A small iron chair on a small iron platform, the chair, and some surrounding air, encased in a cupping glass. This is the image of home. This is the image of summary justice. Note that there is no image. The theme of the 2007 Venice Biennale was “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind.” Embroidering upon this oddly Cartesian notion, director Robert Storr explained that the year’s art was about the “immediacy of sensation in relation to questioning the nature and meaning of that sensation, intimate affect in relation to engagement in public life, belonging and dislocation, the fragility of society and culture in the face of conflict, the sustaining qualities of art in the face of death.” Note that this is a description of, and in, writing. In considering the relationship between writing and image, let’s take as our cue not the question what the literary can learn from the imagistic, but what is image, and what is image today?
I use images in my writing. Sometimes they are graphic images— they look like something. A police officer, perhaps. A piece of (hot) pie. Sometimes they are utilitarian images—they function as something. A hole to be torn in the page, maybe, or an inked blat of birdshit that obliterates a significant bit of information, keeping that character blind. Sometimes they are images of images—an ekphrastic description of one of Goya’s war disasters, the concretized narration of a single smoking cigarette—but whether realist or abstract, they are all written images. They conjure visions, engage an undertow of consciousness or sudden effect like the drone played on a bagpipe or an elbow put to the nose. What we want in all our work is apprehension. Textual apprehension. Narrative apprehension. Apprehension immediate as an egg, layered as parfait, unavoidable as self- doubt. Apprehension of the materiality of the thing, which is the act of, and in, all art.
My image/non-image of the iron chair in a cupping glass was based on a 1998 piece by Louise Bourgeois entitled Untitled (Chair). As an ekphrastic description, it was fairly materialist, a description of the thing itself, followed by a compact conceptual thesis. As a narrative, it was fairly conventional, going from inside the individual character out to a smaller, then larger, social organization. It was Austen, Flaubert. As a concept with an image, it is unfairly Joycean, to title “untitled,” to call an untitled a chair, to use a cupping glass, which is, as you know, heated and placed against fevered flesh to draw blood to the surface, for healing purposes, painful, yes, and clear, and chair is chair is flesh in French and chair is char is burn in English. And that’s just the beginning: you’re on the hot seat now, because Bourgeois was a housewife, a femme-maison, whose house was her head in early self-portraits, and thereby is word made flesh in her works, just as flesh is made word in yours.
In 1766, Gottlieb Lessing wrote Laocöon, arguing that Horace was wrong: poetry and painting are not sister arts, not even kissing cousins, for poetry deals with action, objects in progressive time, and painting is devoted to bodies, objects existing side by side. Ignoring for the moment whatever difference we think lies between the poetic imperative and that of fiction, and using painting as short-changing shorthand for all visual art, there is something in Lessing’s distinction which I see as the difference between a horizontal plane and one that moves vertically. Painting was traditionally horizontal, it had the landscape’s edge on writing as it could represent simultaneity, which words could not, and allegory without exposition, which words will not. Poetry was traditionally vertical, with epic’s inclinations, if not its proportions, and words had the advantage there of home-field specificity, of character as development and time as progress, of a story which could be told without, if that’s what was wanted, reference to any other story but itself. Poetry, by which I mean also prose, could take the slow route, could rest in a cul de sac and insist on the telling insignificance, or the casual appointment of digression. Poetry needed a scheme, but not a schema. A mole could blip dear beauty’s cheek without besmirching inert virtue, and Virginia Woolf could decapitate a decade in a series of besides. Writing had time and image had space and the race was on to appropriate the other in the name of best mimesis. This all fell apart of course, for once things are placed in opposition, they can’t help but come together, if only to fight. To nutshell post- Enlightenment Western arts, writing became more extremely vertical then less so: from Eliot, George, to Joyce and Stein and then on through Ashbery and Barth and the wall of words that proved a work’s modernist and post-modernist worth started to elide into snapshots—Sebald’s images on the one hand, graphic novels on the other, concrete prose perhaps as a third, pictures put into text like pepper in a pot-au-feu or text serving pictures like the boom ! added to the balloon of smoke that heralds cartoon explosions. The materiality of literature became words as things, no more or less meaningful than Campbell’s soup cans. At the opposite end of town, painting grew flatter and more Greenbergian until they said no, and Robert Smithson drew A Heap of Language and Mary Kelly made postpartum documents out of her son’s dirty nappies, and the materiality of art became the word in things, because it was only art’s idea that mattered. Just as in Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 piece One and Three Chairs, a work made of a wooden folding chair, a photograph of this chair, and an enlarged dictionary definition of the word “chair,” every representation became Platonically ideal and thus hopelessly immaterial. Literary art had vertical lift and visual art horizontal heft, and to hell with it. Like the two trains in the math problem, word and image have headed towards a common destination at varying speeds and the question is which station will serve the best coffee, assuming we’re standing there waiting?
