Finding Our Bearings with Art
Nowadays people believe that scientists exist to instruct them, poets and musicians to delight them. That these have something to teach them does not occur to them.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen
We have come some way from the days when a stone torso fixed a poet and lead him to speak of its gaze, one that saw, even read him head to toe. For many if not most, it is now the reader or viewer or listener that sets the terms of such encounters, attenuated as they are. That is, it is no longer simply beauty that is in the eye of the beholder, but everything there is to say about a work and whatever might be found there. Not that “reader response criticism,” whether based in affect, cultural identity, and/or the neuro-Kantian turn, is the principal variable in this turn away from the sensibility that enabled Rainer Maria Rilke to write “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” But even without exploring the art market and museum culture, one has a firm sense that the basics of aesthetic engagement have changed in our age of digital reproduction.
Permit me an anecdote. I asked my “What is Art?” class: “How often do you listen to music?” “All the time,” I was told, each reporting that he or she listened for at least an hour a day. “But what do you mean by listen,” I asked. “Do you play the music just to listen to it, to follow it, to see where it goes and where it takes you? And then again, maybe a day or two later, listen again, armed with a few anticipations that, if you’re lucky, will cede to more intriguing discoveries? And might all that then ask of you something, something dear?” No. Music accompanied some other activity: studying, working-out, walking to class. For these students, and I do not believe they are unique, though they certainly were talented and a pleasure to engage, music had become ambient, what Brian Eno glosses as “an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.”1
You might be thinking: “you want them (and us), to study artworks, and no doubt beaux arts, fine or high arts, perhaps even that slippery, unstable class of works that Heidegger calls great art.” Not really, particularly with regard to the latter presumption. All kinds of work can sound us out and any historical research into purportedly great works finds traces in technique and content of not-so-great art and the contributions of other cultural domains. To invert Newton’s revision of Salisbury’s image, great works illuminate so much because they stand on the shoulders of many works that were and remain good enough.2
With regard to “study,” much depends upon what that entails. Current trends in academic research are so prone to historicize or psychologize the work of art that even in the hands of scholars it seems that the work of art has gone missing. As I argued in Emerson and Self-Culture, historicism often dissolves works into a sea of causal forces, thus obscuring if not eliding their performative address and what is asked therein.3 Effects to be explained are not addresses requiring a response. A similar elision results from psychological approaches, and irrespective if the psyche is cast in terms of cognitive learning rules, evolved neural ensembles, or general psychic principles—the matter at hand becomes a series of processes that explain why artist X made the art that she or he made, or why interpreter Y responded like he or she did to what only amounts to a field of stimuli. Psychological approaches to works and their impact are thus effects to be explained, and nowhere among their operational definitions and founding tropes will the work of art, vibrantly interpersonal, have any claim upon us.
In what follows, I will sketch a counter discourse, one that assembles, in dialogue with various thinkers, an approach to artworks that does more justice to what can be found when the work of art is given room to gaze back at us, or as I would have it, address us in possibly transformative ways.
I. Solicitous Art
Let us begin by considering a kind of music that we might term peripheral because it is written and performed (or recorded and played back) for our peripheral rather than our focal attention. Ambient music belongs to this loosely affiliated class, but like each of its members (including Tafelmusik and Satie’s musique d’ameublement), it is something of a paradox. As it provides a background for other activities peripheral music simultaneously calls attention to itself, to its purported complementarity, even unobtrusiveness; its telos is a kind of conspicuous innocuousness irrespective of its allure. It is thus not unsurprising that an ensemble like Bang on a Can might score and perform (as well as record) Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. The work, in virtue of being a work (to be played, if only on a turntable or streamed), cannot help but call attention to itself, to how it complements its site. And once that call is audible, the music starts to slide from the ambient into more traditional patterns of musical engagements, that is, we listen to it rather than just hear, to invert Darius Milhaud’s recounting of Satie’s musical furniture. A kind of structural ambiguity haunts ambient music, therefore. It seeks to be unobtrusive but draws us toward how well it does so, thus leading us to listen to it in non-ambient ways.4
Similarly, minimalist sculpture cannot help but present itself even as it moves toward a thing-like presence alongside other things. Tony Smith’s “Die” may try to avoid referring us to anything, preferring to be one thing among many. And its minimal qualities (its cube shape, the presence of steel, rust) may drive the viewer’s gaze back into itself, especially if one expects technical virtuosity lush with the kind of aesthetic properties that action painting hurls our way. (“Just what am I supposed to be seeing,” one might ask.) But in trying to be just a thing, “Die” has a character that distinguishes it from mere things, and its provocative resistance to our expectations draws us back toward it, leading us to wonder what precisely is being resisted and why—the work returns from the realm of thinghood into what is at least a gesture, though probably a good deal more if we read the gesture within its art historical context.
I am beginning with ambient music and minimalist sculpture in order to mark a path to an opening generalization: artworks are solicitous in the sense of earnest and enticing petitions for our attention. This is not to say one couldn’t find some kind of art, perhaps light fixtures, whose bearing does not genuinely merit a descriptor like “solicitous,” though one might appreciate their shape and ornamental details. But such exceptions, should they arise, do not really trouble the view on offer. My goal is not a universal definition of art. Rather, my hope is to provide a workable, even rich key to a wide range of art forms and works, one that will empower and enrich our responses to them. Moreover, regarding works that do not solicit our attention, is seems only polite to leave them be.
