How To Be A Critic (pt. 1)
There is a moment at the very end of this Vice documentary called True Norwegian Black Metal where the subject of the film, Gaahl of Gorgoroth, says ominously, “I don’t think that you ask me the right questions. I don’t think you’re focusing on what’s being told.”
The interviewer responds, “Guide me.”
Gaahl then proceeds to zone out for three long minutes. His eyes remain open, but his expression becomes blank as a corpse. The filmmaker wisely resists cutting the camera or prompting Gaahl to speak. Instead, we are forced to watch him. At the end of his silent stare his eyes widen dramatically. Without speaking, he shifts his stare to the interviewer and raises his wine glass to his lips.
We await a response. Nothing happens. We await an explanation, a moment of clarity, resolution, some type of understanding. None is revealed.
“Don’t ask what it means or what it refers to,” the artist Eva Hesse famously told viewers, “Don’t ask what the work is. Rather, see what the work does.”
The image of Gaahl’s face as he sits motionless. What does it do?
Hesse’s approach echoes the one described in the introduction of A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Deleuze and Guattari, where they write, “We will never ask what a book means, as signifier or signified; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed, and with what bodies without organs it makes its own convergence.”
The radical proposition made by both Eva Hesse and D & G is that art (including literature) should not be considered a communication between a creator and a viewer; instead, art should be considered an experience between a viewer and the artwork. In this way, there is nothing to interpret, nothing to decipher, nothing to “understand.”
The role of the critic, then, is to describe. What is the work doing? How is the work doing it? What happens to the work when it comes into contact with other works? And so on. Inherent in this approach is the act of participation, which requires the critic to become a part of the work by actively and creativly connecting with it.
Calvin Tomkins, in his preface to Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, says “[I]t’s been my ambition to write about contemporary art not as a critic or a judge, but as a participant.”
To participate with an art object is to engage with its surface, to connect your machinic assemblage to its machinic assemblage, as Deleuze & Guattari would put it. But what is a “machinic assemblage” and how does it relate to our engagement with art, you ask? One example is described by Andreia Machado Oliveira and Felix Rebolledo in their paper, “The Associated Milieu: A Machinic Assemblage between Artwork and Viewer”:
A real heavy paper, to be sure, thick with academic-speak, for which I have a particular fondness truth be told, but don’t let the jargon slow you down. To say it in another way, at least partly, they propose to reconceptualize the role of the viewer. Instead of thinking about the viewer as a separate entity apart from the artwork, they suggest thinking of the interaction between artwork/viewer as a creative act, a combinatory formation that resists “the linear causal chain of perception” in favor of a “succession of percepts and affects where pure sensation is the spontaneous ultimate content as image.”
For an example, we can return to Tomkins who describes his first encounter with Rauschenberg’s “Double Feature,” a painting with various collage elements that includes part of a man’s shirt with a pocket. “Glancing around to make sure no one was watching me,” he writes, “I fished a quarter out of my pocket and slipped it into the pocket of the shirt in the painting.” His act of participation with the artwork is a beautiful example of creative engagement, of identifying what the artwork can do and then connecting with it.
But there are many other ways of connecting with artworks, many other ways of answering the question “what is the artwork doing?”
The image of Gaahl’s face forces me out of my comfort zone by dint of its sheer strangeness. I am accustomed to certain behavioral responses, like if someone asks me a question I respond to it. Because Gaahl goes silent, I cannot tell if he intends this action to be the answer, or if he intends it to display his resistance to answering. Here we see the paltry limits of interpretation. His meaning is occluded. Thankfully, in place of meaning and intention, we have his face. The surface produces quite a range of affect. For one, it creates tension: at any moment he might snap and choke the filmmakers to death, or less violently he could call the interview off like Lil Wayne did that one time. For two, it evokes mystery, confusion.
“Most people fear confusion,” Dennis Cooper so brilliantly points out in his most recent Paris Review interview, “but I think confusion is the truth and I seek it out.”
If confusion is the truth, then Gaahl’s response to the interviewer’s question is as close to truth as one can imagine, because in his three minutes of silence the unknown presents itself with startling acuity.
Looking at Eva Hesse’s “Addendum.” The object is made of papier mâché, wood, and cord. It lives in the Tate Liverpool museum. Accompanying the object is the following display caption:
The hemispheres along the bar of Eva Hesse’s Addendum are positioned at increasing intervals determined by a fixed mathematical series. Many artists used serial systems at this time because they provided a way of composing sculptures without recourse to personal expression. Hesse hung rope cords from each hemisphere which fall to the ground in unpredictable curls. The regulated structure of the bar contrasts with the disordered appearance of the cords. But Hesse recognised that such systems were hardly rational, commenting that ‘Serial art is another way of repeating absurdity’.
So what does it do?
Well, for one thing it calls our attention to space. If you look closely at the top left of the wooden bar you’ll notice the hemispheres are positioned very close together. As your eyes move to the right you’ll notice the compactness eases, space opens up, the distance between one hemisphere and another becomes wider and wider. It is uneven. The farthest left hemisphere has very little space around it, whereas the farthest right hemisphere has a much larger space around it.
For another thing, it creates a tension between orderliness and messiness. The top neatly ordered, the bottom messily arranged. What begins at the top as tidy falls down to the floor and becomes untidy. From clear rule to unruly. From organized to disorganized. Unless, of course, you perceive it from the bottom up, in which case the inverse applies.
Between the top and bottom, the cords make lines on the wall. The lines are uneven. The space between them varies not only according to the spacing of the hemispheres, but also the further down it goes. Notice at the top of the object the cords create straight lines on the wall, but then the lines begin to go wonky the closer they get to the ground. So if you compare the space just below the wooden bar and the space just above the floor, you will see the greatest inconsistency. In the center, the most homogeneity.
By describing what a work of art does, you help other viewers see it through your eyes. You do this not by trying to figure out the artist’s meaning/intention, but by simply paying attention to the work itself. In the words of Gaahl, you focus on what is being told.