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thinking and not thinking

Post #430 • December 14, 2004, 6:52 AM • 12 Comments

A thought occurred to me in the course of a recent conversation with one of the smartest art people I know: great art doesn't cause thinking, it stops thinking.

Like most truisms, it's simplistic. But let's look at something again:

This painting grabbed my attention from fifty feet away, through a crowd of people, as I was ambling around in the bewildered way that one walks through an art convention. The painting came into my field of vision as I was turning my head. I slammed to a halt. I hadn't seen it before, but I felt sure it was a Matisse, or someone having an excellent day using his style. Fording diagonally through the flow of the crowd, ducking around people, I made my way over to it.

Yes, it was a Matisse. I looked at that brave black expanse of the mirror, the stems of the anemones snaking around. I muttered something about how beautiful it was. For a short while the nuttiness of Art Basel was cut away from my awareness, as if with a sharp sword.

Great art stops thinking.

You can think about art, of course, and people do, self included. Commenter Kitty from yesterday's post about Fabian Marcaccio:

I kept thinking of the cycle of life. In the beginning there is a void then light, life. I saw the morphed body parts as representing this complicated mess (and joy) of humanity and ALL that's associated with it. How we are absorbed with ourselves (our bodies) and one another (other peoples bodies) with all the little sprinklings our existence (various commercial/cartoon/technology images) along the way. This goes on for some time and then all of a sudden blackness. Thick and heavy. Death and then back to the void. ... That's our skin mushed together in an anonymous orgy. I just wish it was real so I could touch it, yummy.

This tells me mostly that Kitty has a great imagination and that she's probably a blast to hang out with. But I'd bet that we could put Kitty in front of just about anything, art or not, and she could riff on it like this. Marcaccio's painting needs viewers like Kitty to make it happen - viewers that parse the sensory data into meaningful chunks even if the work doesn't function aesthetically.

Certain viewers take this riffing to an absurd conclusion, and attribute all kinds of associations to objects that hold little weight either aesthetically or symbolically. We saw this recently in the press release for Naomi Fisher's machete-weilding photograph, which I won't quote again except to say that "reversed Ophelia" still gives me a chuckle. ("Um, by reversed, do you mean, like, unkilled?")

Back in 2001 I wrote:

A few months ago an interesting object formed in our driveway. Our neighbors have a Miami Herald subscription, issues of which are tossed daily into the duplex yard. Often they stay there a while. One Sunday morning, a bulky Herald came to rest in the driveway, bagged and untouched. The rest of the week it lay there, enduring the repeated crushing of their pickup truck as it rolled in and out. Then it rained for four days straight.

In two weeks, it had become an intriguing pile of greyish-blue pulp, bursting from its plastic skin, sloping gently out of the asphalt with which it had merged. I couldn't help but contemplate its transformation from information to brute matter, from signal to noise. When my girlfriend and I came upon it, an identical thought flashed through our minds: Alert Locust Projects!

This is shorthand for an ongoing joke with us which needs to be explained since this essay is not going to be about Locust. The full version goes like this: we've found something that, with a little reflection and a lot of stretching, can be impregnated with symbolism, implications, and meaning. Thus it is as good as or better than many of the things we see in our contemporary art spaces. The thing to do, then, is bring it to the attention of Locust Projects, who may be interested in exhibiting it. Then maybe we can sell it for a thousand dollars.

Hopefully some of the cynicism went the way of the girlfriend (hey there - I hope you're doing well) and the duplex (good riddance), but the ensuing argument still holds: depending wholly on the viewer to supply the meaning is a crutch that I was seeing too often three years ago.

Here's a sampling of exegeses from installments of "New Work Miami" at the Miami Art Museum and "Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyperreality" at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Robert Chambers, on his own work: "I see the materials and throw them together. I'm looking for responses from the audience to fill in the blanks." MAM, on Consuelo Castañeda: "Her images are crisp and dramatic, yet consummately ambiguous. Their themes often spring from advertising, reference books, or aspects of the urban landscape..." MoCA, on Bert Rodriguez: "After their initial uneasiness with these unfamiliar objects, viewers can relax and just accept that their personal reactions and experience are the sole meaning of this encounter."

It's clear from the above that we're not supposed to have a big aesthetic response to work in this style. As far as I can tell, we're just supposed to think that it's clever. If the object can make us think of some larger issues, it is said to have succeeded. But since even a melting newspaper can do that, hardly anything can fail. And because hardly anything can fail, the work is often boring. There's no triumph because the game is too easy.

But that's not the whole story. Filling in the blanks for art doesn't work because great art stops thinking. Lesser art causes thinking to spin, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to approximate the prolonged engagement that great art inspires. That may constitute some kind of test for art - the extent to which it first evokes pleasurable grunts, moans, sighs, and expletives, rather than discussion and analysis.

(Hey Kitty - you know where to find me.)

Comment

1.

that guy in the back row

December 14, 2004, 5:33 PM

read this, a link courtesy from yesterdays ArtsJournal:

http://fp.ignatz.plus.com/wakingdream.htm

good art doesn't need a brand.

