Saying What We See: On the Importance of Art Writing, Iceland and Being Earnest
The process of selecting language to describe visual art is the process of art writing. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it seems just as likely that, had I simply begun talking about “art writing”, it may not have been so obvious what I was talking about. This is both a fact and a greater or lesser problem. I am, indeed, here to address art writing as it is what I have done professionally for the past five years for a partial-living, but I’m also here to discuss art writing as I believe something larger is at stake in our dimming awareness of this process – something that reflects, maybe, a looser grasp on our self-awareness – as individuals and as a culture – and, if that be the case, I would argue that it’s then a fairly significant problem that art writing’s value is not greater in our conscience.
In the iconic and astute 70s BBC documentary, Ways of Seeing, British art critic John Berger asserts, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” In understanding better how we see visual art – and in his case, historical painting – “We will also discover something about ourselves and the situation in which we are living.” I would go further, then, and modify this by suggesting that our method of “understanding” what we see, post-witness, is largely a verbal process. Sure, whatever we observe goes through that very complex mill of retinal and neural processing and cognition – this is all very important – but what is ultimately relayed, discussed and associated with these interior processes is how we describe what see with words.
Let’s think of the Mona Lisa, that familiar stalwart of Renaissance painting. There she is, staring us in the eye with that unwavering smug grin and primly crossed hands, all of Italy receding idyllically behind her as though her calm assurance compelled it to be so. Are you seeing this? Maybe not. Maybe you see a chaste young woman, modestly attempting to muster poise as she sits for her first portrait. Her smile is a combination of eager-to-please and terrified-to-be-seen – terrified that she has not yet understood what elegance looks like, especially as it applies to her facial muscles, yet her facial muscles are in the process of being eternally immortalized. She’s heard that a fake landscape is being filled in as her backdrop, which she finds as a relief – as she’s otherwise sitting in the stifling hovel of an artist’s studio. Are you seeing this? Maybe not.
Da Vinci’s famous portrait is a good and bad example of how words alter what we see. It’s a good example, as I feel confident that most of the global population can call the painting to mind. It’s a bad example as it may be one of the most difficult paintings in art history to see without the obscuring haze of excess verbiage. This is a painting that’s been told to us innumerable times. She is many abstract things – from painterly beauty to painterly Genius to the essence of the Renaissance to the essence of art’s covetousness (how often it’s been shot at or stolen) to the essence of hype. But is she truly any of these things? And can you actually see her, above the crowds and bullet-proof glass at the Louvre? She’s best known now via cyberspace or postcards or vanity mugs or art history books. What we see is, yes, a giant garbage pile of cultural residue, with a smile.
Mona Lisa’s image-less image reminds me of a moment in Don Delillo’s novel White Noise, that describes a similar instance of corrupted seeing:
Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides – pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
”Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said. 
I love this moment. Delillo’s passage is funny and also deeply, confoundingly, familiar. We do, indeed – and perhaps to a disturbing extent – live in an image-saturated culture, and we’ve become very good at understanding what images tell us. So good, in fact, that we often replace the telling with the seeing. Thank you, advertising. Mona Lisa is so familiar to us, because she’s just another Marilyn Monroe: a decorative, pop culture superstar rather than a Renaissance doyenne.
There’s a terrific artwork by Barbara Kruger that features a black-and-white photo of a classical (possibly art deco) female bust. The bust is angular, stoic and gorgeous in the cold, imposing manner of certain beauty. Text blocks are over-lain on the left side of the image – trailing down from top to bottom in single-word file – that state: “Your gaze hits the side of my face.” The text, in typical Kruger Futura font, has a bold, graphic assertiveness. It feels correct, in the way that most ad campaigns feel correct – inevitable and incontrovertible. Coupled with the image, its message feels at once obvious and elusive. What does it mean for someone’s gaze to hit the side of your face? It means you’re not being looked at. It means that only surfaces are being traversed. It means nothing is being penetrated.
Like the Delillo passage and unlike the Mona Lisa, I love Kruger’s artwork too. Leaving the piece’s feminist dimensions to another essay, Kruger’s collage says something about both seeing and saying. We often barely scratch the surface in both dimensions – grazing just past our received notions, our lazy ideas that fill in all the gaps without us doing any work. It’s a kind of perceptual electric blanket, and we plug it in every day.
This is when we return to the importance of art writing. Yes, that sounds vaguely like Oscar Wilde’s the Importance of Being Earnest or Eileen Myles’ play on Wilde’s title, the Importance of Being Iceland. Art writing is both earnest and like Iceland – near and far at once. Should we feel so little agency in how we see the world and, consequently, describe it? Should this primary sense be compromised, like a hoarder’s house, by the stifling excess of received ideas? It seems important (no?) to understand how to look at things clearly and talk about them, clearly.
