21 January 2009

Air on the shoe string

Vincent Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886

I am working on a couple of posts that expand on points mentioned in the last one, but they are not ready and I am trying to get back on schedule (both here and in the studio). So the posts will wait, but in recompense I offer three excerpts, held together by a shoestring...

“…work diligently from nature without saying to yourself beforehand ‘I want to do this or that.’ If you work as if you were making a pair of shoes, without artistic preoccupations, you will not always do well, but the days you least anticipate it you find a subject which holds its own with the work of those who have gone before us. You learn to know a country which is fundamentally quite different from its appearance at first sight.

“Contrariwise you say to yourself ‘I want to finish my pictures more, I want to do them with care,’ lots of ideas like that, confronted by the difficulties of weather and changing effects, are reduced to being impracticable, and I end by resigning myself and saying that it is the experience and meager work of every day which alone ripens in the long run and allows one to do things that are more complete and more true. Thus slow long work is the only way, and all ambition and resolve to make a good thing of it false.”

—Vincent Van Gogh, Letter from St. Rémy, mid-November 1889

“In the work of art the truth of an entity has set itself to work. ‘To set’ means here: to bring to a stand. Some particular entity, a pair of peasant shoes, comes in the work to stand in the light of its being. The being of the being comes into the steadiness of its shining.

“The nature of art would then be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work. But until now art presumably has had to do with the beautiful and beauty, and not with the truth. The arts that produce such works are called the beautiful or fine arts, in contrast with the applied or industrial arts that manufacture equipment. In fine art the art itself is not beautiful, but is called so because it produces the beautiful. Truth, in contrast, belongs to logic. Beauty, however, is reserved for aesthetics...

“But then, is it our opinion that this painting by Van Gogh depicts a pair of actually existing peasant shoes, and is a work of art because it does so successfully? Is it our opinion that the painting draws a likeness from something actual and transposes it into a product of artistic–production? By no means.”

—Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”

“—…That’s one of the causes: the lace. A thing whose name is, in French, also the name of a trap [le lacet: “snare”]. It does not only stand for what passes through the eyelets of shoes or corsets. Our voices, in this very place.

—I do indeed notice, now, that strange loop

—ready to strangle

—of the undone lace. The loop is open, more so still than the untied shoes, but after a sort of sketched-out knot

—it forms a circle at its end, an open circle, as though provisionally, ready to close, like pincers or a key ring. A leash. In the bottom right-hand corner where it faces, symmetrically, the signature “Vincent,’ in red and underlined. As though, on the other side, in the other corner, on the other edge, but symmetrically, (almost) on a level with it, it stood in place of the signature, as though it took the (empty, open) place of it…”

—Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting

16 January 2009

The meaning of meaning

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity, c. 1410

Several years ago I came across an article that lamented the loss of meaning in painting. (I can’t track it down.) It occurred to me at the time that the problem was not that meaning had been removed from painting, but that it never had any.

The primary sense of the word meaning is that of definition—not fully appropriate to this case, but worth bearing in mind as the gloss of this use casts a monolithic shadow of literalism across our terrain. In art, meaning is generally used as a synonym for content. In this application, meaning is message; it is what the painting holds and delivers, what is “contained” by the painting and what is consumed. The painting becomes a bearer of information, information that is received and understood by the viewer. There is an appeal for something artist and viewer could point to as probative (regarding the value of the painting) and determinate. The presumptions here are prima facie untenable. “Art is not a telegram,” Lyotard once said. Meaning and content in this case imply something discrete, a quantum, something that can be deduced and set aside as fact. This closes the door on the complex of interactions that constitute the conversation of art in our moment, and even of prior moments, and reduces the potential of painting rather than securing its value.

There is a legitimate practical concern of ensuring that one’s activity as an artist is not…meaningless, nugatory, but assuming fixed coordinates for meaning is not effective, and also has a nostalgic timbre that ignores the entropic nature of art in our moment and the entropic impossibility of reversing course.

As an alternative, a conventional maxim one sometimes hears is “meaning is what happens,” which is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go very far. Posit further then that meaning does not reside in the body of the work but instead begins with the experience of the viewers; that the artist is the first viewer, and from there meaning accrues in incremental and polyphonic fashion in the public sphere; that there is nothing irreducible “contained” in the painting as object; that agreement on subject matter in the work comes from agreements reached outside the scope of the painting, though these may be employed by the artist (e.g. iconography).

When the “content” of a painting is evaporated, or found to be non-existent; if the painting is not a means of expression; if there is not consensus on the significance or purpose of a painting or artwork, what is left to the artist? What form can meaning take? Are alternatives necessary? Is this a kind of nihilism, or cause for optimism? If one accepts these propositions, what products or activities are sensible for painting, for art?


I’ve been dilatory with posting, mainly due to travel for much of the last three weeks. I returned this weekend, and had a radiant, amusing and perhaps not unrelated dream on Sunday night. Some friends and I were in a cathedral, and the interior was filled by the colored light of tall stained glass windows. A friend asked me something and I replied, “Stained glass was the conceptual art of the 12th century.” It had something to do with the divine figures portrayed in the glass being manifested as bodies of tinted light inside the cathedral.