2.

Denise

December 14, 2004, 7:45 PM

Hmm. I disagree--I don't think you can make this argument on a qualitative basis. There is "good art" that inspires both types of responses. I thought of film, especially--there are excellent films that leave you moved and speechless, and excellent films that make you want to talk about them all night. Or at least for a couple of hours.

3.

Chris

December 14, 2004, 7:47 PM

Ditto again.

Franklin you're obviously a very good writer so it's nice to hear you set that aside to say that when you see great art......you have nothing to say.

I've never been good at communicating why I like a particular work, etc. But I also know that when you see great art it is truly a personal event that doesn't need to be analyzed/deconstructed, etc.

Can't it just be enjoyed??

4.

oldpro

December 14, 2004, 7:51 PM

"That may constitute some kind of test for art - the extent to which it first evokes pleasurable grunts, moans, sighs, and expletives..."

Um...sounds like the effects of another kind of pleasurable activity, but lets not dwell on it.

Matisse was the only modern artist I know of who could turn black into a color and render a large area of it and made it sing. His "Moroccans" at MoMA is a great example of this. The picture, as it appears on my screen anyway, is washed out and needs to be put through auto levels in Photoshop ti clarify the colors.

The point being made is basic and important, and I like the absolutist spin it gets through the "art stops thinking" angle. "Art" that provokes consideration of things outside itself is illustration. Art that is art, art that deserves the name, is self-contained. Obviously (to forestall the inevitable misunderstandings) some art is both; religious art is the most conspicuous example.

The pertinence of the present case in point is that much new art makes its very claim to be art based on extraneous associations, having been permitted, by Postmodernist insistence on the supression of value distinctions, to dispense with any considerations of formal "beauty". This is why so much of it is like an internet joke: funny the first time, in the trash thereafter.

5.

oldpro

December 14, 2004, 8:01 PM

Denise: Franklin's point is that the good stuff does not need the talk.

Chris: Yes!

6.

Bethea

December 14, 2004, 8:03 PM

Thinking prevents an intuitive response to art, it interferes with "me "being present with the art,kind of like a buffer of some sort. Of course it's necessary, however,it just doesn't come at a primary level. For me it comes a few seconds later as reflection.
I had a similar experience with some Frankenthaler's that I saw. They sparkled from across the room before I was sure they were her's.

7.

Jack

December 14, 2004, 8:07 PM

This painting was at Basel last year, and it was a high point of that fair as well. Actually, last year it was beautifully framed, as I expect it was meant to be, whereas this year it was frameless and looked rather naked.

I agree with Oldpro about Matisse's use of black. However, the Met's new Duccio Madonna, which is a tad older, also employs black to wonderful effect, if in a different way.

8.

Bethea

December 14, 2004, 9:36 PM

Denise, I also like to talk about "good film" but not while I'm watching it. For me,some of the best films beg to be discussed and it's fun too. I haven't had that experience with painting and sculpture. I may explain symbolism in a picture, such as Massaccio's Holy Trinity, if I'm looking at it with a novice, but my explanation doesn't make it a great painting. If I'm standing in front of a painting with a friend and were both moved deeply, the whole conversation afterwards may be something like " wow, what a painting"

9.

catfish

December 14, 2004, 11:37 PM

It has always been more natural to discuss film, theatre, and literature than art because part or all of their medium is words.

They also require a definite interval of time to apprehend, which is more susceptible to the discursive nature of thought.

Artists demonstrate low self esteem of the most destructive sort when they twist and turn their stuff inside out to try and make it seem "as significant" as the wordy stuff.

So our kind of art is quite a bit different. You can get it in a nanosecond or two.But all the arts are similar in that when you get a good specimen -- picture, play, or novel -- all that matters is that it is undisputably good. Analysis can follow that, like oldpro's excellent observation about Matisse and black, but that's a matter of historical interest in Matisse's methodolgy, not the oh wow clicker getting its rocks off that Witgenstein talked about way too lightly.

So everybody check you intellects at the door and let your clickers get clicked if you can find something good enough to trick you out. It's a lovely state of mind in which thinking stops, as Franklin says.

10.

that guy in the back row

December 15, 2004, 5:10 AM

Good posts all around. Matisse at his best can bowl you over like no other. The consensus on this blog seems to agree. Most of those who have posted today have a decent track when it comes to matters of taste. Its a pleasure to see this painting after the mam post yesterday, even on the web. Anybody who can't see the difference should just click back and forth a few dozen times. Not only does good art tend to stop any further demands on the mind, when posting it on the blog it apparently limits the pointless posts by niggling little bloggers who think art must mean something to be of value. Do this more often Franklin. More Matisse, less Marcaccio.

According to the dealer its a 4.6 million dollar painting. A bit overpriced, but what a painting. I bet you could talk him down to 3.

11.

Franklin

December 15, 2004, 6:07 AM

The only thing I have 3 million of is hydrogen atoms.

Glad you enjoyed it Guy, because tomorrow I'm posting a big honking response to this. The fun continues.

12.

that guy in the back row

December 15, 2004, 7:45 AM

good luck

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