A poem should not mean
Someone, please, tell Bryant the Philosopher King Manqué that he needs to read Ernst Gombrich.
He’s about to deliver a paper, "Towards a Machine-Oriented Aesthetics: On the Power of Art," in which he argues against the idea that art works express something and thus demand a criticism in search of meaning. Rather, art works ARE something and so demand a criticism that “is not so much about the work, as about activating the work as a machine with reference to the present.” I can live with that, sorta’. What bothers me is that he seems to think this conception of art is new or, if not new—for nothing’s ever completely new, is it?—at least it’s such an underappreciated and underdeveloped idea that he need not cite any precedent.
The idea is old, and has been developed with considerable sophistication by Ernst Gombrich in his magisterial study, Art and Illusion (1960). Bryant’s ignorance of this work would be one thing if Gombrich had been an obscurantist provincial scholar laboring in, say, a community college in the Texas hinterlands. Alas, that is not the case. He labored in London, was arguably the most prominent art historian of the 20th Century, was certainly one of the most important theorists, and was noted for the clarity of his writing. A scholar who writes on this topic without mentioning Gombrich might as well write about phenomenology without mentioning Husserl or Heidegger.
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So, what’s Bryant have to say? His paper (which you can download at his post) begins by laying the problem at Plato’s feet. Having done that, he asks, in all innocence, as though it had never been done before (p. 4): “Is it possible to articulate a non-expressivist theory of art?” A bit later he tells us (p. 6):
The first step towards overcoming the erasure of the artwork would be to recognize that a work of art is not simply about something—indeed, many works are not about anything at all – but also is something. In other words, a realist and materialist theory of art would begin with the suspension of the signifying potentials of art and would start with the recognition that works of art are real material beings in their own right... To be a work of art is to be something; an entity, substance, individual, thing, object, or machine. There is no work of art that isn’t materially embodied in some way or other...
This observation is so obvious that I’m almost embarrassed to make it; yet it has, I believe, important implications for how we think about art.
Indeed it does. And, yes, Levi, you should be embarrassed, not for offering the observation, but for believing that there is anything the least bit novel about it, as though no one had considered it in any detail.
Let's look as some passages from Gombrich. Consider Chapter 3: Pygmalion's Power in Art and Illusion. Talking of the Greeks, and against the Platonic and Aristotelian idea of art as imitation (mimesis), Gombrich observes (p. 93) that their mythology “tells of an earlier and more awe-inspiring function of art when the artist did not aim at making a ‘likeness’ but at rivaling creation itself.” And so he recounts the story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who’d fallen in love with a statue he’d made so potent was its materiality. The Pygmalion story is not exactly obscure, having been retold many times in Western history, including a play by George Bernard Shaw early in the 20th century and, still more recently, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, who put it on the Broadway stage as My Fair Lady. On page 99 Gombrich remarks that “making will come before matching, creation before reference.”
Now, consider this passage on pages 101-102:
In recent years this making of dummies and images has become one of the most rewarding tools of the student of animal behavior. Following the thrilling discoveries of Konrad Lorenz about the way animals react to certain inborn cues, the scientist’s laboratory has turned into an artist’s workshop. In a famous series of experiments, N. Tinbergen made dummies of sticklebacks to probe the reactions of the male fish. The naturalistic dummy does not impress it much, unless it is red below, but the caricature with plenty of red arouses violent reaction. Indeed, there are cases when dummies arouse more reaction than the real thing...Tinbergen’s sticklebacks always postured in their aquarium when red mail trucks passed the window at some distance, for to their brains red stands for danger and rivalry.
Thus Gombrich establishes an animal model for how fakes and dummies can have real effects on real nervous systems.
On page 105 Gombrich discusses Rorschach’s (in)famous ink blots:
Rorschach himself stressed that there is only a difference of degree between ordinary perception, the filing of impressions in our mind, and the interpretations due to “projection.” When we are aware of the process of filing we say we “interpret,” where we are not we say “we see.”
From this point of view, there is also a difference of degree rather than of kind between what we call a “representation” and what we call an “object of nature.” To the primitive, the tree trunk or rock which looks like an animal may become a kind of animal.
Gombrich continues on, getting us used to thinking about how representations can act on the mind as things. On page 110—and this will be my last quotation, though I could go on and on—Gombrich asserts “the test of the image is not its lifelikeness but its efficacy within a context of action.” Works of art DO things, they are actants, to use the term Latour took from Greimas.
In the context of Bryant’s heroic ignorance of such a major statement by a major theoretician of art one can only agree with him when he says: “What I want, instead, is theoretical humility.” I suspect though, then when Bryant wrote that he intended “want” to mean desire whereas the proper, the ironic, interpretation is to read it as lack.
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Toward the end of his paper Bryant notes (p. 22):
We can always suggest that the work of Shakespeare was actually a form of science fiction—and in suggesting this, both Shakespeare and science fiction would be changed –but if we are to attempt such a machinic coupling we must make it function.
Easily done. Call it Forbidden Planet.