Ben Davis is an art critic living and working in New York City. He is the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket, 2013). He is currently National Art Critic for artnet News, and was formerly executive editor of Artinfo.com and an editor of The Elements of Architecture, the catalogue of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. His writings have appeared in Adbusters, The Brooklyn Rail, e-Flux Journal, Frieze, New York, The New York Times, Slate.com, The Village Voice, and many other venues.
From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. All sessions of the convening were transcribed live by a stenographer; below is an edited transcript of critic Ben Davis’s keynote on “post-descriptive criticism.”
Paul Schmelzer: I’m honored to introduce today’s keynote. When we invited Ben Davis to speak at Superscript we were drawn both to his political sensibility and his engaging and accessible criticism for publications including Art Papers, Frieze, the Village Voice, Slate and Artnet News where he serves as national art critic. We also love the ideas in his 2013 book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Press), which was hailed by the way by New York Times critic Holland Cotter for its “smart, ardent, illusion-puncturing observation and analysis on the intersection of art, commerce and—the elephant in the art fair VIP lounge—class.” But little did we know there are other reasons to invite him: He’s one of us. Ben did his undergraduate degree at Macalester College in nearby St. Paul, Minnesota, and during that time I learned that he was a docent right here at the Walker Art Center, so welcome back to your adopted hometown, Ben.
I’m particularly excited about his keynote today, as he’s using his time on the Superscript stage not just to trot out some prefab conference talk that he does all across the country at colleges and universities. He’s using his time here to plant a flag, of sorts. He’ll be using his times on stage to name, define and dig into what he calls “post-descriptive criticism.” And of course you have plenty of time to explain what that means.
We hope it’s the beginning of his further investigations online, and maybe in another book long after Superscript. We hope you all come back to see the seminal video that was launched right here at Superscript 2015. So please help me welcome Ben Davis.
Ben Davis: Can people hear me? Yes? How’s everybody feeling? Good. You’re ready? Well, fasten your seat belts. It’s an epic talk. So there I am. This makes it look very official that I have something to say, so I’m going to try and deliver. That was a very generous and kind introduction, and I do have to say that it is a real rush for me to be back here. People always ask you wherever you go, you know, how you became an art critic and there is no really good answer for that. There are so many starting points but one possible starting point I can think of is right here at the Walker where I was not just a tour guide, I didn’t just go through the docent training but I was a tour guide for kids which is a particular kind of challenge and so you come out of college and you’re full of all these heady ideas of what art is. This is a Robert Rauschenberg from the Walker’s collection. And you know probably that how to talk about this is neo-dada art, or proto-pop art, it’s about appropriations, it’s about a collage. But what the kids see is a big exciting mess and that’s why they like it and that’s a totally different way of looking at it and I think everyone should have that experience of trying to explain art on that level in a way that has informed the way I approach and write about art. And informs some of the ideas in this talk today about the relationship of image to text.
So there it is. A text slide for a talk about images.
And I should say, I’m a visual art critic, and I spent many years giving talks without images until I actually had an intellectual epiphany that was that was a bit of a paradox or a contradiction that what we do is very visual. The concept I want to present is post-description. I have to say at the outset that I am almost a little embarrassed by the subject—by that subject. I have very specific reasons that I chose it for this talk and for you, but it’s a kind of a—I think it’s almost like a—it’s a technical concept that I think that to some of you is going to be head scratchingly cringingly obvious and to some of you it’s going to be a little bit repugnant and almost like everything you stand against.
And the idea is very simple, essentially and as I say, technical, that most of the way that we think about writing about art has been formed in times of relative image scarcity, that is, in print culture and since this is a conversation about digital culture and its effect on art writing, the digital world, particularly now, is one of relative image plenty and that may change and I think is changing the way we think about what an art critic can or should do.
And before I go on I want to say two particular things about this argument and the first is I’m making an aesthetic argument and a non-epistomological argument that is I’m not interested in here totally in having an argument about whether or not images totally capture the reality of an artwork or can or should or if words do. Or you know, what I’m interested in, this is sort of more pragmatic, I think it’s true that images are more engages, they’re more am engaging way to describe an object and this chain of thought began, as I told Paul when he asked me what I was doing here, of working in digital media for ten years as a writer, critic and editor and there is a pragmatic reality that art criticism which is in some ways the crown jewel of art writing doesn’t do that well. The monographic art review measured by traffic, it can’t justify itself against news or opinion. I mean it really is—it really is the kind of laggard, so I kind of started thinking about what is it, are there habits that we need to break and things we need to do, and maybe visual art criticism needs to be a lot more visual than it is. Maybe we’re inheriting patterns of writing and thinking that we need to rethink. And the second thing I wanted to say about the talk that I think is important is that it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, I’m not saying that we should do this, I’m saying people are already writing in a new way and thinking about images and text in a new way. People in this room are. And what I am saying is I don’t think that’s totally theorized or thought out yet.
I think that it bears more thought and deliberation than we’ve given that problem so far or that I’ve given it so far and this is my attempt to think it through for myself in a certain sense. So why is it a big deal if ideas of description change? Well, first of all, because description is it the cornerstone, if you take a class on art, it is—it is and such things exist, it is the cornerstone of what you will be taught is that good art criticism is good description. My first editor said to me is clear description is the most important thing, and this is a very recent guide to writing about art. Very first thing she says you need to do is clear description.
