Transmission, Interpretation, Transgression
Thirty three years ago, the semiotician Umberto Eco wrote:
“A text, once written, no longer has anyone behind it; it has, on the contrary, when it survives, and for as long as it survives, thousands of interpreters ahead of it. Their reading of it generates other texts, which can be paraphrase, commentary, carefree exploitation, translation into other signs, words, images, even music. A text is a procession of signifying forms that are waiting to be filed (and which history, Barthes says, spends its time filling), the results of these “fillings” are always more text. Pierce would have said the interpretations of the first text.”
It should not come as a surprise, if we believe in transmission. How can we not? We live in a culturally modulated, continuously interpreted world. Even the smallest mote is full of the fluff of history – eyes that have seen, and fingers that have touched its intimacies of color, thought, theme. We go backward, and forward – perhaps not to the caves of Chavannes, but in the Western Tradition, at least to the Greeks, even to the Egyptians. We consider the same issues for representation, and we illustrate them. There is a shared set, between, for example, Mozarabic art of the 10th century, and Marvel comic book artists. They are both illustrating the end of days. Somewhat.
Of course, there are plenty of days between a thousand years ago and now, and much changes. Not merely technologically, but that of concept and attention. The illustrators of Beatus’ Book of Revelations wanted to show what would happen when the manuscript’s prophecies became true. They were serious – who wants to linger in torture for the rest of her death? Prayer was a “get out of hell” card for them.
A Marvel Comics artist wants to sell comic books, and doesn’t think that what she’s doing touches on an afterlife. But there’s that inheritance, in which can be placed eminences as distinct as Hogarth, Goya, Kathe Kollwitz, Jeremy Witkin – whoever wants to depict disaster. We share fear’s frisson as a motivating factor for depiction.
Physiology and Theft
There’s also a neurological correlate which colors tradition. We are bound by what we can experience, and cognize. Outside of this is neither art nor science, it is neither accessible nor perceptible – if anything, it is spirit. But in the human realm, inside, we add another layer to the sand castle of artifact, in doing so, we steal from history, ironize, transduce or betray it. We focus on:
· The natural world
· The human figure
· The nativity
· The crucifixion
· Heaven, Hell and their inhabitants
· Abstraction and oddity of all sorts
· Performance and politics
There you have it: all the attention of Western Art, a toolbox of twenty five words. Of what use, then, are museums?
Indeed, what use babies?
They’re here to tell a story! As there are endless babies, just so are there infinite ways to tell the story a story of an enlarging humanity. We can’t tell this if we don’t share a language; the deeper we share it, the more effective our efforts. Although Jordaens rebelled against Rembrandt, while Charles de Boulogne tried to out-Caravaggio Caravaggio, they were all adding a word to the dictionary, providing for us an ever-richer substrate with which to weigh, value, compare and contrast not only “art”ifacts, but the world itself. Just as researchers build on one another, so do artists.
Sort of. If art is “received knowledge,” a basis as sound and as mysterious as gravity, as graceful and as unforgiving, as opposed to the community of scientists, who tend to collaborate, artists just as often leap away in their own efforts. A John Cage or a Joseph Beuys become “weightless” go into orbit, start a new world. The rest of us, mediocrities, remain earthbound, with variations on a theme quite obvious.
But we still often try to murder our predecessors in our attempt to escape this genial prison of tradition. One is caught between an unremitting past and an incandescent future. Nothing is new… in which case depression… or everything is new, and strange, and hence… anxiety! Although today at least in the world of the “Global North,” few who style themselves as artists come from a “workshop,” where masters of authority laid down the law of what’s done and what’s not, we are still … caught.
And we struggle against the capture, some more successfully than others. Popularity plays an outsize role. Due to attentions’ rewards, some “artists” compete for the most bizarre effects or production to titillate a novelty-seeking world. So we have found art, or assemblages, such as Picasso’s bull’s head. We have distortions of scale, as in Claes Oldenburg’s works. We have twists of behavior as initiated by Alan Kaprow and others in the “happenings” movement. Which give rise to a new “tradition”, because we are by nature imitative: the bull’s head births Damien Hirst’s shark and basketball, Oldenburg’s child is Katharina Fritsch, Kaprow, Abramowicz. It never stops. It won’t.
Art, said Picasso, is a lie that makes us realize truth. Hence we continue to lie, through thousands of years, in search of a truth that is individually unique, but somehow, if successful, shared through time, and space. It’s out there, just a breath beyond our breath.
It’s why we have this cocoon, thin membrane of striving, protecting us from a truth that is immediate and more than ourselves, but where we aspire to be. Our past is a record of misunderstood messages from the dead. Our present is an attempt to both absorb, and negate this. Our future, which holds the escape from tradition, can only recede from us, one breath at a time. We are constrained to follow. To follow, then, is to create.
– Owen Brown
Brown has had a successful and diverse career that extends far beyond the arts. Poetry and synesthesia are prominent themes in his abstract paintings, often allowing the viewer to create their own interpretation. Owen has exhibited throughout the country, and his work is a part of collections in the United States and Asia. We had the opportunity to interview Brown last year for Art Force Academy.
You can read more from Brown at his website.