return to 2004
by Miles Mathis
Analyzing art has become a big business. In fact, it is much bigger than the business of art itself. Besides critics, we have art historians, art administrators, art professors, museum staff, gallery staff, magazine editors, and various other experts in the field. These people write books and articles, prepare lectures, give guided tours, release press kits, write government proposals, and so on. And, in many ways, the business of art itself has become analyzing art. Even given an artist and an artwork, it is often hard to say where the interpretation stops and the creation starts. A fair percentage of the artists are analyzers of art themselves: the "art" is in the analysis. With the avant garde it is often difficult to separate the artifact from the press kit. In many cases, the press kit is more interesting than the art. Often it took longer to come up with it.
Given this, you would expect that all this analyzing and interpreting has reached a fair degree of complexity. And you would be corrrect—as long as you don't confuse complexity with subtlety and rigor. Modern art theory is maze of neo-psychoanalysis, behaviorism, feminism, deconstructionism, post-colonialism, multi-culturalism and a thousand other mostly meaningless -isms. They are all basically agenda-isms of one sort or another, meaning that they are excuses for the writer to tie his cause to art. They allow people who are not really interested in art and have no feeling for art to talk about politics or literature or economics or psychology or science, but to do so in a more "creative" way. In seeming to talk about art, they transcend the dryness or the straightforwardness of their own field. And besides, the field of art is so liberating: no peer review here, no bothersome facts to get in the way. The ends completely justify the means, and if the means include inconsistencies and fabrications, they can be written off as paradoxes and fantasies.
The contradiction at the heart of all this is never addressed, since to address it would be to undercut all the fun and freedom. That contradiction is that "understanding" art has absolutely nothing to do with politics or behaviorism or psychoanalysis or any other analysis or interpretation or science. Understanding art is not like understanding why women were denied the vote, or how improper potty-training leads to neuroticism, or what happens to a single photon in the reduction of the wave packet. You do not come to understand art through analysis. You do not apply the powerful tools of the neocortex in order to box it and bag it. You do not subdue it with the Ego and explode it into tiny categories. No, you soak it up like a dream, using the infinite connectivity of the inner brain and the embrace of the Id. You do lots of non-wordable stuff, since there are no words down there, below language. It is all ultimately unanalyzable, since it is also below analysis—since analysis is a tool of the neocortex. The neocortex doesn't like to admit this: it likes to think it is the only game in town. The neocortex is a jealous scholar. But it is nonetheless a fact: the fancy tools of the neocortex, whether applied to the contents of the inner brain, or to its expression—which is art—yield next to nothing in the way of usable information. They yield only pseudo-factoids, things that have the shape of a fact but nothing inside.
Understanding art is not understanding the facticity of art—it is not understanding how it is made, or even why. Understanding art is coming to successfully feel art. You may say, hah, any fool can feel art, it takes a very smart person to unlock the secrets of art. But this is the opposite of the truth. The secret of art is the feeling. That is whole esoteric depth of it, and the analytical "secret" of art is really nothing but a dry description of commonplaces. Besides, most fools cannot feel art. In my experience, most people don't feel a goddamned thing in front of art, no matter how smart or dumb they are, since they have lost the habit of feeling in general. Especially with regard to art, the smarter they are the more likely they are to arrive in front of a work of art with unbelievable amounts of critical baggage—baggage that is less than useless. It is an absolute wall.
Trying to plumb the depths of art with the tools of analysis is like trying to plumb the depths of the ocean with an airplane. It is precisely as absurd as trying to understand Special Relativity with poetry or automatic writing or osmosis. Each mystery has it own path and its own lock. There is no general roadmap or skeleton key. This knowledge—that different powers are achieved in different ways—is itself part of esoteric knowledge. Pyschoanalysis may (or may not) make one an adept at dream interpretation or the curing of bedwetters or any number of useful skills. But it will not make one a good artist or a good viewer of art, since art does not, in the end, require interpretation. It requires creation, and it requires emotional response. The creator and the responder have both partaken of the great mystery, and come away with the treasure. The interpreter has only come away with an interpretation.
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