And that’s—the meaning of that—we’re moving into a world where that—those terms are—even as I was planning this presentation, I saw a friend of mine who writes for New York Times posted on Facebook, this is Michael Kimmelman’s review a new Whitney and she already described this as a post-descriptive review. I think it’s important to look at this and so it’s important enough that I am actually going to click out of my own the prison of PowerPoint to show you what it looks like. So here you have a big—I think you guys may be taking up the bandwidth, but you have a big enormous image. There are glitches in this new world and then you have a big pieces of large text and you have these like animated graphics. Giving you a sense of the geography, zooming you around here, flying over the city, you arrive at the new museum, and more text. Then you have this amazing graphic where you fly into the new Whitney through this 2 dimensional woman, look out through the window, transforms magically into real New York, and you get a sense of the view, and then there’s—and then it goes on like this. Here is this sort of strange serial-killer-like tracking shot taking you through the new installation.
And on and on and on. Now, as interesting as that is, I would say that I think it’s still relatively primitive. As absorbing as those graphics are, I think if you read what’s going on there, it still essentially reads like a text that was written separately from the images, that there was a text written about this Kimmelman’s text and then they layered a bunch of very elaborate graphics into it so there are really two ways of thinking about what the critic is doing there in one place. And I think that there are these times—here we are. It’s a little bit—yeah, there we go, there are these times in art history where you do see there are two systems of thought that collide with each other, so in the early Renaissance for a long period, for instance, people were learning to use perspective, but they’re still painting halos on figures in these 2 dimensional flat forms so that the halos blocked the view of the people behind them.
So you can see two systems of thought. In the early days of photography photography was being thought of as art they thought they had to make paintings. You had to treat the surface in a very painterly way and these forms have charms of their own, but you can definitely see two different forms of thinking wrestling with each other. And my argument is that that’s the kind of world, we’ve been writing in on the Internet about art. Not until now, because I think it’s an evolving form, but I definitely think there are new forms of thinking that are occurring. It would be after all very strange if we had thought through all the implications of writing on the Internet after all the Internet is not that old. This is the New York Times admitting the word to film into the vocabulary a quarter century after the invention of film and they essentially say well, people are using it we’ve got to use it but we think this film thing is probably a fad. They say the vogue of the moving pictures is surely at its height and will last until the great actors return to the stage.
So just some history. Now I want to do a little history on the history of this problem.
So the rhetorical name for—there’s a Greek word ekphrasis for what we do, where the idea of art criticism as describing works of art comes from. The literary description of a visual work of art, the attempt to evoke its properties, is called ekphrasis, and that’s a Greek word but the thing of course is the Greeks didn’t have have exact images of the world. Pliny the Elder in this passage when it came to botanical art they couldn’t get it good enough to be scientifically accurate so they fell back into descriptions of the world. That didn’t prove to be exact enough, either, and it really hampered their knowledge of medicine.
But we live in a different world. I like to point out that art criticism was we know it as we trace to probably really picks up steam there in the 19th Century, I like to point out the figures, the big figures of art criticism is Charles Baudelaire in France or John Ruskin in England, both it would have been, they both would have been in the same high school class with Marx and Engels, like they were born at the same time, so the art criticism was born of a fast-changing capitalist world where standards of taste were happening and you needed someone to step in just as the criticism of modern art was born of the same system of capitalism and all of the industrial things that come out of capitalism and photography being one of them form new ways of thinking most notably art history is the product of the invention of the illuminated slide lantern. You can’t have a real art historical thinking, an art historical pedagogy without the ability to photos that compare things. Nevertheless, images until the last quarter of the 19th Century, were relatively rare. And criticism was steeped in ekphrasis and here is a classic example from John Ruskin which I’ll read to you in its entirety. This is about a Turner painting, The Slave Ship:
It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges, the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strength of the swell compels or permits them; leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the indistinguishable images of the burning clouds, which fall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying. Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of the night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labors amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight,—and cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.
They do not write criticism like that anymore, it’s beautiful, it’s evocative, it attempts through the force of rhetoric to evoke the intensity of the experience of this painting. It is clearly—it is dense and difficult and complex, involved passages clearly the product of a culture where people would spend, oh, I don’t know, 3 to 5 hours listening to a political speech, that was a normal thing and where Shakespeare was popular entertainment and not boutique entertainment, so but nevertheless, it is beautiful, it is amazing, it is a work of art in itself, and I doubt any of you unless you know this painting actually have an image of it in your head and this does that job far better and there’s a detail and there’s another detail, and there’s another detail.
So there’s a lot to say about what happened with pictures, with photos, with art writing in the last half of the 19th Century, the early part of the 20th century but I’m actually interested with the purposes of this talk with how recent really the dramatic changes in how we think about how art writing relationship to images is so I went to the New York public library and I found the oldest issues I could find that seemed to be within—seemed to me to be legible as an art magazine so this is the Art News annual from 1956. And on the inside, inside flap, the colored plates every colored plate is like they’re advertising that it’s a really special thing that there are color plates in this thing. The editor emphasizes that they have exciting color plates and how that makes this particularly luxury product, a really exciting product you have in your hand and here’s what it looks like inside, still a lot of black and white illustrations but then these glossy inset photos.
