I’ve come to the conclusion over time that if an author can’t make their ideas accessible to an intelligent general audience, they are most likely full of shit.
I’m in the middle of writing an article about a certain legendary essay in art criticism. When I tackle these essays, the most difficult part is never the complexity of the content itself, but rather just breaking through the surface excess verbiage to figure out what the hell the author is trying to get at. If you’ve read the seminal articles of Rosalind Krauss or Roland Barthes, you know what I’m talking about. The hardest part is just reading it. Krauss, for example, employs graphs to illustrate arguments which, as far as I can tell, are ultimately bogus [and which I refute here].
Just look at the following Krauss graph a bit. At very first it seems like it might make sense, but then once you start following the arrows, and start processing the outer dotted diamond, it becomes anything but a visual aid, and is revealed as so much self-reflexive twaddle. it doesn’t reveal reality, it is a superimposition upon it.
But if it’s not immediately apparent what she’s saying about sculpture, landscape, and architecture, she gives us clues on how to approach her diagram:
The expansion to which I am referring is called a Klein group when employed mathematically and has various other designations, among them the Piaget group, when used by structuralists involved in mapping operations within the human sciences.* By means of this logical expansion a set of binaries is transformed into a quaternary field which both mirrors the original opposition and at the same time opens it. It becomes a logically expanded field which looks like this:
Got it. Just needed to set my coordinates on the quaternary field opening and mirroring the original opposition. Just keep in mind that the Piaget group is a designation, and it all becomes clear.
It’s as convincing as when someone elaborates a pentagram and expects that it is somehow, because it works geometrically on paper, an accurate representation of what happens in reality.
Here’s another snippet of Krauss:
And, with an act of repetition or replication as the “original” occasion of its usage within the experience of a given artist, the extended life of the grid in the unfolding progression of his work will be one of still more repetition, as the artist engages in repeated acts of self-imitation.
Hot damn, I think the grid artist is going to make more grids, but the second one can’t possibly be completely original, because he already made at least one which was similar. Holy fucking mind blown!
When I want to dissect an article, and share my analysis, I have to put the highfalutin text into layman’s terms just so that I, and my reader’s can understand it. This is often remarkably difficult, because the meaning unravels when it’s shorn of its elaborate linguistic plumage. The arguments are frequently just a sophisticated game of strategic word-play, and not anchored to reality. Not surprisingly, the critics and philosophers who believe that language structures reality, and is not, as I’d have it, a mere projection upon reality (which is much more vast), are the most prone to equating manipulating language with manipulating reality. An argument can make sense, sort of, in a rarefied way, and be textually plausible, even if it’s realistically impossible. Text and reality are not synonymous, no matter how fervently some philosophers claim otherwise.
[Side-note: visual language has, ironically, recently been subordinated by linguistics in the field of visual art. Instead of visual language being an alternative form of communication, expressing what can uniquely be conveyed in non-verbal, visual communication, it is frequently used as a mere mute prop for thought in words and sentences. A picture is no-longer worth a thousand words, it’s a vehicle for a one-liner. Artists have very little say in the art discourse, unless they buy into the linguistic takeover, in which case you have visual artists spouting about things like semiotics, and not about things like color. A conspicuous symptom of this is that much visual art today gives us nothing to look at, which is as desirable as music giving us nothing to listen to.]
I started to read a new article today, by Peter Osborne, which someone had recommended. This is the sentence that made me stop in my tracks, and roll my eyes:
In this sense, the movement of thinking that establishes the identity of the elements within a speculative proposition is understood to destroy ‘the general nature of judgement’ based on the distinction between subject and predicate, such that, as a result of the speculative depth of the identity proposed, ‘the subject disappears in [or is exhausted by] its predicate’.
That is some elitist prattle for insider academicians only, and within that group only the like-minded variety. If he’s talking about reality, we can all relate to it, and there’s no need to obfuscate it.
I was overwhelmed by bullshit. If I really wanted to, I could pick this apart, and tease the meaning out of it, as I have done with Barthes and Krauss. But I don’t even want to bother with these people much anymore. There’s a lot of work to be done here to make whatever this author is getting at intelligible. He needed to do it, not me. And, by the way, I skipped ahead and that’s not the worst sentence, or exceptional. if you want to abuse yourself, here’s another choice sentence.
