What do you represent?
Published in Tell me about yesterday tomorrow: A Book about the Future of the Past, NS-Dokumentationszentrum München, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2021
It is with a somewhat heavy heart that I Google the words “Fredrick Adolf Reinhardt: What does this Represent, 1946”. For those unfamiliar with the cartoon that shows up in the Google search results, it was produced by the American abstract artist “Ad” Reinhardt for PM newspaper in New York. It was one of many cartoons he made about the question of modern art and its supposedly disturbing effects upon established values between 1942 and 1947. The cartoon is divided into two parts. In the upper section, we see a man tilting towards a hanging panel that carries cuneiform script. He has turned towards the viewer and wears a hat, a business suit and a wide eyed grin that implies we will share in his mockery of this unintelligible nonsense. “Ha Ha. What does this represent?” he moronically exclaims. In the lower image, the hanging panel has been transformed into a sketchy likeness of an abstract painting with something of the style of a Kandinsky painting. The painting wears a scowl drawn onto its right hand side from which a nose and an accusatory pointing arm and finger have knocked our mocking viewer sideways with the retort: “What do you represent?”. Underneath the drawings is the sentence: “A painting is not a simple something or a pretty picture or an arrangement, but a complicated language that you have to learn to read”. While this cartoon is somewhat famous it is less often reproduced alongside its equally important accompanying panel. This second panel turns attention to what we might call “the obligations of the viewer.” The now confused looking man in a hat finds a rope placed around his neck. He is clearly the man from the first panel. The rope is held with a ring enclosing a dollar sign. His eyes are reduced to twin vortexes of confusion and resignation. Around his head are the words: “Rich Man? Poor Man? Beggar? Indian Chief? Progressive? Good Guy? Trade Unionist? Professor? Reactionary? Wise Guy? Money Grubber? Dope?” And underneath is the following sentence. “After you’ve learned how to look at things, and how to think about them, clear up the problem of what you personally represent...”
Self-referentiality in art and related cultural production is structurally critical – meaning it is critical of the structures of art and at the same time it is evidence of critical thinking within the self and in relation to the collective. Self-referentiality
demonstrates self-awareness and consciousness of the relative status of that which has been produced. Humans have always made things that sit in wide gulf between function and organized superstition (various religions) and the “art” that results is something in a constant state of negotiation and reconsideration. Of course, some art is also functional and some art is produced in the service of magic, religion, and various consciousness raising structures and still remains art. The functional or proselytizing potential of art always embodies a substructure of self-conscious
produced for various, often contradictory, reasons. Which is why we are capable of going to a museum which holds paintings of crucifixions, poor people eating dinner, rich aristocrats with heavy eyelids, and blurry pictures of trains steaming across viaducts – and are still able to find some common artness in their varied execution. Crucially overlooked in anxious claims to art’s self-regard is that artists also communicate with and develop new languages in relation to each other – some arequite indifferent to comprehension or excessive management of desire – attempts to corral and control arts content – and this is something that only a repressive society would want to hinder. A lot of contemporary art conforms to the adage, “artness is the whatness of all art” – to succinctly ruin James Joyce’s rather more elegant “Horseness is the whatness of allhorse”.
“Aquinas and his followers distinguished between the essence of a thing (its “quidditas” or its “whatness”) and its existence, a distinction that the artist must bear in mind to reach beauty in the work of art. We should not forget that: “the epiphany was the sudden revelation of the whatness of a thing, the moment in which the soul of the commonest object . . . seems to us radiant.”1
In the summer of 2020 I made an exhibition in Tokyo. Making use of the phrase Horseness is the Whatness of Allhorse as the title of the exhibition, I wrote:
“Joyce brings animal form to an abstract philosophical concept – testing universal claims with the example of a living thing. There is some irony in this gesture for the process also renders the animal as philosophical abstraction. The phrase Horseness is the Whatness of Allhorse is a permanent reminder of the limits and potentials of art in pursuit of the essential “whatness” of an object in relation to the “artness” of the art work. It is a resolutely modern phrase that is embodied (as a horse), made
production values, techniques, effects and affects that
allow us to read across art
comprehensible and rendered absurd at the same time. It is philosophy brought to the racetrack and tested against the reality of the city and the farm.”2
The self-referentiality I write of is not limited to contemporary art or the world that emerged around it. Self-referentiality can be found at every historical phase of human production. It is particularly notable in the making of what we might call the drive to create art, in its broadest sense. In the caves and on the plains, something was produced – often in the presence of others. Think of the process of art in the company of others: the making of marks and the emerging of carved, scratched or painted images as a procedure of unveiling, revealing and sharing in abstract creation. The ancient artist would either produce art to entrance the other, to leave behind a message or produce art as a collectively shared process. To tell stories, to show off and to cleave off the excesses of consciousness, dreams and desires. Processes of play in regard to revealing and emerging are those that take place when we demonstrate the production of an artwork. When we watch an image emerging at the interface of a human and a surface, the process of emergence and that fact bind and unbind the producer and the witness. An ancient wanderer might come across artistic messages in the form of images and signs upon the landscape and read them in a way that is non-linear, but also one that requires a recognition that another human has already passed this way and wants to leave behind a demonstration of skill or ingenious design merely to entertain the other. In a related way, the encounter with an ancient artwork at the moment of production required a recognition that something was about to be produced by another human and within the nuances of that production, one might find moments of recognition and alienation from the producer of the work at the moment of execution. It is this process of simultaneous recognition, estrangement and revelation that provokes a quality of interest in the apparently non-functional artistic production of another human. This does not imply there is no “use” in art. There is a big difference here between function and use. All art has some kind of use value. Even if there are moments when the ability to read across every nuance of an artwork might require an immersion into the points of emergence, reference and lack that are embodied within it. Art is partly about recognition and that can also be powerfully expressed negatively as “I do not understand this thing,” “This thing makes me uncomfortable” or “This thing is making fun of me and my values.”
