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art : interview

“Here are some marks, what do they mean?”

Henri Matisse, Studio under the Eaves, oil on canvas, circa 1903.

I don’t write book reviews very often, and I think it may be the case that the only other comparable in length to my review of Todd Cronan’s Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism may have been on Derrida’s Truth in Painting, back in the seventies. I think this is a very important work, for artists as well as art theorists, and I hope it will be widely and carefully read. Cronan is an associate professor of art history at Emory University, and in addition to Against Affective Formalism, he’s written a book about Matisse for Phaidon, and articles on Brecht, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Santayana, Georg Simmel, Paul Scheerbart, Paul Valéry, and Richard Neutra. Brecht and Valéry are especially important to what he has to say, i.e., the political as well as the poetic are simultaneously of concern.

Cronan’s book, in my view, is most important for what he says about Matisse, but its argument also goes far beyond the specifics discussing that particular artist might involve. Cronan has revived the idea of intention, in response—at least in part—to what he shows to be a final, or at least extreme, eruption of what a determined anti-intentionalism can cause. He shows that this has led the most well-known followers of Deleuze—and Deleuze himself, at least in respect to what he has to say directly about art—to see movement and other qualities in Matisse and others to be neither more nor less than an opportunity for missing the point altogether. Philosophers are notorious for skimping on description in order to use what they’ve got to get to what they really care about as quickly as possible, Hegel’s impatience with Kant’s “ratiocination” about the sublime being a notorious example, and T.J. Clark’s lovely description of two paintings by Poussin a monumental and convincing argument against being too eager to take refuge in generalities rather than seeking to fully grasp specifics. This has caused a fuss amongst the eminent about which those who care may have more to say. I am more excited by how, as an alternative to leaving the work as soon as possible, Cronan gives us a thorough treatment of Matisse’s context, large as well as local, and the best approach to what Matisse gets painting to do that I have read. Also, it's by far the best treatment of what difficult art might involve that I’ve seen his generation produce. This is an approach to art—especially but not only to painting—that includes how the work acts in the world. This is how and why it involves Brecht and the political, and questions that follow from, and accompany, those sorts of questions are among the ones that we thought we might pursue here.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Against Affective Formalism makes a case for taking artists’ intentions into account, not in the sense of a simple (actually unattainable) transcription of literal intention, but rather in the sense that works mean something, and are not raw—or at best only partially cooked—material whose meaning is to be found not in the work but in an account of their affect on a sensitive viewer who is interested in chaos à la Deleuze nowadays and sensation too generalized in the past and from the start.

I think you have shown that one difficulty with Matisse’s reception has been a reluctance to grant painting the ability to be complex. The idea that one could make great art by setting off only a very general sense of rhythm, for example, seems to have satisfied generations of art historians and critics. You show that, on the contrary, there’s nothing general about Matisse’s work, and that the opposite is closer to the truth: he was after an almost impossibly precise relationship between the work and its viewer. His work, as you explain in exact detail, involves one in a relationship to how an image is working that takes into account, one may even say develops from, a concern with what to do with feeling. How a painting is a space in which forces come together is, for example, part of the question of how to be sincere when one has models of sincerity that would by definition be hard to overcome but which equally could hardly be any use, being repetitions of something from elsewhere and another time. I discuss it in the review and with it your emphasis on his interest in Bergson’s “pure memories.” Those which leave the body—you may remember learning something, after that what you learned is never a thought alone and unrepeatable like that one. That said, do you think it fair to say that contemporary criticism has generally failed to deal with Matisse because, at least in part, it doesn’t want painting to do what he shows it can do to begin with?

