February 12, 2010

The paradox of "insisting" that words have no "fixed or stable set of meanings."

If you really believed what you are insisting, you wouldn't be insisting, you'd be, perhaps, entertaining a suggestion or toying with a notion or musing about the possibility, now wouldn't you?

DSC07649

And how can you inscribe a suggestion/notion/possibility like that on a big solid wall in a place called an "institute." It's the Art Institute of Chicago — the new Modern Wing — and when I voiced these thoughts (to Meade) the museum guard overheard, laughed, and nodded knowingly.

Here's a closeup of the artwork that supposedly expresses the fancy-schmancy idea that words have no fixed meaning:

DSC07647

You're not supposed to take video, but if this were video, you'd see that the words blink on and off. There is a tapping sound that corresponds to the rhythm of the blinks, and beyond the wall, in a dark room, there is a black-and-white video playing of a man tapping his feet from one side to the other along the sides of a square marked by tape on the floor. I decided the neon was the sign on the Store of Life, and the stepping, tapping man inside is the reality of what you get in that store — according to the artist (Bruce Nauman) who has not committed suicide, surprisingly.

The piece is called "Human Nature/Life Death."

55 comments:

traditionalguy said...

All art is in the perspective, my dear. The perspective on words has been known to change, but they are harder to erase.

Palladian said...

Institutions and art critics destroy all mystery.

Cue the reactionary Arthouse Hillbillies: Thataint art!

Palladian said...

YAP NOITNETTA REHTOM SREKCUF.

Meade said...

Hey, Palladium, quit hittin' on my girlfriend with your high falutin' latin talk!

Richard said...

Query: Does art which requires a paragraph of verbal explication of its meaning succeed as art?

This question first occurred to me during an excursion during law school to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I concluded that the answer is No. (I harbor the same doubts about Eliot and Joyce, but at least their abstruse works employ the same medium as their explicators and commentators do.)

I also concluded that the only proper and authentic response - if one insisted on responding - to the majority of the work exhibited in the MCA was suicide. I opted not to respond.

rhhardin said...

Francis Ponge said that you have to speak out against words, and anything less is cowardice.

rhhardin said...

Words used to fly and come to rest only in marble.

Today they nest in toilets.

-FP

Michael said...

Palladian: All modern art requires explication. All conservatives are stupid. Modern art can only be appreciated and understood by liberals.
Want to have some fun? Go to an art school drawing class and have a look. Talent for the abstract abounds.

garage mahal said...

Hey, Palladium, quit hittin' on my girlfriend with your high falutin' latin talk!

I thought it was an anagram for Listen Up Motherfuckers.

Another could be Creepiest Hurtful Monk, or Cheerfulness I Pork Mutt.

Mary Martha said...

Here in Chicago this piece has migrated from somewhere public (I want to say some L stop) to the Museum of Contemporary Art and now the Art Institute.

I have always stopped to look at it wherever I came across it. I have enjoyed the way the words blink on and off and make different connections between the words.

I have NEVER read the artist statement because I find modern artist statements to be a bunch of dreck. Here it is trying to make a fun bunch of blinking words into something *important*. Much better to just enjoy (or not enjoy) something as it is.

Lem said...

The paradox of "insisting" that words have no "fixed or stable set of meanings".

Is that All there is

Jody said...

If you really believed what you are insisting, you wouldn't be insisting, you'd be, perhaps, entertaining a suggestion or toying with a notion or musing about the possibility, now wouldn't you?

Though for internal consistency, "insisting" would also have no fixed meaning and could in this context only mean "entertaining" or "toying with"

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Palladian said...

"Palladian: All modern art requires explication. All conservatives are stupid. Modern art can only be appreciated and understood by liberals."

I'm a "modern" artist and I'm not a liberal.

"Want to have some fun? Go to an art school drawing class and have a look. Talent for the abstract abounds."

I teach an art school drawing class. Two, in fact. Talent for abstraction and figuration, indeed, abounds.

KLDAVIS said...

I welcome this new exhibit. Previously in the same space (I believe from the description in this post), was a video exhibit involving a very scary clown doing things that shouldn't be shown in public, even art institutes.

veni vidi vici said...

"Here it is trying to make a fun bunch of blinking words into something *important*."


Especially when the upside down word at bottom appears to be "HAIR PIE".

Uh, whiskey, tango...

HKatz said...

"Query: Does art which requires a paragraph of verbal explication of its meaning succeed as art?"

That's one question that comes up in Tom Wolfe's book on modern art - The Painted Word. (He has a good deal of fun with some of the absurdities).

http://www.amazon.com/Painted-Word-Tom-Wolfe/dp/0553380656

Palladian said...

