Second Thoughts

Jimmie Durham

Maybe it is practical to continue using the term “art” for purposes of talking about art, even if one does not agree with the category “art”?

Just because I want to consider more about art and the “production of knowledge.”

If I begin thinking about what is knowledge, I find that I am thinking within the framework of knowledge about us as humans. And then I begin thinking about the category “humans.” Because as a person with scientific tendencies I do not think we are finished – complete, I mean.

In the first place, we are mammals, primates; evolved from other primates only a short while ago (and only learned to read yesterday). It is reasonable to assume that we will continue to evolve and develop.

A problem is that we like to look at events historically, that is, to take the short view instead of the long, biological view which goes back thousands of years further, and therefore into the future also. Historically, it looks as though we are biologically static instead of developing because history is so short that we all look pretty much the same in its mirror.

Well, we know that “things” change, that change happens continuously; we often complain about it. But we like to act stupid and unthinking. We like to say, for example, “The more things change the more they remain the same” or “People are the same everywhere.”

As a species we make ourselves smarter. This is certainly difficult to observe if one looks only historically. Yet it is especially observable historically if we consider that side of intelligence that the English call “clever.” By this I mean building, engineering and technology in general. Because it is here that we can see that using knowledge and experience to build new knowledge and complexities is a biological human trait, and we also see that we do get smarter (that is, if we see intelligence and the acquisition of knowledge as being connected, and, of course, it is precisely in the area of technology that we are suspicious of knowledge, even to the point of often accusing the technology of being far from intelligence).

Look here, then: the area where intelligence is most easily observable is the area wherein we often think it does not exist. That instead there is only skill and cleverness. So often – and, it seems, with little consistency – we have a complex and subtle working definition of intelligence as having to do with only those areas of human life that are not normally seen as “endeavour.” Our “intellectual” or “artistic” side. Or, to put it another way, the side that has to do with “understanding” and the contemplation of the human condition.

I don’t mean that I agree or disagree with all of that when I now ask so what does Sarat Maharaj mean when he states that making art is the production of knowledge?

I do not like language (but it does not follow that I advocate its disuse or misuse - just the contrary), but I love words. (Please forgive this digression, for some reason we speak as though there were a connection between words and objects. One of the interesting properties of both words and objects is that they repel each other. I often like to combine them in art works by nailing or gluing them together because of the vibration this causes.)

“Art” is a marvellous word, rich and heavy and completely ambiguous. It has an old, old foundation, which is still in use along with all of its newer uses. At base “art” means to make connections, to put together. Even its Germanic cousin, “Kunst”, has this kind of root and can still be used this way.

By this phenomenon it becomes easy for the word “art” to mean the art of poetry, music, architecture, sculpture and painting, so that at the end of the twentieth century we could have, in the “art” part of “art” - that is, in visual art – what Thierry de Duve has termed “art in general.” De Duve means the art mostly developed by Marcel Duchamp, wherein there is no paint, no bronze, no sign of “art”, not even “making.”

The uses of the word “art” to connote skill come late, and we can see how they arrive and how they park incorrectly (usually illegally parked parallel to “artifice” and “artificial”).

For so long in European poetry, poetic devises such as rhyme and meter were so strong that they inadvertently became the definition of the art of poetry. One still hears complaints about contemporary poetry being fake because it does not rely o these devices (or, as a joke I heard in the U.S. has it, “Are those real poems or did you write them yourself?”).

But then along comes the poet Olivier Cadiot. He doesn’t even “write” poems; he finds phrases and puts them together int eh most graceful, minimalist ways. The meaning of “art” in his poetic art is clear. Over the past few years many young artists have bee passing Cadiot’s poems around which is how I found him. It is interesting that artists of different countries take inspiration from poetry.

It traditional poetic devices are not used, and not even one’s “own” words, and poetry is still there, then the “art” of the poem is still true to the basic sense of the word: joining together, connecting.

Except for the urgent crisis created by the monetarism of late capitalism, today is an excellent time to be an artist because an artist can now make art from anything that he or she is capable of making art form. (This is much closer to the “old days” of Europe, before the Christian era, and we can still see this freedom in isolated places where “folk art” is still made.)