While “entice” indicates the ways in which artworks tug at our attention, it equally reminds us that a good number captivate. We see a film and are absorbed. Immersed in scenes, dialogue, and music, attending perhaps to edits and camera angles, we forget most of where we are and what we had done that day, which is why, upon exiting, we are sometimes surprised to find it still light out and the parking lot buzzing. Now, you may object to the passivity connoted by “absorption,” but many commonly describe stories as absorbing—“I just couldn’t put it down”—or report that a play drew them in or that a piece of music carried them along—“that rhythm is infectious,” the pathogenic metaphor underscoring our relative passivity in the onset of tapping and snapping.
Many works do more than absorb us, however; they also engage us, which is one way to hear the sense of “solicit” that involves “disturbance,” though this requires us to hear the Latin sollicitare meaning “to disturb,” built from a term for “whole” (sollus) which is “moved” (ciere). In the grip of artworks, capacities interlock (like gears) and are set into motion. Works of art often stimulate affects, historical knowledge, personal experience, and institutional know-how—in almost literal ways, they move us.
Consider Anselm Kiefer’s Nigredo (1984; fig. 1), which hangs in The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work is vast, 10.8 feet high, 18.2 feet long, and visually stunning. It depicts a ploughed field dotted by bits of post-harvest grain and presumably snow. There also seem to be a few fires, e.g. the red in the lower right corner, and possible wisps of smoke two-thirds of the way up, more or less in the center and descending slightly to the right. Slight traces, but the foreground is so charred that each takes on greater significance.
The title is also arresting—“Nigredo” is a stage of decomposition in alchemical transformation and a stage of despair in Jung’s conception of psychological growth. Standing before it, one cannot help but wonder if this field will renew come spring, particularly since the char seems to be spreading. One spot has broken through just left of center, a bit above the horizontal midpoint. It is as if some fire were continuing to burn beneath the canvas, not only disrupting its illusory dimensionality but threatening to overtake it entirely.
But Nigredo depicts more than tilled earth. At the top left center of the work, one spies a small disc that turns much of the field into a painter’s pallet, particularly since the field’s many rows gather there. What hangs before us is thus not only a ravaged field with an uncertain future. Painting, at a point of inception, also is burning, both as object (this work on canvas) and activity (figured in the palette). Some blackening heat is threatening to consume it from within.
In the context of Kiefer’s other work, the movement between field and palette becomes legible. Several of Kiefer’s works situate painting within the contestations and disasters of history. A series of works painted in 1974, including “Painting,” “Nero Paints,” and “Painting = Burning,” situate an artist’s palette on or above ravaged fields, as if to say that painting both aims to depict such events even as it participates in them.5 This is clearest in “Nero Paints,” where the palette is connected to matches igniting houses in the background and seemingly dripping fire. A similar thought is told by the title “Painting = Burning,” although this time, the field looks as if it had already been burnt. Something along these lines also arises, sans images of fire, in a work on paper from 1974, “Sick Art.”6 This mix of water color, gouache, and ballpoint pen depicts a mountain-lined river or fjord covered in perspective-denying red sores or pustules, suggesting not only that art is sick but also that it can contaminate what it presents, a point lost, I think, if we only think about the title’s echo of “Entartete Kunst,” the Nazi show of 1937, which displayed instances of what those in power took to be “degenerate art.”
Nigredo is not only a painting of catastrophe, however. As an alchemical term, the title raises the question of transformation, as do the traces of gold in the top quarter of the painting, particularly at the top left horizon point. Nigredo thus stages post-War Germanness as an unsettled figure of transition from historical catastrophe toward possible renewal. I would stress “unsettled,” however. Char dominates the painting and it seems to be creeping upwards. Moreover, we have little sense for what the gold actually indicates whereas we can see that the char, should it continue to spread, will end the venture.
If we take Nigredo to mark a site of possible transformation, it becomes more than paint on canvas. What hangs in Philadelphia is history, an event still on its way, an event to which the work contributes as a tenuous reply. Said otherwise, the painting itself is a site of historical contestation, a work asking whether it has resources for anything other than memorials, and venturing what it hopes is an affirmative reply.
I have engaged Nigredo because it offers the kind of experience that artworks excel at facilitating. It integrates an amazing range of materials (e.g. oil, acrylic, shellac, and straw), formal elements (e.g. perspective, landscape painting, and flattening), and thematic offerings (e.g. the word “Nigredo,” figurative gold, straw, fires, and hair, as well the image of a painter’s palette). And in doing so, it activates my knowledge, emotions, ethical sensibility, perceptual powers, and imagination; they are engaged and integrated along the arc of an experience in which I encounter myself called to task. Presuming that the event, which Nigredo confronts, is still on its way, the work’s depictions and exemplification point past themselves toward a matter demanding immediate attention. It thus offers us something other than an art-historical puzzle to be decoded or an exquisite performance to be contemplated. In fact, the painting seems to demand that we locate ourselves in the contestation and respond. Even in the museum, one has the sense that we are party to the fate that Nigredo stages and wages, one that includes but is not limited to the fate of art.
