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Words, Words, Words…
ART TIMES September 2006

TAKING TIME OFF to reflect, to read more deeply into one’s chosen métier, to take stock of one’s opinions and mind-sets, to re-evaluate one’s conclusions on a given topic is, though a luxury to be sure, a necessary corrective — even if such time away from one’s desk leads only to bolster and reaffirm long-held assumptions and beliefs. Art, as we all know, is a pretty slippery item to definitively nail down, once and for all. Many have tried; many have looked the fool. Few are ever absolutely sure of their ground. A piece of time in Europe — exploring the wine caves and chateaux of France’s Val de Loire followed by a stay up in the Alps painting with my friend Heinz Jarczyk — in any event, away from the business of critically assessing art — helped to clear some cobwebs, allowed for a clearer understanding of my particular stance vis-à-vis the current artworld. In our July-August Issue, I had the opportunity to review the Girodet exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and, in setting down my thoughts, was once again led to believe that somewhere along the line we had gone terribly astray in what we have so cavalierly come to accept as “art”. In brief, I argued that in Girodet’s time the making of art was viewed as a high calling, that artists were expected to be not only gifted but literate, and that to be recognized as an “artist” one had to have at least some comprehension of the history, the purposes, and the impact of one’s creations. Today, a would-be artist needs only a venue and a press agent. One might argue that this state of affairs has made art more accessible — less elitist — but I opined in my review of Girodet that one need only take the time to stand in front of and seriously look at, for example, his “Endymion” to see what we’ve lost in the process of indiscriminately tossing out standards. If any- and everything can be called “art”, then the term can have no cogent meaning. Will Barnet once said to me, “One word is worth a thousand pictures,” his reversal of the old maxim meant to illustrate how far the written review has supplanted the need to actually look at art. The simple lesson is that we have learned to depend on words rather than to trust in our own abilities to look at what purports to be art. One need only visit any art museum today and note how many are “looking” at works of art through earphones, listening to what someone is telling them to see. Words. So necessary for a civilized society, but how disastrous to depend upon as indicators of reality. (Need I mention politics and politicians?) In my need to clear my mind during my vacation, I took the time to re-read Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), an early explorer into the then still-nascent field of aesthetics, who touched on the problem of depending on words when looking at art about 250 years ago in his Critical Forests: Fourth Grove. Herder wrote:

“Mother Nature…gave us language, an instrument whereby we can immediately touch the soul of another person, immediately implant in him knowledge that he did not himself discover but that others did on his behalf. In this way language not only made it easier for each person to travel his own arduous and winding path to knowledge and wisdom but also established an eternal bond that unites the human race into one vast whole…So instruction and language contain a great repository of ideas that is at our disposal, that others discovered and expressed for us, and that we learn with a thousand times less effort. But behold! Once this so very estimable aid to the acquisition of knowledge has been secured, there immediately begins a falling off, a decline. Through words we now learn concepts that we had no need to seek out ourselves and that we therefore do not submit to scrutiny; we learn knowledge that we had no need to gather for ourselves and that we therefore snatch up, use, and apply without understanding. And how this debases the human soul! Every new word learned makes it more difficult for the soul to understand the thing to which it refers. Every inherited concept deadens a nerve by which the soul might have discovered it for itself, benumbs our power to understand the concept as inwardly as if we had discovered it for ourselves.

   With all sensuous things, we have the eyes and organs that yet prevent this dulling of the soul; we have the opportunity to acquaint ourselves both with the thing itself and its name at the same time, and therefore not to grasp the sign without the concept of the signified, the husk without the kernel. But with abstract ideas? With invention proper? Here the danger is even greater. How effortlessly…we assume the outcome of a lengthy operation of the human mind, without ourselves running through the operation that originally produced it. Thus we come to corollaries without grasping their inner logic, problems without understanding their solution, maxims without inferring them from their premises, words without knowing the things to which they refer…we learn a whole series of names from books, without discovering them in and with the things themselves, which they are supposed to denominate. We know words and think we know the things that they signify; we embrace the shadow instead of the body that casts it.

   Acolytes of knowledge! And so your soul nods off, its every limb grows heavy when it settles into the habit of relying on the words and inventions of others. The man who invented the word that you learn so casually had an entirely different notion of it than you do: he saw the concept; he desired to express it; he struggled with language, he spoke; necessity drove him to articulate what he saw. How different it is for you who know the concept merely by the word that describes it, you who believe you have the former because you hold the latter and employ it with a partial idea. At that moment you are not bathed in the same inner light as he is; you possess merely an arbitrary coin that you have adopted through convention, whereas he who minted the coin knew its intrinsic value. So do not stir yet from this peaceful slumber; carry on dreaming the words of others without onerously wresting your ideas from reality: sleep. I wish you luck with your petrified and lethargic soul, which will soon turn into naught but a great mouth, with not even a single compartment of the brain remaining with which to think.

   And that is the woeful state in which the entire realm of scholarship finds itself today…*

            Well, you get the idea. Don’t be dazzled by glib talkers or writers. Think about it the next time you hear someone say that standards are passé, that the skill of the draftsman is irrelevant in art, or that art is whatever you want it to be. Think about it the next time you read a review by someone who never held a pencil or a brush or a chisel in hand. Think about it the next time you read a critique of a landscape show by someone whose closest idea of nature is what can be found in Central Park. Think about it the next time you read the punditry of some critic denigrating representational art who never drew a tree, or a person, or a vase of flowers.

            Think about it.

* Selected Writings on Aesthetics: Johann Gottfried Herder (Translated and edited by Gregory Moore). Princeton University Press, NJ. 2006. Pp. 213 ff.