Well, we only knew what art was for when it was used in the cathedrals to bolster belief.

I don’t think Maharaj means that art is for the production of knowledge.

Maybe it is practical to look at the “knowledge” in this context.

And to look, just for a moment, at knowledge in the “making” part of art.

This English word is a near cousin to the German work for art, and also the Latin, “cognoscere”. In English and German this “knowing” was about knowing how. I bet that never did mean only physical skill; but for us physical skill and mental skill are too close for comfort.

If, to give the most silly example, one learns the physical skills for driving a car, much ensues: knowledge about cars, speed, social and non-social driving, a kind of self-confidence that can lead to other fields, and much else.

I am belaboring and obfuscating with a purpose in mind. We think we know what we are doing. We think we know what is going on but we don’t.

There is probably a point when all intelligence becomes stupidity.

I’ll leave the field of art for a moment and talk about tools and architecture.

Tools made in Europe in the nineteenth century are so beautiful. There is decoration built in, almost as though it were intrinsic to the tool.

These flourishes (isn’t that a nice word?) do not interfere with the use of the tools. Instead they enhance the use of the tools and make us see the use better, make us love the tool better.

These flourishes and curlicues, this decoration, is kind of like a human biological trait. And it makes us smarter. We gain knowledge and intelligence.

But there is probably a point when all intelligence becomes stupidity. Adolf Loos started a more functional kind of architectural design that took away all the curlicues. (But how could architecture ever be functional unless the “function” has then an objective? What is the function of architecture? If form follows function then the function of chairs is to have backs, as Indians and Japanese understand.)

We can see that the kind of decoration called no decoration also served our intelligence, and that the increase in knowledge does not dissipate when the no-curlicues give way to more complexity.

Now let’s come back to art. During the cathedral days art had a clear job: it was to illustrate. And it could illustrate through either painting or sculpture. Art served Narrative, we might say. That is probably why so many people still want art to mean something expressible in language, and assume it to be “meaningless” if it does not.

Art served Narrative, but artists wanted to serve something else, something like art. Those paintings and statues that we love, which have value and meaning for us, are those in which knowledge is perceived as being not only transmitted but produced. Then it seems like “creation” in our impoverished languages.

By increments, knowledge building upon knowledge, intelligence becoming petrified, just the same as in engineering, situations develop and change. If it were a question of architecture we could say it is a question of styles changing, because architecture always has its petty little function: producing edifices. Or engineering’s function: producing machines. We know about this kind of making and what to expect form it, how to be surprised by it.

It is more difficult for Western people to imagine art. There is a suspicion that it is fake art, that it is a trick. It is not a confession to a crime that the public knew all along that we were committing if I admit that quite a few artists are now making empty gestures. It was always true; most paintings are bad. There are hundreds of thousands more artists now, and there is also this strong monetarism I spoke of earlier, which makes some artists think that money is the proper reward for making art.

Perhaps there are just more phonies in the world now; science is in trouble because of dishonest scientists, and it is harder and harder to find a good doctor.

Our gang in Como were, every single one, very serious-minded about the work in general and about participation in the workshop. That is really remarkable.

Normally even in a group of as few as six or seven there will be one cynic or one creep. We were all very lucky, but I was really lucky. We have decided to remain friends.

Earlier I said that art cannot be taught. Knowledge, however, can be produced, can be drawn out. Much can be learned. It must sound sentimental for me to say that I learned much in Como, but I did.

Anyway, I hope that none us are satisfied with the work we showed. I do not want to comment on what was better or what I like best, but to speak about the strange situation of a workshop. We expected ourselves to produce work from a process that is really about interactive learning, which is already an intense set-up on its own without the added problem of making work for a show. Then there are the constant problems of logistics, how to find and transport the right materials. How to actually make something when there is not enough time. Nothing turns out the way one needs it to. Compromises must be made, and “there are no happy compromises.”

But those are not the reasons why I hope we begin a process of knowing – often, I imagine, not even quite consciously. The effects being affected are profound and long lasting.

That is why we are so lucky to have found ourselves with such mutual sincerely and seriousness.

Jimmie Durham, Charta, 2004

Republished by kind permission of Annie Ratti/Fondazione Antonio Ratti