e-prime art criticism
Post #356 • August 30, 2004, 6:42 AM • 8 Comments
"English-Prime," or "E-Prime" for short, refers to a subset of English that excludes the verb "to be." E-prime interests me enough that I intend to eliminate "to be" from my writing as an experiment for the next couple of weeks, longer if it works. Lately I have been eliminating it from my speech as well, although I have sometimes struggled to do so. (Moderate E-Prime retains "to be" for creating the progressive form of a verb, so it regards that "been" as kosher.)
Why get rid of "to be"? Firstly, most writers know that passive constructions suck the life out of sentences ("Janet was killed by Brad" vs. "Brad killed Janet"), and not using forms of "to be" makes it impossible to build them. Writers who use passive constructions mangle their logic, assassinate their subjects, and turn their syntax into mush.
The problems continue into epistomological territory. "Is" attributes essential, seemingly permanent traits to objects. Robert Anton Wilson:
The weakness of Aristotelian "isness" or "whatness" statements lies in their assumption of indwelling "thingness" - the assumption that every "object" contains what the cynical German philosopher Max Stirner called "spooks." ... In simpler words, the Aristotelian universe assumes an assembly of "things" with "essences" or "spooks" inside of them, where the modern scientific (or existentialist) universe assumes a network of structural relationships.
He calls the former kind of thinking "demonological." He also says:
A few scientists have taken to writing in E-Prime... [D. David Bourland Jr., who coined "E-Prime" in 1949] in a recent (not-yet-published) paper tells of a few cases in which scientific reports, unsatisfactory to sombunall members of a research group, suddenly made sense and became acceptable when re-written in E-Prime.
Such spooks haunt art writing in legions, and art writing provides many examples of prose that sombunall readers can understand.
Cocurated by Doug Aitken and P.S. 1's Klaus Biesenbach, the show is anchored by Aitken's magisterial Interiors, 2002, a room-size video installation whose four channels, each a coordinated crescendo of sound and image, are shuffled across three screens every few minutes; its clockwork climaxes are like waves lapping at a shore. The rest of the works in the show, which are mostly atemporal, use wildly different kinds of light to invoke different moods, from the uncomfortably harsh fluorescence of Bruce Nauman's Green Light Corridor, 1970, and the seizure-inducing blinks of Carsten Höaut;ller's Atomium Phi, 2004 (which looks like a cross between a Calder mobile and George Nelson's "Marshmallow" sofa), to the softly contrasting indoor and outdoor black-and-white images of Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner's collaborative book Hard Light (1978).
Try to convert this paragraph (by Brian Sholis for ArtForum) to E-Prime and you'll see how little meaning it contains. How do the "climaxes" resemble the "waves"? Does "mostly" refer to "atemporal" or, um, "works"? What atemporal qualities do the works possess? And in that first sentence, Janet is being killed by Brad. Twice. This kind of stuff puts dust bunnies in your brain.
People have criticised the writings of Clement Greenberg as absolutist, and I never heard them this way until I considered them in light of E-Prime. Speaking of the work of Jasper Johns in a 1984 interview, he said:
The color isn't good enough, and it shows he doesn't know how good Olitski is. Not that he's got to paint like him. If right now you're an ambitious painter with major aspirations you've got to see how good Olitski is.
Part of the hegemonic tone comes from good, but most of it comes from is - three is's and an are. "Is" implies eternality. I don't pretend to speak for Greenberg, but notice that the following says the same thing, with force, yet doesn't sound as much like a voice from the top of the mountain:
The color doesn't look good enough, and it shows he doesn't know how well Olitski paints. Not that he's got to paint like him. If right now you consider yourself an ambitious painter with major aspirations you've got to see how well Olitski paints.
I assert that discussion would ensue more easily from the latter version.
Speaking of the top of the mountain, consider Exodus 3:14-15 (emphasis God's):
And Moses said to God, Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you.
Only God is; we become. We manifest in the world to serve as the thousand arms of Kannon, and those arms move. When you say "I am" (happy, sleepy, pissed, confused, etc.) you take the Lord's name in vain.
I prefer Greenberg's authority to Sholis's vagaries, and I feel certain that the former reflects strong judgments, rather than the author confusing himself with the Almighty. We should make strong judgments, smart judgments, even harsh judgments if the situation calls for them. I do not argue for relativism or bland subjectivity here. Me, I'll make my judgments caustic enough to take the paint off of your car, if I feel the need.
Too, I continue to believe that no practice has so much merit that one cannot apply it badly.
But I want to eliminate "to be" from my thinking because I regard my judgments as judgments and no more. Not truths. Certainly not absolute truths. I think that E-Prime will make the conversations that happen on Artblog.net, including the ones I have with myself, progress more smoothly. If it makes my writing better in the process, I'll enjoy that too.