Monday, July 11, 2005

The Thin Men

This post is a sort of recantation. When I first read David Sylvester's Looking at Giacometti, I was infuriated. I found Giacometti's sculptures deeply moving, and (as I might have put it at the time) I wanted to know what they say about the human condition. Sylvester, by contrast, takes Giacometti's art to be about art.
Giacometti's peculiarity is to combine rather traditional aims with an untraditional self-consciousness about the limitations of his art. His art is self-regarding, a criticism of art, a laying naked of certain of art's paradoxes, an analysis of the process by which a work of art is achieved [...]
A convenient interpretation for the critic, who gets to write about his favourite subject – what is art? – even while pretending to interpret it. It turns out, in fact, that the work is really about him. Reflexivity can be sophisticated, like irony. But, also like irony, it cannot go "all the way down" without becoming empty. Art criticism about art about the criticism of art? Not what I wanted to read. And so, impatiently, I put the book aside.

I shouldn't have been so quick. For one thing, Sylvester is a gifted describer of painting and scuplture, not just when he deals with technique, but in conjuring an image for discussion. Evocations of affect are followed by explanation. For instance:
Giacometti['s] sculptures seem to carry an aura of atmosphere around them and to expand and contract like a lung [... they] seem to present figures as they are perceived while time passes.

The roughness of the sculpture's surface contributes by having the same sort of effect as loose free brushstrokes which from a few inches away are seen as no more than marks on the canvas. The slenderness contributes, in that the sculpture as an object doesn't get in the way, is insubstantial enough not to fill the field of vision as one gets near, continues to have space around it.
For another thing, Giacometti's painting certainly is about mimesis, among other things, with its construction lines and internal frames – and this applies as well to some of the sculptures, like Suspended Sphere and Cage.

But mainly I was wrong to suspect the idea of reflexivity, or to find it inconsistent with the emotional force of art. Sylvester does not exactly argue for his interpretation, but he does stress Giacometti's constant insistence on likeness and copying, his refusal to be classified as a conceptual artist, and his rejection of themes in his figurative work, other than what people look like. When I first read this, my response was brisk: if we take it literally, it rules out Sylvester's interpretation as much as mine; it is no less "thematic" to make art about art than about loneliness or life. What this overlooks is that, unless she is an idiot savant, every artist says something about the kind of art she is making.

This is a crude formulation: it won't do as it stands. (For instance, it raises difficult questions about intention that I will try to address in a future post.) Nor does it quite confirm Sylvester's view, which regards artistic self-consciousness as "untraditional". My thought is that it is more or less inevitable, and has nothing much to do with modernism or the post-modern, even if they have made it more explicit and sometimes more exclusive. Very roughly, you can't make art without knowing that you are doing so, and thus without expressing your thoughts about what art is and should be.

Giacometti's best sculptures – Man Walking, the busts of his brother Diego – are perfect because their knowledge of art is the same as their knowledge of the human condition. Sylvester comes close to saying just this:
The confrontation [with these figures] seems to say that the reality of the person is only established through his relation to another but that this relation reveals the solitude of each, the untraversable distance between them, recognises that this other is no projection or extension of oneself or creature subject to oneself but a being separate from oneself. In affirming this state of affairs, Giacometti's art defines a situation intolerable for the artist, for any artist wants to take possession and control of all he sees.
Right, exactly – I now think – but not just artists.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Very roughly, you can't make art without knowing that you are doing so, and thus without expressing your thoughts about what art is and should be."

Do you know Gell's theory of art, in which art objects (paintings, sculpture, performances, etc) are interpreted by viewers/recipients as tokens of intentionality?

11:21 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I don't know Gell's theory, I'm afraid. In fact, I haven't read that much about art and intention, in general - hence all the cautions and qualifications!

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Metamaschine said...

Giacometti's art is about individuality bound at a single irreplaceable physis which is the "sein" i.e. unique ground and repository of experience and self consciousness (selbstbewusstsein). In Giacometti's art the faces are both a representation and a genuine expression of his understanding of individuality (see Annette portrait 1962). There are some philosophers like Adorno, Manfred Frank or Benjamin and yes also Hegel who made interesting conceptual efforts to understand this topic: communication and interaction between selbstbewusstseinen (selbst und anderem selbstsein) as bound to this kind of individuality.

10:34 AM  

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