The challenge and force of Kiefer’s work, fierce as it is, is not unique. Josef Brodsky, introducing Aleksander Kushner writes: “Yet I do consider it my duty to warn you that an encounter with poetry in its pure form is pregnant with far reaching consequences, that this volume is not where it will all end for you.”7 Brodsky warns the reader because certain works not only entice and engage but also transform.
One may find Brodsky’s conceit little more than the bravado of poets. But a similar sensibility orients certain philosophers, e.g. Heidegger, who says of Hölderlin: “This poetry demands a metamorphosis in our manner of thinking and experiencing, one regarding the whole of being.”8 Then again, given his lifelong engagement with art, Heidegger’s esteem for poetry may not persuade anyone not already persuaded. But do not forget that Plato also took poetry, at least mimetic poetry, to wield powers of transformation. And that is why he tells Glaucon that “poetry which aims at pleasure and imitation” has no place in a “well-governed city” (Republic, 607c).9 While Socrates’ arguments are manifold, the point I wish to draw from them is only that “the ancient quarrel” arises in Plato’s corpus because artworks do more than provide aisthesis. In fact many artworks meet philosophy en route to the good life. This is why Socrates asks Glaucon to repeat their discussion should the latter meet “those who praise Homer and say that he is the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, and that one should arrange one’s life in accordance with his teachings” (Republic, 606e).10 In short, Socrates interrogates poetry because he is convinced of its transformative power, and with regard to the good life.
I recall the ancient quarrel not only because it supports (by way of authority) my claim that art can be transformative. It also focuses our sense of where those transformations might lead: toward changed lives. And note that Brodsky is in full agreement, albeit with greater esteem for the benefits of poetry. He writes: “A poem, as it were, tells its reader, ‘Be like me.’”11 And in a sweet recollection of Auden, he remarks: “To say the least, every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.”12 At the paper’s close, I will return to Brodsky’s inclusive disjunction (guide for life or yardstick for language), as well as to how one might be like a poem; but for now, my point, shared by Plato and Brodsky, is that when artworks change us, something like a possible path through the world is on offer.
II. Art as Address
In terming artworks “solicitous,” I am claiming that they have a kind of conspicuous, self-indicating presence that merely material things lack. And I have attributed to that presence the power to engage and transform those who respond to their petitions. I am thus committed to distinguishing artworks from what we commonly regard as natural forces; music is not mere wind, painting is more than simple plays of light, and sculpture and dance are something other than outcroppings of earth. Not that material or even elemental occurrences fail to underwrite artworks, but artworks have a character that so-called natural phenomena lack and we need to grasp at least some of that character if we are to understand the phenomenon I’m elaborating.
In accounting for the conspicuous presence of artworks, Heidegger refers us to their “createdness,” and for positive and negative reasons. On the one hand, and not unlike Collingwood, Heidegger desires a conception of artistic creation that directs our attention away from craft-like conceptions of art, which hold that artistic creation synthesizes matter and form by imposing the latter upon the former, like “coffee mug” might be said to organize the working of clay.13 On the positive side, Heidegger presents createdness as a quality of conspicuousness. On this view, and more so than tools and other artifacts (which he believes recede behind the projects they enable), artworks accentuate “that unconcealment of a being has happened here, and that as this happening it happens here for the first time; or, that such a work is at all rather than not” (“The Origin of the Work of Art,” 190).
There is a good deal to discuss but I only want to focus on the positive account. At stake is what one finds indicated by the createdness of artworks, and how those indications should orient us toward works. Heidegger suggests that the createdness of artworks conveys their peculiarly conspicuous presence, as if “createdness” were limited to a sort of “here I am” aspect. But that seems too thin an account. Looking at Nigredo, one wonders how Kiefer was able to burn the canvas in such a measured way, and where he got the idea for such a move within the context of painting. And one also wonders why Kiefer elected to return German painting to representative figures (and particular figures, e.g. the sieg heil salute), when for much of the post-War period up into the late 1960s and early 1970s, abstraction had been the rule. In short, with created phenomena, one begins to look for how and why various choices were made, which one wouldn’t if Nigredo were an outcropping of rock covered in moss and guano, no matter how stunning its shape and hue. “Createdness” is thus the mark of work, of a labor that has brought about what is at all rather than not, and it thereby indicates something more than a kind of conspicuous presence—in the least, anticipated and considered results (conscious and/or unconscious), commitments to some of those possibilities, and an effort to realize them.