Visual art wants stories. History stories, narrative stories, stories about the self and what used to be called the other. At this point in time, when conceptual and post-conceptual visual art has abnegated showing in favor of telling, and telling in favor of saying, writers think of rushing in with little rollers, hoping to get some horizontal traction from visual aids, to add to a stock- in-trade that which we fear most subtracts. For isn’t this the point of this? We’re scared some other team’s winning, or won, and so concede the power of the optic over the litteral, and want to figure out how to candy the eye. Some of our most innovative conceptual writing prints blank pages, suitable for framing, or collages Google bricolages, or catalogues cutups, nothing worth writing home about, but plenty to see. Dematerialization, that’s the ticket, constructivism, that’s the other. No new news is good news. And before the beat cop shows up to move the crowd along, we should consider that from Newman’s nugatory zip to Gerhard Richter’s squeegeed woods to last season’s gallery show of airbrushed portraits of the cast of Hogan’s Heroes, visual images are being systemically drained of image, leaving behind the image referent—language.
The language is a narrative, the narrative often a series of interrogations: what is the role of the immediate? What is the place of the situation? What is the form as it correlates to the event? Is there a conceptual unconscious? What is the meaning of is? And while these lingual sacs are often a defense against subjectivity, i.e., a defense against vulnerability, they collapse into their stories: there is a fairy tale to be told about the German woods, wherein children are put into ovens. The squeegee wipes, but cannot clean. Not to tender too many conceits about writing, but I think we’re missing the point of the pupil, which is, as you know, hollow. If there is superior art, it lies in the ability of any image—real or abstract, written or pictorial—to dropkick, lick, tickle and torture, to render its reader absolutely sensate.
This would be the Wittgensteinian point at which there is an intention and an act, and the success of the work is measured by the extent that the expectation created by the piece is fulfilled by the act as it acts in accord with the intention. Middlemarch sprawls and constellates, Guernica shatters and resurrects. The watercolored Huck and Jim in my Illustrated Junior Library edition of Huckleberry Finn showed me what color was Huck’s hair, and what shoes Jim did not wear. But that was then, when cultures could be kept chiastically separate and we could spit into the ensuing abyss. The problem facing contemporary visual art is that when everything can be art, then only authorship transforms the notion or gesture into art; the problem facing contemporary innovative writing is that having gotten out of the cult of the author, we’re left with either the cult of the performer or the cult of the object, and the object, in order not to be secretly authorial, must be mass-made, and that, as we ought suspect by now, is how democracies go on the march—and the cult of the author finally and fully replaced by the cult of the authority. Too, as artist and writer Danielle Adair points out, when art gives up image, it gives up only one of its mediums, like oil paint or the photograph; when writing dematerializes, it gives up on itself, medium and message. What we should take from contemporary art forms is not the horizontal act of illustration, whether literally imaged, as in Sebald’s photographic counter-proofs, or unimagined, such as new lyric’s Pierre & Gilles iconograpy, or the horizontal gesture of dematerialization, a critique of iconography sounded by the blue-lipped flush of history, but the vertical act of, and insistence upon, creation. Creation, as we all know, is sensate as skin, and as soft and true a container. You could argue it’s the only truth, as it is proved by so very many objects. Rather than join the cult of the image, let’s inscribe its cultivation.