Nationalistic and neo-fascist structures today are currently fighting a “culture war” against forms of subjective art and cultural assertion that are often inherently self- referential and can require complex reading, including music, literature, and fashion – purely because these threaten the pseudo-universalizing desires of the existing dominant culture in advanced industrialised countries. All complex expressions of creative subjective assertion contain elements of self-referentiality. It is required in order to speak within many layered alienated groups and refine motifs towards the creation of new languages of expression and therefore mount endless challenges against the boredom provoking anti-human quality of approved art forms – which are incapable of expressing the thoughts and ideas of alienated groups. All complex expressions of self-referentiality are against the “transparency” desired by neoliberal political structures. All attempts to quash art forms that are viewed as incoherent and self-referential signal that one is living in a society that requires the establishment of a “them and us” in order for the dominant culture to keep its dominant position. The cartoon by Reinhardt may be by a white man and drawn in the 1940s in the nascent Empire of the United States, but its message, that by reading apparently self- referential forms and attempting to understand them we must also ask who we are, remains a foundational aspect of why we must protect cultural forms even when they make us uncomfortable. This is not the same as alt-right claims for “free speech”. We know that such claims are quite the opposite to what they intend. Free speech pleas are generally invoked to protect the “speech” that seeks to hinder or obscure forms of cultural expression that make the speaker uncomfortable – to shout down and drown out nuance and difference. Claims that free speech is being suppressed proliferate when others develop new languages to describe oppression – and that includes artistic production – and those new languages appear threatening to the established “order”.
All authoritarian governments attempt to introduce the notion that there is a decadent art that is self-obsessed and self-referential – and pitch that against “universal” values of representation that are inherently evading unique, different and new human stories, experiences, techniques and languages. The creation of semi-autonomous worlds of creative habits and codes threatens the oppressive pseudo-universalism of the dominant class. And at the same time summons worrying implications for those who attempt to instrumentalize art and reduce it into a force for “social good”.
So what of those who are anxious to achieve the watchword of advanced bureaucratic liberal political structures – particularly in Europe – accessibility. Let us first deal with the political and technical aspect of this word. Ensuring accessibility in racial, economic and class terms is a never ending task that requires clearly articulated political outcomes. But when we think of accessibility in relation to artistic content – those who worry that art is too self-referential to allow access to its strange codes and reference points, then we have a problem. Those who worry in this regard often believe that art has a potential to change things and it also has the duty to educate and improve humans. No study of art history could be made and result in such assumptions. Neither the reason it was made in the first place nor how it was produced, received or understood. The twentieth century in particular was driven by art that was evasive, petulant, super-subjective, hard to read and often dismissive of the notion of art and artists as good citizens. It is arguable that the first decades of the twenty first century have invoked new demands that artists are indeed good citizens and art does hold the potential to change things. Encountering art is to come face-to-face with a series of questions about who you are in relation to this thing, structure or affect. There are many questions to be asked of the surrounding context, by artists and non-artists alike – who makes the decisions about what is shown where and who can gain access to it – and this is where the focus of attention should be. It is the “art world” as a surrounding structure of administration that often makes over reaching claims about arts potential and the curator or administrator’s unique ability to break down the supposed barrier between art and the poor alienated public. To over-reach art and create an imaginary ethical demand upon it to satisfy the requirements of an increasingly large bureaucratic sphere of administration is as destructive to human self-realization as those who attempt to universalize an approved art that negates all of its self-referentiality in favor of an inoffensive neo- nationalist consensus.