Not that createdness only indicates individual decisions and executions. Among created works, one also finds genres and styles, phenomena that carry long and complex histories (as do various techniques and subject matters). And within those histories, and because of them, we also find novel deployments or inventions, that is, precisely the kind of variations that lead us to regard a work (or aspects of a work) as creative. Cubism transforms the still life, Wallace Stevens eschews formal rhyme schemes but still organizes its rhythms around the iambic foot. “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” opens: “The eye’s plain version is a thing apart/ The vulgate of experience. Of this/ A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet–.”14 More than underscoring a kind of conspicuousness (if it even accomplishes that), the createdness of things marks of a scene of inheritance and transformation, and we read it, in part, with a sense that one work is derivative, another clever, and a few startling, even breathtaking, say Bach’s conversion of dance forms on the cello.15
I have argued with Heidegger about createdness for two reasons. First, in carrying with it the choices and histories of technique, genre, etc., createdness evidences what we might term a “world-world” struggle underwriting the work of art (to contrast it with the strife between earth and world that Heidegger highlights in “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” and to underscore a feature of the work of art that his view generally elides). For example, the sheer size of many of Kiefer’s paintings clearly contests the museum spaces in which they are set; each thereby contests a if not the prominent site for contemporary visual art.16 But second, and more to my present point, the createdness of artworks draws them away from the realm of thinghood, as if the were simply material objects with particular qualities that might fascinate us, whether with pleasure or the gut punch of a lyric insight. Instead, it marks them as actions, species of human labor transforming an inherited world, thus inviting us to explore how and why, and in ways that stormy skies or majestic mountains do not.17
If we are to take artworks as kinds of action, what kind are they? After all, any artifact is a human action in a certain sense. I share Heidegger and Collingwood’s sense that we miss the boat if we regard artworks primarily as technical transformations of pre-existing states of affair, if only because muses are fickle and often inspire on their own time and in their own way. But what is this boat, this more? On the one hand, it concerns art’s disclosive power, a work’s ability to expose us to the world and our place therein. (In this, Heidegger and I agree, although I won’t elaborate my sense of this agreement until later.) But that power takes place in a certain kind of action that requires more analysis.
In 1913, Osip Mandelstam claimed: “Without dialogue, lyric poetry cannot exist.”18 He believed this because he took lyric poems to be missives, writing: “although individual poems, such as epistles or dedications, may be addressed to concrete persons, poetry as a whole is always directed towards a more or less distant, unknown [elsewhere he terms it “secret”—JTL] addressee” (73). With Mandelstam on his mind, Paul Celan wrote: “A poem, because it is a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogical, can be a message in a bottle, posted with the—not always strongly hopeful—belief that it can somewhere and sometime wash ashore, on heartland perhaps.”19 Their point, whose scope I am expanding, is that poems have an ineliminable second-person dimension. If so, I would say that artworks—absorbing, engaging, occasionally transformative artworks—are acts of the sort that address another.
In insisting upon the address-like nature of artworks, I am redirecting, to some extent, our attention from the purported self-sufficiency or autonomy of the artwork. I say “redirecting” because I am not denying that the meaning of artworks is dependent, in part, upon interactions among a work’s elements, interactions that are integral to the work of art. In Adorno’s words: “They [artworks] speak by virtue of the communication of everything particular in them.”20 (One won’t genuinely understand a poem, for example, if one looks up each word in the dictionary. Instead, one must consider how the words interact with one another, and appreciate the play of various literary operations within or against a given genre and/or tradition.) But such interactions are initiated and massaged by one and delivered to another, and that is the wider current within which the artwork’s metabolism pulses.
The larger current of communication within which I am setting artworks is quite evident when artworks are explicitly presented, e.g. published, hung, cast and set, etc. But those acts only concretize what is a more intrinsic feature of artworks. Suppose one finds poems stashed in a drawer and reads them; doing say may be invasive, but the lines also enable one’s reading; formally, they are for-another, and even private works have an addressee—the creator at some future date. Let me make my point in another way. Frank Martin wrote his “Mass for Double Choir” between 1922 and 1926 and regarded it as a matter between himself and his god. Was anything structurally added when the piece was performed some forty years later? No. An open-ended, public audience simply assumed the role previously limited to Martin, his god, and anyone to whom he had shown the manuscript. I thus think Mandelstam and Celan’s observations tell us something important about artworks in general—their createdness not only marks a kind of purposiveness, but one that involves a second-person dimension in which a work’s technical executions are situated. Yes, one may wonder whether a work will be well received, even noticed, but such worries are simply further evidence that artworks are addresses.
In stressing the communicative orientation of artworks, my view runs counter to Adorno’s. That Adorno is mistaken when he terms Celan’s work hermetic is evident from Celan’s extension of Mandelstam’s position (Aesthetic Theory, 321). But Adorno is also wrong to claim that artworks fall altogether outside the category of communication (Aesthetic Theory, 109). In his astounding focus upon the integrative labors (and failures) of artworks, Adorno loses sight of how those labors remain structurally oriented toward future interpretants, and irrespective of whether the artist plans to publish the work. Now, one might object that Adorno’s sense of Ausdruck or “expression” does justice to art’s openness to interpretation. On Adorno’s view, each work’s inevitable pursuit of autonomy falls short. Works are not completely windowless monads, therefore, but phenomena that express the fate that each, in its own way, cannot escape, what Adorno glosses as the “suffering countenance of artworks” (Aesthetic Theory, 111). But expression in this sense is that of a symptom from which an observer infers a state of affairs, and a symptom is not addressed to another—it just appears. Artworks, however, do not just appear—they are created and, at least in part, created in order to be engaged by another. Adorno, like Heidegger, is at pains to free the work of art from the idiosyncratic stamp of artists.21 But works can be communicative without reducing their meaning and significance to pre-formed conceptions that just as well could have been presented otherwise. As I aim to show, artworks can remain novel sites of disclosure (even for those who create them), and nevertheless be akin to letters in a bottle.
