Is this a new or interesting painting?
A few years ago Jan sent me a photo of his latest work, titled Broken Ornament. Instantly I had to laugh warmly. Why?
SOLUTIONS IN DIFFERENT PROBLEM ENVIRONMENTS
Well, firstly it was a pleasant experience as such.
I laughed with joy because I realised that Jan had finally materialised his artistic will in a way that con- vinced me. Moreover, I found the work funny. It was a casually jotted solution to a problem that Jan has been pursuing with honesty and sincerity for years.
Yet, how to judge something as an adequate solution to a problem? In this essay, I would like to distinguish two different types of problems or, say, points of departure by contrasting Jan’s Broken Ornament with the work of Betty, a New Caledonian crow in a laboratory of Oxford University.
Even in man the cognitive capacity of tool making
is an amazing trait. But when we empathically try to feel or think like Betty the crow, we see all the more clearly how much understanding of her environment she must have. Most importantly, she does not find the solution for her problem by trial and error but obviously on purpose.3
First she needs something that fulfills the function of fishing another thing out of the tube. She seems to have an idea of how such an object must look. More- over she knows that the wire can be bent. And she has the technical skills to bend the wire into the adequate form. Between the first unsuccessful poking with the straight wire and the following act of bending it, that is, when mere action does not suffice to satisfy her need, Betty seems to perform some kind of mental operation.
However that may be, an observer can clearly define the goal (getting food), the problem situation (the food lies too far down the tube, the straight wire won’t do, and poking won’t help either), as well as
its solution (bend the wire so as to use it as a fishing rod). Above all, success can be readily identified! Betty needs food – she gets food!
Yet how to judge the success of artistic creations in face of all their complex concerns and manifold ap- pearances? How to judge the success of an artefact without being able to effectively define its problem, let alone its status as a solution? In short, how to judge success when the problem isn’t food gather- ing (or, by the way, sales, prices, or social recogni- tion) but – well – artistic?
QUERYING MY INTUITION
Let us call my spontaneous laughter on seeing Broken Ornament an aesthetic judgment, which
I would unhesitatingly label as positive. And yet I
find this judgment a bit helpless. Neither do I have rational arguments to account for it, nor for the work itself. I just happen to like it.
In the past couple of years I began to cherish these gut feelings of mine, i.e., my intuition, beside my still high esteem for analytical intelligence. Meanwhile I even believe that intuition is the very precondition for analytical understanding. And this essay – a kind of user manual of my reaction to Jan’s work – serves exactly this function: to understand, after the fact, what has intuitively already taken place.
In most of our day-to-day life we navigate intuitively, frictionless and almost imperceptibly, even in the face of complex situations, which, although not completely new, are at least quite variable. It was precisely my laughter accompanied by a happy and relaxed feeling, which had interrupted this matter
of course. Jan’s work surprised me! And it made me attend to the idea that my mind may have found something unusual and valuable.
In scientific terms I understand my laughter as the result of an unconscious but nonetheless specific readiness for action. It rests on a rich repertoire of experiences, which were spontaneously evoked on this specific occasion. Before actually seeing Broken Ornament I was already generally oriented towards being about to see a picture by Jan. Yet, I did not know which picture exactly. So the specificity of my reaction when actually seeing Broken Ornament – which I had never seen before – still seems quite peculiar.4
When I recalled and scrutinised the conscious details of my reaction a first introspective clue for an expla- nation of my laughter appeared. Let me follow this clue by poking around inside myself a bit in order to see what the elements of my orientation were when I prepared myself to view Jan’s Broken Ornament.
AN ENIGMA: „CREATING SOMETHING NON-RELATIONAL“ …
The way I look at Jan’s work is a consequence of our long shared history. The very first person I ran into when I began to study at the art academy in 1998 had a broken arm and had thus painted the pictures of his application portfolio on the ground with a broom. The second person already was Jan who was – let’s overstate the contrast – painstakingly observing fruit, vegetables, and a flatiron in order to paint them. Although I myself was more of a broom painter, we soon became friends.
In the years to follow I was always impressed by Jan’s independent attitude towards his work and art in general. Since we had known each other he has always tried to clearly name and express his self-de- fined task, i.e., his artistic will and themes. Compared
to him I felt rather vague. From a certain moment
on I wanted to understand what really takes place when I was painting. What is art? What does “new” or “creative” mean? I just could not figure out, how art might answer such questions – or in fact answer any question at all.
It was within this context that Jan uttered something intriguing which confronted me with an enigma.
I now recall this remark when I think of my gut reaction to his picture: “I want to create something non-relational.” It is this remark and my ongoing engagement with it that lurked behind my laughter! But let me try to explain further.
… AND HOW I UNDERSTOOD THIS ENIGMA.
