1_Capacity and Openness are not the Same as Ambiguity. Refuse Ambiguity.  (David J. Getsy) Abstract art is often considered ‘ambiguous’ due to its openness and capaciousness. Even though this sometimes sounds like a compliment, it is not. More often, it is used to avoid confronting the particularities and complexities proposed by an abstract form and others’ investments in it. The same intransigent form can and does mean differently for different viewers. To call this situation ‘ambiguous’ is to fall back into hopeless subjectivism and avoidance. Instead, let’s call this situation ‘competing’ to show how much it is in the viewer’s incomplete attempt to classify that differences emerge and that supposedly stable taxonomies unravel amidst contestations and divergences of reception. Nominations of ambiguity are nothing more than declarations of resignation. We call something ambiguous when we give up on it and when we avoid committing to learning about all that does not fit into our categories. Objects, people, texts, events, and acts are not themselves ambiguous. They are particular, inassimilable, unorthodox, unprecedented, or recalcitrant. To invoke ‘ambiguity’ is to flee from the confrontation with something that does not easily fall into one’s patterns of knowing. This act of exhausted reading disrespects the particularity of that which is before us and instead writes it off as being at fault — as being unknowable, indiscernible, and incompletely categorizable. ‘Ambiguity’ is safe to invoke, because it places blame for our own limitations elsewhere. It is a method of deflection and scapegoating. It enables us to throw up our hands and beat a hasty retreat from confronting how limited our categories and systems are. After all, what do we really mean when we say something or someone is ambiguous? We mean that we cannot read, cannot identify, and cannot classify. Instead, I want to uphold the particularity and inscrutability that the backhanded slur ‘ambiguous’ attempts to manage. I want to see that particularity as a challenge to systems of knowing. ‘Ambiguous’ as an invocation or description merely signals the limitations of the one who would deploy that term. This does not mean I want everything clear and in its place. Quite the opposite: I want to embrace the radical particularity that always exceeds and undermines taxonomies. This is a queer stance, for it denies the applicability or the neutrality of those taxonomies as adequate representations of the world’s complexity. Rather, they are artificial impositions…
About the Author
David J. Getsy
David J. Getsy writes about queer and transgender methods and histories of art, and his most recent book is Queer Behavior: Scott Burton and Performance Art (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2022). His other books include Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender (Yale University Press, 2015), Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture (Yale University Press, 2010), From Diversion to Subversion: Games, Play, and Twentieth Century Art (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), and Queer, an anthology of artists’ writings (MIT Press, 2016). He is the Eleanor Shea Professor of Art History at the University of Virginia.