I keep a modest library of books on the subject of artists’ writings. I began acquiring it as a young artist in high school with books like Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912) and The Diaries of Paul Klee (1964), hoping to absorb their lessons on synesthesia and abstraction. The compendium Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art (eds. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, 1996) followed during my time as an art history student. Growing as both a visual artist and an art scholar in my own right, I was particularly drawn to the writings’ emphasis on creative intention. I found my kinfolk in these artist-writers’ eloquent, idealistic words.
I also noticed that their writings would gravitate towards certain areas. To name a few: aesthetic theory (manifestos and the like); art criticism and counter-criticism; something like philosophy; language experiments along the lines of concrete poetry; descriptions akin to narrative; and, oddly enough, instructions. But don’t be fooled by this tidy schema. These artist-writer-critics were almost never traditional in thought or format.
As visual artists, there isn’t much pressure on us to be conventionally methodical or scientific. In fact, in my practice, I welcome fanciful syntheses. It’s an approach that artists can share with poets, philosophers, and fellow speculative travelers—moments where divergent ideas can dance together around a bonfire of correspondence theories of truth. Just on the periphery of the flames however, the surroundings can quickly fall into shadows. It’s in that darkness where the writerly flashes behind my eyes catch the light. Meaning is valuable to me, and must, at the very least temporarily, be anchored to something—a word, an image, so I appreciate the utility of a discrete and robust concept in both my art and criticism. I’m not referring to the deliberately ephemeral concepts that might come to mind when musing on the post-Duchampian artistic enterprise.1 No, the concepts that bear on my writing and art making are object-like, dense, and consume (imaginary) physical spaces of varying sizes. They become architectonic, revealing or obscuring sightlines onto the world; perceptually tactile but hidden from sight, for better or worse. I like the solidity of that idea as a counterpoint to dematerialization. It draws us into a masonry of relationships and interrelationships and poses a potent challenge to solipsism, that tattered scavenger always sniffing at the trails of Western civilization.
So much of critique involves persuasion, winning over the reader (you) to a certain viewpoint or conclusion, usually the author’s. The art object, too, tries to convince you of its own authority, with all its contextual garments and finery. But what if our goal was not to evaluate or promote the quality, relevance, success or failure of an artwork, and its principles? In 1964, Susan Sontag posited an “erotics of art” precisely to address these sorts of questions: “The function of criticism should be to show how [an artwork] is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”
An intriguing proposal, but I would suggest a variation. Rather than “show” or reveal anything at all, as though the artwork-document performs a quasi-legislative function, the artist-critic might instead adopt a mode of reintroducing the flickering shadows at its edges, a gradient of silence dissolving into its ontological horizon. Just on the other side of Sontag’s erotics, through the firmament of the object’s authority, an ekphrastic vista of oblivion awaits. We will never fully know certain things, and this is okay.
- To quote conceptual artist and critic Mel Bochner, “it is important not to confuse what is referred to as ‘conceptual’ with the artist’s ‘intention.’”