Here’s the problem: pick up your local daily newspaper. Try to find an article about art. We can find the articles about politics. We can find the articles about our neighborhoods. Sales at the local mall. Our health. Our sports. The weather. The movies. But what about art? In this context, we’re thrust right back to the problem we began with – why even look for it? You’re probably never going to see the featured exhibit. You don’t even know what they talk about, anyway, when you read art reviews. All the other news seems much more important. Plus, there probably aren’t any reviews in the paper, anyway. The newspapers themselves concur that art writing really isn’t necessary.
But what about this problem of seeing? Is seeing useless, obscurantist, elite?
We wonder why we find art and art writing so unnecessary – could it be because we have no guides to understanding it – such as popular journalism, the daily paper?
It’s a vicious cycle. If we kept up with art the way we keep up with baseball, I’d wager that we’d have a finer sense of many things. Perhaps advertising would be less effective. Perhaps we’d have a greater appreciation of beauty – as something more than mere surface, more than diversionary entertainment. And perhaps we’d have less of a desire to consume, rather than simply consider. At the risk of veering into sermonizing, I’ll leave it at that.
So, let’s get back to the words. The Mona Lisa does and does not look like either of my original descriptions (sullen and shy). Those descriptions were narratives – they lent the picture a story that does not exist. What do we actually see? A dim smile, a black dress, hands crossed, a receding landscape in the background, a high forehead in the foreground, with clear skin, a delicate veil, and no discernable eyebrows.
There is integrity in allowing the visual world to remain visual, even in verbal description. Adjectives become swiftly editorial – a smile may be dim or subtle. Eyebrows may be simply fine or delicate, skin opalescent. Certain values are freighted in these word choices – which should you relay to your reader or listener? Which serves the artwork best? The Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa.
Yes, this is a play on Gertrude Stein. This is also not entirely untrue – the Mona Lisa has become simply itself – a symbol of a symbol – over time. Poetry has been long thought the closest verbal analogue for visual art. In poetry words are unpinned from their prosaic meaning and set loose to wander more expansively, evoking modes of music and abstraction that have a way of feeling more accurate than their unpoetic counterparts.
Seeing our world as sensually impoverished, Susan Sontag demanded, in her 1961 essay, “Against Interpretation”: “What is needed is a vocabulary – a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary – for forms. […] Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” 
Poetry does make something happen – it supplies the erotics. It provides the extrasensory data so often otherwise lost in blunt, conventional prose.
Paul Valery suggested that poetry is a “language within a language.” There’s our language – every day speech – and inside that, “the language of poetry.” The poet Kenneth Koch elaborates:
The nature of the language of poetry can be illustrated by the way a nonsensical statement may, simply because of its music, seem to present some kind of truth, or at least to be something, even, in a certain way, to be memorable. For example:
Two and two
Are rather blue.
‘No, no,’ one may say, ‘two and two are four,’ but that is in another language. In this (poetry) language, it’s true that ‘two and two are rather green’ has little or no meaning (or existence), but ‘two and two are rather blue’ does have some. The meanings are of different kinds. […] Repetition and variation of sounds, among other things, make the second version meditative, sad, and memorable, whereas the first has no such music to keep it afloat. The nature of prose, Valery said, is to perish. Poetry lasts because it gives the ambiguous and ever-changing pleasure of being both a statement and a song. 
Poetry, then, provides a necessary degree of verbal recklessness – just as art removes the cage from what we see. As poet John Ashbery put it, “Most reckless things are beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. We would all believe in God if we knew he existed, but would this be much fun?” 
And would we enjoy a work of art if we fully comprehended it? How can we convey art’s recklessness? Poetry offers clues. As Rilke famously observed an exquisitely fragmented classical torso – following its bodily curves, marked by perfect craft – it’s “eyes like ripening fruit,” its “torso … suffused with brilliance as if lit from inside, / like a lamp” to a place where the poet finally observed himself: as a creature profoundly flawed. He abruptly concludes, “You must change your life.”  Close observation brought him there, and, again, poetry made something happen.
But for all of my boosterism for art and art writing and poetry, I must be honest about its marginalized predicament, which is not simply the fault of numbed publics, witless media and uninspired politics. The marginalization of art and art writing is in large part its own fault. It put itself there, by poor stewardship of language and social ethics, shoving itself in a corner with obtuse words, impenetrable in-circles, and a weird love of its own elite. At that, I’d also readily snub my nose and say that at least anyone can enjoy a baseball game. I guess.
So, while I find it important to admit to this, I’m also not entirely convinced. What we see must be rendered at once sharable and mysterious, much like Beauty itself.
