Tuesday, July 4, 2017


As a person who has dedicated a great portion of her existence to her own intellect, I am curious about bringing other perspectives and dimensions of experience (beyond intellectual thought) to the realm of art.

Whenever I read contemporary art writers declaring their emotional experience with art, I feel it is “emotion” very much strained through the intellect. Or more to the point: I think art writers use emotional terms to describe intellectual experiences. Case in point (from a 2009 review by Jerry Saltz in New York magazine):

Midway through “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective,” a show I expected to be good but uneven, I found myself stunned. I had just been through several galleries filled with his early work—a painting of a fragmenting Guggenheim Museum, a photo of Kippenberger holding a bomb with the World Trade Center behind him, a brown Ford sprinkled with oat flakes, a mannequin of the artist standing in a corner, and what looks like a self-portrait bearing the title The Mother of Joseph Beuys. Then, in a room packed with The Peter Sculptures, a tremendous installation that looked like a storeroom or a swap meet, I understood. The curators, Ann Goldstein and Ann Temkin, were shutting down the awful academic echo chamber that has tried to turn Kippenberger into one cutout caricature or another: cagey gamesman, aesthetic tinkerer, fun drunk, anti-hero. They let his insurrectionary freedom and radicalism come out.

So here we have an active emotional (and one could argue, physical) term (“I found myself stunned”) being used to qualify an experience of art. But this “stunning” is not literal. It is a hyperbolic use of the term. The true (in my opinion) emotional experience of being stunned is quite different than what Saltz describes (which is really something more akin to having his curiosity piqued). When my mother passed away I was stunned by the news, which I has not anticipated, and I dropped to the ground. That for me is the emotional (and physical) experience of being stunned.

Now, the term “stunning” is misused and hyperbolized constantly. “Her dress was stunning.” I’m not faulting art writers for misusing emotional terms (I’m sure I’ve done it thousands of times myself). I am proposing the idea that the use these emotional terms to describe (or, more likely, to inflate) intellectual experiences does damage to the actual emotional experience of art. Is it possible to have an emotional experience looking at Kippenberger’s work? Yes, I think it is. I personally find deep resonance (both intellectually AND emotionally) with Kippenberger’s work. When I experience it, I feel aesthetic and intellectual curiosity (intellect), I feel a sense of intrigue and charm (intellect/emotion). I feel like I’m experiencing the visual perspective of a richly complex human being (intellect/emotion). Those things, along with the pure sensuous experience of looking at his work (and along with the base-level emotional countenance I had walking into the art venue [i.e., I was having a good day]), have, at times, given me a deep sense of personal joy in the experience of taking in his art (EMOTION). But this tracking and parsing of emotional and intellectual experience is different than simply saying, “I was stunned.” Perhaps Saltz was indeed stunned. I can’t negate his emotional experience if that was indeed the case. I can say that it seems truncated, at best. Ad it reads untrue.

Here’s another example, from a 2012 New Yorker review essay by Peter Schjeldahl (whom I deeply admire):

At Goodman, the sculpture, “6 Standing Glass Panels” (2002/2012), serves as a sentinel for the conundrum of the “strips.” As Richter told me—when, out of mild desperation to know what I was seeing, I reached him by phone at his home, near Cologne—the occasion of the new works was a four-year period of preparing for a retrospective (triumphal, by all accounts) that opened in London last year, travelled to Berlin, and is now at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris. Lacking “the time and quietness” that he needs for painting, he said, he indulged in a mentally relaxing game of chance, which he has documented in a dazzling, text-free book, “Patterns” (Distributed Art Publishers).

So, to be fair, the desperation here is “mild.” This doesn’t bother me quite so much, but it still lurks in my mind as an example of “false emotional syndrome,” which I think infects art writing in general. I’m not saying that Schjeldahl is lying or overinflating. I would say that, as a writer and human being, he’s been in this world for some time. I would find it hard to believe that an encounter with Richter’s work would leave him in such a state. And again, I think he’s using an emotional term to describe an intellectual experience (“mild desperation to know what I was seeing”—he’s talking about an abstract painting that exists in a long line of abstract paintings by Richter). It could have been an emotional experience. It does not ring true to me as such.

What if, when describing the work of a conceptual artist like Christopher Williams, I wrote, “I felt content when I looked at his image of a happy, smiling model with her hair wrapped up in a towel.” With Williams, his work demands that you parse its aesthetic to get to his conceptual agenda. A purely emotional experience of just looking at it would not serve its purpose. Similarly, artwork that conjures an emotional, physical or psychological experience in the person experiencing the work (and I believe a lot of artwork does this, even Williams’) needs true and complex analysis of those experiences. By treating all art experiences as intellectual (yet often using emotional words to describe those experiences) we are neutering art from its deeper ability to affect us.

I would like to propose that we have not yet found a way to actually talk and write about the emotional, physical and psychological experiences we have when experiencing art. I think we use emotional terms as stand-ins for intellectual (not to mention political) experiences—as a way to “grab” the reader. I don’t think it works, and I think it makes a mockery of genuine emotion (which the art world already struggles to genuinely inhabit and express).

So: is it possible to actually write about one’s authentic emotional experience with art? Would anyone care? Is art, in its present tense, so wrapped up in its own intellect that it has cut itself off from its own emotions and physical sensations? Has it become overly rationalist? Has it negated its own humanity? Does that affect how people treat one another in the art world? (spoiler alert: I think it does) Is the emotional, physical and/or psychological perspective valid in art writing? And if so, why aren’t we inhabiting these modalities when writing? (FYI I also need to explore this from a historical perspective, but I have yet to dive into that.)