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.)