Todd Cronan The book is certainly an effort to redirect attention back to the question of intentionality in art. To say that intentionality in the humanities has been an object of contempt for the past forty years or so would not get it quite right; it’s more like a set of endless victory laps by anti-intentionalists who rarely bother rehearsing the so-called “intentional fallacy”—the one made famous by Wimsatt and Beardsley but actually canonized by French thinkers like Blanchot, Barthes, and Derrida. After many talks I’ve given on the subject, there’s this astonishing way in which eyes and minds glaze over at the sound of the word (something like, “You know Todd, intentionality was finished by my advisors and their advisors, so why are you talking about it, didn’t you hear it died long, long ago?”). But my point is simple, and as you say, it establishes the difference between objects and artworks. Art historians, for instance, don’t deal with “objects,” they deal with artworks—objects that bear intent. I’m largely uninterested in the question of intent as it is conceived by those who require the straw-man version of it: documents, biography, letters, discursive claims about what one means, various smoking guns. All we need, from my perspective, is to recognize how deep the feeling is when we respond to things that we take to be intended (we may, of course, be wrong in that assumption) and our response to things that are not. In terms of what painting can or cannot do, I think Matisse follows Mallarmé’s vision of the difference between description and suggestion. Description is a matter of illustrative detail, and, for Mallarmé, it was identified with the randomness of the newspaper and the empty chatter of journalism, whose words have been drained of their inner meaning. By contrast, suggestion is a highly complex phenomenon that suspends the word between “openness” and “closure”; it is a challenge to the reader to engage in an especially active and attentive way. The kind of experiential encounter Mallarmé and Matisse imagined is one where there is a high degree of openness to the work, but one that is nonetheless highly controlled by the artist. Writing about his infinite “book,” Mallarmé hoped the reader would “take it up from here or there,” and that in “participating” in this way “the book is almost remade by them.” Almost, because, as he writes in the next sentence: “The folds of the book ... invite one to open or close the page, according to the master.” (Barbara Johnson removed the last phrase from her translation of Divagations, a clear example of her point about the reader as producer.) Matisse, like Mallarmé, thought of suggestion as the most powerful technique to communicate his intent; powerful because it made the audience feel like they were crucially involved in the process of making meaning (even if they really were not, or not in the way we think of viewers as creators today). There’s a way in which critics have since at least the 1820s resisted a notion of complexity in art. Many contemporary critics (they are not alone) prefer systems, rules, procedures, and theories that allow them—that require them—not to respond to what they see. Rules and theories are ways not to see what’s there in front of you, that’s the appeal of them, they allow you to bypass the problem of expressive communication by fixing the terms of the exchange between artist, medium, and viewer.

JGR Following from that then, in an exchange with another scholar you have talked about intention requiring that one “risk(s) the public and corrigible claim to understanding what was said.” Could you elaborate on what corrigibility involves? Somewhere in my request is Kant’s dictum that the work of art can’t be beautiful because it’s made by a human, and is therefore determined. This could return one to how weird it is that people with PhDs would think paintings were devoted to the provision of a negative and incoherent image without entertaining the thought that, even or especially if that were true, “intended chaos” is to an extent an oxymoron. But my question has to do with what corrigibility involves in the absence of propositions, which works of art can’t make. I am wondering whether the corrigible and the recognizable are the same thing here, and whether it has to do with noticing what painting is doing by setting its own terms in motion, rather than with recognizing a premise and argument: recognizing fusion of the sort you describe would, perhaps, be the sort of corrigibility that you describe in the response noted here could be publicly asserted and would seem close to what we usually mean by “interpretation” without being that.

TC This is the tricky part, but it’s key. If intentional analysis is not about digging up what an artist said they were doing when they made a work, then how can one talk about correctness or incorrectness at all? I think there are two major modes of failure in the humanities: affective analysis and factual analysis. My book is about the former but my critique should hold for both. The job of the humanities as I see it—this is the bare minimum, but it’s a lot—is to try and understand what someone meant by something. That’s it. Here are some marks, what do they mean? Not what do they mean for me (which is not meaning at all) or what did they mean for their audience—or any audiences—or how does that meaning change over time—those are all fact-based approaches, and they are designed to preserve one’s immunity from dispute. Or rather, disputes become a matter of sorting out sets of data (how did an audience actually respond to a work of art, for instance), data that by its nature seeks to bypass the murky waters of figuring out what someone meant (there is no data for that). There are, of course, debates about facts, but they are at least potentially resolvable in the way interpretative analyses are not.

Against this view of things, I’m interested in interpretation. An interpretation requires one to go out on a limb to say, “This is what I think this means.” But as we all know, interpretations are highly contestable. There’s no getting to the bottom of intent in the way there is with a set of facts (however difficult that might be). Because intent is not like a set of facts to be discovered, it’s a matter of making claims—claims ideally based on long-term experience, but still fragile—about what one thinks someone meant. Once that interpretation is made, it goes out into the world and renders itself available for judgments. Affective analysis avoids the whole question of right or wrong, compelling or unpersuasive, so as to avoid the possibility of exposure to the other (it’s another in the endless sequence of reinventions of skepticism). So even though interpretations are corrigible—they can be right or wrong—they are not corrigible in the way a set of facts can be. I should say I don’t for a minute think that works of art are objects available for some kind of interpretative reduction, or for the extraction of some message which is delivered to a decoding reader. I don’t believe in any of that. Works of art are received largely at the level of feeling—which should be clearly distinguished from affect—feelings which are publicly transmittable through language to others.