If my commitment to a term like “communication” leads me to part company with Adorno—at least on this point—it establishes what is possibly a more ambiguous relationship with the work of Michael Fried, for whom the addressee is also a structural facet of artworks. What interests Fried, however, is the kind of relationship that works establish with their addressees, as well as how they do so. Fried distinguishes between two distinct stances (or what I will later term bearings) toward an addressee. One is theatrical, the other, or so it seems to me, is self-possessed (albeit as an existential posture as opposed to an ontological condition of substance-like autonomy). The former proves “incomplete without the experiencing subject, which is what I meant by characterizing such work as theatrical in the pejorative sense of the term.”22 Stances of the latter sort, which Fried aligns with modernism, is “fundamentally antitheatrical in that (to speak only somewhat metaphorically) they took no notice of the beholder, who was left to come to terms with them—to make sense of the relationships they comprised—as best he could” (572). Given the enduring provocativeness of Fried’s distinction, I would like to locate some of its concerns relative to the view I am developing. In order to do so, however, I need to further develop my sense of what taking a stance toward an addressee involves.
III. Art’s Bearings
If artworks are in fact communicative, it seems all the more proper to term them solicitations. They not only entice us to varying degrees (as well as engage and occasionally transform us), but they also address us on behalf of something, that is, they are petitions of a sort (to recall another meaning of “solicit”—to approach with a request or plea). This is not to say, however, that artworks are empty ciphers such that they disappear in their indicating (if any sign in fact does this). Obviously, and as I stressed at the outset, artworks draw attention to themselves. But what transpires in this term “themselves”?
Like Heidegger (and because of Heidegger), I think that various kinds of disclosures take place in the work of art, and that artworks call our attention to them in a solicitous address. Something is at stake in the work of art, something transpires there, and the work draws us toward it. In a way, each work announces, in a gestural way, not unlike a wave, “consider this.” But what is there to consider?
Nigredo, for example, through the interaction of its various elements, evidences painterly possibilities, particularly as it emerged from a context of near-compulsory abstraction. (The charring of the canvas seems a particularly powerful way to flatten the work—thus indicating its thinglyness—but in a way that nevertheless complements the figural drama portrayed and enacted.) But the painting also, in its sheer size and the intensity of its subject matter, discloses the framing presence of museums and, to some degree, the limits of those frames. Nigredo also discloses some of the plights of post-War Germany and the place of art in that history. And it just might disclose a transformative path into and through that history. In calling attention to itself, the painting thus calls attention to what is disclosed therein and thereby, that is, its solicitousness is something of a self-framing gesture, one that demarcates a site where disclosures occur.
Of course, artworks can disclose many things. On the one hand, they disclose art-historical possibilities, i.e. moves, perhaps exquisite moves, that can be made in art forms like painting, or in genres like the romantic comedy, or in harmonics, or in very particular forms like the sonnet or sestina. Artworks also disclose worldly possibilities—the physical and political space of the museum, the wonder of light, the terror of one battle (say, Guernica), or the general horror of war. In Heideggerian terms, such matters mark the “truth of beings,” with the genitive tilted toward beings rather than the event of their truth, though still other disclosures are also possible, ones that try to disclose the event of disclosure itself (or so I have argued elsewhere).23 However, no matter what they disclose, artworks also disclose their how, the manner in which they gather and focus various elements such that art historical or worldly possibilities are disclosed as well. Let me explain by way of Adorno’s conception of form.
According to Adorno, form is the “artifact’s coherence, however self-antagonistic and refracted,” the “objective organization within each artwork of what appears as bindingly eloquent” (Aesthetic Theory, 142-43). It would be a mistake to take form statically, however, as if it were superimposed over matter or filled with content. As if reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, where “form” names the objectified appearance of the bondsman’s “formative activity” (formirende Thun) in the fruit of his or her labor (a sown field, a wooden chair, or a well-swept room), Adorno presents form as the “law of the transfiguration of the existing” which gives to artworks “their objective reflectedness into themselves.”24 In other words, form names a) the operations by which artworks integrate their elements, including genre (should one be in play), and b) the manner through which they confront the world to which they belong and to which they are a response. According to Adorno, one thus finds form at work in every operation that gives the work its determinate character, both by binding elements to one another (via perspective, rhythmic stresses, or symbols, for example), or by transforming the world in which they arise (say by mixing linseed oil and pigments, filling a subway tunnel with guitar chords, or leading a reader to rethink the task of mourning).
