Tom Gilson

Art That Doesn’t Tell Us What To Think Of It?

Joe Carter linked to this video at First Thoughts:

It’s fascinating how the students react to this. One of them said,

It’s your own interpretation. It’s not telling you what to think of it, it’s what you think of it.

She ended that with a rather embarrassed-looking smile. I can’t help wondering what it mean. It seems as if she thought that was a virtue of this piece, that it was good that it not be telling you what to think of it.

Our culture is unique in all history in that many of us think it is up to us to decide what to think of everything, especially aesthetic and moral matters. (When it comes to being the first to cross a newly constructed bridge, we tend to let engineers tell us what to think of it first.) This student apparently sees Jeff Koons’s display as an emphasized instance of that: each one of us is radically free to choose our own reaction to it.

Or are we? Sure, we can decide what to think of it in the sense of, I like it, it’s interesting, it’s stupid, or I’m bored. What we cannot think of it is that it is beautiful like a Manet painting, or that it is a technical accomplishment on the order of Michelangelo’s David. We cannot think it is about thinking, as we are bound to think of Rodin’s The Thinker. We cannot think that it conveys profundities like Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities or even non-propositional, musical depths such as we would hear in Mahler or Pat Metheny. There are limits: we are not free to think just anything about three basketballs suspended in a fish tank.

Nor can we think the artist’s thoughts after him. The students who tried to draw some meaning out of the display all came up with different explanations, all of which fit equally well. In this case it’s because the artist gave us precious little to go on. Yet it is also (probably intentionally) consistent with one prominent thread of postmodernism, which says “the author is dead:” the reader has no access whatever to the author’s (artist’s) thoughts and intentions, but only to the “construction” the reader herself places upon the work. The influential Roland Barthes essay that birthed that concept includes this:

Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

No doubt it has always been that way.

It seems Barthes would have us believe that his own voice has been destroyed, his entire identity lost in the negative of these words. I find that more than curious. Later he adds,

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases-reason, science, law.

To decipher a hanging trio of basketballs has its obvious challenges; but Barthes calls it futile to claim to decipher a text. There is no “secret” in words, no ultimate meaning. There is none in literature, none in art, none anywhere. It strikes me that the young woman’s assessment of the floating basketballs could be made just the same concerning anything: a light-pole, a mouse, a junkyard, a sunset. None of them tell you what to think of them. The difference with this display is that it stands in an art gallery where one expects to be told something. The silence is louder there.

Barthes takes his analysis in an explicitly “anti-theological” direction. He had to: for no author can be dead in Barthes’ sense if God is alive. God, whose self-revelation is pre-eminently given us in words and in the Word (logos, Jesus Christ, John 1:1), has made it so we can know him and one another through language. The knowledge we gain through language is not complete or perfect, nor is it the only knowledge we have of God or each other, but what we can know in this way we can know truly. God, the original Author, is not dead. The anti-theological world may be full of death, may in fact be nothing but animated death, but God’s world is saturated with fulness of life. Real persons and real relationships with one another can both be found in the language by which we communicate.

The student notices that the basketballs say nothing about themselves. She takes it as a singular fact, an unusual feature worth commenting on. This is because she knows by experience that art usually does have something to say. The artist and the author are not dead. Meaning and communication are not dead.

God is not dead.

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2 thoughts on “Art That Doesn’t Tell Us What To Think Of It?

  1. “It strikes me that the young woman’s assessment of the floating basketballs could be made just the same concerning anything: a light-pole, a mouse, a junkyard, a sunset. None of them tell you what to think of them. The difference with this display is that it stands in an art gallery where one expects to be told something. The silence is louder there.”

    Yes, the silence is louder there. That certainly sums up the emptiness of this display. However, in some sense displays like this may do more for art, art that speaks, art with a voice, art with a point of view than any course or article or book could. Because in the silence of this display we can see what is missing. Because of this we see what art isn’t and thus appreciate what art is.

    It’s not unlike the favor Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have done for religious belief or maybe the current administration in Washington has done for conservativism. Dawkins and Hitchens convincingly demonstrate the vacuity of atheistic thought. President Obama shows us what we have lost and what we stand to lose further down the political path we have travelled.

    That shouldn’t go unappreciated.

  2. Wow. Sometimes three basketballs in a tank are merely three basketballs in a tank. I am really tiring of postmodernism. Doesn’t anyone get tired of not thinking? I see this in kids and adults today. I also see it in my kids’ schooling. Their math books are entitled “discovering” algebra and the like. In every sector, people are deconstructing what the rest of us know to be true. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is known. Nothing can be known, except for our opinions.

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