Lookers and readers
Post #1245 • October 15, 2008, 9:58 AM • 48 Comments
Since it was the main focus of my artistic efforts circa 2007-2008, source art from The Moon Fell On Me figured prominently into my recent show at Common Sense. But there were also works done in the studio for the sake of doing them. I'd say the mix was about half and half, leaning a bit towards the comic.
Some people liked what they saw based on what they saw. Other people responded to what they saw well enough, but really came around after I explained to them that the works were then digitized and then turned into a webcomic, particularly if they had the opportunity to see the comic that the art went into. (I had my laptop in the gallery exactly for that purpose.) After watching these two kinds of repsonses several times each, I began to wonder if it would be fair to classify art viewers as either lookers or readers. (I assume, too, that there were plenty of people who didn't take to my work in any manner at all. That's entirely fair, of course, but they don't figure in here.)
In Madison, WI a few weeks later, Supergirl and I were walking through the installation by Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art when I saw another visitor, a man in his twenties, sheepishly approach the guard and ask, "Um, so... what is this about?" I didn't overhear the explanation. I didn't think the work was all that obtuse, really - it was a message on behalf of friendship, charm, and world citizenship, or something in that neighborhood. But it was clear that he wanted the meaning, the official answer to the rebus, in order to satisfy himself that he had gotten the art, as people say. He was a reader.
I'm a big fan of reading. Otherwise I wouldn't have gotten involved in comics. But reading isn't looking. Reading isn't necessary to art - it's necessary to meaning. Art needs no meaning. It needs only its material self. The effort that goes into making something look good and making it read well are different efforts. And the latter efforts, in art, are aimed at the readers, not the lookers.
Is reading inferior to looking? The modernist has to conclude as much, so long as the question is confined to visual art. Reading is an attempt to introduce artificial certainty into the process of aesthetic judgment, which is perceived, intuited and felt. You don't read beauty. If because of inability or indoctrination, you don't see it where it's available, reading is a poor substitute. Art that supplies a message instead of visual quality, by design, is an appeal to this poor substitution.
I have a new response to shows thusly aimed: This one is for the readers. Noted as such, one can relieve oneself from the self-flagellation to which further consideration would amount. Face the Nation? That's a show for the readers. Richard Prince at the Walker? Meh, readers.
Which brings me to the Jenny Holzer installation at MassMoCA. In Holzer, the readers have their Michelangelo. In one of the museum's cavernous halls, which has been darkened and dotted with giant bean-bag chairs suitable for prolonged viewing (or napping, which might be just as well), she has projected animated writings that roll slowly across the floor, up the walls, and backwards up the ceiling in a manner that (I think unintentionally) recalls the opening sequences of the Star Wars movies. Because two projectors are pointing at each other from opposite ends of the room, the texts collide in an indecipherable jumble in many places - which are the best parts of the piece, really - but the reader can glean passages by concentrating on the less busy areas of the room. Some of the prose is terse and evocative: "Lions and lice do not waver in their course." Some is as flat as old soda: "Meanwhile, people perished, animals died, houses burned." It turns out that not all the text is hers. Some of it has been excerpted from poems by Wislawa Szymborska. And to my reading ear, not enough of it.
Not incidentally, there's a class of creative people who deal in a medium far more conducive to reading than visual art ever will be. We call them writers. Writers, and the people who appreciate their work, are not engaged in a large-scale, institutionalized effort to include more things and more kinds of things into the category of writing. So writing is spilling into the porous boundaries of art, whose aficionados are engaged in a large-scale, institutionalized effort to include more things and more kinds of things into the category of art. The result is an enervated category, and an enervated kind of appreciation to go with it.