I accept that contemporary art is a matrix of paradox – that’s what makes it interesting and a fractured mirror of our time. In this regard it sits in a strange symbiotic relationship to philosophy and cultural theory. Contemporary art is a product of philosophy and theory and feeds it at the same time. Modern philosophy has always looked at human artistic production as a way to interrogate new forms of human consciousness and desire. But art does not always look at philosophy for the
same reasons. It looks to philosophy and theory in order to find new ways to disrupt or confirm the very structures of thought that it feeds off. Contemporary art is applied philosophy that seeks to find form for questions about reality, existence, and the human potential, and to create languages that account for contradictions and lacks in the theoretical framing of existence. In order to do this, art tends to make reference to other art. Trying to imagine an art that could do otherwise results in an easily dismissible philosophical paradox. This does not mean that all contemporary artists are students of philosophy nor that the ones who are well read even understand or apply philosophy in a logical or effective manner. The two developed together and work off each other with often wonderfully creative or catastrophic results. All contemporary art is rooted in some philosophical aspect that can be described – even if the intention of the artist is to deny that very possibility. And when artists are “good students” they do not necessarily make the most interesting art. Philosophy about aesthetics is sometimes used as a guide for making terrible paintings. Mid- century musings on the culture industry are censoriously twisted into moral frameworks for producing installations in biennales. Neither of these things necessarily advances art or philosophy. There is a productive tension between the art and philosophy. At best, forms of new philosophical reflection and creative acts of art making produce something in the gap of that which is already known and, most importantly, they reflect on what has already been produced and divine new paths. To produce without awareness or reference to that which has already been produced would suggest a sense of delusion that was against other humans. This does not exclude the possibility of deliberately attempting to ignore everything else that had already been produced. That’s the paradox of the contemporary artist.
Nearly ten years ago Dieter Roelstraete quoted Thierry de Duve’s book Kant after Duchamp3 in his essay on a similar theme to this in the art magazine Frieze:
“You descend to Earth. Knowing nothing about it, you are unprejudiced [...] You start observing humans – their customs, their rituals and, above all, their myths – in the hope of deriving a pattern that will make Earth-thought and its underlying social order intelligible. You quickly notice, among other things, that in most human tongues there is a word whose meaning escapes you and whose usage varies considerably among humans, but which, in all their societies, seems to refer to an activity that is either
integrative or compensatory, lying midway between their myths and their sciences. This word is art.” He continues to quote a later passage: “these symbols that humans exchange in the name of art must have [...] the undeniable function of marking one of the thresholds where humans withdraw from their natural condition and where their universe sets itself to signifying”. In other, more elegant words still, art appears to have “no other generality than to signify that meaning is possible”. 4
While Roelstraete develops this into a text against both the proliferation of managed expectations around art and the development of a new form of excessively self- referential art – I would venture to develop some more nuanced implications and add them to his argument. Managed expectations about what art can do are supposedly a way of increasing access to an ever more demanding self-referentiality in art itself. Roelstraete worries about whether artists can be “understood”. This is maybe a “natural” problem for someone like Roelstraete who trained as a philosopher, but a strange one to be concerned about. You never know, an art work that could not be understood might render it useless in the back and forth between the confusion of art and the academic practice of philosophy. Yet to police “understanding” would involve a number of philosophically unobtainable developments, and that I am sure he would agree with. First, it would require knowing a limit to understanding and secondly, it would involve finding the border to misunderstanding. In either case “understanding” would require policing and defining. A better position might be to remove the requirement that public funding for art should include a proviso that it is for the public good via its educational potential and secondly take a much more serious look at the political and economic framing of contemporary art’s expansion – namely the rise of the art fair on one capitalistic extreme and the often overreaching claims of various Biennale foundations where good social work struggles to live up to the desires expressed in the catalogue. Any attempt to otherwise police self-referentiality towards better understanding would deny access to new and potentially uncomfortable voices right at the moment when the political drive exists to engage, not only with new audiences, but more importantly, with new forms of production. Truly creative movements are initially hard to commodify and difficult to instrumentalize at the moment of conception. They also tend to feed off themselves in terms of rapid development of ideas within a small group. It is that moment that should be protected and funded. Conforming definitions of intent, understandability
and a limit to self-referentiality into clear terms of production and reception should be rejected out of hand as they will always affect the least entitled creators the most.
1. Rafael I. García León, Reading Ulysses at a Gallop, in: Papers on Joyce 3, 1997, p. 3-8, 8.
2. Liam Gillick, Introductory text to the exhibition “Horseness is the whatness of allhorse“ (June 5 to July 4, 2020, Taro Nasu Gallery, Tokyo, Japan), see https://www.art-it.asia/en/partners_e/gallery_e/taronasu_e/209616 (retrieved on 12 October 2020).
3. Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp, Cambridge (MA) 1996.
4. Dieter Roelstraete, Echo Chamber. Is today’s art too self-referential?, in: Frieze, Issue 148, June–August 2012), https://www.frieze.com/article/echo-chamber (retrieved on 24 September 2020).