Now, 1962 is an important year, magazine history in the United States, National Geographic in February 1962 becomes the first all-color magazine published in the United States. Same year, 1962, June, 1962, Artforum publishes its first issue in San Francisco, later moved to Los Angeles and New York and this is that first issue. Here’s what it looked like on the inside, ads in black and white, there’s table of contents. Here’s the opening critical salvo critics pondering then as we do now, why are we doing this? And here’s a passage you can see here he lays out the tasks of art criticism and there’s our old friend description, the very first thing that he mentioned there is the descriptive task that of telling what the work looks like, a most difficult exercise in objectivity. As it absolutely would be given as this is what the layout of the reviews looks like.
So you have these on the left-hand always separate, on the left-hand you have these fairly inscrutable low-quality black and white reproductions of the art being talked about and then on the right side is dense blocks of text and then more of that with the same images on the facing page and then a lot of stuff that’s like this. So as you can imagine, description not just of absolute necessity there, if you have—if you want to like evoke what an art, the visual experience of a work of art.
Now, leaping ahead ten years, 1972, is the year of John Berger’s classic seminal Ways of Seeing documentaries on the BBC. This is an important reference to me. I’m curious how many people in this audience have seen or read ways of seeing. Almost everybody. That’s great. You’re a great crowd. So it says right there on the cover, seeing comes before words. It’s the very, very first words of the book version of Ways of Seeing. Famous first words of Ways of Seeing.
And yet the interesting thing about the book is that the images in it are quite bad. It’s all about looking and the excitement of the image, and actually for that matter, he talks a lot about the ideological impact of the introduction of color photography and yet the book itself is quite poorly illustrated actually and there’s a reason for that, a good reason actually is that Berger was committed to making it cheap and accessible to the widest number of people and in this period there’s still a pretty hard opposition between detailed color images and which would make it much more accessible and these kind of reproductions.
Jumping ahead another ten years back with our old friend Artforum. I don’t mean to pick on Artforum it’s just a convenient object of study that represents a specific way of thinking about art but here it is, here’s what it looks like on the inside. The ad is now in color, here’s the reviews, the review is still in black and white, and the images have moved off of the facing page and is now on the same page with the text. But they’re still siloed up there. They’re in their own space that floats above the text throughout the back of the book and the reviews and this is what that looks and then there’s plenty of pages, still, 1982, that look like this.
Cut forward again another decade or so and this is actually—what most blew me away this is after I graduated from college, after I worked at the Walker, this is what Artforum I guess looked like when I started professionally writing about art and you have much more colorful illustrations, this is the front of the reviews, you have a clear hierarchy where the important reviews by the important writers are colorfully illustrated and then shortly thereafter there’s the ditch where they put the less important reviews with the less vibrant illustrations, much less vibrant illustrations and you can see that the text is encroaching a little bit more on the image, as well, but it’s still basically the same thing. It’s sometime in the middle as far as I can tell. I haven’t actually looked at exactly the moment but it’s in the middle of the 2000s when Artforum goes all color. This is a Paul Chan on the cover. And this is what it looks like you have these inset tiled images that are now, they’re in color throughout and they’re actually much more integrated into the text, but still relatively discreet, right, and modest.
Now, and so and that really is it the trajectory, right? You go from low quality to high quality, essentially, in some sort of way and you go from images thought of as completely separate, image being more and more embedded in the text. Now, at the same time all this happened, of course this other little thing is happening, the Internet, and is becoming a thing. This is the magazine I worked for for many years, Art Net magazine which is depending on how you count it the first or one of the first online art magazines. Talk about different systems colliding. Here’s what it looked like in 1997 when it was launched, this is a review of the Whitney Biennial, you have this great typewriter font clearly designed to make the web look like a typewritten thing and for that matter it’s presented as a magazine. It’s not, you know, this is well before the term blog even existed. Ten years later, this is what it looks like.
This is me reviewing the 2006 Whitney Biennial complaining about the use of text, that labels were out of control, there was too much text mediating your experience of the art and this is me two years later, reviewing the Whitney Biennial in 2008. Now, when I look back at this now, and keep in mind, this is not that long ago, this is what, 7 years ago? When I look back at that it’s almost like looking at another world it’s hard for me to even imagine putting together an article like this. For one thing, the title is crazy. Rave on? What does that mean?
I look at my own archive now and I remember vividly being at Art Net magazine and having consultants who would come in an see, you know, it would really help you if you put like the word Picasso in the title. It would be really helpful for an article about Picasso and we’re like we’re not going to name the article there’s a new Picasso show at MOMA, that doesn’t make any sense and that’s exactly what you have to do and now everyone has sentence style, declarative news headlines because that’s very important with Internet search, and then the other thing, and this Art Net magazine was already a technical dinosaur at this point.
This is akin, I think some of you who have grown up with sophisticated blogging platforms that say that we cranked this out with a chisel on stone is that we didn’t have any sort of back-end CMS (content management system) to do this, we wrote this stuff to Microsoft Word and hand it had to a designer and who put it online for us so you get these two columns. But we had no control over design and those things thought about totally separately and that’s where things stood in 2008. We’ll get to examples of what’s going on now later but I want to emphasize how recently it was that people, me included, still were thinking about the web in a relatively print-based way. You know, as if we’re just taking what we do on the—on in a print magazine and putting it online and that’s the key access of what we do. So part two.
