The pleasures of being lost

The attraction of art criticism as a form of writing is that no one agrees on exactly what it is. My own image of the critical landscape resembles an unruly, half-mapped wilderness. A place to get lost in, dotted with alien vistas and odd flora that defy easy naming and classification. Academic writing, by contrast, is as dull as a suburban neighborhood governed by a strict and watchful homeowners’ association. Everything is tightly prescribed, down to the color of your mailbox; there is little room for the singularity of an authorial voice, or for developing much of an individual style, and this near-total repression causes academics’ expressive desires to seep into their texts in strange ways.

Art also poses a unique challenge as a subject. The philosopher and critic Arthur Danto pithily defined artworks as “embodied meanings,” by which he meant, roughly, that they are material things (paint, pixels, thread, clay) that somehow convey or express richly specific thoughts and emotions. At the same time, though, artworks are also obstinate, mute objects. They simply sit there, refusing to respond to pleas, curses, and queries, no matter how fervent. Whatever they mean isn’t anything that they can say.

Criticism is a way of articulating how artworks manage to mean without saying. It’s a practice of translation, an attempt to make sense of these aloof, seductive, sometimes menacing things. A condition of their embodiment is that any and all of their aspects are alive with potential meanings. The fine details of their appearance, the minutest particulars of their construction, the cultural and historical narratives that adhere to them, their placement in the widest possible contexts: all of these encircle the work with a dense halo of signification. It can be exciting, to feel slightly lost and overwhelmed in this way.

A philosopher would be tempted at this point to reach for a theory of meaning or representation that says in the most general terms what it is for an object to stand for some content. There is no shortage of such theories, but in practice they are mostly beside the point. None of them offer much support when you are actually standing in front of a luminous Jeff Wall photograph or entombed within the anechoic steel curves of a monumental Richard Serra sculpture. Theory hovers high in the thin air, rarely descending to participate in these mundane encounters. Any thread that leads you out of the dark terrain of unknowing has to be one laid down yourself.

The unruliness of criticism is a product of the fact that the context of interpretation is potentially unbounded. Anything can be relevant when it comes to speaking about artworks, and there are no stable interpretive theories or hermeneutic codes. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing that critical writing is trying to get right about the work. The primary quality that I aim for when writing about an artwork is aptness. Apt descriptions are those that that adhere to the work so closely that they become suffused with its color, texture, shape, and weight, and that hint at how all of these contribute to its overall significance. There are always many true descriptions of an object, and many ways to denote or point to its qualities, but few of these are apt in the sense of being vivid evocations of what it’s like to see and understand a work in a certain way.

Of course, outside of the most stridently didactic pieces there is little reason to think that the meanings of artworks can be expressed in clear, straightforwardly literal language. Because of this, writing about art is inescapably metaphorical. One function of metaphor is to convey an inarticulable way of seeing, and there is no other way to put the form and content of an artwork into words in a way that preserves the effect of actually confronting it. Description in the fullest possible sense evokes the ripples of perception, thought, and affect that this confrontation produces.

I recognize that the translational aspirations of criticism, pursued seriously, are quixotic if not outright paradoxical. Meaning is always medium-specific, and what is articulated in one form can’t be wholly captured in any other. But this is just to say that criticism is like writing in general: an exercise in discovering the endless ways that language can fail to live up to our hopes for it.

As I practice it, then, criticism aims to make legible both artworks themselves and the character of my own specific encounters with them. Apart from blending description, evaluation, and expression, this sort of writing is also a practice of self-understanding, since discovering how I am moved to assess a work necessarily reveals something about my own ways of seeing the world–and about my own blindness. If all goes well, I end up with more acute sense of how I see things, and why I see them that way. The wild becomes more familiar, but no less lawless and strange.

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