What can I make out of Jan’s remark “to create something non-relational”?
First it did not fit into my worldview at all. I was then heavily into the philosophy of radical constructiv- ism and hence embraced the idea that all forms of my (experienced) lifeworld – all such facts in fact:
all things, feelings, and notions – lack any essential substance. Yet one reality seemed ineluctable to me, namely that perception and thought or – to put it more general still – the way we explore the world is fundamentally relational.
No matter which objects our brains construct, there has to be at least something discriminable, at least some contrast. And contrast always means rela- tion. We cannot see light without dark, we cannot see any object indistinguishable from its environs, we cannot think the present without remembering, thereby relating it to the past. On/Off. Yes/No. Yin/ Yang. Computer science takes this notion to its limit: Two distinct binary symbols suffice to express everything, but no less! Otherwise variety would be
impossible and everything would be one. This dicho- tomy is the very basis of all phenomena resulting from more complex relations.
But Jan’s pictures – aren’t they complex phenom- ena? Doesn’t their motif – a problem we vigorously discussed at the academy – always contain ele- ments relating to each other? Or does Jan want to create a paradox? Is his non-relationality a chimera that yields, at best, an abstract and vain argument? Or can his cause, by going beyond the bounds of mere verbal expression, be communicated and experienced thorugh an artwork more directly? In short: Is it possible to experience something non- relational?
CONCERNING THE “MOTIF”
I remember that Jan’s thinking about art was heavily influenced by American minimalism, e.g., the Black Paintings of Ad Reinhardt. To me this artist seemed to epitomise the fact that an quasi-objectively pres- ent artwork can evoke something in my perception, no matter how sparsely the means employed.
And something in me also had been profoundly evoked when I had to laugh at the sight of Broken Ornament. Revisiting its reproduction I now recog- nise why I had to laugh. The picture combines many techniques, which I had already seen in Jan’s art during all those years (and which can be traced by browsing through this book):
His early Keilbilder (a motif consisting of a triangular wedge on rectangular ground), the later “shaped canvases”, the folds due to hanging the canvas cloth directly on the wall, and the wilful development of a motif by the interaction of wall and canvas. Broken Ornament has no clear border. Although the image carrier does exist and can be perceived as some- thing autonomous, the wall nevertheless shapes it,
too. From the upper left, the wall projects as a white wedge into the canvas, while on the lower right, the shape of the black canvas itself appears as fore- ground. Even the distance above the ground is cho- sen in such a way that the image seems to extend into space. And yet: everything, the emergence of the motif, results from nothing more but the appar- ently simple act of hanging the canvas.
“The emergence of the motif” – this might be the clue! There aren’t any distinct elements such as one
wall, one image carrier, plus one painted, internally structured motif. This description presupposes isolated components with relations to each other, which could be analysed by distanced abstraction. This way I could slowly and tediously elaborate
a conventional picture description, as I began to above. But the motif, that is, the gestalt that I per- ceived spontaneously, wasn’t the result of any analysis. The inseparable, mutually dependent unity of image carrier and wall, as well as the marvellously consistent artistic result is more than simply the sum of its components. The picture is a motif in itself: it is a whole.
And this I saw at one glance.
UNDERSTANDING AND EXPERIENCING
Obviously two “gestaltists” cooperate here. With all the motifs and means he has developed, Jan con- fronts me with something which I then see and inter- pret by the means available to me. It’s like “Malen ist Wahlen!”, a pun that Jan Dibbets, painting professor to both of us, used to say with Dutch accent but perfect end rhyme, which in English could only be rendered as an alliteration: “to paint is to pick”. I would like to add that an active involvement, a kind of picking, is also required on the part of the viewer.
Over the years my preoccupation with Jan’s art has obviously left deep traces within me, a ragbag of questions and clues, which, as readinesses-for- action, were now eager to generate or accept possible problem solutions. I laughed because the tension had finally resolved. Eureka! …
This I present as only a tentative explanation of my reaction. My question, whether or not “something non-relational” can be more than an abstract idea, had finally been answered by directly experienc-
ing a whole. Yes, it can – namely in a (maybe even necessarily) spontaneous manner! In hindsight I can dissect this experience, analyse what is left in recollection, what its components may have been, and how everything might fit together. The reader of this essay, for instance, may empathise with my experience or not. But s/he’ll never have it. His or her experience would be shaped by his or her past. And it would be his or her experience – a different individual whole.
My laughter thus was an intuitive reaction without analytical thought involved. Thought alone may allow me to cherish many things, but I will never be moved unless I am able to connect this thinking to my past experience. Betty the crow was surely thrilled by her success, and I was likewise thrilled to be simply presented with a solution to Jan’s enigma.