So the interesting thing—an interesting thing for me about this topic is that this is not a political topic, like as in my introduction I said you know my book is about class and political art, so this is not a political topic, not really. It has political dimensions, but on the other hand, I think there would probably be less argument about it about I were doing, there would be more consensus about it and I think that talking about, you know, whether or not we need to describe works of art, we should just use pictures actually touches some key nerves for people, the very core about what people think about this is my former boss, Walter Robinson, Superscript tweeted the topic the subject of my talk out and I see him responding, sorry buddy writing about art is thinking about art and begins with looking and he certainly is somewhat right about that now I want to touch through a couple of theoretical touch stones, think a little bit about why, why this is such a—what are the kind of resonances that makes it such a touchy, touchy issue at this particular moment, as I think it is?
I wrote, last year probably one of the most read things that I have ever done is an article I wrote last year about Instagram where I took—because people care an awful lot more about Instagram as a means of expression than art, but I took John Berger’s theories about how classical art and images work in different ways and applied that to the way the images function on Instagram and it became a very big hit for me, got picked up all kinds of places, including the Entourage actor, Adrian Grenier, reposted this visual comparison I did between Kim Kardashian and a Spanish nude and posted it on his Instagram railing against inequality and this became a celebrity news story. Some colleagues and I got called into the Instagram offices where they wanted to pick our brains about ideas for stories.
So here I wrote a Marxist critique of Instagram, invited me in to talk about it. And one of the things that staggered me, that was flabbergasting, that they said to me is very casually, they said, well, one thing that we want you to know is that you don’t need staff photographers anymore. There’s no reason to hire a photographer anymore. All you have to do is make a hashtag if you do an event, and then it’s all free on there, as long as you know where to find it you just like harvest the bounty of Instagram for your uses.
So there’s a lot of angst about being a writer at this conference about writing, but you know, spare a thought for the photographers, because as a profession it’s disappearing pretty fast. This is the two years ago, Libération, the French paper published an issue completely without images in solidarity with photo journalists, saying the profession is going away, precisely being crowdsourced turned into an amateur thing, writers are being given iPhones and so on this is what their culture section looked like without images and actually I found about this on this very good podcast called “This Week in Photo” that I listen to that has a very good discussion of the implications of this maybe better than anything I’ve heard from the point of view of writing.
This guy Alex Lindsay says that the interesting thing is that most of you who are bloggers, we naturally write, take photos, think about those articles figure out what we’re going to do, we are moving from one type of media journalist to another type, a media journalist is going to be able to take those photos, they’re going to get really good at photography but they are also going to understand how to do creative writing and narrative writing and news journalism and there will be one person who understands that, and then Frederick Van Johnson who’s the host of this show coins this term the multi-mediographer, which expresses something very accurate.
It becomes so ubiquitous and cheap, becomes so pulped that you actually, we live now, things are becoming just one expressive medium that you kind of—you pick different things just to express one continuous thing. You’re just like collaging together different types of expression and it’s all one form of writing or expression. That’s the way I interpret this concept of the multi-mediographer. Now, there is a reason, I think one of the reasons why is there’s a long history of art criticism being about the design of the—celebrating the image as a absorbing, celebrating the absorptive property of the image but there’s also an important critical tradition, theoretical tradition of thinking about how to dispell the absorption of the image. I think this is one reason why people they feel this is an invasion.
In 1957 Roland Barthes writes Mythologies where he talks about there’s a political analysis of the way images work in society he talks about how the language of power is what he calls mythology to take one thing out of context and fill it up with another meaning and make it become the natural as if it were naturally signified something else. And one of the examples he used precisely this magazine cover from 1957, of this young black soldier saluting, presumably the French flag and he points out well, there’s obviously one meaning of this, the clear meaning of this which is a real person, but on the other hand is he clearly being made to do service for another thing?
The message of this is really clearly a whole other mythology about the French nation, how the French nation is a great empire but it’s a progressive empire, and all serve under it equally, and how it discriminates against nobody. And this comes from Paris Match, which is a fairly genteel text, but this is a very political point though that’s happening in 1957 when the French occupation of Algeria’s coming undone, it’s quite a bloody conflict, The Battle of Algiers, if you’ve seen it.
So the point is that this is all about how through images power naturalizes itself and Roland Barthes sees the job of the mythologist. That’s what he calls the person who unpacks these and debunks these things. As using language to take you out of your natural enrapturement with these things. With all the ideologies that have been stuffed in them. Now, that was a pretty—I think that was a pretty—I don’t know if this—but the point is that in I think this is a—I think because images have become so present now, you know, this was the new thing. Color photography, color magazines was a relatively new thing in 1956, now we’re swarmed with images but people are very image savvy. This is actually a common form of writing where people sometimes take a little piece of pop culture out of context and captions it in such a way that it becomes allegories for things and this is a kind of like people’s mythology in action. The point is that if the project in Barthes’ day was a debunking, I think people now are naturally cynical about the image and recontextualizing things.
