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Destruction of the Sexual Thing

"What is a Picture?" Times Two

Saturday Night Fever, or "What is a Picture?"

Étant Donnés: Le Gaz(e) d'Éclairage

The Rustle of Painting

The Amateur Genius and the Dog

The Newly Renovated Opera House on Gilligan's Island

Watching Things Work

What You Do

"What is a Picture?"

A Cameo

Written/ Spoken/ Drawn


What Is a Picture?


Jan Avgikos

First, a few stories from (where else?) real life. The graduate program in painting at Yale. A young woman, struggling to develop skills as a painter, struggling to find her subject. She knows she wants to paint, but that's as much as she's figured out. Her paintings — schematic figures in primordial landscapes — are highly allegorical but too dependent upon clichés derived from surrealism. Iconography includes a repertoire of large male heads in the clouds, spewing forth misty clouds from which tiny naked figures tumble (á la Michelangelo's Last Judgement), or waterfalls of red from which male figures materialize, sprouting smaller figures from their groins. Female figures lie motionless in eerily empty landscapes, without agency, without identity. Sometimes small figures fly from their abdomens, or their limp bodies ooze into sloshy pools of liquid fleshy color. I don't mean to make it sound too good. On one hand, her paintings are awful and unschooled in the worst sort of way. Clumsy and confused, but not intentionally so. On the other hand, the paintings are incredibly revealing. I was the visiting critic. How to structure my critique? I could discuss the iconography as an image language of the unconscious and phallic desire — one that spoke through this young woman, apart from any design on her part. But the hapless student wouldn't have had the foggiest idea what I was talking about. A literal representation of the master/slave discourse? Was that what her work was about? Well, yes and no. For me — yes. For her — no.
Another story. Sitting as a jurist on a grant panel. My colleagues and I review the work of several artists. Debate begins. We narrow the field of contenders for the award. Discussion centers on the work of one artist whose imagery, for some members of the jury, seems by all appearances to function as straightforward documentary photography, insofar as we accept the conventions of documentary. Others argue whether it is that, or something else (i.e., something more), meaning that the work is conceptual. Argument divides along lines of "This Is a Pipe" versus "This Is Not a Pipe." Our only point of agreement is that as professional viewers we possess sufficient skills to make the work signify consecutively in any number of different, even contradictory, directions. Apply a theory and the work assumes a certain meaning. Shuffle the interpretative deck, and another reading results. Given our acumen in theories of representation we go through the motions, switching from one strategic mode of cognitive perception to another. Either way, it's rather academic. The work is mute and we do all the talking.
What is a picture? The preceding vignettes tell the same story. As we participate in the production of meaning in art, the option to exercise an expanded range of critical discourses overshadows the performative qualities of the work with which we are engaged. Conceptualism of the '60s and early '70s impressed us with the logic of linguistic theory — that is, meaning is less intrinsic to the object than it is contingent upon relations established in the aesthetic situation between the object, the artist, the viewer, and contextual modifiers. Or should I say that some of us have been impressed with this logic. Others remain resistant to theory. Of course, no one engages with art without the auspices of some abiding theoretical point of view. Materialism, essentialism, formalism, conceptualism, aestheticism, contextualism — wars rage at the interpretative front, territories are fiercely defended, and power is often brokered at the expense of art. I employ militaristic metaphors quite intentionally for, from where I sit, the history of 20th-century art is tantamount to a Hundred Years' War, with the '90s emerging as the decade in which various battles could very well take decisive turns.
Battles? Defenses? Territories? So much fuss! What's at stake? We're supposed to have grown beyond the need for a dominant discourse, for totalizing histories, for monolithic models. Right? A Lacanian, a semiotician, a deconstructionist, a Marxist, a feminist, an art historian (classical/revisionist), an aesthetician, an academician, an artist — we might wear several hats at once, but eclecticism hardly guarantees pacific relations between discourses that remain highly specialized, nor does diversity dissolve the potential of conflict. Vested interests remain intact, particularly when defenders of a faith regard their interpretative model as egregiously compromised or grossly contaminated by someone who's talking with a language they don't fully understand. Years ago, as a graduate student in art history pursuing interdisciplinary study, I got grief from a professor in the philosophy department who insisted that art historians were not qualified to philosophize about art because they weren't properly trained in philosophical traditions. Of course, I heard the same in reverse from my professors in the art history department: philosophers lacked the critical apparatus to practice as art historians because they weren't indoctrinated in our discipline. They were all absolutely right.


Insofar as it pertains to debates that have surrounded painting in the last 30 years, the shifting functions and values currently ascribed to that which constitutes the real and that which can be said to be inscribed within representation, can no longer be encompassed by the critical discourses inaugurated at the beginning of the century. Traditional distinctions regulating our understanding of reality and representation fail to acknowledge that nothing of the world appears except through representation. With respect to the "visible and the invisible," phenomenologists for some time have proposed a reconsideration of what might be termed intuition or that which is prior to all reflection, in order to locate the emergence of perception itself. I might construe, in light of directions opened through psychoanalytic discourse, that modes of inquiry once designated as exclusive to conceptual abstraction find far more facility in the agency of symbolic representation to address the formation of subjectivity and the role of intuitive engagements in the perception/construction of reality. What his work offers to view are the veiled meanings that, though occasionally much maligned, have long been inherent to the medium of painting. The interest the subject takes in its own split is bound up with that which determines it; chiefly, a privileged object that has emerged from some primal separation induced by the approach of the real, be that the experience of "I see myself seeing myself," as it is performed by the subject in its own vanishing in the illusion of consciousness, or as symbolically represented within and by painting itself.
That's the end of tonight's story. We stand vigil over the patient who slips deeper and deeper into the underside of consciousness. Perhaps it is that place which we picture in all our pictures but which can never be fully brought to life. And yet, life goes on...


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