This week at The L Magazine, I wonder what will happen to indescribable art in an age of tags. Part of my wondering looks like this:
I wonder if a similar problem won’t affect abstract art, especially as technology marches forward. Contemporary art’s holy grail is the irreducible artwork, the painting that can’t be described or transmitted, only experienced in the flesh. The art theorist Rosalind Krauss described this as art’s “will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.” The rule of thumb, for most of the art world, seems to be that if you can accurately describe a painting over the phone, it’s probably derivative. Historically, artists and writers alike saw that as a challenge: at the height of abstract expressionism and the old New York intelligentsia, theorists and critics were coming up with new terms as quickly as artists could defy them. The writer and art historian W.J.T. Mitchell claimed that Charles Altieri once wrote 75 pages on Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition: Red Square and Black Square,” a work whose title is description enough for most people (spoiler: the red square is tilted).
At some point, writers’ interests changed. Theory wandered off in esoteric directions, and never cemented into everyday language. While psychoanalysis managed to get us talking about Oedipus and the id, and pasta-makers managed to get us differentiating between capellini (0.8mm in diameter) and spaghetti (1.5mm in diameter), the terms of abstract art never caught on. Nobody today thinks to use “painterliness”, “theatricality”, or “openness” as tumblr tags.
If you’d like to read more wondering, click here.