I guess this is one of my favorite examples of modern mythology, this is the hipster cop, a police officer who had skinny ties and skinny jeans and was sort of a darling of the media and obviously this functions exactly as mythology in Barthes’ sense. He’s a real guy. He becomes a media sensation because he represents the funny side of power. This guy knows it, he’s interviewed in GQ and he talked about the semiology of his fashion and his clothing and of course people responded to this immediately with a variety memes.
People are savvy enough to be natural mythologists in Barthes’ sense. You know, most of this stuff with the response is kind of an empty cynicism, but I think there are some, this is my big example that actually symbolize power in the police state and constitutes a form of image criticism. The point is that there are new forms of criticism with images that are already being born and already sort of vernacular.
Vilém Flusser, a Prague-born media theorist, writes in 1987 this book called Does Writing Have a Future? This is the opening page. I think it’s amusing that it begins with Superscript and the book is weird and problematic in many means in ways that I won’t go into, but it’s loaded with quotes about the relationship between text and image and the evolving nature of it.
One of the things he says, one of the arguments he makes, first of all he makes what he calls electromagnetic culture or something, we’re moving towards something else, we’re moving towards essentially a post-literate society but the bulk of the book is going back and looking at what alphabetic or articulated language has does. He says before books you had images, right, hieroglyphics or ideograms. And these are pictorial ways of looking about the world and alphabetic speech. This is the quote: “One writes alphabetically to maintain and extend a level of consciousness that is conceptual, superior to images, rather than continually falling back into pictorial thinking as we did before writing was invented.”
And so there’s this idea that we have—that a form of thinking and expressing yourself that forces you to order thoughts, articulate them in an order, actually produces a space for critical thinking at a distance from an image and that is precisely that and formed the foundation for a lot of ways of anything not just about art and criticism, but a whole number of things and that, as he says, the rise of a more picture-based universe of a post-literate world “it leads us to a new mode of thought that can be anticipated but not yet perceived.” All in all he’s pretty ambiguous about it, so as I say this is a little bit of a problematic text for all kinds of reasons (that I won’t go into here that we can talk about in the Q&A), but I think it does articulate a certain anxiety about what’s going on with the rise of an extremely image-dominated culture. An anxiety that was articulated to me very well is this article from the New Yorker a few months back.
This guy, Emerson Spartz, who runs sort of a BuzzFeed clone, they do like funny listicles and stuff called Dose, I believe. He says very clearly in his article that he’s not interested in politics. He doesn’t find “the news” interesting because he thinks the presentation is boring but I asked him if he had any advice. He says, “If I were running a more hard news-oriented media company and I wanted to inform people about Uganda, first I would look it up and find out exactly what’s going on there on there.” Good advice to start off. “Then I would find a few really poignant images or story lines ones that create a lot of resonant emotion, and I would make these into a short video, under three minutes, with clear, simple words and statistics. Short, declarative sentences. And at the end I’d give people something they can do, something they can feel hopeful about.” So some good ideas about audience engagement there but also clearly lowering the bar for what it means to think politically. And I think part of that sensibility is in the air and that makes people really anxious about this.
Here’s BuzzFeed, their article. Making mythology of the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin turning him into an inspiration pinup great quotes. Not including interestingly my favorite quote: Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”
But you can’t be perfect. So there is a way, I think you could say that the looping animated cat GIF, this is a cat on a book, by the way in some way can stand as an allegory for the return to a kind of looping mythical thinking primal thinking that’s you know, that’s outside of—that’s beyond—that’s almost precritical in a way. It’s viscerally you’re kind of frozen in this kind of limbo of pleasure and I’m not going to take that too far because as I say I think that we’re learning new ways to think about these things. I just wanted to show you this GIF.
Now, I want to talk about forms of contemporary writing that forms, contemporary forms of talking about art, where I think we’re going, essentially. So I first began to have a lot of these thoughts not thinking about my own practice but thinking about how contemporary artists were engaging with images on the Internet so I was teaching my students, this is Artie Vierkant which is what you would maybe call a post Internet artist—this is one of his image object images that blur the line between installation shot and some sort of abstraction so you can’t really tell whether it’s a real object or not. And he wrote—he wrote this, you know, it’s become a touchstone, this manifesto called The Image Object Post-Internet that I read and he says:
“The architecture of the Internet—an arrangement of language, sound, and images in which imagery is the most dominant, immediate factor—helps facilitate an environment where artists are able to rely more and more on purely visual representations to convey their ideas and support an explanation of their art independent of language. This is a crucial point of departure from recent art history, as arguably it marks an abandonment of language and semiotics as base metaphors for articulating works of art and our relationship to objects and culture.”
So that’s a horrifying statement to me as a writer that was my first thought when I read that is this is like basically images explaining other images and it’s cutting out me out, cutting out the critical middleman. I also think it’s—well, I also think it’s a little confused he doesn’t seem to know what semiology means. But my second thought was well, maybe I can work with this. Maybe there are forms of criticism I can come up that actually are a critical intervention into languages that use images against each other in order to create a form of criticism, so you know, this was my little experiment.