JGR On the question of risk as such, I have questions that go in two directions. The first is about painting. There, I wonder if the idea that painting risks only being good painting rings a bell with you. I think of it as the Brice Marden problem, I think it goes to the question of painting having to do something, which in turn raises the question of intentions that are specific rather than general. If one thinks of painting as an instrument rather than a medium, one may say that Matisse found within what it is something that it could do, and that was not to repeat an idea and image of what was known to be good. To turn this into something perhaps more like a question, the other direction in which asking about risk leads me is this. I think we live in a risk-averse art world in some crucial and problematic respects. Conceptual art, for example, at least risks doing nothing with preexisting ideas. I have suggested (in Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime and elsewhere) that the correct term for art that is just a proliferation of discursive propositions is the “banal sublime,” in that it is limitless and full but without any change. Political art, on the other hand, seems immune to criticism, and therefore risk, in the same way that religious art is. It is automatically good because one agrees with it. This means that aesthetic questions are automatically secondary if not irrelevant from the start, and perhaps there is a prescriptive assumption that repeating what has already been said is itself a holy act. In your note about Eisenstein, Brecht, and Hollywood you bring up the idea of “teaching the teachers.” That very thought involved some risk, you could get it wrong and set off the transmission of political error. No one could take that thought seriously now, surely, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about what overtly political art may be said to risk. There are I think some exceptions, Kara Walker’s use of sugar in her sculpture in Brooklyn recently is one because the pervasive smell of sweetness could have misfired, but other than that I wonder if you have any thoughts about what painting on the one hand and overtly political art on the other may be risking.

TC In 1890 Maurice Denis reminded his readers that “a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” And there’s a way of making autonomous but non-binding art that can fulfill that vision without any risk (I take it this is the Marden problem you’re getting at). What could be easier really, than making “good” painting that is about itself? It’s absolutely the case that some form of politics or belief about the world, what T. J. Clark calls “truth,” motivated most of the great art I can think of. Without it, it seems many artists feel lost, or without a properly binding set of problems. That said, we don’t have to take that truth to be binding (think of Yeats’s attitude toward ghosts, Dante’s toward Christianity). What makes a problem properly binding is obviously an enormously complicated question, but it might have to do with having a good sense as to what the world really looks like. So “good” painting and “good” politics (self-congratulatory anti-racism, celebrating diversities) seem a perfect match. Both seem misguided and both meet on the grounds of what you call risk aversion. The humanities today are virtually defined by an emphatic commitment to not making claims about anything that could rise to the level of dispute (that is, non-factual dispute).

I love the idea of the banal sublime, that seems about right (open, ambitious, free from intent). I also agree with your sense of the dangers of political art, but it’s something I think we’re both committed to working out. My friend Walter Benn Michaels aims to describe what he calls a “class aesthetic,” and while he makes his case around artists who seek autonomous forms of perfection (not a bad idea for an artist to pursue), I’m also interested in the kind of politics that flow from artists whose works are in some straightforward sense Marxist. Their being Marxist is not to the point, but rather that the forms of autonomy they seek suggest ways in which what they are not showing (struggling workers, oppressed peoples) is nonetheless gestured toward in a structural way. And by structure I mean capitalist modes of exploitation, which are not only inaccessible through identity (empathy in Brecht’s terms), but are purposefully obscured by identity terms. Brecht’s genius, something he learned from the Russian Constructivists, was to recognize the changing nature of exploitation and to find the most precise tools to express it. Now the right tools are not the tools that the humanities care to provide. The humanities have been for a long time the place where capital finds new ways to dissemble itself. Identity politics and affect politics (they’re the same in some not too complicated sense) are the current tools of dissembling. Brecht got this incredibly right in Round Heads and Pointed Heads when he showed how the exploiters dream of ways to keep people from talking about class. They need no longer dream because we in the humanities do the dreaming for them. The name of the game, as I see it, is to find a way to talk about art and politics that doesn’t fall into either the propaganda trap or the Adornian “mimetic exacerbation” trap (show the world back to itself in some intensified way so as to make that world—the one inhabited by the beholder—visible). What is October if not a set of variations played on the idea of critically “staged” encounters between the centered subject and its putative conditions of production (as though the staging isn’t itself the hallmark of the lamented centered subject)? Further, the process of staging is thought to generate “new,” less hierarchic structures of meaning, what Devin Fore calls a “new visual logics.” But what if neither the subject nor hierarchy is really the problem, and something more like an instance of the problem? How could this be? Because the problem is precisely the replacement of exploitive categories with dominative or recognitive ones based on seeing and being seen. Propaganda is at least coherent, if limited. The Adornian claim—it is canonized at this point—suffers from confusion about the nature of autonomy. I think what Michaels shows, or at least outlines, is a way out of the bind of propaganda and mimesis. The perfect work of art, the autonomous one, passes through the logic of identity (more broadly, the logic of what Poe calls “the affairs of the world”) and by doing so points beyond itself to the kinds of structures that make exploitation possible (which is not a matter of identities) and to maybe the promise of something better than the way we live now, or at least a world with vastly more time to engage and make art than we currently have.