As a historical concept, the contemporary thus involves a projection of unity onto the differential totality of the times of lives that are in principle, or potentially, present to each other in some way, at some particular time – and in particular, ‘now’, since it is the living present that provides the model of contemporaneity
That sentence, honestly, kinda’ pisses me off, and it’s because I know it’s saying something super obvious, like, “contemporary means people relating to each other in the present”.
Is “projection” in “involves a projection of unity” merely a description of an action (ex., a torch projected a circle of light on the wall), or does it carry the negative connotation of being a psycholotical projection (ex., they superstitiously projected their fears onto the moon)? I don’t know.
What is “the differential totality of the times of lives”? First we’d have to know what a “differential totality” is. I just Googled, “what is a differential totality?” Zero results. People just accept this without asking themselves if they really understand it. It seems to make sense until you look at it carefully. Does it mean a total of differences, the span of differences within a totality, a totality that exhibits different qualities, or none of those? If you just Google “differential totality” this article comes up, and a smattering of other similar ones. Now you have to apply this not-so-clear concept to “the times of lives”.
If you do a Google search for “the times of lives” you will only get references to this same article, that’s how bizarre a construct it is. Nobody else has used this configuration in English (at least as reflected on the web). Does it mean lifetimes? Does it mean all the different people living at different times but within a span that is categorized as “contemporary”? Tacked on the end of this tortuous sentence is “it is the living present that provides the model of contemporaneity”. Is the present alive? He must mean living people, but do they provide a single model of contemporaneity? The convoluted grammar produces multiple ambiguities. I can’t be sure what his meaning is if I don’t already know. When reading this type of prose, one just keeps going in the hopes that one will be able to piece it together oneself in the aggregate. However, a good writer who wanted the reader to follow along in clarity, would never spin such an elaborate web. I am sure that if he’s talking about reality, and art, and he spoke directly, I’d at least know what he was talking about, and then I’d agree or not, have to ponder it or not.
Does the author write something and then puff it up? Let me take a crack at that:
Within the contextual framework imposed by the contemplation of the meaning historically expressed as ‘contemporary’, individuals are perceived to interact, both potentially and in actuality, in reciprocal recognition within the ineluctable imperative of the envelope of the instant bled into the broader spectrum of the present — and most particularly, within intersecting conceptions of ‘now’.
Not bad for my first try, off the cuff. And all that elaborate crap just means that by ‘contemporary’ we mean ‘now’. There’s this little trick they add, which would translate as, “I’m thinking about thinking about thinking about contemporary“. It’s a kind of multi-layered, mock introspection, which is designed to give a sense of multiple levels of self-reflection (infinite mirrored images), when a more direct observation would do, and much better.
Someone thinks that’s what good writing is. It’s more difficult, folks, to right accessibly, but in a way that is captivating and pleasurable to read [and I’m not a writer, but an artist who writes]. That flowery, vomit prose reminds me of electric guitarists who play as fast as they can, but have no catchy riffs and no melodic structure. If an author is too lazy or pretentious or hiding behind gobbledygook to speak clearly, that’s his or her problem, not the readers. Are these guys getting paid by the word?
If it’s worth saying, find a way to express yourself more clearly and accessibly. In addition to that, I also am starting to think that if some argument is very important, and it wasn’t made in the last month or so, it should be made available online, one way or another. Would you not want people to hear your powerful argument?
Recently I wrote an article about “Where’s All the Good Shit?”, but accidentally wrote over it (in an attempt to get around WordPress’s new “block editor”). People disagree with me on art topics, and usually those individuals don’t rise above insults, logical fallacies, and baseless attacks. I’m trying to unearth the core sources for the opposing arguments. I’m willing and eager to learn and defer to the better argument. But, I can’t find it.
I tend to find this kind of impenetrable, pretentious bullshit. Another way to say this is that if you can’t explain something to your slightly drunk buddy, in the pub, you probably don’t understand it yourself.
For example, in the article I’m analyzing now, the author talks about quality not being a condition of art because it is a modality of embodiment. Here, I know exactly what he means, but what he means only makes sense phrased in those particular words. This is where other people stop when they boast that they understand it, and where Noam Chomsky, the linguist, starts where he say’s he doesn’t. It’s a proposition that exists in language, but not in reality.
What is a “modality of embodiment”? Is it a means of representation (and thus a subdivision of representation), or is it just how something is made? A proposition can work grammatically and logically within linguistics, but not sync with the real world. What makes sense in highfalutin language breaks down, or becomes painfully obvious, when put in more pedestrian prose. The puffy language only needs make sense grammatically in an incestuous cloud of linguistics. You try to bring that fluff down to Earth, and it dissolves on the way.