I called it my “Instagram art reviews” in that I would use the structure of Peircean semiology, which is a three-part sign where the first thing, the object would be the work of art and then I would find a second thing that you know, an association maybe to represent it. You know, there’s an association that it produces in my head. You know, this looks like that. And then the third is the third aspect of the Peircean sign is the interpretant. There’s a signifier and a signified but then there’s also a relationship between the two, they mean something together and I thought with those three things, maybe you can take images and create a form of writing with images, and so I’ll show you my modest experiments. This is—this is a Richard Serra show at the top at the Gagosian Gallery and then there’s comparing it to the experience to Caspar David Friedrich. And here’s my third image of a stock photo as kind of signifying the industrial sublime or something like that, so you can see that here’s the comparison it makes me think of and here’s what I think about the comparison.
Here’s a detailed a painting by Raqib Shaw, which is kind of like fantastic glittery paintings and then a Frank Frazetta painting, the Conan the Barbarian artist, so I’m comparing him to pulp art, and then third is a stock photo of chintzy cheap gems, it’s like the idea here is it looks like pulp art and therefore I think of it as cheap razzle-dazzle. And here’s the one that started it all, The Girl with the Pearl Earring compared to this famous National Geographic cover and I guess what I think the visual comparison is clear but I guess what I was trying to get at in this loaded subject matter is I think the visual appeal of both is that they are made to seem a little bit otherworldly.
Now, this was an interesting experiment for me. I learned a lot doing it. There are many others of varying degrees of success. I learned among other things that it’s very hard because as it turns out, coming up with meaningful comparisons of images, thinking of images writing with images is just as difficult or more so than writing with words and I would freely admit, however, that it is a bit of a wrack as an experiment, I mean I don’t think might as well just put an image there that indicates that well, making this comparison I’m a little bit confused about how to represent what I think about that comparison.
Nevertheless, I think you’re going to see a lot more of this kind of thing. Not exactly this kind of thing, but forms of thinking with the image inside the image, critically about and within the image. Because as I say, images have become just another expressive material for people. And there are lots of examples. I think people in probably in this room doing interesting experiments with this that I don’t know about. Carolina [Miranda] was reminding me before about this, that you know, the Getty does Game of Thrones recaps. I just picked out one.
The Pelican Bomb which is a New Orleans art website and publication does this series of visual essays. This is one that takes off the history of the reclining female nude. So it starts with Ingres, the Grande Odalisque. And then this is presented all in a stacked ribbon in the original piece, but they walk you through a sort of a history of this theme. Now I think it’s interesting, I would say it’s still very primitive, though. It’s essentially on the first two levels, you know, their relationship of comparison of difference and sameness, and but it doesn’t make a critical argument and the reason I picked it for you is because I think it brings me back to Ways of Seeing and people always remember because Berger’s arguments are so clear, they remember the written parts, the famous parts about the popularization of Walter Benjamin or his section on the male gaze, but there are vast sections of that book that are just images, that are simply visual essays, and I think, actually, more sophisticated than that.
Here’s Chapter 2 which takes us back to—which leads in this famous chapter of the male gaze and you have this juxtaposition of images. Here’s a woman working in a bakery and behind her are celebrity shots and here’s a glamorous woman in a car with people looking at her. Here’s a whole set of complex situations between you have this at the top Picasso and Modigliani and this pinup and this kind of ecstasy and looking at histories of how sexuality is expressed. You have this voluptuous pin-up here and this emaciated Giacometti with this sort of violence of the gaze and you have these like hyper-sexualized advertising images and over here a Dutch still life, so creating—talking about how the language of making objects desirable are being applied to literally treat women like objects of consumption.
So that’s—that’s all, I mean that’s all image essay and I think it is not—it’s murky, you know, and I think he wants it to be. I think he wants there to be significant comparisons, but also room to breathe. That’s part of what the book is about. But I also think if you go through the book, in some ways I think that the most sophisticated form of navigating between images and text is maybe that I know, maybe this book, which was produced 40-some years ago, if you look at the way—and he also takes off from Grande Odalisque and here’s him incorporate it into the text of the book. Here’s he uses details of paintings to show how images can be constructed out of them and he uses—he has a sophisticated way of looking at details of painting and how words, the relationship with their words and the descriptions, transform them. So here’s, this is a landscape with birds flying out of it. Look at it for a moment and then turn the page. When you turn the page, it says this is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself. “It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence.”
So this is a fairly sophisticated way of addressing the new problems for us that are emerging for us as we write online and part of that this is an analysis of how images function and he’s using image and text in an elaborate way, in an involved way.
Come back to Turner. So this is not for me a question of escaping images. Or escaping textuality. My argument is as I said at the beginning, that we live in a sort of hybrid state, you know, there are different modes of thinking. And the function of description is of course always partly analysis, you know, you’re picking out the significant things you with the to describe. My argument is once we disarticulate those two things, we think about the problem, what it means to to describe around images and within images in a different and more productive way.
Here’s another text about this same description of this same painting by Thackeray. He describes it very differently and he services what is only implicit in Ruskin’s description about the painting which is a painting about slavery. An abolitionist painting inspired by an incident where 133 slaves were thrown overboard because the slaver wanted to collect the insurance money, and, after all, Turner himself accompanied this painting with a poem that explains the meaning and ends with “hope, hope, fallacious hope, where is thy market now?”