While I am compelled by Adorno’s sense and use of “form,” I find the term too ambiguous given its association with particular organizations like the sonata or the sestina. Moreover, I do not wish to forget the eloquence, that is, the disclosures, that form makes possible (and in this I keep a foot in the content-aesthetics that Adorno rejects). I would thus rethink Adorno’s sense of form within a broader term that indicates, solicitously, the labors that organize an artwork’s elements and enable a range of disclosures. To that end, I propose bearing as a marker of an artwork’s purposive comportment in and toward the world whose various relations and dimensions the work engages and discloses. I have chosen this term because at least five of its senses apply to artworks as I understand them.  Artworks have a manner of comportment, a bearing, e.g. bold, reflective, ironic, etc.  They are generative (in the sense of ‘bear fruit’) in that they provide disclosures.  They are purposively oriented and thus have bearings, principally toward an addressee, but also toward some determinate end, e.g. to be beautiful, to please, to rework culture, to witness suffering, etc.  Works of art also make use of the very world that they disclose, which leads me to say that artworks bear, in the sense of carry, extant possibilities, transforming them until they coalesce into a phenomenon that is bindingly eloquent.  Finally, artworks also bear (or fail to bear), in the sense of endure, the world they absorb in order to disclose whatever possibilities they are able to bear. (I think here of works that seems to be undone by the commodity form that pays their way, or the expressive strain a poem acquires when the language of an oppressor is employed to bear witness to crimes perpetrated by that oppressor.)
Recall Nigredo, whose manifold bearing is evident. At its most general level, the work presents us with a painterly alchemy that figures and confronts German history, thereby initiating what it hopes will be a process of melioration. In brief, this alchemy involves: enormous scale, the use and abuse of perspective, clear and powerful thematic elements of European history, the deployment of writing and organic matter, and a kind of symbolic self-scrutiny that gives the work an experimental tone, as if the final fate of what had begun has yet to be determined. But it would be a mistake to only consider the painting’s internal operations, to the degree spatial metaphors succeed in illuminating such interactive phenomena. The painting also includes a variety of postures adopted toward the world in which the artwork unfolds—toward its addresses (Nigredo is sincere, heroic, and demanding), the sites and modes of its presentation (its scale and content render it a gripping presence in a museum), as well as the situations to which it responds (WWII, the Holocaust, the drift of post-War German art into abstraction, and what I have called, in a revision of Heidegger, the empty dimension of presencing). Read as a whole, I would claim, therefore, that Nigredo petitions us to consider how (and to what ends) it engages (as it strives to transform) its art-historical elements, its materials, its thematic motifs, the museum in which it hangs, its addressees, and the history it depicts and embodies. In other words, Nigredo asks us to consider how it inhabits the histories it confronts, perpetuates, and possibly meliorates, a manifold phenomenon I wish to term its “bearing.”
If we return to Fried, I find his distinction between theatricality and what I termed self-possession to name two modalities of a work’s bearing, principally toward its addressees, although the pejorative sense of “theatrical” that Fried exploits suggests that it also names a work’s more general comportment, which is why, in part, I cast its contrast in terms of “self-possession.” What Fried resents about theatricality is how little it offers besides its initial solicitation. Works like Tony Smith’s “Die” demand (or is it command?) one’s attention but the “fulfillment of that demand consists simply in being aware of it,” taking “it” to name the work, given that, when faced by theatrical works, the “beholder knows himself to stand in an indeterminate, open-ended—and unexacting—relation as subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor.”25 The work is incomplete without the subject, therefore, because its occurrence, as art, is simply designed to catch the notice of an addressee, and to offer nothing else. Think of Cage’s 4’33”. Its meaning lives and dies with the attention it convenes but does not then engage or absorb.
Now, I do not believe that any work can evaporate in its own solicitous address, leaving behind nothing but its objectivity. As Fried himself observes, the closer one approximates that goal, the closer one approaches non-art, moving from music to an insistent hum, for example, or from painting to a pulsing light (the examples are mine). But as I noted at the outset, the very effort to achieve objecthood—or anything for that matter, say a “situation”—dooms the project at the outset. Moreover, as Danto’s work shows, when works approach objecthood they don’t prove mute but become conceptual, and they cannot help but do so, I would add, given the horizon against which they aim to prove legible, even in their evanescence. (The history they bear forces them, as it were, into a point—“here too is art.”) But I take it that what really draws Fried’s ire is the thought that theatrical objecthood should stand as the end toward which artworks bear. And not just because such programs leave us with wind in dry grass. Rather, something is lost, namely, the meaning made by works that take “no notice of the beholder.”
In “Art and Objecthood,” Fried says of Anthony Caro’s sculpture, repeating the remark almost forty years later: “It is as though Caro’s sculptures essentialize meaningfulness as such—as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes his sculpture possible” (“Art and Objecthood,” 162). This is a remarkable claim, and I think we need to hear the italicized “alone” two times.  The possibility of meaning what we say and do is the sole condition for the possibility of Caro’s sculptures qua art (otherwise they would be lost to objecthood, which is nonmeaning).  The possibility of meaning what we say and do is something done alone. It seems, therefore, that theatricality and self-possession exist on a continuum according to Fried: to reject objecthood (or what he also calls “literality”), is to move toward self-possession while the pursuit of self-possession tries to negate (Fried says “defeat, or allay”) objecthood (162). Caro’s work accomplishes the latter according to Fried through the dynamic interaction of its elements, which presumably have no need of the beholder in order to mean what they mean, although the beholder is, I presume, invited to contemplate how the work’s “individual elements bestow significance on one another precisely by virtue of their juxtaposition” (161).
