The World is flat

The question was: Why do painters still paint?

For me the reason is clear: because the world is flat. This obvious, though serious fact is not yet common knowledge, but will become clearer as we approach the end of the 20th century. One should however not answer questions about art without evaluating the keywords, and recognizing the assumptions that are implicit in the language used by those who try so hard to push, praise and publish about art. The terms by which the artists are questioned frame the works. It is peculiar that with this supposed variety around (all this difference) in the art world, when we read about it, it is all described in the same way. Either we’re all doing the same thing, or we’re all writing the wrong things. I fear the last is more true than the first. A good artist struggles with the specific. A good text should strive for similar fine distinctions and avoid broad generalizations. Some examples:

It is not the relationship between painting and photography that is the most prominent question today. The fact is that the photographic, not photography as a specific medium but a particular mode of signifying, is affecting all the arts at the moment.

This term is experiencing an extreme identity crisis. After being out of circulation for a while, or mentioned primarily in a negative sense (because of its literariness), it is now thoughtlessly being overused. Everything and anything that is called meaningful is supposedly better than that which is meaningless. Yet that is not necessarily so.
Broodthaers said about his work: ‘It was an attempt to deny, as far as possible, meaning to the word, as well as the image.’ General Idea said of their Miss General Idea Beauty pageant: ‘Glamorous objects open themselves like whores to meaning, answering need with vacancy, wanting to be penetrated by the act of recognition.’1 This ‘act of recognition’ brings me to the other Big Misunderstanding.

I quote from the magazine De Rijksakademie ‘Formalism on the one hand and theatricality on the other can be seen as two extremes of a complementary duo in art: form and representation or form and content.’ This is absolutely not true. One cannot equate representation with content; this is a very popular misconception. Painting (especially) is not a registration of facts or a documentation of information. It is an interpretation. It is forced to be so by its nature. One’s ‘object matter’ is never strictly speaking one’s subject matter. Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler offer a critique of representation as traditionally defined. They collaborated under the collective title A picture is no substitute for anything. This brings us to the core of the matter.

What do we mean when we talk about the content of a work of art? Content is not one thing. Content is a complex network of relationships. The best art essay I’ve read so far is that by Thomas McEvilley.2 He focuses out attention on the following thirteen categories:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

  1. Content that arises from the aspect of the artwork that is understood as representational.
  2. Content arising from verbal supplements supplied by the artist.
  3. Content arising from the genre or medium of the artwork.
  4. Content arising from the material of which the artwork is made.
  5. Content arising from the scale of the artwork.
  6. Content arising from the temporal duration of the artwork.
  7. Content arising from the context of the work.
  8. Content arising from the work’s relationship with art history.
  9. Content that accrues to the work as it progressively reveals its destiny through persisting in time.
  10. Content arising from participation in a specific iconographic tradition.
  11. Content arising directly from the formal properties of the work.
  12. Content arising from attitudal gestures (wit, irony, parody and so on) that may appear as qualifiers of any of the categories already mentioned.
  13. Content rooted in biological or physical responses, or in cognitive awareness of them.

He acknowledges that certain artworks can deny or contradict some of these categories and that the list of contents that arises among the categories could be extended indefinitely.

[1] Revelations from the Doghouse 1968–1984, General Idea.
[2] ‘On the manner of addressing clouds’, Artforum, Summer 1984, p. 61-70.

De aarde is plat | The World is flat. Originally published in Over schilderen | On Painting, De Rijksakademie and De Balie Publishers, Amsterdam, 1990: p.12-13; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, first edition Galerie Paul Andriesse and De Balie Publishers Amsterdam, 1998; and second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.