Monday, March 8, 2010

Whereof One Cannot Speak...

When I was at NAIS last week, there was an alumni gathering on Friday evening, and a former student (not one I had had in class, but one who I knew because he was friendly with some of my students) came by and we began to talk. I asked what he was doing, and he said he was working. He had planned on going to graduate school, but had become disillusioned with the cliqueishness and artificiality of the discourse in the upper levels of his chosen discipline. I told him that his experience bore out my own. I was an English teacher (which is to say, a student of language) for 40 years. In my heart of hearts, that's probably still what I am, although it's no longer what I do, exactly. But my own experiences with graduate studies in English convinced me that a lot of what was going on was clever people trying to invent an exclusionary language so that they could recognize one another and conduct esoteric discourses that only members of their particular club could understand one another. It didn't seem to matter to them that much of what they had to say was, in essence, gibberish. It was elevated gibberish, and the fact that they had mastered it was proof positive of their status as intellectuals. I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for the game. It made more sense to me then, and it makes more sense to me now, to be talking about literature in terms of plot and conflict and theme and characterization than to be talking about, say, the historicity of narratology. The funny thing is, writers don't talk like this. You can read interview after interview with first-rate writers and never see the words "historicity" or "narratology," much less the combination of the two.

Recently as I've been trying to learn something about art, and I've come to see that the same dichotomy exists between those who actually make art, and those whose business it is to try to explain what that art is supposed to represent. Critics have a pressing need to come up with words and theories, and while it is certainly legitimate, and sometimes helpful, for a critic to be able to help you see what you had not seen before, there is always the danger that in their search for the penetrating analytical insight will lead them into semantic and syntactical thickets from which neither they nor their unfortunate readers may ever be able to escape.

As I've mentioned several times recently, I've become interested in the German painter Gerhard Richter, and a month or two ago bought a book entitled Gerhard Richter, Large Abstracts, published by Hatje Cantz. It's a beautiful book, and the plates are just gorgeous. But a book like this needs words, lots of words, and someone has got to supply them. One of Richter's most devoted critics, and one of the essayists featured in this volume, is a man named Benjamin Buchloh. Herr Buchloh is certainly a capable writer, and very devoted to his subject. And he sees the problem, he really does. Early in the essay:

Indeed, it is in this context that the the fundamental question of this essay can be posed more clearly: If none of the previous structures and semantic resources of abstraction can be considered as operative in the present, and if neither scientificity [sic] [??] nor social revolution, nor musicality, nor linguistic analogue can be claimed as abstractions correlatives any longer, in what time of communicative register—if any—can Richter's abstractions generate perceptual, cognitive, or semantic experience?
That's essentially a way of saying, "In the absence of anything explicable, what the hell am I supposed to explain here?" But he's got a job to do, and he's game for it. The problem is that once he gets warmed up, he has trouble keeping his balance. He doesn't seem to be able to stop himself from coming up with stuff like this:

As much as the universal delegitimization of the aesthetic had been at the center of Duchamp's project and the aesthetic of Fluxus, and as much as both had had a tremendous impact on the formation of Richter's pictorial project, infinity and the infinitesimal are only one half of the dialectic of Richter's abstractions. The other half is the incessant search, in each painting, and in each microstructure of a painting, for the singular constellation of material, procedural, cognitive, and perceptual forces in which an infinity of different subjects can discover an infinitesimal set of subjective differentiations outside of any preordained formal, social, political, or aesthetic order. Richter's abstractions address an infinity of subjects in perpetual search for a singular moment of an actual differentiation that would counteract the subjects continuing and total abstraction from it proper capacity to differentiate experience. (17)

It's not just his problem. In the same book, fellow critic Gregor Stemmrich stumbles down the same steep and winding path:

This does not mean we should presume there is a fixed concept (or program), but, rather, that his painting should be experienced and thought of as informed (in-formed) by a mobile horizon of critical questions and related reflections and idiosyncratic dispositions. (24)

No representation is per se immune to not being grasped as an integral determining moment of reality in which illusion turns out to be the condition of possibility of the appearance of something that itself only appears in the medium of appearance, which thus, at the same time, should be understood as the medium of life. (27)