We write on a page. Most of us type on a pre-formatted white space that bears no relation to the bound frame it will ultimately take. The page is peppered with ink and slatted with white spaces, it can be potted with figural images, for or against the text, blotted with black holes, shouting down the sentences, or blasted with a blank null which might pass for silence. The page is one of some number of pages the reader holds in her hand, and this thickness or thinness provokes sentiment, anticipation or dread. Too, consider the materiality, horizontal and vertical, of the words themselves. The double-aught or emptied eyesockets stuck in the middle of “gloom” and “doom,” the heave in Heaven and god’s huff in Hell. The clutch of objects you work with—those cones and squares and cylinders which may be letters that compose words or pictures that refer to words—are evidence of your creation and its reception. And we haven’t even tapped the text.
In concrete poetry, visual metaphors, such as a poem about a necktie shaped like a necktie, and visual metonyms, such as the Eiffel Tower as radio tower, are fashioned into visual tautologies, the thing that speaks of itself, and thus renders the poem unspeakable. The lyric, frozen as a shipwreck, testifies to an itch for graphic—not oral—transcendence. Concrete prose similarly transforms narrative, an essentially and primarily temporal process, into a flatter spatial object. Spatialization of time in postmodernism and beyond can be equated with spatialization of metaphor and metonym in high modernism and before—visual structures are now as local and global as Pound’s appropriated seafarer and Dickens’s aptonymic Scrooge as all are tethered to a presumed awareness of the referenced object, and because the reference is presumed to have an end-point, sometimes of simple exhaustion. Like the double-hump of McDonald’s golden arches, there’s only so much teleological purchase to be had from an image when billions are unblinkingly served. Current conceptual writing concretizes time and space like stills from a digital video: there is a narrative, of which you are being shown a portion, the portion can stand for the whole, the whole can stand for a story, though the story itself does not need to be told. Allusion to the story, like illusion itself, is enough. But it is not enough. As much as writers should mind the physical materiality of language, they need to maintain, not crop, its meaning.
For in an age when judgment suffers from spectatorship, the snapshot must be called into constant question.
The problem is that the snapshot speaks. The problem is that images communicate like nobody’s business. Rorschach to Rothko, Reuters to Rockwell, something’s said, and snappily too. The problem is words are images and images are words— linked, and different, one and two-in-the-same. As it turns out, the frame is the caption is the image of the thing, and art is their encounter. So design, goddishly. Sometimes a cereal box is just a cereal box, and, like the box on the breakfast table, it may be left on the page. Someone might read the back, where a prize is promised, and a story told of Lucky Charms, complete with castration complex. This would be a distraction from the story of what is happening at the breakfast table, just as the back of the box pulls your attention from what’s being said between Daddy and me. Sometimes subtext can be set off by a thick black line, or surtext blurred into a pinwheel or open drain, demonstrating its dilation or contraction into an image of words. An image of words is silence. Someone once wrote that every poem is about silence, and happily, I can keep my trap shut about that, because every text’s about saying something, even if that something is nothing at all. This is the metamorphosis of soundlessness into silence, as the written image of the iron chair transforms the absolute absence of the chair into the image of a chair that is not there.
What is an image? An image is a reference. Sometimes to the thing itself, like a portrait. Sometimes to the thing in-itself, like Dante’s Beatrice or de Kooning’s Woman I. The optic can have it all at once, and does. And then, like any good art, it teaches you to linger.
What is narrative? Narrative is a sequence of reference. Delay is given. The all that you’ll get will come later, or not at all, through wrought-iron acquisition or the call of the immediate in the face of extinction; in any event, it’s constantly re- written, constantly reimagined, constantly received, constantly recognized. Coleridge wrote about something being “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” To see a painted ship upon a painted sea is an aesthetic story. The art in language is formed content and contented form. For the fact remains that a thing is nothing imagined of itself, and a word is worth a thousand pictures. Use them all.