Who cares if you look? On the artist and the spectator. (Part II of III)

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, Marcel Duchamp.
Duchamp famously declared that the artist decided what was art,
not the public.

Emory University

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If Lazlo Moholy-Nagy has recently emerged as the forgotten hero of participatory art, then the more traditional hero of the story is obviously Marcel Duchamp. The central feature of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even of 1915 to 1923—a glass surface—literally made the audience part of the work’s meaning. And if it was only part of the work’s meaning for Duchamp in 1923, by 1956 he came around to “attach[ing] even more importance to the spectator than to the artist.” Allan Kaprow, writing in 1973, got it right when he said that the “best part” of The Large Glass was that it was “a windowpane to look through; its actual configurations are forced into accord with the visual environment beyond them, for instance, a chocolate grinder superimposed on a kid picking his nose.” Then again, if Kaprow could still strike a cynical note about the value of including all of the “environment” into the work, participatory artists and writers have positively reveled in the spectator’s incorporation into the work.

If Moholy found his counter in Malevich, so Cage’s vision of “nonint-
entional” music was contested by a range of modernist composers. Most notoriously, Milton Babbitt, in his 1958 High Fidelity article “Who Cares If You Listen?” took the opposite tack from Cage. For Babbitt, audience response was irrelevant to his or any work’s meaning. Babbitt called for the “total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from the public world” and the “complete elimination of the public and social aspects of composition.” Babbitt’s disinterest in audience response was really an update of what Arnold Schoenberg had maintained in the 1920s. Schoenberg, Babbitt’s immediate model, made it clear that “one may not leave gaps in the action, during which many of the audience would have to think out for themselves what was missing. All the conclusions the listener is to draw must be explicitly stated, clearly and at length.”

Then again, he said if we have to address ourselves to the audience, then “it is only out of acoustical necessity, since a literally empty concert hall sounds even worse than one full of ‘empty people.’” Schoenberg was in fact responding to Piet Mondrian’s criticism of his Three Piano Pieces of 1911. “‘Silence,’” Mondrian wrote in 1921, “should not exist in the new music. It is a ‘voice’ immediately filled by the listener’s individuality….The new spirit demands that one should always establish an image unweakened by time in music or by space in painting.” It should be clear that neither Mondrian nor Malevich nor Schoenberg nor Babbitt were interested in refusing or cancelling or resisting audience participation. And while I don’t have the time to explore this point here, I would say that the central modernist paradigm of autonomy bears little resemblance to the version described and defended by T. W. Adorno or by the New Critics. That is, autonomy for Mondrian, Malevich and others, is not a disguised critical gesture toward the audience, not some kind of mimetic exacerbation of conventions, but rather the belief that meaning is something ontologically immune to audience response. Nothing about your response to a work of art determines the work’s meaning. Moreover, it is my contention that virtually everything that has been traditionally cited as inspiration for contemporary modes of participatory aesthetics—Mallarmé’s Symbolism, Futurism, Imagism, Dada, Surrealism—stands much closer to the Babbitt model of artistic autonomy than the viewer-driven aesthetic embraced by either Duchamp or the minimalists.

Consider, for instance, a key work in the history of participatory aesthetics: Umberto Eco’s “The Poetics of the Open Work,” which was given new attention recently as the opening essay in Claire Bishop’s 2006 Participation. Eco looks back, along with Roland Barthes and Duchamp, to the moment of Mallarmé as the “first occasion when a conscious poetics of the open work appears.” The “search for suggestiveness,” Eco writes, “is a deliberate move to ‘open’ the work to the free response of the addressee.” So how free is it? As Eco makes clear, this is “not an amorphous invitation to indiscriminate participation.” Far from it. “The author,” he writes, “does not know the exact fashion in which his work will be concluded, but he is aware that once completed the work in question will still be his own.” For Eco, every response “always remains the world intended by the author.” Mallarmé’s “suggestions,” Eco concludes, “are intentional, [they are] provoked…always within the limits fixed by the author.” The “audience’s capacity for response” has been “directed and controlled by the author.”

Eco’s account of Mallarmé is vastly different from the one offered by postmodern critics. It was Mallarmé, Roland Barthes declared, who inaugurated the “creative” turn from author to reader, work to text. As Mallarmé translator Barbara Johnson puts the matter: “It was largely by learning the lesson of Mallarmé that critics like Roland Barthes came to speak of ‘the death of the author’ in the making of literature. Rather than seeing the text as the emanation of an individual author’s intentions (always a probabilistic and speculative enterprise), structuralists and deconstructors followed the paths and patterns of the signifier, paying new attention to syntax, spacing, intertextuality, sound, semantics, etymology, even individual letters.”

So what does Mallarmé say? As he famously wrote it in “Crisis of Verse,” “The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields the initiative to the words.” Mallarmé rejected what he called the “respiration perceptible in the old lyric breath” and the “enthusiastic personal direction of the sentence” by the poet. But it’s hard to see this as a gesture directed against authorship itself, and more against faked emotions. Moreover, as Mallarmé further described his “very new poetic” of suggestion: “a verse must not be composed of words, but of intentions, and all the words should efface themselves before the [poet’s] sensation.” As the poet disappears into his words, the words are effaced by the poet’s intentions. In terms of the other half of the equation, the reader’s creative action, this is what Mallarmé says when writing about the spiritual nature of the Book: “when the reader takes up a book from here or there, with its varied melodies or figured out like an enigma, it is almost remade by them.” Almost, because, as he writes in the next sentence: “The folds…invite one to open or close the page, according to the master” (Johnson removed the last phrase from her translation of Divagations, a clear example of her point about the reader as producer). And it is this twofold stance—a solicitation of the beholder to engage with the work, beginning where they might, and a framing of possible responses in terms of the author’s intentions—that inaugurates what I would call the first or even false genealogy of participation.

Part III (next)

Part I (previous)

Todd Cronan is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. He teaches modern European art at Emory University.

“Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. In the first place, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary esthetics, whether or not a beholder’s exper¬ience of a work of art can properly be understood as affective rather than as cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of various writings by Henri Bergson—whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse—with respect to that and related issues, showing in the end that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position, he never quite definitely succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitivist viewpoints in the theory and practice of one of the great painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse; this sets Cronan on a collision course—from which he does not flinch —with the almost uniformly affective bias of recent Matisse criticism. Against Affective Formalism is a major achievement, and I look forward with fascination to its reception by a field that is likely to be transformed by it.”
—Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University

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