"I have NEVER read the artist statement because I find modern artist statements to be a bunch of dreck."

Absolute, complete agreement. Artists need to stop writing them. That this lowest form of nonsense writing exists is a result of the creeping sclerotic disease known as the Institution.

Institutions kill magic. Institutions kill poetry. Institutions kill beauty. Institutions kill freedom.

The only cure for the paralysis is to get up and run as far away as possible.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Palladian said...

"Previously in the same space (I believe from the description in this post), was a video exhibit involving a very scary clown doing things that shouldn't be shown in public, even art institutes."

That was a work by Bruce Nauman, the same artist that did this neon thing. It's called "Clown Torture".

Palladian said...

P.S. Don't read the text in my previous link.

ricpic said...

It ain't art if it's all about an idea. Art begins where the idea ends.

Freeman Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trooper York said...

I totally bow to Palladian's superior knowledge of art, but I I know it when I see it!

edutcher said...

Ann said...

"The paradox of 'insisting' that words have no 'fixed or stable set of meanings.'"

The Lefties and the appellate courts count on that idea; it means what we say it means until we want it to mean something else.

Unfortunately, the people have other ideas, which is why Barry and the Demos in Congress are suddenly in so much trouble.

PS I still say the phrase, "modern art", is as oxymoronic as, "athletic scholarship".

Freeman Hunt said...

Oops, reposted to fix the link code.

--------

I remember that piece. Not really my thing, but okay.

That is my favorite art museum, probably because I was taken there several times as a child. And this is my favorite part. Those works loom large in my childhood memories. If you mentioned "paintings" to the kid-me, this is what would immediately have appeared in my head.

Love that place. Need to plan a trip back.

Freeman Hunt said...

My wv was "byrial" which must be a Tolkienian elves themed funeral.

Freeman Hunt said...

Sheesh. And then I broke the other link.

This is my favorite part of the museum. (Big part!)

traditionalguy said...

Good subject for a Law Blog: E.g.,Courts find no fixed meaning in the Latin words Stare Decisis except when they wantto use them to fool readers. Now you hear it, now you don't. That is one way to apply laws...the way I say select. Dingy Harry Reid is losing it. He wants the ABA to quit finding fault when rating qualifications of the Federal Judges for life that he selects. Sounds like the Libruls in Congress are stymied by the coming election debacle and are turning to the Regulatory Agencies and the Courts to pass their abominable laws.

Synova said...

I was an art major for one semester in college. I got the BS part down pretty quick. It generally started with... "What I intended with this drawing was..." followed by a whole bunch of lofty sounding crap made up after the fact. Now, truthfully, I think that we do "intend" particular things when committing art, but that the art is how we discover what that is. Since that's the method of expression and communication, what are the words for?

But I'm an infidel and heretic, I suppose. A total anti-snob snob.

We had a visiting professional artist... a graduate of the university and pride and joy of the department that was actually making a living as a sculptor in New York (that mystical and awe inspiring place). I sat through the slide show thinking... how many nearly identical mirror image yellow-resin bent obelisks can one man make for money?

Synova said...

A really long time ago now I got in a fight on usenet (is there something else to do on usenet?) with a guy who said he was writing a story where there were no laws of any kind whatsoever and everyone just did whatever they wanted without any consequence or social censure. Even murder.

I said... You can't do that. Won't work.

The guy got all upset and typed at me loudly... "You can't tell me what I can't do!"

It was funny. (Actually, it was funny even before I got the joke.)

For some reason I'm reminded of that.

veni vidi vici said...

Fuck Bruce Nauman. I liked him better when he was Bruce Thenman.



wv: "mootord" -- That guy who's always too slow with the comebacks.

paul a'barge said...

Palladian: Arthouse Hillbillies

OOps. I misread that at first, thinking that Palladian was referring to us ... as Althouse Hillbillies.

I'll cop to that.

Scott M said...

Institutions kill magic. Institutions kill poetry. Institutions kill beauty. Institutions kill freedom.

I take it, Pal., that you're 100% in favor of doing away with the institutionalized awarding of grant money to the arts, otherwise known officially as the NEA?

That would put you in line with a heap-big o' conservatives, Kemosabe.

Query: Does art which requires a paragraph of verbal explication of its meaning succeed as art?

IMHO, no. Visual art needs to work visually and, in some cases, in tandem with audio, but to write a paragraph or two on a little card under the work smacks of superfluous, self-aware, self-aggrandizing crap. If your message cannot be conveyed (indeed, if there IS a message) by studying the work on it's own, no paragraph is going to save it.

I don't believe this rule applies to written forms of art, though. Even today, fans are still mining seemingly endless meanings from Shakespeare, for instance, and the only practical way to convey what they find is to offer written explanations.

