Art and Analysis

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Posted by R. John Howe on January 28, 1999 at 05:56:51:

Dear folks -

I have some artist friends who believe that our experience with art should be unmediated by language: that nothing should interfere with our direct visual (or audio) communion with the art object. They take any need to resort to language as unavoidably alienating and impovershing this experience. (One, after all, has to set back a bit, from the direct communion with the object to talk about it and art analysis seems to entail a kind of self-reflexiveness that does include a degree of separation of oneself, at least momentarily, from direct artistic communion, a separation that might in fact have to be admitted as having an alienating dimension.)

This is an interesting position, and of course, is at bottom impossible to test. And I notice that these artists assemble in groups and do talk about art objects and their relative quality, as well as about the practice of their respective crafts. So perhaps at bottom their position is not as hardline as the one they seem often to argue.

It is is more than evident from my participation in our salons, I, myself, do not hold with this position. I do not think that the resort to analysis necessarily detracts from my communion with art objects at all. More, sometimes I find a reason why a given art object stirs and this, for me, at least, makes my communion more meaningful since I think it is enriched at the point that I can both experience it and be self-conscious about why that experience is occurring for me. [The ability to take a reflexive position in self-consciousness is one that we humans often use to suggest that we are different from other forms of life. We think that we are not just "fish in the water who do not know that we are fish in the water." To aspire to give up the self-reflexiveness of self-consciousness might be seen as an effort to give up an important defining characteristic of what it is to be a human being. My wife has a wonderful ability to experience life in an unreflective "toes in the mud" way that I both envy and resent. I make this argument to her all the time without noticable effect. :-)]

Let me give one small example of my thesis that analysis is not, in principle, corrosive our experience with art. I do not treat as "witchcraft" the claims by folks who say that they can sometimes see such things as "movement," "life," "creatures," "an image of one's one most authentic self," "the face of God," in an oriental rug. I have analgous experiences with some rugs sometimes myself.

In "The Oops Thesis," salon, I put up an Ersari ikat ensi which I said seemed sometimes to me to have creature-like qualities one of which was that I thought I could sometimes see it "breathing." And I had this experience with this piece before Michael Wendorf gave me a rule that explained to me, at least in part, why I was having it.

Point: I do not think that it diminished this experience for me at all to discover that this seeming breathing was likely the visual result of a slight movement, irregularity, variation in the drawing of the outside line of the guls in this piece.

I give this testimony to respond a bit to those, like Tom Cole, who seem in this salon to veer away from doing the concrete work suggested because they fear that it will alienate their true and preferred relationship with art objects. This position might be sustainable if one maintained a complete and stoic silence about art objects but once one resorts to language at all, I want to argue here, there is little further danger of such corrosion and perhaps some opportunity to in fact enrich one's communion with art objects by bringing to it a degree to self-consciousness.


R. John Howe

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