I too am impatient when addressed by works that bear toward objecthood as their end. (I might say: I find them unbearable.) On the one hand, they solicit our attention but often disclose very little of interest, say pleasure, insight, or a mode of comportment that we might make our own. To the degree they become conceptual, however (which is not the same as becoming an object), I think they offer us conundrums worth the time it takes to think through how a Brillo Box might come to stand as a work of art, or how, as with Brian Eno’s generative music, patterns of order emerge out of a mixture of intentional arrangements, accidental collisions, and the attentive efforts of the listener.
I presume I’m more interested in these conceptual disclosures because I’m not all that exercised by works that seem “incomplete without the experiencing subject.” I suppose it all depends on what is being asked of me and how much the work brings to the venture. Works that seem empty apart from the flick of their solicitation do vex me. But if I am invited into a work that includes my own activity in the event it depicts and exemplifies—as I am with Nigredo—I am happy to receive and accept it, and without any sense that the work thereby retracts into objecthood. I say this because works like Nigredo, as no object could, ask me to think through whether the forces that animated Nazism still burn in paintings, and, if so, what that requires of me. Not that they trigger this process in me, as if my doing so were a perlocutionary effect of the request. Rather, in order to fully understand Nigredo, I need to realize that a request for that kind of work is part of its solicitous address. Now, I might refuse such a request, that is walk away from the painting and into another gallery, or think instead of Kiefer’s childhood, but in those instances, I would fail to fully grasp what transpires in a painting like Nigredo. It would be as if I admired the font of a letter but never thought to answer it.
Returning to Eno’s generative music, one encounters programmed parameters for the production of sounds (wisps of melody, rhythmic miniatures) that nevertheless allow the results to develop in shifting and unintended ways. Listening to such works (“Discrete Music” and “Music for Airports”), I find myself solicited by a work that bears, in the sense of discloses, the complexity of its own occurrence, one involving a dynamic matrix of objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity (and the site wherever they compear, as Jean-Luc Nacy would have it). And at that point, I find myself at the limits of self-consciousness, folds of sense where self-consciousness both ends and begins. And that, I would argue, bears meaning in its most originary registers.26 But such works cannot accomplish this unless I play along, that is, track my own tracking of the shifting patterns. And requiring that of me does not render them objects because, again, no object can make such a request of me.
With regard to works whose chief end seems to lie with allaying objecthood, I recognize in them a possible and intriguing bearing, even a profound one insofar as it dramatizes how agents try to inherit the world through terms of their own making. To recall a line of thought from Thoreau, which marks the cornerstone of Cavell’s reading of Walden (and of his general approach to Emerson), if theatrical works bear the language of their mother tongue immaturely, unconsciously (and thereby prove “literal”), self-possessed works have taken that mother tongue and deliberately authored a father tongue, word by word, beam by beam.27 And in doing so, they do prove to be something like images of semiotic individualism or what I have been calling self-possession.28 But I do not believe that such works “essentialize meaningfulness as such,” at least insofar as I understand that claim. Self-possession is something toward which an artwork might bear, and in so doing, that is, in dramatizing that pursuit, the work might become an image of the dream of human self-constitution, or even of divine creation given how Fried seems to set Caro’s work in a nunc stans. But as Adorno rightly insists, such images are only semblances of such a state, that is, they gesture toward it without actualizing it, burdened (and enabled) as they are by all they bear, allay as they might that entanglement. More strictly, then, such works disclose that dream’s impossibility. And while that is another matter worth thinking through, one a work might give us to consider, it is not the only matter on which artworks bear, as I now aim to show. 29
IV. Art and Purpose
I regard artworks as solicitous in order to do justice to the ways in which they entice and petition us with a possibly transformative, communicative address, one that calls attention to their manifold bearings. A work’s petition is not without a certain quasi-normative confidence, however, both in terms of what it presents and how. In a passage that did not find a place in the penultimate draft of Aesthetic Theory (which is the only draft we have), Adorno writes: “Every work says, like a mime, ‘I’m good, no?’” (Aesthetic Theory, 392). A comedy that isn’t funny or a poem lost in clichés intrinsically disappoints, much like an invitation to a dinner that is never served—something has been promised but not delivered. Said more carefully, solicitous artworks create the legitimate expectation that they will provide something of value, something “good” within their field of operations. But how are such fields demarcated?