People who want to make the same point as the author will use his same language, and talk about “the modality of embodiment”. But I find, as my school teachers taught me in Jr. High, that if I can’t put it in my own words, I don’t really understand it.
If an art critic’s argument about art is so rarefied and sophisticated that intelligent, educated people who are not immersed in the same field can’t make sense of it, than it has no connection, relevance, or bearing to the reality of the vast majority of people and their shared experience. I’m a working artist with an MFA in art, who has had classes in contemporary art theory and philosophy (and aced them), and I can’t decipher it without seriously committing myself.
A couple weeks ago I was reading a book by Robert Hughes, who is surely one of the most formidable art critics and public intellectuals of the last century (and despised, of course, by the wordsmith acrobats). No problem at all. Sure, I would need to look up the occasional word in the dictionary (he is a bit of a snobby old toad, though that’s refreshing these days). But, overall, I could understand it at my normal reading pace, and didn’t need to slow down or re-read passages. Not like the quote I shared above. I’ve read that at least 6 times, and I’m not going to make sense out of it until I translate it into English myself.
Which reminds me, I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov when I was 18-19. Love me some Dostoevsky. None of these mental-masturbation-olympiads is going to be more profound than Dostoevsky by a magnitude that would warrant their much greater degree of inaccessibility.
The difference between Hughes and Barthes, Osborne, and Krauss, is Hughes is an art critic and lover of art, Barthes and Osborne are postmodern philosophers, and Krauss is somewhere in-between (a sort of pseudo-philosopher that crams art criticism through that sieve). When they write, they do it in the manner of obscurantist, esoteric philosophy for like-mined philosophers, and in their extremely discipline-specific jargon, but merely make art the subject. Here, the evolution of art and its own trajectories are subordinated, corralled, elevated or sidelined by the separate supposed philosophical model which is imposed on it from the outside.
Everything is according to their peculiar philosophical beliefs, which one may not agree with at all purely on the level of philosophy. You can find a similar phenomenon with critics today whose art criticism is social justice writing, with social justice jargon, but applied to art. Social justice also tries to bully art and artists, and impose its own narrative on them. There is, of course, a lot of overlap between these two models, and they seek to push artists out of the nest and dominate the discourse.
Artists, in general, unless they buy into these outside perspectives and regurgitate their tenets, are not equipped with the rhetorical skills to fight back — because their focus is not on language, let alone esoteric varieties of it, nor on revolutionary politics — and be the masters of their own narrative. Visual artists tend to find themselves helpless, as rhetoricians spin webs of rhetoric around them, or bully them with political agendas and imperatives. The medium of visual art, being linguistically mute, is utterly defenseless against attacks from other disciplines based in language, especially when they insist the purpose of art is ideas, which are, again, the territory of linguistics. In this way, the word exercises a tyranny over the visual, and one of the ways it does it is through its obscurantist word salad. Some visual artists, though, are fighting back, and discovering the hitherto impenetrable force-field of postmodern philosophy is all smoke and mirrors.
Impenetrable, spaghetti-like art criticism is not a sign of deep thought, or accurate thought, but of merely convoluted thought, and with a conscious or unconscious ulterior motive of not being debatable by the layman and artist, because they don’t speak the rarefied language.
I’ve been watching Better Call Saul, and, I imagine a lawyer trying to talk in art-speak. That lawyer would always lose. Not only would nobody know for sure what the hell his or her point was, they’d bore everyone to death and people would just daydream or fight to stay awake. You’ve gotta’ be a bit like a lawyer making your case to the jury, not just trying to give the impression of super-intelligence through displays of grammatical acrobatics.
I maintain that in general, if an argument is worth reading, it is expressed clearly and available for free somewhere online (ex., you can find virtually any music, even the most obscure and rare gems, on YouTube alone. I’d assume the same for mere text). I know, I know, people can’t make money if they don’t restrict their core writing to paid publications, but, if the idea is good, someone out there should be able to re-articulate it clearly, and would hardly be able to resist doing so.
The truth may be out there (or the best working model), but I doubt it’s going to be found in a cloud of linguistic pyrotechnics. I might rather look to our other human modes of communication, including musical and visual language, which should be a checks and balances against the tyranny of linguistic thought, and its limitations.
And how curious it is, indeedy, that people think you have to study philosophy, and linguistics, and be woke into a particular social narrative, in order to understand art, as opposed to spending time with art and understanding it directly in its own language.