reviews John Paul Ricco’s The Decision Between Us

John Paul Ricco. The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 264 pp. Cloth $45.00.

Reviewed by Tom McDonough.

In The Decision Between Us, John Paul Ricco – associate professor of contemporary art, media theory, and criticism in the Department of Visual Studies at the Mississauga campus of the University of Toronto – provides us with a densely argued series of meditations on the aesthetic and ethical implications of a queer sociality based not upon the liberal terms of consensus, identity, or unity, but rather upon the unresolvable paradox of a “shared-separation.” Developing his claims through a deft weaving of individual artworks and close readings of Continental philosophy, primarily the writings of Jean-Luc Nancy, Ricco insists that “being,” including the being of the artwork, is always a “being-together,” a sharing or partaking of the world that is necessarily also a sustaining of the space entailed in separation. We might call it the outline of an aporetic aesthetics, one that refuses the dialectical syntheses of interpretation traditionally favored by the discipline of art history and instead lingers on what is unreconciliable or impassable (in Greek, aporos) in the artwork and in our experience of it.

Concretely, this entails Ricco’s careful attention to objects and texts whose creation was also a creation-together in this enigmatic sense of shared-separation. In the first chapter, his subject is Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953 – a drawing produced through erasure, what Ricco convincingly terms “an unworking of the work of drawing” (p. 30). Where others might see Oedipal rivalry or the anxiety of influence, the author sees an impossible collaboration, a coupling even, of Rauschenberg with his senior colleague in the New York art world of the 1950s. The surface of the paper holds these two at once together and apart. The strongest of the later chapters explore similar dynamics between Roland Barthes and the image of his mother as articulated in his 1980 study of photography, La Chambre claire, or between the interactive installations of the late 1980s to early 1990s of Félix González-Torres and their viewers.

The Decision Between Us does not concede much to its readers, who would do well to brush up on their Nancy, as well as their Derrida and Heidegger, before opening it. But for those who brave its intermittently opaque language, Ricco’s book offers an insightful, at times brilliant, interpretive framework that challenges many of contemporary art’s current orthodoxies. One could read it in the company of Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells (2012) for its fundamental revision of our understanding of participation or, even better, alongside recent contributions to queer studies by scholars such as Gavin Butt, Whitney Davis, or José Esteban Muñoz for its articulation of a queer sociality freed from the last strictures of metaphysics and sited in the purely immanent space of shared-separation.