JGR I think that what you have said about Brecht and acting, in the book and elsewhere, is very important for painting’s perhaps most difficult problem. The painting and the actor take over the space of the viewer with whom each shares it first of all by how it, or she or he, is there. In both cases the meeting is between two subjectivities, the actor and the painting is felt to be communicating and, actually, it is the audience which is mute. It may here be worth noting the phenomenological truism that from side to side and up and down is quantifiable, but depth is always perceptual and, in that, speculative. How far one is from the space that is what one sees when one sees the painting is about close and far, not feet and inches. The same is even truer of the distances between things within the image, including marks. The work’s physical presence not only signifies but is the basis of subsequent signification as the viewer continues to be engaged by it. I wonder how this works now. Obviously one can’t do straightforward Brechtian acting without invoking an academy, or paint in a way that’s directly reminiscent of Matisse for the same reason. At the same time, I should think that a self-conscious theater is a resource we should like to continue to have, and perhaps, too, we should be rash to think we can do without an art that can perform the “hesitant nearing” that Heidegger said characterized what happens in a Matisse—the absence of which from contemporary painting is perhaps in part a consequence of painting not doing what it can do, by which I mean, of painters doing no more than what they know to be good, of art historians and others wanting painting only to be, if not historically dead, then certainly only surviving as a conversation piece that makes a good starting point, because one may talk about the eroding of semantic clarity by an image, for conversing about the collapse of meaning. This is why I wonder whether you think there is any usefulness in turning to the thought that both painting and acting are as much like instruments as they are like mediums? As mediums, one is free to fantasize about them being historically redundant—the dead hand of Rodchenko governs much of contemporary art theory—but as acts they elude such simplicity. For example, the ultra not-Rodchenko artist is in my opinion Frank Stella, who has never made a work that didn’t produce pictorial space while being insistent about its objecthood and, in that, about the latter’s limits both perceptually and historically. And it’s Matisse’s precedent—more than anyone else’s—that explains how he does it. I think Stella plays Matisse like a jazz musician redoing a standard—one could take what you say about Matisse and the frame and apply it directly to how Stella makes the work melt into the room, for example. That is why I wonder whether you agree that, if we start with painting rather than with presumptions about its inability to do anything, we might generate more interesting discussions about what’s going on in painting now.

And I’ll accompany that with an anecdote about the political. I think it another thing that links the way that actors and paintings sharing space might be discussed, but it can’t be if painting is shorn of intention. I note that how things are a being, another subjectivity, is always a political question. I recall a Danish woman at an environmental conference telling a reporter that she knew there were right-wing nutters there, she could tell by the way they stood.

TC I gather that the way they stood told her something about the way they were thinking. Intention has a way of making itself known whether we like it or not. This is why, as Stanley Cavell brilliantly shows, we seek out new and unprecedented ways of making ourselves unknown, what traditionally was called skepticism. I like all of what you say about Matisse and Stella, and I think it makes a lot of sense. And, of course, I agree that this now-tired but seemingly compelling story about the “end of” XYZ (fill in your no longer adequately “contemporary” medium) is a dead end. Again, it’s a story about not making oneself open to another by virtue of a set of category claims, or theories to which one can appeal. As you say, it’s a story told by some Russians in the 1920s—I would nominate Gan and Tarabukin, not Rodchenko as its author (which is to say, October got him dead wrong). Also Greenberg in the 1960s and October since the late ’70s, and the story is designed to give some folks elite access to a seemingly obvious set of facts about history as a way to inoculate themselves from the risks of judgment about particular acts of intended meaning. In addition to the long history of theatrical melodramas about “not being able to really know another,” humans also seem to want to make themselves known in a variety of manners, painting being a particularly powerful one, not least in its responsiveness and resistances to the hand and mind. I think the distinction you make—between pictorial space and object space, one Michael Fried centrally describes in his early criticism—is, of course, key because the “instrumentality” you mention has to do with effects that emerge beyond the blunt facticity of the medium. Like Marden’s “good” painting, which you mentioned earlier, what could be easier—all the facts seem to bear this out—than properly acknowledging the materiality of one’s medium. Indexing oneself and one’s setting is about as difficult to achieve as spelling your name right. Materiality, by the way, is a word that should be shelved for the foreseeable future; it’s the word we use to heap praise onto whatever we like—and scorn on those who don’t properly “acknowledge” it—without of course making an actual judgment about the work’s value. Judgment involves something more than fulfilling a set of political, social, historical demands; it is something more akin to fully acknowledging someone else’s humanity, which might entail trying to understand what they mean.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, a BOMB contributing editor, is a painter who also writes about art and related topics, at times working collaboratively on both with Rebecca Norton as Awkward x 2. His essays and books include Beyond Piety (1995)—which contains essays first published in BOMB—and Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (1999). He is currently working on a book about how indetermination is what we called the sublime in the eighteenth century. Gilbert-Rolfe was given the CAA’s Mather Award in 1998 primarily for his “Blankness as a Signifier,” and is a professor in the Graduate Art program at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California.