Writing With Art

Sometimes, we imagine words as efficient but clumsy. What's that saying? Oh, yeah: An image is worth a thousand words. Or, a related expression, albeit more ambivalent (attributed to many people including both Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa, amongst others): Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. (When I see a Frank Gehry building, I often think it's architecture building about dance.)

Implicit in both expressions is the prejudice that words inevitably fall short of their mark. They're useful, sure, but they're removed from the truth of things. Words, we like to think, come between us and the world. This is an ancient Platonic notion: there is a truth and then a descending proximity to this truth. Experience is immediate. Words, those necessary evil, mediate experience. They get in the way, stand between me and my experience — as if words weren't real.

Which, of course, is silly. Words are real, too. In fact, words are images. What do you think you're looking at? And words are music. What do you think you hear? In fact, it seems to me that as extraordinary images (and sounds), words are well poised to play with more ordinary images such as, say, paintings.

But because we assume words can't articulate experience, writer writers content themselves with writing about art. This painting was created during the Blitzkrieg while the artist's mother wept gently in the other room. This painting was made while the artist lived in Berkeley and had had a very angry argument with another artist.  Which is to say, they write around art, missing it all together. They try to look behind it, over its head, to find facts and places and biographies. Such, alas, is what we find on museum walls: biography, history, scholarship, words that don't even try to engage the art, words that seek a person or place but not the experience of the image.

Or we get the viewer's personal experience of the art. This painting reminded me of my childhood and made me feel sad. This misses the mark, as well, avoiding the scene of the experience: it places it within the body of the viewer rather than at the site of the image. The way we understand words has us write over the head of the image or turn inward, away from the image to write biography or autobiography.

A work of art is an event. It's a scene of some happening. As such, it is multiple, ambiguous, multivalent. There are always different things happening all at once, different ways of configuring the event. And it happens out there as well as in here. 

The one thing art doesn't need is to be explained. Despite the popular conception of contemporary art as evasive, art by its very being is accessible to all. It's all right there! Where? There! Just look at it. You don't need some special decoder ring. You don't need degrees or pedigree. All you have to do is look, let the image wash over you. All you have to do is lean into the work, lean into your experience. 

Rather than decode it, unravel it, you can assemble it. Rather than ask: What does this mean? Ask: What are the rules of this universe? What strange new things are happening here? What seeing is this? What perspective is this? For all art is necessarily a seeing, a perspective, a seeing seeing, a seen on a scene.

This is not to say that biography and autobiography are uninteresting. They may be fascinating, beautiful, mind blowing. It's to say that those are not our sole modes of writing about art. We can write with art, let our words be motivated by the events of the image.

As Roland Barthes says, we don't need to explain; we need to follow. In his reading of Gerard Fromanger, Deleuze writes with the images:

Nothing is neutral or passive. Yet the painter means nothing, neither approval nor anger. The colours express nothing: green is not hope, neither is yellow the colour of sadness, nor red the colour of cheerfulness. Nothing but hot or cold, hot and cold. The material is art: Fromanger paints, that is to say, he gets a painting to work. The painting-machine of an artist-mechanic, the artist-mechanic of a civilization: how does he get the painting to work?

The writer with art, like Deleuze here, is an empiricist. He watches and, from what he sees, from what he gathers, he assembles the pieces. The temperatures Deleuze mentions are not personal experiences, not subjective experiences, but his perspective on the scene: his seeing of a seeing. 

In a way, this writing with art is itself an image of the painting, Deleuze's words a linguistic photograph of Fromanger's visual image. Writing with art is a kind of repetition, a continuation of one possible series that's burbling within, as part of, every image. Just as Hockney finds a possibility within Cézanne but in his own fashion, Deleuze finds a possibility within Fromanger. Just as there are an infinite number of possible paintings after Cézanne, there are an infinite number of possible linguistic images — essays — after Fromanger.  

Writing with art doesn't seek to explain the work once and for all. It is a way of having words and experiences move with the forms, colours, affects of the image. The art writer doesn't say: This means that. He says: This is one way this painting works, one way this thing can go. Such writing doesn't want to be definitive. On the contrary, it wants other possibilities.

1 comment:

Adam Zerlocks said...

it's always good to read the writings of someone who knows what he knows, whereas others don't know what they know, but only know it...you know?