In the summer of 2012, New York Times art critic Ken Johnson reflected on the life of the consummate populist artist, LeRoy Neiman, who had recently passed away. I’d like to conclude with portions of his essay that to me embody a great piece of art writing-as-poetic-daily-journalism, and that uses art as a means of telling us a little bit about ourselves. I only hope it conveys to you what it did to me: that art writing implores us to see just a little more clearly, and, as a consequence, navigate the world with that much more ethical lucidity:
When I was in graduate school in the mid-’70s, trying to learn how to paint, a useful, shorthand criticism for a certain kind of creation was, “It looks like a LeRoy Neiman.” A reasonably sophisticated art student knew what that meant, and it was not a compliment. It referred to the splashy, garish, instantly recognizable style of illustration, a formulaic mix of impressionism, expressionism and realism, that Mr. Neiman used to make himself one of the most famous artists in America.
To compare a student’s work to Mr. Neiman’s meant, “You are trying to distract the viewer from noticing your wooden draftsmanship and your ineptitude with matters of form and structure by larding your canvas with loud color and patchy accretions of paint.” Or, “What you are making is all frosting, no cake.”
Mr. Neiman, who died this week at 91, was not an artist whom anyone in what I will here call the serious art world ever cared about. The world that I identified with, and aspired to be a part of, was the one whose orbit included New York Times critics, Artforum and Art in America magazines, institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art and galleries like those lining the streets of Chelsea.
From that exclusive vantage point, Mr. Neiman was the archetypal hack, his immense popularity explicable only by his ambitiously opportunistic personality and his position as Hugh Hefner’s court artist, which gave him monthly visibility to millions in the pages of Playboy. With his ever-present cigar and enormous mustache, he was a cliché of the bon vivant and a bad artist in every way.
I suppose that what Mr. Neiman’s fans found in his painting was a sense of engagement with the kind of subjects regularly proffered by network television: professional sports and its heroes, like Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath. He was, after all, a modern artist, as concerned as any with synergies of form and content. He made infectiously frothy paintings about exciting subjects. But there was nothing in his work to upset the couch potato’s televisual worldview. […]
The serious art world expects, ostensibly at least, that Modern and contemporary art should be in some way critical of mainstream culture, as the avant-garde, from Manet to Pollock, is supposed to have been. Pop Art of the 1960s seemed to view the circus of American mass entertainment and consumerism with a mordantly amused eye. Warhol cranked out portraits of celebrities, but in a way that left you uncertain what he really thought of them. Mr. Neiman’s shamelessly fawning portraiture and uncritical view of big-time athletics left no room for doubt.
But his enthusiastic embrace of the wide world of sports points up by comparison a troubling insularity and crabbed vision in the serious art world. Unlike, say, movies and books that expansively meditate on topics of urgent interest to lots of people and at the same time earn the respect of smart critics — the novels of Richard Ford and the films of Wes Anderson, for example — the contemporary art scene tends to favor either navel-gazing or promotion of certain agendas. The movement known as Institutional Critique, which obsessively parses the system by which art is circulated and consumed and has been, paradoxically, much favored by museum curators, is only the most conspicuous instance of this blinkered view of real, multidimensional life in the world at large.
Mr. Neiman started out in the late 1950s and early ’60s near the cutting edge of cultural change in his association with the swinging yet literate, unapologetically hedonistic lifestyle promoted by Playboy. […]
But Mr. Neiman did not evolve in ensuing decades, and his public profile faded, like that of the magazine he worked for. I suspect that few artists now under 30 have any idea who he was or what he represented.
Mr. Neiman is not the only celebrated artist to be marginalized by the cognoscenti. Walt Disney, Salvador Dalí, Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth all incurred suspicion for the taint of kitsch attached to their work. But it is hard to deny the aesthetic and moral interest of what they did, so they have their high-minded apologists.
Is the serious art world wrong to exclude and disdain Mr. Neiman and his art? I don’t think so. But the artist who could galvanize both popular imagination and mandarin intellect and in so doing expand the serious art world’s spiritual horizons and tell us something true about real life in the real world — that is something to wish for. 
The original version of this piece was delivered as a platform presentation at the St. Louis Ethical Society in June of 2012.
1 Ways of Seeing. Narr. John Berger. BBC, 1972.
2 Delillo, Don. White Noise. Viking: New York, 1985. Print.
3 Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador: New York, 1961. Print.
4 Koch, Kenneth. Making Your Own Days. Scribner: New York, 1998. Print.
5 Ashbery, John, “The Invisible Avant-Garde.” Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987. Ed. David Bergman. Knopff: New York, 1989. Print.
6 Rilke, Rainer Maria. “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. Vintage: New York, 1989. Print.
7 Johnson, Ken. “Achieving Fame Without a Legacy.” The New York Times. Web. 22 June 2012.