One might suppose the matter rests with successfully instancing a type—landscape portrait, novel, romantic comedy, pure punk, etc. I find this on point but narrow, and in two ways. Numerous artworks, and those we often most esteem, are presented as contributions to the wider work of humanist culture, namely, navigating mortal life with maps that do not defer to the letter of revealed truth. Works like Melville’s Moby Dick, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Emily Dickinson’s poems all instance art-historical types, but they do so in order to respond to broader issues, namely, the chaos of nature and unbounded capital accumulation, the fierce, sometimes solitary work of enlightenment freedom, and the abysses that mortality repeatedly opens.30 In other words, artworks bear (as in carry) art historical types because those works are bearing toward ends that such types help them realize. If we take artworks to say “I’m good, no?,” we should hold our reply until we have a fuller sense of their bearings.
Of course, with regard to ends, artworks move in various ways. At least three come rather quickly to mind. In conclusion, I would like to mark them, if only to concretize my admittedly general invocation of the normative. To that end, and recalling that a work is solicitous, I have come to think of artworks as offering invitations that highlight the general end that gives them their bearings, for example, “appreciate this,” “acknowledge this,” and “be like me.” (N.B. I do not consider these ends to be exclusive nor do I take the list to be exhaustive.)
In calling attention to themselves, to their bearings, some works expect us to appreciate, to take pleasure in, some range of what they disclose. The mime expects us to applaud the precision of his or her mute but nevertheless legible gestures. The math rock quartet expects us to be awed by their ability to play in complex and unusual time signatures, at times furiously, at times approaching silence. And as heady as Wallace Stevens’ poems can be, their plain music is a delight and it is offered as such.
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.31
Not all works wish simply to be enjoyed, however, though I presume most do to some degree. But other artworks purport to bear insights that seek understanding and acknowledgement. Poetries of witness, for example, track and mark historical violence and injustices, and they present them as such, that is, not simply as events but as evils. What they solicit from us is thus not merely our attention, but our acknowledgement that the events portrayed should not go unmarked and unresisted. When Carolyn Forché recounts her dinner with the Salvadorian Colonel, our rapt attention should not give way to delight but acknowledge the horror, the moral horror unfolding.
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid.33
Beautiful lines can be found here. “The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.” But the various juxtapositions (the rack of lamb, broken bottles embedded in the walls) also present an awful scene, one I am led to elaborate as follows. This regime does not need to keep its violence at arms length, say in a prison, some torture bunker, or a rural camp—rather, hearse and home are one. And that union is evil, and we are told as much and expected to concur. Nor is this another world—that of a monster unconnected to its northern neighbors. A presumably American cop show is part of the evening’s entertainment, indicating both a spatial and cultural proximity to U.S. readers who are thereby asked to acknowledge what lies to their reachable, confrontable south. And when the poem goes on to recall the bag of dried, human ears that the colonel spilled upon the table, setting one into a glass of water (“It came alive there”), we also are asked to attend to the silent suffering of those who no doubt lost far more than their ears.
He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.33
My final class of solicitations takes us back to Josef Brodsky and two lines already quoted. “A poem, as it were, tells its reader, ‘Be like me.’” And: “To say the least, every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.” Some artworks—I think Nigredo is one, Caro’s sculptures may be others—call our attention to the full range of their bearings, presenting them as valid, even good paths, praiseworthy paths, through the world they engage, disclose, and work to transform. In a modest way, and following after the latter half of Brodsky’s disjunct, some poems offer themselves as “yardsticks for the language.” More concretely, they call our attention to how they inhabit language, resisting, for example, the clichés of the market, tradition, and the state, and replacing that numbing chorus with acute, singular articulations that not only resist assimilation but also require us to actively work our way into what is therein indicated. In short, we find in a poem (or corpus) a “way to be” that it exemplifies (and which it solicits from its readers), perhaps one inimical to totalitarianism.34
If I think of Nigredo, I also hear “be like me,” and again, through exemplification. I hear: live in a manner that is bindingly eloquent as you confront your history in all its violence, marking with particular care your entanglements therein. I hear: do not accept the scene of your appearance on habitual terms—museum, classroom, or conference. I also hear: don’t fuck around, that is, put positively, pursue your tasks with an intensity, perhaps even a fire capable of transforming whatever (and whoever) you encounter. But do so experimentally, which is to say, unsure of and alert to unpalatable consequences and emergent possibilities. Not that Nigredo says such things in any direct way. But its bearings radiate an ethos such that should we meet Glaucon somewhere along the road we might continue the ancient quarrel on behalf of poetry (and art more generally), if on altered terms.
Not that everything Nigredo offers is “good.” But then, I do not have to accept that it is. In being solicited to attend to all that the painting bears, and in the context of a normative horizon that the claim “be like me” (or, “I’m good, no?”) opens, I also am invited to critically assess that bearing. And when I do, I find that Kiefer’s attraction to alchemical melioration ideologically valorizes the work of art at the expense of social and political reform, and its palpable sense of the artist as hero remains bound to the figure of the charismatic leader whose will and vision might redeem a fallen past.35 But what it offers on the whole is profound, and I would be equal to the occasion, even in my refusals.
There is more to say, of course, e.g. concerning how and on what basis I take up invitations like “dig this,” “acknowledge this,” and “be like me.”36 But there always is and always will be more to say. But whatever is said is always said in a certain direction, and so I hope, at least with regard to artworks, that I have helped us find our bearings by uncovering, in part, art’s own.