So Flusser ends his book, “Subscript,” in counterpart to “Superscript,” that we need to go back into kindergarten and we need to relearn how we think about basic things. And I began with a story of my time as a tour guide here at the Walker, and I’d forgotten ways of seeing has been a very important reference for me as a book and I’ve forgotten that the TV show is different than the book and actually the first episode ends with John Berger showing art to children and sitting with them as they describe a painting, and his conclusion is that they see it because they have—they’re free of some of our habits, they have a different way of seeing it. They and this is a very hopeful for me this is a very hopeful thing and I want to say that I picked this topic because I’ve been to enough art journalism conferences to know that gloom is in the air and there will be a lot of angst about money and so on and the state of the profession, but I think that you need to disarticulate the question of the economics of writing about art, and the secondary question, which is about whether we have ideas we believe in and whether you have ways of presenting art that excite us and feel real and lively and contemporary. They’re separate questions. They interconnect their separate questions. So this idea of thinking through the present and the potential of the present in a new way I think is a very optimistic conversation that this, complete with its typo, you know, complete with the typo where you really see text breaking down relation of images is a hopeful image for me, it’s about new it’s about new starting points of people to have the opportunity to do something new, I think that’s a very exciting conversation to be a part of.
The question of a post-descriptive criticism or post descriptive criticism, if such a thing exists, is not simply a that applies to art critics of course. Art criticism is about engaging the visual so it may be paradigmatic mode and that means that the kind of solutions to the question of how image relates to text that people come up with potentially at least have a wider relevance to culture and that’s not something you can say about everything that we talk about within art, which is sometimes very arcane. New ways of seeing, I think create new ways of writing and new ways of writing about seeing, and it’s on that note that beginning, I think is a good place for me to end this conversation, and turn the conversation over to you. Thank you very much.
Audience Member: So a couple of presenters today have used emojis in their presentations, so it kind of begs a question like when we have a unicode standard of an agreed upon definition for an image how can we use that to modulate written information? Does that make sense?
Davis: You’re asking me? I mean I think—I don’t know if I have an answer to that. I think that’s an aesthetic and intellectual problem. I think it’s a more—I think emojis are a more interesting thing than people give them credit for, you know. It’s people thinking with images finding essentially creating new signifiers for agreed upon you know, new languages, I think it’s a tremendously interesting topic, probably the subject of a lot of unreadable dissertations at this point, you’re behind the curve here.
Audience Member: First of all, thank you for your talk and for being so well researched. I want to address something that is a potentially troubling take away from your talk and that’s that post descriptive means post verbal. I think as writers, you know, there’s definitely the understanding that we need to work with images, we need to incorporate images in our reviews in whatever we write, but replacing words entirely with images is a kind of different project altogether, so I guess I’m wondering, is that your assignation for the future of art criticism or would you want description to be replaced by a discussion of context, politics, ethics, social issues, the kinds of things that artists are concerned with in the studio? Is that you know, I guess in a way what I’m asking is what is the function ever an art critic or an a writer in you know, a broad way.
Davis: What is the function of an art critic. Well, there are different questions here that are mashed together. Part of it as I said at the beginning is this is a practical talk. I mean I actually wanted to do a talk here that was practical, theoretical, you know, that the pass-through theories of images and theories of language and I think this is like tremendous practical relevance and I don’t know about you, I mean there is—the problem with images is not the only problem with reviews, I don’t think, but I do find myself—this is a cliche about Internet writing, but you know, scanning reviews, I mean I write them, you know? This is a little bit like my students when, you know, when we do critics and I ask them to look for ten minutes at their peers’ art. And they can’t do it you know, and I say you spent months in your studio and you can’t even look for ten minutes looking at your peers’ art.
I do the same thing with writing. I spend a lot of time trying to find the right words, and I find myself scanning through things, tell me what you think about this, why should I read this? You know. There’s some function of description that can be done better by image. Image I think that’s obvious, and that I think that there are intellectual hangups that people still have because we’re still inheriting models of how to write from the past and I think a new model that’s not post verbal but that treats images and text on a more—on more of a same plane, that will—I think that’s just happening. I don’t think that’s not like me saying that, I think the people are doing that. I think it raises a lot of questions about, you know,—that’s what I was trying to say about the political vectors of this. I think this raises a question where it was mentioned earlier in the earlier in the day, you know, lots of visual stories with no thought in them. That’s a thing. I mean that’s a thing that there is demand for, actually, is to just kind of give yourself up to the idiocy of the image. The argument I’m trying to make is we have to be, to use a really corny word is we have to be dialectical about this. Right now it seems to me that there are two kind of big positions playing out there are people that are running madly in the direction of the visual and another one people saying no, no, we’re holding out for the word and I think we need to think through critically the problem about relating the image to the word in the new—with the new reality. So I think that’s a critical problem, right? I think that enlivens the task of the critic is, because it’s not just describing something out there but thinking through the presentational problems of what writing is.
Audience Member: Thank you so much for your talk so earlier we had the reference to the Flannery O’Connor quote about not knowing what you think until you find yourself reading it and you yourself have referenced this sort of pedagogical situation and I find with my own students they have no idea what they’re looking at until I force them to delineate exactly what it is they’re looking at so I guess I’d be curious to hear your comment on the kind of pedagogical value of ekphrasis even if it’s something that may not persist into the final form of professional criticism.