Julius Ray Hoffman said...

All this postmodern neointerpretism is going to be put to a swift end when Sarah Palin becomes Emperor. A word will mean what it means when properly pronounced. And – speaking of proper pronunciation – everybody will be required to drop final consonants on pain of crucifixion. All elitist art museums like this one will be dismantled, their contents being buried in Alaska snowbanks. Bruce Nauman might not have committed suicide yet, but he'll be added to a proscription list and hopefully that will provide the necessary motivation.

PALIN FOR EMPEROR!

All hail our future Lord and God!

Trooper York said...

Regardless of your opinion of art, you do have to respect a collector!

Synova said...

"A word will mean what it means when properly pronounced. And – speaking of proper pronunciation – "

I'm good. Got my good round O's down, too. And I can even do the one with the slash through it as well as the two dots above.

In any case... speaking of proper pronounciation... "Rentals of "Fargo" DVD's will skyrocket as those not wishing to be held back by their base regional dialects attempt to conform to the new order."

Henry said...

@Synova -- One of my professors in grad school was a one-time resin sculptor. And man, was he wasted.

Nauman does what he does. The RISD museum has one of his works on exhibit in a rather cluttered design gallery. It's beauty and farce all in one place. Nauman's is not at all beautiful, but neither is it remotely the most farcical.

What this post reminds me of is that good writing about art is incredibly rare. Some critics are good at writing about art as are some art historians. Some, very few, curators can write. Most writing on museum walls and in museum catalogs is astonishingly poor.

But it's hard to write about art. If you're an artist, before you can get curators and critics to write your statements, you have to write your own. It's painfully difficult not to end up sounding like a pretentious fool. I generally feel bad for artists who can't explain themselves. But I'm quite annoyed at the curators and critics who don't know how to be clear and concrete (let alone concise).

narrledudh said...

"Arthouse Hillbillies" is brilliant. I'm partial to "Bookstore Toughs" myself.

Oh, I keep forgetting to play WV: "omenali", what they call the seer down at the local mosque.

Fred Drinkwater said...

I have an old copy of "Left Hand of Darkness" by LeGuin, with an introduction in which she says (from my poor memory, unfortunately):
"Art is about saying things that cannot be said with words. A novelist is an artist who does this with words"

So leave the signing statements to the politicians.

WV: bemen - If you're a man, I recommend it.

TMink said...

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'

Theo, that is one beautiful quote. Postmodernism in a phrase. Thank you!

Trey

TMink said...

For me, art is an emotional hack. It gets to my heart and tells me things without my thinking brain getting too involved. It is that giant "thwack" that comes right at the start of "Like A Rolling Stone." I hear the thwack, and my mood changes!

It is the revulsion from looking at Picasso's Guernica, the awe of the Sistine Chapel.

It is not the chuckle I get from looking at Warhol's soup can. I like the painting, but it does not hack my being, it merely amuses me for a moment.

Trey

knox said...

OOps. I misread that at first, thinking that Palladian was referring to us ... as Althouse Hillbillies.

I did too. Well, we've seen it enough times, only natural I guess.

knox said...

For me, art is an emotional hack.

Nice description. Overthink it = kill it.

Chip Ahoy said...

.ti evah ton lliw I .sesoprup lacitilop rof etisoppo tcaxe rieht neam ot sdrow gnicrof no "gnitsisni", thgir s'taht ,gnitsisni ot tcejbo I tuB .esruoc fo , esiaçnarf eimédacA'L htiw desselb eb ot neppah uoy ssellnu .evlove seod egauagnaL

Richard Dolan said...

What's the problem with trying to put into words the evocative quality of an artwork? Whether the description is helpful or merely a distraction turns on the particulars of the artwork and whatever may be said about it. Palladian is off on a toot but, unless his point is the truism that descriptions of artwork can be very bad, I don't see that there is much point to the toot.

What caught my eye here was that Nauman's comments about the supposedly indeterminate quality of language date from the 1960s. If so, then Nauman's views about language reflect the same weird view that was adopted around the same time by the California Supreme Court, which dismissed the notion that words can have objectively determinable meanings as a "remnant of a primitive faith in the inherent potency and inherent meaning of words." Judge Kozinski skewered that argument in a very funny opinion some 20 years later. Trident Center v. Conn. Gen. Life, 847 F.2d 564 (9th Cir. 1988).

It's an odd walk down memory lane seeing that cultural moment showing up anew in Chicago 40+ years later.

former law student said...

The paradox of "insisting" that words have no "fixed or stable set of meanings."

I read this as "I cheesesteak to "fledgling" die comma of toot "scalable and shaven tie of endrun."

Michael said...