The sound of the color can, even if it is only latent or optional, exhibit an emotional quality; the effects of light, even if it is only through reminiscence of other paintings, a spiritual quality; and the complexity of the arrangements, distributions, and superimpositions, a psychological quality, even if it is only a versatile one. In the process, these various qualities can affect one another so contingently, can call on and assume each other in alternation and, at the same time, produce spatial effects so that their entire effect is brought to bear as an atmospheric mood filled with internal tension. (28)

While I was in San Francisco, I stopped by SFMOMA and found another book, a paperback entitled Gerhard Richter (October Files) and edited by the apparently indefatigable Herr Buchloh. Books of art criticism are not usually thought of as sources of comedy, but I've got to say it was pretty funny to read through this sequence, in which Buchloh, interviewing Richter, keeps on blowing up balloons, which Richter keeps on sticking with pins:

What about the objectivization of the process of painting itself? You paint your big big pictures not with an artist's brush but with a decorator's brush; isn't this all part of the anonymization and objectivization of the painting process, along with permutation and "chance," color relations, and compositional organization?

Certainly not.

The change in instruments of production doesn't imply that the production of the painting is once more critically called into question?

It changes the pictures only in one respect: they get louder; they are not so easily overlooked.

I was talking about the instruments—that is, the instruments also influence the perception of the  picture. The fact that a monochrome was painted with a roller decisively influences the perception of the work. And in these big paintings here, where the brushstrokes suddenly turn into a decorator's brush marks, they take on a new dimension that I would describe as a quasi-mechanical or anonymous quality.

Not in this case. A brush is a brush, whether it's five millimeters wide or fifty centimeters.

So in the in the two yellow Strokes, their giant size doesn't add a new dimension?

That's something different again— they only look like two strokes of a giant brush. In reality they were painted with a lot of little strokes. Here, on the other hand, it's all genuine, so to speak.

But here in the two big paintings a new dimension comes in, no only through sheer size but also through the fact that the techniques and the act of painting have been carried to the limits of the possible.

The physical limits?

Yes, but also the limits of perceptibility of the act, as an act of painting. And there another dimension opens up in practical terms—a dimension that is not regarded as subjective.

These are just as subjective as the small ones; they're just spectacular, that's all.

Spectacular they certainly are, even in a small format. In my catalog text, I tried to describe how in your abstract painting the system is always "on show," as it were— that they always have a certain declamatory, rhetorical quality. One always gets the feeling that you're showing the various possibilities just as possibilities, so that they simply stand alongside or against each other, without performing any other function.

Like making a speech that doesn't mean anything?


A speech full of eloquence and uplift, which everyone falls for because it sounds good, which fulfills all the formal requirements of a speech and actually communicates nothing?

It doesn't sound good if you describe it that way, but you could put it differently, by saying that someone is delivering a powerfully emotive speech in order to give an analytical presentation of the resources of language, emotive persuasion, and rhetoric. That is, you are making the spectacle of painting visible in its rhetoric, without practicing it.

And what would be the point of that? That's the last thing I would want to do.
In closing, it seems to me that critics are better advised to say what can be said, and to avoid trying to say what cannot be said. Writing and thinking and art are not congruent, or even always parallel, enterprises. It's a point Richter himself makes repeatedly, in various ways, in the 2009 Writings 1961-2007:

Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because in painting thinking is painting. Thinking is language—record-keeping— and has to take place before and after. Einstein did not think while he was calculating: he calculated — producing the next equation in reaction to the one that went before — just as in painting one form is a response to another, and so on. (15)

Theory has nothing to do with a work of art. Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures. A picture presents itself as the Unmanageable, the Illogical, the Meaningless. It demonstrates the endless multiplicity of aspects; it takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the think in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view. (33)

Talk about painting: there's no point. By conveying a thing through the medium of language, you change it. You construct qualites that can be said, and you leave out the ones that can't be said but are always the most important. (35)

There's a lot of stuff going on around the edges of this discussion that I'm still trying to figure out. But, to place one stake in the ground: In art, as in writing and in teaching, I'd argue for an orientation toward process articulation rather than an orientation toward product explication.

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