Davis: Yeah, I mean I think, yeah, Walter is you know, in a certain extent, right, the tweet, the angry tweet from my former boss he’s saying, you know, thinking about art is writing at art, that begins looking at art and describing it or something like that. And that is to a certain extent correct pedagogically I think, and I think—the thing is that’s a different question than, you know, the question of how you—does, you know, do you need to—do you need to re-describe things and there are some things, you know, to say, you know, it looks as if a bird clawed its way through white paint on the surfaces of this canvas is like a beautiful sentence that’s Frank O’Hara writing about a Cy Twombly but it doesn’t actually do the duty of telling you what it is. It’s a separate thing that you’ve produced and that separate thing has its own value and I’m not sure I total want to ditch it. I just think there’s a problem here that we should think about.
Audience Member: Yes, thank you very much for your talk. When you talk about the separate thing that you can produce, I loved your Peircean little chart, and how it—it’s almost to me if I’d seen those things without your descriptions I’m sure I would have had different reactions to them. It’s almost as if you were creating—you’re creating something yourself. It’s like you are the artist yourself. It made me think of Warhol perhaps being that’s what he did. I mean he wasn’t creating art so much as he was—you could almost say creating a form of criticism but I’m curious what you learned from that practice. I mean obviously you thought a lot about it, what made the images when they weren’t successful and what didn’t.
Davis: I’m glad you find them interesting I sort of gave up on that experiment and I was excited to be able to use it in some kind of way here. I—well, I mean the hard—first of all, yeah you’re inventing new forms of agreed upon structures signification, I just think it can be done. I think through images you actually can produce forms of thought. The things I learned from it were two: One is that, you know, the real problem thing, there is no problem in finding comparisons, you know? There is no problem, it’s the cheapest form of criticism, actually to say this looks like that. It’s absolutely there’s difficulty finding meaningful comparisons that’s where the third term comes in there, that’s why I think I like that little block because I think it does express something, so where the third term comes in that you produce a thought really, and what I found and I think you probably all accepted that when you look at those Instagram art reviews, that the third term is extremely vague, you know, because images—the trick there is finding images that are enough of stock images that they already function as words, or that they’ve already become processed into essentially a signifier and then those are, you know, it’s pretty simple to find, you know, frowny face if the point of the comparison is that you—you think it makes you sad or things like that, but to produce complex senses of them requires kind of a new image lexicon.
The other thing that I learned about it, which this is screamingly obvious, but worth saying, is that it’s not impossible to produce thoughts about something using as Artie Vierkant says producing images for images. If you were going to review a show in this format, you could do it it would take like 100 of those things to produce a series of thoughts where you could compare, you know, different details within something to different objects and build that up into a significant thing, so as it turns out, actually just old fashioned writing is very efficient for some things, you know, that’s one thing that I guess it’s a good point to make is that part of the point is that there are some things for which images are more efficient, and more engaging and there are some things, actually, like writing is more efficient and I think we’re just in a moment where we need to clarify what those things are, because they’re putting pulped together pretty quick.
Audience Member: Thank you. I wanted to thank you for bringing in John Berger’s way of thinking about Superscript. And when you brought up the Van Gogh, where Berger talks about the image being the illustration for the writing, I thought it was really to think about how much power the word has once and also looking back the at those Artforums where are those artworks becoming then the illustration for the writing? You know that, in some ways counter to what you’re saying, maybe words still have a lot of power over when you’re looking at something and you read about it, that it alters your way of looking which is also what he’s talking about in Ways of Seeing, but and then perhaps to think about is it also going towards more analysis or more the content of the writing going more towards media making or maybe looking in ways that aren’t in the description but engaging in the artwork differently.
Davis: Well, either side the power of the word problem well I’m a writer so I’m just going to tell you that I believe in the power of the word. But as for the second piece of the question, what was the second question again?
Audience Member: Well, I guess thinking about if descriptive writing is less pertinent.
Davis: Right, I did have something to say about that, yes. Well, look so there is a pragmatic lesson that just you know my process as a writer and writing about things, when I first got my first job writing about art at artnet magazine magazine, I look back on it as kind of a golden age in a way because I had very little supervision in a way. I got to write about what I wanted and what I wanted to do was write reviews, and my boss gave me Walter gave me tremendous trust and so on. And what happened over the course of the years I worked there is you just start to realize that the reviews—while they serve a great purpose—don’t get people nearly as interested as something a larger, argument, analysis, news, things like this, political commentary. There’s just—that is—and so then it does make me think that—I mean in some ways I’m trying to think, you know, how criticism can function in new kinds of ways, taking advantage of new capacities, but the other argument you can of course make is that the form of the review is just a historical product.
There’s no reason we have to be writing this way. There are other forms of writing about art that we’ll discover and find and maybe it is you know, more emphasis. I do find myself just hungering for what’s the point. Tell me what you think about this. So maybe it is, maybe that’s that’s the solution. I don’t think there’s one solution. That’s the thing. I think that there are hundreds of solutions, exciting moment in a way. I have some excitement about what’s going on right now because it’s—there’s like clearly new stuff on the horizon, new ways of thinking about things, new ways of doing things. I’m not going to be able to do a lot of them. Everyone here is and so it’s just very a privilege and honor to be here in front of you and I hope we carry this conversation into the future. Thank you very much.