Palladin: How does one teach abstract painters, sculptors, installers? Isn't the concept antiethical to the modern approach? I have been told by some abstract painters that their works intend to make the viewer think, but all I can think is that they cannot render a realistic depiction of anything. And what I generally think is that it is a very good thing they have rich and doting parents.

former law student said...

From the Tribune of June 5, 1985, we learn that "New Mexico artist"Bruce Nauman won the $50,000 Purchase Prize of Arthur Andersen & Co. for "Human Nature/Life Death,"

Andersen donated the sculpture to the City. It had been one of 18 artworks in an exhibition on the State Street Mall (RIP), although it had been displayed in a window of the State Street Carson's (RIP).

Nauman's sculpture was picked by a jury composed of Susanne Ghez, director of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago; artist Don Baum; Ralph Arnold, painter and professor at Loyola University; Dennis Adrian, critic and art historian; and Madeline Murphy Rabb, executive director of the Chicago Office of Fine Arts.

Palladian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Palladian said...

"What's the problem with trying to put into words the evocative quality of an artwork? Whether the description is helpful or merely a distraction turns on the particulars of the artwork and whatever may be said about it."

There's a difference between evocation and explanation. The visual arts are mute yet they can communicate things beyond language. Generally the person writing the prose-poem about the experience isn't up to the job. It's like having Glenn Greenwald paraphrasing Shakespeare. Good writers rarely get into the business of painting explanation.

"Palladian is off on a toot but, unless his point is the truism that descriptions of artwork can be very bad, I don't see that there is much point to the toot."

I don't toot. I blat.

"Palladin: How does one teach abstract painters, sculptors, installers?"

Design, color, composition, form, line, materials, techniques, philosophy are the foundation of any art, representational or otherwise. I make sure my students can do everything that Cennino Cennini, Vasari, Cezanne and Hans Hoffmann would have wanted them to do.

"Isn't the concept antiethical to the modern approach?"

It shouldn't be.

"I have been told by some abstract painters that their works intend to make the viewer think"

I think great non-representational art makes people see differently. What they think is their business.

"...but all I can think is that they cannot render a realistic depiction of anything."

That's no longer an imperative since photography came along, though I've never met nor looked at a great abstract painter who lacked the ability to paint anything they wanted.

"And what I generally think is that it is a very good thing they have rich and doting parents."

My mother was a factory worker. My father was a jobless schizophrenic.

Balfegor said...

(I harbor the same doubts about Eliot and Joyce, but at least their abstruse works employ the same medium as their explicators and commentators do.)

I don't know about Joyce -- don't know (or perhaps love) his work well enough to say -- but that's really not fair to Eliot. What I think are his most famous works -- Prufrock, the Wasteland, the Hollow Men -- may lean a bit on the abstruse-ness, but give Ash Wednesday a bit of a read. Read it aloud that is. Whether or not I penetrate in the heart of whatever it is Eliot is saying in there, it's still a beautiful poem:

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

Ritmo Brasileiro said...

It would take a brainfart of Althousian proportions to propose that these words had fixed meanings:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
5
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
10
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!
Ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
15
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme (blæd wide sprang),
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
20
Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme,
þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesiþas, þonne wig cume,
leode gelæsten; lofdædum sceal
25
in mægþa gehwære man geþeon.
Him ða Scyld gewat to gescæphwile
felahror feran on frean wære.
Hi hyne þa ætbæron to brimes faroðe,
swæse gesiþas, swa he selfa bæd,
30
þenden wordum weold wine Scyldinga;
leof landfruma lange ahte.
þær æt hyðe stod hringedstefna,
isig ond utfus, æþelinges fær.
Aledon þa leofne þeoden,
35
beaga bryttan, on bearm scipes,
mærne be mæste. þær wæs madma fela
of feorwegum, frætwa, gelæded;
ne hyrde ic cymlicor ceol gegyrwan
hildewæpnum ond heaðowædum,
40
billum ond byrnum; him on bearme læg
madma mænigo, þa him mid scoldon
on flodes æht feor gewitan.
Nalæs hi hine læssan lacum teodan,
þeodgestreonum, þon þa dydon
45
þe hine æt frumsceafte forð onsendon
ænne ofer yðe umborwesende.
þa gyt hie him asetton segen geldenne
heah ofer heafod, leton holm beran,
geafon on garsecg; him wæs geomor sefa,
50
murnende mod. Men ne cunnon
secgan to soðe, selerædende,
hæleð under heofenum, hwa þæm hlæste onfeng.

Synova said...

Meanings aren't fixed. Not unless you're Icelandic at any rate. Not unless the language is "dead" at any rate.

But words do have meanings or they aren't words. And they have meanings that are not very fluid either, or they don't work as words.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.